Citizen and Patriot in the Post-Totalitarian Era:
Czech Dissidence in Search of the Nation and its Democratic Future[1]

In his reflections on Charter 77, Petr Pithart, one of the most thoughtful Czech dissident intellectuals, noted: “Chartists did not have their eyes fixed looking forward because they considered the future far too bleak; instead, they turned their eyes upwards, towards what transcends everyday existence, that which freed them and helped them survive harsh years and circumstances.”[2] In some respects Pithart was correct. Dissident intellectuals, prolific as they were, did not devote much time to speculating about a post-dictatorship future. In this essay, however, I should like to discuss the proposition that the absence of a view to the future did not necessarily infer the absence of a view to the past. And the reconsideration of the national past also signified a specific vision of the future.

The negotiated revolutions of 1989 in East Central Europe realized most of the fundamental requirements and expectations of democratization movements. Basic political and civic freedoms, a pluralist democratic political system, free market economy, rule of law, openness to international culture and influences – all this has been, despite the shortcomings and imperfections, introduced in countries once governed by single parties, their ideologies, security apparatuses. Why, then, did the post-dissident political elites who were catapulted into the sunlight of history in 1989 ‘lose their cause’ in politics so early on? Why the levels of disillusion in former communist Europe and the West as a result of the apparent set-backs of the dissident Revolutions?

This essay does not intend to answer these questions and is beyond the scope of my remit here. However, this essay strives to offer a new perspective on the legacy of dissidence by highlighting the expectations and political imaginary of those Czech dissidents in particular who have not been given satisfactory consideration in literature published thus far. Existing research on democratic opposition in East Central Europe has concentrated on the political philosophy of dissidents. More than anything else, the notion of civil society has become one of the focal points of writing about democratic theory at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, and it is this that has influenced Western political theory and intellectual history with regard to democratic opposition in the region. Standard historical cannon on political philosophy and political strategies of opposition emphasize the importance of universalist political and philosophical categories springing primarily from human- and civic-rights politics and the post-Helsinki shift in the paradigm of international order. However, the politics of identity based on social exigencies and self-organization of parallel structures (most obviously in Poland and Czechoslovakia) was legitimized not only by the universalism of human rights and morality, but also by emphatic national-cultural reasoning. In other words, the proto-liberal political language of individual freedom based on the claim of authentic life in a reconstructed civic community has been accompanied by a vision of collective national sovereignty based on a notion of authentic national history. In both respects, that is in formulating of the democratic ideology and of its national-historical framework, dissident elites were quite successful. They adopted a new strategy of anti-communist opposition and, simultaneously, a new vision of national-political community, which was taken up, at different points, by segments of the population as an authentic version of national past and present in contrast to the ’profaned’ communist one. They were relatively successful, in spite of the many contradictions and paradoxes that their intellectual and political achievements have brought about. But they were successful only up to 1989. The following pages discuss why this was so in the Czech case.

I. Re-defining opposition: citizenship and identity

After 1968 – and particularly following the 1975 Helsinki Accords, with the unexpected change of the language of international politics – the character of political opposition to Communist power in East Central Europe changed. The discourse of human rights played an important role as it gave to the henceforth fractured opposition a unifying language to voice criticism of the political regime in a moral and conceptual framework that was, at the same time, comprehensible to the rest of the world, particularly in Western Europe. Up to that point divided anti-communist émigrés in the West, who were drawn from a diverse range of political and cultural streams and often with confusing political messages (some exuding strong nationalist and clerical sentiment), evoked distrust among Western politicians and diplomats; and this also led to reservations vis-à-vis dissenting groups in the countries of the Soviet bloc. Even though national sovereignty and religious freedom assumed an important place in American and West European Cold War propaganda, the ideological profiles of anti-communist groups from Central and Eastern Europe, which had numerous links to pre-war extreme nationalism and authoritarianism, raised doubts about their commitment to Western liberal democracy. After Helsinki, the Western but especially West European governments, discovered in the human rights doctrine not only aspects of their own identity, but also a favorable tool for international politics, which resulted in the realization that they had found common ground with the region’s small but increasingly influential opposition groups. The internationally recognized language of human rights provided a common communication space between Western democracies and the democratic movements in the Soviet bloc, thereby contributing to an emerging transnational discourse across the Iron Curtain.[3]

In East Central Europe the doctrine of political liberalism – with its requirement of respect for basic human and civil rights and freedoms as a basic precondition for democratic society – influenced the thinking of opposition groups and provided a new framework for traditional anti-communist arguments, replacing these with a different intellectual agenda. By elevating universal principles of freedom and justice above dictatorship as a fundamental principle of oppositional politics, a new political discourse was born, which – despite all differences in opinion, cultural and social values – all various opposition groups could agree on, as is evidenced by KOR, Charter 77, ROPCiO, and other so-called Helsinki groups originating in 1976-77.[4] However, the longer term aim of these emerging opposition groups was not only to challenge authoritarian power, but to reconstitute the political community anew. This process corresponded to the change in the nature of politics at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s throughout the Western world. As historians of contemporary European and American history observe, the 1970s witnessed a tectonic shift in political sociology and political doctrines, where previous material questions of “what we have?” were transformed into more introspecting “who we are?”. The politics of building-up the welfare state and its administration tuned into “politics in a new key”, that placed the issues of recognition and identity in the center of its concern.[5]

The dominance of the language of political liberalism, which appeared so convincing at the international level, did not, however, mirror the political make-up of opposition groups in Central and East European. The creed of political liberalism was only tardily accepted by many dissidents and nonconformists. It is true that the new significance the ideology of human rights gained in communist East Central Europe in the second half of the 1970s had the effect of ‘converting’ numerous former reform communists and some religiously- minded intellectuals (and opposition activists) to a ‘liberal’ stance. In Czech context, for instance, more than anywhere else, very decisive for the political relevance and success of Charter 77 in its early years was the resolute swing of some former leading reform communists to the human rights doctrine. Jirí Hájek, the Czechoslovak foreign minister in 1968, and Zdenek Mlynár, a lawyer and one of the architects of the communist reform project, became the most vocal promoters of Helsinki politics not only in their own milieu, but in the entire oppositional bloc too.

This paradigm shift did not necessarily mean, however, that traditionally and deeply rooted cultural-political fissions from the past were healed instantaneously. Testament to the persistence of these fissions, as well as the efforts to overcome them in the spirit of nascent liberal politics of the dissidence, are a number of conceptually broad and, more often than not, emotional discussions about national history, its ‘meaning’, reinterpretations and/or ‘legacies’ in the second half of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. These debates were an inevitable part of a broader constitutive process that the democratic opposition went through during this period, which involved the reassessment of political resources as well as political attitudes towards the dictatorial regime. However, little attention has been devoted to a discussion of this process. Unlike political principles and doctrines like antipolitics or civil society, which have drawn a great deal of attention from historians and political theoreticians, historical thought and the ‘politics of memory’ of the opposition has not been properly analyzed.[6]

Historically, liberalism was never at ease in the realm of collective identities, be it national or other, and liberals always tended to avoid matters connected too much to the past and historical memory. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, liberals could not possibly escape the problem and the relationship between liberalism and nationalism has always been high on their agenda since the early nineteenth century.[7] This was also the case in the period of late State Socialism, when East Central European dissidents were faced with issues of collective identity and the coming to terms with illiberal historical traditions of local nationalisms in order to reframe the democratic project according to cohesive and widely shared identities provided by nationhood. In their efforts to reconcile the universal demands of human and civic rights doctrine with ‘particularist’ attachments to national cultures, they embarked on a liberal nationalist project, although they did not have to hand the conceptual framework and terminology developed by political theorist in the mid-1990s.[8]


In their bid to override the confined borders of dissident circles, some understood that nationality, rather than citizenship, ensures solidarity among the population at large: “The boundary between patriotism and (liberal) nationalism is not as clear-cut as many scholars assume, since the sentiments of belonging needed for the success of the republican project usually tacitly rely on national sentiments.”[9] Indeed, theirs (dissident) was a republican ideal of participatory democracy driven by active and self-reflective citizens. However, in drawing from various domestic political traditions they took it for granted that it was only politics in the vernacular (Will Kymlicka), that is politics rooted in a particular cultural tradition, that had a chance of pushing forward the political community towards this democratic ideal and which could be the source of the population’s active participation in democratic politics.

Hence national identity as an active identity-discourse was at the very center of samizdat and exile journal debates in the 1970s and the 1980s. Disputes over the legacies of historical figures such as Tomáš G. Masaryk, Milan Hodža, Józef Pilsudski or Oszkár Jászi created an intellectual space where different conceptions of nationhood competed for dominance within the community of the oppositionists. Some of the most influential writers such as Adam Michnik in Poland or Petr Pithart in Czechoslovakia adopted a critical stance towards traditional national ‘master-narratives’ and aspired to re-define national identity in a sensitive fashion, which would pass over the illiberal legacies of nationalism and, at the same time, accommodate indigenous cultural values and account for feelings of belonging and communal solidarity.

The intellectual cement underpinning the cohesion of Charter 77 (and all alternative structures and communities of any significance) was not only the search for a viable and authentic notion of citizenship in the philosophical sense, but also the search for an authentic notion of political community and of national identity, which was above all else an historical concern. Desirable citizenship was to be sanctified by two different albeit mutually linked discourses which transcended every individual existence: a) the universalist (and liberal) discourse of human and civic rights; and b) the nationalist or patriotic discourse of national history relating to long-term continuities and responsibilities, past and future, of any given community.

II. Antipolitics, civic homeland and contradictions of opposition political language

Historical thought and intellectual reflection on the national past among those who would later unite under the banner of Charter 77 in many respects sprung from the powerful comeback of the national-historical paradigm in public-political discourse during the Prague Spring of 1968. Understandably, the project of ‘Socialism with a Human Face’ also involved a reappraisal of modern history with an emphasis on domestic socialist traditions, Czechoslovak statehood and the existence of two distinct national cultures. It is not by chance that Czech and Slovak historians belonged to the most active supporters of Alexander Dub?ek’s leadership, which opened up the space for historical sensitivity and which set the hoped-for democratization and ’humanist mission’ of the reform project in historical perspective.[10] Yet, similar to the reconsideration of the means and resources of potential opposition that shifted from ‘reform from above’ towards the morally-based ‘everyday resistance from below’ during the 1970s, the prevailing historical perspective also changed, most dramatically perhaps in the Czech case. To put it shortly, from now on the apparent humanist and democratic legacy of Czech history was not invoked in order to legitimize some kind of socialist reform project, but in a bid to reconsider Czech historical experience form the perspective of universal as well as domestic genealogy of human rights and civil freedoms.

It was the philosopher, phenomonologist Jan Patocka who set the tone and direction of both the political philosophy of Czechoslovak opposition, with its strong moral underpinning, and the self-critical questioning about the historical ‘meaning’ of the present experience. In its beginnings Charter 77 could not be understood without Patocka’s philosophy of human authenticity as constituted by “life in truth”, that is the apparent unique ability of humans to witness the truth, and the ability to resume the pursuance of truth over and over again. After Patocka’s death in March 1977, shortly after the Charter was declared, discussions started about how his philosophical legacy should be interpreted. Eventually it was Václav Havel’s understanding of ‘opposition’ as a philosophically grounded politics of personal authenticity (rather than a direct political challenge to the regime) that prevailed as the core ideology legitimizing the Charter’s activities at that time.[11] It does not follow that there were no other conceptions and visions and, going against what has been written about Czechoslovak dissidence, there were always clashes of opinion and alternative understandings about the Charter’s activity and mission.[12] Havel’s antipolitics, however, have been widely accepted as the most evocative substantiation of the Chartists’ effort.

Patocka is viewed primarily as the philosopher of an authentic “life in truth” in the “community of the shaken” (spolecenství otresených). However, it was Patocka’s critical reassessments of the Czech ’national program’ that provoked some of the most lasting controversies in Czech samizdat culture. Patocka was not a historian. His overriding concern in terms of historical development was to find durable mental and intellectual structures, that preconditioned and determined the potentialities and limits of political action. And, indeed, many opposition historians were critical of his disregard for historical causality and broader social-historical context. Referring back to the discussion about the ‘meaning of Czech history’ from the first half of the 20 th century, Patocka tried to uncover the reasons for what he saw as the ‘repeated failures’ of the Czech political elite in modern history, which, according to him, were captured by ‘years of eights’ (1938, 1948, 1968) in Czechoslovak recent past. Disregarding external or international influences, and to much extent also concrete political and social context, in his analysis Patocka embarked on a historical phenomenology of Czech national political character, resulting in harsh critique of Czech self-imposed ‘smallness’ in modern history, not to mention the one-sidedness of modern Czech identity defined on the basis of linguistic and cultural criteria. For this purpose, he attempted to revive an ‘alternative line’ of Czech (or rather Bohemian) national identity based on a political rather than ethno-cultural understanding of the nation as epitomized by Bernard Bolzano and Emanuel Rádl, two brilliant thinkers of their times: early 19 th century in the case of Bolzano and interwar Czechoslovakia in the case of Rádl. It was this line of thought that several years later served as a starting point for some of the most radical thinking about viable liberal nationalist or patriotic ideology.[13]

Both underlying motives of political thought in Czech dissidence – the renaissance of political citizenship and the historically-grounded reconsideration of collective identity – were thus present and intertwined in Patocka’s late oeuvre. Patocka did not ‘create’ the problem, but he gave it an intellectual form and influenced how it was discussed and developed in Czech dissident culture. Analogous questions in different contexts were, at about the same time, elaborated by Polish and later also by Hungarian and Slovak oppositionists.

Important as Patocka was for the self-understanding of Czech dissidence in statu nascendi, of greater interest here are the efforts to ‘adopt’ the philosophical principles defined by him in practice and the contemporary reflections about these attempts. At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s rising feelings of insecurity and uncertainty resulted in numerous controversies among the Chartists regarding their role in Czechoslovak society, the non-political character of their activities, possible future strategies and their persistent isolation from the rest of the population.[14] Already here a historicizing dimension can be seen in the references to Karel Havlícek’s and Tomáš Masaryk’s notion of ‘petit work’ (drobná práce) that cropped up, for instance, in a controversy about heroism and everyday work ethic between Ludvík Vaculík, Václav Havel, Petr Pithart, Ladislav Hejdánek and others in 1979-1980.[15] Besides this there were several longer lasting controversies during this period. Here we must mention polemics about the expulsion of the Sudeten German population from Czechoslovakia after WWII and their moral, social, and political consequences for Czech society. The debate started in 1977 after the Slovak dissident historian Ján Mlynárik published his critique of Czech approaches, particularly prevailing ignorance, to what he understood as the crucial moral historical dilemma of modern Czech society.[16]

Another was the debate surrounding the so-called „Attempt of homeland“, to which this paper now turns. It reveals at best the connections between the considerations regarding the strategy and purpose of Charter 77 with the search for a new identity within the community of dissidents. The discussion was triggered by Petr Pithart’s 1979 essay “Attempt of homeland. Bolzano, Rádl, Patocka and Us in 1979” in which he discussed Czech ethno-nationalism and called for the adoption of an alternative, ‘Patockian line’ of Bohemian patriotism, which was inspired by Bernard Bolzano’s Enlightenment concept of patria. On the basis of historical reasoning Pithart tried to define an alternative, civic idea – as opposed to existing ethno-cultural-linguistic one – about a reformulated Czech national identity that would serve as the basis for the creation of an active, self-conscious and cohesive political community; and which would also provide a solution in spe to the pressing problem of the hitherto social isolation of the tiny group of Chartists.

The ensuing discussion bifurcated into two streams: first, the historical stream, which was concerned predominantly with notions of “homeland”, “nation” and “nationalism” and their historical significance in Czech and Bohemian context ; and second, the political stream, which reacted to the programmatic aspect of Pithart’s essay. As far as the latter is concerned, Pithart suggested that more stress should be placed on everyday positive work (drobná práce), which could potentially engage many more ordinary folk dissatisfied with the given situation. He contrasted this concept to the prevailing heroic, if not radical (radikál?ení), moral protestations of Charter 77 and the Defense Committee of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS) that, according to him, had transformed opposition into a kind of moral elite divorced from society.[17]

Petr Pithart is one of the most important representatives of the liberal politics of consensus, the idea that consensual politics can only be achieved through critical, honest, and democratic discussion. Moreover, as much as the dissidents were forced to seek some kind of basic consensus in terms of the political strategy of Charter 77 against the dictatorship, the drive towards some kind of fundamental consensus, a common floor on which disputes could be communicated, was, according to Pithart, desirable also in terms of a historical perspective. The ongoing discussion between various cultural-political streams in Czech society about interpretations of national history would lead to a tentative historical consensus, if not a historical compromise as such, and thus provide fundamental ingredients for the more than needed reconstructed sense of national belonging. This should have had two phases, as Pithart put it. First, the discussion within the democratic opposition itself, where each cultural-political stream (Catholics, Protestants, former reform communists, socialists and liberals, etc.) would critically examine above all its own tradition and ‘failures’ in national history. The second and later phase would come to the fore following the establishment of a new democratic order, when also the official communist line would be, at least partially, included in consensual politics. Already in the „Attempt of homeland“ and some other essays from that period, Pithart warned against excluding anybody a priori from the project of civic homeland. Nobody, he wrote, should have been considered incorrigible or lost forever, and it was fair and wise to take into account the presence and active participation of at least some of the „regime communists“ (režimní komunisté) in future democratic politics.[18]

The liberal-nationalist politics of consensus and historical compromise defined the social strategy of Charter 77 and later also that of Civic Forum until at least the spring of 1990.[19] However, Pithart’s radical formulations, including his demanding program of national and moral self-renewal, did not enjoy much support among his fellow dissidents. Many of those who took part in this debate rejected Pithart’s idea of civic patriotism on the grounds that it was a utopian project, unsuitable to replace existing and ’traditional’ Czech ethno-cultural identity. Many others also rejected his allegedly inconsiderate politics of consensus and historical compromise with Communism on the grounds that it was inconsiderate to the victims of police repression and, therefore, potentially weakening the position and moral stance of those principles on which Charter 77 was built. Last but not least, many saw in Pithart’s suggestions an indirect invitation or appeal for collaboration with the dictatorial regime.

In these reactions we detect the basic contradictions within Czech dissidence that were further exacerbated during the 1980s and which also played an important role in creating the dividing lines within the post-dissident political milieu after 1989. This is a contradiction between the doctrine of human and civic rights (with its drive towards consensual politics), on the one hand, and the strengthening exclusivist rhetoric of anti-communism and anti-totalitarianism on the other. This has been mirrored by the contradiction between the liberal nationalist project of civic homeland or civic patriotism, on one side, and the defense and cultivation of the traditional ethno-cultural notion of nation as a potential bulwark against ‘totalitarian’ communist power on the other.

III. Historical compromise or historical reckoning?: towards 1989

The era of so-called ‘normalization’ in Czechoslovakia, at least up to 1985, has been often portrayed as a time of grey and grim everyday life organized on the basis of pompous public rituals evoking symbolic historical events of a once revolutionary regime. The emptiness and cyclicality of public life under late Czechoslovak state socialism evoked a strong feeling of timelessness (bezcasí) that was a favored topic of political literature and belles-letters of the time. Yet, in retrospection, the 1980s in particular turned out to be a period of powerful revival in terms of historical thought and historical discourse originating in the samizdat, exile journals and press. It extended well beyond expert circles of historians and exerted a remarkable influence on political debates of the time and which formed the basis of the political spectrum after 1989.

Despite the increasing need for specifically formulated political and economic programs – as evidenced by the sheer number of cultural, political, environmental groups and clubs, especially towards the end of the 1980s[20] – the politics of human and civic rights continued to serve as a common denominator for most oppositional activities in Czechoslovakia. An important part of oppositional strategy, characterized here as a politics of consensus and historical compromise, was an explicit negligence and insensibility towards political programs. It favored neither socialism nor capitalism, since both were considered, at least in ”really existing” form, reductionist in stark contrast to authentic life. Endorsed again in 1984 by Václav Havel in his famous essay “Politics and conscience”, the antipolitical politics signified a conception standing in opposition to the understanding of politics as mere technology of power and manipulation. This was a politics defined as a means by which to “gain a sense of one’s life”, politics as “practiced morality and service to the truth, an essentially human and humanely measured care for the fellow-citizen”.[21] This is an element common to many social protest movements, which develop their ideas on the basis of values and moral convictions. Much less consideration is given to possible implementation of these basic tenets, the organization of society and satisfaction of its material needs, not to speak about the administration of the state itself.[22]

The moral language of living in truth based on fundamental ideas of human and civil rights, universalist claims and inclusivistic practice, naturally leads to or prompts the politics of negotiated consensus and non-violent historical compromise, or at least a dialogue, even with the most compromised political force. The same moral language of human dignity, however, witnessed a comeback in the morally-based and value-oriented imaginary of the theory of totalitarianism in dissident political writings. It should be noted that the authors of the numerous interpretations discussed here were conscious of the fact that communist rule after 1968 was different to what it used to be in the 1930s or 1950s, and that both the character of the political regime and the relationship between the Party leadership and broader society had changed considerably. Nevertheless, the failures of reforms and rebellions in Eastern Europe in the period 1953-81 prompted the oppositionists to reconsider the concept of totalitarianism as a measure by which to asses both changing realities and constant elements of the system of power.[23]

The imagination of totalitarianism additionally served to another more important political aim. It helped to frame dissident political writings in an understandably dichotomic scheme, making them an effective mobilization appeal for resolute, civic and activist action against the despotism of power in the name of freedom. The concept of totalitarianism proved an exigent and effective discoursive tool for the opposition in its political rivalry with communist propaganda. However, whereas political analysts and intellectuals carefully stressed the ideal-typical character of this concept, and were cautious not to over-stress the moral dichotomies contained within it, the intellectual finesse of the concept was quickly lost among the broader strata of oppositional activists during the culminant political struggle in the late 1980s. Here the imaginary of totalitarianism, in direct opposition to the consensual politics of human and civic rights, started to draw clear-cut distinctions between “them” and “us”, between “opposition” and “power”, “truth” and “lie”, “democracy” and “totalitarianism, and between “civil society” and “ruling communists”, thus putting into doubt the liberal-nationalist project of consensual politics and historical compromise.[24]

This development was also enhanced from another side, namely the ‘identity discourse’ that should have helped break the isolation of dissident groups in Czechoslovakia. With civic patriotism not being a viable alternative, it was the traditional ethno-cultural notion of nation that remained the only efficient symbolic reference with which the opposition could hope to approach society at large. This led to sharper anti-communist formulations not only in terms of political analysis, based as they were on the ever-popular imaginary of ‘totalitarianism’, but also in the sphere of historical thinking and collective memory, where revived national sentiment should have helped in the symbolic battle against the dictatorship. The most obvious example in this respect was, as Bronis?aw Baczko put it, “the exploding historical memory” of Solidarity in 1980-81.[25] Since that time, and despite temporary political setbacks, the historical discourse of Solidarity became the most emblematic and influential counter-hegemonic culture in East Central Europe.[26]

Less successful and overwhelming than Solidarity, nevertheless the efforts to harness the power of historical memory in the struggle against socialist dictatorship were also detectable in other countries of the region, including Czechoslovakia. A good example is the well-known Charter 77 document from 1984 entitled “The Right for History” issued without the usual preliminary consultations within the broader Chartist leadership by the three Charter’s speakers with Václav Benda at the fore. Questioning official Czechoslovak historiography and the ‘politics of amnesia’ (by which the communists tried to manipulate and corrupt historical memory of the population), the document called for a renewal of authentic national historical memory that should have also included a reevaluation of those elements of national history traditionally labeled as ’reactionary’ by Marxists and other left-wing historians, such as Catholicism or the Habsburg legacy.[27] The authors of the document were not historians and made many facile statements and mistakes in the document, which was criticized harshly in subsequent discussions. Nevertheless, the document underlined the status of the counter-discourse on national history prevalent among the opposition, which was gaining weight in the struggle with Communism throughout the 1980s, even though it could hardly be compared to the powerful ‘politics of history’ espoused by leading Solidarity intellectuals and activists.

The document not only attacked official communist historiography, it represented a quasi-Catholic challenge to the secular nationalist mainstream of Czech historical scholarship including that in the opposition. In the ensuing dispute two irreconcilable camps stood against each other, represented on one hand by the Catholic historian Ladislav Jehli?ka and the newly established journal Strední Evropa (Central Europe), and, on the other, by former reform communist historians-turned dissidents, with the militant Luboš Kohout and Milan Hübl at the helm. Their evaluations of the Catholic Church, Habsburg Monarchy, Baroque culture, Hussite wars, and so on diametrically differed; their differences resembled in fact the religious-political fault-lines in historical thinking as they developed in Bohemia at the turn of the19th and 20 th centuries. Hence, these two positions were characterized as ‘conservative-Catholic’ and ‘democratic-Evangelic’, where confessional denomination in both cases often stood less for religious affiliation and referred instead to cultural sensibilities.

These and other discussions and controversies about national history mirrored prevailing cultural-political distinctions in Czech society. Despite the will and readiness to discuss, and despite external pressures to unite against political tyranny, any interpretative convergence or unification of views on national history could not be expected. It was not an imaginary corpus of homogenous interpretation on national history that proved to be the most important result of this development, but rather the process of discussion itself. The democratic value of these discussions has been appreciated by many eye-witnesses and this is apparent from collected volumes and special thematic issues of samizdat journals devoted to national history. This process came to a head in two historical conferences organized by dissident historians in Prague in the multiple anniversary year of 1988, one of which was dissolved by the state secret police. Papers intended for delivery were compiled afterwards and exude a spirit of collegiality, critical tolerance and openness as cultivated in the samizdat press during these years.[28] This spirit has also found expression in some works of individual historians such as the brilliant collection of essays by Jan Kren Historical transformation of Czechness and the monograph Conflictual community, which discusses the Czech-German relationship in Bohemia up to 1918 and the concept of Central Europe more generally. This is not to say that Kren intended to gloss over his own cultural-political predilections and methodological preferences; however these works were exemplary in their openness for interpretative variety, their polemical but not necessarily apodictic style, and their emphasis on apparently unsolvable ‘problems’ instead of ‘solutions’.[29] In this respect these historical texts represent the nascent liberal historical culture, a step towards a liberal-nationalist historical compromise that started taking shape within democratic opposition during the 1980s.

There are several reasons for the relatively broad acceptance of Kren’s works, but apart from the inherent qualities of these works as mentioned above, one of the most important was the fact that the author belonged to the mainstream of democratic, national, progressivist historiography which formed the backbone of dissidence in Czechoslovakia. A different example that showed the limits of tolerance and of the liberal-nationalist vision of political nation, was another major work of the time, the sizable monograph known as Podiven (1988) by three authors Petr Pithart, Petr Príhoda and Milan Otáhal. Podiven was a consciously provocative endeavor to scrutinize the traditional master-narrative of modern Czech history and its national-patriotic stereotypes. The long essay constituted an attempt by the three distinct personalities with divergent political views (liberal-conservative, liberal-Catholic and socialist) to come together and forge a common historical interpretation as an alternative explanatory model of modern Czech history to both, national communist interpretations and the national-progressivist mainstream in opposition.[30]

Published in 1988, most of the reactions stirred by Podiven before and after the change of regime were negative if not hostile, with the authors being accused of excessive moralizing, showing apparent disrespect to established historical methods and, sometimes, exuding an unpatriotic stance, which scrutinized the Czechs more than any other nation in Bohemia and Central Europe, including the Germans. These reactions once again illustrated the limits of the liberal nationalist project and, notably, of its explicitly critical and constructivist form, whose major representative has been Petr Pithart.[31] His envisioned historical negotiation, where each political-cultural stream – be it former reform communists, socialists, Roman Catholics, Protestants, liberals and so on – critically examine their own troublesome, often undemocratic past, never came about. Instead of critical heart-searching and self-examination, the 1980s, especially the second half, witnessed a development in the opposite direction, namely self-justification of the revived or newly established political groups in search of their authentic historical ‘self’ and, later on, of means substantially increasing their mobilization force and attraction to potential voters. Oppositional references to national values have found, in the end, a positive echo among population at large and resulted in political activism as of 1988-1989, however, with little self-criticism espoused by the liberal nationalists.

The November Revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia was marked by a re-mythologized national pathos in both of the federative republics, Czech and Slovak, where the nation stood up as a unified entity and swept away Communism.[32] The catharsis of this historical moment did not last long and it soon became apparent that no new social and political order based on a cohesive, non-party, civic activism or republican virtue would be established. Quite early on, former dissidents began to loose their charismatic legitimacy and thus also their political positions in confrontation with pragmatists in power. The post-dissident liberal nationalist historical discourse lasted longer than expected and in some respects still bears fruits in the intellectual sphere today. However in public life this legacy has been overshadowed by more pressing needs evolving from the political process in the transition years.

The limits of the politics of consensus based on human and civic rights, and the existential concept of antipolitical politics, were mirrored by similar limits of the liberal nationalist project of historical compromise. Both experienced historical triumph during the negotiated revolutions of 1989, a triumph that has simultaneously been its swan song. In both directions the liberal dissidents were losers. Unwilling to transform the doctrine of human and civic rights (or antipolitics) into a concrete political program, they lost any political dynamic and driving force. Cultivating a general program for the recovery of society and the democratization of the nation, they considered it premature to ponder on concrete measures and policies that were about to come following the democratic changes. Yet in 1989, which brought into practice the main requirements of political liberalism, the agenda of transition quickly became dominated by economic neo-liberalism in the Czech lands.[33]

Not capable of coping with the upsurge of national feeling and refusing even to call themselves liberal nationalists – even though they never ceased in their efforts to influence post-communist national identity – former dissidents lost much of their credentials as representatives of the nation. So they also lost the most important mobilizing force connecting intellectuals to the population at large. By not being formulated into a more concrete political vision or program of republican patriotism, liberal nationalism was soon overshadowed by more outspoken nationalist political forces.

But the main weakness in post-dissident historical discourse was perhaps not that on national history as a whole, but rather that on the communist period. Somewhat paradoxically, the liberal historical discourse created by the very people who contributed to the fall of Communism, lost its legitimacy in trying to find a plausible form of social and political dialog about the communist past. The beginnings of this failure can be seen already in the clash between the legalist character of the non-violent revolutions on 1989 on one hand, and the strong need for declaratory moral repugnance of ‘communist totalitarianism’ on the other hand. The historical compromise that was to result from ongoing public dialogue was quickly replaced by bold anti-communist rhetoric and historical reckoning, an explicit politics of ‘coming to terms with the communist past’ based on predominantly legal means, whose main task was to compensate for missing revolutionary catharsis and provide historical legitimacy for the new-born democracy.[34]

1. I would like to thank Stefan Auer, Katya Kocourek, Pavel Kolář and Petr Roubal for their comments and suggestions regarding this paper.

2. Petr Pithart, Po devětaosmdesátém: Kdo jsme? (After the eighty-nine. Who are we?) Bratislava – Brno 1998, pp. 239-242.

3. Daniel Thomas, The Helsinki Effect. International Norms, Human Rights, And the Demise of Communism, Princeton and Oxford 2001; András Mink, The Defendant: the State. The Story of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Budapest 2005, pp. 7-69. As some authors have shown recently the unparalleled promotion of human rights was by far not a one-directional process coming from the West to the East, see e.g. Robert Horvath: “The Solzhenitsyn Effect”. The East European Dissidents and the Demise of the Revolutionary Privilege, in: Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29 (2007), pp. 879-907.

4. Cf. Barbara Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East Central Europe, Budapest – New York 2003; Jerzy Szacki, Liberalism After Communism, Budapest 1995; András Mink: The Defendant: the State.

5. See e.g. Tony Judt, Postwar.A History of Europe Since 1945, New York 2005, see esp. the chapter „Politics in a New Key“, pp. 484-503.

6. Several works explore this phenomenon in Polish context, esp. well documented is Solidarity’s politics of memory. See e.g. Jan Kubik, The Power of Symbols against the Symbol of Power. The Rise of Solidarity and the Fall of State Socialism in Poland, The Pennsylvania State University Press 1994; Marcin Meller, “Rola myślenia o historii w ruchu „Solidarność“ w latach 1980- 1981” (The role of historical thought in the Solidarity movement in 1980-1981), in: Solidarność w ruchu 1980-1981 (Solidarity on the move 1980-1981) Marcin Kula (ed.), Warszawa 2000, pp. 219-268; Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, The wheel of polish fortune : myths in polish collective consciousness during the first years of Solidarity, Lund 1992. See also Magdalena Mikołajczyk, Jak się pisało o historii… Problemy polityczne powojennej Polski w publikacjach drugiego obiegu lat siedemdziesiątych i osiemdziesiątych (How was the history written… Problems of postwar political history of Poland in the second circuit publications during the seventies and eighties) Kraków 1998; for the Czech case there is only one book that addresses, however, the question from the point of view of the longue-durée traditions of Czech philosophy of history: Miloš Havelka: Dějiny a smysl. Obsahy, akcenty a posuny “české otázky” 1895-1989 (History and meaning. Contents, accents and shifts of the “Czech question” 1895-1989) Praha 2001.

7. Cf. Iván Zotlán Dénes (ed.), Liberty and the Search for Identity. Liberal Nationalisms and the Legacy of Empires, Budapest – New York 2006. See also Marcin Król, Liberalizm strachu czy liberalizm odwagi (Liberalism of fear or liberalism of courage), Kraków – Warszawa 1996.

8. There has been an interesting debate in political theory since Yael Tamir and David Miller published their first books on liberal nationalism in the mid-1990s. In recent years few attempts appeared that try to conceptualize cultural political conflicts in East-Central Europe using the theoretical reservoir developed in this field. Cf. Yael Tamir, Liberal Nationalism, Princeton 1993, David Miller, On Nationality, Oxford 1995, Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship, Oxford 2001, Stefan Auer, Liberal Nationalism in Central Europe, London 2004.

9. Auer: Liberal Nationalism, p. 19.

10. Cf. Bohumil Jiroušek (ed.), Proměny diskursu české marxistické historiografie (The discoursive metamorphoses of Czech Marxist historiography), České Budějovice 2008. See also the classic account H. Gordon Skilling, Czechoslovakia‘s Interrupted Revolution, Princeton – New York 1976.

11. Jan Patočka, “Texty k Chartě 77,” (Texts to Charter 77) in: id., Češi I. (Czechs, vol. I) Praha 2006, pp. 423-448; Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless. Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, Armonk NY 1985. Cf. Aviezer Tucker, The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patocka to Havel, Pittsburgh 2000.

12. See, for instance, the diverse array of voices and interpretations of Charter 77 in: Václav Havel et. al., O svobodě a moci (On freedom and power), Köln a. R. 1980.

13. Jan Patočka, Náš národní program (Our national program), Praha 1990; id., „Dvě studie o Masarykovi“ (Two studies on Masaryk), in: Češi I., pp. 339-422; id., Co jsou Češi? (Who are Czechs?) Praha 1992.

14. See e.g. Havel, O svobodě a moci; Vilém Prečan (ed.), Křesťané a Charta. Výběr dokumentů a textů (Christians and Charter. Selected documents and texts), Köln a. R. 1980; Pavel Tigrid (ed.), Vývoj Charty 77 (Franken 1979) (Development of Charter 77 [Franken 1979]) Köln – München 1981.

15. Václav Havel, O lidskou identitu (Quest for human identity), Praha1990, pp. 201-217.

16. For some of the contributions to this discussion, see Češi, Němci, odsun (Czechs, Germans, transfer), Praha 1990.

17. See, Pokus o vlast. Diskuze (Attempt of homeland. Discussion), samizdat 1980, Collection of Libri Prohibiti Archives LP: SBM 4487, a short overview of the discussion could also be found in Petr Pithart, „Pokus o vlast“ (Attempt of homeland), in: id., Dějiny a politika. Eseje a úvahy z let 1977-1989 (History and politics. Essays and reflections from 1977-1989), Praha 1990, pp. 327-344.

18. ibidem, See also Petr Pithart: „Odvahu myslet“ (Audacity to think), in: Pokus o vlast, pp. 131-161.

19. Civic Forum was the democratization movement of 1989 in Czech lands lead by the most well-known Chartists. Its Slovak counterpart was the Public Against Violence.

20. See e.g. Milan Otáhal, Opozice, moc a společnost 1969-1989 (Opposition, power and society 1969-1989), Praha 1994; Miroslav Vaněk (ed.), Ostrůvky svobody. Kulturní a občanské aktivity mladé generace v Československu v 80. letech (Islands of freedom. Cultural and civic activities of young generation in the 1980s’ Czechoslovakia), Praha 2002.

21. See Václav Havel, “Politika a svědomí” (Politics and conscience), in: id., Do různých stran (Into many directions), Praha 1989, pp. 41-59.

22. Cf. James M. Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest. Culture, Biography and Creativity in Social Movements. Chicago – London 1997.

23. See Jacques Rupnik, “Totalitarianism Revisited,” in: Civil Society and the State, John Keane (ed.), London – New York 1998, p. 263-290.

24. For criticism of this kind of language in Polish context see Andrzej Walicki, Zniewolony umysł po latach (Captive mind reconsidered), Warszawa 1993; id., Polskie zmagania z wolnością (Polish struggles with freedom), Kraków 2000

25. Quoted in: Meller, “Rola myślenia”.

26. See e.g. Kubik, The Power of Symbols; Törnquist-Plewa, The Wheel of Polish Fortune.

27. See Spor o smysl českých dějin 2, 1938-1989 (Dispute over the meaning of Czech history, vol. 2, 1938-1989), Miloš Havelka (ed.), Praha 2006, pp. 362-371.

28.Československo 88. Sborník příspěvků pro mezinárodní sympozium a dokumentů o jeho zmařeném a permanentním průběhu. ( Czechoslovakia 88. Collection of contributions to an international symposium and documents about its harassments) Praha samizdat 1989, Archives of ÚSD AV ČR, SSD, Inv. č. 21, K. 4.

29. Jan Křen, Historické proměny češství (Historical transformation of Czechness), Praha 1992; id., Konfliktní společenství. Češi a Němci 1780-1918. (Conflictual community. Czechs and Germans 1780-1918) Praha 1990. Cf. also his later account on modern Central European history, which in many ways rounded-off his earlier efforts, Dvě století dějin střední Evropy (Two centuries of Central European history) Praha 2005.

30. Podiven, Češi v dějinách nové doby: Pokus o zrcadlo (Czechs in the modern age. Attempt of reflection), Praha 1991. Cf. Chad Bryant, “Czech Dissidents and History Writing from a Post-1989 Perspective,” in: History and Memory, vol. 12, 1/2000, pp. 30-64.

31. This should not imply that Pithart was the only one: there were other critical evaluations of the national past in a bid to reactive national identity as a tool with which to politically engage the population, see e.g. the Democratic Initiative of Emanuel Mandler and Bohumil Doležal, Čas Demokratické iniciativy (The time of Democratic Initiative), R ůžena Hlušičková and Milan Otáhal (eds.), Praha 1993.

32. Cf. Ladislav Holý, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation. National Identity and the Post-communist Transformation of Society, Cambridge 1996.

33. Cf. the attempt to summarize political and philosophical criticism of the concept of antipolitics in the 1990s, Václav Bělohradský, “Antipolitika v Čechách. Příspěvek ke gramatice kýče” (Antipolitics in Czechia. Contribution to the grammar of kitsch) in: Česká konzervativní a liberální politika (Czech conservative and liberal politics), Petr Fiala abd František Mikš (eds.), Brno 2000, pp. 33-59.

34. Cf. Michal Kopeček, „I n Search for ‘National Memory’. The Politics of History, Nostalgia and the Historiography of Communistm in the Czech Republic and East Central Europe”. in: Past in the Making. Historical Revisionism in Central Europe after 1989, Michal Kopeček (ed.), Budapest – New York 2008, pp. 75-96.

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    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    PhD in Political Science
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University

    Visiting Fellow
    (July 2020 – June 2021)
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue
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