Communist era plagues history teachers

The communist regime in Czechoslovakia crumbled in 1989, and 20 years on, a caustic debate still smoulders over how to interpret it – not among the staunch mindsets of those who enforced the regime and those who suffered through it – but rather for the nation’s grade school students, none of whom were alive yet when the Berlin wall came down.

The anniversary of the fall of communism arouses every emotion in those who remember it, from celebration to rancour, and, for some, even nostalgia. A large part of the public however, the children, has never known anything other than a free market society. A skirmish of sorts is underway to define the way today’s youths understand the era. On one side of the debate is the Czech charity foundation People in Need, which has begun a programme in recent years using documentary film to address issues relating to the communist era. Spokesman Filip Šebek explains the incentive for the Stories of Injustice project and what it aims to achieve:

“Our experience is that children know a lot of things about the Stone Age and the Middle Ages - very detailed things - but the history they know mostly ends with the Second World War. Stories of Injustice basically focuses on the 40 years of communism, of this totalitarian regime which was in Czechoslovakia, so we are giving Czech schools the opportunity, if they want, to order a movie, which we will send them for free, screen it, and a very important part of this is that after that screening the students have the opportunity to have a discussion with someone who has experienced the times, for example communist concentrations camps or things like this. So it’s not just screening a documentary about the communist regime but also having a discussion with someone who really has vital experience.”

The programme however has ignited an ideological war of worlds, in which both sides of the political spectrum see yawning gaps in the way communism is presented – or not presented – to the young. In January a Communist official caused an uproar when she publicly lamented the light in which the communist era is cast in schools and contended that the programme was promoting anti-communism among young people. The resurgence of the issue has proven something of a maypole around which the Communists are fortifying themselves in defence of their perspective on history. Josef Skála is an international policy advisor for the Communist Party.

“Look there are two key issues: one, the economic and social results of the post-war socialist period of Czechoslovakia are so clear that if someone were to admit them today people would be shocked. The GDP grew more than seven times, industry more than 13 times, the standard of living grew several times in those 40 years. Compare that with the last 20 years now. The GDP of the pre-November ‘89 period was reached only on 2004. It’s horrible the extent to which all these truths are censored or slandered.”

At the same time there were unarguably extremely terrifying things that happened during those 40 years of the communist era, are you opposed to those things being discussed in a school setting?

“Not at all, what we don’t want is black and white history, what we don’t want is to replace the origins with the repercussions. We are defending ourselves as the weaker part of this big fight. And, yes, we made mistakes, there were even atrocities, there were crimes, yes, but we should speak about the whole context, we should say why this story started, who started it, and that’s when the real story comes out; and only then the genuine lesson to be learned from the Cold War and all these unnecessary developments will be provided to the people today. And this is what is missing.”

I’ve come to Gymnazium Arabská, one of the largest secondary schools in Prague, to find out more about the people at the centre of the debate. Aside from the sober and somewhat Herculean functional architecture of the building itself, there is little a visitor from the era of communism would recognise. There are a lot of blue-jeans, piercings and gelled hairdos, laptops and iPods, and also English speakers, who I asked to tell me what they know about life in communist Czechoslovakia.

“I would say that the lives of people during this, I would say, Dark Age, were quite reserved, that they lived a lie. They were doing what they were told to do and their options were quite limited.”

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
“There was a problem for example in freedom of religion. They couldn’t say that they believed in something. So I think that was the biggest problem.”

“There were restrictions on what you could say and what you could write and if you did not follow these restrictions you would be tried or lose your job"

“The main idea that everybody would have the same things might be good but it’s not possible that this idea would ever work because people have their own ambitions and they want to improve themselves”

In this, one of the schools that has embraced the Stories of Injustice programme, the students had a very good conception of what life under communism was like. However they had a problem defining it. Ministry of Education spokesman Tomáš Bouška says teaching communism in schools is still a problem.

“What we are often facing in the Czech Republic is a much polarised debate that is either very pro-communist or anti-communist, and there is really nothing in between, there are just clashes. That’s not our interest as a ministry; we don’t want to support clashes. We want to make young people understand what has happened since 1945 in this country.”

Tomáš Bouška
So you’re not opposed per se to the communists promoting their view of history in schools.

“Of course this is a democratic debate so they have their own views about how to teach the subject and their own position towards this sensitive topic. This is acceptable of course. But what is not acceptable is their attempts to change the system and to forbid invitations to people like witnesses of communist persecution to come to the schools and speak to the children.”

But for example if a teacher wanted to invite, say, a former state prosecutor to the class...

“That’s absolutely fine. It would actually be quite interesting for example to invite these people who stood on the other side who were representing the regime and put them together with a political prisoner or something like that. But this should have been taking place in recent years because unfortunately most of them have already died, because these things occurred quite a long time ago. And secondly most of these witnesses, communists, they are not interested in talking. So this is another problem that the teachers are facing, that not everyone is willing to talk about it.”

The teaching of the communist era remains an issue for which there is no fast fix. For all the determination of everyone involved, the insight that schools give students remains the domain of individual teachers, and how the story develops will ultimately depend on them alone.