Researchers welcome ruling protecting access to historical archives

Security Services Archives, photo: CTK

Czech historians researching the totalitarian era breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday, when the Constitutional Court ruled that the accessibility of archives from that period will remain unchanged. The ruling overturns a proposal by the Supreme Court which was against an exception giving historians easy access to documents from the Nazi and Communist regimes.

Security Services Archives,  photo: CTK
For years, Czech historians and researchers studying the Nazi and Communist regimes have had virtually unlimited access to documents from those periods. To do their research, they don’t need the consent of the living people whose sensitive personal data appear in the documents. But the Supreme Court had doubts about the constitutionality of this practice.

However, the Constitutional Court has ruled, by a narrow majority, that looking into such archival documents does not encroach on the rights of the people mentioned in them. Nevertheless, researchers have to take into account the protection of delicate personal data in case they decide to publish them.

Světlana Ptáčníková is the director of the Security Services Archives, which administers acres of such files. She says she feels a great deal of relief on her own part, but also on behalf of all historians and researchers.

Světlana Ptáčníková,  photo: CTK
“If the court ruled the opposite way, we would have to go through the materials with each request. We would have to make a list of people mentioned in the file, noting down their private data, such as name and date of birth, as well as their sensitive data, including information on crime, political attitudes, philosophical views or sexual orientation. Then we would have to find all these people in the registers, contact those who are alive, and ask them for a written consent.”

According to Světlana Ptáčníková, the archive deals with up to 39,000 files every year and each of them contains dozens or even hundreds of names. The process would take such a long time that it would practically paralyse the research.

Mikuláš Kroupa, chairman of the non-governmental organisation Post Bellum, which documents 20th century history through eyewitness accounts, has also welcomed the ruling. He says it pleased him to see that a majority of the judges recognised the importance of studying historical sources and bringing testimony to the totalitarian systems.

Security Services Archives,  photo: CTK
“If they had agreed with the Supreme Court, it would mean a complete collapse of historical research of the 20th century in this country. Take for instance the file on Václav Havel, which has tens of thousands of pages with hundreds of names. According to our estimates, the process of anonymization would take roughly a year. In the end you would get a file with all the details blacked out, so you wouldn’t understand the context. So basically one single person could prevent research of the whole file.”

With the current legislation on historical research staying unchanged, the Czech legal regulation remains one of the most open in Europe.