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

Hotel Crowne Plaza

Klara Mergerova:

“This hotel is known in Prague under the name of Hotel Internazional, which was the original name. It is a hotel which was constructed in the early 1950s, which was a period of the style called ‘socialism realism’ and this was after the communist regime took the power in the 1948. This was the only official style of the early 1950s, so new buildings and new housing estates were built only in this style which was a style that took elements from the history and also linked it to some decorative elements, and it was meant for the working class, for the working people to bring joy into their everyday lives.”

Marina Gogeanu

Prague and The communist architecture

Pavel Kalina

“The communist architecture has many negative connotations, of course. The architecture […] of those townships or settlements built in 1960s, 1970s, are of course not taken as the good address. In the same time, the townships din not change islams, anything like that. They are normally inhabited by the new generations, but usually are the old generations of people. Many of those buildings were renovated, in the last 2 decades, many of them were given façades  for example, so sometimes you would not recognise that they are from the time of the communist regime. So, I think normal people do not take these houses as good addresses, good architecture, as a good place to live. But they are cheap, they are a form outside of the historical cities, so in this aspect is not completely a bad place to live and they are sometimes defended as urban textures by historians of architecture who are interpreting these buildings as a part of our heritages.

I think very problematic. I myself live in a town from 1994, which was designed in the 1980s. And I’m not completely satisfied with the building, but I live there since 1994, so.. but it is not a typical housing, but I think it is a normal place where you  live in present day Prague. In present day Prague, people do not live in the historical centre. The historical centre is futurist and for managers and international accountants, but not so much for normal people.”

Klara Mergerova

“I’m a historian of architecture, so I, myself see the qualities and of course I try to show that there are buildings which were constructed during the communist regime, but which still present some qualities, but I think the general opinion is that those buildings were there to abrupt intrusion and most people refused even to think about qualities connected to the regime, so even buildings which are considered from architectural point of view are not appreciated by the general public. But there are of course, more and more tourists, which try now to see them as something specific for this region and who come to see them.”

Pavel Kalina

“Here in Prague, the  most despised project of the communist era was the so called Palace of Culture. It is just behind the border of the historical city, but even this project, which is ugly, even this project was no exception in the European architecture in the 1970s, 1980s, including Western European. You will find many ugly buildings in Western Europe as well. This building was not much bigger, not much ugly than the lords houses… I don’t like… I would never say that …in this aspect… that the communism expressed the totalitarian character in every house, or in every part of the town. It would be very, very exaggerated.”

Klara Mergerova

“Then you have Czech Department Stores, which are also found all over the country and also in Prague. We have some really good examples in the city centre (Department Store Kotva) which are representants of the most quality architecture of the period.  On the other hand, they are also disputable and not maybe … the quality isn’t fully recognized until today because they are very monumental  and people still see them as the residues of communist architecture. […]

Kotva Department Store

These buildings were financed by the communist regime, so they reflect (the department stores) reflect their aims to compete with the other world, the Western commercial centres, etc. The other buildings reflect the aim to impress and to prove the power of the regime.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interviews transcribed by: Marina Gogeanu

Crimes of communism – Part 2

Dr. Michal Pullman also shared with us some of his opinions regarding the crimes of communism in Czechoslovakia.

“The very people that were sentenced or killed on the board are about 300… this number is not high and…

this is a problem of those politicians […] who want to keep the one-sided view of communism as a pure repression that did not allow their citizens to live good lives at all… the repression was quite deep especially at the end of the 40s and beginning of the 50s with short trials especially collectivisation. This was quite violent not only in Czechoslovakia; collectivisation was a nightmare for many people at the same time; this kind of violence was exerted in Czechoslovakia and it […]was different from the Soviet one and from other countries because many people and part of Society as I mentioned already expected somehow the very promise of Stalinist order and there were many volunteers who did this kind of violence by collectivising.

These believing communists, […] this continuity is quite typical for Czechoslovakia… the people who participated in the Stalinist project and were very active in exerting violence voluntarily, when they were seeing the disastrous consequences of their actions… they began to change their mind somehow.

Back to your question… it is strongly linked to what we were talking about at the very beginning, communism in Czechoslovakia especially in the Czech land, Slovakia is different, communism had as an idea, as an ideological goal that had to be realised…  had strong support of the Czech population (of course, not of the whole population) we have to reconstruct the attitude of various social groups… of course the peasants whom the fields were taken, these were not happy,  but other peasants who could have worked in the centralised agricultural etc would have been happy, but great part of the urban population supported the Stalinist model and afterwards some kind of reform, socialism etc.  Then 70s and 80s were completely different in this respect cause the political elite that represented the post 1968 regime knew that these attempts to activise society are disastrous precisely the new model of communism.  The Stalinist were proud to be violent. The issue of radical violence is completely away because the normalisers knew it is much better to hide the violence from the normal citizens, in prisons, schools, hospitals.  It was very successful model for Czechoslovakia even though the people rejected afterwards because the regime was not able to keep its own promise of non-violence of the quiet life, with the violence of the 2nd half of the 80’s.

So the issue of violence is extremely important in Czechoslovakia and an issue that is not opened completely because the very master narrative is built on what you have mentioned, by killing people, by imprisoning them in concentration or work camps and this is something that works for Czechoslovakia but works predominantly for the beginning of the 50s but does not work for Prague Spring and for the 2nd half of the 60s, 70s or 80s where the violence was deliberately minimised by the state, was exerted on the groups that were condemned or stigmatized within the society… I have in mind the forced sterilisation of the Romanian women which was very typical violence practice of the 70s but was highly approved because the people did not resist it and majority of people did not think it was abnormal.  The techniques of power in the 70s and 80s was much more clever and they knew that over exerting much can be counterproductive and this is a problem of the Czech and communists today cause they cannot find too much violence and it is impossible to find some kind of violence resistance in the Czech case.

The people who want to keep the totalitarian explanation of communism in Czechoslovakia have huge problems because of the fact that there were not as many victims as in the Soviet Union or Romania and these are the problems of the contemporary hardliners who try to keep the totalitarian model in explaining and who feel it as a kind of mission that they have to, and they go to schools explaining that communism was violent and that it brought only scarcity and violence to the people and they feel a great deal of loss of something moral if they would admit that the Czech society voted for the communism and that the majority of population accepted somehow the system and there were many parts of the Society who even profited from that and were happy even with the violence of the state… and this is something in my view that needs to be introduced in the Czech public realm and has to be profoundly discussed because I am not very content even though no one of us wants something coming back, on the other hand the attempt to keep the totalitarian explanation does not work when looking into the sources in the Czech, Slovak case does not work is a desperate attempt and its better to be open-minded and to talk about issues that can be unpleasant on first glance especially regarding the popular support of the communist Regime that had different roots in the 50’s and 70’s… but let’s say that these things are unpleasant for the people to remember… it is unpleasant to tell that the majority of population did not do anything in contrast to Hungarians, Romanians and Poles; there was huge resistance there at all times and this is a problem and from my view it would be much better to open some issues that do not fit into totalitarian views on one hand but can have important or would have important healing consequences for public discussion in the Czech case.”

 Marina Gogeanu

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

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

The initial reaction to communism in Czechoslovakia

Dr. Oldrich Tuma also talked to us about the initial reaction to communism in Czechoslovakia:

“In Czechoslovakia and especially the Czech lands part of Czechoslovakia, I think was an exception in Eastern Europe because there the communist party had the communist ideology immediately after 1945 and they had perhaps support  not from the majority of the society, but definitely from a very important part of it; (not only workers but intellectuals, artists) […]. They had hoped and trusted that this is an area especially to improve special economics, social life and to establish a system of social justice and things like that.

[…] there was the experience of Second World War and of course a very important issue was how to keep Czechoslovakia safe, how to take care of the security of Czechoslovakia after the experience of military occupation of Czechoslovakia. […] I think that this was not only communist that were persuaded but even many people who wished to have democracy were persuaded that the only way that to make Czechoslovakia secure in the middle of Europe was to cooperate very closely with the Soviet Union against Germany. Because there was a lot of opinions that in a few years Germany would be strong again or an aggressive state.

So the situation after Second World War was very similar to the one after the First World War [..]. But Germany became a different sort of society and state, so it was a misperception […].

Unlike the Polishes, Romanians, Hungarians, Czechs never had any direct experience with Russia. There were no common borders, there were no wars since the middle ages and so on. So Russians and the Russian state was more something like a distant but relatively beloved cousin if not then brother in the passive conflict that there was a long time confrontation between the Czechs and Germany, not only Germany but Germans living within Bohemia and Moravia. So it seems that this powerful Slavic state and Great Russian cultural heritage was really admired in the 19th Century. So there were a lot of sympathies and genuine sympathies for Russia with some over also for Czechs I think 1945, Soviet Union was especially Russia. So Soviet soldiers were red army soldiers, who were Russian soldiers, so they […] had to save Czechs from Nazi Germany (I think more understood it as German occupation not Nazi occupation).

So originally there was a lot of sympathies but many people also were aware that there is a danger that the communists who were speaking like democrats perhaps were for a coalition government (they spoke about free elections and so on). But there was a danger that it could turn into a totalitarian regime, undemocratic regime so there was a conflict within the society. Unfortunately the communists were much better prepared; they knew what they wished to achieve and fortified the position of the other political parties. And simply by waiting some hoped this is an extraordinary situation after war we have to survive and so on but it didn’t.

Communists seized power in 1948 and again that is the difference in Czechoslovakia; It happened during one short political crisis; in fact it was one week. In other countries it was a really long process. Let’s remind this Hungarian guy and his army tactics. In a way it was in Czechoslovakia too, but finally it was really a takeover it happened with the mobilisation of supporters of communism and paramilitary forces marching into the streets and so on. Even after 1948 still important part of society especially young people and so on who really trusted and hoped that very quickly that it would lead to the communist regime to very different directions and very different levels of great development of society and cultural social, economic and so on. And if it is necessary to pay something for some time to repress opponents of communism so we have to do it but during the next ten years would definitely be 56 or 58 most of those people I mean young communist people who were enthusiastic about communism but after 1945 became more sceptical and started to think about problems, mistakes and lies and so on. Didn’t see any great economic or social progress, they were more and more averted in cultural and educational, information. There was more and more censorship and so on and they didn’t like it.

So from that milieu Not yet resistance to communism, but very common I think in Czechoslovakia in the 1950’s early 60’s, was this idea of the necessity to reform the generated system. I think there was a majority of Czechoslovak society who simply didn’t like communism as for them it was an oppressive regime. In the early 50’s many people simply hoped that next fall or the next spring or something like that there will be war…there were a lot of illusions that the West will somehow intervene with diplomatic or economic measures that will make the communist regime to have elections and so on and so on. I think this illusion disappeared between 53 and 56, so definitely after the Hungarian uprising in 56 when there was no Western intervention. So this would be the end of the illusion that this will be for just a short time and the west will do something; it simply disappeared… more and more people realised that maybe it’s forever… and if they didn’t feel like that then, in 68 they understood that it was about to be for a very long time. So, they thought… if we can’t get rid of the system, maybe we can improve it or reform it. And so from this I think there was this general ethos of the 60’s in Czechoslovakia and of 68 which was something like a merge of very different opinions, a lot of very enthusiastic communists that hoped they would be able to improve the regime and even create something like a sort of model for other, even for Soviet Union. They thought that maybe the Russian communists will follow them…  But they were really disappointed instead, when these Russian tanks arrived.So people who simply didn’t like communism and understood 68 (the Prague spring) as an opportunity to at least change something and improve the system realised there were some limits.”

 

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

Why and how was communism implemented in Czechoslovakia?

Dr. Michal Pullmann (teacher of contemporary history at the Charles University, faculty of Arts) explained to us during the interview we took to him why and how the communist regime was implemented in Czechoslovakia.

“There is a different root when we talk about central Europe because Czechoslovakia was a special case in contrast to Hungary and Poland where communism was a kind of import from Soviet Union.  The Czechs, Slovaks especially, voted for the communist predominantly after the 2nd world war.  Czechoslovakia is the only country where the communist came to power democratically because they won elections after the 2nd world war and so it’s in Czechoslovakia to some respects specific in contrast to some countries I deliberately mentioned like Poland and Hungary where it was an import of Soldiers with an army etc,

The popularity of communism as an idea in the post war time was predominantly rooted in a positive view of  the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia very strongly, with high admiration of Stalin even in the spirit  and the liberating role of the Soviet Union and off course expectations of more just order that wouldn’t bring the big economy crisis etc, so the fact that Czechoslovakia was not exposed to mass violence of the Red Army as in Hungary or Poland was the root of very positive view of Soviet Union and communism in post war especially Czech Society.  I mean they do not have such large, huge hegemony as in Czech lands but as a whole in Czechoslovakia the communists they won the elections so they were very important even in the Democratic time and in February Stalin was pushing somehow now we have to do a turnover etc. and they did it in Feb 1948 they changed the political system towards the Soviet.  Soviet won with a kind of coup d’etat, how it is interpreted till today.  Afterwards Stalin’s model of Socialism was implemented.

The hardest time for the whole of Czechoslovakia came at the end of the 40’s and beginning of the 50’s where short trials and terror came in Czechoslovakia. At the same time we need to take into account even this was not an import from the Soviet Union.  Czechoslovakia was very special in this respect.  Many people such as workers, the people who profited from the regime, supported the terror especially at the beginning when it was not completely clear that the destruction would be such large, there were many people who expected from the Stalin model the betterment of their life and also the safety that the same Imperialist capitalist etc. They would not destroy the very basic, the very existence of the Czech nation.

We have to take into account that the complex of Munich as it is said in the Czech history in Sept 1938, Czechoslovakia through the Munich agreement was taken especially the borderlands were taken to Germany afterwards in March 1939 the German Nazis took the rest which they created a kind of protectorate of Germany and  were almost successful in destroying the very existence of the Czech nation because they closed the University and was visible within the 5yrs that intelligence, if you close Universities and don’t reproduce the elite, you can destroy the Nation.  I mean the Stalinism or the Socialist promise that was mostly understood at that time as kind of national communism as a kind of specific Czechoslovak way to call communism was extremely popular so this was the root of the popularity of the idea of communism in the post war time.  The Czechs do not want to remember that they were the only ones who voted for communism in contrast to Hungarians, Polish, Romanians or East Germans who did not choose this way.”

Marina Gogeanu

Panelák

3-40 1-16 1-15

“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