Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, v.v.i.
Socialismus jako myšlenkový svět / Socialism as Sinnwelt
A Research Project
Michal Kopeček and Pavel Kolář
In this introductory essay, Michal Kopeček and Pavel Kolář present the international research project ‘Socialist Dictatorship as Sinnwelt: The Representation of the Social Order and the Change of Authority in East-central Europe in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century’. The project was carried out by Pavel Kolář, Thomas Lindenberger, and Martin Sabrow at the Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam, together with Michal Kopeček at the Institute of Contemporary History, Prague. It was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The essay introduces a block of articles that resulted from the project, and explains the aim of the project, the ideas from which the authors started, and the socio-historiographical context of the ‘historicization of dictatorships’. The authors also acquaint the reader with the contents of the project. From a comparative perspective, which covered all of central and eastern Europe, the historians in the project, using cultural history and the history of everyday life, sought to shed light on how the Communist dictatorships were established and how they reproduced themselves and ultimately collapsed. The key conceptual instrument of these scholars is the Sinnwelt (roughly, symbolic universe), usefully understood as a space for the ‘pre-political acceptance’ of socialism, a zone in which the historical actors daily constructed the meaning of the existing social order and continuously renewed its legitimacy by their everyday actions. The introductory article reports on the individual projects which constitute the project as a whole, and reports on the lecture series and conferences which were organized as part of it.
The Communist Dictatorship from the Perspective of Cultural History
This article was originally published as ‘Sozialismus als Sinnwelt: Diktatorische Herrschaft in zeithistorischen Perspektiven’ in the Potsdamer Bulletin für Zeithistorische Studien, nos. 40–41 (2007), pp. 9–23. In the article, in connection with his historical research on the German Democratic Republic, the author explains the concept of Sinnwelt as providing productive and promising ways to understand how the Communist dictatorships were established and how they functioned and eventually collapsed. The dualistic picture of rulers and ruled, perpetrators and victims, which in many respects still dominates the interpretation and assessment of those dictatorships, is, according to the author, neither incorrect nor unnecessary. For it helps one to realize the fundamental differences between freedom and non-freedom, tolerance and oppression, the rule of law and arbitrary rule; it also evokes public compassion and thereby, at least in part, redresses the wrongs that the dictatorships committed. This essentially normative approach, however, is unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the long-term existence and comparative stability of these régimes. The concept of Sinnwelt (symbolic universe or world of meaning), based on the Weberian category of Herrschaft (authority) and the originally Hegelian concept of Eigen-Sinn (roughly, wilfulness), enables one to see that the long life of the socialist dictatorship was the result not only of its repressive nature, but equally of the broad-based social acceptance it enjoyed and also internal socio-cultural links. In this sense it was, like other twentieth-century dictatorships, ‘participatory’. From this point of view, the régime’s supposedly ‘total’ control of society appears more like a permanent process of everyday negotiation, in which the population not only reacted passively to commands from above, but also actively pursued its own aims by means of its own interpretations of social behaviour and social relations. The Sinnwelt concept offers ways to understand the pre-political space of almost blind acceptance of authority that formed everyday socialist life, and thus ranks among the approaches that can legitimately be called the cultural history of the political.
In the next part of the essay, the author considers the outlines of the Sinnwelt of socialism and highlights some of its fundamental features – namely, a strong emphasis on the principles of collective life and consensus, an almost sacred respect for knowledge and truth, struggle as a key metaphor of everyday life socialist life, and a special conception of time, which is based on progress.
The Example of the Czech Borderlands
In this essay, the author explores the mental and social prerequisites of the Communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, using as his example the post-war cleansing of the borderlands of Bohemia and Moravia. He argues that in the Czech milieu the cleansing was not a product of Communist dictatorship, but, on the contrary, the dictatorship was, at least in part, a result of a demand of a society whose desire for cleansing was already sated. He considers cleansing in general and the conditions that brought it to life, and then discusses its particular forms, aims, methods, strategies of legitimation, and changes in the Bohemian and Moravian borderlands after the Second World War. He argues that cleansing as a political means was not ordered by the Communist Party against the will of the other political actors, but that, on the contrary, it was a bond that linked the actors on the post-war political scene.
The author devotes the most space to an analysis of the contemporaneous discourse on cleansing, providing examples of how it effected various ethnic and social groups, from Germans, Hungarians, people of indeterminate ethnic identity and other national/ethnic minorities or returnees, to alleged collaborators, Germanophiles, and ‘asocial elements’. The aim of the proposed measures, most of which were carried out, was to create a homogeneous society (primarily in ethnic terms) by getting rid of the alleged ‘enemy within’ and securing the state frontiers against the enemy outside. A principle of this was that the cleansing aims, even before the Communist takeover of February 1948, required changes to the law or even its outright infringement. The rhetoric and legitimation of cleansing after this milestone, according to the author, did not radically change, and the cleansing methods applied in the first half of the 1950s against other social categories were in some ways a return to early post-war methods used against the German population and people who had allegedly offended against Czech national honour.
Communist Identity after Stalinism
The article examines the transformation of Communist identity in the Eastern bloc after the Twentieth Congress of Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1956, and it considers the moments of decline and the attempts to buttress the bloc. It explores how Communist identity was negotiated and reshaped also by forces outside the highest level of Party leadership, among ordinary Party members. In the aftermath of 1956, the Communist parties’ and the working class’s sense of belonging was seriously challenged by renewed national, ethnic, confessional, and regional identities. The re-emergence of these identities in 1956 seriously disrupted the grand utopian narrative of the Communist future. On the other hand, faith in Communist rule did not diminish. This essay argues that an ersatz utopia emerged, which was capable of integrating the particular identities into a larger sense of purpose centred on the Party as a national and local actor. The article describes this change as a shift from a programmatic to a processual form of utopia, understanding the latter as a utopia based on spatially decentred and temporally fragmented narratives.
The Crisis of the Ruling Elites and the Disintegration of Ideological Consensus in Czechoslovakia, 1986–89
This article is concerned with the crisis of the ruling élites in Czechoslovakia in the later years of the period known as ‘normalization’ (ending with the Changes of mid-November 1989). It provides evidence of the élite’s inability to formulate shared interests and to find points in common amongst their gradually diverging values, aims, and strategic approaches. After outlining the international contexts (particularly the Soviet), the author seeks to explain why the Communist élites of the late phase of the régime in Czechoslovakia were so helpless when faced with the political and economic project of perestroika. The disintegration of their self-confidence is examined by the author using the example of the debate about the 1987 legislation on state-owned enterprises, in which the various interests of individual groups of the Communist establishment in this phase were revealed probably for the first time, and the example of the thematization of the ‘enemy within’, demonstrating the élites’ declining ability to stigmatize the opposition groups effectively and to justify persecuting them. The author argues that the gradual deterioration of official Communist language, together with the advocacy of values based on individual performance and productivity, had its own particular consequences. Because the representatives of the ruling élites, who were accustomed to accepting authoritarian decisions, lacked the ability to react to sudden changes, the destabilization of ideology and power, which was caused by perestroika, awakened in them feelings of uncertainty as well a sense of ‘disappointment’ and ‘being ill-prepared’. The author does not argue that the collapse of the Communist dictatorship stemmed from the disintegration of élite groups. He does, however, seek to explain the historical genesis of this disintegration, which played an important role in the collapse of the dictatorship, since it prevented the élites of the ‘ancien régime’ from joining forces during the major geopolitical changes that emerged in late 1989.
Thoughts on Jaroslav Med’s Literární život ve stínu Mnichova
This article, together with the following three of this section of the journal, comments on a recent work by the literary historian Jaroslav Med, Literární život ve stínu Mnichova (1938–1939) (Literary life in the shadow of the Munich Agreement, 1938–39), published by Academia in 2009. (In 2010, it ranked third in an annual Lidové noviny readers’ poll for the best book.) According to the author of this article, a strong point of Med’s book is its unusually refined style and the biographical portraits of the selected writers. Apart from that, however, the author finds little else to praise about the work. He considers Med’s conception of literary life misleading, since, instead of considering belles-lettres, Med discusses political journalism. The author also sees the work as having a hidden agenda, because, in his opinion, Med’s calling political works ‘literary’ is intended to absolve the authors of their role in the legitimation and building of the authoritarian régime of the Second Republic. Med, in his opinion, lacks the qualifications to write about history or political science in a way that would sufficiently interpret the non-literary contexts of the period, and uses his interpretation to take issue with the nature of the Second Republic régime, which the author of this article considers to have been far-right authoritarian with a clear tendency to fascism, whereas Med tends to see it as an authoritarian or ‘strong’ democracy. Med’s nationally conservative normative perspective, according to Rataj, is also evident in the heavily biased critical assessment of the First Republic. Med’s book, according to him, is essentially an attempt to absolve, morally and politically, a group of Roman Catholic writers from their active support for the Second Republic régime, support that was actually conscious, intentional, and can be clearly demonstrated. With its apologist’s interpretation, the book offers little towards a more profound understanding of either the Second Republic or the ideas of Roman Catholic intellectuals in this period. It is, however, testimony to a pressing need to bolster conservative Roman Catholic myths in the historical consciousness today.
In this article, the author considers Jaroslav Med’s Literární život ve stínu Mnichova (1938–1939) (Literary life in the shadow of the Munich Agreement, 1938–39) in the context of reflections on the relationship between what it is to be Czech and what it is to be European, the role of national myths in the search for Czech collective identity and the bolstering of that identity, and the tension between individual existence, national history, and a universalist historical framework. Med’s concept is, in his opinion, constructed with an eye to the dichotomy of the universalistic and particularistic national conceptions of history and culture, from which the norms were derived for the cultural, intellectual, and ethical orientations of interwar Czechoslovakia. In a space thus defined, Med then explores the literary life of the first and second Czechoslovak republics, in particular literary journalism, in order to trace the characteristic value-orientations and standpoints of the principal literary circles ranging from left to right on the political spectrum and their leading figures, especially Roman Catholic writers, in connection with, among other things, the decisive events of the period. The author of the article praises Med’s literary-historical, or cultural-historical, approach, which draws also on social-science research, his knowledge of the facts, his smooth, comprehensible style, and the moral ethos that comes through in his writing.
Concerning Med’s Literární život ve stínu Mnichova
The key features of Jaroslav Med’s Literární život ve stínu Mnichova (1938–1939) (Literary life in the shadow of the Munich Agreement, 1938–39) are, according to the author of this article, its attempt to see continuity between the interpretation of the literary life of the Second Republic and the attitudes of the Roman Catholic writers of the period on the one hand and the two decades of the First Republic, particularly from 1928 to 1938, on the other. The author puts this attempt into the context of Czech historians’ recent efforts to capture the essential continuity concealed beneath the surface of the radical changes from the 1930s to the 1950s. He sees one difficulty in the fuzzy definition of the terms Med operates with, for example, ‘fascism’ and ‘literary life’, as the central categories of his book, which offers a picture of literary journalism and personal relations of writers, but not, for example, policies of publishing houses. For this reason, he believes that Med also lacks the conceptual tools necessary for a more differentiated analysis of the problems he raises, as, for example, in his simplistic locating of writers and groups of writers on the political spectrum.
The book’s chief contributions, he thinks, are in the search for, and analysis of, the traditions of Czech literature in the first half of the twentieth century. But he rejects as naive Med’s main explanation of the behaviour of the Roman Catholic writers after the end of the First Republic, particularly Med’s claim that in their radical criticism of Masarykian democracy, of left-wing writers and artists, and of Jews, the Roman Catholic writers were unaware of the great change that had suddenly taken place in the autumn of 1938. The author questions Med’s narrative voice as a kind of moral judge who is trying to clear the Roman Catholic writers of the stain of fascism and authoritarian excesses in Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement.
According to the reviewer, Jaroslav Med’s Literární život ve stínu Mnichova (1938–1939) (Literary life in the shadow of the Munich Agreement, 1938–39) presents a panorama of the period through the lens of literary life, while focusing chiefly on landmarks such as the Spanish Civil War. The work is a well-composed whole in which the emphasis on important figures is counterbalanced by an accent on the key ideas and trends of the times. The Czech topic is interpreted against an international background, and literature is considered in the context of the arts and sciences, society, and theology. In this work, the reviewer believes, Med does not cater to any ideology or preconceived thesis, but is a perceptive interpreter of a complicated period.
Nešpor, Zdeněk R. Republika sociologů: Zlatá éra české sociologie v meziválečném období a krátce po druhé světové válce. Prague: Scriptorium, 2011, 304 pp.
The work under review, whose title translates as ‘A Republic of Sociologists: The Golden Age of Czech Sociology in the Interwar Period and Shortly after the Second World War’, is the first history of Czech and Slovak sociology from its beginnings to 1948. Its author, according to the reviewer, has superbly combined sociological understanding with an historical overview, archive research, and extraordinary industry. The reviewer considers the essential strong points of the publication to be its readability and objectivity, as well as its wealth of facts and reliability. The reviewer also discusses the point of writing a history of Czech sociology as a social science that made only a minimal contribution internationally.
The First University Textbook on the History of Communist Czechoslovakia
Rataj, Jan, and Přemysl Houda. Československo v proměnách komunistického režimu. (Řada Vysokoškolská učebnice.) Prague: Vysoká škola ekonomická v Praze and Oeconomica, 2010, 456 pp.
The reviewer sees the book under review, whose title translates as ‘Czechoslovakia in the Various Stages of the Communist Régime’, as an attempt to master a wide range of material and to write, with only two authors, the first university textbook of Czechoslovak history from early 1948 to late 1989. Concerning the scope of the interpretation, however, the reviewer perceives clear disproportions in chronology, geography, and themes, since the brief period of the Prague Spring, 1968–69, is described in the greatest detail, but the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, as well as the twenty years of ‘normalization’, 1970–89, are covered much more briefly, and Slovakia is totally relegated to the back burner. The reviewer also takes issue with certain claims of the two authors, and points to factual errors.
Kalinová, Lenka. Konec nadějím a nová očekávání: K dějinám české společnosti 1969–1993. Prague: Academia, 2012, 398 pp.
The reviewer recalls Lenka Kalinová’s prolific career as an academic, from her work on Czechoslovak social structures in the 1960s to her current synthesizing works on the social history of Czechoslovakia since the Second World War. And he praises Kalinová’s latest book, whose title translates as ‘The End of Hope, New Expectations: On the History of Czech Society, 1969–93’: he calls it a masterful synthesis, which was previously absent in Czech works, based on thorough interdisciplinary research and extraordinary erudition, and a work that contributes a great deal of information, some of which is new. The reviewer concludes by asking to what extent one can understand social policy in socialist Czechoslovakia as the régime’s concession to the population, and also by asking to what extent today’s hypercritical assessment of the economy in the ‘normalization’ period has been determined by the times we live in.
Kroupa, Mikuláš et al. Ještě jsme ve válce. Prague: Post Bellum, Argo, and Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů, 2011, 180 pp.
The thirteen comic-book stories concentrated in this publication, whose title translates as ‘We Are Still at War’, are, according to the reviewer, an unusual and largely successful attempt to familiarize the general public with recent Czechoslovak history. The stories are based on interviews conducted for Post Bellum, a non-profit organization that systematically documents the remarkable lives of people who in one way or another came into conflict with the Communist or the Nazi régime. Despite the differences of depiction and artistic style, the individual episodes endeavour to remain faithful to the narrated stories and are all strikingly informative and effective.
Karafiát’s Fireflies and the Purifying of Children’s Souls in the Twentieth Century
Brožová, Věra. Karafiátovi Broučci v české kultuře. Prague: ARSCI 2011, 144 pp.
Broučci, povídky pro malé i velké děti (Bugs: Stories for children, little and big, 1876; published in English as Fireflies, 1942) was written by Jan Karafiát (1846–1929), a Protestant clergyman. It became the most popular and most reprinted work of Czech literature for children. In the publication under review, Věra Brožová, a literary historian, documents in detail the work’s reception amongst the Czechs, from its first publication to the present day. According to the reviewer, Brožová has thus made a great contribution by graphically demonstrating how a cultural phenomenon such as a children’s book becomes an object of politically ideological interpretations, manipulation, and restrictions, which in this case range from Masaryk’s humanism to Communist atheistic propaganda.
Rossol, Nadine. Performing the Nation in Interwar Germany: Sport, Spectacle and Political Symbolism, 1926–1936. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 226 pp.
In this work, her first monograph, Nadine Rossol explores the shared features of, and changes in, various kinds of public ceremonies in interwar Germany, including processions, parades, demonstrations, celebrations, and sports events. She thereby demonstrates the links between these public cultural presentations and the politics and ideology of the times. According to the reviewer, the publication contributes new information and approaches to the unusually extensive research that already exists, particularly with regard to certain elements of continuity between the Weimar Republic and the Nazi régime.
A Substantial Biography of This Yugoslav Leader Has Yet to Be Written
Pirjevec, Jože. Tito in tovariši. Ljubljana: Cankarjeva založba, 2011, 712 pp.
The reviewer presents the author, Jože Pirjevec, an influential Slovene historian, who has published a number of successful books, particularly on the history of Yugoslavia in the twentieth century. Despite its extraordinary success in Slovenia, his recent biography of Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980), whose title translates as ‘Tito and the Comrades’, does not rank among those books. Though readable and factually reliable, the work, according to the reviewer, suffers from not clearly belonging to any one genre, and failing to combine a biography of Tito and his close collaborators neatly with a general history of the Yugoslav federation. Mainly, however, the work suffers from a lack of research in the main Belgrade archives and also the author’s undiscerning use of published memoirs. The reviewer therefore concludes that we still lack a truly good Tito biography, and that post-Yugoslav national historiography, with the exception of Serbian or, more precisely, some Belgrade historians, has contributed little to knowledge of contemporary Yugoslav history.
Gasteiger, Nepomuk. Der Konsument: Verbraucherbilder in Werbung, Konsumkritik und Verbraucherschutz 1945–1989. Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus, 2010, 291 pp.
According to the reviewer, this publication, by a Munich historian, is a sound contribution to research on consumer culture. What is particularly useful is its linking of discursive analysis of thinking about consumerism, on the one hand, and the description of the development and decline of consumer protection in connection with criticism of consumer society, on the other. Though mainly a discussion of developments in the German Federal Republic, the interpretation it offers reflects wider trends in the USA and western Europe. It is, however, also relevant to research on consumerism in post-war Czechoslovakia, particularly in the 1960s, when the ideas of West German marketing experts were welcomed in Czechoslovakia and influenced the promotion of Czechoslovak exports.
The author presents Polish history periodicals published in 2011 and relevant to the topic of contemporary history. In his report on note-worthy articles, he discusses articles in the periodicals Dzieje Najnowsze, Sobótka, Biluletyn Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej, Wiadomości Historyczne, Przegląd Historyczny, Kwartalnik Historyczny, Przegląd Zachodni, Przegląd Historyczno-Wojskowy, Oświęcim, and Kwartalnik Historii Żydów.