The Institute history

The Institute was founded in 1990 on the initiative of the history commission of the Civic Forum. The idea was sparked by the practice current in most West-European countries, where institutions for research into recent history had already been in existence for a number of decades. The aim was to establish a workplace for an independent exploration of Czechoslovak history during the period 1938–1989. That this phase of Czechoslovak history needed to be investigated seemed particularly important, and indeed urgent, in the post-November milieu in view of the fact that during the time of communist control, any research undertaken was subject to constant ideological supervision, background checks on participants and censorship of findings. An all-embracing knowledge of its communist past was seen as one of the prerequisites for Czechoslovakia taking its place among European democratic nations. It was in this context that the Institute of Contemporary History was set up. It should be noted that the Institute was particularly fortunate at this juncture in being able to rely upon the direction of Vilém Prečan, whose knowledge and expertise, gained as an exile in West Germany, were invaluable in guiding the Institute through the initial period of its formation.

During those early years, the Institute as we know it today took shape. The building which houses its centre of operations in Vlašská Street was reconstructed, with, it should be added, the generous support of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Likewise, the library came into being. Publication activities, too, began shortly after the Institute’s foundation, among others edition series Sešity Ústavu pro soudobé dějiny [Textbooks of the Institute], Prameny k dějinám československé krize 1967–1970 [Sources on the history of the Czechoslovak crisis 1967–1970], Svědectví o době a lidech [Evidence about the times and people] were established between 1990 and 1992. The journal Soudobé dějiny [Contemporary History] was first published in 1993, a bibliography of contemporary history, which is updated on a continuous basis, also saw the light of day. Indeed in 1998 when Vilém Prečan handed the mantle over to his successor, the second director Oldřich Tůma, the Institute was an established and respected institution. This was gratifyingly borne out in 1999 when the Institute was awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize by the Institute für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen and Koerber-Stiftung.

The turn of the century brought with it a generation change. Gradually, the band of researchers who had built up the Institute, those individuals whose careers had been so violently disrupted in the two decades after 1968, left. They were replaced by a younger group of researchers who had trained in the new conditions prevailing after 1989. In 2003, a branch of the Institute was opened in Brno. In 2002 saw the transfer of the Research Centre for the History of Sciences and Humanities to the Institute from the Archive of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, a move that came about as a result of joint undertakings by scholars in areas of common interest. This amalgamation led to a widening of the scope of research projects. Between 2002 and 2011, the Documentation Centre for Property Transfers of the Cultural Assets of W W II Victims was operating as an autonomous organizational unit of the Institute as well as the Centre for the Comparative Contemporary History of Central Europe, a joint project implemented together with the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam, in the years 2007–2010 (Socialist Dictatorship as a World of Meaning). In connection with the development of new research methods and extension of the research focuses new editorial series were also established shortly after 2000: Hlasy minulosti [Voices of the Past], Česká společnost po roce 1945 [Czech society after 1945]. In 2016, the Institute introduced the title “researcher emeritus of the Institute of Contemporary History” in recognition of lifelong merits for the development of the institute or the scientific discipline, which has so far been awarded to Professor Vilém Prečan, Associate Professor Karel Kaplan, and Dr. Milan Otáhal.

Indeed it might be said that, notwithstanding its short existence, the Institute has forged an international reputation in modern and contemporary history. Today, indeed, we have a well-established Institute of learning that routinely cooperates with corresponding centres of historical study around the world.

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