A daily diet of history and hindsight

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For the last week or so I have been religiously following one television programme every day. It’s not a soap opera that has got its claws into me but the Czechoslovak news 20 years after. There is currently an around 10-minute edited spot every night on the public broadcaster CT24 entitled ‘20 years of freedom – 20 years without Communist Party propaganda.’

It is wonderful to be an armchair spectator with the great gift of hindsight. I suppose, for me, it is also an eye opener. I visited Czechoslovakia for the first time around a year after the end of Communism. A public debate had just happened about whether some of the Velvet Revolution posters and stickers should be removed from Prague’s metro station halls and other public places or remain in place for posterity. Sadly, the former decision was taken as the country raced to embrace the West.

Some of the recent CT24 coverage was about the 40th birthday celebrations of Communist East Germany, ironically staged just before the regime’s disappearance.

Of course, the Czechoslovak coverage did not mention the fact that the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev walked out of the dreary speech by the long-serving East German Communist leader Erich Honecker which promised nothing new. Nor were there any images of the young East German Communists lined up to greet the Soviet leader calling out for help. No it was, all smiles, though rather frozen ones, even as other reports on Czechoslovak television showed the East German state and Communism in other countries in Central Europe crumbling.

For me, the Czechoslovak TV coverage of the East German refugees streaming out of the country and occupying the West German embassy in Prague was surprisingly extensive. I suppose the event was just too big to be ignored. But such coverage of Prague authorities towing away the hundreds of unwanted Trabant cars that had been left behind in the city by the refugees sat rather uncomfortably with the upbeat coverage of East Germany’s 40th birthday celebrations.

And then there was the coverage of the meeting of the Hungarian communists which decided for a makeover dumping Communism. Czechoslovak TV viewers are shown a copy of the party’s former paper where the slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite’ has disappeared overnight. There is also a report about Poles, whose country had already dumped Communism, streaming into Austria on a shopping trip.

Meanwhile at home, the grey suits, stony expressions and packed hall were once again rolled out for the 15th Communist Party Central Committee meeting. There is the image of the washed out looking general secretary Miloš Jakeš describing the domestic situation as stable and exhorting activists to greater efforts.

Looking back, it is hard to for me to see where Jakeš and the grey suits got their confidence from. Perhaps they thought things would muddle on as before. But a month later the Velvet Revolution had begun.

Hindsight might make it seem that the Czechoslovak fall of communism was inevitable with the Wenceslas Square protesters extras in an already scripted drama. But it was still the same year as the Tiananmen Square massacre in China and the Czechoslovak StB forces were visible and ready in Prague’s side streets to act if the order was given.