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

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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

Why did Czechoslovakia split and what effect did it have on people?

The Czechoslovakia’s split and its effects on people are some of the topics we covered in the interview we took to Dr. Michal Pullman:

“This is a very complicated, hard and complex topic and we need […] long time to explain precisely post war period when the Slovak political representation hoped to have some kind of autonomy even though they did not agree with the split of Czechoslovakia in the 1938 and then especially in 1939.

They hoped to keep some kind of autonomy they were not successful at the time between 1948 and 1968 did not recognise any special rights for Slovakia then the federation came.  Federation was one of the most important things taken from the Slovak perspective.  October 1968 the introduction of the federation, of some rights in Education and culture was perceived positively. that was one of the reasons why the normalisation regime was so much more accepted in Slovakia than in the Czech land.

This of course had radicalised after 1989 when the public space was opened, not only for democratic forces but also for regressive movements such as the national one.  And the Czech Neo Liberal ruling elite was able to take part or to do some kind of agreement with the Slovak political Elite and to split the republic because this was somehow attractive for both side.

The Czech were not limited in their attempt to introduce neo liberal system in the Czech land and the Slovaks political elite were not limited in the introduction of their Nationalist Populist national; it was a kind of deal between these two elites in 1991/92 and they suddenly realised it was attractive for both sides so they just did.

At the same time I just want to add just one idea (not resisting the split) it was unconstitutional, I have to say it openly because there was no poll about that, because it is written in the constitution that when the sovereignty of the state changes there must be some kind of referendum but this political elite I was talking about it in 1991/92 knew that majority would reject that so they did not do any kind of popular decision making they just decided.  But with that I do not want to be under thin eyes because it is difficult to talk about these things, today the Czechs and Slovaks approve of this because they see somehow it brought bad things but also good things and best thing was there was no war. The Elite knew, the popular rejection of the split would come which led them to do split technocratic ally, from that point of view, the split even though its acceptable now has a big deal of internal legitimacy problem. ”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa

How did the communist regime change the landscape of Prague?

During the interview we took him, Pavel Kalina (professor of history architecture in the school of Architecture in Prague) explained to us how the communist regime changed the landscape of Prague.

“The communist regime in Prague did not change so much the character of the historical city.

The communist regime in Prague, in the Former Czechoslovakia was slightly conservative in many issues, including various aspects of architecture.  It means no large destructions or important changes were made in the historical centre of Prague (and it was very similar in other historical cities in Czechoslovakia). The main problem was rather the negligence or raw investments in historical buildings… because many of them ended in bad technical condition.

But what was the real problem and what is even today a problem of Czech towns, it is more what happened around the historical centres, not exactly in the city centres. It means in the time of the communist regime, of course, just like in Western Europe people needed housing, people needed jobs, especially the young families and the regime was not able to supply housing possibilities for large segments of population. There was no market there, there was no market for these housing, these buildings, these flats; everything was seen…the distribution of housing was completely in the hands of the state, so it was no ideal situation.  And, as a result, they constructed large settlements, large townships around the historical city centres. There were many problems:  the housing standards were generally low, or sometimes there were problems with transportations, there were always problems… or the cultural life of those not living in the historical towns…but in fact, I would say never, maybe with some exceptions, the regime didn’t care about the existential problems with supplying people with the most important items or transportations. Anything like this. It would be very exaggerated[…].  It was a political organisation, which of course caused some problems, especially with housing. I would never say that everything was bad, everything was completely bad or that  it was impossible to live in the country… anything like that.

It is even a defence when compared to other parts of Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, in the times of the  communist regime, the monuments, including those monuments created to religious side, were not destroyed, with few exceptions. Especially in the bold religion of the Czechoslovakia, but generally they kept them in good conditions. The maintenance was usually sponsored by state, because state was the only institution able to finance all these projects, so it was not so much of destruction compared to the situation in Russia where many churches were physically destroyed and destroyed on purpose. This was different. […]In this aspect, the conservatism of Czech communists was not that big.”

church

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Marina Gogeanu

Crimes of communism

It’s estimated that throughout the world there have been more than a hundred million of victims of communism, so we’ve asked Dr. Oldrich Tuma about the crimes of communism and how they were dispersed.

“Historians already speak about the Olympiads of victims in different countries, trying to get their country not to have more victims than the other countries. […] hundred of millions of victims […] 95% are in Soviet Union or China, perhaps Cambodia  These countries participation was really very different from Eastern Europe.

Even in Czechoslovakia it’s 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. Definitely in some cases there was a mixture of different details…sometimes criminality was involved and so on. 500 or 700 people were shot on borders but many were East Germans or Poles who tried to escape through Czechoslovakia. So that led to lots of incidents on the Czechoslovakian borders; they were definitely crimes of the Czechoslovakian communist regime but the victims weren’t always Czech or Slovaks. Perhaps a few 1000 people died in prisons especially in 50’s, there were tens of thousands of people in prison at the same time and the conditions were not nice especially in the uranium mines; and many people died there or after they were released from there because of the diseases they got.

So in terms of victims, people who lost lives… there will be hundreds or few thousands of people who had something to do with this very violent and repressive period of just five years or so from 49 to 54, something like that. In 51, 52 – people realised that if they’re going to provoke resistance, uprisings or demonstrations, they are bringing themselves to a danger of being sent to prison. So from mid 50’s for 35 years they used different methods compared to the other ones as you know as the existential pressure. […]

(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 Hungary or eastern Germany.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini

The media portrayal of the uprisings against the communist regime


When asked how were the popular uprisings against communism and Soviet Union (for instance: Hungary 1956, Prague Spring 1968) portrayed and represented both in the West and the communist countries media, Dr. Oldrich Tuma said:

“[…] it was a very different situation between the official historiography and the mass media.

56 or 68 were portrayed in Czechoslovakia when speaking about Hungary and vice versa, simply as attempts of counter revolution inspired by imperialists; very negative portrayal of that… no wonder because it was something which was against the establishment, against the ruling party.

In the west I think there was a lot of understanding… I think for both 56 and 68 in the moment… there was a lot of interest in the pages of the newspapers November 56 or spring 68 , August 68…  Hungary, Czechoslovakia were both on the front pages and made head titles and so on… but this interest disappeared quickly as it happens today with other cases.

I think that for the most of the period after 56 or after 68, the western opinion or interest in Czechoslovakia and/or Hungary were limited to professional historians or some journalists who were covering those countries. But there was a lot of help for refugees from both countries.[…] So from that point of view, in the west, there were some interested parties who tried to help but didn’t try anything on the international level, the level of international relations. The west was really very careful…  definitely didn’t wish to risk  the deterioration of the relation between the United States and the Soviet Union by speaking out loud… they were afraid.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini

Short analysis of the totalitarian regimes in Europe

During our trip in Prague, we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Oldrich Tuma -the director of the Institute of contemporary study who tried to give us an insight into the mechanisms of the totalitarian regimes in Europe and the way they function.

“So, We try to compare communist regime and the Nazi regime, sometimes the fascism regime?!

hmm I think Italy was a bit of a different case. Definitely Italy was not a totalitarian regime.

I have my doubts with the communist regime for the longest period of their existence, especially in Eastern Europe if they were totalitarian. I think that they tried to be but they failed very soon. And it was…I guess you know different typology of undemocratic regimes. So I like that part of one of …. response.

[…]

Definitely there was a great difference compared to the situation in Czechoslovakia after 1968 but even before after 56/ 58 or something like that, or Poland after 56 -if you compare this situation with the regime as they were… and the instruments, and the ways the regime used to control the society with the situation in the Soviet Union definitely under Stalin and even later. Or in East Europe say 48 to 53 or something like that, so this still was the same regime based on the same ideology and somewhere on the same ambitions for the future. […] but the future was more and more postponed.

So I think that finally the idea of communist society was there like a very unclear dream for the very future but the focus was simply to keep what already existed.

Which if we should compare it, it is very difficult because the Nazi regime just lasted twelve years and two thirds of the time were during war so anything was different and so on.

So I agree that those regimes, there were some common features based on ideology. Communist ideology was definitely more universal, Nazi ideology was focussing on the nationalism, anti- Semitism and rationale and so on and so on. On the other hand communist ideology was more easily acceptable for different nations and different people and so on.

Nazism was exclusive for German people hardly anyone. The Czechs couldn’t be Nazis, because the Czech would tell them that even if they wanted to be and so on. They used for the most similar methods of uhm… how to deal with any kind of resistance, real or alleged. So I think definitely communist secret security worked in a similar way like the gestapo (The German secret police under Nazi rule) did, even sometimes using similar methods of torturing people and so on.

But in the case of Nazi Germany say part of the economic life of society was not under so strict control of the regime, like it was in communist times In Czechoslovakia; I think in the Romania it was similar. In Czechoslovakia also maybe not in Poland and Hungary in Czechoslovakia 90% of economic activities were nationalised; they were controlled by the regime. But on the other hand there were some few cultural, life and educational and which simply the regime tried to intervene but then left it to the side.

So I never think that the communist regime in Czechoslovakia definitely controlled everything. Yeah they tried but they also realised it would lead to more and more conflicts in the society. The people; they needed to be at least loyal if not to support the regime, so I think that for the most time they concentrated on the administrative control of the society. They of course tried to eliminate any real resistance but otherwise they left people take what they wanted to…it’s a very improvised version than in the other countries.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini

Panelák

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“During the communist regime, both the architecture and the construction industry were focused mainly on 2 different fields: one of them was the construction of huge panel-houses estates and the second one was the construction of huge cultural or political representatives or even buildings dedicated to sports, for sports events.” Klara Mergerova (PhD candidate at Faculty of Architecture of Czech Technic University in Prague) 

When asked how are the panel-houses perceived by Prague’s citizens, she answered: “On one hand they are still popular because they offer good quality of living and they are cheap, but on the other hand it’s considered as the low cost way of living, so I think no one is really proud to be living is such buildings and above, the young people refuse them and tend to move in more qualitative apartments, they tend to move back to the city centre, and they cut themselves from the past. There is still a huge per cent of population still living in them… ”

We also had a conversation with Pavel Kalina (professor of history architecture in the school of Architecture in Prague) and we’ve asked him if he finds any relation between the tenants blocks (the Panelaks as they call them) and the  Futurist Manifesto- written in 1909 and the idea of the New Man. This is what he answered:

” You can take it metaphorically as a result of what was imagined about future in the early 20th century. But, in reality… Here we are in the Campus of Czech Technological University, so I will remain in the simple reality, and I would say that it was probably more dictated by the needs of the building industry.”  “I think it was much more dictated by the completely technic character of building industry in Czechoslovakia than by any ideology. Of course, as I’ve said, you can take it as a metaphor, as a symbol, but in fact, it was just a technic product, which is itself a metaphor.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interviews transcribed by: Marina Gogeanu

The German Democratic Republic (East Germany)

Germany was exceedingly affected by the Second World War, being leader and part of the defeated forces meant they had to follow the rules put in place for repairing Europe after their defeat. This included paying reparations, dividing its land between the allies and the Soviet Union. This meant in Germany as a whole as well as Berlin, now had been split into British/ French/American and Soviet regions.

-Germany 1947

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Credit: thirdstringgoalie.blogspot.com

-Berlin 1947

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Credit: german-way.com

East Germany

The Soviet occupied part of Germany then became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), which was fully under communist rule and ran by the communist government until 1990 when communism fell and Germany was reunified. East Germany was under the Socialist Unity Party led by Wilhelm Pieck, with Otto Grotewohl as prime minister. Though Grotewohl was against illegal arrests, and wanted more respect for the East German’s civil rights he seemed to not want East Germany to answer to its mistakes after the Second World War.  West Germany was the legal successor of the Third Reich, meaning they now had the responsibility of paying reparations and take any other actions the world saw fit. East Germany chose to denounce its Nazi past, declare itself as a socialist state, refused to acknowledgement of the existence of anti-Semitism and Israel and therefore refused to pay the Holocaust victims. Though they did have to pay war reparations to the USSR. Though East Germany considered themselves a completely separate state from West Germany Stalin wanted to reunify Germany, Western allies refused this proposal.

Television and radio in East Germany were controlled by the state, though many artists returned from exile after world war two many of them left again after increasing levels of censorship. Foreign films were also shown in cinemas, though only few as it was expensive to buy the licenses and they had to be suitable in not glorifying capitalism.

Revolt

On June 16th 1953 construction workers working on the Stalinallee boulevard in East Berlin went on a strike because of a 10% production quota increase and them being informed that their salaries would be affected if this quota was not met. The demonstrations began small but soon the participant numbers rose including the general public both in East Berlin as well as in other places in East Germany. By June 17th more than a million people rioted across towns and cities, the government feared an anti-communist revolution so called upon the Soviet Occupation Forces and tanks to help the People’s Police (Volkspolizei) control the situation. 10,000 people were arrested and fifty people killed.

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 Credits: libcom.org

Berlin wall

Many people did not like living under Soviet communist suppression, the majority of these people were young well educated citizens. This meant if they managed to cross into West Germany, East Germany would have less and less intellectuals and therefore be weaker economically. This led to the 1961 creation of the Berlin Wall, a wall separating West and East Berlin meaning neither sides could cross over. Before its creation approximately 3.5 million East Germans defected to West Berlin, leading them to West Germany or any other country. The wall had armed guard towers that could shoot down any person trying to cross, they also contained anti-vehicle trenches and many other defences. The wall existed from 1961 to 1989, in those years approximately 5,000 people tried to cross over of those it is said more than 600 people were killed.

Post-Unification

After a peaceful revolt in 1989 the Berlin Wall was destroyed and communism fell in East Germany, democratisation and reunification was the countries aim and on the 3rd of October 1990 the German Democratic Republic was dissolved and Germany was reunified.

Though there was initial joy after the reunification, this quickly died down as popular opinion in West Germany was that they had won. This led to resentments on both sides, the East Germans resented the wealthy West Germans and the West resented the opportunist East Germans. With the closure of factories and increase of unemployment, many East Germans experienced “Ostalgie” the term coined and seen in media portrayals such as Goodbye Lenin! By Wolfgang Becker. This meant nostalgia for the east (Ost).

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Credit: beyondthefilmblog.blogspot.co.uk

Mwen Fikirini