The Tribunal of History: An Open Letter to Neela Winkelmannová and Lubomír Zaorálek

21. 2. 2020 / Muriel Blaive


The Czech Republic is a country of renowned medieval and nationalism studies. In these two fields, the country is prominent on the world stage in terms of historical methodology. But it is lagging behind when it comes to contemporary history. Political and intellectual elites, even some scholars, still have little grasp of the issues surrounding contemporary history. Feelings are so raw when it comes to communism that rationality seems to give way to emotion. There is a general and overarching confusion about the differences between politics, justice, and history: as if paying tribute to the victims, punishing the culprits, and writing the history of this period amount to one and the same. They do not.

There is even more confusion concerning the status of the witness/survivor and that of “historical truth”, as if the second could only be enacted by the first. I will use two recent examples to make my point: the pressure exerted by Minister of Culture Lubomír Zaorálek on the Lidice Memorial Director Martina Lehmannová for her to resign, and the interview granted by Neela Winkelmannová to journalist Barbora Tachecí on Czech radio, in which they discussed the social usefulness of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

 

How to judge history

Let us start with the notion of historical truth. For most political, cultural, and media elites, the reasoning is simple: the communist regime was bad, it made them suffer, and it must be made to pay for it. Historians should, therefore, sit in the archives and document how the people suffered, while politicians should compensate the victims and pay tribute to them. End of story. Alas, life is not so straightforward. In a tribunal, in order to cast a fair judgment, one has to take into account the context, the extenuating circumstances, and the motivations; one has to confront different points of view, and to balance the interventions of the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. As concerns the reliability of the witness, if we interrogate five witnesses of the same event, we will get five, sometimes diametrically opposed, stories. International human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands, notes that If we interrogate the same witness on five different occasions, we will also get five different stories. The whole trial cannot depend on the witness alone.

Moreover, we should remember only too well the variety of prosecutors in the past who knew “the truth” before they even entered the tribunal. They used the process to make a public point and turned it into a show trial. If we are serious about living in a democracy, our ideal cannot be to imitate these communist practices. The truth is to be determined after the process has taken place, and not before it has even started.

An unfulfilled sense of victimhood

The real agenda of the people who participate in public discourse with their unreflected anti-communism, and who claim they want to hear “the historical truth”, is, I believe, to be recognized as victims. Part of the country feels like a victim of communism (and is demanding redress.) Why? Not because of the past but because of the present; namely because the current post-communist regime – that which passes for democracy – is not perfect. Not everyone is rich and happy, not everything is beautiful, not every voice counts, not everyone profited from the regime change, and too many people are struggling to even maintain a semblance of dignity in their everyday lives. In a painful show of historical amorality, the other countries, in the west of Europe, continue to do well. The Germans, the Austrians, the French, and all those who were fortunate enough to lie on the western side of the Iron Curtain, are richer and happier (or so the Czechs long believed.) They had it good all that time while the Czechs were suffering, and they continue to have it better. How is that fair? And they even lecture the Czechs on what to do!

Sadly for the Czechs who are legitimately indignant about the fate of their country in the twentieth century, justice will never be served. That Eastern Europe was abandoned by the West during and after the Second World War will forever remain an incurable historical injustice. As a French citizen, this makes me want to scream at my country, but to no avail because nothing can remedy the decades wasted under communism on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I doubt that the West will ever make a proper apology because it cannot be made to even care – I can testify to this personally, having sacrificed any chance of an academic career in France simply by moving to, and working on, Czechoslovakia, a faraway country of which we know nothing (and could not care less), as Chamberlain famously said. At least the West tried to lend a hand (probably as some sort of atonement) by bringing the countries of Central Europe into the EU and copiously distributing funds.

Victimhood does not dispense from responsibility

That these funds often disappear in the pockets of a happy few instead of benefiting everyone is not the fault of the EU. That is where we need to speak of responsibility. Eastern Europe was once abandoned by the West, but this does not exonerate the “victim countries”, in this case the current Czech population, from responsibility concerning the present. When things are not working out today as hoped, it is not only the fault of the EU and of the past communist regime. It pains me to say this, but it is also, in fact mainly, made possible by the apathy that characterizes Czech and other post-communist societies today. Corruption, embezzlement, abuse of power, and disregard for the common people can be addressed only by holding accountable the people currently in power, as is the point in a democracy. I can appreciate how difficult this is and how powerless people might feel, but this is what needs to be done. This is how democracy works.

In other words, to acknowledge suffering and establish responsibilities is legitimate; to blame those who made us suffer in the past, because we feel powerless to confront those who make us suffer in the present, is not helping anyone. We must find the courage to focus on the right adversary.

Defining victimhood: how everyday life history can help

But how to even account for this past suffering? The more I have worked on Czech history, the more I have realized that political history is missing the point when describing the communist period. Political history is focused on remarkable events and personalities in power. But in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, almost nothing “happened” and the communist leaders were anything but fascinating personalities. People were not executed for their political opinions anymore, or thrown in labor camps. Show trials were not staged anymore and no popular revolts took place. The slogan changed from the Stalinist “Who is not with us is against us” to the normalized “Who is not against us is with us.” People were not electrified on the Iron Curtain anymore but left for Yugoslavia on trade-union holidays. Does this lack of drama mean that people entirely stopped suffering from the communist rule? Is only spectacular repression worth remembering? Is low-key humiliation to be disregarded because it did not make headlines in the free world?

My answer as a historian is no, on the contrary. But only social and cultural history is equipped to describe the banal mediocrity of normalization. That is why I use everyday life history: to account for the day to day, discreet poisoning of people’s lives by zealots and bullies who used the pretext of communist authority to exert their personal toxicity on the people around them. That, dear Barbora Tachecí and Neela Winkelmannová, is what everyday life history is about: it is not about trivializing repression but, on the contrary, restituting it, making it more visible, analyzing it (as an example, take a look at my study of everyday life in České Velenice.) And let us not be mistaken: the leaders at all levels of the normalization regime went almost entirely unpunished after 1989, and this is contributing to the general feeling of historical injustice to a much greater degree than the defection of the West in 1945 – this is why it is crucial to find the words to express this frustration. Again, only socio-cultural history can do that.

To recap, suffering does not exonerate us from facing responsibilities; at the same time, suffering needs to be acknowledged so that the proper culprits are blamed for their respective crimes or misdemeanors. It is not the West but President Gustáv Husák who is to blame for normalization. It is not Husák but the current leaders who are to blame for the current situation.

History, justice, and commemoration must be kept separate

Just as we need to apportion the right crimes to the right culprits, we need to restore the boundaries between history, justice, and commemoration. Nazism, communism and, more generally, all populist regimes like to blur the distinction between the three; in contrast, democracy prefers a healthy separation. The role of a historian is to determine what happened and to explain why it happened in view of the context. It is not to pass judgement. The role of the justice system is to find and punish the culprits. It is not to serve as an instrument for politicians to eliminate their adversaries. The role of a politician is to honor the victims and commemorate past events. It is not to tell historians what to write.

But in the Czech public sphere, the overwhelming feeling of resentment leads to such confusion that many politicians and some historians feel emboldened to profess expertise in all three fields of history, justice and politics. Culture Minister Zaorálek recently provided an example of why this confusion of genres might be problematic, even when it proceeds from good intentions.

Claiming that “eight victims of Lidice” were unhappy with the director of the Lidice memorial, Martina Lehmannová, for failing to reject a historical research that displeased them, he called for her resignation. But the victims were not speaking unanimously: the ninth, in fact the only adult survivor of Lidice, on the contrary supported Ms. Lehmannová. The minister has dismissed her opinion. On what grounds should she be ignored while other victims should be given priority? Are there good victims and bad victims? An obvious question pops up: is political opinion a factor that should help us determine who a good victim is? It so happens that the victims who were dissatisfied with Ms. Lehmannová all belong to a politicized Fighters’ Union (Český svaz bojovníků za svobodu), presided by Jana Bobošíková, candidate of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia in the 2008 presidential election. The support of the Culture Minister therefore can be read as a show of support for the Communist Party for political purposes in the frame of the coalition government, no matter what his intentions were. Here is indeed a clear demonstration of what is wrong with a politician intervening in historical analysis: his position will always be interpreted in view of the current political situation, never as a genuine historical contribution.

Academic freedom must be preserved from power games

The precedent that this unfortunate example has set is the following: if a historian makes a discovery in the archives that displeases a group of survivors, and if this group makes sufficient noise and claims to speak “in the name of the victims”, then the politician in charge will be tempted to recall the director of the historical institute, or memorial, or perhaps even archives where this historian works, or even of any institution that fails to denounce and repudiate the work of this historian. Does it sound like a fictional scenario? It is not. Similar calls for resignation were recently issued in Poland at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk and at the Polin Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw. In both cases, the Polish authorities claimed to do only what they believed was morally just in the name of the victims, and they were probably sincere, even if woefully wrong.

I want to believe that Minister Zaorálek had no such sinister political motivations in mind, but these cases show that, as a matter of principle, a politician should refrain from intervening in the writing of history. It is not his or her role and such an intervention never helps. Victims and survivors are often opposed to historians. This is normal. Historians have great respect for them, but this does not mean that opinions cannot differ and that there should be a unanimous interpretation of the past. It is certainly not for a politician to determine what that interpretation should be.

The result of Minister Zaorálek’s intervention is that Czech historians will now think twice about communicating the results of their research if they think it might provoke anger in certain groups (it almost always will.) Is academic freedom benefiting from, or being endangered by, such a situation? The answer is obvious. The slow and painful formation of collective memory cannot be accelerated by political means. As a country that went through six years of Nazi occupation and forty-one years of communist dictatorship, the Czech Republic should know this all too well. History, justice, and commemoration are three different aims that should be pursued by three different categories of professionals. This is essential for democracy to work.

Tolerance is closer to home than one might think

I mentioned previously that I find political history ill-equipped to describe the normalization period. In fact, I would go further and say that it is ill-equipped to account for even the 1950s. The person who made me realize this was none other than Michael Heyrovský, Neela Winkelmannová’s father. I had gone to interview him in the first half of the 1990s as a naïve young Western student who believed everything the exiled Czech democrats had written. I, too, was convinced that nothing had happened in 1956 (unlike in Hungary and Poland) because there was too much repression. But Michael Heyrovský taught me otherwise. He gave me a glimpse of everyday life for a 1956 student; it was not about repression but about negotiating one’s way in this regime. It was not about anticommunism but about confronting the ideals with the reality. It was not so much about fear as about strategies to avoid being punished while expressing a form of critique.

Through him, I understood for the first time that things were more complex than they appeared in Western books on communism. My last previously taught certainties crumbled when he told me the story of Otakar Švec, the sculptor who had built a statue to Masaryk in the interwar period and come up with a bombastic project for a statue of Stalin on Letná in Prague. The call for projects was compulsory, and Švec calculated that his was so extreme that it would never be selected. Alas, it was, and he ended up building the greatest Stalin statue of all times. He received anonymous phone calls and insulting letters, Heyrovský gravely told me, until he eventually took his life. Michael Heyrovský’s interview can be seen in the film of which I wrote the script, that was broadcast on Czech TV in 1996, 1956: Promarněná šance aneb Návrat Ježíška do Československa.

I was very impressed. On that day I understood for the first time that the notions of good and bad were warped when it came to personal choices under the communist dictatorship. I owe much to Mr. Heyrovský. That his daughter would mistakenly think my approach degrading to the victims a quarter of a century later testifies, alas, more to the radicalization of the post-communist period than to my actual work on the history of communism. I partly understand the frustration. I, too, am scandalized by the almost complete failure of post-communist justice. But to take it out on the imaginary evil of everyday life history shows that Neela Winkelmannová, as almost everyone else in the anti-communist movement, simply does not know what it is.

Thirty years after the fall of communism, it would be more productive to stop trying to silence or ridicule other approaches, or even to stop viewing unanimity as a desirable state. As I have argued on another occasion, embracing the existence of dissenting opinions, of a debate, even of disputes, is the condition for reconciliation; and reconciliation is the only way to finally turn the page of this depressing post-communist period.

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