Methodology is not an irrelevant detail: it is the only way to avoid politicizing history

23. 2. 2024 / Muriel Blaive

čas čtení 27 minut
Historian Muriel Blaive returns once more to her - somewhat shocking - experience with the supposedly scholarly  Prague-based "Institute for the Study of Totalitarian regimes".

You may  find these returns tedious.

But they are not! 

This testimony provides evidence of an utterly shocking, hilarious  fact: The allegedly scholarly  board of the so-called Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes  attempted to fire Muriel Blaive from the Institute because she had produced an absolutely  constructive, analytical methodology that would elevate what this  so-called Institute does to the level of professional academic research.

Hilarious and at the same time shocking, I repeat.

The methodology analysis that Muriel Blaive presented to the Institute is an analytical document that any professional, serious research institute would be deeply grateful for.  Not so the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. They wanted to sack her for writing this!!

But, seriously. Are there more Czech "research institutions" like this?

As cautionary documentation, the material published below is absolutely crucial. (Jan Čulík)

Methodology is not an irrelevant detail: it is the only way to avoid politicizing history

Muriel Blaive

Ten years ago, the Board governing ÚSTR issued a unique, genuinely professional call for applications to fill in the position of ÚSTR director. A scientific evaluation panel was set up to sift through the applications, audition the candidates, and make its recommendations to the Board of ÚSTR, which then proceeded to elect the new director (Zdeněk Hazdra) in April 2014. The panel was great. The atmosphere was intense and professional, and the questions excellent.

But a few months before this uplifting episode, in December 2013, the Scientific Advisory Board of ÚSTR, of which I was Deputy Chair, had attempted to expel me from its midst. The reason for it is that I stood up to Adrian Portmann, who was Chair of the SAB and intent on using his position to boast his own application to the directorship of the institute, or so was my impression. The pretext used to justify my dismissal was the chapter I endeavored to write in the frame of the evaluation of the institute which we were collectively carrying out. I had set myself the task of reading the entirety of the academic production of the institute (all volumes and journal articles published by ÚSTR) from 2008 to 2014, in order to reflect on the methodology employed by ÚSTR researchers and to propose avenues to improve it. I sent my draft to the SAB members. The text is reproduced further down.

Next thing I knew, an extraordinary meeting of the SAB had been convened, but not by me. On the contrary, everyone but me was in copy of an email authored by Vilém Prečan according to which the “case of Muriel Blaive was to be examined by the SAB.” I arrived at the meeting completely unaware of the fact that I had been set up for a mini show trial. When I understood it, I was torn between disbelief, the urge to giggle, and a cold determination to resist as Prečan, apparently thinking himself back in command of some 1948 Action Committee, invited me to proceed to my self-criticism. I could not believe my ears but managed not to laugh, politely declined to lead any such self-criticism, and stood by what I had written in my chapter, which was presented in accordance with international research standards and, contrary to what he claimed, was neither mean nor harmful, but constructive. I also did not feel that the expression of my disagreement with Adrian Portmann was inappropriate in any way, but on the contrary that I was protecting the integrity of the SAB and of ÚSTR. In any case, it would never even have occurred to me to demand Adrian’s resignation from the SAB. Disagreement and debate are part of academic life – or they should be.

Utterly deflated by my unwillingness to submit myself to the ritual humiliation of the self-criticism exercise, Prečan spat at me that if I had any dignity, I would resign from the SAB. I smiled, and again kindly declined to do so. So the SAB was invited to vote on my expulsion. Out of the members present, six men supported whom they thought to be in a power position, Adrian Portmann, and voted for my expulsion. The two other members of the SAB who were familiar with Western academic standards, Cathleen Giustino and Peter Bugge, voted against, as well as the director of the Institute of Contemporary History, Oldřich Tůma, while Petr Pithart abstained. The vote was thus 6 against 5 in favor of my expulsion. But Oldřich Tůma, who was in the meantime carefully scanning the bylaws of the SAB, intervened to observe that such a measure would need a two votes difference, not one, so my expulsion could not be validated.

That Tůma was a scholar with praiseworthy integrity was confirmed a few days later when Portmann and Prečan surreally attempted to make the board members who were absent on that fatal day to cast their ballot retroactively and by mail, without informing the rest of the Board that they were even seeking such a vote. Unsurprisingly, the absent members, informed only by Adrian Portmann’s party, voted in favor of my expulsion, too. Oldřich Tůma, to his great credit and dignity, refused to condone such a distasteful practice and resigned from the Board in protest.

I ignored the would-be “expulsion” but soon thereafter, in view of the fact I would soon make public my candidacy to the position of director of ÚSTR, I resigned, too.

Interestingly, Prečan’s main concern after the vote was that I should never tell anyone what happened that day at the Scientific Advisory Board. I like to believe that he was ashamed of himself. In any case, I had no interest in these shenanigans and was busy with preparing my application, and later engaged in trying to introduce methodological standards in the work of the institute, so it did not even occur to me to discuss this episode with anyone.

Meanwhile, Zdeněk Bárta, a member of the executive Board which nominates the director, himself publicly testified in 2018 to a similar incident in which the Board chair, Eduard Stehlík, convened a secret meeting of the Board to try and demote Director Hazdra from his position, what Bárta described as a “putsch attempt.” This time it was Zdeněk Bárta who stood up to such undignified maneuvers, and I realized then he was absolutely right to make a public stance out of it – such practices are unacceptable, and secrecy only encourages them. Moreover, we are now ten years later; it is high time to celebrate the fact that despite the many hiccups that interspersed ÚSTR’s development in the interim, we did succeed as a team to raise the scientific standards from 2014 to 2022. To think today that what is in the following chapter should be scandalous to the point that its author should be expelled from ÚSTR, or indeed that it would be scandalous at all, has become ludicrous – at least I firmly hope so. On the contrary, this document is still relevant today.

The suppressed document: “Chapter VIII: Methodology at ÚSTR”

Muriel Blaive

The following methodological evaluation is based on an analysis of the publications published so far at the Institute, i.e. about 70 books, including the journals Behind the Iron Curtain, Paměť a dějiny and Securitas Imperii, as well as on oral and written evaluations led by members of the Scientific Advisory Board.

The first point to be emphasized is that the Scientific Advisory Board was pleasantly surprised by the level of research at ÚSTR. The results of the Institute’s work are of a much higher quality than could have been expected against the backdrop of the controversies surrounding the establishment of the Institute and during its first few years of operation. One of the main objectives of this evaluation is to strengthen and fully establish the critical approach as a standard fare of the Institute’s work, as it is and should be in all serious research institutes. In order to support this claim, this section of the report analyses several examples from the Institute’s production to date, and seeks to illustrate the potential weaknesses of the arguments and the possible directions of remedy. At the same time, it should be noted that this part of the report is primarily about discussion and that these proposals are conceived in a constructive spirit: they do not in any way question the legitimacy of the Institute’s staff and their full competence to manage these remedial actions.

In the context of the significant politicization of the Institute1 from its inception to the present day, the only way to stabilize and legitimize its work seems to be to support its scientific focus and research work which are based on quality methodology, not on a priori normative judgments. Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability2 has probably received the greatest acceptance as far as the criteria for the scientific nature of a work is concerned: a work is scientific only if it is refutable or falsifiable, i.e. whether it can be criticized and refuted at all: “The power of science lies not so much in the fact that its claims can be proved, but in the fact that they must be formulated in such a way that they can be refuted.” For example, the claim “God exists” is not scientific because it is not falsifiable – it is rational, but it is a matter of faith.

If we rely on Popper’s principle of falsifiability in historical research, then it is obvious that it is useless to accumulate facts that confirm a theory of universal nature such as “The communist regime was mostly repressive” (a non-falsifiable theory.) On the other hand, the statement “On the basis of this primary source, after a thorough external and internal critique of the source and its evaluation in the context of other sources, it can be argued that ...” is the basis of a reasonable scientific discussion. Only in this way can historians debate with one another – so that even those who do not share the same value system and possibly disagree with the theses and analytical procedures presented in the circumstance have the opportunity to critique them and have a scholarly discussion about the sources, methodology, historical context and theses. In this way, a scientific (democratic) debate is born, which overcomes the former communist practice in which only one “historical truth” was ever valid.

The main challenge of the Scientific Advisory Board, therefore, is to encourage researchers to present arguments that reflect their legitimate worldview and history in a refutable, scientific form, and to conceive of substantive critique and debate about the premises, analytical tools, and conclusions of their work as a matter of course in scientific practice, rather than as a denial or invalidation of their right to political and value-based views. Only through the full achievement of academic excellence and methodological standards will the Institute open up and escape the charge of politicization that has been so damaging to it from the outset in the eyes of the professional and general public.

1. Quantitative problem

Of the 70 books published by the Institute since 2008, only five major monographs are the work of a single author, one of which is a reprint of a book written by a researcher who does not work at the Institute (Jan Rychlík), and another an edition of a manuscript written five years before the Institute was founded (Ladislav Kudrna). Considering the fact that ÚSTR has produced only three individual (i.e. not collective) monographs during its several years of activity, one cannot help but be disappointed – considering the resources spent and the number of researchers.3 If we were to gauge by the standard criteria of scientific institutes, then ÚSTR should or could have published at least one monograph per person in the past five years, i.e. at least 25 volumes by independent authors, and at least 50 articles in international scientific (peer-reviewed) journals, which are on the contrary almost completely absent from the results. The absence of monographs points, among other issues, to the oft-problematic handling of sources, which is then closely related to problems of intellectual responsibility, presentation, lack of a research plan, handling of archival sources, and deficiencies in communication with the Czech scientific community. It is therefore appropriate to address these shortcomings simultaneously.

2. Qualitative problem

a. Intellectual responsibility

In the publication outputs of the Institute, most of which are editions of documents, the editor is not listed on the cover. The reader must carefully examine the entire book to determine who prepared it for publication.4 In other cases, the editor is listed, but the work has another author who, for example, wrote the introduction. Sometimes it is difficult to find the year of publication. In this respect, it is desirable that the publishing activities of the Institute should be professionalized at least at this basic level: a book, whether a monograph, an edition of documents or a collection of articles, must have a clearly identified author or editor who is listed on the cover, signed under the preface or introduction, and who takes intellectual responsibility for the work.

b. “Objectivity”

Only a sound methodology (formulation of the historical context, justification of the choice of sources, the way of working with and comparing sources, the formulation of working hypotheses that the volume systematically confirms or refutes, the wording of the conclusion) can guarantee the academic quality of a given research work. In the outputs of ÚSTR, if there is any reflection at all on one’s own assumptions and procedures, “worldview” considerations and deliberations on the adequacy of a political position prevail, as evidenced, for example, in the biography of Prokop Drtina: “In the preparation of this biographical study (of Prokop Drtina), there is a danger that the author will succumb to a certain uncritical attitude towards the historical figure under scrutiny.”5 This attitude of an author towards a biography is hardly acceptable from a scientific point of view: the author does not have to (and perhaps should not even) apologize for having his own worldview, but should try to implement an adequate methodology (i.e., to proceed in such a way that the progress of his work and the formulated conclusions are verifiable, falsifiable).

c. Presentation

A large part of ÚSTR’s work brings various materials, but usually lacks an elementary introduction (often only a single introductory paragraph on the cover, for example, in the case of a biography.) Elsewhere, it is only on the one before last or last page that we find an editorial note explaining the purpose of the book.6 Yet the reader has the right to know from the outset who or what the book is about. The work should be introduced by a clearly identifiable author who explains at the outset what the aim of the work is, what the purpose of the enclosed documents is, and what the conclusion of the work is. If a publication is to be serious, it must show in the first few pages why it is interesting and useful: what will it contribute? What will we learn? What questions, to which we did not know the answer until now, will be clarified? In contrast, ÚSTR has produced a large number of publications which seem to assume that they do not need any justification, since their mere existence is proof of their necessity and usefulness.7

As far as presentation is concerned, it should be stressed that even collective works (including editions of documents) should list an editor or a collective of editors. Even a collective work is bound by an argument and a common research aim, which the individual chapters address from different perspectives, and are therefore included in the volume - according to the editor’s choice. For example, the book Vysokokoláci o totalitě 2011 (whose editor is not mentioned!) does not explicitly state or even implicitly indicate a common research focus (so it was probably not the result of a reflective editorial policy); on the contrary, it gives the impression that it is a haphazardly assembled collection of articles that have little in common with each other, or even that have completely opposite paradigmatic orientations.

d. Absence of a research agenda

Even the publication of documents is only meaningful if it is preceded and accompanied by a research thesis, demonstration via sources, historical contextualization, and a synthesis that summarizes the new elements of knowledge provided by the book. The production of monographs, especially single-author monographs, is the only way to contribute to the debate and to effective historical knowledge. Much of the work published by ÚSTR is a missed opportunity (but easily rectifiable) to produce genuinely interesting research: missed because these works lack a genuine scholarly purpose that justifies and legitimizes them – yet this would not require much more time and effort, but rather a change of habitus.

e. The reader is not equipped to supplement the historical context and methodology on their own

Many historians are content to present an assortment of documents without explanation. But the average reader is not able to decipher, contextualize, relate, and analyze all kinds of historical documents, to the point that the historian would have no other job but to pull these documents out of cardboard boxes and reproduce them in books. The role of the historian is to introduce the topic, present a research thesis, explain how it is new compared to previous studies, describe what sources he or she used to illustrate the thesis and which ones he or she eliminated (and why), clearly articulate the methodology chosen to make the best use of those sources, lay out his or her demonstration, and summarize what his or her work has contributed to existing academic knowledge. If any documents are presented in the book, the reader should know why it was absolutely necessary for him or her to be able to see them in a firsthand manner rather than through the historian’s interpretation. He or she needs to know what these documents say, why they are important, and how they change our view of history.

f. Epistemological problems

  1. It is important to consider not only what is in the archives but also what is missing from them and who wrote the documents. In the work of ÚSTR to date, one rarely finds a reflection – which should be paramount – on the relationship between the police archive and would-be “historical truth.” Can we believe or at least trust the StB archives? Is the authenticity of a document synonymous with its credibility? Can an archival document be of absolute value, regardless of its historical context?8 Did StB agents have specific language, taboos or sacrosanct topics, and inherent values that would influence the style and content of its reports? Is the social and political situation described by StB reports comparable to that described by other sources? Such considerations are quintessential.9

In his work on the German police, Thomas Lindenberger showed that the German State Security Service, the Stasi, presented societal behavior in a systematically biased and paranoid way in its reports which even the regular German police, the equivalent of the SNB and the VB, i.e. the Volkspolizei, did not consider deviant and dangerous to the regime.10 Thereby it changes our whole view about the Stasi (or StB) documents. Sonia Combe even argued in her book based on portraits of intellectuals who collaborated with the Stasi that the Stasi reports said more about the Stasi worldview than about the people they spied upon.11

  1. A second necessary issue that is little discussed and yet is a recurrent problem in the work of the Institute is the fact that the Institute is fully focused on all manifestations of resistance, opposition and repression, while ignoring the question of the numerical weakness of this resistance and opposition. Even though Law 181/2007, which established ÚSTR, stipulates that Czechoslovak society must in principle be studied in its historical degree of victimhood, it is necessary to constantly remind the basic proportions and shifts between the symbolic meaning of the Third Resistance, dissent, opposition and repression and their numerical expression in society – as opposed, of course, to the extent of collaboration with the StB.12

This point is all the more important that, as Jaroslav Najbrt, who was invited by Adrian Portmann for the first round of project evaluation, testified, the historical narrative of ÚSTR which focuses on the repressive nature of communism is at odds with a part of Czech society that is somewhat nostalgic and benevolent towards the past regime. “Pupils”, he said, “do not respond to the emphasis on repression; on the contrary, they remind teachers of family stories of happiness under socialism.”

  1. The third issue is the concept of totalitarianism, which is problematic in the international scholarly literature but is not sufficiently discussed at ÚSTR. The historiography of communism that is the most developed, i.e., of the GDR and the USSR, have strongly challenged the concept of communist totalitarianism, calling for a partial turn from political to social history.13 This discussion is all the more necessary that the work of ÚSTR gradually brings a new angle to the Czech totalitarian paradigm. The Institute’s research shows that society was partly involved in defining the conditions of the communist dictatorship and that this may have manifested itself in the form of a form of social negotiation – see, for example, the DVD Česká společnost 1969-1989, edited by Jaroslav Pinkas, or the remarkable collective monograph by Milan Bárta, Jan Břečka and Jan Kalous, Demonstrace v Československu v srpnu 1969 a jejich potlačení (2012). The Institute must take these new elements in consideration and make a valuable contribution to the international debate on the concept of totalitarianism.

3. Integration of ÚSTR in the Czech scientific community

Finally, it should be noted that so far the researchers of the Institute have tended to work in a too self-contained manner and in insufficient connection not only with international research networks, but mainly in the Czech Republic. Again, it is a matter of putting forward a differentiated view of the past on the basis of demonstrable and criticizable arguments, put forward in dialogue and confrontation with historians of all political persuasions. Rivalries and debates with historians who hold different views can only be beneficial to the enhancement of methodological norms.

Conclusion: Fixable research and a promising future

Despite the above recommendations and indications to improve the methodological performance of the Institute’s staff, the members of the Scientific Advisory Board were at times very satisfied with what they saw and heard from a methodological and content perspective.

The DVD Česká společnost 1969-1989 is worthy of special consideration, but so are, for example, the works of Martin Tichý, Říkali mu Dědek. Příběh protikomunistické skupiny Bayer a spol., which explores the motivations of the anti-communist resistance (which were not always political) and its reception then and now, Jana Pávová, Demagog ve službách strany. Portrét komunistického politika a ideologa Václava Kopeckého (2008), which is also very interesting (the author makes a convincing argument that Václav Kopecký represents the history of the Communist Party all by himself until 1961) and mixes his personal and professional history, and Jan Synek’s book, Svobodní v nesvobodě. Náboženský život ve věznicích v období komunistického režimu (2013.) The book edited by Milan Bárta, Lukáš Cvrček, Patrik Košický and Vítězslav Sommer, Victims of the Occupation. The Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechosloavkia 21 August-31 December 1968 (2008) is a typical example of a very interesting work that shows the contrast between communism "à la tchèque" and the behaviour of Soviet soldiers, brutal and indifferent to human suffering: soldiers threw the wounded directly on the ground in front of the hospital, stole, prevented investigations, including by the Czechoslovak criminal police, etc. This would provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on the adaptation of Soviet communism to Czech and Slovak cultural norms and the way communist ideology was adapted in practice in many different national versions.

Moreover, the workshops have shown that some historians have an adequate methodological level, for example Pavel Zeman in his project on the euthanasia of the Jews.

If there is much to adjust on the methodological level, there is also much to look forward to.


References

1 See the interview with Pavel Rychetský, “Už jako předseda Ústavního soudu Pavel Rychetský hlasoval pro zrušení Ústavu pro studium totalitních režimů, protože jde o instituci politickou, která se tváří jako vědecká”, 2 November 2011, http://www.parlamentnilisty.cz/arena/rozhovory/Pavel-Rychetsky-promluvil-o-komunistech-a-pridal-pravdu-o-disidentech-291876.

3 We must consider Mirek Vodrážka's latest work Filosofie tělesnosti dějin (2013) as a thoroughly unconventional output for such a scientific institute. Although the intent of the work – to rehabilitate emotions in thinking about society and in historical research – is not uninteresting, the main thesis, the means of expression and the analytical tools used (the “womb of history”, the “sperm of a new interpretation of the world”, what “came out of the bodies of history”) can hardly be taken seriously.

4 For example, in Jana Fantová and Jan Polouček's volume, Ještě jsme ve válce. Příběhy 20.století, 2011, where one has to search everywhere to find out who the editor of this volume is.

5 Ondřej Koutek, Prokop Drtina. Osud československého demokrata, 2011, p. 9.

6 For instance in Michal Stehlik's volume Danica Valenová, 2012 or Echoes of the Gulag, 2013.

7 For instance in the photographs volume, Praha objektivem tajné policie, where there is no reflection on the interest, or rather on the absurdity and banality of these photographs, and hence on the quality of the StB's espionage work. See also Pavel Kreisinger, Brigadni generálmajor Josef Bartík, 2011, which is an interesting work but lacks reflection on the extent to which this is a typical biography of the twentieth century. What reflection can it inspire about the way in which Czech elites were decimated by communism?, etc.

8 The article by Adam Hradilek and Petr Třešňák, "Udání Milana Kundera”, Respekt, No.42, 13 October 2008, represents a particularly significant methodological shortcoming in this respect. For a detailed analysis and reflection on the use of StB archives as a source, see Muriel Blaive, „Zpřístupnění archivů komunistické politické policie: případ České republiky – od Zdeny Salivarové k Milanu Kunderovi”, Souvislosti, 4/2009, p. 158-174, see

https://www.academia.edu/31228629/Muriel_Blaive_Zp%C5%99%C3%ADstupn%C4%9Bn%C3%AD_archiv%C5%AF_komunistick%C3%A9_politick%C3%A9_policie_p%C5%99%C3%ADpad_%C4%8Cesk%C3%A9_republiky_od_Zdeny_Salivarov%C3%A9_k_Milanu_Kunderovi_Souvislosti_4_2009_p_158_174.

9 See for instance Timothy Garton Ash, The File. A Personal History, New York, Random House, 1999; Alf Lüdtke, “Die DDR als Geschichte. Zur Geschichtsschreibung über die DDR”, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 36, 1998, p. 3; Sonia Combe (ed), Archives et histoire dans les sociétés post-communistes, Paris, La Découverte, 2009, especially the article by Thomas Lindenberger, “Des dossiers de police à l'histoire sociale de l'Allemagne”, p. 277-288; Agnès Bensoussan, Dorota Dakowska, Nicolas Beaupré (ed), Die Überlieferung der Diktaturen. Beitrage zum Umgang mit Archiven der Geheimpolizeien in Polen und Deutschland nach 1989, Essen, Klartext, 2004; Klaus-Dietmar Henke, “Zu Nutzung und Auswertung der Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR”, Vierteljarhshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 41, 4, October 1993, pp. 575-587; Klaus-Dietmar Henke, Roger Engelmann (ed), Aktenlage. Die Bedeutung der Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes für die Zeitgeschichtsforschung, Berlin, Ch. Links, 1996 and many others.

10 Thomas Lindenberger, Volkspolizei. Herrschaftspraxis und öffentliche Ordnung im SED-Staat 1952-1968, Cologne, Böhlau, 2003.

11 Sonia Combe, Une société sous surveillance. Les intellectuels et la Stasi, Paříž, Albin Michel, 1999. The author was inspired by Victor Klemperer‘s analysis of the Nazi language in his volume Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch einen Philologen, 1947.

12 In due time, researchers at ÚSTR could also reflect on how Law 181/2007 defines historical research in general. See Inga Markovits, “Selective Memory. How the Law Affects What We Remember and Forget about the Past: The Case of East Germany”, Law & Society Review, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2001), p. 513-563.

13 For a summary of the discussion of the totalitarian paradigm, see, for example, Andrew J. Port, “Love, Lust, and Lies Under Communism: Family Values and Adulterous Liaisons in Early East Germany”, Central European History, 44, 2011, p. 478-505 or Catherine Epstein, “East Germany and Its History since 1989”, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 75, No.3, September 2003, p. 634-661. The scholarly literature on the subject is very large and it is not the purpose of this chapter to analyze it.

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