Institute of Contemporary History
On the Fateful Event of Czech and European History – without Legends and National Stereotypes
This essay examines, in ten clearly formulated propositions, the causes and the long-term impact of the Munich Agreement of September 1938. This complex theme is approached through not purely national lenses. The term “betrayal” as a dominant label of the actions of the two West European democratic powers is thus questioned. The author claims that the British and French unwillingness to go to war because of Czechoslovakia’s border regions is, in the light of previous historical developments, understandable and, in a way, even rational. He also points out certain deficiencies in the Czechoslovak treatment of its German minority. At the same time, Czechoslovakia’s political leaders were playing a strange game with their people in September 1938, alternately stirring up and moderating their patriotic feelings – depending on where the behind-the-scenes negotiations on Czechoslovak border regions were heading at a given moment. Also the alleged Soviet preparedness to come to Czechoslovakia’s assistance in September 1938 is more than questionable; Stalin intended to intervene only in a European war, not to help lonesome Czechoslovakia. Nonetheless, Munich has had, and unfortunately continues to have, a fundamental influence on the Czech “mental map” of Europe.
The lesson according to which the West should not be trusted and it would therefore be advisable to look for protection and alliance in the East still lives on in minds of a number of Czech politicians and of a not negligible segment of the public. On the other hand, the “lessons of Munich,” according to which it is not advisable to make concessions to any aggression or blackmailing, became a part of policies of Western statesmen confronting expansionist dictatorships, and the other life of Munich thus continued to complicate the use of “negotiations” as a method of dealing with international crises by Western politicians in the Cold War and beyond.
A Picture of the Return of Czech Legionnaires to Their Homeland in Their Recollections and Autobiographic Novels
The study stems from the author’s long-time interest in the history of the Czechoslovak foreign resistance during the Great War, particularly in Russia. As to its sources, it draws from a collection of published recollections of Czechoslovak legionnaires and their autobiographic novels and other texts of prose. The author attempts to reconstruct the picture of the return of Czechoslovak legions from Russia to their home country; due to the nature of his sources, however, his intention is not to convey an authentic experience of the return in the first days and weeks, but rather to examine the construct created by the legionnaires’ memories and novels. In this respect, he makes use of, in particular, Anglo-Saxon historical literature dealing with similar topics. The key issues include how individuals or whole social groups were coping with the reality of the new-born republic, which was rather different from the visions of the home country they had been dreaming about while away. An important factor affecting their reflections was also the required political nonaffiliation of organizations of legionnaires, as well as the criticism of the situation not just among the veterans, but in the entire society. The extent of the idealization of Russia, which was a fairly frequent phenomenon among them, was directly proportional to the disillusionment after their return, and was a mirror image of their previous idealization of home while they had been in Russia. In the author’s opinion, the topic of the return of Czechoslovak legions home and their life in their home country is far from exhausted; this is why the present study should be just a springboard to further broadly conceived research.
The author first summarizes the career of Jozef Tiso (1887–1947), a politician and a Roman Catholic priest. His entire political life was linked to Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party; he was always a representative of its moderate faction, and even represented it as a minister of the Czechoslovak government. In 1939, he became its chairman. In the First Czechoslovak Republic, he was a dyed-in-the-wool federalist; since the proclamation of the Slovak State in March 1939 until the end of his life, an advocate of Slovakia’s independence. As the president of the Slovak Republic between 1939 and 1945, he was responsible for Slovakia’s political regime, alliance with the Nazi Germany until the end of the war, and deportations of Slovak Jews. After the war, he was tried by the National Court of Justice, sentenced to death, and executed in 1947. The author analyzes in detail the accusations brought against Tito during the trial and Tiso’s defence, as the arguments presented by both parties were later used by Tiso’s adversaries and sympathizers. Czech politicians and general public after the war were united in their condemnation of Tiso; in their eyes, Tiso’s biggest crime was his share in the destruction of the common state.
On the other hand, the Slovaks’ view on Tiso depended on their attitude toward the previous political regime in Slovakia. Furthermore, the author monitors how Tiso’s cult was formed in the separatist segment of the Slovak exile since the end of the war. It was spreading mainly in the United States, Canada, and Argentina, but the efforts aimed at Tiso’s moral purification were unsuccessful. The article also pays special attention to Tiso’s reflections in the Czech and Slovak dissent in the 1970s and 1980s. In the end, the author describes disputes over Tiso which broke up after 1989 in Slovakia and which were a part of the “return of history” to the public space. They were related to attempts for Tiso’s commemoration and historical rehabilitation, and found their way to the media, politics, and historiography. The essay is concluded by a statement that the Czech society is not interested in Tiso as a historical figure, but that Tiso still divides the Slovak one: a minority of the Slovak society sees Tiso as a hero and a martyr, while most Slovaks perceive him as an unsuccessful and discredited politician.
A Political Machination, Retribution Excess or an Incubator of Revolutionary Morals?
Using results of extensive research in central and company archives, the author studies the cleansing of industrial plants from collaborationists and so-called anti-social elements in Czechoslovakia in 1945. He describes it as a standard-setting process during which the form of a new revolutionary value system and guilt criteria in relation to the occupation past arising therefrom were negotiated and established in practice in factories and plants. Both escalated nationalism and social egalitarianism, sometimes developing into class antagonism, found their use in it. In addition to acts prosecuted under official legislation, the cleansing process incorporated various minor conflicts of employees during the occupation, in particular disputes between subordinates and superiors. For this reason, mainly top-ranking white collars, human resource officers, rate setters, and shop foremen were removed from their positions. The articulation of guilt of the above group also worked as an absolution of others, particularly rank-and-fi le workers and white collars, at the symbolic and psychological level. The selected guilt criteria were subsequently becoming a part of the legitimization pattern of the ongoing revolution.
The study illustrates how company councils, acting through investigation commissions which, nevertheless, had to create their own legal rules as they had no position or status defined in official legislation, were trying, since mid-May 1945, to regulate, formalize, and unify initial spontaneous actions of employees. However, the legal uncertainty in factories led to a decline of respect to superiors, deterioration of working morale, and devaluation of expertise. In mid-July 1945, organs of the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement intervened into the cleansing process, as they were interested in improving the performance of the nationalized industry. Appeal chambers were established at regional trade union councils as second-instance bodies deciding disputes submitted by industrial plants. In doing so, they were demanding a higher quality of submitted legal documents and supporting assigning the individuals affected by the cleansing to adequate working positions in the production process. In October 1945, results of the company cleansing process were incorporated, under the pressure of trade unions, into official legislation under the so-called Small Retribution Decree. The resulting legal framework was thus an apparent compromise between pre-war legal conventions and moral criteria established during the May 1945 revolution.
The Political Role of the Soviet Army and Its Local Allies in “Normalization” of Czechoslovakia (1968–1969)
The study deals with political activities of the Soviet Army in Czechoslovakia after the intervention on August 21, 1968, and its sympathizers from the ranks of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The authoress examines the topic in the early stage of the so-called normalization (until the spring of 1970), focusing on the local level; however, she sets her research into a broader period context and derives general conclusions from its results. Although the official agreement on the temporary stay of Soviet troops in the territory of Czechoslovakia declared that the Soviet Army should not interfere with domestic affairs of the Czechoslovak state, the Soviet leadership kept devising plans how to make use of the presence of Soviet troops for political purposes. Soviet officers participated in the dissemination of Soviet propaganda, established contacts with local anti-reform party officials, spoke at their forums, complained about hostile attitudes of Czechoslovak political bodies, and thus kept pressing for a legitimization of the political arrangements. The authoress shows that local pro-Soviet activists, who had maintained contacts with the Soviet Army from the very beginning and been taking over its political agenda, were playing a crucial role in the success of these efforts. In line with Soviet intentions, they were implementing the normalization process “from below”, initiating purges in various organs, demanding the dismissal of officials protesting against presence of the Soviet Army, participating in the subsequent political vetting. They were actively pushing through a change of the official approach to the Soviet Army and helped break its boycott by the Czechoslovak society, which had initially been almost unanimous. In doing so, they were making use of their personal contacts to organize manifestation “friendship” meetings and visits of Soviet soldiers to Czechoslovak schools and factories. The authoress analyzes the reasons of the attitude of these activists, most of whom came from the ranks of “old” (pre-war) and “distinguished” members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and illustrates the development outlined above by specific examples. By way of conclusion, she notes that, although different forms of the Czechoslovak-Soviet “friendship” since 1968 are often viewed as mere formalistic acts without any deeper meaning at the level of “lived” experience, they were, from the viewpoint of the Soviet policy, well thought-out and centrally planned propagandistic activities which contributed to the promotion of the Soviet interpretation of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion and discredited its opponents.
This article focuses on the early post-1989 period when the “Slovak question” returned with full force to the gradually democratizing political arena and surprised Czech society and its budding political elite, who were both unprepared to address the question. The author reveals the imbalance of “Czechoslovakism” – its story and historical lesson – between the two sides of the once united country. In Slovakia, Czechoslovakism was “part of the living language of politics and journalism of the Slovak experience,” whilst in Czech society, its reception was lukewarm and superficial. Thanks to his insight into federal and republican politics in the early days of democratic revival, the author presents his readers with a fascinating breakdown of the factual-historic presence of Czechoslovakism at a time when its word-historical presence was minimal. He analyzes how Slovakia stepped into democracy by exercising its national sovereignty in federal structures and played as active a role as ever in Czech-Slovak relations. Meanwhile, the Czech side remained merely reactive. In contrast to the Slovak scene, Czechs were engaged in a “politics of returns,” buttressed by a resolutely idealized image of the First Republic and a renewed spirit of “Czechoslovakness,” which was deceptively refreshing for Czech society. These were two political worlds, able to fi nd a common denominator only with great effort. The author explains that Czech politics were de facto forced – by the Slovaks, who were developing federal principles and creating policies for national sovereignty – into lackluster policy-making of their own national sovereignty. Even so, these forced politics had their advocates, such as national-socialist politicians in the Czech National Council at that time.
In his contribution, Oldřich Tůma describes the life story of historian Karel Kaplan, who celebrated his 90th birthday in 2018. His career is a typical example of fates of a whole generation of Czech historians – it also holds true in the sense that he was not only a historian, but in many respects also a participant in and co-creator of the latest Czechoslovak history. He was born on August 28, 1928, in Horní Jelení in the region of Pardubice in eastern Bohemia. Since 1948, he worked for sixteen years in different positions in the apparatus of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. He became a full-fl edged historian in 1964, when he started working at the Institute of History of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. In the 1960s, he was a member of several commissions of historians investigating acts of illegal persecution taking place in 1950s, which substantially changed his views. In 1970, he was dismissed from the Communist party, worked as a stoker, and spent a few months in detention. In 1976, he went to exile in the Federal Republic of Germany and he began to intensively publish there. In his numerous monographs and studies many of which were translated into major languages of the world, he described and mercilessly analyzed the operation of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Upon his return home, he was one of the leading personalities of the newly established Institute for Contemporary History in Prague. Since the 1990s, he has published further dozens of essential works without which the Czechoslovakia’s historiography of the 1945–1969 period would be unimaginable.
Jana Wohlmuth Markupová
This text offers a reflection of the conference “A Hundred Student (R)Evolutions”, which took place in the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague on 24 May 2019. Its main purpose was to present conclusions of an oral history based longitudinal research about Czech student activists from 1989, published in a book One Hundred Student Evolutions (Prague, Academia 2019), which is a continuation of a book One Hundred Student Revolutions (first published in 1999). The author sums up key moments from all presented contributions and focuses also on the discussion and its overlap from a historical conference to the present days.
Josef Serinek and Jan Tesař as a Challenge for Current Research into the History of the Roma in the 20th Century
TESAŘ, Jan: Česká cikánská rapsodie [The Czech gypsy rhapsody]. Vol. 1: Vzpomínky Josefa Serinka [Recollections of Josef Serinek]; IDEM: Místo epilogu: Rozhovor s Josefem Ondrou [Instead of an epilogue: An interview with Josef Ondra; Documents]; Dokumenty [Documents]; Vol. 2: IDEM: Komentáře ke vzpomínkám Josefa Serinka [Comments on the recollections of Josef Serinek]; Vol. 3: Mapy, tabulky, diagramy: Partyzáni na Vysočině [Maps, tables, charts: Partisans in the Vysočina region]; IDEM: Serinkovské inspirace [Serinkian inspirations]. Praha, Triáda 2016, 502 + 635 + 208 pages, ISBN 978-80-87256-86-2.
The authoress comments on the three-volume publication Czech Gipsy Rhapsody from the perspective of the current state of knowledge of the Romani history in the territory of Czechoslovakia. She states it is an inspiring work, both thematically and factually and in terms of methodology and interpretation. She emphasizes the uniqueness of the narration of Josef Serinek (1900–1964), recorded by historian Jan Tesař in 1963 and 1964, as one of the oldest sources of Romani provenience on the history of the Romani nation in the Czech Lands in the first half of the 20th century, including their wartime genocide. She dwells for some time on several topics
closely related to specific moments of Serinek’s narration, namely the involvement of Romanies in fights for the liberation of Czechoslovakia, evidence concerning the so-called gipsy camp in Lety u Písku, consequences of the First Republic s law on “itinerant gipsies”, and Romani self-organization attempts in inter-war Europe. The strongest aspects of Tesař’s work are, in her opinion, Tesař s interpretation of the holocaust of Romanies in the Protectorate, which caused signifi cant damage to the whole Czechoslovak society, and the way in which Tesař sets Serinek, a Romani survivor and also a freedom fighter, into the narration about the genocide which the Czech population made a substantial contribution to. The authoress shows how fragile and unobvious is the Tesař s picture of Serinek as a “Romani hero of the Czechoslovak fight for freedom” in the collective memory of the Czech society, including its Romani segment.
MARŠÁLEK, Zdenko: “Česká,” nebo “československá” armáda? Národnostní složeni československých vojenských jednotek v zahraničí v letech 1939–1945 [A “Czech” or “Czechoslovak” army? The ethnic composition of Czechoslovak military units abroad 1939–1945). Praha, Academia 2017, 528 pages, ISBN 978-80-200-2608-8.
The author examines in detail the ethnic structure of Czechoslovak units which were formed in France, Great Britain, Soviet Union, North Africa and Middle East during the Second World War. His work is based mainly on a statistical analysis of an extensive set of data stored in the complete electronic database of soldiers of the Czechoslovak foreign army of the Central Military Archives – Military History Institute in Prague. The reviewer describes the numerical methods used, including their benefits and limitations, and presents the author’s conclusions and hypotheses. In his opinion, the most significant finding of the book is that concerning the diversity of the Czechoslovak units abroad; compared to other exile armies, the Czechoslovak Army’s ethnic structure was by far the most diverse one. The diversity of and percentages of different nationalities in the units depended on the place where they were formed and the time of their formation.
SUK, Jiří: Veřejné záchodky ze zlata: Konflikt mezi komunistickým utopismem a ekonomickou racionalitou v předsrpnovém Československu [Public lavatories made of gold: The conflict between communist utopianism and economic rationality in Czechoslovakia before August 1968]. Praha, Prostor 2016, 325 pages, ISBN 978-80-7260-341-1.
In the reviewer s opinion, this book is an important contribution to studies of the evolution of economic thinking in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and of the reform process culminating in the Prague Spring in 1968, hitherto unparalleled in Czech historiography. However, the author does not focus only on the economic theory prevailing at that time, but also examines it, mainly from philosophical and sociological perspectives, in a broader historical context, including paradigmatic Marxist works and Soviet disputes concerning the economic policy after the Bolshevik revolution. He is interested in the form and viability of the new economic model, or the Czechoslovak concept of the “socialism with a human face”, including its internal conflicts and limits of thinking and acts of various players. The greatest deal of attention is paid to Ota Šik (1919–2004), then Director of the Institute of Economics of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and the principal author of the “third way” economic concept; the author also describes the restorative reaction of the political regime against the concept after the defeat of the Prague Spring. The reviewer presents the content of each chapter of the book and formulates some partial reservations.
WAGNEROVÁ, Alena: Žena za socialismu: Československo 1945–1974 a reflexe vývoje před rokem 1989 a po něm [Woman under socialism: Czechoslovakia 1945–1974 and the reflection of the development before and after 1989]. (Gender sondy [Gender probes], Vol. 12.) Translated from German by the author. Praha, Sociologické nakladatelství 2017, 262 pages, ISBN 978-80-7419-252-4.
The publication is a Czech translation of Alena Wagner s book Die Frau im Sozialismus: Beispiel ČSSR (Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe, 1974) which was originally published in German, supplemented by several later essays dealing with the situation of women and women’s movements in Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic) and the Federal Republic of Germany. The Czech writer and cultural historian explains her motivation to write the book by a sharp contrast between the emancipated status of women in Czechoslovakia and the traditional patriarchal model she encountered after her arrival to West Germany in the early 1970s. Based on results of previous sociological surveys, she used the example of Czechoslovakia to describe the model of socialist emancipation characterized by a high level of employment of women and their full equality under the law. The reviewer believes the forty years old study of Alena Wagner is very remarkable, primarily because the authoress analyzes gender issues (without actually using the term “gender”) against a specific historical background, an aspect that is often absent in today’s works in the field of gender studies; she also foresees findings of later sociological analyses, and weighs pros and cons of the emancipation model she analyzes.
VANĚK, Miroslav – MUCKE, Pavel: Velvet Revolutions: An Oral History of Czech Society. New York – Oxford, Oxford University Press 2016, 251 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-9 34272-3.
If a publishing house as renowned as Oxford University Press publishes a book representing it, it is in the reviewer’s opinion an exceptional success of the Czech historiography. As a matter of fact, this is what Miroslav Vaněk and Pavel Mücke have achieved with their Velvet revolutions: An oral history of Czech society. It is a pioneering work which, using oral history, systematically conveys and interprets perceptions, thinking, opinions, and attitudes of “ordinary people” during the period of more than two decades from the Prague Spring to the fall of the Communist regime and democratic transformation; moreover, being focused on an international audience, it enables such perceptions, thinking, opinions, and attitudes to be understood across the mental barrier of the former Iron Curtain. The publication is based on an analysis and interpretation of more than three hundred methodologically conducted interviews most of which date back to between 2006 and 2013 and whose purpose was to record stories and experience of “ordinary people” during the period in question in a structured manner, i.e. with a focus on several central topics, including politics, family, school and education, employment and unemployment, perception of the West, travelling, and leisure.