The History and Memory of Communism in the Czech Republic

March 9, 2010

On discussions surrounding the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and understanding contemporary history

The Czech reflection on communism is still undertaken in peculiar waves even twenty years after its fall. Indifference and extreme anti-communism with the accompanying desire to name and marginalise the culprits of past evils regularly alternate or supplement one another. Since a number of Czech intellectuals, politicians and journalists still consider the scandals surrounding disclosed agents the best way of understanding the nature of the socialist dictatorship, it is time for a change. Cleansing society of representatives of the past regime and understanding the past are two different things which are only loosely connected. It is a bit late for the former, while most of the latter still lies ahead.

Every modern social order is founded on the denial of its antecedent, and thus every political regime tries to a certain extent to control the manner in which history, especially recent history, is recounted. In this sense the current Czech political system is no exception. The most significant symptoms of this phenomenon are the unanimous passage of the law on Edvard Beneš’s deserts for the foundation of the Czechoslovak state in the Chamber of Deputies in 2003 and the political control of the order to establish the central institution for reflecting on the past (the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, founded in 2007). In such situations Czech historians find it difficult to resist political pretence and societal demands to add content to the ideology of democratic transformation and conform in their language and interpretation to the great story of the struggle against totalitarianism for freedom and democracy, the struggle of the oppressed nation against the communist evil, as if coming from the outside.

However, most historians cannot be accused of outright servitude to political power. Most of them have rather unquestioningly accepted the omnipresent anti-totalitarian “code”, which they again use as an instrument for selecting and interpreting historical sources. The official policies on memory and historical interpretation in the first two decades after the fall of communism thus coincide to a significant degree in their basic points of departure, creating a one-sided and dichotomous concept of post-war history based on “we” and “they”, ”regime” and “(civil) society”, “communists” and “nation” or “culprits” and “victims”.

The institutionalisation of memory and understanding the communist past

The violence organised by the regime against its political enemies and groups not integrated into the system for various reasons was not merely an accompanying phenomenon of the socialist dictatorship, but rather – especially in its initial phases – one of the pillars of its architecture. It is thus understandable that this aspect in particular, which dramatically distinguishes the communist period from the current system, has become the focus of both lay and professional interest in the field of modern history after 1989.

At the same time, those who suffered or at least could not express their opinions publicly now had the opportunity to speak up. The memories of the participants – above all those of the victims – thus became the arbiter of historical credibility. The more recognised the stature of the victim, the greater the chances of political support for his or her own necessarily subjective memory as the result of the so-called policy of recognition. It was above all the engagement of specific groups of victims, together with emphasis on repression and the authoritative control of society, symbolised primarily by the role of the State Security Service, which led to the establishment of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. The predominance of the political side of the issue over the interests of science and research – a peculiar mixture of the desire on the part of the post-communist democracy for legitimacy and the increasing importance of the memories of victims of past oppression in the public discussion – was completely evident from the outset.

In contrast to the German Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the Ministry of State Security of the former GDR, the above-mentioned institutions with their close ties to the archives of the secret police and related repressive state institutions are keen to present themselves as all-encompassing centres of historical understanding of the communist dictatorships. This all-encompassing intention is in both cases apparent from their names. In its activities, the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes accommodates current political exigencies, which results above all in the absence of a long-term research and education strategy. The Institute thus does not present any significant research projects which could contribute to a scientific understanding of the past. A number of historians who initially strove for its creation have left it for these and other reasons soon after the Institute’s establishment. Those still working at there often receive ad hoc tasks and organise educational events or exhibitions, and thus they cannot consistently pursue a more comprehensive understanding of the past. Paradoxically, there is currently no project covering the history of the State Security Services, despite the Institute’s ideal, almost exclusive mandate for such an undertaking and the need for an analytical history of the secret police. As a result, hopes on the part of many political representatives and journalists that the Institute’s foundation would make a significant contribution to our understanding of the past have been and continue to be met with deep scepticism by many historians.

What is not discussed

It is not that the repressive nature of socialist dictatorships should not be remembered. There are fortunately no longer any obstacles to this. Even the archives which have not yet been digitalised are accessible and the access regime for the archives of the Communist Party and security services is markedly more liberal than that of other archives. Yet massive funding for the digitalisation and presentation of the State Security Services Archive’s documents to the detriment of other aspects of understanding the past and presenting them as the only true and unbiased revelation of the past promises neither quality research outputs nor a better grasp of our modern history. At best it can lead to a displacement of the significance of other equally important aspects of the past regime. 

One may object that historians working outside the Institute are free to research whatever they please. This is true and yet the resulting situation is as if the central institution mediating the historical picture of the socialist dictatorship were founded by assigning an education and research department to the archive of the ROH (Revoluční odborové hnutí – Revolutionary Labour Union Movement) organisational headquarters. Even the ROH social network, symbolised by the popular free holiday vouchers, was one of the system’s pillars, and many more people came into contact with this side of the system than the offices of the State Security Services. But who today would want to fund such a picture with annual sums in the hundreds of millions of crowns and leave research on all other matters to the independent decisions of historians who are free to apply for a grant?

From a scientific point of view there are more than enough topics of greater importance than the goings on at the State Security Services. One example is the so-called period of normalisation, i.e. the period after the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. The socialist dictatorship in its late phase was a modern political regime which used methods that are relevant even today. The power of the modern state lies primarily in the administration of everyday life. Thus if we want to understand the period of late socialism, we have to investigate the nature and character of consumer socialism rather than focus on the media uproar surrounding individual disclosed agents and State Security Service informants. Our current view of socialist consumerism is one of ironic nostalgia mixed with kind and condescending contempt. Nevertheless, this “second-class consumerism” was a fundamental change in lifestyle for all strata of the population. It is a self-contained key to understanding the nature of normalisation, but partially also to understanding the fall of communism and by extension even the success of neo-liberal capitalism in the nineties. In its own peculiar way it prepared Czech society for post-1989 capitalism; unfortunately it was much less helpful in preparing Czech society for democracy.

In the existing historical studies of the seventies and eighties there is a clear prevailing interest in two extremely influential but small groups of citizens: the ruling communist establishment and the dissident counter-elite. An analysis of socialist consumerism and its accompanying lifestyle as fundaments of the late socialist dictatorship may help to finally focus attention on the majority of society. The basic features are well-known: a significant portion of what citizens in socialist countries deemed important for their lives took place in private where they were granted freedom, albeit limited freedom. What people considered to be a form of resistance to the regime – an escape into the private sphere in which they did not care about politics and could do what they pleased in the company of their friends, at their cottages in the countryside or under the auspices of various apolitical clubs – was in reality the most innate source of legitimacy of the late socialist dictatorship. At the same time it had its intuitive limits, it was fragile, and communist leaders had well-founded reservations about it: the more you concede to someone, the sooner they start comparing themselves to those who have always had more, and the sooner they will want to exchange their second-class version for the better first-class one.

It is understandable that an institution closely tied to the Security Services Archive cannot address these or other significant questions which persist in the post-1989 era. It is also understandable why no member of the current political elite is willing to support such research – at least not to the same extent as the revelation of the repressive side of the dictatorship – as emphasising that which distinguishes us from the past helps to consolidate today’s fragile and probably quite superficial democratic identity. To refer to what we have in common with the authoritarian past and the origin of our current existence is to question (subversively, to an extent) this identity.

A solution: Separate archival processing, research and civic education

It is obvious that in addition to critical analysis, a democratic society needs an identity-constituting educational curriculum in history with a certain positive assessment. However, such an uneasy and potentially conflicting coexistence necessitates the appropriate conditions, which are still lacking in the Czech Republic. Three indispensable elements of historical understanding – the processing of archives and securing public access to them, scientific research in history and civic education – coexist under the auspices of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in a peculiar and unhealthy state of intergrowth, and a deformed one at that. It is necessary to distinguish and separate these three activities, which share an interest in the past but differ in all other respects.

The Security Services Archive was artificially separated from all other archival documents at the former Ministry of the Interior, and its return to its rightful place in the structure of the National Archive is to be expected at some point in the future. To a certain extent it is understandable that the state is currently reacting to society’s demands and the simplification of access to documents on surveillance and repression is an attempt to accommodate these. However, the publication of documents without interpretation is of little general value, and it would be absurd to consider such action as understanding the past. Moreover, the digitalisation of any archive is neither a guarantee nor a precondition for a sound understanding of the past. Its advisability is to be judged in the context of possibly putting the substantial funds generally necessary for digitalisation to more pertinent and effective use in other spheres of understanding contemporary history.

Researching the past should be directed primarily by impulses from the scientific community, Czech as well as international, and it should begin with issues which are interesting and fundamental for understanding the past, not with pre-determined (usually political) orders. It must be based on an open competition of proposals and when judging their merit and usefulness, public officials – not to mention councillors elected for political parties – will be merely one of many voices alongside independent national and international experts. This purpose would be best served by a special foundation which would award grants to scientific projects on contemporary history and thus follow the successful example in Germany of the Federal Foundation for the Reconciliation of the SED Dictatorship (Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur), which has been funding research projects together with many other independent foundations.

Civic education as a service provided by the state should have a long term plan based on a historically informed curriculum for democracy, respect for human life and critical thinking, but should also be politically neutral within this framework. An identity based on simplified dichotomies such as culprits – victims or authoritarian past – democratic present is possibly useful in a short-term political sense, but is counterproductive in the long term. The task is to attempt to base even civic education on critical reflection, not on loyal regurgitation of the current system’s linguistic code. This is obviously a demand fraught with inner contradictions, but if democracy is a mechanism allowing for cultivated debate on possible resolutions to society’s inner contradictions, we consider it an altogether legitimate one.

Authors are historians. Michal Kopeček at the Institute of Contemporary History and Matěj Spurný at the Philosophical Faculty of the Charles University.