Decommunization Jiří Suk

In November and December, 1989, crowds of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators overturned the regime in Czechoslovakia; because of its peaceful nature, the political coup was immediately dubbed the Velvet Revolution. The need for a categorical break with the socialist past and the politics of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia followed as an unequivocal expression of the will of Czechs and Slovaks and was perceived as an absolute matter of course, even by the communists themselves. The postwar Soviet empire had disintegrated; one era was at an end. However, the huge wave of demonstrations which had passed over Czechoslovakia concealed a basic contradiction in the rapid and nonviolent change of system: what appeared to be a revolution on the outside lacked an internal revolutionary charge. A political course consisting of the “continuity of power” and “national reconciliation” was instigated. The incoming political elite, arising from the dissident groups around Charter 77, was convinced that a legally consistent state with just rule of law could be constructed merely on the basis of a historical compromise, without setting off a spiral of recriminations, settling of accounts, and retaliations. It called on the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to divorce itself from its totalitarian methods and then it generously integrated it into the democratic political system. Such a course naturally made coming to terms with the injustices and crimes of the communist state, its representatives and executors very difficult. And yet the demand to settle accounts with the past was unquestionable.

Already in 1990, the first manifestations of bitter antagonism toward the fallen regime and its representatives in middle and lower levels appeared in the now liberated Czech society. They broke out in enterprises, state offices, and local government authorities throughout the country. In the Civic Forum Coordination Center they registered this rising wave with apprehension. On January 19, 1990, the leader of the democratic movement, Petr Pithart, made a statement on television calling on local Civic Forums to stop using revolutionary methods to replace local representatives and the heads of enterprises—he insisted that their actions “must not in any way resemble the rampaging of the National Front action committees after February 1948.” The changes were to take place peacefully and on the basis of agreements at round tables. Viewed from above, however, the situation was very different to the dramatic situations crystallizing below. Pithart’s speech met with inconsistent reactions and was generally rejected by local Civic Forums.

The policy of constitutional consensus was tested by the stormy events of February and March, 1990, in Brno. Here, the calls for decommunization were especially loud. The Brno Civic Forum, led by former communist and later Charter 77 signatory and political prisoner Jaroslav Šabata, decided to allow the Mayor of Brno Josef Pernica (of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) to remain in his position because it was unable to find a suitable candidate to replace him. However, the decision was met by a wave of opposition on the part of a large section of the public and some of the Civic Forums, headed by Charter 77 signatory Petr Cibulka. The radicals demanded that public life be rigorously purged of prominent figures of the communist regime and called for a complete democratization of the local Civic Forum. The struggle was expressed in a series of demonstrations and boisterous meetings of the Brno Council and the Civic Forum congress. Cibulka’s radicals did not take over the Civic Forum, instead splitting away and setting up their own organizational and information structures—this led to the establishment of the radically anticommunist newspaper Necenzurované noviny (Czech: “Uncensored News”), which is published to this day (it was initially published under the title Rudé krávo) [Czech: “Red Cow,” a play on the name of the communist party newspaper, Rudé právo, or “Red Law”].

Anticommunist activities included the initiative to nationalize the assets of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which the Civic Forum began to champion in March 1990. This demand was still based on the reality of historical compromise—the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia could take part in political life, but its huge, unjustly acquired assets had to be nationalized! A month later, however, a key taboo of the “Velvet Revolution” was broken. Prague’s municipal prosecutor, Tomáš Sokol (Civic Forum), made an announcement on April 17, 1990, that within his jurisdiction he would evaluate the activities of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia as potentially constituting criminal acts supporting and promoting fascism and similar movements that present a danger to freedom and democracy in line with the corresponding paragraphs of the Criminal Code. He supported his statement with a fairly extensive and compelling analysis, in which he compared the activities of Nazi and communist totalitarian ideologies and practices. The communists vehemently protested and walked out of the session of the Federal Assembly; because they were still strongly represented in the highest legislative body, their obstruction represented a serious threat to the legislative process that had been set in motion. Without them, important acts of parliament could not be approved and a constitutional crisis loomed. Representatives of the Civic Forum Coordination Center (KCOF) stated that the attempt to outlaw the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was a purely private initiative by prosecutor Sokol, one which the Civic Forum parliamentary groups would not support. That was not enough for the communist deputies, who did not return to the parliament until the Prosecutor, General Pavel Rychetský (Civic Forum), promised that he would begin disciplinary proceedings against his subordinate Sokol. Although a constitutional crisis was successfully averted, a crisis broke out within the democratic movement. At the congress on April 21, all the district Civic Forums unanimously backed prosecutor Sokol and the leadership of the Civic Forum lost part of its revolutionary legitimacy.

As the general election drew near, anticommunism became more vocal. Several public rallies were held, but they were no longer attended by hundreds of thousands of people. On May 17, 1990, four “historical democratic political parties”—the Czechoslovak Social Democracy, the Czechoslovak People’s Party, the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, and the Democratic Party—published a declaration calling for the dissolution of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. This radical preelection gesture did not meet with understanding on the part of the voters, however, who remembered that these parties had in the past collaborated with the communists. That is why they did not enjoy a great deal of success in the June elections. The Civic Forum achieved a resounding success, establishing numerous parliamentary clubs of deputies within the Federal Assembly and the Czech National Council. This considerably boosted the self-confidence of the regional Civic Forums, which began to put more pressure on the center—especially in terms of a deeper decommunization of public life. At this point, the instruments available to the democratic movement for the elimination of “old structures” were very limited. Initially, they consisted of the first wave of lustrations, which were aimed solely at their own ranks, however. Political parties and movements voluntarily allowed their candidates to be screened prior to the parliamentary and local elections (in June and November 1990, respectively) to check that they did not figure as collaborators of the State Security Service (StB) in the archives of the Interior Ministry. Voluntary lustration did not apply to institutions, state administration offices, ministries, enterprises etc. That is why, after complicated discussions, the Federal Assembly finally approved the Lustration Act in October 1991, which was subsequently passed by the Czech National Council in April 1992. The law listed state offices and institutions that could henceforth only employ politicians and civil servants with an officially clean lustration certificate (i.e., people who had not been higher functionaries of the communist regime and/or had not collaborated with its repressive forces). This limited form of decommunization thus only applied to state administration bodies, not to public life or the entrepreneurial sphere. Radical anticommunist organizations—the Confederation of Political Prisoners, the Club of Committed Non-Party Members, and others—found this difficult to stomach.

The parliamentary and local elections in 1990 legitimized the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which gained 13% and 17% respectively. Outlawing it was only possible at the cost of denying the legitimate will of a significant segment of voters and the winners of the election did not even make this demand. The preelection radicalism calling for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to be banned was thus transformed into demands for a resolute settling of accounts with the “nomenklatura brotherhoods” and “communist mafia,” which were transferring social capital and “their” financial assets into the economic sphere. Under considerable pressure from below, at the end of August, 1990, the presidium of the Federal Assembly approved a legal measure on the dismissal of former “cadres” from the leaderships of industrial enterprises. The following months showed, however, that in the majority of departments, especially federal and Slovak ones, the will to make changes was relatively weak. There was no major personnel shakeup and the enterprises continued to suffer from “preprivatization agony.”

In autumn 1990, the prevalent view in the Civic Forum was that the time was ripe to organize a public “moral tribune” to deal with communist power structures, which would be followed by trials of perpetrators of specific crimes. It appeared that a majority of political players would concur with this form of coming to terms with the past and the anticommunist movement would finally have a legal, widely shared platform. Nonetheless, the dramatic and rapid breakup of the Civic Forum at the end of 1990 and start of 1991 put off this initiative for an indefinite period. Already at the start of 1991, it became evident that the entities arising from the Civic Forum—the Civic Democratic Party, the Civic Movement, the Civic Democratic Alliance, the Christian Democratic Party, the Liberal Democratic Party—would not be very willing to advocate anticommunist policies. Most of them, especially those represented in governments and parliaments, were inclined toward the original pragmatic policy of the Civic Forum.

The eagerly awaited privatization process was set in motion, gripping the attention of the general public. With it the “Velvet Revolution” got its second wind. Changes in economic infrastructure and order were to complete a clean break with the past. The invisible hand of the market, viewed as something of almost mystical significance, was to change the way people thought and acted. The policy of decommunization continued to manifest itself mostly on a symbolic and rhetorical level, rather than in terms of effective legal sanctions. Anticommunism maintained a declarative, rather than authoritative nature. This was already manifested in the wording of the one sentence act of parliament dealing with the period of oppression, passed by the Federal Assembly in November 1991: “Between 1948 and 1989 the communist regime contravened human rights, as well as its own laws.” The Confederation of Political Prisoners vainly advocated its own conception of the law, which declared that the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was a terrorist and criminal organization and made it illegal.

Radically anticommunist organizations—especially the Confederation of Political Prisoners and the Club of Committed Non-Party Members—remained isolated in their efforts to implement thorough decommunization. They were not represented in the parliaments, functioning only as pressure groups with limited possibilities. Even so, they made tireless efforts toward a consistent settling of accounts with the communist past and present. In 1991, for example, the Club of Committed Non-Party Members advocated the implementation of an extensive decommunization modeled on de-Nazification in postwar Germany. It was supposed to be based on differentiating between two categories of culpability—criminal and political. Crimes against people and property were to be dealt with by the law courts, political culpability would be handled by civil committees composed of noncompromised people from particular social strata and with a particular professional background in combination with territorial jurisdiction. It is clear that the focus of the measure was to lie in the second area.

Another of the unsuccessful activities of the Club of Committed Non-Party Members was the proposal for a legislative measure preventing mid- and top-level functionaries of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from taking part in the privatization process. The Club of Committed Non-Party Members called for the exclusion of the secretaries of all committees of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and members of the Central Committee, as well as those of district, regional, and municipal committees, the exclusion of all of its nomenklatura cadres, ministers, general directors, directors, and deputy directors, secretaries and members of the Central Council of the Trade Unions, chairmen and vice-chairmen of district and regional National Committees, as well as holders of state honors.

Other impulsive efforts aimed at decommunization and dealing with the past also came from below. In spring 1992, Necenzurované noviny published “The Complete List of StB Collaborators” in three installments. Known as Cibulka’s Lists, they elicited widespread commotion because they placed highly explosive information into the hands of the public. Contrary to the viewpoint of its opponents, the list was not some insidious fake produced by StB officers, consisting instead of incomplete, yet even so very extensive abstracts from the registers of domestic counter-intelligence units of the Interior Ministry. The publication of thousands of names of resident officers, agents, and holders of secure apartments sparked spontaneous and highly controversial lustration processes in schools and among local authorities, companies, institutions, organizations, and other entities. A tense debate began about the need for social catharsis in which passionate advocates of the spontaneous purgative process came head to head with those who treated the materials of the secret police with the greatest suspicion. The blunt data of the lists (name, date of birth, code name, period of collaboration) often concealed highly compelling and ambiguous personal histories.

From this sketchy outline it appears that efforts to deal with the Communist Party and the past during the first decisive years following the fall of communism represented a highly complicated and controversial sociopolitical process in which numerous players with highly diverse backgrounds and motivation took part. At first glance, considerable tension is apparent between the declarative and the criminal or penal level of settling accounts, and this tension created a moral rift in the conscience of the post-November Czech elite and society in general. The different approaches to decommunization betray a basic contradiction between the official political line and the radically anticommunist line. Official policy was satisfied with a tough declarative condemnation of the fallen regime, complemented by the processes of rehabilitation, restitution, and lustration, which were to at least partly compensate for personal and property injustices and at least partly purge state administration.

In July 1993, the Czech parliament passed the act on the illegality of the communist regime and on resistance against it, attempting to remove this tension. It placed emphasis on the unequivocal condemnation of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia as a “criminal and contemptible” organization; it did not, however, ban its successor the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. For many years to come, perhaps several decades, the contradiction that has formed the axis of legal controversies and political struggles will thus remain alive. In subsequent years, decommunization efforts were manifest on several basic levels. The life span of the 1991 Lustration Act has been extended several times—it is still in force today. The pressure to punish communist era crimes continued to be applied and in 1995 the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes was established. In the period until 2008, the Office investigated a total of 192 persons. Of a total of 123 persons against whom charges were brought, 97 petitions to prosecute were sent to the appropriate state bodies (of those 32 repeatedly). On the basis of these petitions, 74 indictments were made (of those 20 repeatedly) against a total of 101 persons.

Over the past 20 years several laws have been approved endeavoring to at least partially redress and mitigate property injustices, or partially compensate those that took part in the IInd and IIIrd resistance. Primarily this concerns the already mentioned acts on rehabilitation and restitution through courts of law between 1990 and 1991; in 2002 the act on compensating persons abducted to the USSR or to camps that the USSR had set up in other states was approved; an additional measure was the government directive on the payment of a one-time financial compensation to mitigate injustices perpetrated by the communist regime against persons in forced labor camps. Since the second half of the 1990s there have been permanent disputes on providing access to the archives of the security units of the communist state. After long and controversial debates, the national memory imperative was finally formulated; the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and the Security Services Archive were subsequently established by law in 2007. The basic aim of these new institutions is to publish all the documentation of the repressive units of the Nazi and communist regimes and to historically evaluate their totalitarian attributes in the years 1939–1945 and 1948–1989.

Decommunization efforts continue to this day. On the one hand they are manifest symbolically—through anticommunist iconography (hundreds of emblems and slogans on stickers, posters, and T-shirts) or happenings such as “Don’t Talk to the Communists,” and similar activities. On the other hand, efforts continue to ban the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (or at least its name and symbols) via legislative initiatives and citizens’ petitions. In March 2008, a court of law banned the activities of the Communist Youth Union.