Soudobé dějiny 2 / 2020

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Studies and essays

A forgotten uprising?

Recollections of June 17, 1953, in Germany (since 1953 until now)
Jan Claas Behrends

The article is based on the author’s presentation delivered at “The Prague Spring 50 Years After: Great Crises of Communist Régimes in Central Europe in a Transnational Perspective” conference, which took place from June 13 to June 15, 2018, in Prague and was organized by the Institute for Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic together with the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic. The author describes changes of the historical memory in Germany of the uprising of June 17, 1953, which broke out in the eastern part of the country. He first outlines the historical context and course of events of the uprising, which spread from East Berlin to many other places in the German Democratic Republic and was suppressed only by an intervention of units of the Soviet Army, and then explains its role in both German states. As to the German Democratic Republic, the violent suppression of the uprising deeply shook the credibility of the Communist regime among the population for a long time. It was officially presented as a Fascist coup or counterrevolution engineered by agents of the West, and remained a taboo until the demise of the German Democratic Republic. The lesson which the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands – SED) drew from it was that any opposition had to be nipped at the bud, using the ubiquitous and rampant State Security (Staatssicherheit) for this purpose. As to the Federal Republic of Germany, the suppressed uprising contributed to a legitimization and consolidation of the democratic regime and ties to the West, and the date of June 17 was soon declared a national holiday. Since 1960, it was rather the Berlin Wall which symbolized the desire for the reunification of the country and freedom, and the significance of the uprising thus decreased. Since the early 1970s, the new “Eastern policy” of Chancellor Willy Brandt, which was seeking a reconciliation rather than a confrontation with East Germany, also contributed to its retreat into the background. In the 1990s, the national holiday of June 17 was replaced by October 3, to be celebrated as the Reunification Day. The popular uprising of 1953 is reminded by some memorial places, and it has also become a frequent topic in German historiography; however, it has largely faded away from people’s minds in today’s Germany.

Cliometrics and the national story

Wehrmacht POWs as soldiers of the Czechoslovak foreign troops during the Second World War
Zdenko Maršálek

Using Czechoslovak foreign troops during WW2 as an example, the study presents possibilities of using quantitative approaches in historiography; first and foremost, it suggests that numerical methods have a potential to examine even deeper contexts or such “soft” terms as prejudiced perception of “others” or processes of the formation of images of various historical phenomena in the historical memory. The author states that Czechoslovak units formed in the West between 1939 and 1945 were joined by almost 3,000 Czechoslovaks who had previously served for some time in the German Wehrmacht. They accounted for almost thirty percent of the numbers which these units had reached by the end of the war. Thus, in May 1945, almost every third Czechoslovak soldier had previously served in the German uniform. However, this fact did not dovetail too well with the ideological formation of a new national identity, based mainly on a notion of a “nationwide struggle” for freedom and a story of the age-long conflict with the Germanhood. The synergy of targeted and natural marginalization “from above” and “from below” subsequently resulted in an almost total suppression of this phenomenon in the collective memory of the entire Czech society. Czechoslovakia’s foreign resistance was depicted along strictly national lines and soldiers of Czechoslovak foreign units presented as typical representatives of the Czech and Slovak nations. Ex-Wehrmacht POWs do not receive the attention matching their numbers and importance even in published memoirs and recollections of resistance veterans. The author uses quantitative methods to establish whether the above phenomenon was due only to intentional marginalization or whether the “displacement” might be caused by other reasons as well. He provides a detailed mapping of the extent and chronology of the induction of these men into different units and shows that most of them started joining the Czechoslovak units only since the summer of 1944, and many of them did not make it to the frontline before the end of the war. This fact was undoubtedly reflected in their perception by veterans, who practically need not have met them and did not have a clue as to the importance of former Wehrmacht POWs as a source of manpower.

Romania and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1968)

Cezar Stanciu

The study analyzes the development of the attitude of the Romanian Socialist Republic to negotiations concerning the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the 1960s. The topic is examined against the backdrop of the course of Romania’s foreign policy at that time and long-term efforts to reduce (nuclear) weapons. Since early 1960s, Romania’s Communist leaders, including Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej (1901–1965), and in particular Nicolae Ceauşescu (1918–1989), had been striving for a greater economic self-sufficiency and a political independence within the Eastern Bloc, which meant, insofar as the country’s international policy was concerned, an outweighing of Soviet dominance by an alliance with the People’s Republic of China and closer contacts with Western states. Plans for international control and regulated use of nuclear had been dating back to the dropping of first nuclear bombs in 1945, but the author claims the Soviet Union had not had any interest in them until it reached a nuclear parity. Since the late 1950s, on the other hand, efforts to reach a nuclear détente had been promoted in the international agenda mainly by Moscow, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons signed in 1968 was a result of bilateral Soviet-US negotiations. The author examines Bucharest’s reservations about drafts of the treaty, as formulated by Romanian diplomats and party leaders and presented during negotiations with Soviets and Chinese and on the forums of the Warsaw Treaty and the UN General Assembly. Their common denominator were efforts to secure an equal position for non-nuclear states, which were to be provided safety guarantees against an aggression of nuclear superpowers and access to civilian uses of nuclear energy. Although such comments, which were also voiced by other countries, were reflected only cosmetically in the final wording of the treaty, and Romania was even considering its rejection, it ultimately attached its signature to it, but it did not confirm it by ratification.

Emanuel Famíra – the man who was not longing for the Spring

The portrait of an orthodox Communist
Ondřej Holub

The case study deals with the Czechoslovak artist Emanuel Famíra (1900–1970), an autodidact who was active in multiple areas of art and who closely associated his life and work with the Communist movement. In the early 1920s, Famíra started performing as a solo dancer of the ballet troupe of the National Theatre in Prague and also became a relatively successful painter and sculptor. In the 1930s, he was also involved in political theatre and these activities earned him several months of imprisonment. He established Proletscéna, an avant-garde theatre, of which he was a playwright, director and actor, and also the puppet Theatre of Pioneers, for which he was creating remarkable puppets. He joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and was participating in its promotional events. After the liberation in 1945, he was the director of the ballet troupe of the National Theatre in Prague for a short time, and then he was making his living as a graphic artist and pedagogue. His graphic work drew from impressionist-realistic traditions and subsequently identified itself with templates of socialist realism. In the 1950s, he was officially recognized, but he was finding himself increasingly on the periphery of artistic and social life in the 1960s. He could not identify himself with the advancing liberalization, he was openly opposing the reform movement during the Prague Spring, and joined an informal group of “old” orthodox Communist led by Josef Jodas (1905–1970) after the Soviet occupation. The presented study aims to examine the reasons and personal motives which caused Famíra to radically oppose ideas of the “socialism with a human face”. Methodologically inspired by works of German historian Jochen Hellbeck, the author attempts to look into Famíra’s intellectual, worldview and political development through the optics of his autobiography, diary entries, correspondence, and theoretical reflections of art work, and to set it into a historical context. Using the above as a basis, he attempts to define a certain type of revolutionary narrative shared by the group of Czechoslovak Communist “dogmatists” referred to above in the end of the 1960s. The author hypothesizes that the original source and also the keystone of the “Stalinist” political mentality was the intransigent strategy of the international Communist movement in the first half of the 1930s, which was declared by the Communist International under the banner of fight against the so-called social fascism and of “class against class”. In his opinion, the profoundly adversarial perception of the world became a part of the identity of individuals such as Emanuel Famíra, surviving as an “undercurrent” in the Communist movement and activating itself in emergencies such as the Prague Spring.


Diverging memory

Memory tradition of the 1956 Hungarian revolution
Réka Sárközy

The article is based on Réka Sárközy’s presentation delivered at “The Prague Spring 50 Years After: Great Crises of Communist Régimes in Central Europe in a Transnational Perspective” conference, which took place in Prague from June 13 to June 15, 2018, and was organized by the Institute for Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic together with the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic. The authoress describes the formation of the historical memory of the 1956 revolution in Hungary since 1989. She concludes that the events of 1956 had been a starting narrative long before they could be freely discussed in public, i.e. at the time when their memory had been denigrated or pushed into oblivion as a stain on the beginning of the rule of János Kádár (1912–1989). In 1989, the transformation of the revolution into a positive historical myth deprived Kádár’s regime of legitimacy. After its fall, the revolution became a point from which all political parties derived their legitimacy. In the 1990s, multiple revolutionary traditions assembled around two opposite and mutually clashing opinions. The first of them, which can be labelled as reform Communist, was related to commemoration of the former Communist Prime Minister Imre Nagy (1896–1958) and left-wing intellectuals who had actively participated in the revolution. The other one emphasized the key role of freedom fighters and was of an anti-Communist nature from the very start. At the same time, the discourse of professional historians and recollections of contemporary witnesses were drifting apart. The anti-Communist tradition was appropriated by FIDESZ, since 2010 the ruling party, to strengthen its position. The authoress analyzes the party’s massive public campaign on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution in 2016, which was supposed to canonize the image of the revolution as an anti-Communist popular movement, but failed. As a matter of fact, the person of a revolutionary on a photograph which was the principal symbol of the campaign on billboards and posters proved to be a different young man who was just an accidental bystander.


Husák, Jirous, and the power of historical myths

Vítězslav Sommer

Marek Švehla: Magor a jeho doba: Život Ivana M. Jirouse. Prague: Torst, 2017, 688 pp., ISBN 978-80-7215-555-2;

Michal Macháček: Gustáv Husák. Prague: Vyšehrad, 2017, 632 pp., ISBN 978-80-7429-388-7.

The review compares two extensive historical biographies the protagonists of which are as different as they can be – the Slovak Communist politician Gustáv Husák (1913–1991), who, having experienced many ups and downs in his life, finally became the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1969 and the President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic six years later, and the art historian and musician Ivan Martin Jirous (1944–2011), who became the most prominent representative of musical underground during “Husák’s rule”. Both were political prisoners for several years; Husák in the 1950s and Jirous in the 1970s and 1980s. The author summarizes reactions to both books – Gustáv Husák by Michal Macháček and Magor and his time: The life of Ivan M. Jirous by Marek Švehla – and finds remarkable similarities, although the approaches of their authors are hardly compatible. Husák’s biographer Michal Macháček is an empirically oriented historian, who has collected an impressive amount of material and meticulously studies historical sources which he honestly mentions in extensive footnotes; on the other hand, Jirous’s biographer Marek Švehla is a journalist who is, first and foremost, after a story that would attract readers, which means that he treats historical sources rather arbitrarily, uncritically takes over narrations of contemporary witnesses, and presents every juicy story with gusto. However, both authors wrote books which fail to present Husák and Jirous in a broader period context and ultimately just repeat or strengthen existing myths associated with the two historical personalities dealt with in the books. As to Jirous, it is “Magor’s myth” of an indomitable rebel and intransigent opponent of the Communist regime, in the case of Husák a myth of “the smartest Slovak” who could turn every defeat into a subsequent victory and ultimately grasped and retained power thanks to his ability to outsmart his rivals.

A comprehensive biography of the last Communist president

Marek Syrný

Michal Macháček: Gustáv Husák. Prague: Vyšehrad, 2017, 632 pp., ISBN 978-80-7429-388-7.

The author analyzes in detail the extensive biography of the Slovak Communist politician Gustáv Husák (1913–1991) who, ups and downs notwithstanding, ultimately became the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1969 and the President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic six years later. In doing so, he focuses mainly on chapters from the book Gustáv Husák by Michal Macháček (Prague: Vyšehrad, 2017) which deal with Husák’s activities in the Slovak Republic during the WWII, when he gradually joined the anti-fascist resistance and later participated in the Slovak National Uprising, and in post-war Czechoslovakia, when he, a top-ranking representative of the Slovak Communist Party, was actively participating in the struggle for power culminating in February 1948. He generally appreciates Michal Macháček’s extraordinarily extensive research of sources (including Russian archives) which the latter undertook, ample information on Husák’s political career and private life, convincing nature of most interpretations that Macháček presents, as well as accuracy and aptness of his characterizations. At the same time, though, he notes some factual errors and inaccuracies, provides missing historical contexts, and shows how the biographer – perhaps much too often – followed Husák’s self-styled renditions of various historical events and episodes.

A great book without winners or losers

Milan Ducháček

Michal Macháček: Gustáv Husák. Prague: Vyšehrad, 2017, 632 pp., ISBN 978-80-7429-388-7.

The author ponders over, from the perspective of the genre of historical biography, the extensive biography of the Slovak Communist politician Gustáv Husák (1913–1991) who, ups and downs notwithstanding, ultimately became the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1969 and the President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic six years later. In his opinion, the book titled simply Gustáv Husák deserves respect as an attempt to provide a comprehensive portrait of one of the key personalities of the Czechoslovak history in the 20th century and to address a broad audience outside the academic community, as well as because of the huge quantity of information it contains. To the detriment of the matter, however, Michal Macháček encapsulated his narration into a too rigid biographic format. While his declared skepticism toward new methodologies may be acceptable, he suppressed himself as the author in the text of the book. He thus not only fails to disclose the values his book is based on, but also resigns to his own interpretations, as if he believed that the documentation presented in the book spoke for itself and that the evidential value of all sources was identical. This deficiency cannot be compensated by his efforts to present Gustáv Husák in a multitude of historical testimonies. Unfortunately, Macháček does not ask himself questions that he should ask as the author, including what Husák’s “historical greatness”, which he naturally assumes, consists in. His narration also completely left aside the issue of Husák’s attitude to law and of how Husák’s legal education was reflected in his own experience of injustice he had been a victim of in the 1950s and the repressions he was later responsible for as a leading politician.


The common Visegrád story through the eyes of a historian

Marek Skála

Jan Křen: Čtvrt století střední Evropy: Visegrádské země v globálním příběhu let 1992–2017. Prague, Charles University – Karolinum 2019, 366 pp., ISBN 978-80-246-3977-2.

The reviewer introduces the book written by the recently deceased historian Jan Křen (1930–2020) and titled A quarter of a century in Central Europe: The Visegrád countries in a global story of the 1992–2017 period as a chronological continuation of his impressive work Dvě století střední Evropy [Two Centuries of Central Europe] (Prague, Argo 2005). In his opinion, the work should be read not only as a historical account of Central European system transformations and consolidations after the fall of Communist regimes, but also, to some extent, as the author’s subjectively coloured ego-histoire. The author methodologically draws from institutional economy which works with a principle of path dependence, and neoliberalism as the key ideology of the Central European transformation, towards which, however, he is very critical. The work represents the first compact historical synthesis of Central European developments in the last few decades and provides an excellent overview of the formation of new democratic societies and their journey to international structures, in particular the European Union, thanks to its comparative focus on political, social, and economic developments.

Romany people in post-war Czechoslovakia and limits of the concept of citizenship

Kateřina Čapková

Celia Donert: The Rights of the Roma: The Struggle for Citizenship in Postwar Czechoslovakia. New York, Cambridge University Press 2017, xi + 197 pp., ISBN 978-1-107-17627-0.

The review was initially published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 125, No. 1 (February 2020), p. 332 n. According to the reviewer’s opinion, the book The Rights of the Roma: The Struggle for Citizenship in Postwar Czechoslovakia written by the British historian Celia Donert should be read by all who are interested in policies implemented toward the Roma in Europe in the 20th century and in the complex issue of the approach of Communists to social and ethnic questions. The authoress shows an excellent grasp of continuous efforts to improve the situation of the Roma on the one hand, and to control them on the other hand, in various political situations, before and after the war, at the time of and after the Communist rule, both in Czechoslovakia and in a broader European context. In doing so, she offers evidence of failures of the human rights agenda in different political contexts, including that of the European Union’s Roma policy, until the present day, and clearly shows that policies and measures implemented vis-à-vis the Roma are not a marginal topic, but an area which demonstrates essential limits of the concept of citizenship in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Socialist realism as a closed universe of symbols

Petr Andreas

Vít Schmarc: Země lyr a ocele: Subjekty, ideologie, modely, mýty a rituály v kultuře českého stalinismu. (Šťastné zítřky, Vol. 26.) Prague, Academia 2018, 423 pp., ISBN 978-80-200-2703-0.

The reviewed work titled The country of lyres and steel: Subjects, ideologies, models, myths and rituals in the culture of Czech Stalinism is an attempt to grasp official art production during the period of Stalinism (1948–1954) in Czechoslovakia from a new angle, that of literary history. Firstly, the author strives to properly capture and deal with the project of socialist realism and rehabilitate it as a distinctive art phenomenon, explicitly in opposition to simplifying sociological approaches. Secondly, he undertakes a semiotic analysis of specific works, emphasizing ideological meanings which form their poetics and world of fiction. In doing so, he draws inspiration mainly from approaches of Katerina Clark and Russian studies in the West in general. The reviewer analyzes in detail the author’s theoretical frameworks, terminological instruments and ideas that the later has formulated, and points at limitations resulting from the selected angle of view and at the bias in the argumentation against the “traditional” criticism of socialist realism as a product of power pressure. The reviewer admits that the monograph is a pioneer in the Czech context due to its captivation by the topic it deals with and in its commitment to historicize it. Insofar as its reception of the Russian studies in the West are concerned, it brings a number of impulses and shows the way to domestic research. Its core consists in meticulous interpretations of specific authors and works, which are authentic, sovereign and successful. On the other hand, the author’s suggestive rhetoric and obsession with general concepts prevail over interpretation logic and contribution to knowledge; in general, the attempt to grasp socialist realism from a new angle as an art and cultural phenomenon failed, as the method focusing solely on an analysis of text does not permit capturing its historical aspect.

A tribute to the conservative critic of totalitarianism

Jakub Marša

Jiří Hanuš (ed.): Kritik moderního světa: Rio Preisner 1925–2007. Brno, Centre for Studies of Democracy and Culture 2018, 314 pp., ISBN 978-80-7325-443-8.

The review introduces a collection titled The modern world critic: Rio Preisner 1925–2007 and dedicated to Rio Preisner (1925–2007), a Czech expert in German studies, political philosopher, essayist, translator and poet. He was born in Carpathian Ruthenia; in 1968, he emigrated to the United States and lectured at the Pennsylvania State University as Professor of German studies. Preisner profiled himself in particular as a Christian conservative political thinker and a representative of philosophically based, irreconcilable criticism of totalitarianism, especially Communism and Marxism as its philosophy. He was also commenting on the American civilization and the value crisis of the modern Western democracy, which was, in his opinion, fatally struck by its departure from Christian foundations. Due to his ideological radicalism and conservatism, he found himself at the edge of Czech political thinking, although his work is extensive and, insofar as Czech authors are concerned, he was the one who was examining the phenomenon of totalitarian ideologies in the most consistent manner. The reviewer introduces contributions to the collection, whose authors attempt to characterize Preisner’s thinking and work from different angles in the context of his time, one by one, and ascribes a timeless validity to them.

Forms and limits of social criticism in Tito’s Slovenia

Michal Janíčko

Jure Ramšak: (Samo)upravljanje intelekta: Družbena kritika v poznosocialistični Sloveniji. [(Self)control of intellect: Social criticism in late socialist Slovenia] Ljubljana, Modrijan 2019, 312 pp., ISBN 978-961-287-110-9.

The book titled (Self)control of intellect: Social criticism in late socialist Slovenia written by Jure Ramšak, a younger generation Slovenian historian, introduces social critical thinking in Slovenia in the 1970s. The reviewer describes the situation in Yugoslavia, and particularly in Slovenia, at that time, and draws attention to some features shared with the so-called normalization in Czechoslovakia, which was being implemented in those days. As a matter of fact, the regimes in both countries were strengthened and social conflicts were weakened, but there was no connection with dissidents in Slovenia and repressions there were considerably milder. He also introduces various small groups of nonconformist intellectuals and types of their social criticism according to Ramšak: they were nationalistic “critics of socialist humanism” (labelled as “anarcholiberals”), academic sociologists, neo-Marxists produced by left-wing students’ movement (including philosopher Slavoj Žižek), and civic democratic or Catholic intellectuals the key representative of whom was Edvard Kocbek (1904–1981), a writer and ex-guerilla fighter. Slovenia’s political leadership was trying to eliminate criticism going beyond set limits by administrative sanctions; court trials and prison terms were exceptional. According to the reviewer, the author has presented an exhaustive account of the critical thinking in Slovenia during the period in question and drawn adequate conclusions without any effort to look for sensations. He has thus covered a hitherto overlooked and not very rewarding topic, and he has probably exploited it to the maximum extent possible.


Unfinished ninety years of Professor Jan Křen

Oldřich Tůma

The obituary remembers the leading Czech historian Jan Křen (1930–2020). He was one of a generation of historians which was initially influenced by Marxist views and which worked its way toward critical thinking in the 1960s. He joined the reformist movement during the Prague Spring, was expelled from the Communist party for his attitudes, and was working in a menial job in the 1970s and 1980s. However, he continued to devote himself to history privately. He was among the first signatories of the Charter 77 and was participating in the production of historical samizdat works and in “underground” historical seminars. Since 1989, he was intensively participating in scientific life as a researcher, lecturer and organizer. He established the Department of German and Austrian Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Charles University, and was the director of the Institute of International Studies which the department transformed itself into for many years. He participated in activities of institutions focusing on past and present Czech(oslovak)-German relations and also cooperated with the newly established Institute for Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences as a member of scientific councils. Many of his works have been translated and published in Germany. In the 1960s, Jan Křen was dealing with, in particular, Czechoslovak emigration in the West during WW2, and later especially with the history of Czech-German relations and the history of Central Europe, which his impressive work Two centuries of Central Europe (Dvě století střední Evropy. Praha: Argo, 2005) was devoted to.

Soudobé dějiny 2 / 2020

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