Communist-era heritage conservation focus of new research

How did the Communist regime approach heritage conservation? What led to the devastation of so many historical monuments? And why did some buildings survive while others were knocked down? These are just some of the questions addressed in a new research launched by historians from the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Thousands of monuments in the Czech Republic fell into ruin during the five decades of Communist rule. Many of them were left abandoned, deteriorating beyond repair, while others were simply razed to the ground.

Although the devastation of historical monuments was mapped quite thoroughly in the past, comprehensive research focusing on Communist-era heritage conservation was never carried out.

Historians from the Academy of Sciences and other institutions, including the Institute for the Study of the Totalitarian Regimes, have now started to examine the topic in greater detail. The first step in their research was a conference, which took place in Prague this week.

Kristina Uhlíková from the Academy’s Institute of Art History, one of the co-organizers of the conference, says the devastation of historical monuments was a result of several factors. One of the main ones was the nationalization of private-owned property shortly after the end of the Second World War:

Uherčice chateau | Photo: Podzemnik,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“The state wanted to look after the monuments, at least to some extent. But the task was too much to handle, especially for a centrally managed economy.

“Only in Bohemia, there were over a thousand castles and chateaux, mostly private-owned, and suddenly, within just five years, they were taken over by the state, which was supposed to look after them.”

Another problem was that there were not enough skilled people to look after the monuments, says Professor Milena Hauserová, who teaches heritage conservation at Czech Technical University’s Faculty of Architecture:

“Shortly after the war, even before the 1950s, the regime started to promote industrialization of the construction sector. As a result, private artisans started to be eliminated.

“Many professions, that were common until then, ceased to exist. All the capacity went into construction of prefabricated buildings and many bricklayers no longer even knew what a brick was.”

The neglected monuments reflected negatively on the Communist regime. Since the authorities had no means or will to preserve them, they were ordered to be torn down, says Mrs Hauserová:

“There was a strong tendency to destroy the dilapidated monuments. That’s why so many abandoned churches and castles were blown up, so that they wouldn’t be seen. Many of them could have been saved and could have served some purpose. But the feeling of failure played a significant role.”

Mrs Hauserová points out that ideology also played a significant role on monument preservation during Communism. For instance, greater care was given to the preservation of Hussite monuments. Historic sites from the Baroque period were often neglected, since they presented what the Communist regime regarded as a dark era in the country’s history.

Authors: Ruth Fraňková , Daniel Mrázek
run audio