ES & CREECA Presented K-12 Teacher Workshop on “The End of Democracy? Eastern Europe 30 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall”

By Bridget McMahon

When the Berlin Wall fell, many people were optimistic for the democratization of Eastern Europe. Thirty years later, we are seeing a rise in nationalism and populism in these areas, along with the rest of Europe itself. What are driving these changes now? On March 16, European Studies and the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA) put together a workshop featuring Boriana Nikolova, Karolina May-Chu, and Kathryn Cianica to examine the economic and cultural reasons for these changes with nineteen teachers from across Wisconsin.

Boriana Nikolova (Lecturer in Political Science) started the day with an overview of the winding ways in which Eastern European countries have approached democracy. We learned that the process for democratization was rushed after 1989 with few thoughts given to how Eastern European countries would successfully transition from communist to capitalist economies, a repercussion we are seeing the effects of today. She focused specifically on Hungary, which went from a burgeoning liberal democracy to an illiberal system within a short span of time due to economic issues culminating with the 2008 financial crash. It was a great economic overview that answered many questions as to why we are seeing a decline in democratic values across Europe.

Karolina May-Chu (Assistant Professor in German, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) spoke on the rise of right-wing extremism in Germany since 1989. She used the immigration policies of post-WWII Germany followed by the asylum seekers boom in the 1990s as the context for violent uprisings in the 1990s and the 2000s. We watched clips from three films, two related to right-wing extremist groups (We Are Young, We Are Strong and In The Fade) and the third being a satire with a disturbing message about modern Germany (Look Who’s Back). She emphasized the cultural aspects of the films as a tool for teachers to use in the classroom.

Kathryn Ciancia (Assistant Professor in History) looked at how the idea of victimhood in Poland has driven contemporary controversial political decisions. The recent ‘Holocaust Law’ stated that Poles were not responsible for war crimes committed by Nazis and those who claimed otherwise could receive a punishment of fines or even imprisonment. We learned how the tumultuous history of Poland led to the idea of its perpetual view as a victim. Yet this claim, even if sometimes true, came to define the struggles of Poles as being equated to those of Holocaust victims in a thinly veiled statement made in a video by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, which caused immediate international backlash. This misuse of history by modern political actors showed how teachers can use historical backgrounds and critical thinking to parse out the true meanings of political videos in the classroom.

The workshop ended with a general Q&A session for teachers to ask follow up questions, and to discuss best practices in the classroom. The questions could have easily gone beyond our end time and the dialogue between the teachers and the presenters was informative and thought provoking. It was great to see so many teachers interested in current global topics.

This event was one of many outreach opportunities that European Studies undertakes in efforts to make The University of Wisconsin’s resources more accessible to the local K-14 student and teaching community. Special thanks to Elena Shirikova for providing us with excellent photos of the event. Please feel free to contact us at with any questions or comments.