Veronika Pehe is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute for Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Sciences. Her academic work is concerned with pop culture and memory, the politics of memory, and the history of the economic transformations in Central Europe since 1989. She also works as an external editor of A2larm, an RLS partner organization. She spoke with Joanna Gwiazdecka, director of the RLS Prague office, about the transformation that has taken place in Central Europe. Translated by Ryan Eyers and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
JG: Do young people in the Czech Republic have opinions about the “Velvet Revolution” and the subsequent transformation that took place? Or is this only an issue for those who directly experienced it?
VP: The “Velvet Revolution” and “November ’89” are terms frequently repeated in the media and public discourse more broadly, to the extent that today’s youth would definitely be aware of them. What exactly they understand these terms to mean, however, is far less certain. The student association “Díky, že můžem” (“Thanks that we can!”) has gained considerable visibility with the campaign it began in 2014 to annually commemorate the suppression of a student demonstration by riot police on Národní (National Avenue) in Prague on November 17 1989. The idea behind the campaign is to show appreciation for those who fought for Czech independence at the end of the 1980s. This association sees us as living in a time of “unrestricted possibility”—an interpretation that views the aforementioned transformation in a distinctly positive light.
Although this is certainly true for some sections of society, it is predominantly a perspective held by students from the bigger cities. It is difficult to imagine this sentiment being shared by young people from the country’s post-industrial regions, for example, areas which suffer from a host of structural problems and offer little in the way of opportunities for the younger generation. It is true, though, that the Velvet Revolution remains an important point of reference for the politically active segment of this generation. This can be seen, for example, in the way that its symbolism has been utilized by the leading figures of the “Million Moments for Democracy” (Milion chvilek pro demokracii) movement, which has been organizing protests against the government of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš since 2018.
In what way do young people today discuss and reflect on more recent history?
A research project I was involved in, looking at the life trajectories of those who went to university at the end of the 1980s and took part in the student strikes of November 1989, did not provide evidence that the children of these former revolutionaries have any particularly strong relationship to this historical milestone. One absolutely clear result from that research is the understanding that this younger generation is far from homogenous with respect to their interpretations of the Velvet Revolution. So this makes it difficult to generalize about young people’s take on these issues.
During the decades of transformation, there was a lot of discussion in the media about the fact that too little time was being dedicated to modern history in schools, and that pupils and students alike were in fact often unable to get a good grasp of the second half of the twentieth century. This is no longer really the case, but some teachers still have a problem with more recent history. As a result, a whole host of academic and citizens’ initiatives emerged that began to develop classroom learning materials focused on recent history. Some of the most valuable work in this area has undoubtedly been done by the education department of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.
It is of course true, however, that the interpretation offered by many organizations dedicated to analyzing modern history—and not just with respect to the fall of the communist regime—is influenced by their political position. Since the beginning of the 1990s, anticommunism was strongly portrayed in Czech public discourse as a distinct and apparently natural rejection of the politics prior to the events of 1989.
At the same time, however, this was instrumentalized in the political struggle that followed, in that it enabled any and all ideas seen as remotely left-wing to be written off as communist. Unfortunately this hostile stance towards pre-1989 politics, necessary in and of itself, was often adopted as a blanket and uncritical position. This made it impossible—and to an extent continues to make it impossible—to gain a thorough understanding of the communist regime, how it was able to survive for so long, and the extent to which this regime was supported by certain sections of society. Any effort to better understand how the regime was embedded in Czech society has been perceived by the liberal and right-leaning sections of the media and political representatives as a kind of defence of the dictatorship. Naturally, this makes open debate and high-quality teaching on this subject impossible.
How do politicians in the Czech Republic deal with the country’s history?
Just as is the case in other countries, history is a politicized subject in the Czech Republic. Paradoxically, in recent years this has become more visible than in in the time immediately following the Velvet Revolution. In the nineties, there was consensus among politicians and in the media that the communist regime had to be condemned. Unsurprisingly, various forms of criminal prosecution for the crimes of the communist regime and the public denunciation of alleged former employees of the state security forces were the order of the day.
But the “examination of the past” did not take on such a fundamental dimension in the formation of a new identity as it did in Germany, where the issue of East German versus West German identity continues to endure. Czechs prefer to maintain their more placatory historical narrative, one in which they have historically always been the victims of other forces and must themselves bear no responsibility for historical events. Thus the so-called “politics of memory” seemingly played less of a role here than in Germany, where it was necessary to come to terms with taking responsibility for the Nazi regime.
This does not mean, of course, that history has not had an impact on politics and that politics has not made its way into research into historical events. The opening of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in 2007 prompted widespread public discussion; the same was the case in 2011 with the so-called law concerning the third resistance struggle which created a de facto equivalence between resistance to the communist regime (including armed struggle) and anti-Nazi resistance efforts during the Second World War. This is a relatively controversial assertion that divided the political scene and society more broadly. In the Czech collective memory there is still no clear consensus, for example, on whether the group headed by the Mašín brothers, who committed violent acts at the beginning of the 1950s in the context of the resistance struggle against the communists, including a number of murders, should be recognized as heroes or, on the contrary, condemned.
In general, you could say that during the past 15 years or so the politicized struggle over history in the Czech Republic has been solely focused on the character of the former regime. On the one hand, there are those who assert that the regime was a totalitarian one exclusively based on repression. This group is of the view that only the repressive aspects of the dictatorship should be examined, with no attention whatsoever to be directed to daily life under the regime and the support it had among the public, which according to this interpretive logic absolutely could not have existed. On the other hand, there are those who, in contrast to the former, actively engage with social and cultural history, and are interested in learning how the people went about their daily lives in the context of an authoritarian regime. Although among experts on the communist regime this second approach is considered entirely legitimate, even according to international research standards, it is rejected by its opponents as “revisionism” that supposedly seeks to exculpate the dictatorship.
Recently, Michal Pullman, deacon of the philosophy faculty at Charles University in Prague, has been subject to a great deal of hostility as a result of his work—among other things—investigating the consensus-based aspects of the communist dictatorship. According to his opponents, this makes him a defender of totalitarianism and a dangerous “neo-Marxist”. In the German context, where a long-standing tradition of Alltagsgeschichte [history of of everyday life] became established as early as the eighties, this dispute would undoubtedly be perceived as a rather belated one. Historians such as Alf Lüdtke and Thomas Lindenberger have long since convincingly demonstrated that the study of repression and of daily life are not two separate matters of inquiry but must in fact be examined in parallel, in order to understand how repressive regimes actually function. Although a section of the Czech academic community is aware of this, it is politically beneficial for a large number of groups to stick with the narrative that asserts communism is first and foremost to be condemned and that the support the regime received from some quarters is not something to be investigated further. Doing so would also require taking on a certain level of collective responsibility—a subject that Czech society has so far not addressed.
Are there similarities in what emerged as a result of the transformation that can be seen across central European and eastern European countries?
The process of transformation occurred across the different countries of the former Eastern Bloc with varying levels of intensity and via different mechanisms. In general, however, one can say that the very rapid changes made to entire economic systems accelerated the development of social inequalities. While a certain social class were able to profit from the upheaval (in the nineties often in a way that operated on the fringes of what could be considered legal), other groups were plunged into unemployment and poverty.
Nowadays, we are seeing a kind of polarization occur not only in post-communist societies but also across the entire Western world. In former Eastern Bloc countries, this polarization is fuelled in particular by the traumas of the transformation period. If we return to the issue of the politicization of history for a moment, a great number of politicians and other significant figures are happy to continue fanning the flames of cultural conflict around the communist past, as it allows them to distract the public from the problems of the present. But Czech society no longer remains completely divided by the legacy of communism, as is shown by the enormous popularity enjoyed by Andrej Babiš, who was not only a member of the communist party but also without doubt an agent of the state security services.
Thus at least for a substantial portion of Czech voters the country’s communist history is no longer of particular relevance. What does divide the country are social problems, such as high amounts of debt, a lack of available living space, low wages in certain sectors, and inadequate infrastructure. And these are problems for which, both in the Czech Republic as well as in other countries of the region, responsibility lies squarely at the feet of governments that have come to power since 1989, and not the ones which preceded them.