Seven Czech NGOs, including the Confederation of Political Prisoners, and the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, have filed charges against the Czech Communist Party (Komunistická Strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM) following the statement that the party issued on the occasion of the 68th anniversary of the 1948 February events that saw the Communist Party take power in Czechoslovakia. The NGOs assert that this statement violates article 405 of the Czech Penal code, which makes it illegal to “deny, question, endorse, or justify” genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, or crimes against the peace, in particular those committed by Nazi and Communist regimes.
The KSČM statement that led to these charges being filed read as follows:
Every year, the anniversary of February 1948 offers an opportunity to revive our longstanding campaign, whose goal it is to rid the broader public of the imprecise – to say the least – interpretations of the 1948 events that explain the basic political changes as a putsch and deny the fact that broad swaths of the population were involved in the changes. The anti-communist crusade attempts to obscure the fact that KSČ [Communist Party of Czechoslovakia] at the time actively defended the interests of broad underprivileged groups in society and that it brought them success.
KSČM endorses the revolutionary essence of February 1948. The party values the work and sacrifice of generations of builders of the first form of socialism. At the same time, it deeply deplores the tragic deformations and shortcomings that impoverished and damaged the idea of socialism during its developments. KSČM reminds that after 1989 it apologized to all, whose lives were negatively affected by those deformations.
KSČM in its reaction to the [anti-communist] campaign has repeatedly declared its interest in objectively analyzing the historical form of socialism until 1989. The party is convinced that detailed, unprejudiced assessment can contribute to support for the idea of a new, democratic, and human form of socialism. KSČM is not returning back to the refuted form [of socialism, i.e., what existed until 1989] but attempts to find a way towards a socially just society in the 21st century.
[My translation – the Czech original is here]
A few things about these charges are interesting. First, it is worth noting the (somewhat) conciliatory tone that the communists strike in their statement: they acknowledge that what was started in 1948 did not, in their view, lead to socialism. They deplore what they call ‘deformations’ and stress that, as inheritors of the ruling party, they have apologized. Of course, the party nowadays rarely emphasizes and explores those ‘shortcomings and deformations’, choosing to celebrate the 1948-1989 period rather than to actually engage in that objective assessment that it says it is interested in. Indeed, KSČM MP Semelová recently faced charges for disputing the legacy of 1950s show trial victim Milada Horáková and for arguing that the 1968 invasion was a case of ‘international assistance’.
Second, it is interesting to note the rich civil society landscape in the Czech Republic when it comes to dealing with the past – in particular the variety of organizations that endorse the total rejection of the communist period that these indictments reflect. The role of civil society actors in driving the agenda of addressing human rights abuse through forms of transitional and/or criminal justice is receiving increasing attention. This involvement suggests a contrast to the perspective that transitional justice practices are primarily the result of inter-party competition.
Third, some of the reasoning behind the criminal charges are interesting. The underlying argument that supports the charges is that by endorsing the legacy of 1948, KSČM endorses everything that ensued as a result of the communist takeover. The plaintiffs do not accept the party’s comments regarding the ‘shortcomings’ that ‘impoverished and damaged the idea of socialism’. Instead, they write that:
It is hypocritical to call those crimes deformations and shortcomings “that damaged and impoverished the idea of socialism” and cover them up with anonymity. You cannot impoverish a crime, or damage it. A crime remains a crime just like murder remains murder.
Clearly, the premise of this argument is that the idea of communism is criminal and that anything built on that foundation is not a deformation but a necessary outcome. A second element of this argument is that it dispenses with the notion of a crime as defined by the law – instead, it embraces a much broader usage of ‘crime’, a usage that defines crime as objective contraventions of morality and decency rather than law. This turn is also reflected by the plaintiffs attempt to argue that there never actually was an apology, or at least that the apology that was issued was not an official Communist Party apology.
All of this suggests that the claim that the law was broken does not really concentrate on the letter of the Czech Penal Code (the apology question is immaterial to that question, for instance) but instead simply argues that what the KSČM has said is objectively wrong since all of communism was objectively criminal. The notion that there exists such an objectivity (an idea that these anti-communists share with the communists, ironically) is part and parcel of these organizations’ approach to the study of history: as the establishment of objective truth and incontrovertible fact that leaves no room for pluralism, dialogue, or dissent.
A fourth thing that is worth pointing out is that this approach, which is embodied in the charges leveled at the KSČM, permeates the way the Czechs have approached the legacy of the communist apparatus. The legislation that has been adopted, such as the 1991 lustration law, the law that opened the secret service files to the public in 2002, and the law that set up the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (Ústav pro Studium Totalitních Režimů, ÚSTR) in 2007, contains many clear textual elements that reflect this anticommunist ideology. Presenting itself as motivated by objectivity, these legal texts (much like these organizations and their criminal charges) present a very specific and ideologically motivated perspective on Czech 20th century history. These elements (e.g., the fact that the Czech memory institute studies ‘totalitarianism’, defining the entire communist period right up until 1989 as totalitarian) lead to controversy and debate even before the laws themselves are actually implemented.
In the case of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR), this controversy-causing effect has continued. Nominally, ÚSTR is charged with curating secret service files, facilitating file access, helping to implement the law on recognition of ‘resistance fighters’*, and carrying out ‘objective’ historical research. In practice, the activities of the institute have eschewed a pluralist historical approach, embracing instead the anti-communist narrative that is also reflected in the criminal charges that were filed in Prague today. Indeed, the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, one of the plaintiffs, is a collaboration of anti-communist memory institutes across Europe, including ÚSTR. The creation of this international organization in 2011 was an initiative from people related to ÚSTR, although the two organizations have drifted apart in recent years as ÚSTR has changed its course under a new leadership appointed by the social democrats (to cut a very long story short – more on this here). Today, ÚSTR is listed as a former member of the Platform.
In sum, it seems that these indictments are emblematic of the way in which a dedicated and passionate portion of Czech civil society continues to do battle against communism. This approach is characterized by a profound rejection of everything related to the ideology that underlay communist party rule, using an absolutizing narrative that has little time for the finesses of the law or the nuances of historical circumstance and change over time. Although at this time the law is used as a tool in that battle, it is highly unlikely that this will give the plaintiffs much to be happy about. Instead, their claims will probably be thrown out and they will be frustrated and disappointed, seeing renewed evidence of the failure of Czech society to truly deal with its own past. This outcome of all-around disappointment resonates well with the comments by James A. McAdams (Notre Dame) who wrote this about the debate over the East-German Stasi files:
Those actors who regard collaboration as the result of a clear-cut decision to engage in wrongdoing will be continually disappointed by their leaders’ seeming inability or disinclination to penalize the guilty. Conversely, those who believe that the boundary between good and bad was never clear will find it unjust to punish anyone who was forced to make tough choices in a world of moral ambiguity. In both sides’ minds, if not always in fact, the twain will never meet between these truths.
*Another seemingly objective term no embedded in Czech legislation that in fact reflects a lot of specific ideological interpretation of historical events.