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Czech History wars: the 'Milan Kundera affair', in which the eponymous Czech novelist was recently accused of denouncing a 'spy' to the security services in 1950, illustrates how the Communist past has become a battlefield for Czech historians of different generations.

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The publication at the end of last year of details from a document alleging that Milan Kundera was an informer made headlines around the world. A young historian, Adam Hradilek, discovered a report of 1950 that alleges that Kundera, the author of international bestsellers such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1982), informed the police of the whereabouts of Miroslav Dvoracek, a Czech courier working for American counterintelligence. Consequently, Dvoracek, was arrested, tortured and spent 14 years in labour camps and prisons. According to the police report, Dvoracek's friend, who sheltered him in her room, told her boyfriend who then told the 21-year-old Kundera.

Kundera, now aged 79 and living in France, denies both the allegations or of ever knowing the protagonists. His defenders argue that the original document has not been corroborated by any other piece of evidence. Nevertheless, if Kundera was indeed the informer he would have had good reason: Kundera could not have known whether the man who told him about the spy was telling the truth or setting a trap for him should he fail to pass on the information. Had he not informed, he could have been accused of collaboration with a spy and been imprisoned himself. Kundera was an ardent Communist during the early 1950s and his alleged act--informing against a Western spy--would have reflected his convictions at the time.

Kundera's supporters accuse those pointing the finger at him of 'egalitarian envy' and of wishing to denigrate the most successful living Czech author. In their opinion, even if the report is true, historians should not publish their results in a popular weekly news magazine, such as Respekt, where Hradilek's findings first sensationally appeared in October 2008.

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Hradilek's supporters reply that there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the incriminating document. The officer who wrote it had no reason to attribute the information to Kundera unless the novelist was the informer. Hradilek's supporters defend the media exposure by arguing that it is the duty of historians not to suppress evidence. Kundera's denials sound hollow to them, especially since a play he published in 1962, The Owner of the Keys, follows a very similar plot to that described in the 1950 police report. Hradilek suggests that, having been expelled from the Communist Party around that time for criticising one of its officials, Kundera may have sought ways to win back its approval.

The 'Kundera affair' illustrates a number of issues that concern the Czech public about the country's recent past: the extent to which totalitarianism was a Soviet import; how complicit were ordinary people in the crimes of the Communist regime?; the location of the centre of power; whether the files of the secret police (Statni Bezpecnost or StB) can be considered reliable, and the role of historians in interpreting them. Also hotly debated is the status of the Institute for the Study of the Totalitarian Regime (ISTR), a government founded organisation responsible for the security files from the Communist era that was established in 2007 and where Adam Hradilek is based.

Much as in West Germany after the Second World War, Czechs fell into voluntary collective amnesia after the collapse of Communism in 1989. As one cartoonist depicted a politician as saying: 'Without mystery about the past, there is no romance.'A popular and convenient historical narrative presented the Czechs as passive victims, first of the Germans and then of the Soviets. The forced expulsion of millions of Sudeten Germans, though enacted by Czechs, was blamed on the decisions of the Allies. The Communist takeover of 1948 was blamed on the Soviets, though it was conducted by Czechs and Slovaks, as were the show trials and the gulags and other repressive measures of the 1950s and the persecution that followed the 1968 Soviet invasion.

The question of what to do with the secret police files and the people named as informers within them has been plaguing politicians since the StB relinquished control over its files six months after the 1989 revolution. Before doing so it had time to destroy a number of them. Yet almost 20 km of shelves of files were left, as well as a directory of operatives. The directory was quickly leaked and has been put online at www.cibulka.com.

Until recently, Czech historians tended to avoid thorny issues about the Communist past. In 1990, Vilem Precan, a reformed Communist (i.e. a supporter of the liberal reform policies associated with Alexander Dubcek and the 1968 Prague Spring, a direction opposed by orthodox Communists) and a historian of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, founded the Institute for Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Science. After 1968 Precan had emigrated and founded an archive of Czech dissident literature in Germany. However, the 1968 generation of historians would not confront embarrassing questions about the past--in effect the period of their youth. Instead they have tended to deal with politically sensitive periods by avoiding controversy.

As in West Germany during the 1960s, once a new generation of historians came of age, they began to ask the questions that their parents' generation had avoided. The current debate about the Czech past is conducted between historians who are about 30 years old who want to take a more methodologically innovative approach and for whom Communism is a childhood memory.

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is run by a board of directors directly appointed by parliament, independent of the Czech higher education and research system. It has been provided with ample resources and has more than 200 employees headed by Pavel acek, a former student leader in the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The institute was put in charge of all the StB files from the Communist era except those dealing with foreign espionage. A separate unit of historians within the institute conducts research about the totalitarian periods 1938-45 and 1948-89.

Since 2007 the archives have been open to the public. Anybody who fills in a form, promising not to 'misuse' information, can gain access to anyone's file. Apart from serving the public, the main task of the archivists is to digitise the files and create an index. The StB deposited copies of files or parts of files within other files: it may still be possible to reconstruct some of the lost files by digitising the copies.

Critics of the new archival policy and ISTR warn against the possible use of the files for political reasons--to discredit public figures whose names surface within them as secret police agents or collaborators. They claim that Communist control was never total and that, especially during the 1980s, the regime was losing control over the secret police and also losing its grasp on reality so the files cannot be trusted.

Defenders of the ISTR respond that journalistic exposures create an open discussion of what some would prefer to forget. They allege that criticism is in part fuelled by envy of the resources and salaries at the institute. Historians like Vojtech Ripka, the ISTR's director of documentation, maintain that the Communist regime was in control until the end and that the secret police provided the regime with reliable information.

Ripka would like Czech historiography to examine the roots of Communism in the country, to ask whether the 1948 Communist coup and the establishment of the totalitarian regime that followed constitute a rupture in Czech history, or whether what happened can be seen as part of a continuous narrative. How popular was Communism? Kundera, for example, wrote that the Communists were the better, more intelligent and idealistic half of Czech society. Yet thousands of Czechs participated in armed resistance to the Communist takeover; today, they are hardly remembered. Ripka conceives the Kundera affair in the context of the establishment of Communism in the 1950s.

Martin Simecka, the chief editor of Respekt, justified publication of Hradilek's article on Kundera as a contribution to understanding how ordinary Czechs participated in the establishment of totalitarianism, rather than being passive victims of external occupation. Simecka's father, Milan, was, like Kundera, an orthodox Communist in the 1950s, turned reformed Communist in the 1960s, and a leading dissident and political prisoner in the 1970s and 1980s.

Research projects currently pursued at the ISTR include mapping the historical evolution of the bureaucratic structures of the secret police, documenting the 242 prisoners who were sentenced and executed during the Communist era and the thousands of prisoners who were executed without trial, and investigating the use made by the StB of the archives of the Nazi secret police after 1945. Work is also being done to document the history of the anti-Communist resistance and the personnel of the Czech Interior Ministry.

Michal Kopecek, a young historian from the Contemporary History Institute, presents an alternative approach. Kopecek has just finished a book on the political language of reformed Communism in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, tracing its development back to the late 1950s, following the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech that created a crisis for orthodox Marxists who had to 'reinvent the meaning of revolution'.

Kopecek considers the archives of the secret police a reliable source for social history, offering a good source for statistical generalisations about membership in the secret police in different eras, the characteristics of informers and victims and the practices of the police, informers and dissidents. However, in individual cases he says the files can be wrong or misleading. He says he would not have published anything about Kundera on the basis of a single document without further corroboration. He agrees with the open archives policy but believes that more work needs to be based on other archives, such as those of various state ministries, the Communist party, and samizdat literature (the clandestine copying and distribution of government-suppressed literature in Soviet-bloc countries).

Given the scarcity of resources, Kopecek believes the project of digitising the files is not cost effective. In his opinion, the aim of the project is not scholarly, but political. He criticises the Czech state for supporting a moralising trawl for heroes and villains rather than serious research into social and intellectual history. He also thinks that the educational aspect of the ISTR--an attempt to forge a single narrative of national memory and to promote this in schools and in public by mounting exhibitions--is counter-productive: in his view any narrative that is imposed from above, by the state, is bound to be resisted, while the concentration of research on the repressive apparatus produces a partial view of the history of totalitarianism. He foresees fascinating topics for future research: a social history of the Communist party and its changing demographics; a history of everyday Stalinism, with an emphasis on the survival strategies of ordinary people; a critical history of dissent beyond heroic memoirs. A history of Czechoslovak foreign policy would not be identical to that of the Soviet masters because there were many places in the Third World that the Soviets did not want to touch where Czechoslovakia was free to develop its own policies.

The examples of European historiographies in post-totalitarian countries such as Germany and (Vichy) France suggest that the current debates in the Czech Republic are likely to last for decades. The young historians who will write the historiography of the totalitarian period are faced with the challenge of understanding this era and then conveying their understanding to readers, some of whom will have had first hand experience. This leads to a discrepancy. What was it like to live in a society where everybody was a potential informer? How did people survive a police state? No experience of democracy, no matter how corrupt, can compare with living under a totalitarian regime. After understanding, there is evaluation. If there is one thing that current Czech historiography can teach us, it is that to understand is not to forgive.

Aviezer Tucker is the author of The Philosophy and the Politics of Czech Dissidence (University of Pittsburgh, 2000) and Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (CUP, 2004).
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Author:Tucker, Aviezer
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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