Addressing the Ghosts of Communism


More than a week after elections in the Czech Republic saw support for the Communist Party fall to 12% of the vote, there are still many voices on the Czech scene concerned with questions of the communist past. Some Czechs who once immigrated to escape the communist regime are dissatisfied with outcomes of property restitutions settlements, and historians and politicians are pushing for an Institute of National Memory to finally be established in the Czech Republic. In this week's Talking Point, we take a closer look behind the scenes and speak with some of those involved in making sure that the communist past is not forgotten.

While election results show that there is no threat of the communists returning to power, a contingent of Czech politicians is not satisfied with this reality. For them, the past should not be forgotten, but rather taught in schools and openly discussed, to ensure that this country's communist history is part of the national consciousness.

Interestingly, the Czech Republic is the only state in central Europe where the Communist Party has not undergone a reform process since the revolutions in late 1989. In fact, it was allowed to exist in its old form, while in neighbouring Poland and Hungary, the old communist parties were banned. Senator Martin Mejstrik has an opinion on why that did not happen in the Czech Republic, and it's the same one often heard in discussions with Czechs living abroad:

"You know, for a long time I didn't allow myself to believe the possibility that there was a backdoor agreement of some kind. But with the passage of time—and there has been a lot of time now—I've become convinced that there were agreements made with the Communist Party leadership. Of course there's the question of the degree of deals made behind the scenes—maybe they were only verbal, and minimal, but I think they existed. The Communist Party was not banned if only because at the very beginning of 1990, a federal gathering approved an election law in which the Communist Party was named—so this made it possible for the party to participate in the first free elections. Unfortunately, there was no political will to ban the Communist Party, and today we can only ask ourselves why that was the case."

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Being so closely connected to the post-communist reform process from the beginning—most especially on a committee that dealt with issues of property restitution in the 1990s—Martin Mejstrik points to one main reason why he thinks the reforms were not always terribly effective:

"There were probably really only a few true democrats here. A segment of the dissident community was comprised of people from 1968—I mean the so-called reform communists, who of course did not have much of a desire to dive into the problems with the Communist Party. Many of them had a problem confronting this ghost, because even though many of these people were kicked out of the Party following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, they still remained on the left of the political spectrum."

Yet there was real political change in this country, and the school curriculum reflects this shift, at least formally including coverage of the communist era. However, the common problem is that teachers often don't devote much time to post-1945 events. After a recent seminar dealing with Czech politics and the communist past, I caught up with Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and asked him what should be done about this problem in the educational system.

Cyril Svoboda
"My suggestion is to create pressure on teachers, so that they actually teach young people about the past. Maybe if it is compulsory for all students to be taught Czech [communist] history, because it is a part of our history. We can not exclude this part of history by saying that now we are democrats, and we have no interest in the past. So maybe this is just a question of discipline."

RP: How do your own kids feel about what is left out of the school curriculum? Do they ask you questions about the communist past?

"My sons are something special. They are well-educated, they have read many books, and they are also in the atmosphere of a family that has interest in discussing many political issues. So I'm lucky to have sons with very strong interests in politics, political science, philosophy, literature, etc."

Martin Mejstrik and his supporters in the Senate—among them is Jaromir Stetina—have been trying to pass a law amendment that would ban the symbols of communism, just as the Czech Republic bans Nazi symbols. I asked Mr. Mejstrik what sort of support he's getting from abroad?

"It's another problem we face: Western Europe, which did not experience the communist system, does not see the legacy as a problem. They have a very clear standpoint regarding Nazism and it's an absolutely unacceptable ideology, but where communism is concerned, Western Europe's position is essentially indifferent. The latest comment coming from the European Union was that all the states of central Europe should deal with this problem as they please. In one way this is a good approach, but it also shows indifference towards the issue. So I've made it my personal goal to bring this topic to the attention of the European Parliament, and to have Europe form a position on the communist history. I'm especially happy with the initiative the Americans have taken, to build a memorial to the victims of communism that will stand almost right in the centre of Washington, D.C."

Another one of the concrete efforts to preserve access to and interest in the past is that led by Senator Jiri Liska, who wants to establish an Institute of National Memory in the Czech Republic. Similar institutes already exist in Slovakia and Poland, and Senator Liska spoke with me about why it has taken so long to get support for this project off the ground:

"I think that the most important moment came with increased political interest in the issue. With some distance between us and the events of 1989, there seem to be more people who are interested in dealing with questions of the past, and they see a need to have this history of ours be accessible. This is where the Institute of National Memory comes in—such an institution will allow us to explore the past, which ensures our future identity as well."

Although there are still many unresolved issues connected with this country's history, the new Institute of National Memory should be open and running by the beginning of 2007.