History Adéla Gjuričová

When the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, people living under them were certain they were experiencing a huge historical watershed; for some of them it was the fulfillment of their life’s dream, for others it meant the collapse of their world. However, an awareness that history was being made was also dominant in the noncommunist world, as people followed on television the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the demonstrations in Prague. Naturally, in the course of all this there was wave upon wave of attempts to interpret the communist era and its end, both at a conceptual level—i.e., an interpretation based on a deliberately selected and considered point of view—and, more usually, at a narrative level, those unconsidered methods of talking about the past. Attempts were made internationally to resuscitate new metanarratives—the mood of the time best illustrated by Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

The totalitarian paradigm is also worked out in an extremely influential meta-narrative. Its classic forms (C.J. Friedrich, Hanna Arendt) are today quite widely doubted as analytical concepts, on the one hand for their theoretical and ideological dual identity, and on the other for their empirical and analytical weak points: in the context of identifying the Nazi and the communist regimes they overlook their differences and development; they have moreover a tendency to explain the world as dualist, completely demonizing the “totalitarian enemy” on the one hand, and on the other idealizing Western democracy. This of course shows itself to be particularly attractive in a postcommunist society.

The Czech form of simplified adoption of totalitarianism (which became in essence the legitimization of the new Czech democracy) was not captured so much by the similarity of communism and Nazism as rather by the portrayal of the whole communist era as an undifferentiated whole, going moreover beyond the scope of “national history,” because it was imported from outside, from the “East,” and foreign to all the better sides of Czech history. The population, and even the larger part of the political and cultural elite, were relieved in the pleasantest way of having shared in the concession and maintenance of a communist dictatorship through the interpretation of the communist era as the consequence of foreign political military intervention. Czech development again found itself on the side of the victors in the camp of liberal democracy.

Early Czech historiography and the newly revived political sciences unwittingly supported this legitimization strategy: according to them, the interpretation of communism should be a combination of a “return” (whether to precommunist authorities such as Josef Pekař and Zdeněk Kalista, or to classical Western theories of the 1950s and 1960s, which were generally the latest this generation of researchers had the chance to get to know) and a filling in of what were known as the blank places of our history. In a remarkable way, new publications were thus prescribing an Orwellian rewritten history, building on the same concepts of “national history,” only declassifying the retouching of official photographs by a little, and filling in the supposed blank spaces: the “true form” of the takeover of power by the communists in February 1948, the repressive apparatus of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, political trials, and so on. Thus there originated again concepts of history founded on the dichotomy of communist power repressing a potentially resisting society, or even nation—just as in that simplifying concept predominating in social debate.

These quivers of longing for a new official history include a very late attempt at the anchorage of an authoritative exposition of Czech-German relationships called Rozumět dějinám (“Facing History,” 2002), commissioned from leading historians by the Ministry of Culture. In it, for example, a photograph of expelled Sudeten Germans climbing into cattle wagons was labeled “the German population was deported by rail.” A notoriously more famous example was the Slovak Dejiny Slovenska a Slovákov (“A History of Slovakia and the Slovaks”) by Milan Stanislav Ďurica, distributed to schools as a history textbook by Prime Minister Mečiar’s regime, which described history in the territory of today’s Slovakia as a line of attempts by the Slovaks for their own state, unquestionably culminating in the wartime Slovak state. Criticism of these publications was just as moralizing, normative, and authoritative as the publications themselves; nevertheless, it did mean the beginnings of a debate about who and what actually is a part of “our” history, and with what measure of obligation and definitiveness one really can write about history. In the end, considerations of, for example, symbols and myths (Vladimír Macura), the history of everyday socialist matters (Martin Franc), and the relationship between history and memory (Miloš Havelka) can become part of a much more complicated interpretation of communist history.

In fact, there is a shocking dissimilarity in how these not-so-distant events (the forced deportation of the Germans, the 1950s and 1960s, and the Normalization period) were remembered by Czechs and Sudeten Germans, by Czechs and Slovaks, and even by the political prisoners of the 1950s and the signatories of Charter 77; a dissimilarity which initially only as it were made it impossible to achieve the desired composition of a common and universally acceptable history, but later opened a serious specialist and social interest in the phenomenon of memory. This interest, which Pierre Nora called Les Lieux de Memoire, was originally a revolt of small people and minorities, for the most part consistently edged out, against “big history.” The revolt against the concept of the uniqueness of history written by historians, until then not only a certain partial description of history, but also the only truth about it; i.e., the historian did not reconstruct history, did not narrate it, but rather found it, more or less finished and ready, deposited in the sources of the past. In the words of Dušan Třeštík, “the great national narrative of past times was true almost in all its details, but in its whole it was somehow or other a great tendentious untruth.”

In spite of the fact that efforts emerged to unify and institutionalize the memory of communism as the only “national memory” (see the debates about what are known as “institutions of the nation’s memory”), the whole paradigm of memorialization not only offered a mass of new, generally authentic, and even in the broad sense of the word truthful material (interviews of “eyewitnesses” in the context of oral history) for historical and sociological investigation, but above all enabled us “not to forget about forgetting” (Miloš Havelka), to become aware of how the collective memory is maintained, and refer to it as something like a cocreated present. It is the present that gives hints to how to remember the past, from what to make the subject of a common remembering and celebration, and what on the other hand should be allowed to disappear and be suppressed into forgetfulness (see also the entry titled “Present History”). It thus opened a path to the acceptance of the plurality of historical memories of groups, institutions, families, and individuals, so we can better understand the need to write other textbooks of history, conceive other museums, and build other monuments.


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Schocken Books, New York 1951.

Zdeněk Beneš, Drahomír Jančík, Jan Kuklík Jr., Eduard Kubů, Václav Kural, Robert Kvaček, Václav Pavlíček, Jiří Pešek, René Petráš, Zdeněk Radvanovský, et al., Rozumět dějinám: Vývoj česko-německých vztahů na našem území v letech 1848–1948, Gallery, Prague 2002.

Milan Stanislav Ďurica. Dejiny Slovenska a Slovákov: V časovej následnosti faktov dvoch tisícročí, Lúč, Bratislava 2003.

Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, New York 1992.

Martin Franc, Řasy, nebo knedlíky?, Skriptorium, Prague 2003.

Vladimír Macura, Český sen, NLN, Prague 1998.

Zdeněk Vašíček, Francoise Mayer, Minulost a současnost, paměť a dějiny, CKD, Brno 2008.