Should communist-era injustices be financially compensated?


As the fifty-eighth anniversary of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia nears, survivors of that era are leading an effort to have their story told, and the wrongs they suffered financially compensated. Over 10 000 students were thrown out of university by the communists after February 1948 for political and religious reasons. Now, the question of monetary compensation for such injustices is back in the spotlight—though not all agree it is a good idea.

February 25th,  1948
On February 23rd, 1948 there were student demonstrations against the communists in Prague. Those students who stayed on in Czechoslovakia paid a terrible price. After the communist coup of February 25th, 1948, universities and schools experienced a mass purge of students and teachers. Hundreds of so-called enemies of the state were sent to slave labour camps such as Jachymov, and those who received lighter punishments were kicked-out of their professions and forced to work at manual jobs.

Today the youngest of this generation—the students of 1948—are elderly, the youngest among them 70, and they are waiting for a law that would give them a one-time financial settlement for the injustices they suffered. At issue is the fact that because they were forced into low-paying jobs, their pensions today are very low—thus, the punishment they received from the communist government for political inconformity continues to haunt them in the post-1989 democratic era.

Vladimir Riha of the Christian Democrats is leading the effort to address this situation in parliament and Radio Prague had a chance to speak to him about his motivations. Riha says that the initiative came from former members of his party and people who suffered directly, who tried unsuccessfully to push for compensation 8 years ago.

"I had their original document re-written into a bill, and members of parliament from across the political spectrum have said they support its introduction because we feel a debt to these people. The intelligentsia and teachers were the first to be targeted in 1948 because the communists knew that an uneducated population will be easily manipulated."

While the subject of financial compensation remains important for practical reasons, for some it is not nearly as important as telling the story of what happened. One of those caught in the 1948 purge was Jiri Navratil, and he shared his story at a recent seminar where many of his generation were gathered.

"I just finished the Faculty of Law, and I was expelled because I was a member of the boy scout organization. I just finished my studies at the faculty but I was never a doctor of law."

And this happened to you in what year?

"In 1948."

What did you do thereafter?

"It was very simple. I was arrested and condemned for 20 years in prison, but it was good because after 11 years I was free again and had the opportunity to work in different professions—very simply professions—for instance, cleaner of swimming pools."

If this law passes, how will it affect you personally?

"The law will probably give every student 100 000 crowns, which is nearly nothing. Though as a symbol it is good, naturally."

Some of our discussion here today focused on the rift between the generation of 1948 and the generation of 1968. What are your opinions on this conflict, or is there a conflict?

"It is a very peculiar thing, because our colleagues who were members if these so-called action committees and expelled us in 1948 were then after 20 years expelled themselves. It is a very peculiar thing, but in a town of Mr. Kafka, things like this happen. (Laughs)."

So you accept them as normal, as part of the communist history of Czechoslovakia?

"Of course."

As can be expected, not everyone has come to terms with their past with such good humour as Jiri Navratil. The 1950s were the harshest years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, and those teachers forced out of their classrooms then lost their livelihoods and their profession for at least the next 30 years. Today, with the end of their lives in sight, their appeal for justice is charged with a deep energy.

"I want to appeal to the MPs from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, for them to prove that they do not stand on the side of the criminal Communist Party of Czechoslovakia led by Gottwald, which committed these crimes against families and children. I want them to prove to our nation, and to the states of the European Union that they take democracy seriously—that they want to compensate people for the crimes of the past. It's also important to remind you that approving this law to compensate teachers will only be a small band-aid on the lifetime of injustice done to teachers who today have such low pensions that they are barely above the poverty-line."

Few historians and political analysts would deny the concrete situation described by the teacher from Zdar nad Sazavou, yet not everyone agrees on whether financial compensation is the appropriate way to acknowledge the injustices inflicted by the Communist Party between 1948 and 1989. When Radio Prague called the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia for comment, the press secretary, Monika Horeni, said that her political party has not yet decided on an official standpoint regarding financial compensation, and she could thus offer no comment. So 16 years following the democratic revolution in the Czech Republic, today's Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia still sees reason to debate the actions of its predecessor, and support for compensating teachers and students is hardly a clear-cut matter.

Jirina Siklova
As we've heard, those teachers and students whose lives were directly affected by the communist government of Czechoslovakia carry wounds, some healed, some not. Sociologist Jirina Siklova, who also served time in a communist-era jail for her involvement in anti-state activities, gave Radio Prague her perspective on the question of financial compensation.

"I expressed a similar opinion at the beginning of the 1990s...If Husak and his melody boys, or his comrades, could pay it from their own pockets, then I agree with it. But, if it should be paid from the budget of this country—this relatively poor country—I think that it is not OK. It is not only the question of the money; it would be a source of competition between various generations about the degree of suffering. It would evoke new injustices. We can not choose our parents or the times into which we are born. Therefore, we can not choose to be born in optimal times."

You yourself were jailed by the communist regime in the early 1980s, and after 1989 you had the option of seeking financial compensation for yourself. How did you respond to this on a very personal level?

"I said to myself that I will not want money for this is the reason about which I have just spoken."

Do you have friends who figured with you in dissent who did accept financial compensation?

"I know only 2 examples in which this was the case, but it was a different situation. These people did not have another possibility to earn money and to start again. I think that if maybe I would be in a similar situation, that I will be ill, that I will be old, maybe I will say something different. But I was not in this situation."