Lack of time and lack of expertise means I don’t take more than a passing interest in academic history, but I note with interest the apparent outrage caused by a paper presented by French historian Muriel Blaive at a recent symposium
held in London to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovak and Poland governments in exile Has the Czech Republic fully come to terms with the memory of the Second World War?
The memory in question, the paper says, is the (so far unresearched) extent of Czech collaboration and passivity underNazi occupation and, specifically, with the implementation of the Holocaust. This theme, it is suggested, would violate established national narrative of Czechs as a liberal European nation, who were heroes or (more commonly) victims of a grim totalitarian double-whammy of Nazism and communism, and, in particular, undermine Czech moral credit in debates over post-war treatment and eventual mass ‘transfer’ of the Sudeten Germans.
There is well established set of arguments that (large sections) Czech society bears a certain responsibility for communism – enthusiatically backing the statist national democratic project of the Communist 1945 and falling too readily for reform communist illusions in the 1960s. Indeed, Muriel Blaive’s earlier book (published in different versions in Czech
) added to by suggesting that when Hungarians and Poles were taking to the streets in 1956, Czech society was unreactive not because deep democratic and anti-communist instincts were repressed, but because it was passive, inwardly and bought off by being (relatively speaking) well off. However, any suggestion that the Czechs were anything other victims of Nazism was, perhaps not surprisingly, moc silný kafe
. Another implication, which you might take from the paper (although this is not explicitly given – merely mine) is that the agonised intellectual and historical debates over Czechs and (Sudeten) Germans which go back to the underground samizdat
discussions of 1980s – including the self-searchingly self-critical ones – has obscured the need for one over wider Czech complicity
What should a political scientist make of all this? There is an interesting line of argument in the paper about the conversion and re-use of police and intelligence structures by successive regimes (democratic/Nazi/communist), which could feed interestingly into research on the nature of regime change state, especially given the current strong historical turn in the discipline. After all, wasn’t one of the biggest mistakes the American made in Iraq the decision not to convert Baathist state structures?). And there clearly are some thoughts to be had about history, democractic quality, the partisan use of decommunization, the politicization of academic reseach institutions. At bottom, in a democratic society, there should, be no historical taboos – which in the Czech Republic clearly there still are – and historians clearly have a job to do, and that job includes looking at all the skelteons in all the cupboards. And there is a well rehearsed argument that openness and honestly about the past make for society better able to face up, discuss and solve its current problems.
On the other hand, you wonder quite what the Czech politicians and public are actually supposed to believe about themselves and their past? And especially, what if anything, they should feel positive about? Sure, Czech politics is animated by crude national-democratic myth, but – as the warm bath of nostalgic feel good documentaries about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain currently airing on British television shows – this isn’t exactly unique. Admittedly, revisionist programming seeps uncontroversially into the schedules: watch the whole crop of WWII history and you can learn there was rampant crime and corruption during the Blitz; that British Blitz of German cities later in the war was more savage than than meted out by the Luftwaffe in 1940-1; that the Battle of Britain was won partly due to German incompetence in photo reconnaisance; that our military effort was buttressed by imperialism and racism and so on.
And, it would, of course be nice if British historical memory really wasn’t dominated by the early years of the Second World war: WWI and WWII it is the only bit of modern history that most primary schools touch on, so it is no small wonder we are rapidly eurosceptic and have inflated sense of national importance. On the other hand, the use of academic history for endless repetitive masochistic, self-lacerating national self-criticism which some parts of the Czech intelligentsia delight in seems more likely a recipe for cynicism and anomie, rather than democratic renewal.
Perhaps, realistically, in what Phippe Schmitter once rather nicely termed really Existing Democracies, a safe disconnect between academic and popular history is all you should wish for.
Update: Madelaine Albright’s keynote address to the symposium can be seen in video here. It’s a rather eloquent and well delivered presentation making a well argued – if ultimately not totally convincing – case for traditional view of strong, if naturally imperfect, Czech democratic tradition derailed by geopolitical circumstance. A politician’s rather than a historian’s speech, but then as I say above that has its place.