One of the key things that I am interested in for my dissertation has been the ‘institutes of national memory’ – a number of similar organizations that exist across east and central Europe and that were founded during the 1990s (Poland in 1998 was the first) and 2000s (Slovakia in ’02, Czech Republic as late as ’07) to oversee the files of the former secret service and to facilitate public access to them. The institutes have other functions too, including but not limited to historical research and offering publications about the communist past to a wide audience. These institutes have been controversial, with detractors claiming that they are a right-wing project that paints an overly stark, black and white view of the communist past without acknowledging the differences between the Stalinist period of the 40s and 50s, on the one hand, and later, comparatively milder periods.
In recent months, controversy over the Czech ‘Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes‘ has reached unprecedented heights. While the conflict has caused considerable anguish to many of those involved, it’s been exceedingly fascinating for me to see the very topic of my dissertation as ‘breaking news’ in Czech media and as the subject of acrimonious discussion among political actors and public officials. I’ve met with and spoken to the majority of the key actors involved in this issue and seeing someone you talked to a day or so ago cited in the newspapers, commenting on the very issue you talked to them about, is kind of awesome. The conflict has also attracted international attention (although not nearly as much as when a few clueless people in the US did not know the difference between the Czech Republic and Chechnya). In fact, this topic has even warranted a post on the Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog. Unfortunately, while whoever wrote that blog post got some basics right, most of what they wrote is wrong. I most strongly disagree with the way the Czech Republic is described as a country that lags behind in terms of attempting to deal with the communist past through addressing the collaborators of the former secret service. There can be different opinions on the extent to which those attempts have been successful, but you can’t say the Czechs have not tried.
Nonetheless, The Economist notes that: “The relatively late creation of the ÚSTR 19 years after the fall of the communist regime is in stark contrast to how some other post-Communist states dealt with their past. The former East Germany, for example, allowed citizens to access security service archives in short order. The relative silence in then-Czechoslovakia’s immediate post-Communist years allowed people with ties to the former regime to gain influential positions in business and politics, some making a seamless transition from Marxist ideologue to crusading capitalist.”
Almost everything is wrong with this quote. First off, the comparison with Germany is off. To suggest that ‘East Germany’ did much of anything when it was in fact the West Germans who stipulated what would happen to the Stasi files directly in the Reunification Treaty. No other post-communist country had the benefit of an external actor, clean with respect to secret service collaboration, coming in to settle this matter.
Secondly, as compared to any other country in the post-communist world, the Czech Republic was the first and went the furthest when it comes to trying to remove former secret service personnel from the ranks of the civil service and other key offices. As early as 1991, the Czechoslovakian Federal Assembly adopted the so-called ‘lustration law’ that banned former secret service informers as well as high-ranking communist party members from a wide range of public offices (though not elected offices). The law was grandfathered into Czech legislation in 1993, renewed in 1996 and again in 2001, and is in force to this day. To characterize the Czech approach to the former communist regime and its collaborators as ‘relative silence’ completely misses the mark. If there is a ‘stark contrast’, it is because the Czechs stood at the forefront of introducing legislation meant to address just that issue.
While it is true that many communists are still active in Czech politics today, it is also true that Communists have played a far, far larger role in politics elsewhere in the post-communist world. Slovakia, to stay close to home, has in its 20 years of independence, only ever had presidents that were formerly a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (and high-ranking members in some cases). The same is true for Romania between 1990 and today (well, 1947 and today, really). The Czech Republic stands out as a country were elite renewal at least in terms of politics has been extremely successful – especially given that roughly 1 in 5 Czech adults in 1990 were or had been a member of the Communist Party. So yeah, of course it is true that some communists made a ‘seamless transition from Marxist ideologue to crusading capitalist’ and became rich very quickly. That however is not so much because of the way the Czech Republic addressed its past, but rather in spite of it.