The Power to Say “We” Françoise Mayer

“(The physical and—later—ideological and moral terror) reduced the social structure of the nation into ruins … and upset the structure of generally communicated values and ethical norms, leaving a permanent mark on the way of thinking of whole generations, the ‘mentality’ of the nation … On the other hand: the continuity of national existence was not essentially torn asunder; the Czech nation was spared deportations and other methods of eradication … Many family, professional, interest-based and intellectual traditions were maintained at a micro-social level. What we are missing now is the integration of these particular experiences into a general, collective national experience … But meanwhile we (as a nation) find ourselves unable to agree even on what actually took place! It would appear from outside as though a sizable part of the society of our nation is convinced that when it comes down to it ‘nothing much happened.’”1

The presence of the communist past can be explained only in a small part by the fact that it weighs heavily, or by a method of extricating oneself from communism. If this presence is so persistent, then it is clearly because it is not at all easy to use the word “we.” The question then is not whether Czechs are succeeding in overcoming the past, but rather, what images of the past they use to make their differences obvious in the present.

Not all Czech political figures share to the same measure a collective relationship to the past. Their reasons can be very varied. The head of state and his government must give a new face to a regime which has to deny that past but in other respects accepts very varied kinds of continuity from before 1989 (minimally the legal and administrative system). The political parties want to find their own place and identity on the political scene, which is accompanied by deep changes. Each party can make a claim on the benefits of change and on modernity, and the concepts of left and right have to be invented afresh. To others it can be a matter of social survival and psychological balance; laws concerning the past relate to it, and therefore it has to try and retain its political trustworthiness, professional position and public legitimacy by explanations. In each case everyone reacts to political changes (except another’s) by shaping a view of the past, thanks to which they gain a new identity which, on the one hand, helps them toward recognition and on the other identifies those who will not be included in the new “we.”

The collapse of communism in Prague in 1989 did not leave a clear demarcation line between the camp of the conquerors and the camp of the defeated. Unlike France at the end of World War II, there was no political power capable of establishing a particular official memory of the past. There was no personality among those in opposition to communism who could play the role played by de Gaulle when he united the French in the myth of their “resistance.” Václav Havel’s efforts in this direction failed to overcome growing antagonisms connected with the past.

In the first days of the political transformation the dissident president offered Czechs (and Slovaks) the components of a memory which would enable them to say “we” and reject the past. At that point it seemed as though even the new figures in government had hit the right note for the solidarity of the overwhelming majority of the population through a discourse which condemned communism, rid the stage of its last leading figures, and pushed its open advocacy to the fringe of society. This discourse made it possible to think about Czechoslovak society as a society connected with the past that preceded communism, a society historically democratic as long as one ignored the remarkable apathy regarding communist power which pervaded it from 1968–1989. The official announcements of political figures in the first periods of the transformation led to the view that it would be possible to condemn the system in every way; it did not however touch the identity of individuals. It was a condemnation which in the end focused on directly-acknowledged communist identity (not however on reform communists who had come round to another opinion); a condemnation which concentrated responsibility for repression on the Czechoslovak Communist Party as the establishment party and made it possible to recognize victims, but at the same time limited the identification of the guilty ones as much as possible; a condemnation of communism which temporarily set aside the party inheritance of a Communist Party ostracized by the rest of the political stage. However, the content and extent of this condemnation developed very quickly over the months following the political reversal. This development paradoxically influenced the ways people came to terms with the past both in the camp of the open communists and in the much more heterogeneous camp of those who ostentatiously made known their opposition to the communist experience.

With the efforts of some “activists fighting for memory” the legislative provisions (especially the law on lustration) shifted their aim from condemning communism to condemning collaboration, and from condemning communists to condemning informers. While it was, for a variety of technical and legal reasons, difficult to prove true criminals guilty, it was relatively simple to label the “agents;” however, it was much more difficult to ascertain the exact nature of their cooperation. The Czech decommunization led to a situation where those possibly guilty of responsibility for communist repression avoided criminal proceedings relatively easily, and those who continued in the Communist Party were otherwise ostracized but in the end to a certain measure tolerated, while perception of those who formerly opposed communism was stained by the suspicion of collaboration. Thus decommunization did not provide any a priori legitimacy for former dissidents, and definitively disqualified former communists at the political level. The method of retelling the past at a public level differs completely in the two camps and connects not only with practices inherited from the past (above all with the communists), but also with requirements of the present (above all with the others).

When it came down to it, Czech decommunization was originally directed only at a small proportion of communists and did not position itself against all former communists, who otherwise, according to one Czech joke, constituted the largest party after the fall of communism. Against all expectations and after several reincarnations the neocommunists made relatively good use of the situation which came about through discussions about the past. They succeeded in recreating their party identity on the basis of repeated affirmations of the communist inheritance through a discourse which returned communism as a movement and as an ideology to its place in the Czech context and gave the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia legitimization as part of the Czech left. This rhetoric made use of the past against the present, a remarkably glowing past against a present weighed down by social, national, and international difficulties (unemployment, economic difficulties, corruption, the division of the state, Czech-German relations, and coming to terms with the past of the Sudetenland). This discourse is developed in the context of a decommunization which to a considerable measure determines its orientation, but is in the end relatively independent and responds to typical features of the way communist parties function.2 At issue is the transcription of history, an exercise in which the communists are very proficient. This history relates to a particular institution, to a system, and to an ideology and is thus not the history of individuals.

The question of the opposition’s memory looks a little different. Unlike the communist memory it relates predominantly to individuals and their behavior under socialism. Above all however, it is not a transcription of history but simply its writing down. However, to write it down, the terms “opposition” and “repression” have to be agreed on. The opposition, unlike that which it was previously fighting, does not represent any institution, system, or ideology, but rather different movements, very often informal, a plurality of trajectories, a plurality of views of the world and society. After 1989 the former members of the opposition and the former victims of communism did not immediately find a method of “bearing witness to their experience.” Insofar as they were successful, their efforts did not necessarily contribute to the cohesiveness of the memory of the opposition; on the contrary, it was more the case that rivalry reigned.

The success of particular descriptions of the past depends to a considerable measure on the ability of their bearers to form a group which thus provides a collective framework in which such a memory can originate. From this point of view the victims of the 1950s covered an impressive distance in the years 1989–1999. In 1989 former dissidents had drawers full of writing and various publishing houses willingly published the texts, testimonies, or essays which to that time had been circulating in samizdat form, or thanks only to émigré publishers. Those imprisoned in the 1950s began systematically to publish their evidence about the labor camps and jails, and descriptions of the “third resistance,” albeit with the delay of a number of years. The number of such books grew rapidly, but (outside their own circles) the response to them was limited. However, as the years passed the memories of the victims of the 1950s did assert themselves alongside the memories of dissent. At the end of the 1990s the share of television programs about the camps of the 1950s was much higher than in the first years after political change. New museums were opened, memorial plaques put in place, monuments raised in memory of the experience of labor camps, in some cases referring to the “third resistance.” All of that would have been unthinkable without the activity of associations of eyewitnesses, especially the Confederation of Political Prisoners.

It was much more difficult for the former dissidents to present a collective image of their past experience. No political party, association, or publication could stand as representative. They are strongly represented on the political stage, but divided, appearing in political parties of the left and the right (with the exception of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia), or preferring to remain in the fields of journalism and publishing. Because the process with communism remained inexorably the process of the relationship of the individual to the communist power, the voices of former dissidents predominated in debates about coming to terms with the past. On the one hand this process concerned them directly; on the other, this type of question is a continuation of the questions those in dissent were asking themselves before 1989. Some of them would like to leave the past to the historians (those of today or of the future); others would, on the contrary, like to do everything possible to open up the darkest corners so that no “absent-minded” history might contribute yet another myth to the already abundant Czech collection. These are two antithetical pieces of logic; both of them however fall into the same dialectic of calling into question. Even when reactions in the two camps are opposed, these two images of the past continue to look from the point of view of law courts, and the past is in the end still linked with the idea of hardship—even though one side would rather postpone the trial with a view to the conditions it would take place under now.

Seen from these two antithetical vantage points, the memory of dissent preserves very uncertain outlines and is handled extremely prudently by historians as long as they themselves do not belong to one side or the other. This memory is therefore a field of strongly individualized testimonies which gradually get lost in a flood of the most varied published memoirs.

The abundance of individual testimonies is indeed a mark of a deep need to appropriate the past. But among the memoirs flooding the bookshops those of the dissidents are not the most widely represented. In the 1990s it was the memoirs of actors from stage and screen that flourished. And only a few of them pose the questions which are presented persistently in the memoirs of former dissidents.3 Disagreements about interpretations, examined in this book in connection with responsibility and guilt (in the case of the former opposition, individual guilt; in the case of the former communists, collective guilt), are sometimes very sharp; however, outside the political sphere they mobilize only the margins of society. It seems that the crimes of communism and responsibility for political repression do not arouse a general interest in most people, and that the period 1948–1989 cannot be reduced only to that in the imagination of society. We can quickly convince ourselves of that if we think of how popular some singers and entertainers remain. Singers such as Karel Gott and Jiří Korn, successful under socialism, continued to be popular after 1989, while a penchant remained for television series that fascinated audiences during normalization; all these phenomena of continuity in popular culture are evidence more of the fact that the past is found in reliving one’s own personal memories (“those were the years I was young, under the communists”) than in a need to break with the past.

In films from the 1990s such as Kolja, Pelíšky (Czech: “Cozy Dens”), and Rebelové (Czech: “Rebels”), the socialist regime is trivialized or ridiculed. For example, the film Kolja offers communism as seen through the innocent eyes of a Soviet child whose mother leaves it in the care of a Czech friend, a confirmed bachelor. Even Cozy Dens portrays the period through the eyes of a young lad who looks just as innocently and affectionately on the events of 1968. The film Rebels, a kind of remake of the musical Starci na chmelu (“The Hops Pickers”) of the 1960s, belongs to this tradition whose criticism of reality is at most good-natured. In these and other films the communists and Soviets are presented in a very human way. The issue of “agents” so central in public debate about the past may occur peripherally, but is never really treated. In the society described in these films, it is not mistrust and suspicion that rule, but rather a jovial esprit de corps, so that the period governed by the communists appears as somewhat abnormal but nevertheless a time when people managed to help each other and laugh off political pressures. The enthusiastic reception given to these films, as to Michal Viewegh’s novelettes, can best be explained in that they show a nonpolitical view of history in which the past returns “without incident” to those people who had not been communist cadres, political prisoners, or former dissidents, people who under the communists managed somehow not to be either for or against, and who in the end create the overwhelmingly—silent—majority of the population.

Beginning with independence in 1918, Czech society has experienced three types of regime—plural democracy, the Nazi protectorate and the communist system—and suffered two occupations (German and Soviet). From the ethnic point of view, it moved from coexistence (on the one hand with the Germans and the Jews, on the other with the Slovaks) to homogeneity. The borders of the country have changed several times, as have the international organizations of which it has been a part. After the fall of communism came the fall of the Czechoslovak Federation. Today the Czech state is a member of the European Union. Throughout the 20th century the Czechs have experienced many political reverses. The period after the fall of communism is a link in the chain of transformation which marks their history more permanently than others; however the “continuity of national existence was not essentially torn apart,” as Petr Fidelius says in the heading to this paper. Under such sociological circumstances, memory makes a notable contribution to an understanding of Czech society in the 1990s; it can be one of the main keys for understanding future changes in society in the framework of European integration.


1 / Petr Fidelius, “Kdo jsme?” Kritické eseje, Torst, Prague 2001, p. 409–417.

2 / The discourse originates in commissions on which appointed experts and politicians cooperate, and is circulated organizationally (the party’s Internet website, its publishing house and so on).

3 / However, there are other cases where the actor was also a dissident. See for example the memoirs of Vlasta Chramostová, Vlasta Chramostová, Doplněk, Brno 1999, which evoked especial attention because the author, an actress who signed Charter 77, had the courage to reflect to her responsibility as a communist of the 1950s.


Françoise Mayer, “Moci říct ‘my,’” Češi a jejich komunismus: pamět a politická identita, Argo, Prague 2009, p. 254–259.