‘It was like world politics but on a small scale’: The Early History of Cheiron-Europe

Eva Surawy Stepney asks: What are academic societies for? Intellectual exchange? Networking with like-minded scholars? Well, for the European Society for the History of Human Sciences (ESHHS), the aim was to forge personal and intellectual connections across a continent divided by the Iron Curtain.

The European Society for the History of Human Sciences (ESHHS), formally Cheiron-Europe, was formed in 1982 by the Dutch psychologist Hans von Rappard, as a counterpart to the American association of the same name.1 The intention was to create a forum of exchange for European scholars working on the history of the behavioural and social sciences- an academic field on the margins of both humanities and social science departments.

The first conference was held at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1982 and has since spanned the breadth of Europe: from Durham to Oulu, to Budapest and Bari. Over the past few months, I have been delving into the history of this small organisation, interviewing early members and creating an archive documenting its past.

Cross-border collaboration

The intellectual parameters of the organisation have been hotly debated since its inception- largely the result of historians and psychologists sharing an academic space. There was, however, a consensus that framed the ‘early years’ which lay beyond any academic remit: ‘an explicit and fundamental aim’ of the society, I was told, was to promote dialogue between scholars from East and Western Europe.2 ‘It was what it was all about in fact’, Hans reflected, ‘especially at the beginning.’ At a time when the continent was divided by those in power, ‘setting up cross-border collaboration’ was actively pursued by a group of academics from a niche, and often contested, intellectual field.

‘We gave priority to meeting people’

It was not easy for scholars from the Eastern-bloc to attend conferences in the West in the 1980s. Exit visas from the German Democratic Republic were routinely rejected, if attempted at all, and movement was heavily monitored by the secret service. Bulgaria and Hungary had more relaxed restrictions regarding academic travel, but only if official invitations were issued and costs were covered by the host institution. Fortunately, this was something Cheiron-Europe was willing to do as part of its cross-European mission. Scholars from Sofia and Budapest, as well as Poznan and Warsaw, were personally invited by board members, with the cost of registration, travel, and accommodation provided.

The provision of financial support was supplemented by a policy of accepting all papers submitted to the annual conference. Former president, Roger Smith, explained that ‘in theory there was a programme committee, but in order to get people to come, in reality we accepted everything.’3 ‘It wouldn’t have made sense to ask for some western-oriented paper’ he explained, since academics in Soviet-oriented countries received a rather isolated academic training, with little access to books and journals from the west. As a testament to this decision, a former-member from Sofia reflected that ‘luckily there were no restrictions on contributions… the programme was tailored to accommodate everyone who wanted to talk and there were lots of people from Eastern Europe who otherwise couldn’t come.’4

Placing these policies in the context of the broader ethos of the society, Roger reflected, ‘we deliberately gave priority to meeting people rather than intellectual priority to the proceedings… remember this was a divided Europe.’

Kurt Danziger (Left) and Jurgen Kuczynski (Right) speaking at the Cheiron-Europe event in Varna, Bulgaria (1986). Taken by Christfried Toegel.

‘It was like paradise’: Varna 1986

The most remarkable event in this strand of Cheiron-Europe’s early history took place five years after its founding when the annual conference was held behind the Iron Curtain, in Bulgaria. The local organiser, Christfried Toegel, a philosopher of science who had emigrated from the GDR to Sofia, explained how he was able to get permission for the event. A senior member of the Bulgarian Communist Party- who had known Stalin personally- happened to be the former head of the Institute of Philosophy at the Bulgarian Academy of Science where Christfried worked and continued to have an office there. One day Chris went to his office and asked him whether a ‘very prestigious conference’ could be held ‘for the first time in Eastern Europe.’5

It was this statement of grandeur, and the fact this government official was experiencing dementia, that Chris attributes to him being given card blanche to start organising- with a very large budget. ‘No-one would deny him any wishes’, Chris laughed, and ‘the secret service of Bulgaria did not follow or spy on the conference as it had been allowed and paid for.’ Cheiron-Europe members were picked up from the airport in state limousines, with Persian rugs and personal drivers. The event took place at the Academy of Science’s summer residence in Varna, located on the shores of the black sea. White sand beaches stretched from north to south, buffets of food and drinks were provided. ‘It was like paradise’, Chris reflected, ‘I have never seen it at another conference.’

The keynote talk was given by Jürgen Kuczynski, a former Second World War spy and speech writer for Erich Honecker. Despite the presence of such a formidable political figure, the atmosphere was described as relaxed and open. An attendee from Hungary recounted how she ‘had never had discussions after the papers’ the way she did at that conference, explaining how the ‘relaxed’ atmosphere was completely different to what she was used to.6 Soviet-oriented academia was extremely hierarchical, and academic events ‘were very formal and people were very careful.’

Reflecting this sentiment, Roger considered the Varna meeting as showing the ‘society’s distinct ability to be extremely informal but receive formal invitations.’ Such an ability ‘was particularly provocative in the 80s in the Eastern bloc’ he smiled, ‘they invited what they thought was a well-established society and a bunch of bohemians turned up and made mayhem in Bulgaria.’

Reading between the lines

The efforts to create a society with a ‘truly European identity’ had a profound impact on the personal and academic careers of its members.

Vassilika Nikolova, a scholar from Sofia, recounted how being part of Cheiron-Europe completely transformed her academic trajectory. She recalled that her early papers were ‘not very good’ but members of the society were ‘ready to help’ and sent her books (including the works of Freud, Jung, Fromm) which she could otherwise not access.7 These, as well as the conversations had at conferences, ‘changed my outlook on science, on medicine, on literature, culture and everything I did afterwards was based on this.’ The society ‘helped me to move from saying this and this happened’ to having a language to ‘explain how it happened, why it happened, why is one concept at one moment and why is another at another.’ It ‘opened my eyes to see behind the letters, to be able to read between the lines.’

The influence of Cheiron-Europe did not only extend in one direction. A British sociologist also had his career shaped by attending the first decade of conferences. The society provided him with a forum for ‘getting to know Eastern European colleagues who I probably would never have otherwise come across.’8 Such connections, and ‘frank discussions about the politics and the wider situation, where the whole system was going to go…opened up a whole new area of interest’ and led him to publish a number of books on the breakdown of soviet-socialism. In a testament to the exceptional nature of these interactions, he noted ‘these where not discussions people were willing to have publicly at the time but would with personal colleagues.’

Budapest, 1988

Cheiron-Europe returned to the Eastern bloc for a conference in Budapest, a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The event saw the largest attendance the society had ever had, with participants travelling from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and for the first time from the USSR. Amongst those I interviewed, the Budapest conference was remembered not for its intellectual content, but for the sense of political anticipation in the air. One of the local organisers, Zsuzsa Vajda, described the occasion as ‘euphoric’ since ‘everyone thought that a much better world would come.’9

1990s: ‘Depoliticized’?

There was a loose political consensus in the early days of Cheiron-Europe, with one member describing it as ‘definitely left-oriented’.10 Whilst such political leanings are perhaps unsurprising, they structured the way the society operated. Former-members repeated that the sense of ‘shared values’- and ‘solidarity’- was enacted through the financial assistance, the sending of books, and the inclusive way in which the proceedings were gathered. This shared outlook resonated particularly with those from Eastern Europe who saw ‘our society’ as a means to shape an intellectual space outside of the authoritarian institutions they were used to.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a shift in the orientation of the organisation, and the initial emphasis on improving links between East and West Europe ‘gradually lessened.’ One former-participant reflected: ‘I have the impression that, at some point, perhaps the results of the 1989 events, this goal began to be perceived as less needful and became, in some ways, taken for granted.’11

Another maintained that ‘the urgency of bringing people together across a divide was much less once the division appeared to disappear… I think there was “oh, that’s been resolved, everything’s normal now.”12 Whilst this scholar lost contact with the organisation, he had an impression of it as a ‘successful European organisation, but somewhat depoliticised.’

Referring to the first two decades of the society, Hans remarked: ‘it was a bit like world politics but on a small scale.’ This was certainly reflected in the reflections of Eastern European members, who interweaved their memories of Cheiron with a critique of the ‘end of history.’13 Zsuzsa spoke of how the initial ‘optimism’ of ‘re-joining Europe, about new forms of civil society’ was met with disappointment.14 She maintained that the prevailing view that “that’s it, cold war is over now” left all kinds of unresolved issues both within and beyond the organisation.

Many of those scholars from Eastern Europe who attended conferences throughout the 1980s were no longer able to travel. Vassilika re-counted that the Bulgarian economy collapsed, causing mass hunger and mafia takeover. ‘These were very difficult times… it was a matter of everyday survival’. In former-Yugoslavia sanctions were imposed and war was on the horizon, whilst the majority academics from the GDR lost their prior academic positions.

It would be simplistic to suggest that the society did not continue to engage in efforts to support scholars from former-Soviet countries. Financial assistance continued to be provided, and discussions were had around reduced conferences fees. As the 90s turned into the 2000s, however, these discussions were no longer met with consensus and a new generation of members turned towards more ‘intellectual’ matters.

Some of the Eastern European members felt marginalised in this new landscape. I was told of the increased ‘Americanisation’ of the membership and of the history of psychology field more broadly. A scholar from Budapest explained that whilst Soviet sources were critiqued, Western scholars failed to recognise ‘their own ideological commitments.’15 ‘It’s like the economy’ she lamented, ‘it’s very centralised, the main centre of everything is the United States so it’s very difficult to have your own interest.’ Bringing the conversation up to the present, she explained how the war in Ukraine- and the instability of the former Eastern bloc- had exasperated this sense of academic marginalisation: ‘there is no way that they [Western Europeans] would think that our thoughts… or anything we found is unique now, you know.’16


The early history of Cheiron-Europe, and its unambiguous efforts to extend participation to an often-excluded group of people, has prompted me to think about the function of academic societies. Should they focus on intellectual matters or have a wider social and political purpose? Can the two ever be disentangled? If not, and I believe not, where should the emphasis lie?  Recognising that an ‘apolitical’ stance is fundamentally partisan would be a good place to start. Decisions regarding the structure of academic societies- and their agreed purpose and aims- have real-life implications that require thoughtful and honest reflection.

There may no longer be an ‘iron curtain’ dividing the continent, but there are plenty of indicators of unequal access to intellectual spaces- if we choose to look. The cost of travel for scholars whose economy is on the brink of collapse (e.g., Hungary) is one example, as are the way conferences are organised around written presentations- precluding those who process knowledge in different ways. I would argue that questions of participation should inform every aspect of our academic projects but, like the early members of Cheiron-Europe, this requires a (necessary!) putting aside of individual ambitions in favour of an explicit collective endeavour.


Eva Surawy Stepney is an AHRC funded PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield. Her work explores the history of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and ideas of evidence-based practice in British clinical psychology, 1948- present. She has recently completed an additional project helping to create the European Society for the History of Human Science (ESHHS) archive.


1 Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioural and Social Sciences. https://cheironsoc.org/

2 Von Rappard, H. 2022. Interview with E. Surawy Stepney. March 3rd, online.

3 Smith, R., 2022. Interview with E. Surawy Stepney. March 29th, London.

4 Toegel, C. 2022. Interview with E. Surawy Stepney. February 9th, online.

5 Ibid.

6 Nikolova, V., 2022. Interview with E. Surawy Stepney. March 20th, online.

7 Ibid.

8 Ray, L., 2022. Interview with E. Surawy Stepney. June 7th, online.

9 Vajda, Z., 2022. Interview with E. Surawy Stepney. June 10th, online.

10 Smith, R. 2022.  Interview.

11 Lafuente, E., 2022. Written questionnaire, May 23rd.

12 Ray L., 2022. Interview.

13 See: Fukuyama, F., The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992).

14 Vajda, Z., 2022. Interview.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

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