Sanctimony as a Distortion of the Past and a Poison of the Future

Muriel Blaive

The author responds to the last wave of efforts of the Czech anti-communist media to distort the picture of post-war history of Czechoslovakia.

The Czech social media are buzzing with “gems” like “Under socialism everyone was like Jean Valjean in the galleys.” Ilustration Jules Cheret
The Czech social media are buzzing with “gems” like “Under socialism everyone was like Jean Valjean in the galleys.” Ilustration Jules Cheret

I began to research Stalinist history in 1992 and I interviewed many witnesses. Some stories haunted me. Josef Lesák, for instance, told me how StB (the political police) let his newborn baby die in 1948 while his wife was interrogated in the room next door; she could hear her son howling but was not permitted to nurse him until it was too late. Lesák and many other victims appear in the documentary film I prepared for Česká televize in 1996.

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In the same film, Jiří Pešek, a student in 1956, recounts the following story: President Novotný was told by a student that nothing like the Hungarian revolution could ever take place in Czechoslovakia because, she said, “Češi jsou známi jako knedlíkový národ.” (“Czechs are known as a dumpling nation” — that is, known to be about as courageous as a dumpling.)

I expected strong pushback at this anecdote; instead, I received many letters of thanks from viewers. It was then only seven years after 1989: people remembered well mass accommodation to the communist rule and resented the post-communist attempt to present them as nothing but victims and heroes. Today, although the perspective I take in my historical work remains very similar, I get indignant messages from young pundits such as this one: “Socialism = poverty + violence. Under socialism everyone was like Jean Valjean in the galleys.” Which memory is more “authentic”? The answer is: both are sincere, but they primarily testify about the atmosphere in which they were produced. The more time passes, the more collective memories are reconstructed in accordance to the present political and intellectual climate. This is why the quality of memory politics is crucially important.

What happened? Michal Pullmann, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and a historian of the normalization period in Czechoslovakia, recently published an interview in which he reminded that the Czechoslovak communist regime had enjoyed a stable and genuine level of popular legitimacy. He was attacked in the press by Michal Klíma, who is chairman of the Board of Compensation of the Holocaust Victims. Klíma opened his open letter to Pullmann on a “personal note”, i.e. “Your father was a prominent member of the normalization communist regime. He worked in the secretariat of the Comecon in Moscow and thus you enjoyed privileged conditions.” I publicly denounced this as a personal attack worthy of the communists themselves, moreover wholly ignorant of the historical works Michal Pullmann was referencing. In turn, Michal Klíma gratified me with a long open letter in English on his Facebook profile. He assumed, and this is a discussion that was repeatedly taken up by his supporters on social media, that someone like myself, who doesn’t share his interpretation of history, cannot possibly speak Czech: “My dear Muriel Blaive, … I fully understand that Czech is not your mother tongue and that for that you do not fully understand what I wrote in the commentary against which you argue. I recommend you to ask someone to get you correct translation to your mother tongue so you understand the difference what I wrote and what you thought, I wrote.You argue against my presumed saying that Pullman's father was ‘prominent normalizer’. I didn't write that. I wrote, that he was ‘prominent of the normalization communist regime’. I hope you feel the difference.

This mansplaining, gaslighting, and xenophobic overtone comes dangerously close to slapstick comedy but I have found myself in good company. I read on Twitter that Michal Pullmann cannot understand the Czechs because he is Slovak (never mind that the communist rule took place in a country called Czechoslovakia), and the Faculty of Arts history students who defended Pullmann cannot understand Michal Klíma because they are too young and manipulated by their Dean. Denying people the legitimacy to speak on the basis of their identity is an old favorite in the communist bag of tricks and the self-designated anticommunists are the dignified successors of their best enemies: Daniel Kaiser, Daniela Drtinová, and Michal Klíma grilled Michal Pullmann without blinking on the theme of his class origins as if we were back in 1948. Kaiser literally talks of Pullmann’s family as of “communist bourgeoisie.” Social media instantly buzzed with hostile comments demanding Pullmann’s dismissal as Dean. I joked in my interview with Jan Čulík that the Action Committees charged with purging the enemy were back in action. Long live the national and (anti)socialist revolution! Daniel Kaiser actually boasted about Lidové noviny’s “ethical codex” when he was working there at the end of the 1990s, according to which “The editorial board considers the communist period as a historical catastrophe.” Woe to the independent-minded journalist, long live censorship.

I alluded above to his gaslighting tendencies and indeed Michal Klíma plays the “I-never-said-this” game to perfection. To criticize him is to “lie”, whereas his owns attacks ad hominem are perfectly legitimate. To disagree with him is to misunderstand. To analyze the history and motivations of the opposite camp is to morally endorse communism and deny its crimes. He also has double standards. As we already know, Michal Pullmann’s father, a functionary of the Comecon, was a “prominent member of the normalization regime” while it should be irrelevant that Michal Klima’s father was an early communist intellectual who supported the 1948 takeover — before being repressed like many of his comrades, yet still longing to be readmitted into the party, which he was.

Michal Pullmann allegedly inherited his father’s communist mentality, Michal Klíma basks in his own father’s dissident prestige. As one citizen among many, Michal Pullmann cannot possibly know what the communist regime was about, but Michal Klíma can. It is well studied, including by me, that workers were dubious about the dissidents, whom they viewed as an arrogant elite quite distant from the “people below”, but it is Michal Pullmann who holds elitist views when he says the same. Michal Klíma knows that everyone detested communism, and never mind that almost 40% of the Czechs today believe that their lives were better under communism, a figure that has been stable since the end of the 1990s.

Everyone wanted to travel to the west according to him — everyone except the České Velenice workers I interviewed, who assured me that bread was not better on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Michal Pullmann is a professional historian, but Michal Klíma is convinced to be a better historian because he read Jiří Pelikán, a Stalinist intellectual turned reform communist of his father’s generation, as the last word on Stalinist repression — in 1971! Mr. Klíma would probably learn something from my contextualization of Pelikán’s approach.

As to the students of the Faculty of Arts, they published the following disclaimer: “As history students we protest against the delegitimization of the historical science by way of personal attacks that remind the practices of vetting, keeping a list of enemies, and quieting the opposition for its dissident views, that we know well from disreputable periods of the twentieth century. We also distance ourselves from the practice of conflating scientific studies with a defense of the past regime.”

The problem in this imaginary universe is that Michal Klíma has a high opinion of the witness but he has no idea about historical work, i.e. about the difference between memory and historiography, as Jan Randák and Ondřej Táborský usefully underlined, or between a witness and a historian, or a journalist and a historian, as Patrik Eichler explained to him on Twitter.

For instance, “oral history” does not simply consist in asking family and friends to describe their experiences of victimhood. In 2003-2005 I made my students at Charles University interview their parents and grandparents on dealing with the communist past. When we asked, “Do you feel any nostalgia for the communist regime”, the answers were a unanimous, laconic “No, not at all!”

However, when we asked: “Is there anything that you think was better under communism”, the answers were passionate, long and detailed about the many aspects they deemed better under communism: social security, guaranteed employment, subsidized vacation, free education and healthcare, but also more solidarity between the people, more care for the public good, more time for one’s family, etc.

When we asked, “What were you expecting from democracy that has disappointed you”, the answers were equally long: that people would be able to make use of their individual potential, the disappearance of corruption, that, unlike the communists, those at the top would not steal, etc. The conclusion was clear: the interviewed expected much more from democracy, which led them to revise their opinion of the past communist regime.

Again, perhaps such historical studies would enlighten Mr. Klima as to why almost 40% of the Czechs believe they had better lives under communism. That the population might have enjoyed certain aspects of life under communism while disliking others is alas too complicated to grasp for those who see history only in black and white.

Oral history also does not consist of interviewing only the people ones likes and values, such as victims and heroes, while ignoring the former communists and collaborators. The acclaimed Spanish writer Javier Cercas, whose family took Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War, shows that when dealing with a past dictatorship it is even more important to understand the perpetrators than the victims.

Miroslav Vaněk, the director of the Institute of Contemporary History, did one volume of interviews with the winners of the Revolution, and one with the losers, which is exactly what was necessary. It is not done nearly enough. In fact, one entire generation of “perpetrators” has disappeared since 1989 without ever having explained their motivations and methods. This is a terrible loss for Czech democracy.

If Mr. Klíma were a historian, he would know that his role is not to massage the ego of his circle of supporters but to dig out societal painful questions, neuralgic points. The increasing hysteria of the dogmatic camp is due to one painful reality: the narrative according to which the Czechs only suffered from the communist regime is out of sync not only with the wider population’s perception of the past, but also with its disillusion with the present.

The painful historical truth that some people are trying to deny is that the country massively collaborated with the communist regime, be it through the secret police, the communist party, or simply through having to survive in a dictatorship. This is not a value judgment; it’s a fact. A few people resisted, most did not — just like in every other country in similar circumstances, for instance France during World War II.

Marketing a national heroic past has worked wonders for those who have built their careers on an alleged anticommunism, even when their own past does not have much in common with heroism. Naturally, they adamantly reject any idea of historical reconciliation as they would lose their livelihood.

It is high time to stop sacrificing the interests of society as a whole to those of these activists. They not only distort the past, they poison the future. Sanctimony is not an adequate substitute for a real memory politics.

The article was published also in Czech.