The younger Czech generation: Perfect candidates for populism

11. 10. 2021 / Muriel Blaive, Hynek Pallas

čas čtení 12 minut

This is an English translation of an interview which Hynek Pallas conducted with the French historian Muriel Blaive for the Swedish newspaper  Jönköpings-Posten.

Česká verze tohoto rozhovoru je zde:

Historie je politizována a přepisována při každých volbách

7. 10. 2021 / Muriel Blaive, Hynek Pallas


What is your academic background and title?

I first graduated from Sciences Po in Paris, so I was exposed to a mixture of public law, constitutional law, economics, political science, sociology, and present-day history, all approached within a solid methodological frame. Then I entered the PhD program at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where I was exposed to history, sociology, ethnology, and anthropology, under the same methodological injunction to uncover the "problem", the "issue at stake" - it's a French pedagogical obsession that irritates me sometimes but which I do find very profitable in the historical discipline. I defended my PhD in 1999 on The Year 1956 in Czechoslovakia.

How and why did you end up in the Czech Republic and at USTR. /What attracted you specifically to the Czech Republic?

In 1989, I was 20 and I was dazzled by the fall of the Berlin Wall. I knew next to nothing about communist regimes, but I cried with happiness on 9 November. How often in a lifetime can you witness the triumph of the forces of good over those of evil? It was exhilarating. A week later came the Velvet Revolution and I was very impressed by a picture I found in a French magazine of demonstrators sitting on the floor and offering flowers to idiotic-looking, shoddily-clad, helmeted brutes holding their shields. I was hooked. East Berlin and Prague still looked very "communist" in the eyes of a young Westerner, but they were also indescribably charming, as if time had stood still for forty years. I read Ludvik Vaculik's Diaries, Josef Skvorecky's The Engineer of Human Souls, and Vaclav Havel's Political Essays and my fate was sealed. I started to learn Czech, moved to Prague in 1992, and started the long process of becoming a historian of the communist period. After Skvorecky published his Double Murder in a Double Life (1996), I became seriously interested in the policy of dealing with the communist past as well. I empathized with Zdena Salivarova and the many others who were unjustly accused and whose reputation was in tatters for what only seemed like the petty satisfaction of public shaming.

But even those who did spy might not have deserved to be publicly exposed this way. In 1994 I had discovered the public opinion reports of the secret police (StB) covering the year 1956, when the authorities were very concerned the Czechoslovaks might turn against the communist regime the way the Hungarians did. These reports were illuminating. It became clear to me then that good and evil were not so clearly distinct as I had thought. It also became obvious to me that we would never understand what happened under communism without social history, a pillar of which precisely was these secret police archives. Hence my interest for the policy of dealing with the communist past, for the opening of the secret police archives, and later for USTR.
Can you explain what USTR is?

USTR is an institute of national memory. First, it helps the state lustrate citizens so that former agents be prevented from holding important positions in the new administration, and it also helps checking former resisters' and victims' credentials in order to grant them financial or honorary compensations. It pays tribute to the victims and to the heroes. It leads a massive research activity into various aspects of the communist past, mainly those concerned with resistance and victimhood, but not only. It publishes part of this production in its own publishing department and/or makes it available to the public through its two research journals. It produces crucial pedagogical material for schoolchildren and teachers on how to approach this period. It welcomes any member of the public, Czech or otherwise, who might want to visit it and understand how it works. And finally, it administers the archives of the secret police, puts them at the disposal of the public, and it is supposed to digitize them and put them online, although this last mission has been plagued by multiple obstacles.

You have become quite controversial in the Czech debate. Why? What is regarded as “the problem” in your historical perspective on Czechoslovakia?

The first "problem" in the message I have regularly delivered to the Czech public concerning its past is that I am a foreigner. Czech society is socially very conservative, quite parochial, not very used to external intellectual interference, and unwilling to admit that a foreigner might have something relevant to say. The second problem is that I am a woman, and I represent a methodology which is diverse, modern, provocative, and which comes in sharp contrast to the traditional, overwhelmingly male vision of historiography that was frozen in its tracks by the communist regime as far as methodology was concerned. The conflict crystallized precisely around my proposal to change our methodological perspective and include social, oral, and everyday life history in our study of the communist past. My voice was perceived as critical, insofar as I challenged the notion that people were only ever heroes, victims, or traitors. Instead, I pointed out that the historical scenario pitting the good people against the evil communists was seriously disconnected from the reality of everyday life in a dictatorship. As Vaclav Havel analyzed it himself, everybody contributed to maintaining the totalitarian regime.

Interestingly though, it is only the intellectual elites who act offended by my reality check as far as history writing is concerned. Ordinary people, whom I interview for my oral history projects, know very well what they had to do to survive in a dictatorship and don't try to deny it, nor do they feel particularly shameful about it. But to come back to your question, the combination of being a foreigner and a woman is not just a compound of disadvantages, it is intersectional. Therefore many people will be outraged by what I have to say just because of who I am, whereas they would possibly find it more acceptable if it was stated by a Czech historian, even more so by a Czech male historian.

In what way does Czechoslovak history still echo in contemporary society and politics?

In every way. Communism, or more precisely what I think of as the "communist mentality", is everywhere, both in the direct reminders of the past (people who were personally compromized), and in the very denial of this past: what can be more "communist" than to rewrite history, pretend the past did not happen, and endeavour to reinvent reality?

Is it a hindrance in some way, are there topics that have become taboo?

What is taboo is to compare the new democracy with the old communist regime, insofar as it would lead to acknowledge that the communist regime's retroactive popularity is real. This popularity is based on palpable social and economic benefits that were taken for granted at the time: a place to stay; a job; health insurance; a sufficient pension; access to culture; access to education for the poorer classes; social promotion for these same classes; a certain solidarity among the people; a certain dignity in the consumption culture; a certain simplicity in the way of life, etc. This all seemed like nothing much at the time, but was revealed as tangible privileges after the transition of the 1990s and the economic crisis of 2008, when many people lost one or several of these privileges. Hence the disrupting potential of a social, everyday life, and oral history of the communist period: democracy might not come out on top quite as clearly as the current elites would hope. Interestingly, this diffuse nostalgia does not manifest itself in voting for the communist party anymore, but rather in a widespread feeling of disgust for politics.

Does this affect for instance the possibility of left-wing parties/ politics?

Yes, the left has terribly suffered from the downfall of communism, the end of almost all Marxist illusions, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this is not specific to the Czech Republic, it is true of all the Western world as well.

Can you give an example of a contemporary issue that has been politicized in this way, where history is an important ingredient?

History is politicized and rehashed at every election. Countless candidates have surfed on the anticommunist wave to get elected and demonize their adversaries, starting with Vaclav Klaus in the 1990s. What really happened in history and what methodological tools we can deploy to adequately analyze this past interests of course absolutely no one: the only point is to discredit the left and the heirs of the liberal and left dissent, so that self-proclaimed "anti-communists" can get elected on a conservative platform and finish dismantling the welfare state inherited from the communist times.

For a Swede, it seems incomprehensible that a person who has been an agent / collaborated with the communist regime can be prime minister today. How is this possible in the Czech Republic? Are voters not interested in the past?

Voters who are genuinely interested in the past would certainly not support self-proclaimed anti-communists because the anti-communists' only historical agenda is to repeat again and again that the country was divided between the heroes, the victims, and the traitors. They turn the communist period into a parody of a dictatorship, as if such a regime could have held on to power for several generations without the collaboration and support of millions of Czechs. This denial is not productive. It is also transparently designed to discredit the left and the current socially-minded political parties. Meanwhile, as I explained already, I don't think many people in this country are under any illusion concerning their own level of past collaboration. As long as Babis provides them with jobs and guarantees a certain standard of living, which is incidentally exactly the method by which the communist regime had survived, his past is not an obstacle to the voters.

How does the Czech Republic differ in this from Hungary and Poland, where parties such as Fidesz and PiS seem to stress “anti-communism” much more?  

The Czech Republic does not differ from Hungary, Poland, or Slovakia. Think of Vladimir Meciar, Aleksander Kwasniewski or Peter Medgyessy, all three former communist apparatchiks and/or accused of being agents of the secret police. You have to understand that "anti-communism" is only a political pose in any case. In countries where regimes had settled for more than four decades, all elites were necessarily educated by the former regime. After the 1989 regime change, which was very sudden in all countries, where would you find, out of the blue, judges, policemen, teachers, border guards, soldiers, economists, lawyers, etc., who had not been educated by the previous regime and had not grown up with this regime's values, even if they felt more critical than they ever let show? Even if we assume that dissidents were the right kind of elites for the new regimes, how many of them had not emigrated, had not signed some paper or other in the course of their interaction with the police, were at all interested in investing themselves in politics, and, even more to the point, proved competent in their field? Not many, and certainly not enough to run the new state entirely. You could therefore only hope that the elites and professional corporations educated under communism would put their social and professional capital at the service of the new regime. Many did, but some didn't, and they used a profitable network, or built one after 1989, to get insanely rich and rob the new state under the guise of "economic transition." In any case, anti-communism is a narrative and a political tool destined to win elections, not an adequate social descriptor.

How can the Czech Republic address history in order to move forward? Should they? Does the public need to do this at all, or will coming generations automatically move on?

It should, yes. The country is raising generations of children who know next to nothing about the communist past. Many of them now firmly believe the anti-communist narrative and have lost track of the difficulty of living with one's own choices on a day-to-day basis under a dictatorship. They have become as radical, immature, and believers in simple (fake) solutions as their elders had once been in favour of communism. In other words, today's youths are perfect candidates to surrender to populist narratives. This is not good for democracy.



Obsah vydání | 13. 10. 2021