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

Interview with Ivan Hurnik – perceptions of the communist era in Czech Republic

Could you introduce yourself and then relate us some experiences you had during the communist regime?

My name is Ivan Hurnik, I was born in Czechoslovakia in year 1954, September 22nd. It was really a hard time of communism. I was growing up during the time of communism in the 50s and 60s.

My father was an Army pilot; he was flying on the Mid 15 and one of the Mid15 almost killed him, so he stopped his career as an Army pilot… And processed to work for Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the beginning of his career, as a Foreign Affairs Minister he was working as a diplomatic courier, so he visited all the countries in the world. But at the time of 1986, my father was working in Czechoslovakia embassy. My father took part in the political movement of Prague spring 1968, while he was still a minister. At the end of the spring he was sent to Africa Sudan as a Czechoslovak diplomat, so our family left Czechoslovak on the 25th of July 1968, just one month before the invasion in August. Our family was eight thousand kilometers away from Prague. Of course it was a very big surprise what happened there, we were even affected in Sudan because of the Invasion, we were imprisoned in our house in Kartun, we were guarded by Sudanese police, we were not allowed to go to school, my father was not allowed to go to the embassy for a week.

In 1969 it was exchange of the general secretary of communist party of Czechoslovakia, instead of Alexander Dubcek, Gustav Husak took over and became general secretary. He was very good friend of comrade Brenzhnev in Moscow, Gustav said it was not an invasion, it was an international help. The communist party in the year 1970 made some kind of questioning of other members of the party, and who said during the questioning that it was an inversion, was dismissed from the party. So my father did not say it was an inversion, he only asked, if it was a help, why did the come with tanks? Of course he got a simple answer; he was kicked out of the party in the year 1970, but the main reason why he was kicked out, was that he took part in the political movement of Prague spring 1986.

When he got back from Sudan in May 1971, my father was fired out of the Foreign affairs minister, and he was unemployed for three years, in a socialist country, which was officially impossible. My siblings and I were not allowed to study, travel, or have good jobs, because our father was fired out of the communist party. Just imagine we finished school in Africa, but we were not allowed to finish secondary school in our country.

I did not have a passport for nine years, when I ask for a passport from the foreign police, I was told three times to go to eastern Germany… you can’t travel with an ID card only, which means you can’t travel anywhere else because they had power to say so.

From the beginning, I was working in a company which was called Foreign Trade Corporation. Companies were not allowed to import product directly, they were doing it through foreign trade corporation. I was using English every day at work, so my boss told me to go to the management and ask to take the English exams which will give me 30 crown over my normal wage per month.  30 crowns which is approximately just one dollar more, my salary was 800 crown in the year 1971, and I was just asking for 30 crown over the wage. When I went to the management office, and said to them I want to take the exams for English, since I am using English every day, The asked me do I speak Russian and I said to them no I don’t, they said to me you can’t have 30 crown for just English.

Until the first half of the 1980s there was nothing to buy, let say the tropical fruit, oranges, bananas, melon etc, we usually have them three or four times in a year in a shop, it is not like now where we have them every day, and it was very expensive. Life was completely different.

My experience with communism is not good;[…]

I have a group of friends… we know each other from the 60s, in that group there are two friends which I know each other from the 60s, because we were in elementary school from the first class. We were always going to the pub every Friday, just for drinking, of course… and the boys were studying at the university; we usually talked about politics and other things and also singing forbidden song sometimes… And…Someone heard us and said something to the police and three boys from the group were in prison for six months!!

Later on there was a trial, but the secret police called STB made a little mistake, because during the time of communism, when the police is searching your apartment, the usually have a witness with them it could be anybody. But the police made the search without a witness, so they lost the trial.

Anyway the boys were kicked out of university. Later on one of them immigrated to Austria. Then there was another trial, it was said that the guy who immigrated was at fault. So the others were allowed to study again. It was normal.

In fact if you said political jokes and someone heard it, you will go straight ahead o prison. Also, it was a crime to have one dollar bill in your pocket, it was not allowed to have foreign currency, it was a crime.

In simple terms what does communism mean to you?

Very bad time, and very bad memories, because I was not allowed to travel, but now I can go anywhere I want to, I don’t even know where I have my passport, because I don’t need it. The last time I used it was when I was travelling to Ukraine, but now within Europe I don’t need my passport. I can now say anything I want to say, and of course if I have the money, I can buy anything I want to, But during communism, if I want to buy a car, I will have to have good friends.

During the time of communism everything that was good was only for the members of the party, we can say we had two categories of inhabitants: members of the party and non-members, if you want to have well-paid jobs, your children going to school, and travel around, you have to be in the party, really everything was just for the members of the party.

But life in Czechoslovak was best in all the socialist country, because Czechoslovak was used as a shop window of socialism, because we had boarder with western Germany and lot of people from Germany and Austria were coming here for business purposes. But the life here was best compared to other countries, let’s say in the Soviet Union it was much worst, because in the Soviet Union, everything was under control of the KGB, let’s say you were living in one city and you wanted to travel to the another city which is just 100/150 kilometres away, you will have to ask for a permit to travel around in your own country.

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

How did the communist regime change the landscape in Czechoslovakia? P2

We’ve also asked Dr. Michal Pullman (teacher of contemporary history at the Charles University, faculty of Arts) how did the communist regime change the landscape in Czechoslovakia and this is what he answered:

“[…] there were huge differences in regions… as you see Prague was not destructed, it was neglected very strongly so the houses were in very bad condition and predominantly, […] the new apartments which were built on the very outskirts of the city centre.

The Czech architects, especially Prague architects, wanted to keep Prague as the special city.

Old town Centre

Old town Centre

There were in the 50’s attempts to build new towns completely such as Habichstein or Nova Dubriica in Slovakia to show the Stalinist view of the new world.  These are big extreme positions and then we have something in between… which is for instance typical for many Slovaks cities even Moravian or Czech and Bohemian cities, rather smaller cities where the city settings were in so far neglected that it was easier  to destroy or it was decided to destroy part of the very city centre and to build apartments…  it is the example of Chi Bram, fantastic place which is let’s say 60km of Prague and was half destroyed because no-one wanted to invest into historical and so this way there were huge differences…

This practise that you’re talking about (the destruction of national heritage) was perhaps even more typical in Romania… we can find that in Czechoslovakia, but it was not the regular procedure because even the communists were somehow… even the political representation did have in Czechoslovakia some kind of national heritage…  I mentioned already that communism in Czechoslovakia was very often perceived as a kind of nation communism, so they had some kind of national heritage… I mean the Ceausescu palace(in Romania) […] was not erected cause something valuable would be destroyed and something not very nice from our perspective would be erected… […] Czechoslovakia was much more not divided, there were various approaches, it was not unified and there was much destruction but not as much as Romania.  Excellent examples would be city of Moos that was destroyed completely because of the coal and it was a historical town also it is typical for Czechoslovakia 1974, the main church was saved and moved to about 2km, it was an unbelievable technicality at that time…  but this was very typical for Czechoslovakia… if they destroyed something they compensated,  they saved the main church and this is also the example German town of Moos is completely destroyed and the new Moos is Built of the panels. […] these approaches were different in Czechoslovakia for instance concerning the moss of the new city which was 5km away at the time was not perceived as a consequence of destruction but as an improvement of the quality of life as the new apartments were better than the old ones and of course they saw predominantly the ideology that as far as I know there was no internal protest there was from the side of the intellectuals in Prague but no specific protests against this.

But today if you come to Moss it’s a sad place with huge unemployment with these panel houses that look much worse today but at that time it was perceived as departing from ~Stalinist historicism towards the progressive constructivism in the 60’s and 70’s, so it was always ambivalent… the communist destroyed much not only Moss, other centres of the cities, but if they did it they always tried  to compensate it somehow and at the same time they tried to keep the historic heritage of Prague and of other beautiful cities… not only Czech land but also Slovakia.”

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

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

Czechoslovakia and the similarities to other eastern European communist regimes

Dr. Oldrich Tuma tried to explain to us that sometimes, when you’re trying to make a puzzle at different times, the pieces might work together in different ways.

“During these 40 years the situation changed.

For some periods ( after 56, early 60’s), the situation in Czechoslovakia was very similar to Poland. […] Hungary between 53 and 56, and Eastern Germany had a similarity.

Maybe the most parallel developments were in Czechoslovakia after 1969 and in Germany during the 70’s and 80’s. Similar social… ladder of social economic development and same rigid methods used by the regime to control the society […]. Preferred to send people abroad and send them to prison and things like that…

so I think you would find similar methods and general parts of the picture but it’s not easy to say that this country was the same case as the other country. After all, all the communist counties were simply based on the same communist ideology, one thing and the other thing it’s that all were based on the example of the Soviet Union. So they tried to implement the soviet reality into their countries especially in the 50’s (again with the help or with the assistance of Soviet advisors).  I think different countries had similar rates. There were many reasons why the situations were similar but together there were different phases and periods where there were loosing control and then strictering the control and so on. 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.”

 

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

The Romanian Athenaeum

The Romanian Athenaeum is one of the few pre-communism symbolic buildings of Bucharest which wasn’t modified or demolished during the communist era.

Ateneul_Roman

The building is inspired by ancient Greek temples and it was designed by the French architect Albert Galleron under the scientific research and guidance of Alexandru Odobescu, revised and supplemented by the Romanian specialists Al. Orăscu, Ion Mincu, Ion Socolescu, Grigore Cerkez, Cucu Starostescu.

The circular building made use of the existing foundations of the Grădina Episcopiei which were initially meant to serve as a foundation for the construction of a circus. Downstairs, the impressive marble lobby incorporates 12 Doric columns which support the concert hall. Connecting with the audience and the anexes (offices, rehearsal rooms, cabins for soloists and conductor and so on), there are four monumental spiral staircase of Carrara marble (Baroque type), carried by intermediate floor balconies.

Ateneul_Roman_

Arranged in the form of an old Greco-Roman amphitheatre, the nearly 1,000 seats (three areas downstairs and two circular rows with 52 boxes in the middle with a central lodge) offer a perfect view from any corner and a perfect audition. The sound perfection is due to the huge domes (richly decorated) which “absorb” the instrumental and vocal background of the podium, in order to distribute the reverberation to the auditors, with the full range of harmonics up to the finest timbre and tone colour. It seems that the exceptional acoustic cavity of the Romanian Athenaeum Hall places the building among the most successful constructions of this kind not only in Europe but worldwide.

Its global reputation and significance for Romanians have not gone unnoticed with Ceausescu who decided not to interfere with this marvellous building.

Marina Gogeanu

The Roman Arenas, Bucharest, Romania

When the communists came to power after World War II, they wrote another page in the history of the Arenas. Since 1966, for two years, Roman Arenas entered into a process of restoration and modification, any badge or ornament resembling the monarchy era being overthrown. They had to erase the memory of a glorious past from the minds of the Romanians and make them associate the “Roman Arenas” with the communist era, so they closed the amphitheatre and raised and covered the scene. They poured concrete over grass and built offices for the administrative staff behind the scenes. The porch has been closed to new large glass windows, while the royal box was increased from four rooms to six rooms. The roof of the lodge was also rebuilt, and under its terrace they arranged a room for film screenings.  At the Roman Arenas were held now, folk concerts, theatre performances or movie screenings.

arene

After the Revolution, the arenas have been forgotten and their function of amusement and recreation state was replaced with a more practical function, that of a textile production and storage.

 

Marina Gogeanu