Interview with Karol Ander – perceptions of the communist era in Czech Republic

During the field trip to Prague we had the opportunity to interview a student attending an event to commemorate the 65th
anniversary of February 1948 when the communist party took over power.  On asked what his perceptions were on communism, this is what he had to say.

“That is a question I cannot answer in a few sentences.  It’s a very sensitive issue for anybody.  I have an opinion of mine, however I did not live through the era when the communists were in power so all that I got is the text books and the stuff I study myself and the people that I talk to about former regime and while the communist regime did a lot of bad things to this country, to the people and we have a very nasty legacy thanks to the communists in here and the society today which is not only what I think but it’s pretty clear the Society today in here is very divided on the subject of the former communist regime and the problem is that there is no effort to open the subject under public level.  Nobody really has managed to find any tools on how to debate on this subject and that’s one of the main problems I think”.

Rose Muzvondiwa

Jan Palach 2 : Media Portrayals

The story of Jan Palach and his dramatic action of self-immolation captured a lot of hearts. Many people and media outlets wanted to retell the story and help the world become aware of his actions, and message. From documentaries, music videos to simple references Jan Palach became world known as one of the heroes that actively stood up against communist Czechoslovakia.

One of the most acclaimed documentaries that told of his story and the days following his suicide, is The Burning Bush by Agnieszka Holland. Holland is a Polish born director who having had studied in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), had knowledge and interest in the Czechoslovak revolution and Jan Palach.

Many bands and musicians also wanted to portray or dedicate and tribute their songs and music videos to Palach’s actions including Kasabian’s song “Club Foot”, Francesco Guccini’s song  “La Primavera di Praga”, “The funeral of Jan Palach” by the Zippo band.

As well as documentaries and songs, statues were also erected to commemorate Palach.  Though statues and art might not be considered media, they still serve the same purpose of informing and reminding the masses of a person or event creating a collective memory. Andras Beck unveiled a statue in the city of Melnik dedicated to Palach on the 40th anniversary of his death. This statue is currently in France.

beck_andras_palach1970

Mwen Fikirini

Jan Palach

Jan Palach was a student at Charles University in Prague that committed suicide in 1969 in protest against the invasion of the Soviet forces marking the end of the Prague Spring. His act of self-immolation was meant to remind the Czech people of their demoralisation, it was said a resistance group was set up for the purpose of acting out until these demands were met. Many different people some who spoke to Jan and knew him reflected upon their meetings with trying to explain why he did what he did. Many people spoke of his protest against demoralization of the Czech people and his hatred of the Soviet regime. These demands were abolition of censorship, the banning of Zprava (the official newspaper of the Soviet forces) also calling for the Czechoslovak people to strike in support of these demands.

The people of Czechoslovakia united in their sympathy for Palach and their realisation of what their government was doing to them.

“Last night, students in Vienna took to the streets to express their solidarity with Czechoslovak students. Equipped with dozens of banners, they organized a silent procession.”

Svobodné slovo daily, 25 January 1969

 

The world also sympathised with the Czech people, many newspapers reported of his suicide and even officials from around the world sent their condolences. Pope Paul VI paid tribute to Jan Palach’s memory in his message of 26 January 1969 when he stated: “We can uphold the values that put self-sacrifice above others to the supreme test, but we cannot approve the tragic form taken on behalf of their aims.”

Palach was buried at Olsany Cemetary, because of his politically charged suicide his gravesite became a national shrine. This scared the communist party as they did not want an anti-communist martyr, so the StB exhumed and cremated his remains sending them back to his mother. The urn with the remains was not returned until 1990.

Memorial

P1010732In 1989 people began airing their grievances in peaceful marches, these protests were named “Palach Week”, the police tried to quash these anti-communist demonstrations. Since they knew news of them might spread disobedience and revolt through the country, the Velvet Revolution occurred and less than a year later communism had fallen. In Tim Cresswell’s book Place an introduction, he states there can be “many manifestations of place” (2004:3), in Prague this can be related to Jan Palach’s (and Jan Zajic’s) memorial. After the revolution they were commemorated through a bronze cross embedded in Prague outside the National Museum, for the people this is a sign of hope and honour to their memory while for the communists it was a significant sign of the revolutions both Velvet and Prague Spring as well as the end of communism. Different spaces are made meaningful by different individuals making them places “a meaningful location” (Cresswell, 2004:7) because they become attached in a variety of ways.

When considering place it is also important to highlight that John Agnew (1987) defined place as having 3 components making it a meaningful location these are location, locale and sense of place. Cresswell also discusses the issue of gaining a sense of a place from filmic representations of the place, this relates to hyper reality. If you look into the previously linked BBC video of Jan Palach’s funeral which was broadcasted across the world, it is important to realise to the western world this was one of the few representations of war torn Czechoslovakia. This sense of place proved to be very different to what we came across when we travelled to the Czech Republic.

As well as this memorial, Jan Palach was also honoured through different places, streets and squares being named after him in Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, France, Poland, Netherlands, Italy, Bulgaria, United Kingdom and even Mauritius.

References

Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing Ltd:Oxford

Mwen Fikirini

The Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia

Velvet Revolution

Unlike any other communist country that had to go through a violent revolution, Czechoslovakia fortunately had a non-violent revolution. The non-violent revolution which saw the overthrow of the Communist government took place on the 17th of November to the 29th of December 1989 was named the Velvet Revolution.
On the 17th of November 1989, a group of students held a peaceful demonstration in Prague but was suppressed by the riot police. A student was attacked by the riot police (Tim Lambert, N/A). Following the incident, it sparked a lot attention and ignited the anger within the people thus causing a series of demonstrations that continued until late December. On the 19th of November, human right activist formed the Civic forum (Tim Lambert, N/A). The number of peaceful protestors in Prague grew from 200,000 to 500,000 in merely two days. Although the government resigned on the 24th of November due to the pressure, that was not the end as the demonstrations went on.

On the 27th of November, all citizens of Czechoslovakia took part on a two hour general strike. Eventually, the Communist party agreed to end the 1 party rule and promised to form a coalition government (Tim Lambert, N/A). The citizens of Czechoslovakia were not satisfied with the new government as they were still under the power of the communist party. So, the citizens held more demonstrations. Due to the pressure, a new government was formed on the 10th of December where the Communist became the minority. On the 29th of December, Vaclav Havel a playwright and leading opponent of Communism was elected as the president by the Federal Assembly.

Finally for the first time in 40years, Czechoslovakia held its first multi-party elections and a new government made up of a coalition of parties opposed to the transitional government and Havel was re-elected (Howstuffworks, (N/A).

Tim Lambert. N/A. The Fall of Communism In Eastern Europe. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.localhistories.org/communism.html. [Accessed 15 April 13].

How Stuff Works. N/A. History of Czechoslovakia. [ONLINE] Available at:http://history.howstuffworks.com/european-history/czechoslovakia3.htm. [Accessed 15 April 13].

Foong Lin, Liew

‘Eastern Bloc’ Communist Countries Comparison

A comparison of communist countries allows the researchers to have a better understanding of the effects of communism and the knowledge help approach interviews more effectively.

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“The comparison is fantastic on various levels.  Primary level is the violence at the very end of the regime whereas the Czechoslovak is closely bound to the ideology of non-violence and brotherhood”  [….]  “We don’t have to compare only violence and nonviolence, not only civil rights and religions rights but also can compare things like drug culture and everyday life.  But this is something we have to do now”  (Dr Michal Pullman [Contemporary History Lecturer at the Charles University, Faculty of Arts] in response to a question on the comparison between Romania and Czechoslovakia)

However during the interviews others felt it was too vast a subject and to do a comparison would be difficult because of several factors such as the size of the countries, and the population “So I agree that those regimes, there were some common features based on ideology. Communist ideology was definitely more universal”[…..]  I think to find parallels and differences is a good thing, but it’s not so easy to say Czechoslovakia was like Poland and was different to Romania.” (Dr. Oldrich Tuma)

Quick overview of some Eastern Bloc communist countries

Country Communism infiltration Architecture Revolutions
Czechoslovakia1948 – 1989 Democratically elected HistoricalModernismCubism Jan 1968 Prague SpringNov-Dec  1989 Velvet Revolution
Romania1947 – 1989 Falsified election results Communist-influencedPower related Romanian Revolution (series of riots and protests in Romania in December 1989
Bulgaria1946 – 1990 Coup d’etat on existing government Principles of Totalitarian architecture, representativeness and impressiveness, were combined with classical architectural forms i.e. hotel “Balkan”, the Central Shopping Mall, the Communist Party Building October 1989 Enviromental demonstration in Sofia
Poland1947 – 1989 Rigged election results April – September  1988 (Fall of Communism strike)
Hungary 1949 – 1989 Soviet intervention allowed  communist control after coalition government had been formed. Oct-Nov 1956 uprising

War Crimes

“I think everyone was a victim of the communist regime. Even the communists were victims of the regime; their life was deformed by it; they had to lie, they had to muddle through it. So I think that just for numbers of repressions…repressions based on imprisonment and executions, perhaps Czechoslovakia is not such an exception if compared to Hungary or Eastern Germany” (Dr Oldrich Tuma –Director of  Institute of contemporary study)

In Poland, repressions affected up to 400, 000 people. During 1944-1953, military courts sentenced 70,097 people for crimes against the state (any alleged anti-regime activity or sentiment). 20,000 prisoners died due to harsh condition in prisons. Furthermore, 6,000,000 Polish citizens were classified as suspected members of a “reactionary or criminal element” and subjected to investigation by state agencies. The repressions were meant to scare the common people and get rid of any anti-communist opponents. Often the accusations and sentences were exaggerated or fabricated to speed up the process.

In Bulgaria those who didn’t adhere to the strict Soviet policies were marginalised and denied access to educational, personal and job opportunities.  All religious activity was severely restricted or banned apart from the which later became infiltrated by communist activities.  Over 90 000 dissidents were eliminated via expulsions, arrests and killings between 1948-49.

Hungary had the harshest dictatorship in Europe with over 50 000 women & girls raped.  Approximately 350,000 Hungarian officials and intellectuals were removed  from 1948 to 1956. Were many were arrested, tortured, imprisoned in concentration camps or were executed.

“Even in Czechoslovakia it is hard to say how many victims of the communist regime were…. We know exactly something like 250 people got sentenced to get executed for political reasons… it’s not such a great number” (Dr Michal Pullman – Contemporary History Lecturer at the Charles University, Faculty of Arts))

Exile prisons such as the one in Pitesti, Romania were created to re-educate their political prisoners using violent and degrading methods known today as ‘the Pitesti Phenomenon’.

Rose Muzvondiwa

‘Eastern Bloc’ Central and Eastern Europe Communist Countries

‘Eastern Bloc’ refers to the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, generally the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.  These countries include Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.  The term Communist Bloc was used to denote the groups of states associated with the Soviet Union.

eastern bloc

European Communist Countries (sourced 22 april 2013)

These European countries experienced communism and their dictators relied on spectacle in order to create and maintain their citizen’s compliance to their communist ideology and used fear, oppression, arrests and killings to suppress the public but in the end mass revolts helped restore democracy. “Whoever becomes the ruler of a city that is accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it can expect to be destroyed by it, for it can always find a pretext for rebellion in the name of its former freedom” (Debord 2009:113).

“Communist states claim to be guided by a specific law of interpretations and goals  – these are Marxism-Leninism” (Wesson 1978:13) and there is quite a lot of similarities within these countries during the periods they experienced communism.  These similarities include totalitarian rule, dictatorship, food shortages and terrible war crimes.

Communist societies are very militaristic and include long periods of military duty, glorification of military heroism, cult of leadership and of violence and loyalty is the basic virtue (Wesson 1978:12-13). 

Rose Muzvondiwa

Jan Sladek about the Plastic People of the Universe

Jan Sladek is a  lecturer at Charles University- Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. During our stay in Prague, we had the pleasure to meet and interview him. One of the very first questions was about the Plastic people of the universe as we were very interested in finding out what’s his opinion regarding the way the communists treated the dissidents. Here is what he said:

Source: Museum of communism

Source: Museum of communism

“This is a paradigm case of the totalitarian regime. Harriet a famous thinker of the 21st century, had this idea about totalitarian regime. She said “in a normal democratic regime you can separate private sphere, public and state sphere. Example in universities you have private, public and state universities. You can have your private life and have public.  For example, I am a teacher and lecturer, and if I go to a political party I will try to get some share of the state power… that is how it works.

In totalitarian regime one of the best pictures you can find in 1984 by Howell, it basically sees no difference between this. In Howell there is a quote where he said “sex is an empty state thing”, that is to say your private intimate thing is seen by the state as an offensive.  This is what happen to Plastic People of the Universe- a bunch of crazy guys making songs or singing songs de-picturing the consummate society. There was a great joke about this consummate in a country with shortage economy. A group of people who say we are consuming in the society, they didn’t even have strong anti—regime or anti political quotes but the regime was so sensitive to its opposition and felt it everywhere.

Even these things that are seen as just a normal, public expression is seen offensive and felt as an ethic on the state. Even the fact that the people choose to have long hair (which is a private thing)… the regime felt it  has a state opposition. what happened was that they went into trials, most of them went to jail, this was what triggered the opposition and charta 77, which was the appeal to the court for human right and the appeal was based on the ground that Czech Republic sign a treaty saying as a country that they would defend civil liberty.

This is one of the trigger and one of the pictures of how silly the regime reacted to any kind of unconformity to identity. Fighting against music group and make it triggers the biggest opposition in the Czech republic/Czechoslovakia at the time “I think this a joke of history”

To conclude this, even though we have many face of communism and many face of dissident,  one thing was sure that the regime in Czech republic was very sensitive, it was very paranoid and this is what basically, with together in the shortage economy lead to the end because if you go against people who play music then no one feels safe in the country because they were not politicians and they were not political. So if you fight this people will be afraid, and when people start getting afraid due to what they say, insecurity comes in.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

Ceausescu against the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968)

We’ve asked Dr. Michal Pullman to think about 1968 and Romania which was against the invasion of Czechoslovakia.  What did that say about Ceausescu which was against any freedom in Romania and now he was suddenly approving freedom of press, freedom of speech, etc in Czechoslovakia? Do the Czech people remember this and consequently perceive Romania in a different way?

Here is what he said:

“The perception of Romania and Czechoslovakia was also ambivalent in this way; on the other hand Romania was perceived as a country where the communism had the most violent practices.  The Securitate was very well known in the whole Eastern block and was referred to as a kind on non-human or was synonymous for non-human approach of the system towards its inhabitants, towards the people.

At the same time, the Czechs and Slovaks saw the social situation of Romania which belonged to the worst ones in the whole Soviet block and it was very bad but on the other hand they knew the political representation who was very violent and repressive at home refused soviets in 1968 to invade Czechoslovakia and Romania even did not provide any technical, nothing… cause as we know the Germans did not come because it was not acceptable till 20 years after the war that the East German army to come to Czechoslovakia, so the East Germans stayed at home but provided, they provided  technical equipment for the Soviets; but Romania refused even that and this was the main ambivalence of perception of Romania  at the end of the 80s and it was of course, no public topic in the time of the 70s and first half of the 80s because of the brotherhood of Ceausescu and Hauseck… or both of these political representations with were strongly (specially the Czechoslovak one was) strongly bound to the Soviet politics but to some kind of hard administrative line of building socialism with a hat of communist party… so it became a topic in the very days of upheaval or in the splendid days of November 1989,  the fact that the Romania had not invaded Czechoslovakia.[…]  The people knew somehow but did not care too much because Romania is not the direct neighbour so they accepted the fact that Romania was not participating in any way at the occupation fell into oblivion a little bit in the public sphere.”

Marina Gogeanu

Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa

Comparison between communist Romania and Czechoslovakia

We’ve asked Dr. Michal Pullman if there can be made a comparison between communist Romania and Czechoslovakia. This is what he answered:

“Of course and the comparison is fantastic on various levels.

Primary level is the violence at the very end of the regime whereas the Czechoslovak is closely bound to the ideology of non-violence and brotherhood.  The Romania was very violent and this was already at the time a tension that was not too much discussed cause people did not know how to articulate this huge difference but the violence outlook of the 1989 revolutionary upheaval. How can we talk about the Romanian events of December 1989 was really perceived at the moment. There are also other important differences… we can talk about 1989 whereas Romanian revolution began with an idea of religious freedom it was of course reduced freedom was one of the many topics in Czechoslovakia but the most important notion was non-violence not the idea of violence in religious life as was the case in Romania and also there are many other differences in the everyday life.

[…] we don’t have to compare only violence and nonviolence not only civil rights and religions rights but also can compare things like drug culture and everyday life.  But this is something we have to do now. Unfortunately I do not speak Romanian but I would introduce immediately these comparisons because they are extremely interesting especially Czechoslovakia and Romania cause it was so different in many respects but both with similar outcomes I mean with demise on the system and the introduction of the neo Liberal capitalism which the people did not want neither in Czechoslovakia nor Romania.”

Marina Gogeanu

Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa

How did people perceive Alexander Dubcek after Prague Spring?

Dr. Michal Pullman related to us how popular Alexander Dubcek was back in 1968 and the cruel life he had after what was known as Prague Spring.

(Alexander Dubcek) “was extremely popular in the time of Prague Spring. People were shocked there can be someone who is open minded, who is flexible in ideas and can talk in variety of languages… who has fantastic contacts in the whole world and is recognised as the person who represents the Democratic Socialism which was an idea broadly acceptable in 1968, the very notion of democratisation, of solutions. He was the person who was also admired at that time.

Everything changed with the Soviet occupation in August 1968. Already this negotiation of the Soviets political representation and the Czechoslovak one was very difficult because both sides had to do some compromises that were not perceived positively in their home countries.  Alexander was pushed afterwards to be an ambassador to Turkey because it was a way of removing him from political negotiation.   Eventually he was dismissed from this position and became a forest worker in Slovakia… and had to do a hard job. Afterwards he rose again in the second half of the 80’s on the background of renewed attractiveness of the idea of democratic socialism, of course.

He was the person most popular in the days of November 1989 because everyone knew him as the representative of what people really wanted at that time (in 1968), that was the democratic socialism but now, he was much older and had less personal/physical power or possibilities and then, the developments did not go towards the democratic socialism but rather towards democratic capitalism or privatised  which was not his idea and unfortunately came his death on the highway.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Rose Muzvondiwa