Friday, January 23, 2009

left, right, left: history in the post-communist era

Recently, an insightful discussion has been taking place in the Czech press over how modern history is (or isn't) taught in Czech schools. Some education experts allege that modern history instruction often extends only as far as World War II; that most teachers don't even bother with lessons devoted to the communist and post-communist era. Perhaps, some education experts believe, it is because that chapter of Czech history is too fresh, too personal, and instructors are not sure how to present it to their students. Yes, textbooks have sections devoted to selected events in the last sixty years of Czech history, but they are often just that - a list of dates and names, which leave a whole host of questions unanswered.

After the 1989 fall of the totalitarian regime, responsible for imprisoning and torturing people and ruining, if not ending, many lives, in an effort to right the wrongs of the past, the following steps were taken: Still during the days of the Velvet Revolution, communism was struck out of the constitution as the leading ideology. Communists in the government were forced to resign. The communist party was then dismantled (though later reformed under a different name). Communist dignitaries and former informants were forbidden from holding posts in politics. A "decommunizing" law called lustrace was put into place in 1991 and is still in effect today. The law states that in order to obtain a position in the judiciary, military, education, state-run media or state-owned enterprise, every Czech born before 1971 must obtain clearance, showing that between the years 1948 and 1989 s/he was never a high-ranking member of the communist party, a spy or secret service collaborator. In addition, the person in question could not have studied in a police academy or an institute for dignitaries in the former Soviet Union. Since the law has been in place, more than half-million clearances have been ordered from the Ministry of Interior.

As you can imagine, the process of trying to bring about justice for those persecuted by the communist regime is, however, fundamentally flawed. The law has been circumvented, many of those responsible never held accountable, but also innocent people smeared. What's more, the "purification" process has been accompanied (if not partly caused) by a powerful wave of anti-communism, which has swept across Czechoslovakia, limiting discourse and, in the process, unjustly shunning everyone even marginally implicated in the oppressive system.

As George Lawson writes in his book Negotiated Revolutions:

The policy of lustrace, literally meaning illumination or purification, was the principal attempt by the Czech government to hold people accountable for the crimes of the communist period. The lustrace law in October 1991 set up a commission of 14 MPs to remove and exclude former agents and collaborators of the StB (secret service), secretaries of the Communist Party from the level of district committee and above, and members of the People's Militia from high public office, government bureaucracy, the media, universities, the police and armed forces for a period of five years.

. . . The problems with lustrace were manifold. First, the commission relied on StB documentation that many argued was incomplete, could have been doctored to appease bosses or implicate enemies, and failed to differentiate between formal informers and those who unwittingly helped the security services. Kieran Williams estimates that between 1 October 1989 and 31 January 1990, 90 per cent of files held by the StB's Second Directorate (which dealt with domestic political intelligence) vanished. One-third of the files pertaining to the 50,000 or so continuing operations being run by the StB disappeared in a 10-day period. Second, lustrace presupposed guilt, requiring the accused to prove their innocence rather than accusers to establish culpability. This allowed lustrace to become both a powerful political tool and a moral condemnation of people who were, at least, initially, unable to defend themselves.

Don't take me wrong. I am no defender of criminals or apologist for a totalitarian regime, however modern Czech history is more complex and more nuanced than just the convenient division of people into the two camps of good and bad guys. Many people who belonged to the communist party, even those who held offices there, are still to this day conflicted about their role in the regime. Or, at least, their ties to the crimes of the regime aren't so clear-cut. These people, as much as the political dissidents, have stories that are important in shaping our understanding of recent history and our place in society today.

For instance, I am reading a book entitled Winners? Losers?. The book is a collection of oral histories told by dissidents and communist dignitaries about their lives and work during the period of Normalization between 1969 and 1989. I believe, even more so now that I am reading them, that the stories of people from both "camps" are worthy of studying to form a more holistic view of our past. Silencing all those who belonged to or associated themselves with the communist party is counterproductive, even discriminatory, I'd argue.

Take my grandmother. She was an enthusiastic fan of the communist philosophy in the 1940s when the movement was fresh and largely populist. Little did she know it would turn into a totalitarian regime.... She remained a party member, albeit with no political function, through the fifties and sixties. She told me she didn't leave the party until 1969 because she was too scared to as a single mother. She was afraid she would be fired from her job and left penniless with two young daughters and no family to help. My grandmother was a writer and translator. To this day, she feels guilty about ever supporting the party which ruined so many lives, and she is one of the many people who have absolutely no victims to her name.

The anti-communist attitude, so prevalent after the Velvet Revolution, still taints much of the discourse today. Just this very day, for instance, in the paper Lidove noviny, commentator Martin Zverina argues that if former communist dignitaries and party members are let into the classroom as speakers, they will corrupt children's minds and whitewash history. He compares the atrocities of the communist regime to those of Nazi Germany, almost a cliche analogy by now, opining: "Pretty soon, will it have to be 'the Jews' for five minutes and Hitler for the next five in the classroom?" A classic slippery slope argument, which, in fact, typifies much of the tone of the debate today: if we let one communist era voice from the left-wing camp out of the closet, will the communists start brainwashing our children and pushing their way into influential positions around the country? Will the communists take over again?

Such outlandish claims and fear-mongering only help in stifling a much-needed dialog between those from the communist and those from the dissident camp (though keep in mind that that distinction is often quite blurred). Such a conversation could truly help the Czechs make sense out of and provide closure for a complicated era, from which relatively fresh wounds still remain. It would behoove the young generation to be invited to partake in such a conversation; to learn from their predecessors. It should be done and done while the witnesses and actors alike are still with us.

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