Czech contemporary history triggers debate at historians' congress

Hundreds of historians from around the country flocked to the town of Pardubice in eastern Bohemia for a regular gathering this week. For three days, historians from museums, archives, and universities have been discussing topics ranging from Czech history in an international context, how it should be taught in schools, and its relation to other fields of science.

But according to Professor Svatava Rakova, director of the Academy of Science's History Institute, there is one topic that has dominated discussion:

"I would say that the priority is the opening of the archives of the StB, the former Bolshevik secret police, especially involving various historians who are still alive today. They are historians, who are about 70 years old and were Bolsheviks in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, in 1968, they were engaged in the Prague Spring process and were then expelled from power, from the party, and from institutions, and they became dissidents and somehow lived like dissidents more or less actively. Recently, the opened archives revealed that some of them were StB confidants. I am not enthusiastic about it and would prefer to discuss the world situation and 9/11 and so on but I am afraid that Czech history is encapsulated in this past of some members and so on."

One part of the debate has also been dedicated to how contemporary history should be taught in schools. With ongoing reform in the education system, historians say too little time is allocated to history lessons. Most teachers use this situation to avoid lessons on the part of Czech history they like teaching the least - contemporary history. Professor Zdenek Benes:

"That is a big problem. When teachers say they cannot cover the twentieth century because they do not have enough time to cover the entire curriculum it is often an excuse. The problem of teaching contemporary history is that it requires much more work. It is easy to teach about ancient Greece and Rome because there is nothing that requires complicated discussion. It's worse when you start talking about communism and whether it was good or bad. It is a topic that we have to handle with much more responsibility and that is far from appealing. It's also an especially sensitive issue for the older generation. That's why Czech teachers simply do not want to teach contemporary history."

Dr Oldrich Tuma heads the Academy of Science's Institute of Contemporary History. He believes the problem could be solved by simply reversing the order in which the curriculum is taught:

"It would really make sense to start with 20th century history and then go backwards. That's because a certain understanding of recent history is much more important for everyday life, civic behaviour, and so on."

Many historians agree with Mr Tuma but they also believe that it is too early to expect change. Most of the decision makers, they say, are members of the older generation who welcome the fact that contemporary Czech history does not make it to the classrooms.