The Politics of Coming to Terms with the Communist Past. The Czech Case in Central European Perspective

I would be most interested in mapping out some basic existential situations- not just the fear of the future, the fear of freedom, but now also the fear of one’s own past.
Vaclav Havel (1991) [1]

In one of his short stories Borges writes about a “bird setting off to fly with its eyes behind its head”. It is a fitting metaphor for the countries of Central Europe, embarking on a transition towards a democratic future while looking backwards to their past. Any new political order after a dictatorship is confronted with crucial choices concerning the legacy of the old. Should it draw a “thick line” under the past, even at the cost of ignoring the quest for justice? Should it settle accounts with the representatives of the old regime rather than facing up first of all to the tasks of the future. Is retroactive justice a threat to the rule of law and to political stability ? Or is a clear break with the institutions and personnel associated with the past regime a pre-condition for a successful consolidation of democracy. All these arguments about transitional justice have been a prominent feature of intellectual and political debate of the past decade in Central and Eastern Europe. It raises important political, legal and ethical issues of broader significance that each country handled in its own way. Indeed, one of the striking features of decommunization in Central and Eastern Europe is the great diversity of approaches, of means chosen and of timing from one country to another. It also drew considerable attention outside its borders, owing at least in part, to the new international context which has witnessed the emergence, on one hand, of the experiences with Truth and Reconciliation Commission as in South Africa and, on the other hand, of the International War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. [2] Both experiences, (one emphasising reconciliation, the other justice), are not in themselves of direct relevance to the East-Central European predicament after 1989, but they did shape the international environment in which the latter was perceived.

There is, however, a second dimension of “coming to terms with the communist past”: it concerns less the politics of retribution than the reading of post-war history. Was communism only an unpleasant parenthesis in the historical development of the region or have its more than forty years rule deeper roots and deeper legacies? Was it just inflicted from outside and from above on reluctant societies or has their adaptability to the system left an imprint which will not easily wash away with rhetorical or judicial excommunications? Behind the debates about the opening of the archives there is the question about the rôle of the police and criminal prosecution, but there are also the questions put to the historians: how to (re)interpret the history of the XX century in Central Europe in?[3]

Reclaiming the pre-communist past has its own traps. Furthermore how to come to terms with the communist past in historiography itself?

The Czech case is of particular interest in both respects and it presents a double paradox: 1. Nowhere in post-Soviet East-Central Europe has decommunization (both legal and rhetorical) gone further than in Czechoslovakia (and later in the Czech Republic). Yet it is also the only country in the region which harbours on the political scene an unreconstructed Communist Party which, unlike its counter-parts in neighbouring countries, has not bothered to change its name, claims proudly a continuity with the achievements of the pre-1989 past and enjoys fairly consistent support in part of Czech society. 2. Nowhere in the region, in the two decades preceding the collapse of the old regime, has historiography been subjected to such a thorough purge[4]. Yet it is also the country that, until recently, carefully avoided a wide-ranging historical debate about the specific place of communism in contemporary Czech history and politics. Both issues are clearly connected and briefly analyzed here.

I. The politics of decommunization:

In dealing with the legacies of communist dictatorship the transition to democracy in Central Europe was soon confronted with the issue of what to do with the perpetrators of repression and human rights violations before 1989 and to what extent and how to compensate the victims. According to estimates for Czechoslovakia about a quarter million people were at one point or another imprisoned on political grounds and 240 people were sentenced to death.[5] Since 1990 the Czechoslovak (after 1992 the Czech) authorities adopted the most far-reaching set of policy measures starting in 1990 with the rehabilitation[6] of the victims, moving on to the restitution of the property confiscated after the communist take-over in February 1948, and thirdly the lustration[7], a screening procedure by which people who had been collaborators or informers of the secret police as well as high ranking party officials should be banned from prominent positions in the government, the army, courts (though not parliament) for five years. These policies drew criticism inside the country and abroad.

So why did the Czechs (in East Germany the process was clearly linked to reunification and was largely driven from West Germany) push decommunization further and sooner than their neighbours? Several explanations can be suggested.

The first concerns the type of legacy left by the communist dictatorship or, to use a ‘non-scientific’ category, the “degree of nastiness” of the old regime. It is quite clear that exiting from communism in Czechoslovakia after twenty years under the hard-line regime of Gustav Husak, was rather different than leaving behind the benign authoritarianism of Janos Kadar in Hungary. The latter is considered today by a majority of Hungarians as one of the more positive periods in the country’s history, an unthinkable proposition in the Czech context. The purges of the 1970’s and the repression, ideological control and finally even resistance to Gorbachev’s perestroika account largely for the outright rejection of the pre-1989 period.

The second explanation concerns the nature of the transition process: a radical break or a negotiated compromise. In his study of democratic transitions Huntington suggests that in practice the choices made between different options as to how to deal with the legacy of dictatorship (prosecute and punish or forgive and forget) were “little affected by moral and legal considerations. It was shaped almost exclusively by politics, by the nature of the democratization process, and by the distribution of political power during and after the transition”.[8] A key ingredient in a peaceful transition is the extent to which the old communist elite was able to secure immunity from prosecution as a condition for abandoning (or sharing) power. Clearly, in Poland and Hungary, where the transition was negotiated among moderate elites of the old system and of the democratic opposition, there was not really the option of retribution against those who took part in a negotiated settlement. You cannot one day say, to use Adam Michnik’s phrase during the summer of 1989 “your president, our government” and the next moment turn democratic justice against the prime instigator of the military coup of that crushed the Solidarity movement in December of 1981.

The Czech and the East German cases were in contrast marked by a more sudden and abrupt regime change, less marked by negotiations from above than by pressure from bellow and from outside. In retrospect is seems that the fast retreating representatives of the old regime were hardly in a position to negotiate immunity from prosecution. It was more the restraint, the self-limitatation of the Civic Forum leaders who negotiated with the Communist leadership at the end of November and December 1989 that allowed for a smooth, “velvet” changeover.[9] The communists managed that phase as an exercise in damage limitation but unlike in Hungary or in Poland, they could not claim to have contributed even modestly to the democratic changes.

A third hypothesis concerns the (inversly proportional) relationship between decommunization and the degree of resistance of a society. To put it bluntly: Poland is unquestionably the society that has resisted most persistently and most massively the communist regime at least since 1956 and with increasing vigour since the workers’ strikes of 1970. Yet it had initially opted, at least during most of the 1990s, against “lustrations”. The Czech society (the argument is even stronger for the GDR) showed relatively little overt resistance to the system or support for the dissident human rights movement. Yet it backed the decommunization legislation particularly in the first three years of transition.

To use Albert Hirschman’s typology (“exit-voice-loyalty”) one could argue that the Czechs (unlike the Poles, Hungarians or even East Germans) had no exit option. “Voice” was confined to a fairly small group of dissident intellectuals. And reluctant “loyalty” was the dominant pattern for the rest of society. It is therefore perhaps not out of place to suggest that a compensation phenomenon should not be ruled out, particularly among some who embarked on a most radical and uncompromising struggle against the “communist evil” in December 1989.

This third hypothesis needs to be qualified since it can lead to a somewhat simplified or indeed misleading interpretation which suggests that the dissidents, who actually suffered at the hands of the old regime, are less vindicative, less eager to seek revenge the silent majority who compensate their guilt. In Claus Offe’s words: “people who have been active in the struggle against the old regime, and who have hence experienced its harshness most directly, will normally advocate more moderate modes of punishment than those who have lived in conformity and acquiescence under the old regime”.[10] Though the general proposition about the correlation between the degree of resistance of society and propensity to retribution after dictatorship might have some relevance the widely used arguments about the dissidents’ reluctance to retribution is inaccurate.

To be sure, one can invoke Adam Michnik’s warnings about the dangers of “anti-Bolshevik bolshevism”[11], Janos Kis’ emphasis on the primacy of the rule of law or Vaclav Havel’s reservations about the lustration law. And they do reflect a genuine apprehension in some dissident circles about the perils of retrospective justice in post-communist Central Europe.

Secondly, the unauthorized publication of the files (by a radical group of ex-dissidents) without properly distinguishing among the categories of people on the record has led to wrongful accusations as exposed in the case of Zdena Salivarova-Skvorecka[12] (the wife of the famous Czech writer living in Canada who devoted twenty years to the most important Czech publishing house in exile). Most importantly, while the identities of low-level informers were abundantly documented in the police records, the same cannot be said about the officers and their superiors in charge of the police system. So you end-up exposing the small fry, but not the people who were actually running the system. A cartoon in the daily Lidove Noviny in 1991 summed it up: A man standing in front of the Parliament building says to another “I am not worried about lustrations. I was not an informer. I was only giving orders!”

Two aspects, however, mitigate these reservations. The ‘lustration’ is not a penal procedure, but a vetting system for top public office. Is it really so outrageous to consider that the senior government officials of a new democracy should try to avoid having too many people associated with the old secret police in their midst? Secondly contrary to criticism on the grounds of the principle of “collective guilt” was used against former communists. The lustration process is strictly individual and the results can be appealed in courts. [13] Thirdly: the police apparatus itself was eventually purged of some 7 000 officers.

The criticism of the lustration law came from international institutions such as the Council of Europe or the International Labour Organisation[14] and above all from New York human rights and media circles. Jeri Laber of Helsinki Watch wrote about a “Witch Hunt in Prague” [15], alleging a new form of McCarthyism was in the offering in the Czech capital, while Lawrence Weschler in the New Yorker wrote about “The Velvet Purge” and compared the case of Jan Kavan, the most notorious lustration case, to a new “Dreyfus Affair” [16]. Both comparisons say more about fears and fantasies concerning Central Europe as seen from New York than about the actual issues in post-communist Bohemia. There was no “witch hunt” or McCarthyism to speak of. The communist leaders responsible for preparing the invasion of their country followed the harshest neo-stalinist repression in post-1968 Central Europe retired quietly to their luxury villas without facing any kind of retribution. As for the case of Jan Kavan the comparison with Dreyfus including its anti-Semitic component is simply preposterous. A Czech exile who had been involved in assistance to the dissidents in the 1970’s and 1980’s and became a social-democratic MP was accused of collaboration with the secret police. After and admittedly acrimonious press treatment, he appealed the verdict of the lustration commission in the courts, was vindicated, re-elected to Parliament in 1996 and became foreign minister of the Czech Republic in 1998.[17] For a victim of a ‘witch hunt ‘, ‘McCarthyism’ or a new ‘Dreyfus affair’ this is not so bad after all.

The main reason for the widespread assumption that dissidents opposed retribution is, in the Czech case, related to a certain reading of Vaclav Havel’s first presidential New Year speech on January 1st 1990. In an oft-quoted passage Havel refers to the shared legacies of totalitarianism: Not just the ‘powers that be’ but also the citizenry at large “helped to perpetuate it”. “In other words, we are all – though naturally to different extents- responsible for the operation of totalitarian machinery. None of us was just its victim: we are all also its creators”[18]. This argument, consistent with much of Havel’s earlier writings going back to the 1970’s, tries to overcome the simple and convenient “them and us” dichotomy in accounting for the modus operandi of the post-totalitarian system and the reflection on the (admittedly unevenly) shared responsibilities. Of course, only somebody of his stature, who had never been a communist and spent several years in prison, could then afford to make such a statement.

Yet those who are keen to quote this part of Havel’s speech against any kind of retribution conveniently omit another passage in the same speech where he actually suggests that prosecution of crimes might well be necessary: “We should not forget any of those who paid for our present freedom in one way or another. Independent courts should impartially consider the possible guilt of those who were responsible for the persecutions, so that the truth about our recent past may be fully revealed.”[19] Curiously, this passage is never quoted. Nor is his speech, on the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21st August 1990, mentioned in which he called for the dismantling of the “old structures” and the removal of “incompetent and sabotaging nomenklatura”; “the main part of the revolution must still happen”.[20] One can indeed read such statements as the legitimating of decommunization. So Havel the moralist and the thinker acknowledges that no amount of rhetoric or legal measures should spare the Czechs confronting the deeper issues of the traumas and responsibilities for decades of totalitarianism. But Havel the political leader also knows that the dismantling of the old regime after a “velvet revolution” and the social demand for justice will not be defused by the most sophisticated formulation of a pessimistic philosophical vision of the victim in some way as contaminated by the totalitarian legacy as the henchman.

It is often assumed, since Havel the moralist, that there are reservations about the perils of decommunization and of ‘lustration’ in particular that his prime opposite in Czech politics, the right wing economist and freemarketeer Vaclav Klaus would obviously be in favour. The truth, as with Havel, is more complicated than the political stereotype. In a little publicised essay Vaclav Klaus answered the question posed to him by the editors of a serious Prague intellectual journal Prostor concerning “settling accounts with the past- a call for justice”. The then prime minister insisted he was the problem of “coming to terms with the past” as an “individual problem”, as a “private matter” and warned against the dangers of “moralisation” and “self-flagellations”. “I do not believe, he continued, that a coming to terms with the past can be achieved by an abstract entity called society, nor that it is correct to speak of some national guilt which therefore would have to be collective. The solution of the problem cannot be reached by some simple act of the state or a declaration of a public figure, scientist or artist. In substance, this is a private matter for each of us…”[21] Rejecting explicitly Jaspers’ categories of guilt and responsibility as well as Havels’ view that “all of us (with the exception, of course, of the one who formulates this view for the others) have been morally corrupted by living in the totalitarian system”, Klaus argued that there is really no criterion for judgement on the past, no “neutral, unearthly truth” to judge human behaviour in these particular circumstances. What the Czechs need in this respect is “lucidity”, “practical realism” and faith in “sceptical reason” rather than “big words”. In an earlier statement Klaus argued, “no litmus test exists which could precisely divide good and evil between Communists and non-communists”.[22] Not exactly the radical call for decommunization and settling accounts with the communist past that is often associated with Klaus’ period in office. Klaus’ implicit pragmatic message was in fact well understood by the Czechs: “I am a bit like all of you. Neither a former communist, nor a former dissident; neither a henchman nor a moralist whose very presence on the scene is a reminder of the courage you did not have, your bad conscience.”

Thus, neither Havel nor Klaus quite fit the divide on decommunization between moderates and radicals associated with their name. How then to account for the fact that Klaus’ party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and his government have actually become the promoters of radical decommunization policies? The prime explanation lies in the break-up of the large coalition, the Civic Forum, and the formation of competing political factions that, in the absence of a structured party political system, instrumentalize issues that favour the process of polarization of the political scene. In the early 1990’s in the Czech Republic the rejection of the old regime was strong among the population while the differentiation of interests as a basis for party formation was weak. It is in this context that a very deliberate two-prong strategy of polarization has been implemented by Vaclav Klaus and the ODS party in search of a political identity: first was the emphasis on the acceleration of economic reform, rapid privatisation and marketization to dismantle the social base of the old regime. Second, was the lustration law that proved to be a major dividing issue with the other successor to the Civic Forum, i.e. the Civic Movement (OH) led by Jiri Dienstbier and Petr Pithart. The lustration law, according to Klaus, made it possible “to clarify who stands where, who really wants consequential change for our society, our economy, and who, on the other hand, wants to draw us into new experiments carried out by the old experimenters we know so well”[23]. (The old experimenters referred to the 1968 reformers associated with “socialism with a human face” some of whom later joined the dissident movement and were members of the Civic Movement (OH) So the man who a year earlier did not want to distinguish between communists and non-communists now wanted to clarify the issues while adding on the eve of the June 1992 elections that “it is necessary to settle accounts with the communist past”[24].

The second dimension in the polarization strategy that lustration offered was vis à vis the Slovaks. Vladimir Meciar’s Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) opposed both Klaus’ radical economic reform concept as well as the lustration policy. The Slovak nationalists (HZDS and SNS) did not vote the law and Meciar campaigned on the promise to fight for Slovak sovereignty and never to implement the lustrations in Slovakia. He had been briefly minister of interior in Slovakia and preferred to make a more private, targeted use of the files himself. decommunization certainly was an important divisive issue between Czechs and Slovaks in the run-up to the velvet divorce.

The contrasting attitudes of Czech and Slovak public opinion on this issue reflected different perceptions and experiences of the communist (particularly the ‘normalisation’ period after 1968). A survey carried out in Slovakia concerning the perceptions of the past indicated that population considered the communist period 1948-89 and the war-time period of the pro-nazi Slovak State as the two best periods in Slovak history.[25] The Czechs in contrast considered both periods as the two totalitarian legacies that they were trying to rid themselves of. Different perceptions of the Communist past in the Czech lands and Slovakia were a factor (albeit not a decisive one) in the dissolution of the common state. The break-up with communism and the split-up with Slovakia have overlapped (at least in the minds of some of its instigators).

Decommunization became a means to legitimise a new political elite and indirectly also a new state. Indeed shortly after it had been established a Co-ordination Center for the Documentation and Investigation of Violence Against the Czech Nation (1945-1989) was created and in July 1993 the Czech parliament adopted a “Law on the Illegality of and Resistance to the Communist Regime”. The regime between February 1948 and December 1989 is characterized as “criminal, illegitimate and abhorrent”. Its illegality rests on the “systematic destruction of traditional values of European civilization”. The law declared the declared the opposition to the regime as “legitimate, morally justified and honourable”. The law seemed at first to be largely a rhetoric and symbolic exercise. Yet it is revealing and deserves attention in several respects. First, it suspended the statute of limitations for political crimes committed between 1948 and 1989. The Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes (UDV) received a clear mandate not only to document the crimes of the communist period but also to investigate them and possibly file criminal charges. Secondly, it introduces the idea that the political representation has as part of its mission to legislate on history. This judiciarization of history is, of course, part of a broader international post-cold war trend by which legal measures are supposed to correct the injustices of the past. In this process group of victims use the new progress made in the promotion of human rights to seek compensation as well as moral and political condemnation. This is where the legislators and the media converge in the task of “coming to terms with the past”.

Yet the question remains: can you revise history by law? And is an officially provided version helpful to an understanding of the historical process and the coming to terms with the past? The issue is directly related to the previous one. The 1993 law considers “the Communist Party a criminal organisation” and that “the KSC, its leadership and its members are responsible for the way the country was ruled” (I.e. also for the above-mentioned crimes). If the search for criminal responsibility slides from the political leadership and the repressive apparatuses to membership you obviously challenge indiscriminately a substantial part of the population. Some Six million people passed through the Czechoslovak Communist Party at some point. The Party had a million and half members in 1968. Half a million were purged, lost their jobs and were otherwise harassed for their association with the Prague Spring. They had been replaced by another half a million new more docile members some of whom became part of the new post-1989 establishment. Ironically, several prominent members of the Klaus government at the time were former members (some of them very recent ones) of the criminal organisation and thus concerned as co-responsible en bloc for the misdeeds of the period 1948-1989. None of them resigned.

The politics of decommunization in the Czech Republic thus point to a paradoxical conclusion. On one hand the country went further than most in attempting to legislate on the criminal nature of the old regime. Yet none of the leading criminals were brought to account for their crimes. Not even the signatories of the infamous letter to the Soviet leadership asking for “brotherly assistance” in 1968 have been put on trial. The degrees of responsibilities of ‘lustrated’ or illustrious police informers can be debated endlessly. But a group of political leaders conspiring with a foreign power against the legal (if not elected) leadership of the moment in the planning and execution of the occupation of their own country, this, anywhere in the world, is surely understood as high treason. A public trial of those who were co-responsible for the occupation and for the repressive regime that followed could have provided a catharsis and answered, symbolically and politically, the formidable quest for justice in the society when the old regime collapsed. Yet none of the communist leaders concerned (the Bilak, Kolder, Indra, Hoffman, Jakes etc.) was called to account.[26] And the rhetoric about the criminal nature of the communist regime thus sounds shallower than ever.

While the law of July 1993 lumps together millions of former members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party as members of a “criminal organisation”, its successor which did not bother even to change its name is alive and kicking. Indeed it was precisely on the tenth anniversary of the “velvet revolution” in December 1999 that it reached in opinion polls a staggering 20% support. Although that figure has since been somewhat reduced it remains the strongest Party in the country in terms of membership (160 000) and organisational structure.[27] Unlike its reformist counterparts in Poland Hungary or even Slovakia its remains an unreconstructed party, unwilling and unable to face the communist past. All this is obviously related to the traumatic legacy of 1968: by thoroughly eradicating the reformists, the Czech Communist Party rendered itself unable to make the gradual adjustments which allowed the ex-communists in neighbouring countries to find a new lease of life as would-be social-democrats. Its splendid isolation on the political scene after 1989 is obviously the price to pay for the scorched earth policy it has followed after 1968. Yet the support and loyalty displayed towards an unreconstructed CP raises disturbing questions about the Czech society’s relationship to the Communist past that no amount of legislative posturing or moral exhortation seems able to challenge.

II The Rewriting of History: a Historikerstreit at last

Is the quest for justice synonymous with the quest for historical truth? The members of the Czech parliament seemed to make such claims. Historians should think twice. In the Czech case they have been until recently absent from the debate. It might have been partly an instinct of self-preservation after decades of historiography subjected to political norms of the moment and paying a high price for that. It might also be revealing of a more serious problem: twelve years after the fall of communism there is still no major systematic study of the history of Czechoslovak communism has been published (let alone provoked a wide-ranging debate on the subject in the scholarly community). This hopefully may be changing now.

When signing the 1993 law declaring communism a criminal regime Vaclav Havel considered it had essentially a declarative purpose and expressed the hope it would close a chapter and allow the Czechs to adopt a more forward-looking attitude. Yet there was little critical reflection concerning the implications of the Law except for the new lease of life it gave to Vaclav Benda’s Institute for the Examination of the History of communism and accelerated the case for opening up access to police files.[28] In this respect the Czechs are marching in the footsteps of Gauck’s Institute in former East Germany. But one thing is to open police files for investigation of past crimes, another thing is to open and make good use of communist archives for the purpose of writing a new history of the period. The former unfortunately does not necessarily lead to the latter.

Two important criticisms of the new official version of post-war history (as presented in the law of July 1993) were made, both incidentally coming from prominent Czech exiles in Italy. The first was Jiri Pelikan (the 1968 director of Czechoslovak television) who questioned not only the lumping together of leaders and membership but also the lack of distinctions made in the forty years long period: thus the Prague Spring of 1968 is considered as belonging to the “age of darkness” much like the Stalinist period. The leaders associated with the Prague Spring, Dubcek, Smrkovsky Kriegel or Hajek are put in the same category with Husak, Bilak, Jakes who liquidated the democratic reforms and imposed a had-line repressive dictatorship. Such reading of history, Pelikan argued, is utter nonsense.[29] Communism in Czechoslovakia had its different and often conflicted historical phases. One kind of orthodoxy and lack of tolerance is being replaced by another.

The second criticism of the prevailing thinking on these issues in the 1990’s came from the philosopher Vaclav Belohradsky: “In our political discourse, he argued, prevails something I would call ‘nihilistic revisionism ‘. It is a sign of the uprooting of communist totalitarianism from the history of the West and moves it to a chronicle of mere crimes of the Twentieth century, it is its russification, reduced to crimes against Western civilization. In reality, communist violence does not belong to the crimes against our /European/ civilisation, but are one of the authentic forms of that Western civilisation. It relates to its very substance- the idea of a universal empire based on the revelation of truth /or reason.”[30] The attempt to expel communism from the history of the West by ‘Russifying’ it, is to miss the point about the connection of the communist catastrophe as part of the catastrophe of modern rationality. It fails to understand its deeper sources and thus misses the opportunity to really learn anything from it [31].

The two critiques, from a very different perspective, challenge the convenient version of what Belohradsky calls the “dominant public discourse”. First, there is the assumption of the externality of totalitarianism. It is doubly external: a Russian/Soviet post-World War Two import, alien to Czech society and to Western or European civilisation. If the cause is external there is little incentive to examine the inner sources and responsibilities. The second assumption is to present the totalitarian period en bloc. At first it was 1948-89; then with the creation (in 1993) of the Center for the Documentation of the Violence against the Czech Nation the period was extended from 1945-1989 (thus including the democratic interlude of 1945-48) most recently the Memorial association, created at the initiative of prominent members of parliament, includes in one totalitarian period the Nazi and Communist domination of 1938 to 1989.

For a historian such a progressive extension of the “age of totalitarianism” can be both challenging, but also a potential trap. To be sure, taking the long view, the “longue durée” familiar to the French historical school, can allow a historian to formulate new hypothesis about the slide from one type of totalitarianism (since the 1930’s) to another. How a democratic state in the middle of Europe threatened by a totalitarianism of the right became vulnerable (in a sort of compensation) to totalitarianism from the Left. From this perspective, it is the War (and the complete collapse of the old social order) more than the nitty-gritty of communist tactics in February 1948, which matters, for the understanding of the formation of the communist system. This connection between war and revolution in bringing about totalitarianism after the two World Wars had been stressed by the philosopher Jan Patocka (as well by Alexander Solzhenitsyn). It remains one of the major issues for Central European historiography today.

However, it does raise several problems relevant to our topic.

1. To focus the historiographical interpretation of the slide from one totalitarianism to another could imply (but need not!) to present them as equivalent: Czechs subjected to a totalitarian era of half a century characterized by the criminal character of the two regimes concerned. And indeed it is a consolation to the victims to know that they suffered at the hands of totalitarianism “with good intentions” rather than with evil ones. Yet it is not enough to lump together Nazism and communism as “criminal” and “totalitarian” to make sense of post-war Czech history (which leads to a second point).

2. What is arguable at a certain level of generalisation does not quite fit the actual experience of Czech society that rejected outright the first totalitarianism while, at least initially, welcoming the other. There was an actual history of communism in Central Europe and in the Czech lands in particular, with different phases whose political and moral significance is by no means identical. Take the period 1945-48: is it merely the link between two totalitarian regimes or is it a democratic experience that separates them? Or take 1968 (and more broadly the 60’s) that saw the decay and failed reform of the communist system, which can hardly be reduced (as has been the dominant view of the 1990’s) as a mere squabble between two communist factions. The mid to late sixties was not only a period of gradual relaxation of rigid ideological party control over the society, it was (and remains) unquestionably the greatest period of cultural creativity (in literature, film, theatre, the fine arts) since the 1930’s, in start contrast to the relative cultural sterility of the 1990’s. Call it whatever you wish (decaying communism, socialism with a human face, hopeless revisionism) but it was not totalitarianism of the Stalinist period or actually that of the “normalisation” years that followed. It seems like a self-evident proposition: it is perfectly legitimate to compare totalitarian regimes and the crimes they have committed. But we also need to reintroduce the meanders of history, the resistance or adaptation of society that was not only the passive, innocent object of totalitarian manipulation. In short, next to the “Red Book” of the communist utopia and the “Black Book” of the crimes committed in its name there is a place for a “Grey Book” of the histories of Central European societies under communism as both victims and sometimes accomplices, oscillating at different periods between resistance and adaptation.

There is a diversity of the communist experience in post-war East-Central Europe, with the national specificities that should be of interest to historians. In contrast to Poland where most of the society felt it had moved in 1945 from one occupation to another the Czech case is remarkable in more ways than one. It is, after all the only country in the region where the communist came to power without Soviet troops on its territory and where the Communist Party triumphed in a free election in 1946 with 40% of the votes. It is a country where the Communist Party had half a million members in 1945, one and a quarter million members in 1947 and two and half million members in December 1948, i.e. almost a quarter of the total population and half of the working population. During the forty years between what Pavel Tigrid called the “elegant take-over” in 1948 and the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, during the various purges and recruitment campaigns over six million people (in a country of 15 million in 1989) passed through the party at some point. Unlike in Poland and Hungary, there was no challenge to the system in 1956 and during the post-1968 ‘normalisation’ period there was little unrest while the Charter 77 movement can remained confined to a dissident ghetto which in no way diminishes (on the contrary) its moral and political significance.

In short what is needed is not rhetorical statements about the criminal nature of the communist totalitarianism or more police files in pirate editions at every bookstore, but a history which will try to address the difficult and somewhat embarrassing question about the indigenous sources of Czech communism, about the rôle of nationalism (and the German question), about the vulnerabilities of Czech political culture (an egalitarian democracy, not a liberal one) to the totalitarian temptation: How come the most economically advanced democratic country in Central Europe produced the most rigid, entrenched and lasting brand of communism in the region?[32]

It is striking that in the last twelve years Czech historiography did not produce a thorough comprehensive examination of those issues, no history of the Communist Party or of “Stalinism” with its pre-war roots and its post war consequences. A polemic on this subject has opposed Zbynek Zeman, a Czech exile teaching contemporary history at Oxford University and Oldrich Tuma, the director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague.[33]

It is however, in the heart of the historical profession itself, namely the association of historians of the Czech Republic that something resembling a “Historikerstreit” has been brewing for two years. Exactly ten years after the fall of Communism, representatives of the younger generation of historians have openly challenged the ‘establishment’ of the profession on both political and historiographical grounds. [34] Their main spokesman Martin Nodl challenged the reluctance or inability of the established historians to confront the issue of the coming to terms with the communist past. The main reason for that, he pointed out, was not unrelated to their own past as conformist communists historians under the old regime. Jaroslav Panek, the chairman of the Czech historical society answered that such political attacks come from people who have so yet to prove themselves professionally. He opposed the “negativist”, “goal-oriented misinterpretation of Czech history” particularly with respect to the Czech-German relations and the issue of the expulsion of the Sudeten German population at the end of the War. In short, there seems to be, a generational, a political (‘decommunizers’ vs defenders of ’national’ interpretation) and possibly also a methodological difference between traditional positivist historiography and more modern ‘European’ approaches.

It is too early to say whether this first attempt at moral and political introspection within the historical profession will eventually produce a more far-reaching reassessment of post-war Czech history. In the two decades before 1989 independent dissident intellectuals carried out a lively debate about history while professional historians were silent (or silenced). For more than a decade now the historians have been free at last but there was little or no debate to speak of, which left the field open for political instrumentalization (of the issue) of the coming to terms with the communist past.

All over Central Europe it used to be said, “the most difficult thing to predict is the past”. That era is not quite over yet. In reclaiming and reinterpreting their history all the nations of the region ask: when did the “tragedy of central Europe” (Kundera) start? Who is responsible? Nations, like individuals need to be able to look at themselves in the mirror. Historical narratives are such a mirror, and historians the psychoanalysts of their nations. Everywhere there is a search for the “original sin” and the answer carries considerable political implications. In the Czech case should we start searching in 1968 (the Russians), or in 1948 (the Czech Communists), or in 1938 (Franco-British betrayal to Hitler), or even in 1918 (i.e. nationalism, the very idea of the nation-state in Central Europe as a chimera?)? How far back should we go to understand the roots of “our present crisis” (Masaryk). And each of the above-mentioned answers is politically loaded. The historian is thus placed in front a gratifying yet uncomfortable role: he is to provide the tools to confront the communist legacy and at the same time help to recompose a traumatised identity, to chose a usable past for a democratic future. In so doing the task of the Central European historian today is not completely dissimilar to that of the French historians helping the society at large cope with the past of the wartime Vichy regime. In France, it took almost thirty years (the eclipse of De Gaulle and of the Communists) for a new generation to be able to confront old political clichés and taboos. In Prague, as in the rest of Central Europe, the “Vichy syndrome” has only begun.

Tr@nsit online, Nr. 22/2002
Copyright © 2002 by the author & Transit – Europäische Revue.
All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit.


1. Vaclav Havel, “Nejistota posiluje” (Uncertainty strengthens) interview by D. Emingerova and L. Benjak, Mlady Svet, 1991.

2. Cf. Pierre Hassner, “Mémoire, justice réconciliation” in Critique internationale (n 5/ Fall 1999), p.122. Transitional justice has been a fast growing industry in the social sciences particularly in the United States. A comparative project chaired by Alex Boraine has recently been launched at New York University with a funding of some $ 20 million.

3. J. Rupnik, “Le retour de l’histoire en Europe Centrale”, in Vingtième Siècle, oct. -nov. 1992, p.53-59.

4. Some 145 historians have been sacked from their jobs in the post-1969 purges, a decimation of the profession particularly in the Czech lands. See V. Precan (ed.) Acta Persecutionis, World Congress of Historians, 1975.

5. This is an estimate made by Karel Bartosek in his chapter on Central and Southeatern Europe in Stéphane Courtois (ed.) Le livre noir du communisme, Paris, R. Laffont, 1997, p. 456 f .

6. The rehabilitation law was voted in by the Federal Parliament on April 23, 1990. It covered illegally sentenced persons (invalidating retrospectively the law on political offences) between February 1948 and December 1989. By the end of 1993, 96% of the victims had been rehabilitated and three billion Kcs (100 million euro) had been paid in compensations.

7. Lustrace (lustration) is a vetting procedure based on the examination of secret police records to check whether a person aspiring to hold certain post had been among the 100 000 or so informers of the StB secter police. The idea of the lustration process came out of a Parliamentary inquiry into the origins of the events of November 1989. The enquiry was inconclusive but recommended lustration for all Parliament members and high government officials.

8. Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, p. 215

9. See the transcript of the talks between the Civic Forum and the Communist leadership in Vladimir Hanzel (ed.) Zrychleny tep dejin, Prague, OK Centrum, 1991

10. Claus Offe, “Disqualification, Retribution, Restitution: Dilemmas of justice in post-communist countries”, Journal of Philosophy (1993/1), p. 26

11. Adam Michnik said at a conference in Salzburg in March 1992: My blackest dream is that we will take all our Communists and send them to Siberia. And then what will we have? Communism without Communists”, quoted by John Tagliabue, “New Pariahs Have East Europe Astir”, New York Times, March 14, 1992.

12. Z. Skvorecka, Osoceni, pribehy lidi z “Cibulkova seznamu”, Brno, 2000. The book is a collection of testimonies of people considering themselves as wrongfully included in the police file.

13. The lustration law was extended by parliament in 1996 for another five year period and was recently renewed again. An estimated 3% of the total of over 300 000 applicants have not passed the ‘lustration’ test.

14. cf. International Labour Office, Report of the Director-General (Report of the Committee set up to examine the representations made by the Trade Union Association of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia and by the Czech and Slovak Confederation of Trade Unions under article 24 of the ILO Constitution alleging non-observance by the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic of the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (n 111), adopted by the ILO Governing Body on March 5, 1992.

15. Jeri Laber, “Witch Hunt in Prague”, New York Review of Books, 28. May 1992.

16. Lawrence Weschler, “The Velvet Purge: the trials of Jan Kavan”, New Yorker 19. October 1992, and “From Kafka to Dreyfus”, New Yorker 2 November 1992, p.63: “As with Dreyfus… a distinct wiff of anti-Semitism has wafted into the social revulsion against Kavan”. His main opponents never mentioned kavan’s “jewishness”.

17. Kavan’s police file was, however, published in an unauthorized edition by P. Vachalovsky and J. Bok, (eds.) Kato: pribeh opravdoveho cloveka, Prague 2000.

18. Vaclav Havel, “New Years’ Address to the Nation” in The Art of the Impossible, New York, Fromm International, 1998, p. 4. This line of thinking is consistent with Havel’s earlier writings, particularly the Open Letter to Gustav Husak (1975) and Power of the Powerless (1978).

19. ibid. p. 6.

20. V. Havel, Vazeni obcane, projevy cervenec 1990-cervenec 1992, Prague, Lidove Noviny, 1992 p. 16-18.

21. Vaclav Klaus, “Uctovani s minulosti- vyzva ke spravedlnosti”, in Postor (33), 1977 p. 69 f.

22. V. Klaus, interview in Respekt, November 7-13, 1990.

23. Reprinted in V. Klaus, Proc jsem konzervativcem, Prague, Top, 1992, p. 45.

24. ibid. p. 38.

25. IVVM poll published in Pravo September 30, 1992.

26. There have been recent attempts to bring to justice those communist leaders still alive who had taken part on August 22. 1968 in a meeting at the Soviet Embassy in Prague in order to establish a so-called “workers and peasants government”, much like in Hungary in 1956. M. Jakes and J. Lenart are the only survivors of that meeting. But there is a snag: the plan actually failed and the Soviets eventually had to negotiate with Dubcek who was kidnapped and taken to Moscow as a prisoner. Cf “Jakes a Lenart pujdou nejspis k soudu”, MFDnes, September 1, 2001.

27. J. Rupnik and C. Perron, “Les singularités du Parti communiste tchèque” in G. Hermet-L. Marcou (eds.) Des partis comme les autres ? les anciens communistes en Europe de l’Est, Bruxelles, Complexe, 1998, p. 77-94.

28. A detailed description of these issues is given by an emplyee of the Institute, Pavel Zacek, Boje o minulost, Prague, Barrister & Principal, 2000.

29. Jiri Pelikan “On ne révise pas l’Histoire avec une loi” Le Monde, 21. août 1993 Pelikan was director of Czechoslovak television in 1968 and later edited in Rome the Czech exile journal Listy.

30. Vaclav Belohradsky, “Mrtvi jako argument” in Tyden (n 9/ February 22, 1999) p. 45-47.

31. Vaclav Belohradsky, ibid.

32. Some of these issues are discussed in Jacques Rupnik “The roots of Czech Stalinism” in G. Stedman Jones-R. Samuel (eds) History, Politics, Ideology, London, Routledge, 1981, cf. also J. Rupnik, Histoire du Parti Communiste Tchécoslovaque, Paris, Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1981 (a Czech edition will be published by Academia, Prague in 2002).

33. Z. Zeman “Ten kamen urazu stale mijeji” in Respekt 30.4.-6.5.2001 ; O. Tuma “Bludny kamen urazu”, Respekt 18-24.6.2001.

34. A fairly comprehensive dossier on the subject can be found in the journal Soudobe Dejiny nr. 1/2002.

Translation in Czech language


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    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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