10 March – Talk at UofWinnipeg

On Friday 10 March I’ll be presenting some of my research at the University of Winnipeg. The talk will start at 12:30 PM in the Lockhart building, 1L13. Hope to see you there!

Post Talk

Criminal Charges Filed against Czech Communist Party

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.

On the Grammar of Slavic Verbs

I’m done – I defended my dissertation and completed all the requirements of my degree. Wherever it says I’m a PhD candidate,  I need to change that to PhD.

One of the last sections I wrote is actually one that I had a lot of fun writing – because it is so completely weird and not like any other part of the dissertation, and because it gave me a chance to talk about language, which is one of my favorite activities. Hope you’ll enjoy!

The grammatical concept of aspect differentiates between perfective and imperfective actions. The perfective aspect emphasizes the finality of actions, whereas the imperfective aspect denotes continuity or ongoing action. It is the difference between ‘I watched a movie’ and ‘I was watching a movie’. In English, this distinction is mapped onto verb tense; in Slavic languages, verbs have two separate forms, which linguists call ‘aspect pairs’: a perfective and an imperfective form.

During field research in Prague and Bratislava, I realized that this grammatical distinction illustrates the dilemmas of transitional justice quite well. For starters, transitional justice is an English term that does not exist in Czech or Slovak – přechodová spravedlnost, a direct translation into Czech, conveys nothing of what this new concept has come to denote in English. Instead, another term that loosely translates as ‘dealing with the past’ is most commonly used to cover the range of practices to which transitional justice refers. The catch is that this term forces a temporal choice on speakers of Slavic languages. While the English language frequently allows speakers to be ambiguous about aspect, Slavic languages such as Czech and Slovak make speakers decide: are they speaking about an imperfective, ongoing process, or about a perfective, definitive action? In the latter case, the verb of choice is ‘vyrovnať sa’, but in the former, the preferred verb is the imperfective ‘vyrovnávať sa’ (the -va- infix turns the perfective verb into an imperfective one).[1]

Peter Dinuš is one example of a Slovakian speaker who faced this choice: his book on Slovakian transitional justice (2010) is entitled Vyrovnávanie sa s minulosťou, that is, Dealing[imperfective] with the Past. Dinuš’s choice is intentional: he does not foresee that the Slovakian process of dealing with the past can be completed. Instead, he presents this process as self-perpetuating and never-ending. Many interview respondents, however, consistently used the perfective form, speaking of vyrovnanie sa s minulosťou instead. By doing so, they suggest that at some point, to ‘deal with the past’ will become ‘to have dealt with the past’.

So, what does it mean when English speakers talk about transitional justice as ‘closing the books’ (Elster, 2004) or ‘coming to terms with the past’ (Elster, 1998)? What happens once the books are closed, or when we have come to terms with the past? Can the books ever be fully closed or the past finally dealt with? Despite the inherent linguistic ambiguity, much scholarship on transitional justice does clearly assume transitional justice to be a perfective process with catharsis, or reconciliation, at the end.

These assumptions remain untested, which is why it is so important to produce rigorous accounts of transitional justice effects. This dissertation has sought to address that gap, and the findings suggest that Dinuš’s decision to use the imperfective may be more appropriate. Transitional justice is an on-going process. Transitional justice legislation appears in a context in which the past is already debated and subsequently reinforces that debate, keeping it alive in perpetuity. There is no finality and no catharsis.

This is not to say that contestation and debate over the past cannot produce anything of value, or that transitional justice only succeeds if it leads to consensus over the past that it addresses. Transitional justice legislation may, for example, improve the lives of individual victims of human rights abuse (cf. David and Choi, 2005; 2006). In addition, there is no a priori reason to assume that debate over such issues in a democratic society should be seen as problematic and that consensus is necessarily preferable.[2] My conclusions do not rely on an assumption of the desirability of consensus over debate. However, other points of view are informed by such assumptions and have formed the basis for arguments by scholars and policy makers in support of transitional justice. With this in mind, the conclusion that transitional justice legislation as designed by policy entrepreneurs has led to persistent contestation over the past gives pause. Insofar as this analysis is persuasive, it should encourage researchers to pursue a more comprehensive theoretical framework to analyze the effects of transitional justice.

[1] Translated most literally, vyrovnať means to straighten (rovný is straight) or to balance. Adding ‘sa’ (or ‘se’, in Czech) makes the verb reflexive, so that vyrovnať sa/vyrovnávať sa literally means to straighten oneself out, or to balance oneself out. Vyrovnať sa s minulosťou, then, is to straighten oneself out with one’s past.

[2] In order to determine whether debate is better than consensus, one would require a way to measure the quality of debate. This dissertation does not evaluate the quality of the debate over the communist past in the Czech and Slovak Republics, nor does it estimate the effect of transitional justice on the quality of political contestation.


David, Roman and Susanne Choi (2005) “Victims on Transitional Justice. Lessons from the Reparation of Human Rights Abuses in the Czech Republic”, Human Rights Quarterly, 27:2, 392-435.

David, Roman and Susanne Choi (2006) “Forgiveness and Transitional Justice in the Czech Republic”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50:3, 339-367.

Dinuš, Peter (2010) Vyrovnávanie sa s minulosťou? [Dealing with the Past?], Bratislava: Veda.

Elster, Jon (1998) “Coming to Terms with the Past. A Framework for the Study of Justice in the Transition to Democracy”, European Journal of Sociology, 39:1, 7-48.

Elster, Jon (2004) Closing the Books. Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Start of the Semester

I guess every blogger eventually writes a blog post explaining how come they haven’t posted anything in nearly half a year. It still feels trite, but the truth is that I have had little time to write: I am getting ready to teach two classes, and I am getting ready to defend my dissertation. This summer, I moved, moved again, submitted my thesis, and prepared a paper for ECPR. ECPR was here in Montreal last week and it was a lot of fun. Here’s a link to the paper I presented, which is an attempt at offering my dissertation argument in a nutshell.

Dragoons Ride Through Czech Lands

Although the conflict in Ukraine has attracted attention world-wide, citizens and politicians in East and Central Europe are particularly eager to follow what is happening on their doorstep. In understanding Russia’s actions, they naturally rely on their country’s experience from the twentieth century. However, they don’t always interpret this experience in the same way. This was demonstrated clearly by Czechs this week when a US military convoy arrived in the country, leaving controversy in its wake.

The convoy is returning to bases in Germany from exercises in the Baltic, and are on Czech soil for about 24 hours. On their way across the country, both supporters and opponents greeted them, as the convoy – code name ‘Dragoon Ride‘ – awakened a broad range of historical sentiments.

Seriously, if you're going to stand in a field to great a US convoy, couldn't you find a bigger flag?

Convoy greeted by man with small US flag (c) Hospodarske Noviny

This is just one shot – Check out #dragoonride for more. [UPDATE: so a dragoon is just like a dragon, right? Wrong. Turns out it is some type of military unit. Better yet, when used as a verb, to dragoon means “1. To subjugate or persecute by the imposition of troops; 2. To compel by violent measures or threats; coerce“. Seems like a poorly chosen code name, to me.]

The Czechs, who have been US allies since the end of communism, and sealed this by joining NATO in 1999, are ambivalent when it comes to this military partnership. Some welcome being under the NATO umbrella, and view it as a guarantee of protection against Russia. Others reject Czech NATO membership and oppose NATOs approach with regard to Russia in the current conflict. Yet others are uncomfortable with supporting Russia, but are simultaneously reminded of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion by a foreign military presence.

This debate is a repeat of the 2008 debate over a NATO anti-missile shield that would be based in the Czech Republic and Poland. This initiative, which never ended up being realized, provoked a great deal of debate with an uncommonly high degree of societal involvement. As it does today, with Dragoons riding across the country, the way people responded had a lot to do with how they view the Czech Republic’s place in history. Then as now, both sides of the debate accuse each other of being secretly communist – either because they don’t support the US, or because they support Czech adherence to a larger military alliance.

This debate was wonderfully captured in the 2010 documentary Czech Peace (Český Mír – trailer, IMDB). Brought to us by Remunda and Klusak, the creators of Czech Dream (the documentary that showed what happened when you promise people a fake megamall), Czech Peace does a great job of illustrating how passionately a lot of people approach this debate and how they make use of the Czech 20th century experience to make their points. In particular, it shows how versatile that experience is in serving as a source for a bunch of completely different ways of approaching things like a US dragoon convoy or an anti-missile basis.

Unfortunately, this is all in Czech and there’s no subtitles. And that trailer is too short – so you can’t really get a sense of the powerful portrayal of these arguments [UPDATE: I found a longer ‘teaser’ video, which I now linked to, which gives a better sense]. The angry mustachoed man makes some great points though, saying to one protester: “I don’t want to go into your personal background, that’s what communists did. But I bet you’re the son or grandson of one of those communist bastards”. The protesters treat the man (who appears drunk) with good humor and gentleness, even though he uses several words that president Zeman employed recently as well. But towards the end, one of them can’t resist the temptation to say “I’ll tell you one thing: I voted green, I’m not a communist!”

A Little Explanation of My Twitter Handle

As part of my ongoing agenda to expand my social media empire, I have taken to twitter as a means of finding out cool new stuff and sharing it, and also as a way to share some of my writings with a broader audience. As is clear from the twitter feed that is now on the right hand side of this blog, I go by the handle @poslusnehlasim.

Poslušně hlásím, translated as ‘I humbly report’ or ‘I obediently report’, is a catch phrase of novel character Josef Švejk, a creation of prolific Czech author Jaroslav Hašek (wiki) (1883-1923). Hašek led a fascinating but tragic – and tragically short – life. A classic bohemian bon-vivant rolling stone type, Hašek was an uncompromising individual who went from job to job and apartment to apartment, often crashing on other’s couches, sometimes living out on the streets. His writing focused on short, absurdist stories, lampooning authorities and traditions.

During the October Revolution and the civil war in Russia, Hašek was in Russia working for the Bolsheviks. He soon became disillusioned with the revolution and returned to Czechoslovakia, which had now become independent, although he had little sympathy for the bourgeois first Republic under Masaryk. Back in Czechoslovakia, Hašek turned his attention to a multi-volume novel: The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk. (amazon)

Josef Švejk, is a retired soldier who makes his living catching and selling dogs. The novel starts just after Franz Ferdinand is slain in Sarajevo, when Austria-Hungary mobilizes its troops. In spite of his rheumatism, Švejk tries to enlist in the army. Hašek follows Švejk as he joins the armed forces, serves as a butler to officers, and travels to the Eastern Front. In his interaction with higher-ranking officers, Švejk addresses them ‘Poslušně hlásím’, often before launching into a lengthy tangential story from his rich experience as a Prague barfly.

 “I humbly report, mister field chaplain,” Švejk noted, “that this guy won’t give up, like that guy Boušek from Libeň. Eighteen times in one evening they threw him out of Exner’s and each time he returned, saying he’d forgotten his pipe. He climbed in through the window, the doors, through the kitchen, across the wall into the seating area, through the basement into the bar area, and he would have gotten in through the chimney if the firemen had not taken him down from the roof. He was so persistent that he could have been a minister or a member of parliament”– The Good Soldier vol. 1 ch. 13, p. 178.

Libeň is an area in Prague; U Exnerů is a bar there, one of the many referenced in The Good Soldier.

Unfortunately, death took Hašek before he could finish the book, which trails off without resolution halfway the fourth volume, just after Švejk is captured by Russian forces. Hašek left us with an unfinished but hilarious novel, brought to life by the illustrations of Josef Lada. The novel, which was turned into a successful movie during the 1950s, for a while secured Hašek’s position as the world’s most famous Czech author.

In modern political discourse, Švejk is alive and kicking. When I was in the field, interviewing, many respondents mentioned him, using the character as a model for Czechs’ adaptation to foreign powers – be they Austrian, German, or Russian. He’s invoked in different ways, though – some see him as a model of inventive, resourceful passive resistance against overbearing authorities. In fact, during the 1968 invasion, Václav Havel spoke on the radio and called on listeners to

“ridicule [the enemy], and reveal to him the absurdity of the situation … If at a certain moment you decide it is more appropriate to behave like Hus, behave like Hus, if you on the other hand, decide it is more effective to behave like Švejk, behave like Švejk.” – Havel, quoted in Žantovský’s Havel, A Life, 2014, p. 117

However, many other Czechs read both Švejk and the Czech nation differently. Rather than seeing Svejk’s action as willful and intentional passive resistance, they see Švejk as stupid, lacking in morality, readily and unquestioningly submitting to authority. And they see the Czechs like they see Švejk: as a nation in moral crisis, that sold out to the communists, going along and collaborating without compunction to save their skins.

It is easy to see how these two views of the novel could come about – Hašek leaves it open to interpretation how stupid or cunning Švejk really is. Tellingly, The Good Soldier was widely available during communist times.

It is precisely these competing views over Czech history, Czech national identity, and the historical position of the Czechs between the great European powers – as exemplified by the different views of Švejk – that my research addresses. The fact that Czech politicians will invoke this character from a novel that I love to make their point makes studying Czech politics all the more fascinating. And that’s why I took @poslusnehlasim as my twitter handle!

By 10 PM, It Was Calm in the City Center

RP 891118 full page

Front Page of Rudé Právo, 18 November 1989. Click to embiggen.

Yesterday, it was 25 years ago that the Velvet Revolution got underway in Czechoslovakia. Protesters in Prague marched from Albertov to the city center, where they were confronted by police. One of the latest dominoes in the Soviet Bloc to come down, Czechoslovakia had not seen any of the political shifts that neighboring countries such as East-Germany, Poland, and Hungary had seen. All of that was to prove to be the calm before the storm. On 17 November, the end began.

So what did Communist Party newspaper Rudé Právo write on 18 November? I thought I’d check it out and thankfully, the Institute for Czech Literature has four decades’ worth of Rudé Právo available on-line. You can check out this astonishing resource here.

On Saturday 18 November, as the Civic Forum was forming and plans were being made for new protests, RP did report on the protests. On the front page, in the bottom right-hand corner, a short piece described some of the events in a casual, business-as-usual kind of tone. It concludes by stating that ‘By 10 PM, it was calm in the city center’. The full article reads as follows (my translation):

RP 891118 student demo article

Demonstration of Students
Prague (from our reporters) – On Albertov in Prague 2, about 15 thousand college students from Prague schools for higher education gathered at 4PM, to honor the memory of Jan Opletal, who was murdered by fascists [in 1939]. The collective action of the city’s college councils as well as unorganized students had an unorderly character. It showed how much the students want to speak out loud and openly about their problem, that they demand faster social change and also, how easily they let themselves be turn onto radicalism. That became clear already from the disruptive reactions to the speeches, especially by representative from the college councils. After the gathering on Albertov ended, its participants headed over to the Slavín cemetery on Vyšehrad, where they were to lay flowers at the grave of Karel Hynek Mácha.

Already on Albertov and later during the march, slogans and chants attacking representatives of the Communist Party, the leading role of the Communist Party, demanding the abolition of the People’s Militia, the resignation of the government, free elections, and the like. On Vyšehrad, the gathering had little left to do with the solemn ceremony that had been supposed to take place. More and more voices dominated that demanded heading over to the city center. In the evening hours, the crowd went over to the National Theatre and along National Avenue.

Police were called upon to maintain public order in the city center. They verified the identity of the participants in the demonstration and about a hundred persons were taken to the local police department. By 10 PM, it was calm in the city center.

RP 891118 student demo photo

The front page also had a little photo. The caption reads: ‘Overview of student gathering’.