Institute of Contemporary History
This was the Opening Address at “Fateful Eights in Czech History: Historical Anniversaries of 2008 and Their Significance for the Czech Republic Today”, an international conference organized by the Czech Embassy in Washington, held at the George Washington University, Washington, D.C., on 23–24 October 2008. In this essay the author provides a basic overview of twentieth-century Czech history, weighing the gains and losses, the victories and defeats, the ups and downs of the Czechs, the Czech nation, Czech society, on the way from gaining independence in a democratic state to loosing it, and the German occupation, to the renewal of Czechoslovak independence and the destruction of democracy under the Communist regime, to the failed attempt at the reform of that regime, and the victory of the democratic revolution – all marked by the historical milestones of the years 1918, 1938/39, 1945–48, 1968, and 1989 – as well as the author’s reflections on the long-term changes in the mentality of the country.
The Czechoslovak Legionaries on their Journey across Russia
Using specialized sources such as legionary literature (a vast sub-genre of Czech fiction between the two world wars), memoirs, diaries, photographs, and personal effects, the author seeks in this article to portray the everyday life of the Czechoslovak legionaries in Russia from 1918 to 1920. To a considerable extent their lives were linked to their being moved about by train. At the centre of this were the tepluskas, furnished and heated box cars, part of the eshelons (troop trains), which served as the makeshift homes in which they spent most of their time. The Czechoslovak volunteers boarded the tepluskas in the spring of 1918, after retreating from the troops of the Central Powers in Ukraine. They then headed for Vladivostok, where they were meant to board ship and sail to France. As things turned out, however, the legionaries remained in Russia far longer, and fought in battles against the Bolsheviks, at fi rst to save themselves, but later, on the side of the Entente, in support of Masaryk’s foreign policy and the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. The author concentrates more on the living conditions, activities, and customs of the legionaries in tepluskas. He discusses the furnishings of them, the way they were decorated, and their adaptation to the current needs of the legionaries. Last but not least, he attempts to describe how the legionaries experienced their milieu and how it influenced their lives together. The author seeks to provide a vivid picture of the “army” on wheels, which changed considerably over time.
Some Notes on the Research of the Czech Society in the Protectorate
In this article the author raises several theoretical questions connected to an insufficiently researched topic, Czech society in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (15 March 1939–8/9 May 1945). He considers, on the one hand, possible theoretical starting points, which he sees as residing in the thorough application of sociological approaches to historical research, and, on the other hand, the debates over the terms collaboration” and “resistance”. The term “collaboration” (kolaborace) was imported into the Czech milieu, and is generally used to mean dishonourable work with, or for, the enemy. The author therefore sees the use of this term as being chiefly in research on public policy, in which the extant sources usually provide enough information to form a reliable picture of the individual actors and their motives. In this respect the author also refers to the views of some Czech historians who have already pointed out that when discussing the behaviour of Czech society in the Protectorate it is extremely difficult to set a clear, universally valid boundary between resistance and collaboration. For actual research on Czech society in the Protectorate the author prefers semantically neutral terms, free of moralizing connotations. He sees inspiration in sociology, whose approaches enable the development of a more complex model than the hitherto widely held view of a society that lived in some kind of permanent dilemma between resistance and collaboration. Apart from research on everyday life in the Protectorate – the milieu which the individual actors moved about in –the author recommends exploring also the “extent of adaptation” (the way the actors accommodated themselves to the conditions of the new regime) and the “extent of identification” (whether the actors identified with the new regime and to what extent they considered it something unchangeable). From a comparison of both factors the author then deduces the actors’ basic attitude to the regime (positive, neutral, potentially hostile, hostile) and their basic modes of behaviour (loyalty, law-breaking, opportunism, resistance). The “extent of identification” in particular constitutes the dynamic factor whose value was dependent on a whole range of circumstances. In researching Czech society in the Protectorate one must therefore consider other important topics, for example, the effect of Nazi and Allied propaganda, the responses in Czech society to the news about the course of the war, and, last but not least, fear, an integral part of Protectorate reality. To understand the behaviour of Czech society in the years of the Second World War (and therefore its values and orientation at the time of Liberation), one must in historical research devote sufficient consideration to the elementary fact that this society found itself in the grip of a totalitarian regime and was consequently not operating on the principle of freedom of choice.
Leisure Time in the Czech Lands 1948–56
Martin Franc – Jiří Knapík
The authors consider the changes in the conception, organization, ways of spending, and forms of leisure in the Czech Lands from the establishment of the Communist monopoly on power in early 1948 to the second half of the 1950s. (After this point leisure time here began strikingly to change under the influence of consumerist trends.) They consider the topic in the context of the dominant ideology and changes in economic, social, and arts policies. The authors take into account gender differences, contrasts between town and country, and special features of social groups. They pay particular attention to leisure amongst young people and children. The authors do not, however, see the Communist takeover of February 1948 as a watershed in the sphere of leisure. Instead, they demonstrate both the continuity and differences between the period of limited democracy, from May 1945 to February 1948, and the years that followed. In some cases, they highlight features that were identical in Nazi German and Communist approaches to leisure activities (the rejection of jazz, “trash” (brak) in the arts, and Western influences in general). The authors discuss how the Communist regime intervened intensively in the way people chose to spend their free time, in its endeavour to shape a new type of man and woman in the new social conditions. At the same time, particularly in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the State so emphasized the importance of the work of building socialism, that leisure was seen as a “necessary evil”, since it used up valuable physical and mental energy that would have been better spent on increasing productivity. For the same aims, but also with regard to the idea of somewhat democratising the arts, the regime gave preference to activities such as political and vocational self-education as well as the study of selected arts and cultural values. In keeping with the subordination of the individual to the interests of society, collective forms of recreation and the leisure (holidays spent with groups of co-workers, mass group visits to plays, films, concerts, museums, galleries, and, later, Pioneer camps) were given priority. Traditional club activity and individual leisure were seen as “bourgeois survivals”. Some young people’s non-conformist leisure activities met with suspicion from the authorities or with outright repression. Amongst the models of leisure that the regime held worthy of emulation were the Socialist youth construction projects (stavby mládeže), “volunteer” work, and additional instruction or training. The new organizations, such as the Revolutionary Trades Union Movement (Revoluční odborové hnutí – ROH), the Czechoslovak Union of Youth (Československý svaz mládeže – ČSM), and the Union for Co-operation with the Army (Svaz pro spolupráci s armádou – Svazarm), which took the place of the earlier clubs and associations, comported with the new ideology and provided the required forms of leisure. The authorities endeavoured also to support considerably developed and differentiated hobbies, such as making art, playing board games, and collecting. Special facilities were established to run these activities, including the enterprise-based clubs of the ROH, houses of culture (kulturní domy), and people’s educational societies (osvětové besedy). Forms of universally accessible activity, like chess and phillumeny (collecting matchbox labels), were supported, whereas financially more demanding hobbies or those linked to private gain, such as philately or numismatics, were marginalized. A slight retreat from the ideologised conception of leisure came with the so-called “new course” of 1953. But more striking changes were made in the second half of the 1950s. These years, which saw shorter working weeks, a higher standard of living than before, and the emergence of consumerist trends, are described by the authors as a period of the planned expansion of leisure and its gradual individualisation.
Czech Communists in the First Decade after 1989
This article is concerned with the attitude that the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy – KSČM) has had towards its own past. It examines the subject from the perspective of the internal development of the Party and its search for a political and cultural identity in the Czech political system. The interpretation of the past and the role of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Československa – KSČ) in Czech and Czechoslovak history were key elements in the ideological development of the Party in the first ten years of Czech democracy after the changes beginning in November 1989. And they played a central role in the Communists’ efforts to respond to the new democracy’s systemic and rhetorical anti-Communism. In this article the author seeks to demonstrate what effect debates about the past had in causing divisions in the Party in the first years after 1989. On the one hand they contributed to cleavages within the Party, but on the other hand they also created conditions for its later consolidation and new self-confidence. The initial reformist strategy inclined roughly to the ideas of the Social Democratic Party and sought to win the maximum number of votes and ultimately a share in government. It was supported by the fi lm-maker and chairman of the Party, Jiří Svoboda (b. 1945) from 1990 to 1993, but was gradually superseded by the strategy of what one Czech expert on international relations, Vladimír Handl, has called the “left-wing retreat”, and what one British political scientist, Sean Hanley, calls “voter representation”, based on the strengthening of political-cultural identity and the emphasizing of communication between the rank-and-fi le and the leadership of the Party. As the author demonstrates, the idea of “coming to terms with the past” gradually acquired a meaning amongst the Communists that was markedly different from the meaning it had for most Czechs. The pragmatism of the subsequent leader, Miroslav Grebeníček (b. 1947), to a certain extent attenuated, but did not solve, the fundamental dilemma faced by the Party, which consisted in the conflict between the “logic of the electoral struggle” and the “logic of voter representation”. The first trend after the downfall of the reformists in 1993 included, in particular, neo-Communist theorists (like the political thinker Miloslav Ransdorf, b. 1953), who sought to formulate Socialist alternatives acceptable to most left-leaning Czechs. That also led them to attempt a more critical analysis of their own past than the majority of their rank-and-fi le members would have done. The second trend, the logic of voter representation, oriented to preserving and strengthening the strong identity of Party members and supporters, was linked with the continuing conservative majority of the rank-and-fi le represented by local activists, the Party press, and some members of the Party leadership. All of them preferred the programme of political and social populism. They tended to understand history as the “politics of history” – in other words, as a means to support their own identity and to resist the hostile environment outside the Party. For both trends in the Party, however, the challenge presented by anti-Communism – whether systemic or spontaneous – remained, to the end of the 1990s, an important, if not the most important, unifying motive. But it considerably limited their possibilities to raise sensitive questions about their own past and to hold a potentially critical debate.
The Numerous Impulses from the Prague Conference on the Cold War
The author returns to the history conference Dropping, Maintaining and Breaking the Iron Curtain: The Cold War and East-Central Europe Twenty Years Later, which took place in the Straka Academy and in the Lichtenstein Palace, Prague, from 19 to 21 November 2009. He provides a detailed report on the conference proceedings. It was organized to mark the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, by the Institute for Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, together with the Office of the Czech Government and with the assistance of the students from the Institute of International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University in Prague. About thirty historians from eleven countries of the formerly divided Europe and the United States took part in this meeting of top historians of the Cold War to discuss the records that are gradually being made accessible to scholars and the public and also the changing interpretations of this history. During the conference the then Czech Prime Minister, Jan Fischer, awarded seven historians – Vojtěch Mastný, Thomas Blanton, Alex Pravda, Mark Kramer, Vilém Prečan, William Taubman, and, in memoriam, Saki Dockrill – the Karel Kramář Memorial Medal for the important contributions they have made to our knowledge and understanding of modern Czech history on the international level. In the introductory panel discussion, the historians, together with two important actors in the events, Jiří Dienstbier and Alexandr Vondra, discussed the forming of new order in Europe in the early years after the end of the Cold War. The key processes here were the reunification of Germany, the dismantling of the military-political institutions of the Eastern bloc, and the eastward expansion of Western integrating institutions – NATO and the EU. The dynamically forming reality, at the same time, put an end to conceptions developed by some leading politicians (Francois Mitterrand’s idea of a European confederation and Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Common European Home”). In a fruitful exchange of views it was repeated several times that the form of the European order which had developed after the Cold War was not something obvious and the eastward expansion of NATO was not something that any of the actors had expected. In the subsequent panels, the participants discussed the matter of whether competing for Central Europe was the main cause of the Cold War, as well as considering the role of strategic planning and nuclear weapons and the counter-efforts to maintain or to overturn the Cold War status quo. The highpoint of the conference, according to the author, was the panel discussions devoted to Germany – the division of the country, the existence of two German states side by side, and then reunification – and particularly the end of the Cold War. The conference closed with more general reflections on Communism and the Cold War.
Brandes, Detlef. Die Sudetendeutschen im Krisenjahr 1938 (Veroffentlichungen des Collegium Carolinum, vol. 107). Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008, xvi + 399 pp.
In his latest monograph, Brandes, an important German historian, focuses on the position of the Sudeten Germans in interwar Czechoslovakia and their role in breaking apart the country. The reviewer praises Brandes’s extraordinarily thorough work with primary sources. He sees the fundamental contribution of the book in its observing the lives of the Sudeten Germans as the history of many social groups and their mutual relations and interactions with the outer milieux (Czechoslovak and German), rather than as one single story of a homogeneous stratum of the population. The author is manifestly critical of the minorities policy of the First Republic, which, in his view, made it difficult for the German minority to identify with the new state. He believes the main cause of the “uncontrolled expulsions” of Czechoslovak Germans after the war stemmed from the tensions that had come to a head in Czech-German relations on the eve of the Munich Agreement.
Francis D. Raška
Bryant, Chad. Prague in Black: Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007, 378 pp.
This monograph by a young American historian is, according to the reviewer, a solid depiction of the history of the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, viewed as the brutal result of the conflict-fraught relations between the Germans and Czechs. His arguments are thoroughly convincing, precise, and founded on analysis of original archive records as well as knowledge of the broad spectrum of the relevant secondary sources. The main contribution of the work, the reviewer believes, is the author’s balanced view of the situation in the Protectorate.
Kudrna, Ladislav. Bojovali a umírali v Indočíně: První vietnamská válka a Čechoslováci v cizinecké legii [They Fought and died in Indochina: The fi rst Vietnam War and Czechoslovaks in the Foreign Legion]. Praha: Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů and Naše vojsko, 2010, 400 pp.
The book under review is about Czechoslovaks in the French Foreign Legion fighting in Indochina against the movement for national independence in the first half of the 1950s. The book presents this historic episode by discussing the fates of twenty-one Czechoslovaks in the Foreign Legion, which the author discusses in the context of the war in Indochina and relations between the Czechoslovak Communist regime and the movement led by Ho Chi Minh and the government he established in North Vietnam. The author also discusses the Czechoslovak legionaries’ return to their native land and their lives afterwards. The reviewer considers the work a useful contribution to the history of a previously ignored topic.
Kopeček, Michal. Hledání ztraceného smyslu revoluce: Zrod a počátky marxistického revizionismu ve střední Evropě [In Search of the Lost Meaning of the Revolution: The Birth and Beginnings of Marxist Revisionism in Central Europe]. Praha: Argo, 2009, 386 pp.
In a detailed review-essay of Michal Kopeček’s book, the reviewer assesses the theoretical roots of Kopeček’s interpretations, the subtlety of his analysis of terminology, and his broad range of sources. He notes that “revisionism” already had a long history in the 1950s, and points out that in addition to the author’s analyses of revisionist tendencies in philosophy and sociology one could trace it in their application to economics, jurisprudence, and belles-lettres. The part of the book that makes the greatest contribution to our understanding is, according to the reviewer, the discussion of the development of revisionism in Poland, where the ground was best prepared for revisionism and where, in the intellectual activity of Leszek Kołakowski, it reached its apex in Central Europe. Of similar importance was Georg (Gyorgy) Lukacs, in Hungary, but he sought mainly to justify Leninism in theoretical terms. In Czechoslovakia, unlike in these two neighbouring countries, revisionism lacked political support and had to wait till the second half of the 1960s to become fully developed. But that part of the story is beyond the scope of the publication under review.
Vaněk, Miroslav. Byl to jenom rock’n’roll? Hudební alternativa v komunistickém Československu 1956–1989 [Was It Only Rock’n’Roll? A Musical Alternative in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1956–89]. Praha: Academia, 2010, 639 pp.
This book provides, according to the reviewer, a comprehensive discussion, including the international context of the fi eld of rock music and the music and subculture developing out of it in Communist Czechoslovakia, covering a large span of time and topics. Rather than a musicological analysis, the publication is a purely historical interpretation in which the author draws on a wide range of primary sources and deftly combines them. He examines the relations between politics and the efforts of forms of musical expression to provide an alternative to state-supported pop music, and raises the cardinal question of whether rock music was indeed a useful weapon of opposition to the regime, and if so, to what extent.
Klíma, Ivan. Moje šílené století [My Crazy Century], vol. 1 and 2 (Series Paměť [Memory], vols 17 and 32). Praha: Academia, 2009 and 2010, 526 + 369 pp., illus.
The reviewer first acquaints the reader with the extraordinary publishing project called Edice Paměť [The series Memory], which has not only published a great many remarkable memoirs, mostly by important Czechs in the arts and sciences, but has also inspired them. In the two volumes of his memoirs, Ivan Klíma (b. 1931) provides a vivid account of his life as a Jewish boy deported to a concentration camp, an enthusiast young builder of socialism, an intellectual reformist in the 1960s, and a dissident writer in the subsequent twenty years. According to the reviewer, Klíma’s memoirs are chiefly a unique testimony about life under two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. The strongest parts of the memoirs are Klíma’s accounts of his own life rather than his lengthy essayistic digressions.
The First Modern History of Czech Literature of the Socialist Era Comes Out Twenty Years after 1989
Janoušek, Pavel et al. Dějiny české literatury 1945–1989 [A History of Czech Literature 1945-1989]: vol. 1, 1945–1948; vol. 2: 1948–1958. Praha: Academia, 2007.
This thorough review is mostly concerned with the first two volumes of the four-volume history of Czech literature in the years 1945–85, which was published in 2007 and 2008. The history is the culmination of a ten-year project at the Institute of Czech Literature, Prague, in which more than fifty authors took part, led by the director of the Institute, Pavel Janoušek. As the reviewer notes, in this collective work of 2,500 pages the ups and downs of Czech literature from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of Communism are systematically, comprehensively, and non-ideologically dealt with for the first time. The result is a fundamental work on the topic, and is a convincing response to recent debates in Czech literary studies, in which the very possibility of writing a history of literature today has been problematised. It is also a challenge to those who would come up with alternative conceptions. The reviewer praises the great reliability of the facts presented in this work and also, despite certain pitfalls, their maximally neutral and dispassionate presentation. He also stresses the high quality and suitable length of the sections devoted to the broader social and cultural-political context of literature in the years of its mass ideologisation. He points as well to the useful summary of genres on the boundary of literature included in this history, and argues that some of the published criticisms of this publication are unfair.
Hanley, Sean. The New Right in the New Europe: Czech Transformation and Right-Wing Politics, 1989–2006. London and New York: Routledge, 2008, xiv + 276 pp.
This work by a political scientist is, according to the reviewer, in many respects the best book to have been written on the development of Czech right-wing politics since it emerged at the beginning of the 1990s. The author shows himself to be well informed about the Czech political environment, with a remarkable knowledge of the literature. He successfully pokes holes in some Western theoretical models of the post-Communist transformation, and offers his own well-considered, sometimes surprising, interpretation.