17th November 1989: dealing with the complex legacy of the revolution

November 1989

The dramatic events of the Velvet Revolution began on the 17th November 1989. A student demonstration was put down brutally by the police, resulting in a huge public outcry. Protests and further demonstrations gained such rapid momentum that within days the regime was doomed, and by the end of the year Vaclav Havel was president. Any Czech over the age of thirty-five will have vivid memories of the time, but in the meantime a generation has grown up for whom these events are no more than history. So how, seventeen years after the fall of communism, should the Czech Republic be dealing with the complex legacy of totalitarianism, and making sure that future generations will not repeat the mistakes of the past? This is a subject that has remained every bit as controversial as it was in the first days after the fall of the regime, as I shall be exploring in this special programme to mark the anniversary of the events of November 1989.

Students of the Pripotocni Secondary School Jan,  Anna,  Bara,  Tereza,  Anna  (from left)
We start at the Pripotocni Secondary School in a residential inner suburb of Prague. Many of the students here were born just around the time of the changes.

"My name is Jan. I was born on the 21st October 1989."

"I'm Anna. I was born after the revolution. I don't remember anything, I know nothing and it means nothing to me."

Is it just ancient history for you?


Do you know anything about the events of the time?


Have you learned about it at school?

"We didn't learn about it yet."

"I'm Bara. I was born on the 6th December. The revolution means nothing to me. I don't know about the revolution because we don't learn it in school."

"My name is Anna, and I'm a child of the revolution because I was born on 17th November 1989."

"My name is Tereza. I was born after the revolution, but I know something about it."

November 1989
Is that because you have been actively interested in finding out more about it?

"Yes, I'm interested in the revolution because I think it isn't history, because the Communist Party still exists."

"I think we should remember what they did to us, so I think the Communist Party should be forbidden."

You said that it seems like ancient history. Do you ever talk about the past?

"We talk about it and it gives us the feeling that the Communist Party is bad. It's interesting because we think now that it is something bad, but we don't know why."

"In my family we have a very difficult problem because my granddad and father are communist, so we didn't talk about it."

It's a taboo subject.


"At my first school we didn't learn about the revolution, because it is a difficult problem for my teachers and they wouldn't talk about it."

Do you think that you should be learning more about the recent past in your school?

"Yes, because this is an important revolution in our history and we must learn about it, because this is a lesson of the past."

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
We are seventeen years after the fall of communism now. Do you think it is right that people should still be put in prison for things that they did under the old regime?

"I think now, after seventeen years, it is late. It should have been done right after the fall of communism. I think it is good that the Communist Party lost power here, but in some places in the world it still remains."

And do you think it is important for people in the Czech Republic, which has this experience of communism, to try to help these other countries?

"Yes, I think we have to give advice to those countries - I'm not saying that they should make exactly the same revolution as here, but I think we have to tell them that it is good to live without communism."

Do you think the Czech nation has an obligation to keep the memory of what happened alive and to pass it on to others?

"I think it is maybe better to forget the time when the Communist Party was ruling, because maybe we can move on."

Documenting the crimes of communism

If you walk a few hundred yards down the road from the school in Pripotocni Street, you arrive at a large, grey and rather nondescript office building. This houses the rather awkwardly named Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism or UDV. The office comes under the umbrella of the Czech Police, and was set up eleven years ago. It has a dual function, as its deputy director, Jan Srb, explains:

"Around half the people here are police officers. Their job is to investigate crimes committed at the time of the old regime and to bring charges against the perpetrators. The rest of the staff are involved in documenting the time. They are not members of the police force and most of them are historians. They document the communist period and publish the results of their research."

At the heart of the communist regime's apparatus for controlling its citizens was the infamous secret police, the StB. If you kept quiet, the regime would leave you alone, but should you open your mouth, the StB knew how to make life difficult for you and your family. The academic and journalist Jan Urban, spent twelve years as a dissident, and became very familiar with the StB's tactics.

"The minute that the regime and its secret police realized that you are a possible opponent you got close surveillance, and from that moment on you could be sure that you were watched all the time. You would get frequent visits from the social services, checking how you care for your children, you would lose your driving licence, your phone would be tapped and from time to time, depending on your activities, you would be put in prison or in a preliminary detention facility. At that moment there would be no way back. Once you were labelled an enemy, that was for ever, and that would go for your children and your entire family around you."

And there was a vast apparatus keeping this system going, so many people who - more or less formally - were collaborating with the secret police. It must have been a huge machinery.

"You know, when I started my dissident career in 1977, I lived in the South Bohemian town of Prachatice. In the entire district of about 150,000 people there were two known dissidents. We had 29 people only in the district secret police, and several hundred in the regional district overseeing them. So it was a job creation venture, I would say!"

Today Jan Urban is able to look back with humour, but the secret police and other state organs also committed many atrocities against their country's own citizens, breaking even the laws of the time. Investigating the worst of these crimes has been a major part of the work of the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes. Jan Srb again.

"Proceedings were begun against around 200 people. Over a hundred of those cases went to court. In all we have seen around thirty convictions. Sometimes the sentence has only been symbolic - a conditional discharge - but there have also been more serious cases. In most cases they are former state security people, usually accused of abusing their powers, sometimes resulting in death. There are several soldiers, who were serving on our western borders and shot and killed people trying to cross. There are also some top Communist Party officials, some of whom have been convicted in connection with the 1968 invasion."

In this respect the Czech Republic is unusual. Few other former communist countries have brought so many crimes committed at the time of the communist regime to justice. This is even though courts have often worked agonizingly slowly - something that some have linked to the fact that many judges and other court officials themselves have careers going back to the pre-1989 days and have little interest in seeing cases investigated.

Shifting priorities

As time goes by, the focus is inevitably shifting away from punishing the perpetrators towards trying to find a way of mapping the labyrinthine world of real socialism for future generations. Jan Srb from the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes continues.

"These days this is the main focus, and this will be more and more the case in the future. We have brought out some forty publications, mapping the different aspects of the time. As part of the whole mosaic this is only a tiny fragment, so there is much to be done. We also organize a growing number of lectures, which we offer to schools and other organizations free of charge."

But in recent years, the communist crimes office has come under growing criticism. Jan Urban argues that it has a fatal flaw. Is it really right for an institution that bears so much responsibility for the conscience of the nation, to be under the control of the police presidium?

"If the nation allows the police to play the role of the conscience then something is terribly wrong. I'm not saying the people working there did not try hard. They did. But I think the whole concept was flawed from the very beginning, and unless we find a way of getting rid of the state owning and controlling the secret police files and communist regime files, then we will never be able to find out what happened and how to deal with it."

Currently the files of the various organs of the communist machine are scattered in different archives around the country, including the Interior Ministry, the domestic intelligence service and the military intelligence service. Even the historians and investigators at the communist crimes office have to work through those who administer these archives, and it seems ironic that, seventeen years after the fall of communism, many former secret police files are still under the administration of the intelligence services themselves. This means that although the Archive Law of 2004 enables almost unrestricted access to files, they are often hidden away and virtually impossible to find.

Following the example of Poland and Slovakia

Petr Blazek
Last week a bill was passed in its first reading in the lower house of parliament that will radically change the situation if it becomes law. It has been put forward by a group of Senators, mostly from the right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party, and, following the example of Poland and Slovakia, counts on the establishment of a completely new institution - an Institute of National Remembrance - that will be independent of any existing state organ. Not only will it concentrate work on mapping the old regime, but also bring together all the communist era secret files under one roof. When we met in a busy Prague caf‚é, the young historian Petr Blazek told me of his enthusiasm.

"If the law is passed and the institute comes into being it will be a revolution. Everything will be in one place - the archives will be worked up systematically using modern technologies. The institute will have its own budget under the law, and it will also have greater independence than currently enjoyed by the communist crimes office. It will be a properly functioning partner organization for equivalent institutions abroad. At last the documents will nearly all be taken out of the hands of the intelligence services. Even if this is all we manage to achieve, it will improve the situation immensely."

Petr Blazek argues that the communist crimes office has been deliberately dragging its feet, especially since the left came to power in 1998. But this has been vehemently denied by the office and some of the historians working with it. It will be ironic, Jan Srb says, if the right-wing Civic Democrats, who have long accused the left of trying to sabotage the office's work, end up being the ones who make the decision to dissolve it.

"The answer would be for us to be reinforced, and to bring in more people. But this isn't a reason to set up a new institution, which would cost hundreds of millions of crowns. And the argument that it would be apolitical is utter nonsense. How can that be the case, when its board of supervisors will be nominated by the President and the two houses of parliament. What could be more political? On the other hand, the police have a legal obligation to be apolitical. So we are not political."

Jan Urban agrees that there is a danger of a new institute getting bogged down in petty party squabbles - especially given the current tense and antagonistic political climate in the country - but he feels that the attempt has to be made.

"If we cannot deal with our politicians, we cannot deal with anything, and if this obstacle is not removed we will simply again have the state controlling the memory of the nation, and that's always wrong."

Engaging the younger generation

While historians and politicians argue, the key question remains unanswered. How can engage the interests of young people, like the Prague teenagers we heard at the beginning of the programme? In this respect, the most successful initiative so far has come from outside the state sector. The "Stories of Injustice" project, initiated by the NGO People in Need, is focused on schools, and aims to tell the real stories of those who suffered under the regime, using documentary films as the starting point. People in Need's director is Simon Panek.

"It's a project for the primary, secondary and high schools in the Czech Republic, which could voluntarily join the experiment in which the documentary film is used as a kick-off for the discussions with the kids and teenagers about the recent past. That means mainly the period between the Second World War and 1989. So far 530 schools voluntarily subscribed to take part in this project. So there is interest among young people, but one should offer them some more interesting or interactive or modern way, how to think, how to talk, how to discuss about the recent history. If it is presented as some very boring facts and dates, then the young people are probably not more interested than in things that happened two hundred years ago. If you offer it to them through documentary films as a start for discussions about that - because most of their parents were somehow included in the communist Czechoslovakia anyway - then you find that a lot of young people are interested and they would like to know more. But one should find a way how to communicate."

Jan Urban has witnessed the impact of the project "Stories of Injustice".

Stories of Injustice
"I've seen some of the meetings and classes, and it was always fascinating for me to see reactions of high school students, repeating every time. 'That's the first time we really understand how it was and how stupid the regime was,' because it is the first time they have the opportunity to hear the language of the communist time, to see the fear, to see the crimes, to see witness reports of that. I think this is the best we can give our young generation, and allow them to make their minds up about that."

As someone who himself suffered directly under the old regime, Jan Urban has another idea for a way of looking at the problem of the recent past from a fresh angle. Instead of focusing on crime and punishment, he would like to see a "Truth Commission" for reconciliation.

"The 'truth commission' was a concept that was brought to existence in the late 80s and early 90s in Latin America, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, then tried again in South Africa. The deal is very clear. It's the truth for amnesty. It allows the victims to raise their voice and tell their side of the story but it allows also the perpetrators. The poetry or the main advantage of the concept is that it allows society to look for consensus about what happened."

So you are saying it is not so much about punishing the perpetrators - and this focus on who committed the crimes - but it's more a question of empowering those who were the victims of the regime.

Photo: www.guk-prague.cz
"Absolutely. It shows that reconciliation is much more important than punishment and acknowledgement of what happened is much more important for the victims than punishment of the perpetrators twenty years later."

It is highly unlikely that any such commission will ever be established. None of the 28 former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have embraced the idea, and it does not seem likely that the Czech Republic, seventeen years after the fall of communism, will be the exception. In the meantime, the politicians will continue to squabble, the broader public will remain sceptical, and it will probably be many years before the mere mention of the old regime stops arousing passionate and widely differing emotions. Jan Urban:

"The consensus shall come two or three generations from now, when no survivors will be left, and that whole event will be just a chapter in a history text book for primary school kids."