Czech oral history project Memory of the Nation celebrates 20 years

The Czech Republic has the world’s third-largest collection of testimonies from people who lived under totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. That collection of the Memory of the Nation project, includes interviews with some 13,000 people who suffered under, fought against, tolerated or collaborated with the Nazi and Communist regimes. As the Memory of the Nation project celebrates its 20th anniversary, co-founder Mikuláš Kroupa reflected on the project’s humble origins and the incredible stories still being collected and preserved.

“It all began 20 years ago with a few friends, sitting in living room. We were all students of history or journalism at the time. I knew the last surviving Czechoslovak legionnaire, a veteran of the Battle of Zborov. He was 105 years old at the time.

“I wanted to ask him what happened there, about his memories, before the last of his generation disappeared. We talked about what would be lost when the last of the veterans of the Second World War were gone. Then I asked myself, what will our society lose when those who fought the third struggle, against Communism, were gone?”

Mikuláš Kroupa, there, in an interview with Czech Television. That last surviving Czechoslovakian legionnaire, and last living veteran of the First World War, was Alois Vocásek, among the thousands of soldiers, legionnaires, who broke with the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to fight for an independent Czechoslovak state.

Alois Vocásek | Photo: Post Bellum

Alois Vocásek was the very first interview conducted for would become the Memory of the Nation project (or Paměť národa, in Czech), recorded two decades ago, a couple of years before Vocásek’s death at age 107. Over the next few months, Kroupa and his friends began recording interviews with Czech and Slovak veterans of the Second World War.

“Twenty years ago, without absolutely no financial or technical resources, just a single dictaphone to share, I think it’s a small miracle what came of it. Along with other volunteers, in just a few months we managed to record interviews with 100 veterans, from the eastern front, the western fronts, former RAF pilots.

“We caught up with a generation of the great air aces, the legendary [Lieutenant General] František Fajtl, the [Wing Commander General] František Peřina, [General] Tomáš Sedláček and many, many others. But also with an army of forgotten heroes, who society simply knew nothing about.”

Mikuláš Kroupa says the group soon realized that, unlike many countries in central and western Europe, the Czech Republic was lacking a proper museum that would reflect the on contemporary history, and using modern means. There was nothing equivalent, say, to Poland’s museum about the Warsaw Uprising.

Mikuláš Kroupa | Photo: Czech Radio

At last count, the Memory of the Nation project had recorded 13,000 interviews, over half of which are online, produced 42,000 video clips, and collected 96,000 photos. Only the Shoah project of director Steven Spielberg and the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have a larger oral history archive of witnesses, and victims, of totalitarianism in the 20th century.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of its founding, this August the project opened the first of many planned multimedia institutes – modern museums – focused on totalitarianism in the 20th century, in the eastern Bohemia city of Pardubice.

The institute marks in psychical form the culmination of the two decade-long joint effort of Memory of the Nation, in partnership with the Post Bellum project, Czech Radio and Czech Radio, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) in Prague, hundreds of journalists, historians, academics and student volunteers.