VISEGRAD BLOG: Czechs are still in denial about communist rule

VISEGRAD BLOG: Czechs are still in denial about communist rule
Prague's Memorial to the Victims of Communism. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague November 3, 2022

Almost 33 years to the day since the collapse of communism, the Czech media is once again full of accusations about who did what under the totalitarian regime.

The extended life of this Czech obsession with dissecting the pre-1989 record of its public figures is even more surprising given that it comes at a time when communist ideas are all but irrelevant. The hardline Communist Party – the only onetime ruling party in Central Europe to retain the name  – finally fell out of parliament at last October’s general election.

Retired General Petr Pavel, who leads opinion polls ahead of the presidential election in January, has been attacked by rightwing politicians and historians over his membership of the party, and for the fact that he was a soldier in the Czechoslovak army before 1989.

At the same time, ex-premier Andrej Babis, his main rival for the post, who was also a Communist Party member, continues to deny that he was an informant for the regime’s secret police, the StB, even though the Slovak National Memory Institute insists he is in their files as “Bures”.

Many urban liberals and conservatives detest Babis not just for this but because he epitomises this kind of well-connected communist who prospered during the country’s wild transformation in the 1990s.  There remain significant questions about how Babis funded the launch of his agro-chemical group Agrofert – he says he was helped by his Swiss school pals – and over the way he was able to acquire state-owned companies so cheaply. 

Yet it would have been almost obligatory for ambitious men such as Pavel, a soldier, and Babis, a foreign trade organisation representative, to have been party members, if not informers.

The really remarkable feature of these controversies is that their decision to join the party in their twenties – Babis in 1980, Pavel in 1985 – is now being used against them and could be a factor in determining the presidential election.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala, whose ruling centre-right SPOLU coalition has endorsed Pavel and two other candidates, said this week in an interview with the Denik group of regional dailies that he could not vote for him. “I have repeatedly said that I wish we did not have a person who was a member of the Communist Party as president,” the rightwing ODS party leader said.

Petr Blazek, a rightwing historian, has accused Pavel of not telling the truth when he said a military intelligence course he took at the General Staff Intelligence Department in the late 1980s was a preparation for a career in military diplomacy. Blažek says this was actually the route to becoming a communist intelligence officer.

Pavel regrets his membership of the party but has said that his record as a top Czech military officer since 1989 – which includes being the first soldier from a former Warsaw Pact country to have a leading Nato role (as head of the military committee) – outweighs this.

Pavel’s defenders also argue that he is in a completely different position than Babis, and that the ferocity of the attacks on him from people who should be his supporters could enable the billionaire populist to become president.

"Pavel does not minimise his time under the previous regime. He admits it, regrets being in the party, and reflects on his past," historian Prokop Tomek told Czech Radio Plus this week. "Babiš, on the other hand, denies his past, even though there are 10 different documents proving his cooperation with the StB."

Nostalgia for communism

Just as the 2013 presidential election reopened divisions over the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, the looming contest between Pavel and Babis may serve to highlight their different attitudes to the communist past, while at the same time showing how some Czechs remain ambivalent, with many older voters (particularly Babis supporters) continuing to express nostalgia for its comforting certainties.

Babis’ position on his past is more remarkable because it is unlikely that his supporters – older, poorer, less educated voters in small towns and villages – would have turned their back on him if he had made an early confession of his co-operation with the StB. The problem today is that he has been denying it for so long that it would make him look untrustworthy.

Some of the older voters for his ANO party are anyway themselves likely to have collaborated with the secret police and/or joined the party, which had one of the highest memberships in the communist bloc. Even in the 1980s, the party had 1.5 million members (10% of the population) and some 70,000 secret police agents or informers.

Babis is very much a creature of the so-called normalisation period after the 1968 Russian invasion that buried the Prague Spring of “communism with a human face”. In this period, state repression was broad but not deep – at least compared to the brutality of the 1950s.

Instead the regime tried to win compliance through material progress, and did not expect citizens to believe in communism any more. Most Czechs lost interest in politics and pursued their own private hobbies, such as reconstructing old cottages left behind by the Sudeten Germans expelled after the second world war.

But if they wanted to be left alone they still had to make token accommodations with the regime, even if it was only something such as putting up a sign in their shop window saying “workers of the world unite”, as Vaclav Havel, the dissident liberal playwright and future president, used as an example in his famous tract “The power of the powerless”.

Real opposition was very marginal. The dissident movement was tiny right up until the 1989 Velvet Revolution – only 1,900 signed Havel’s Charter 77 – and the revolution when it came lagged those in neighbouring Poland, Germany and Hungary.

Nevertheless, after the revolution a comforting myth was created by Havel and others that the Prague Spring and the interwar First Republic represented the country’s true face, Czechs were democrats at heart, and the 40 years of communist dictatorship was only an interregnum.

Yet at the same time Havel always insisted that everyone was to some extent co-responsible for the communist period, and that the line did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us’ but through each individual.

Anti-communist crusade

This latter point was soon forgotten and from being one of the most communist of all the Eastern bloc countries, the Czech Republic quickly shifted to being one of the most anti-communist. Historian Petr Roubal argues that anti-communism is now the guiding spirit of Czech patriotism, and “has become an essential part of Czech ID”.  He says: “it is impossible to underestimate how important this is and it shapes everything.”

For some rightwingers, anti-communism has become almost a personal crusade, a way of proving their moral purity by attacking those who they regard as tainted by collaboration or too willing to forget the past.

Often the record of those who make the loudest noises is hardly heroic at closer inspection: the rightwing ODS party, which dominated the 1990s and often used the communist bogey against its leftwing rivals, had many former Communist Party members.

Other firebrand anti-communists are often too young to have to have faced the difficult dilemmas under communism themselves. Ironically Blazek, who was only 16 in 1989, reacted furiously when it was publicised that he had been a member of the Union of Youth – a feeder organisation for party membership. He said that he had had no choice, but this is of course exactly what older collaborators say.

The nature of the Czech transition from communism also helped fuel this anti-communist obsession. The “velvet” nature of the revolution was seen as letting the Communist Party leaders and abusers off too easily.

Havel’s compromise with the leaders of the bankrupt regime enabled him to become president but also allowed the party to take part in the new democracy, albeit as a pariah. This gave rise to conspiracy theories that the revolution had all been planned beforehand by top regime insiders, and was just playacting.

Some rightwing politicians continue to demand the banning of the Communist Party – whose support peaked at 18.5% in 2002 – as well as trials of those accused of crimes under the previous regime, though very few have taken place.

They have had to make do with one of the toughest “lustration” laws in the region, which blacklisted StB officials from many public posts. Some rightwing politicians now want to revive the lustration law, which has lapsed, even though hardly anyone would now fall under its provisions.

Since the 1990s, the issue of the country’s communist past has become less prominent but it still occasionally flares up, usually when a rightwing politician is seeking attention or when a former communist raises his head above the parapet, like today.

Failing to come to terms with the past

This anti-communist obsession merely stokes divisions and obscures issues. Rather than using anti-communism for virtue signalling or as a weapon in political battles, what the country really needs is a proper coming to terms with its past.

This would strengthen identification with democracy and help remove some of the communist-era mindsets that explain the success of populist politicians such as Babis. He offers his voters the same Faustian bargain as under normalisation: ignore politics, let me be in charge and make things better.

However, the Czechs have long shied away from such a reckoning, and the belated attempts to do so have been partisan and therefore unsuccessful.

While neighbouring countries moved quickly to establish museums about the communist regime, Prague’s 20th Century Memorial Museum was only founded by the city council in 2020, and has yet to launch its first major exhibition.

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which was founded by an ODS-led government in 2008, is also yet to establish its credibility.

For much of its existence it has acted more like a propaganda department rather than a scientific research body, argues French post-communist researcher Muriel Blaive, Elise Richter Fellowship at the University of Graz in Austria, who was sacked from there last month after eight years. She has been supported by an open letter signed by Yale historian Timothy Snyder among more than 200 others.

“The point [of the establishment of the institute] was not to research the past or deal with the past. The point was to create a political instrument for the ODS,” she told bne IntelliNews in a telephone interview. “This country really needs a memory institute but it does not need one that is political.”

The board of the institute, and thus its director, are elected by the Senate, and therefore its leadership tends to change with each political tide. When the right has been in charge, leftwing critics accuse it of mining the secret police files to find political ammunition; while when the left rules, the right accuses it of trying to bury the files.  Today the right wing is firmly back in control.

Blaive, who was one of the few foreigners at the institute and was its most internationally published researcher, says she was fired because she took a more nuanced view of the communist past than its new leadership and other researchers there such as Blazek.

When asked for comment, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes said Blaize's dismissal was for "fundamental and objective reasons", and it was an internal matter so the institute would not be making any further comment.

Blaive says the institute’s new leadership only see communism in black and white terms, as a battle between good and evil, with perpetrators and victims. She says this ignores the fact that Czechs were often willing participants. It creates a “twisted” narrative that is a “parody of history”.

This narrative can then be weaponised against the left. “It serves them to discredit the left,” Blaive says. “If everything is the fault of the communists, the left should not be let back in.”

The Czechs are not alone in wrestling with their communist past. Poles and Hungarians are in some ways in a worse position, with many rightwingers in those countries arguing their revolutions were ‘stolen’ or ‘unfinished’.  Both countries’ current radical rightwing governments have imposed this narrative on their respective institutes and museums, attracting a lot of domestic and international criticism.

But Blaive says that “they are much less in denial of their communist past” than the Czechs, because there was genuine support for the Czechoslovakian regime initially and again during the Prague Spring, while the Polish and Hungarian regimes were always essentially occupations.

She argues this denial of the past is holding the country back from getting to grips with its current problems and divisions. These will now be on full display during the presidential election over the next few months.

“We’re still living as if the revolution happened yesterday,” she says. “It stems from not facing this head on. This denial about communism is not helping to solve the country’s problems, it’s not promoting reconciliation but division.”