Institute of Contemporary History
Czechoslovakia and East Central Europe in a Global Context
The essay deals with the global historical development of the human rights doctrine and its role in modern politics from a Czech, Czechoslovak and East-Central European point of view. It draws on recent revisionist historiography of human rights the main characteristic of which, described at the beginning of the essay, is the reconstruction of the human rights doctrine as an epiphenomenon of major historical political conflicts. Then, the author turns to the comeback of human rights as a universalistic concept during the Second World War and the Allied struggle against Nazism. He continues with tracing down the general development during the Cold War leading to the promotion of human rights as a part of binding international law since the mid-1970s. Further, the Czechoslovak postwar situation is analysed starting with the Stalinist Constitution of 1948 up to the dissident struggle for human and civil rights during the last two decades of the communist dictatorship. The last part of the essay examines the rise of liberal internationalism and humanitarian interventionism in the post-1989 period and strives to specify the Czechoslovak and Czech development within a broader context, finishing with a plea for understanding human rights as a space for political deliberation, dialogue and contest.
Czechoslovakia and the Sino-Soviet Dispute over the International Communist Movement (1953–62)
In this article, the author traces the changes in the Czechoslovak position in the international Communist movement after the Communist Party took power in Czechoslovakia. She concentrates on the Party’s relations with the Soviet and the Chinese Communists, which from the 1950s onwards represented two competing centres of power in world Communism. She argues that in Czechoslovak foreign policy the Communists subordinated the defence of State interests to the international solidarity of the workers, and, in keeping with that ideological guideline, the tasks of Czechoslovak foreign policy were set mainly according to the Soviet agenda and its vaguely defined aims for the international Communist movement. Prague became dependent on Moscow for personnel, information, and material, and lost the ability to act independently in international politics both outside and inside the Soviet bloc. Amongst Prague’s priorities were efforts to achieve the unity of the Soviet system of alliances and, beginning at the latest in 1956, it considered military intervention a suitable instrument in the event of a threat to that system. A comparative analysis of records for the ten years from 1953 to 1962, from the Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic and from the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership, which are deposited in the National Archive, Prague, demonstrate that Czechoslovak foreign policy was actually formed by way of inter-Party contacts. The Soviet Communists were paramount in the hierarchy; in the eyes of the Czechoslovak Communists, the Soviet position remained unchallenged by any Chinese attempts to provide an alternative to Soviet methods and plans to develop the international Communist movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, at multilateral talks amongst dozens of Communist Parties in Moscow in November 1957 and in 1960, where Chinese objections were discussed, Czechoslovak Communists arrived after having been instructed by their Soviet comrades, and from this position they rejected all Chinese activities, despite Czechoslovak efforts to establish friendly and close ties with their Beijing comrades after 1948. As a result of this linking of Czechoslovak Party and State matters, Czechoslovak-Chinese collaboration ceased in the early 1960s, and the Soviet Union promised to compensate for any damages that thus accrued to the Czechoslovak economy.
The French Communist Party and the Prague Spring
The French Communists’ official reactions to the Soviet-led military intervention by five Warsaw Pact countries in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 are generally considered to mark the first time in history that the French Communist Party decided not to show public support for an international operation by the Soviet Union. As the author demonstrates with an analysis of records from the Archive of the French Communist Party and the central Czechoslovak archives, French Communist support for the Czechoslovak reform movement was not exactly straightforward; nor was subsequent French Communist condemnation of the August military intervention consistent. The French Communist Party leaders’ attitude to Alexander Dubček (1921–1992) and the Prague Spring can, according to the author, be reasonably described as limited support, which did not go beyond the limits of friendship with the Soviet Union. The diplomatic activity of the General Secretary of the French Communist Party, Waldeck Rochet (1905–1983), also stemmed from this attitude: in July 1968, he tried, unsuccessfully, to act as a broker between Prague and Moscow and thus prevent the military intervention. By contrast, amongst French Communist intellectuals, like Roger Garaudy (1913–2012) and Louis Aragon (1897–1982), sympathies for the Prague Spring were much more visible. In contrast to the enthusiasm with which these intellectuals welcomed ‘Socialism with a human face’ in Czechoslovak, however, were the impressions of the French Communist Party rank-and-file who had experienced the Prague Spring in person – they perceived it as a threat to Socialism and were unpleasantly surprised by manifestations of Czech and Slovak idealization of the West. Although the French Communist Party initially ‘condemned’ the intervention in Czechoslovakia, the next day its leaders moderated their negative response, expressing ‘disagreement’. Ultimately, this position had no real influence on the French Party’s relations with the Soviet Union. Indeed, according to the author, it would be more accurate to talk of a certain buttressing of those relations, since it turned out that they could be further developed regardless of the French Party’s not agreeing with the intervention. The attitude of the French Communist Party leadership after August 1968 was therefore of a dual nature: the Party declared that it stuck to its original position of disagreement with the intervention, but that was not really manifested in their politics in practice: in fact, they maintained friendly relations with both the Soviet Communists and the ‘normalized’ Czechoslovak Communist Party. But not all French Communists agreed with this stance. For many French Communist intellectuals, the official condemnation was insufficient, and they appealed for greater solidarity with occupied Czechoslovakia. Nor amongst the rank-and-file of the French Communist Party was opinion unanimous; probably many members agreed with the intervention in Czechoslovakia.
The Soviet Army, 1968–91, in the Memory of Czech Society
In this article, the author raises the question of what now, more than twenty years later, the ‘stay’ (pobyt, as it was officially called), of the Soviet Army in Czechoslovakia means to the inhabitants of the country. How, she asks, is it recalled in the public space and the mass media, and what images are most frequently evoked in this connection? Whereas the Soviet-led intervention by troops of the Warsaw Pact countries in August 1968 holds a lasting place in Czech memory and historiography, the subsequent stay of Soviet troops in the country has far fuzzier contours. Though in this connection the term ‘occupation’ (okupace) is regularly used today, there is no simple agreement about its political meaning. In the article, the author seeks to identify the changes in the communicated meanings of the occupation, when the original nation-wide consensus of its rejection was squeezed out by the reality of officially imposed friendship and the ‘twinning’ (družba) of Czechoslovak and Soviet towns. Under its facade, by contrast, people developed variously accented and motivated attitudes, such as keeping their distance or being accommodating, the plurality of which has largely survived in the collective memory unchallenged to this day. The author, however, points mainly to the fundamental shift in the perception of the stay of the Soviet Army, which took place after the Changes beginning in mid-November 1989, when, the degradation of the buildings occupied by the Soviets and the land that they stand on, and the gradual rectification of this, have become the main topics, rather than related aspects of political power.
Gustáv Husák and Power and Political Fights Inside the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia as Exemplified by the Presidency Issue (1969–75)
This article presents an analysis of Czechoslovak political history of the first half of the 1970s and the question of who would succeed General Ludvík Svoboda (1895–1979) as Czechoslovak President. The emphasis is on the role of Gustáv Husák (1913–1991), who emerged from the political crisis of 1968–69 as the most powerful actor, and was, at the 14th Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, confirmed as General Secretary of the Party. Using Soviet archives, the author points to differences between the individual members of the Party leadership, and particularly to the lack of unity amongst the so-called ‘healthy forces’. According to him, it is fair to talk about the disintegration of this bloc, which had been formed during the Prague Spring, into several smaller groups. The secretary of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Vasil Biľak (1917–2014), was, in consequence of this and Soviet pressure, forced to abandon any ambitions to stand at the head of the Party, and had to be satisfied, instead, with the position of Number Two in the Party. The Soviet leadership derived social stability in Czechoslovakia from the firmness of the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership, and in particular counted on the collaboration of Husák and Biľak, and it made this clear to both men. Svoboda’s failing health prevented him from properly discharging his duties as President of Czechoslovakia, but he did not even try to hold on to the presidency, even though, in the interest of political stability, he was confirmed in office in March 1973, and remained something of a temporary solution. The article does not seek to challenge or confirm the hypothesis that he was forced to step down in May 1975; although, in any event, Svoboda was in no condition to have taken this step himself. Husák’s efforts to become President kept running up against the question of the accumulation of offices and also the Czech-Slovak national factor, even though, thanks to centrist Czechoslovak policy and support from Moscow, he succeeded in achieving a ‘peculiar unity’ over this question in the CPCz leadership, so that on 29 May 1975 he became the first, and also the last, Czechoslovak President who was a Slovak. In Czech eyes, however, he remained a Slovak who had, after August 1968, considerably participated in the unfortunate re-imposition of hard-line Communism known as ‘normalization’, whereas for the Slovak nation he increasingly became a turncoat, a ‘Prague Slovak’.
The author looks back at the career of the historian Mečislav Borák (b. 1945) on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, and discusses a large selection of his publications. He emphasizes Borák’s well-rooted regional interests in Těšínsko (Cieszyn Silesia, Těšin Silesia, or Teschen Silesia) and Czech Silesia, which, however, Borák has successfully moved beyond to precisely include the Czechoslovak and international context, as well as linking together micro- and macrohistory. He has always been interested in ordinary people, whose life stories he has put into the larger framework of ‘big’ history in an interesting and original way. He has repeatedly returned to topics that have interested him, each time coming up with new facts and views, allowing him to review and expand previous conclusions, and to add considerably to our knowledge of these histories. Before the Changes of late 1989, Borak focused on topics of the German occupation and the resistance to it. Later, he expanded his areas of interest to include research on acts of political oppression against the people of Czechoslovakia and, more broadly, central and eastern Europe, from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. He was a pioneer in research on the courts of retribution. A distinctive area of his research was his work on the history of the Shoah and various forms of persecution of the Jews. Another of his later key topics was the Katyn massacre and its victims from the Bohemian Lands. From here Borák proceeded to search for, record, and make sense of cases of the political persecution of Czechs and Slovaks in the Soviet Union. His most recent field of research is the Polish minority and inter-ethnic relations in the context of Czechoslovak-Polish and Czech-Polish contemporary history. His academic career has long been connected with the University of Ostrava, the University of Silesia in Opava, the Silesian Museum, also in Opava, and the Institute of Contemporary History, in Prague. Professor Borak has published two dozen specialist books and more than 150 articles. He has participated in at least three dozen research projects, worked extensively as an editor, expert, and consultant, and also written works of journalism and popular history. Of the more than a dozen documentary films he has worked on as a screen-writer and narrator, the film Zločin jménem Katyň (A Crime Called Katyn), was particularly well received, and won a number of prizes at international fi lm festivals.
A Unique Edition of Documents from the Czech Archives Is Bringing Down Established Legends
ARBURG, Adrian von – STANĚK, Tomáš (ed.): Vysídlení Němců a proměny českého pohraničí 1945–1951: Dokumenty z českých archivů [Expulsion of the Germans and the Transformation of the Czech Border Regions 1945–1951: Documents from the Czech Archives]. Vol. I: Češi a Němci do roku 1945: Úvod k edici [Czechs and Germans until 1945: Introduction to the Edition]. Středokluky, Zdeněk Susa 2010, 373 pages, ISBN 978-80-86057-67-5; Vol. II/1: Duben–srpen/záři 1945: “Divoký odsun” a počátky osídlování [April-August/ September 1945: The “Wild” Expulsion and the Beginnings of Resettlement]. Středokluky, Zdeněk Susa 2011, 957 pages + CD ROM, ISBN 978-80-86057-71-2; Vol. II/3: Akty hromadného násilí v roce 1945 a jejich vyšetřování [Acts of Mass Violence in 1945 and Their Investigation]. Středokluky, Zdeněk Susa 2010, 332 pages + CD ROM, ISBN 978-80-86057-68-2.
This is a review of the three volumes published so far in a large project called The Expulsion of the Germans and Changes in the Czech Borderlands, 1945–51, the work mainly of the Swiss historian Adrian von Arburg and his Czech colleague Tomáš Staněk. The reviewer discusses their research and the resulting publications in the context of the wider discourse on mass migrations (including the transfers and expulsions) of peoples of Europe after the Second World War. She criticizes the concept of ethnic cleansing as it has been interpreted and explained to the general readership particularly by the American historian Norman M. Naimark (b. 1944, Professor of Eastern European Studies at Stanford). This concept, she argues, ignores the empirical research on the special aspects of the historic situations, particularly the political factors of various forms of migration, and it instead constructs, on the basis of superficial similarities between the migrations, a generalizing picture of the overall misguideness of Europeans in the twentieth century. Through this lens, some authors have then also used the misleading comparison of the repressive practices of the Nazi regime and the post-war Czechoslovak regime, as personified by Adolf Hitler and the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš. From what she has discovered in her own research, the reviewer argues that these scholarly approaches often merely revive, or keep alive, legends and stereotypes that have been passed on in German interpretations of the expulsion of the Czechoslovak Germans and the events leading up to them. She illustrates this with examples from the propagandistic post-war writings of the head of the Sudeten German Social Democrats, Wenzel Jaksch (1896–1966), and his adherents, which were formulated for the international public. The reviewer also provides an overview of published editions of historical sources on the expulsion of the Czechoslovak Germans, and she emphasizes the newness of Staněk and von Arburg’s approach. Though they consider the same historical events, the works by these two scholars do not, unlike other editions, use emotionally coloured rhetoric, nor do they pursue political ends; rather than judge, they explain, and thanks to that, offer evidence on the arduous experiences of the Czechoslovak Germans which is more persuasive than propagandistic interpretations. In addition to systematically making hitherto forgotten documents from dozens of Czech archives and eyewitness statements accessible for the first time, Staněk and von Arburg critically compare them with other available information. One more essential difference between the publications in this series and other works on the topic is that that they look at migration in post-war Czechoslovakia geographically unlike the hitherto usually historical but outmoded ethnic view. This enables them to explain the expulsion of the Germans and the resettlement of the lands they had occupied as two complementary, interconnected processes, and to offer a comprehensive picture of relations in the Czechoslovak borderlands at that time. The reviewer provides a summary of the new information contained in these volumes, which, she argues, changes the established picture of post-war Czechoslovakia. In conclusion, she points to serious obstacles standing in the way of completing the series.
On Igor Lukeš’s Book “On the Edge of the Cold War”
Lukeš, Igor. Československo nad propastí: Selhání amerických diplomatů a tajných služeb v Praze 1945–1948. Trans. from the English by Jan Jirák and Ladislav Koppl. Prague: Prostor, 2014, 383 pp., ISBN 978-80-7260-292-6.
The review of Igor Lukeš’s book and its recent Czech translation is conceived on the broader plan of an analysis of US-Czechoslovak relations in the years immediately after the Second World War. The book, according to the reviewer, is the result of extensive research in all of the important American and Czech archives. Moreover, it is to the author’s great credit that he conducted numerous interviews with people involved in the described events and has made use of the unpublished manuscripts they provided him with. He offers a highly attractive, indeed gripping, account, thanks to which the reader gets a very good idea of what it was that led to the Communist takeover in late February 1948. But this picture is neither complete nor balanced. In this work about the failure of US diplomats and the US secret services in Prague, its greatest strength, according to the reviewer, is, somewhat paradoxically, the revealing passages about the activities of the Czechoslovak intelligence services against the US Embassy and its representatives in Czechoslovakia. What is problematic, however, is the interpretations based on insufficient sources, factual imprecision, and careless interpretation or even intentional shifts, which the reviewer exposes by analysing the withdrawal of the US Army from Czechoslovakia, the role of Czechoslovakia in post-war US policy, and the character of the US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Laurence A. Steinhardt (1892–1950). Lukeš, according to the reviewer, too readily accepts the idea that Czechoslovakia was of great importance as an American ‘testing ground’ to determine the possibilities of maintaining friendly relations with the Soviet Union, while he fails to take into account essential shifts in developments. Above all, however, he presents a contrived portrait of Steinhardt as an originally capable and responsible diplomat who, in consequence of professional failures in his Prague mission, ceased to take an interest in Prague events, paying more attention to his private affairs than his ambassadorial duties.
Three Books on Similar Themes
DANFORTH, Loring M. – BOESCHOTEN, Riki van: Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory. Chicago – London, University of Chicago Press 2012, 329 pages, ISBN 978-0-226-13598-4; KRÁLOVÁ, Kateřina – TSIVOS, Konstantinos et al.: Vyschly nám slzy… Řečtí uprchlíci v Československu [Our Tears Dried Up… Greek Refugees in Czechoslovakia]. Praha, Dokořán 2012, 331 pages, ISBN 978-80-7363-416-2; TSIVOS, Konstantinos: Řecká emigrace v Československu (1948–1968): Od jednoho rozštěpení ke druhému [Greek Emigration in Czechoslovakia (1948–1968): From One Split to Another]. Praha, Fakulta sociálních věd Univerzity Karlovy [Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University] – Dokořán 2011, 277 pages, ISBN 978-80-7363-404-9.
The author of this review compares and contrasts three publications on the exodus of refugees from northern Greece to the countries of the Soviet bloc in consequence of the Greek Civil War, from 1946 to 1949. Whereas the Danforth and van Boeschoten publication concentrates on the children evacuated from areas threatened by war at that time, and seeks to chart out these events to their full extent, the two Czech works limit themselves to a consideration of the wave of Greek children and adult refugees to Czechoslovak and their later life in the host country. The first two publications make extensive use of the recollections of eyewitnesses, though the publication by Danforth and van Boeschoten is more advanced in the application of the latest methods of oral history and is theoretically more useful. Nevertheless, the essay collection by Kateřina Králová, Konstantinos Tsivos, and others, whose title translates as ‘We have no tears left to cry: Greek refugees in Czechoslovakia’, achieves its aim of providing a vivid, if incomplete, picture of research on the topic. Both in its aims and in its methods the work authored by Tsivos alone is markedly different from the other two books under review. It is a historical study based on fact with a distinctive undercurrent of social history, and ignoring oral-history sources.
BREN, Paulina: Zelinář a jeho televize: Kultura komunismu po pražském jaru 1968 [The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring]. (Translated from English by Petruška Šustrová) Praha, Academia 2013, 458 pages, ISBN 978-80-200-2322-3.
According to the reviewer, this publication, a Czech translation of The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010) by the American historian Paulina Bren is exactly the kind of contribution to Czech history from abroad that Czechs have to welcome with open arms. It contains extremely interesting observations, an original grasp of a whole previously untouched topic, sketched-out comparisons and analogies not only with Soviet life and events in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, but also with developments in western Europe and the United States of America. It is written in a rather essayistic style, which is still quite unusual for Czech readers, and is free of the burden of great amounts of descriptive information. The emphasis is on individual ideas and the book is entirely free from any clumsy positivistic endeavour to present a synthesis of all the facts, large and small, related to the considerably wide topic. That then makes allows the author to create a coherent and rather gripping picture, which, however, does not fully make its impact until it enters into dialogue with the active reader. This is a book that does not close a debate, but, on the contrary, initiates it. And it is precisely such books that are still lacking in Czech historiography, particularly in the field of contemporary history. None the less, on some particular points the picture sketched out by the author only partly corresponds to reality and sometimes even completely misses it. That shortcoming stems from a lack of knowledge of the deeper cultural background of certain adopted clichés and misinterpretations, but also from a number of factual errors, which could have been corrected by the translator or the editor.