Czech totalitarian studies institute quits European association

Photo: Tomáš Adamec

The long and bitter dispute between the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and the European association of similar agencies came to a head on Wednesday when the Czechs announced they were leaving the Europe-wide network. Both sides quote several reasons behind the rift but ideological as well as personal animosities seem to be at the core of the squabble.

Photo: Tomáš Adamec
The Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes on Wednesday fulfilled its threats and said it was quitting the Europe-wide association it helped to establish.

The official reason given by the institute director, Pavla Foglová, is that the network, dubbed Platform of European Memory and Conscience, refused to back down on its January decision to suspend the Czech institute’s membership over its alleged infiltration by former Communists. Michal Uhl is a member of the institute’s supervisory body.

“They used the term ‘infiltration by Communists” which is very strange rhetoric that I find difficult to accept. They suspended our membership, which was in breach of their own statutes, using false and deceiving arguments. We consider the whole matter a form of political pressure.”

Czech MPs elected Michal Uhl along with three other people to the institute’s council body in 2012 as an attempt to reform the agency and shift its focus.

Michal Uhl,  photo: archive of Radio Wave
Its primary task is researching the files of the former Communist secret police and other security forces of totalitarian Czechoslovakia. But Mr Uhl and his colleagues believe the role of the institute should be less prone to ideology, and more open to different points of view.

Michal Uhl says that the European network’s managing director, Neela Winkelmann, did not approve of the change in focus while she worked for the institute in the past, which is one of the main reasons behind the row.

“The institute should not be an ideological tool for the interpretation of history; instead, it should bring various interpretations of the past. And I believe the origin of the conflict is that Ms Winkelmann did not agree with the institute’s transformation and with the changes that came when we joined the council.”

The platform’s managing director, Neela Winkelmann expressed regret over the institute’s decision to quit the network, and said she hoped the Czech agency would reconsider the move.

But she also says the institute’s attempt to shift away from its main role was politically motivated, and is not something that will go down well with the new Czech government.

“The leadership of the institute hails from the left side of the political spectrum. However, the parliamentary elections turned out differently and we now have a reasonably centrist coalition in power.

Neela Winkelmann | Photo: archive of  Platform of European Memory and Conscience
“So we are observing there is a discrepancy between the policy of the institute’s current leadership, and the political situation in the Czech society after the new government was formed.”

The institute is now in the process of choosing a new director to replace Pavla Foglová which, Ms Winkelmann believes, could bring about a change of course. Five candidates have applied for the post, and the winner should be announced by the end of April.