Coming to Terms with the Communist Past: The Czech Case from a Comparative Perspective Jacques Rupnik

“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.” Václav Havel (1991)1

In one of his short stories Borges writes of a “bird with its eyes behind its head.” It seems a fitting metaphor for the countries of Eastern Central Europe, embarking on a transition toward a democratic future while looking backward 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 give first priority 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 precondition for a successful consolidation of democracy? All these arguments about transitional justice have become a prominent feature of intellectual and political debate of the past decade in Central and Eastern Europe. They raise important political, legal, and ethical issues of broader significance which each country handled in its own way. Indeed, the decommunization in Central and Eastern Europe was marked by a 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” commissions as in South Africa and, on the other hand, of the International War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia.2 Both experiences (one emphasizing reconciliation, the other justice) are not in themselves of direct relevance to the Eastern 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 postwar history. Was communism only an unpleasant parenthesis in the historical development of the region or does its more than 40 years of rule have deeper roots? 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 (not just police files) there are questions that go beyond the issue of the criminal prosecution of former officials. There are also the questions put to the historians: how to (re)interpret the history of the 20th century in Central Europe?3 Reclaiming the precommunist past has its own traps. And how to come to terms with the communist past in historiography itself?

The Czech case is of particular interest in both respects and it can be presented as a double paradox. (1) Nowhere in post-Soviet Eastern 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 that harbors on the political scene an unreconstructed Communist Party which, unlike its counterparts in neighboring countries, has not bothered to change its name, proudly claims a continuity with the achievements of the pre-1989 past, and enjoys the consistent support of 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 a country which, until recently, has so far carefully avoided a wide-ranging historical debate about the specific place of communism in contemporary Czech history and politics. The two issues are connected and are 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 of a million people were at one point or another imprisoned on political grounds, and 240 people were sentenced to death.5 After 1990 the Czechoslovak (and after 1992 the Czech) authorities adopted a far-reaching set of policy measures starting with the rehabilitation6 of the victims, moving on to the restitution of the property confiscated after the communist takeover in February 1948, and thirdly lustration7—i.e., 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, and the 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 by West Germany) push decommunization further and sooner than their neighbors? Several explanations can be suggested. The first concerns the type of legacy left by the communist dictatorship or, to use a “nonscientific” category, the “degree of nastiness” of the old regime. It is quite clear that exiting from communism in Czechoslovakia after 20 years of “normalization” under the hard-line regime of Gustáv Husák was somewhat different from leaving behind the more benign authoritarianism of János Kádár’s 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.8 The purges of the 1970s 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 Samuel 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. Policy 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.”9 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 say one day, 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 that had 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 below and from outside. In retrospect, it 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-limitation 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.10 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 inversely proportional relationship between decommunization and the degree of resistance of society. To put it bluntly: Polish society is unquestionably one that had resisted the communist regime most persistently and most massively (at least since 1956) and with increasing vigor since the workers’ strikes of 1970. Yet it opted initially, at least during most of the 1990s, against “lustrations.” Czech society (the argument is even stronger for the former GDR) showed 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 could be at work, 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. It suggests that the dissidents who actually suffered at the hands of the old regime are less vindictive, less eager to seek revenge than those in the silent majority who compensate for 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.”11 Though the general proposition about the correlation between the degree of resistance of society and propensity to retribution after dictatorship may have some relevance, the widely used arguments about the dissidents’ reluctance to retribution are inaccurate.

To be sure, one can invoke Adam Michnik’s warnings about the dangers of “anti-Bolshevik Bolshevism,”12 János Kis’ emphasis on rule-of-law liberalism, or Václav Havel’s reservations about the lustration law. And they do represent an important apprehension in some dissident circles about the perils of retrospective justice in postcommunist Central Europe. However, their international prominence has led a number of observers to a hasty generalization. Shortly after the “lustration” law was passed by the Czech parliament the reservations in some ex-dissident circles were used in the West to castigate the law as a menace to the new Czech democracy.

The “lustration” was indeed a problematic remedy. First, the very idea of the files of the old communist secret police (plundered, doctored, manipulated) in the hands of sorcerers’ apprentices was objectionable; the new democrats were the prisoners of the most dubious of communist legacies. 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 (some people put under the label of “candidate” were not even aware that they were being considered for recruitment) has sometimes led to wrongful accusations. Such cases were exposed in the case of Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká,13 the wife of the famous Czech writer living in Canada who devoted 20 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 Lidové noviny in 1991 summed it up: a man standing in front of the Parliament building says to another: “I’m not worried about lustration; I wasn’t 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 the higher echelons of 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 much of the criticism on the grounds that a principle of “collective guilt” was being used against former communists, the lustration process is strictly individual and the results can be appealed in courts.14

The criticism of the lustration law came from international institutions such as the Council of Europe and the International Labor Organization,15 and above all from New York human rights and media circles. Jeri Laber of Helsinki Watch wrote about a “witch hunt in Prague,”16 alleging a new form of McCarthyism was in the offing 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.”17 Both comparisons say more about fears and fantasies concerning Central Europe as seen from New York than about the actual issues in postcommunist Bohemia. There was no “witch hunt” or McCarthyism to speak of. The communist leaders responsible for preparing the invasion of their country and ushering in 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 is simply preposterous. A Czech exile in London, Kavan had been involved in assistance to the dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s and after 1989 became a Social Democratic MP. He was accused of collaboration with the secret police and (after admittedly acrimonious press treatment) appealed against the verdict of the lustration commission in the courts. He was vindicated, reelected to Parliament in 1996, and became Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic in 1998 and later President of the UN General Assembly.18 For a victim of a “witch hunt,” “McCarthyism” or a new “Dreyfus affair,” this was, after all, not so bad.

The main reason for the widespread assumption that dissidents opposed retribution is, in the Czech case, related to a certain reading of Václav Havel’s first presidential New Year speech on January 1, 1990. In an oft-quoted passage, Havel refers to the shared legacies of totalitarianism: not just the “powers that be” but the citizenry at large that “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 is just its victim: we are all also its creators.”19 This argument, consistent with much of Havel’s earlier writings going back to the 1970s, tries to overcome the simple and convenient “them and us” dichotomy in accounting for the modus operandi of the posttotalitarian system and the reflection of the admittedly unevenly shared responsibilities. Of course, only somebody of his stature who had never been a communist and spent several years in jail 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 the 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.”20 Curiously, this passage is never quoted. Nor is there any mention of his speech on the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1990, in which he called for the dismantling of the “old structures” and the removal of the “incompetent and sabotaging nomenclature”; “the main part of the revolution must still happen.”21 One can indeed read such statements as legitimizing decommunization. So, Havel the moralist and thinker knows that no amount of rhetoric or legal measures should spare the Czechs confronting the deeper issues of the traumas and responsibilities for the decades of totalitarianism. But Havel the political leader also knows that the dismantling of the old regime after a “velvet revolution” and a social demand for justice will not be defused by the most sophisticated formulation of a pessimistic philosophical vision of the victim, in some way contaminated by the totalitarian legacy, as the henchman.

It is often assumed, since Havel the moralist had reservations about the perils of decommunization and of “lustration” in particular, that his main “constitutive other” in Czech politics—the right-wing economist and 1990s prime minister Václav Klaus—would presumably be in favor. The truth, as with Havel, is more complicated than the political stereotype. In a little-publicized essay Václav Klaus answered the question posed to him by the editors of the levelheaded Prague intellectual journal Prostor concerning “settling accounts with the past—a call for justice.” The then Prime Minister insisted he saw the problem of “coming to terms with the past” as an “individual problem,” as a “private matter” and warned against the dangers of “moralization” and “self-flagellation.” “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, a scientist, or an artist. In substance, this is a private matter for each of us … ”22 Explicitly rejecting Jaspers’ categories of guilt and responsibility as well as Havel’s 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 judgment of the past, no “neutral, unearthly truth” to judge human behavior in these particular circumstances. What the Czechs need in this respect is “lucidity,” “practical realism,” and faith in “skeptical reason” rather than in “big words.” In an earlier statement Klaus had argued that “no litmus test exists which could precisely divide good and evil between communists and noncommunists.”23 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 in the Presidency is your bad conscience, a daily reminder of the courage you did not have.” Klaus reiterated this message as Havel’s successor in the presidency on the anniversary of the “velvet revolution” when he emphasized that it was not dissident intellectuals but “ordinary people” who had the decisive part in the downfall of the old regime.24 Through their loose working hours and disregard for its ideological claims they hollowed out the regime from within until it cracked like an empty shell.

Thus, neither Havel nor Klaus quite fit the divide on decommunization between moderates and radicals usually associated with their names. How then to account for the fact that Klaus’ party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and his government actually became the promoters of radical decommunization policies? The prime explanation lies in the breakup of the large coalition, the Civic Forum, and the formation of competing political factions which, in the absence of a structured party political system, instrumentalize issues that favor the process of polarization of the political scene. In the early 1990s 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-pronged strategy of polarization has been implemented by Václav Klaus and the ODS in search of a political identity. First came the emphasis on the acceleration of economic reform, rapid privatization and marketization to dismantle the social base of the old regime. This was followed by the lustration law, which proved to be a major dividing issue with the other successor to the Civic Forum, the Civic Movement (OH), led by ex-dissidents Jiří 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.”25 (The “old experimenters” was a reference to the 1968 reformers associated with “socialism with a human face” some of whom later joined the dissident movement and were members of OH. So the man who a year earlier did not want to distinguish between communists and noncommunists now wanted to clarify the issues going back to 1968, while adding on the eve of the June 1992 elections that “it is necessary to settle accounts with the communist past.”26

The second dimension in the polarization strategy offered by lustration was vis-à-vis the Slovaks. Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) opposed both Klaus’ radical economic reform concept as well as the lustration policy. The Slovak nationalists (HZDS and SNS) did not pass the law and Mečiar campaigned on the promise to fight for Slovak sovereignty, and never to implement lustration in Slovakia. He had briefly been Minister of the 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 to the issue reflects different perceptions and experiences of the communist past (particularly the “normalization” period after 1968). A survey carried out in Slovakia concerning the perceptions of the past indicated that the population considered the communist period, 1948–1989, and the wartime period of the pro-Nazi Slovak State as the two best periods in Slovak history.27 Both periods were, in contrast, considered by the Czechs as the two totalitarian legacies of which they were trying to rid themselves. 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 breakup with communism and the split with Slovakia overlapped (at least in the minds of some of their instigators).

Decommunization became a means to legitimize a new political elite and indirectly also a new state. Indeed, shortly after it had been established, a Resource Center of the Unlawful Conduct of the Communist Regime 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 opposition to the regime as “legitimate, morally justified and honorable.” The law seemed at first to be largely a rhetorical 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 judicialization 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, groups of victims use the recent 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 attempt at facilitating the “coming to terms with the past.”

Yet the question remains: can you revise history by law? And is an officially provided version helpful in understanding the historical process and the coming to terms with the past? The issue is directly related to the previous one. The 1993 law considers that “the Communist Party was a criminal organization” and that “the KSČ (Czechoslovak Communist Party), 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 the membership you obviously challenge indiscriminately a substantial part of the population. Some six million people passed through the Czechoslovak Communist Party at some point since 1945. 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 were replaced by a half a million new and 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 organization 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 justice 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 sentenced. The degrees of responsibility 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, would, in most countries, be understood as “high treason.” A major 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 (Biľak, Kolder, Indra, Hoffman, Jakeš etc.) was called to account.28 And the rhetoric about the criminal nature of the communist regime rings more hollow than ever.

While the law of July 1993 lumps together millions of former members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party as members of a “criminal organization,” its successor party, which did not bother even to change its name, is alive and kicking. Indeed, it was precisely on the 10th anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution” in December 1999 (and again in November 2003) that it reached a staggering 20% support in the opinion polls. Although that figure has since been somewhat reduced it remains the strongest Party in the country in terms of membership (160,000) and organizational structure.29 The Communist Party chose as its leader Vojtěch Filip, a secret police agent until 1989, and includes among its Members of Parliament a former prison guard (Josef Vondruška). Unlike its reformist counterparts in Poland, Hungary, or even Slovakia, it 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 at every level the Czech Communist Party rendered itself unable to make the gradual adjustments which allowed the excommunists in neighboring countries to find a new lease on life as would-be Social Democrats. The support and loyalty displayed toward an unreconstructed Communist Party thus raises particularly disturbing questions about Czech society’s relationship to the communist past that no amount of legislative posturing or moral exhortation seems able to challenge. Its isolation on the political scene after 1989 is obviously the price to pay for the scorched earth policy it followed after 1968 and its inability to reinvent itself after 1989. To prevent any temptation on the part of the Social Democratic Party of bringing the communists out of isolation and into the political game, campaigns are periodically relaunched by some members of the Senate (Štětina, Mejstřík) to introduce a ban on the Communist Party. 20 years after the collapse of the communist regime the Czech debate about the ban of the Communist Party and an alleged “communist threat”30 seems to confirm the Czech exception in Central Europe.

II / The Rewriting of History: a Historikerstreit at last?

One of the difficulties in coming to terms with the communist past stems from the specific ideological nature of the communist regimes and their prime reliance, in post-Stalinist Central Europe, on non-violent means of coercion. In the words of Tina Rosenberg: “the Eastern European dictatorships were criminal regimes, while those of Latin America were regimes of criminals.”31 The issue of confronting the crimes of the communist regimes in Eastern Central Europe is not altogether new. It has been with us at least since 1956 and certainly since 1968. And that in turn allows us to assess in what respects the terms of the debate have changed with the steady exhaustion of the ideology.

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera evokes the terms of the post-1968 Czech debate:

“Anyone who thinks that the communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

In the end the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe? ( … )

But ( … ) whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know.”32

Is the quest for justice synonymous with the quest for historical truth? Members of Parliament may make such claims. Historians should think twice. In the Czech case they have been, until recently, rather absent from the debate. It might have been partly an instinct toward self-preservation after decades of historiography subjected to political norms and paying a high price for it. It might also be revealing of a more serious problem: 20 years after the fall of communism, no major systematic study of the history of Czechoslovak communism has yet been published, let alone a wide-ranging debate provoked on the subject in the scholarly community.33 This may be changing now.

When signing the 1993 law declaring communism a criminal regime, Václav Havel considered it to have an essentially 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 on life it gave to Václav Benda’s Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes and accelerating the case for opening up access to police files.34 In this respect the Czechs are marching in the footsteps of Gauck’s Institute in former East Germany and more recently of the Polish Institute of National Memory. A Czech version of such an institute was to be established in 2006. A controversy concerning its somewhat Orwellian name (the idea that a state institution is supposed to be the depository of national memory) and the fact that the bulk of that memory was made of communist police files eventually led the founders to change the name to a more sober Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Its director, historian and journalist Pavel Žáček, had first been appointed as head of security archives under the Minister of Interior who later appointed him to head the new institute. Its budget of 240 million crowns is well above that of academic institutions, the biggest investment in the national past since the founding of the National Museum in the 19th century. All secret police files are being made available on the Internet and revelations about their content are regularly provided by researchers of the institute in the media. The Institute’s greatest claim to fame so far has been the exposure of the case of Milan Kundera by the weekly Respekt. But it is one thing to open police files for investigation of past crimes, and another to 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 main criticisms of the new official version of postwar history (as presented in the law of July 1993) were made; both, incidentally, came from prominent Czech exiles in Italy. The first, Jiří Pelikán (in 1968 director of Czechoslovak television), questioned not only the lumping together of leaders and membership but also the lack of distinctions made in the 40-year-long period; thus the Prague Spring of 1968 is considered as belonging to the same “age of darkness” as the Stalinist period. The leaders associated with the Prague Spring—Dubček, Smrkovský, Kriegel, and Hájek—are put in the same category as Husák, Biľak, and Jakeš, who liquidated the democratic reforms and imposed a hard-line repressive dictatorship. Such a reading of history, Pelikán argued, is utter nonsense.35 Communism in Czechoslovakia had its different and often contrasting historical phases. One kind of orthodoxy and intolerance is being replaced by another.

The second criticism of the prevailing thinking on these issues in the 1990s came from the philosopher Václav Belohradský: “In our political discourse something prevails which I would call ‘nihilistic revisionism.’ It is a sign of the uprooting of communist totalitarianism from the history of the West and moving it to a chronicle of mere crimes of the 20th century. It is its Russification, reduced to crimes against Western civilization. In reality, communist violence does not belong among the crimes against our (European) civilization, but is one of the authentic forms of that Western civilization. It relates to its very substance—the idea of a universal empire based on the revelation of truth (or reason).”36 The attempt to expel communism from the history of the West by “Russification” 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 possibility to really learn something from it.37 The author is critical, along the same lines, of the Black Book of Communism (which was a publishing success in the Czech lands) because it fails to address the sources of the totalitarian phenomenon and is more prone to the political instrumentalization of its victims.

The two critiques challenge, from very different perspectives, the convenient version of what Belohradský 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 II import, alien to Czech society and to Western or European civilization. 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 1948–1989; then with the creation (in 1993) of the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes the period was extended from 1945­–1989 (thus including the democratic interlude of 1945–1948); at the end of the 1990s the Institute of National Memory/Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, created on the initiative of prominent members of parliament, includes in one totalitarian period the Nazi and communist domination from 1938 to 1989.

For a historian such a progressive extension of the “age of totalitarianism” can be intellectually stimulating, 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 hypotheses about the slide since the 1930s from one totalitarianism to another in the 1940s; about how a democratic state in the middle of Europe threatened by a totalitarianism of the right became vulnerable (in a sort of compensation mechanism) to a 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 the bringing about of totalitarianism after the two World Wars was addressed by the philosopher Jan Patočka38 in his essay “The Wars of the Twentieth Century and the Twentieth Century as War.” 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 on the slide from one totalitarianism to another could (but need not) imply their equivalence: in both cases, Czechs were subjected to a “totalitarian era” characterized by the criminal nature of the regimes concerned. And it is indeed a meager consolation to the victims to know that they suffered at the hands of a 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 postwar Czech history (which leads to a second point).

2. What is arguable at a certain level of generalization does not quite fit the actual experience of Czech society which rejected outright the first totalitarianism while, at least initially and partially, 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. Is the period 1945–1948 merely the link between two totalitarian regimes or is it a democratic experience which separates them? Or can 1968 (and more broadly the 1960s) which saw the decay and failure of the reform of the communist system reduced—the dominant view in the 1990s—to a mere squabble between two communist factions? The mid-to-late 1960s was a period not only 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, theater, the fine arts) since the 1930s, in stark contrast to the relative cultural sterility of the 1990s. Call it whatever you wish (decaying communism, “socialism with a human face,” hopeless revisionism) but it was not the totalitarianism of the Stalinist period nor that of the post-1968 “normalization” years.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate and in some respects fruitful 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 societies which were not only the passive, innocent objects of totalitarian oppression and 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 “gray book” of the histories of Central European societies under communism as both victims and accomplices, oscillating at different periods between resistance and adaptation.

Nowhere would such a history be more needed than in the Czech Lands. There is a diversity of the communist experience in postwar Eastern Central Europe, with the national specificities that should be of interest to historians. The Czech case is remarkable in more ways than one. It is, after all, the only country in the region where the communists 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 40 years between what the late Pavel Tigrid called the “elegant takeover” in 1948 and the “velvet revolution” of 1989 the Party was like a sieve: in the various purges and recruitment campaigns some six million people (in a country of 15 million in 1989) passed through the party at some point. Unlike Poland and Hungary, there was no challenge to the system in 1956; during the post-1968 “normalization” period there was little unrest; and the Charter 77 movement remained confined to a dissident ghetto which by no means diminishes (on the contrary) its moral and political significance.39

In short: what is needed is not just rhetorical statements about the criminal nature of communist totalitarianism or more editions of the police files in 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 role of nationalism (and the German question), about the vulnerabilities of Czech political culture (an egalitarian not a liberal democracy) 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?40

It is striking that in the last two decades Czech historiography has not produce a thorough comprehensive examination of those issues, no history of the Communist Party with its prewar roots and its postwar consequences. A polemic on this subject has opposed Zbyněk Zeman, a Czech exile teaching contemporary history at Oxford University, and Oldřich Tůma, the director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague.41 The former criticized the absence of serious scholarship on the history of Czech communism and a historiography that is either positivist and descriptive or politically subservient (to whomever is in power). The latter answered that, with very limited means after a period when the profession had been decimated (contemporary history had been the most thoroughly purged), considerable, albeit still partial, work had been done on the history of the resistance to communism and its disintegration.

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.42 Their main spokesman, Martin Nodl, challenged the reluctance or inability of established historians to confront the issue of coming to terms with the communist past. The main reason, he pointed out, was not unrelated to their own past as conformist communist historians under the old regime. Jaroslav Paněk, chairman of the Czech National Committee of Historians, answered that such political attacks come from people who have so far still to prove themselves professionally. He opposed the “negativist,” “goal-oriented disinterpretation of Czech history,” particularly with respect to 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 difference both generational and 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 postwar Czech history. In the two decades before 1989 a lively debate about the history was carried out by independent dissident intellectuals while professional historians were silent (or silenced). For two decades now historians have been free at last but there has been little or no debate to speak of, which has 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 that “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” (Milan Kundera) start? Who is responsible? Nations, like individuals, need to be able to look at themselves in the mirror. Historical narratives are such mirrors, and historians the psychoanalysts of their nations. Everywhere there is a search for “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 (the Franco-British betrayal to Hitler), or even in 1918 (i.e., nationalism and the very idea of small nation-states in Central Europe as a chimera?) How far back should we go to understand the roots of “our present crisis” (Masaryk, 1894; Košík, 1968)? Each of the abovementioned answers is politically loaded. The historian is thus placed in a gratifying yet uncomfortable role: he is to provide the tools to confront the communist legacy and at the same time to help recompose a traumatized identity, help to chose a usable past for a democratic future. In this respect the task of the Czech historian today is not completely dissimilar to that of the French historians helping society at large to cope with the past of the wartime Vichy regime. In France, it took almost 30 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 just begun.


1 / Václav Havel, ”Nejistota posiluje,” interview by D. Emingerová and L. Benjak, Mladý svět 13/19 (1991), p. 16.

2 / Cf. Pierre Hassner, ”Mémoire, justice réconciliation,” Critique internationale 5 (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 Prof. Alex Boraine has been launched at New York University Law School with a funding of some 20 million dollars.

3 / Jacques Rupnik, ”Le retour de l’histoire en Europe Centrale,” Vingtième Siècle 36/1 (1992), p. 53–59.

4 / Some 145 historians were sacked from their jobs in the post-1969 purges, a decimation of the profession, particularly in the Czech lands. See Vilém Prečan, “Acta Persecutionis” (Document from Czechoslovakia: presented at the 14th International Congress of Historical Sciences, San Francisco, USA, 1975).

5 / This is an estimate made by Karel Bartošek in his chapter on Central and southeast Europe in Le livre noir du communisme, ed. Stéphane Courtois, R. Laffont, Paris 1997, p. 456.

6 / The rehabilitation law was passed by the Federal Parliament on April 23, 1990. Invalidating retrospectively the law on political offens, it covered persons illegally sentenced between February 1948 and December 1989. By the end of 1993 96% of the victims had been rehabilitated and CZK 3 billion (EUR 100 million) had been paid in compensation.

7 / Lustrace (lustration) is a vetting procedure based on the examination of secret police records to check whether a person aspiring to hold a certain post had been among the 100,000 or so informers of the StB (secret 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 / Some 20% of Czechs stated a preference for the old regime in a poll conducted on the 15th anniversary of the events of November 1989.

9 / Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1991, p. 215.

10 / See the transcript of the talks between the Civic Forum and the communist leadership in Vladimír Hanzel, Zrychlený tep dějin, OK Centrum, Prague 1991.

11 / Claus Offe, “Disqualification, Retribution, Restitution: Dilemmas of Justice in Post-Communist Countries,” Journal of Philosophy 1 (1993), p. 26.

12 / 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.

13 / Zdena Škvorecká, Osocení, přiběhy lidí z “Cibulkova seznamu,” Host, Brno 2000. The book is a collection of testimonies of people claiming wrongful inclusion in the police files.

14 / 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.

15 / Cf. International Labor 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 nonobservance 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.

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

17 / Lawrence Weschler, “The Velvet Purge: The Trials of Jan Kavan,” New Yorker, October 19, 1992, and “From Kafka to Dreyfus,” New Yorker, November 2, 1992, p. 63. ”As with Dreyfus … a distinct whiff of anti-Semitism has wafted into the social revulsion against Kavan.” Kavan’s “Jewishness” has never been mentioned by his main opponents.

18 / Kavan’s police file was, however, published in an unauthorized edition by Přemysl Vachalovský, John Bok (ed.), Kato: příběh opravdového člověka, J. W. Hill, Olomouc 2000.

19 / Václav Havel, “New Year’s Address to the Nation,” The Art of the Impossible, Fromm International, New York 1998, p. 4. This line of thinking is consistent with Havel’s earlier writings, particularly “Letter to Gustáv Husák” (1975) and “The Power of the Powerless” (1978), in Václav Havel, Living in Truth, ed. Jan Vladislav, Faber and Faber, London 1989, p. 3–35, 36–122.

20 / Ibid., 6.

21 / Václav Havel, Vážení občané, projevy červenec 1990—červenec 1992, Lidové noviny, Prague 1992, p. 16–18.

22 / Václav Klaus, “Účtování s minulostí—výzva ke spravedlnosti,” Prostor 33 (1977), p. 69–70.

23 / Václav Klaus, interview in Respekt, November 7–13, 1990.

24 / Václav Klaus, “17. listopad v českých dějinách,” MF Dnes, November 14, 2003.

25 / Reprinted in Václav Klaus, Proč jsem konzervativcem, Top, Prague 1992, p. 45.

26 / Klaus, Proč jsem konzervativcem, p. 38.

27 / IVVM poll published in Právo, September 30, 1992.

28 / There have been recent attempts to bring to justice those communist leaders still alive who had taken part in a meeting at the Soviet Embassy in Prague on August 22, 1968, to establish a so-called “workers’ and peasants’ government,” much as in Hungary in 1956. Miloš Jakeš and Josef 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 Dubček, who was kidnapped and taken to Moscow as a prisoner—cf. “Jakeš a Lenart pujdou nejspiš k soudu,” MFDnes, September 1, 2001. The latest attempt to put Jakeš, the last Secretary General of the Party, on trial failed in November, 2003. Hofman was the only one sentenced to a five-year jail term in 2004.

29 / Jacques Rupnik and Catherine Perron, “Les singularités du Parti communiste tchèque,” in Des partis comme les autres? Les anciens communistes en Europe de l’Est, Guy Hermet, Lilly Marcou (ed.), Complexe, Brussels 1998, p. 77–94.

30 / A conference entitled “The Threat of Communism?” was organized by the Committee for Education and Human Rights of the Czech Senate in May 2005 and the proceedings published under the title Hrozba komunismu?, Czech Senate, Prague 2006.

31 / Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism, Random House, New York 1995, p. 400.

32 / Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Harper & Row, New York 1984, p. 176–177. In the Czech edition: “Těm, kteří myslí, že komunistické režimy ve střední Evropě jsou výhradně výtvorem zločinců uniká základní pravda: zločinné režimy nevytvořili zločinci, ale nadšenci, presvědčení, že objevili jedinou cestu vedoucí do ráje. Hájili ji udatně a popravili proto mnoho lidí. Později vyšlo všeobecně najevo, že žádný ráj neexistuje, a nadšenci byli tedy vrahové. Tehdy začali všichni na komunisty křičet: jste odpovědní za neštěstí země (zchudla a zpustla), za ztrátu její samostatnosti (upadla do područí Ruska), za justiční vraždy! Ti, co byli obvinění, odpovídali: nevěděli jsme! Byli jsme oklamáni! Veřili jsme! Jsme v hloubi duše nevinní! Spor se tedy zúžil na tuto otázku: opravdu nevěděli? Nebo se jen tváří, že nevěděli? ( … ) základní otázka není: věděli nebo nevěděli?, nýbrž: je člověk nevinný proto, že neví?” Milan Kundera, Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, Sixty-Eight Publishers, Toronto 1985, p. 160.

33 / My history of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, written in France in the 1970s and published there in 1981, is available in Czech: Jacques Rupnik, Dějiny Komunistické strany Československa, od počátku do převzetí moci, Academia, Prague 2002.

34 / A detailed description of these issues is given by an employee of the Institute, Pavel Žáček, Boje o minulost, Barrister & Principal, Brno 2000.

35 / Jiří Pelikán, “On ne révise pas l’Histoire avec une loi,” Le Monde, August 21, 1993. Pelikán was director of Czechoslovak Television in 1968 and later in Rome edited the Czech exile journal Listy.

36 / Václav Bělohradský, “Mrtví jako argument,” Týden, February 22 (1999), p. 45–47.

37 / Bělohradský, “Mrtví jako argument.”

38 / Jan Patočka, “Války 20. století a 20. století jako válka,” Kačirské eseje o filosofii dějin, Academia, Prague 1990. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from a different perspective, dealt with the same theme in his Red Wheel cycle.

39 / Cf. “La Charte 77, origines et héritages,” special issue of La Nouvelle Alternative 72–73 (March–June, 2007).

40 / Some of these issues are discussed in Jacques Rupnik, “The Roots of Czech Stalinism,” in History, Politics, Ideology, ed. Gareth Stedman Jones, Raphael Samuel, Routledge, London 1981, and also Jacques Rupnik, Histoire du Parti Communiste Tchécoslovaque, Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris 1981; a Czech edition was published by Academia, Prague in 2002.

41 / Zbyněk Zeman, “Ten kámen úrazu stále míjejí,” Respekt, Apr. 30–May 6 (2001). Oldřich Tůma, “Bludný kámen úrazu,” Respekt, June 18–24 (2001).

42 / A fairly comprehensive dossier on the subject can be found in the journal Soudobé dějiny 1 (2002).


This article is based on the author’s contribution to the conference titled “Paměť komunismu”, organized by the Institute for Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and the Institut für die Wissenschaffen vom Menschen (IWM) in Vienna on October19–20, 2001, in Prague. A German version of Rupnik’s paper appeared under the title “Was tun mit der kommunistischen Vergangenheit? Tschechische Republik” in the review Transit, IWM, 2002, p. 108−130. A report on the conference was published by the Institute for Contemporary History (Kopeček, Michal. “Paměť komunismu v České republice: Zpráva ze symposia,” Soudobé dějiny 4/9 (2001), p. 821−826. It was updated in January 2010.