>Czechs ponder armed anti-communist resistance, but duck bigger issues

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Czech daily Lidové noviny carries an interesting exchange of views on the case of the Mašin brothers, Josef and Ctírad, who (in common with a few other isolated groups) waged a small scale armed resistance against Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in early 1950s before escaping via East Germany to West Berlin in 1953, shooting their way out of trouble in a series of hair’s breadth escapes. A third member of their group, Milan Paumer escaped with them. Others fleeing with them – or associated with them in Czechoslovakia – were captured and executed. There have been various books of varying quality published in Czech, German and English, unravelling the story. An English langauge entry on Wikipedia gives an overview and a website in Czech with various historical resources and documents can be found here.

Sentenced to death in absentia, the Mašins are considered heroes by some and morally ambiguous extremists by others, principally for their ruthlessness: killing a fireman investigating a massive arson attack sabotaging harvested hay; a cashier shot in a robbery to raise funds; and the killing two Czech policemen in raids on police stations for firerms (one was chloroformed and then had this throat cut). The group also shot dead East German soldiers and policemen hunting them in their flight across the GDR. Some German civilians were also killed in the crossfire, probably by the East German police.

Both brothers later emigrated to the USA and served in the US army. They still live in the US and seem have never set foot in post-communist Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. This, however, seems to be more due to a lack of recognition than through concern about their legal position: the third escapee, Milan Paumer, returned to the Czech Republic in 2001 and is active in radical anti-communist politics. It’s hard to find anything much about their exact legal statusas debate is dominated by discussion of their moral and political question. There is a (largely symbolic) 1993 law on the Illegality of the Communist Regime, however, so presumably they face no legal threats.

Indeed, the post-communist Czech right (now including the Greens) have always sought to honour them the Mašin and pass another (again essentially symbolic) law recognising them (and ex-political prisoners of 1950s) as a ‘third resistance’ with a status equivalent to those who fought for Czechoslovak independence during World War 1 and anti-Nazi resistance fighters in WWII. The traditional left and some liberals, however, have always been leery of this. The controversy is now being replayed because of Prime Minister Topolánek’s recent awarding the new (but rather low-ranking) Prime Minister’s medal to the two Mašin brothers and Paumer.

Lidové noviny reports the discovery of supposedly new archive material concerning plans to assassinate Czechoslovakia’s first Communist President Klement Gottwald – stressing the far-reaching political character of their actions. In a later issue Anna Šabatová, the wife of left-wing ex-dissident Petr Uhl, puts the case against recognition: the Mašin brothers are so politically and socially divisive, she claims, they erode any possibility of a shared sense of Czech history, which is vital to the development of democracy. They are neither heroes not villains. Lionizing them sends the wrong message about the kind of values Czechs should build their future society on: killing the innocent in the name of higher political goals is, after all, the moral rationale of people we often term terrorists. Moreover, the police records cited in defence of the far-reaching political character of their resistance are – like many such records of supposed armed plots against communist – totally inreliable. The regime needed to convince the world (and itself) that it faced dangerous armed counter-revolutionaries.

Šabatová’s piece, however, has the result of persuading me that, on balance, Topolánek was probably right. This was partly because I didn’t find her counter-arguments very convincing: phrases like ‘the debate about our past is above all a debate about our future’ trip easily off the pen, but mean little in practice. The notion of a ‘common history’ – of overcoming the divisions of the past through intellectual debate and intellectual accommodation – is deeply rooted one in the thinking of many ex-dissidents thinking. Petr Pithart was perhaps the prime and most eloquent exponent of this view bother before and after 1989. Why should there be a ‘common history?’ Is the essence of democracy not difference? Is the ‘cancerous polarisation of our society’ not just a description of pluralism? Czechs disagree about healthcare reform, the direction of the EU and the electoral system, so why not history? The idea the ‘right’ interpretation of history by intellectuals somehow generating values for the future is also deeply embedded, but frankly TV soap operas, advertising and package holidays probably do more to shape values than polemics in

If, as Czech law says, communist rule was as an illegal totalitarian regime then armed resistance seems hard to discredit morally and politically. Was it so different from the action of Czechoslovak paratroopers sent into the country during the World War II to organize politically important, but militarily insignificant, acts of resistance? Some of them also ended up shooting at the Czech policemen. Leaving aside parallels with anti-Nazi resistance, historical memory of the Hungarian Revolution seems rather oddly able to contemplate secret policeman hanging from lampposts without seeing the episode as essentially morally ambiguous. Most people will accept some degree of brutality, ‘collateral damage’ and moral transgression as regrettable but inevitable if they think, overall, there is legitimate reason to use violence. The worst one can perhaps say is that it armed resistence was clearly futile as a strategy, but then so (viewed at the time) was the peaceful dissident resistance of the 1970s and 80s.

Of course, the inconvenient truth, that not many Czechs outside the confines of the Communist Party want face too directly, is that the ‘if’ at the start of the paragraph is quite a big ‘if’. Hungarians can safely assume that the communist regime lacked social roots. Czechs, embarrassingly and misguidedly, voted the Communists into power in 1946. The heroism and brutality of the Mašins is a good way for all sides to deal with this while simultaneously ducking the question head on. Indeed, it seems to serve as an odd social pyschological safety valve.

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