Present History Adéla Gjuričová

The specific “behavior” of history in the era of globalization could generally be described as an unprecedented speeding up. We are born in one age, we live in another, and we die in yet another. Events crash into our lives in real time (the CNN phenomenon); everything is archived and at the same time made accessible. Everything immediately becomes the past, but at the same time the recent past hurts, and yet we compulsively turn to it. What forms did this “dealing with the past” acquire in the course of Czech postcommunist transformation?

Let us refer again to the closeness of the concept of contemporary history, established as a specific field of historiography after World War II. Without doubt, the model for Czech contemporary history was the German Zeitgeschichte (Hans Rothfels), which was introduced at the beginning of the 1950s as an attempt to understand the trauma of Nazism and the Holocaust. It was an effort to link “great” history with historical biography, uncommon for the time, and used a similarly uncommon approach to history through generation and theme. Contemporary history had already substantially demonstrated its emancipation from its original assignment—that is, the historicization of the remembered past and the working toward a new future—but it is no accident that this subdiscipline was the first to open (or be forced to open) a new plurality of approaches to historical research, including research into the phenomenon of memory (see also “History” in this volume).

Of course, historiography as an attempt at an expert exposition of the recent past (at the same time entering the public debate) together with historical awareness and its political instrumentalization were naturally close to politics and were a very essential part of the debate (as well as the political negotiating) of the Czech transformation. To facilitate this linkage to politics, the social sciences promote concepts such as historical representation (i.e., historical images, comparisons, inspirations, and mementos), the culture of memory, and the political past. Some examples of this multifaceted work with the past should help to familiarize us. Several historical themes were so strongly present in the Czech transformation that they went through the sphere of historiography as well as the levels of public debate and the political process—and all of these at the same time substantially shifted and recreated the picture of the given historical phenomenon. It was confirmed again that society’s relationship to its past might be solely and exclusively a relationship to the past in the present.

The very present-ness of 1989 definitely created a new era, though historical images also had an essential function. The demonstrations during what was called Palach week in January 1989 were remarkable by that very “making present” of Palach’s sacrifice, while at the same time giving it a new meaning. On the other hand, Dubček’s name, originally a call to mobilization, continued to lose any kind of potential in the context of forming a noncommunist opposition. The First Republic and President Masaryk, by comparison, had for a long time been completely unshakable symbols: the stereotypical conviction of the economic success, political decency, and good taste, as well as the Czech and Western character of this period of Czechoslovak history was an important factor for the long-term, broadly popular political and, especially, economic transformation. The deepening awareness that Czech historical experience was different from that of the Slovaks, likewise alleged, presented an opposite case, yet in Czechoslovakia this never reached such fatal proportions as the wars in the Balkans.

Some institutions also experienced the tangibility of the present past. For example, the existing political parties were automatically accepted as a part of the new political system. Surprisingly, the relatively popular National Socialists did not survive, while the Lidovci (the People’s Party), which in 1990 had been thrown into turmoil by the discovery that its chairman had been an agent of the secret police, consistently showed an ability under Josef Lux’s leadership to keep quiet about its own pre-1989 past, and paradoxically thanks to this became an important, long-term political entity. The newly founded Social Democrats, on the other hand, had difficulty coming to terms with its emigration—this wealth of experience—and simultaneously with the burden of its past. The same could be said for the revived Sokol organization with its own surviving and (in a globalized world) completely cardboard traditions.

The broad conception of the culture and politics of the past perhaps better captures the complexity of relating to its own past—the multidirectional working with it—than the notion “coming to terms with the past,” which more often than not reduces the problem to a legislative solution, ensuring that the most visibly guilty are sure to be punished, that wrongs are righted, and that the communist regime is denounced as evil and objectionable. Notwithstanding the fact that the Communist Party exists and enjoys considerable support in Bohemia and Moravia, which is unique in Central and Eastern Europe, one has to consider the context of the anticommunism of the period, during which time the Communist Party refused to change its name or undergo any sort of explicit transformation. And a similarly provocative approach might also help us understand the political prisoners and their families as a mobilized group, one which successfully persuaded the political actors and the public of their need for rehabilitation. Their memory of communism as their own active struggle, not as suffering victims, had already been unambiguously eclipsed by the dissidents’ own specific memory of their struggle against communism (Françoise Mayer). These perspectives could actually upset the widespread concept of the communist past as something foreign, an imported concept encapsulating the whole era and categories of the guilty and the victims without a sense of continuity or for those who lived in both worlds—and of course without a sense of their own share of responsibility.

The issue of Czech-German relations, and especially the forced resettlement of the Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II, is a case in point of the present past par excellence. The post-November “debate about the deportations” was connected with discussions among the dissidents in which the “defenders of the deportations” (emphasizing their historical context) and the “critics of the deportations” (requiring their—perhaps ahistorical—moral consideration) constituted a dichotomy. These positions even informed the debate throughout the 1990s, though by the end of the decade politics in the whole of Central European had become radicalized—Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in the Austrian government, the Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán, and German émigré organizations began more or less openly to make the Czech Republic’s entry into the European Union conditional on the cancellation of what are called the Beneš decrees. The decrees again became a central theme of Czech politics in the election campaign of 2002 by directly embodying Czech national interests, which had to be defended. Parliament passed a new regulation and laws about them and about the merits of President Beneš, and several deputies of different parties even came into the chamber wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Our land, our cottages.” Even those without T-shirts agreed on the simple equation: decrees = deportations, while casting doubt that the policy of deportation = property or land revision. However, this climactic moment of Czech politics of the past was at the same time an enormous opportunity to use initiatives of a completely different type, such as The Lost Sudetenland exhibition, which visually confronted the reality of “our cottages” in the virgin countryside with pictures of the vanished cultural landscape of the Sudetenland and what had at one time been the rich community life of those who lived there. One small, new culture of forgetting came into the world.

More than just an instrumentalization of historical pictures and stereotypes in the politics and society under transformation was involved during this time. Those various cultures and politics of memory certainly comprised its deliberate constructing, its retouching and even embellishing. At the same time, however, they created a specific identity (see for example the identity of those who experienced the financial crisis of the 1930s or heard the tramping of the German Army’s boots in 1938) and grew various new cultures of memory (again, spontaneously and deliberately created, but nevertheless functioning more long-term). An active relationship is evident in this concept of the “present past,” that is to say, a past far from being created only by historians, but rather by politicians, journalists, and judges—and in the end by everyone who can find a new way of questioning the past.


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Miloš Havelka, Dějiny a smysl: Obsahy, akcenty a posuny “české otázky” 1895–1989, NLN, Prague 2001.

Françoise Mayer, Les Tchèques et leur communisme: Mémoire et identité politiques, Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris 2004.

Petr Pithart, Petr Příhoda, Čítanka odsunutých dějin, Nadace Bernarda Bolzana a Friedricha Eberharta, Prague 1998.

Antikomplex et al., Zmizelé Sudety/Das Verschwundene Sudetenland, Český les 2006.