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Post-1989 publishing on previously suppressed topics: trends in Czech contemporary history, with reference to Poland.

In January 1995, an extensive feature article in the New York Times provided a rare glimpse--rare from the perspective of American mass media, at least--into the process of rebuilding the historians' guild in post-communist Poland. Interviews with leading contemporary historians at the universities of Warsaw and Wroclaw, and with scholars at the Institute of Political Studies and the Jewish Historical Institute, underscored the massive rediscovery and rewriting of history that Poland was already undertaking to rectify the distorted historical record that had been dictated by decades of communist ideological control and obeisance to Moscow. The article described a profession whose most talented senior representatives had adapted to these restrictions more or less productively (for example, by opting to specialize in older, uncontroversial historical periods and topics), while lesser lights had towed the uninspiring and false dogmatic line dictated from the center. The most problematic specialization of all, of course, was contemporary history. As one of the scholars interviewed for the article, a Warsaw University professor, stated, "No history was free, but in contemporary history there was direct party interference. Either pure and simple lies or pure and simple silence." (1) Looking to current and future prospects, another historian optimistically pointed to the profile of post-1989 graduate students in history and professed to be elated with the quality of their research: "They're really, really honest in methodology, use of sources and objectivity. One can say that the history of postwar Poland began just now, like a newly plowed field." (2)

On the negative side, some of the author's interviewees noted a tendency even in post-1989 Polish historiography to exchange the old communist dogma for a new nationalist one, emphasizing a view of Poland as the homeland of ethnic Poles, with little attention given to past Polish-Jewish, Polish-German, Polish-Lithuanian, and other important ethnic interrelations. And, after a few intense years when books shedding new light on recent history had been all the rage, by 1995 "that appetite [seemed] satisfied ... and Polish historians and other intellectuals say that the struggle to make a living or take advantage of new economic opportunities has crowded out most other interests." (3)

The rewriting of postwar East Central European history has been a fascinating and complex process and one that has understandably occupied Slavic studies librarians engaged in developing East Central European studies collections since 1989. "Filling in the blank pages" of a previously ideologized and suppressed history has been a priority for our academic programs in East Central European history, which have themselves made some significant contributions to the grand projects of excavating the past that are being led by the historical professions in the metropolitan and provincial centers of Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Prague, Brno, Ceske Budejovice, and elsewhere. While this author is not a historian, but a Slavic studies generalist happily specializing (or rather, generalizing) in resource development for East Central European history as well as a number of other disciplines, throughout the past five years he has often wondered how thorough a job our libraries were doing. Were we capturing most of the material coming out on these subjects? And what, exactly, did the process of excavating East Central Europe's suppressed past consist of? Would it be finite or interminable? Would the once-lost Knossoses and Troys of post-1945 East Central Europe eventually be fully exhumed and exposed to objective view or would the process become messier than that, more piecemeal, subject to controversy, and never wholly finished? What would the publishing arc of this trend look like over time? Would the volume of material constantly grow, in step with the burgeoning publishing industries of East Central Europe through the 1990s and into the new century? (4) Or would it peak at some point, and then taper off, leaving us with the task of gleaning a few residual gems, while we could safely ignore the epigonal or derivative chaff? For comparisons sake, the author would sometimes try to imagine the impact on the history profession in the United States had our own history from 1945 to 1989 been subject to similar strictures--if, all that time, we had learned next to nothing of any substance about the McCarthy hearings, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam escalation and war, the struggles for civil rights, the free speech movement, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and so on. Imagining this, one could see not hundreds but thousands of publications flying at libraries when the floodgates of 1989 finally opened, with libraries desperately rushing to intercept as many of them as possible.

This piece presents some initial findings from an ongoing attempt to map trends that may exist in Czech and Polish publishing on historical topics pertaining to the communist period, or on communist suppressed pre-1945 historical topics. At the same time, it tries to ascertain the extent of coverage of those materials in the collections of North American libraries. The author has intentionally chosen Poland and the Czech Republic as subjects of study. These two countries share enough commonalities, in terms of their experiences during the communist period and their post-1989 circumstances, that comparisons between them may be useful. The author has assumed that a comparison of publishing on these topics in the Czech Republic and Croatia, for instance, would be hugely inapposite. Not only were these two countries subject to vastly different types of communist regimes from 1945 to 1989, but their post-1989 histories have also been vastly different. For most of the 1990s, Croatia was preoccupied with asserting its own national identity in the face of a real external threat to its survival. Little time or support appears to have been left for ruminations on what must have seemed, by comparison, an irrelevant past. It would be a long time yet before most constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia would be able to see their own history in anything other than the light of victimization and suppression of national selfhood by a remote centralized government in Belgrade.

But back to the Czech Republic and Poland. Aside from the fundamental affinities of geography, interwar statehood, mandatory membership in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA, or more colloquially Comecon) and the Warsaw Pact, and a post-1989 experience of peaceful economic and political transition, significant differences also remain in their respective historical experience that may be reflected in their patterns of publication on these historical subjects. Precisely the Warsaw Pact, that two-edged sword grasped by seven hands but wielded by one, would have been one primary cause of major differences. Its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which put an end to the process of liberalization known as the Prague Spring, ushered in twenty-one long years of so-called "normalization," a period of political conformism unsurpassed in post-1956 East Central Europe, during which the regime quashed any semblance of an objective and independent historical profession with contacts to the outside scholarly world. The most talented Czech historians either left the country for the West or retreated into internal exile, with either hacks or, at best, resigned conformists assuming the leading posts at universities and within the Academy of Sciences. The decimation and isolation of the profession (travel abroad became rare for Czech historians, and few foreign historians were invited to visit) led to its steady parochialization, with exclusive emphasis placed on Czech-focused approaches that lauded the all-present tutelage of the Soviet Union. Exposure to innovations in history as practiced worldwide was all but non-existents. (5)

By the time of the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution in 1989, the few remaining serious historians still practicing their profession had retreated to jobs in inconspicuous provincial museums and archives, where the government permitted them to conduct and publish serious research, and even to found somewhat independent history journals, provided their subjects lay in the distant and unthreatening past. The historical establishment, by contrast, emerged as a hollow man stuffed with communist dogma. The challenge of 1989 and 1990 lay in reconstructing a functioning historical profession out of the disparate and incompatible elements at hand: the dissident historians who had retreated to the provinces to practice, other dissidents who had been driven out of history altogether and had spent the last twenty-one years as electricians or plumbers, the conformist historians who had inhabited the "gray zone" of the official establishment, and the immediate post-1968 emigres, some of whom had been practicing history abroad. Alongside these senior representatives of the profession, a younger generation of historians who had studied in the final years of Czechoslovak communism, the first cohort since 1968 to be trained in solid historical methods, stood ready to graduate and begin their careers. While the will was there to rebuild, the way in the form of government support for academic infrastructure evaporated along with the communist Milos Jakes regime and the Berlin Wall.

By contrast, Poland fared remarkably better during this period as far as the openness of its historical profession to world currents and state support for its most talented historians to conduct research on non-controversial topics was concerned. The unofficial list of taboo topics reached far back into history and included: 1) research on Russia, the partitions of Poland, and the USSR; 2) the 1920 Russo-Polish War; 3) the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; 4) the Katyxi Forest Massacre; 5) the post-1939 and post-1945 Sovietization of Polish territories occupied by the Soviet Union; 6) Polish exiles in Siberia; 7) the history of the former Polish Eastern Territories (the Kresy Wschodnie); 8) Jozef Pilsudski; and 9) the history of interwar Poland. (6) Any treatments of post-1945 Poland usually received heavy ideological scrutiny. As a result, most work about communist Poland avoided political history and retreated to the less contested and actually more methodologically innovative fields of social or economic history. As one historian who lived through the period has noted, "Scholarly contacts of mid- and younger-generation historians with France, Great Britain, the USA, and later the Federal Republic of Germany were extensive in the years 1956 to 1989. Some spent years [doing research] in archives or even universities of the non-Soviet world." (7) At home, the historical profession overall flourished with ample support from the state for research institutes, academic departments, and publications. The Polish Academy's Institute of History and its Institute for the History of Material Culture, along with numerous historical institutes attached to regional universities, had provided fertile ground for the application of innovative methods (such as social history) yielding abundant publications. As Borejsza notes, "The overwhelming abundance of worthwhile publications that appeared before 1989 and were peculiar to Polish historical scholarship was also responsible for the fact that, while 1989 and 1990 were a turning point with respect to democratic values, it proved to be a far less radical turn than in many other [formerly East bloc] countries." (8)

From a material standpoint, however, the years 1989 and 1990 were no less of a shock to Polish history, as a profession, than they had been to Czech history. Primarily due to government rescissions, both establishments underwent significant restructuring. In Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, the state drastically reduced its support for the Academy of Sciences and its panoply of specialized institutes (including the Historical Institute), turning them mainly into centers for publishing the long-established handful of leading journals in their respective fields. On the other hand, the government expanded the Czech regional university network threefold, with new universities established in Ceske Budejovice, Pilsen, Usti nad Labem, Pardubice, Ostrava, and Opava, in addition to the three long-established universities in Prague, Brno, and Olomouc. Of these new universities, three with aspiring departments of history began to develop into significant publishing centers (Ceske Budejovice, Pilsen, and Usti nad Labem). All together, the demand for new, qualified historians for these six new universities far exceeded the available supply, with the quality of the new hires at the three less competitive institutions suffering. Within the Academy, a new Institute of Contemporary History was established, separate from the Historical Institute, led and staffed mainly by dissident, younger, and emigre historians. In 1993, it published the first issue of its flagship quarterly under the title Soudobe dejiny (Contemporary History).

In terms of actual publishing on historical topics, the early through mid-1990s brought the publication, at last, of a large number of previously unpublishable major works written and accumulated during the years of "normalization." In this first flush of eagerness to redress the distortions of the recent past, publishers literally could not lay hands on enough new material to meet their production goals. The younger and middle generations of historians remained primarily in their apprenticeship, and understandably so, given their stunted development. While they produced a fair number of articles, many of them appearing in Soudobe dejiny, their research base had not yet grown sufficient to support major, synthesizing analyses of the recent past. Particularly problematic was the as yet unrealized fate of the middle generation. As late as 1997, one Czech observer noted that, "It remains to be seen whether these historians will publish work of importance equal to that of the preceding generation [i.e., the one that had published its previously suppressed work in the early 1990s]." (9) This is not to say, however, that the middle generation did not find a way to make itself useful during the early transition years:
 Their great achievement ... [was] that immediately after the fall
 of communism they devoted a great deal of attention to
 developing new textbooks ... for all levels of school. This
 allowed ... high schools especially, but also elementary schools,
 to overcome outdated pseudo-Marxist schemes and to begin
 teaching history in a more modern and appealing way. (10)

If, amid these attempts to catch up with international standards in historical scholarship, Czech scholarship is generally perceived to have fallen short in any way (aside from the now evident logistical challenges of rebuilding a solid cohort of historians), it is in failing, so far, to break out of the romantic mold of national history as the history of the struggles of the Czech ethnos. The first notable public instance of this came in response to the publication in 1991 of the massive volume The Czechs in the History of the Modern Age, 1848-1939, authored by a group of three former dissident historians collectively known as Podiven. (11) Podiven s self-critical view of Czech history was widely taken amiss by Czech readers, who read their assertion that "we are all guilty, petty, and parochial" with respect to the recent past as a wholesale accusation of the common man for the disaster of 1945-89. (12) The tendency to react defensively and negatively to such uncomfortable, self-examining exercises has doubtless contributed to the large volume of published popular history that romanticizes the stolid heroism of the Czechs. Poland appears to have been no more immune to this tendency, which one historian described as resulting from a "politically motivated drift in the writing of history away from individualistic moral dissidence toward national loyalty," with narrowly national and religious elements depicted as the main forces fighting for Poland's freedom. (13)

In any case, through most of the 1990s, leading historians in both countries agreed that among the blind spots of Czech and Polish history demanding attention, the role of ethnic minorities and the interaction of those minorities with the Czech or Polish majorities remained an especially deserving and under-researched, if sensitive and often painful, subject area. (14) As recently as 1999, a German observer at the Eighth Congress of Czech Historians (only the second such congress since the 1989 Velvet Revolution) commented on the absence from the conference program of papers on these topics. She provided some perceptive insights into the dysfunctions still hampering the Czech historical profession a full decade after the revolution. (15) This German visitor noted that, in keeping with Czech society's determination after 1989 to maintain harmony at all costs by avoiding confrontations with the former communist nomenklatura, ex-communists still held many key positions of authority and power in the historical profession. Indeed, the conference keynote speaker aimed to soothe his uncomfortably diverse audience with the reassurance that all generations of Czech historians had done good and important work, both before and since the 1989 revolution. The profound generational and ideological conflict that the speaker was trying to resolve with these words, the observer noted, was at the heart of at least two highly contentious issues among Czech historians. The first of these issues was the division between historians whose work continued to be driven by the ethnic Czech nationalist agenda first established in the ninteenth century by Frantisek Palacky, on the one hand, and historians attempting to transcend that nationalist paradigm, on the other. The second major point of contention was a non-transparent power structure within the history profession that continued to favor both mediocrity and the Czech nationalist school in its choice of fellowship and grant awardees. The very profile of the papers presented at the congress, the observer remarked, tended to validate this bias toward traditional, nation-focused historiography; Czech history--focused on Czech ethnic communities, at that--dominated to the virtual exclusion of the larger East Central European historical context.

That the outside observer sharing these impressions was German poses an irony that few traditionalists among Czech historians would fail to note. The advocates of historical traditionalism at the Eighth Congress were, in large part, reacting to what they described as a recent campaign of vilification in the German press by German historians (many of them, supposedly, originally from the Sudetenland) critical of the Czechoslovak government's post-1945 expulsion of Germans from the Sudetenland. Thus, the broadening of Czech history into its European context advocated by younger historians was perceived by their elders as a fifth-column attempt at re-Germanization by other means.

A full two years later, writing in Soudobe dejiny in 2001, a prominent Czech historiographer echoed the call of progressives at the Eighth Congress to innovate and broaden the practice of Czech history by framing it within the larger European context and transcending the traditional fixation on the history of the Czech ethnos. (16) But this author's main proposal was a broad research project to chart, systematically and in detail, the Czech historical profession during the communist period--a multi-phased study involving multiple researchers in a kind of disciplinary house-cleaning, the results of which would make current and future historians more conscious of the legacies still hampering the profession in the early years of the new century. The new director of the Institute of Contemporary History most clearly articulated some of the concrete aims of this project by echoing widespread frustration at lax Czech lustration laws. He predicted that, among other things, it would help "to combat the widespread notion that, apart from dissidents and informers, Czechoslovak society was otherwise homogeneous; that there was no moral difference between the average citizen and the dean or chair of the Communist Party committee of the history department." (17)

The next year, in 2002, the Institute of Contemporary History's director outlined a program for moving contemporary Czech history from its initial phase, which he characterized as focused on the actions of the rulers and the direct opponents of the rulers (i.e., political history focused on the Communist party apparatus, on the one hand, and Czech dissidents, on the other). The next, more mature phase to which he pointed would shift attention toward society at large, and its various components, in an effort to create a more nuanced picture of life under communist rule that included the study of everyday life, mentalities, prosopography, intellectual history, and detailed topics such as the histories of specific segments of society, organizations, and geographic regions. (18) With the Ministry of the Interior police archives finally opened in 2002, a vast, crucial, and previously untapped resource was now available to make this project possible.

As data sources for identifying trends in Czech and Polish publishing output on historical subjects in the 1990s and 2000s, the author has used the Czech National Bibliography online and initially at tempted to use the Polish Bibliographic Guide (Przewodnik bibliograficzny) online. So far, however, the relatively superficial level of subject cataloging used in the Polish database has made it difficult if not impossible to extract reliable figures of books published each year on specific historical topics. For the time being, the author has instead drawn data for books published in Poland from the OCLC WorldCat database. Clearly, OCLC as a primarily North American union catalog is incommensurate in scope with a national bibliography. Still, even if it is incapable of providing absolute totals for national publishing output on a given subject, it has made it possible to construct approximate trends in publishing over time.

First of all, there is a dramatic difference between the Czech Republic and Poland as far as each country's twelve- to fourteen-year growth curve for total book output is concerned. By 2001, total Czech monograph output per year--in a country of some ten million people--exceeded 15,000 titles. In Poland, with a population of over thirty-eight million, it was slightly over 20,000. To reach those numbers, in the course of twelve years Czech output increased more than threefold, while Polish publishing output increased less than two-fold. The proportion of that total consisting of publications in history appears to be significantly larger for Poland than for the Czech Republic.

Tables 3 through 6 and 9 through 12 depict the total annual output of books over fifteen or sixteen years on various post-1945 historical topics in the Czech Republic (blue) and Poland (red), respectively. The pattern suggested by these charts for the Czech Republic is of a modest, if not sluggish output at the beginning of the period, followed by a slump to zero or near zero around 1994, and then a marked and steady increase which reaches its high point in 2001 or 2002 and is followed by a mild decline back to immediately pre-2001 levels. Tables 7 and 8 combine figures for total book output in the Czech Republic on two rather specialized, post-1945 historical topics (shown in blue) with figures for the total number of those titles held collectively by libraries in North America (in yellow). The figures shown in yellow are derived from OCLC searches based on Library of Congress subject headings equivalent to the Czech subject headings underlying the tallies for the Czech National Bibliography (CNB). Several instances of North American values higher than total book output values point to a methodological flaw that can be corrected by searching specific CNB search results title by title in OCLC. Whichever method is used, however, the ratio of titles held in North America to titles published is surprisingly low (ranging between 33% and 60%) and bears continued attention.

The pattern suggested by tables 9 through 12 for Poland is of a relatively stable but nevertheless changing market which begins the period strong, experiences an amorphous, mild slump in the early to mid-1990s, and then ascends to a peak around 2000 or 2001, followed by a general, mild tapering off. Since, however, this data is derived from a cataloging utility rather than a national bibliography, the lower figures for more recent years (2002-04) may be more a reflection of materials kept in uncataloged backlogs, or simply not yet acquired, than titles not published. For some specialized topics (e.g., deportations from Poland-whether of Poles to Siberia, or of Germans to Germany; the Polish Eastern Territories; and the 1920 Russo-Polish War), these patterns of general growth are disrupted or even reversed. They reflect the fact that many earlier emigre publications saw their first release in Poland during these years, and that significant numbers of completed but hitherto unpublishable manuscripts were rushed into print in the early transitional years in hurried attempts to satisfy public interest in these topics immediately after 1989.


So far, the steady rise in the number of publications through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, along with recently articulated proposals for applying new scholarly approaches in a broadly based manner, suggest that the history of the communist period will continue to be a growth industry, both in academia and in publishing. What might now, in the mid-2000s, be hastily interpreted as an ominous down-tick in publishing output, may in fact be just a short-term slump, anticipating a growth period in the next few years that could be even more productive than the few years around the turn of the century. For one, the younger and middle generations of historians in the Czech Republic, as has been shown, are still in the process of maturing and have yet to hit their stride. As the first cohorts of Czech historians to be fully trained in historical methods that for decades were widely accepted throughout the non-communist world, they will have the task of refracting the Czech historical experience through those more contemporary methodological prisms. In addition, the Czech historical record began the transition in greater overall need of repair than that of Poland. The data do suggest that North American Slavic studies librarians would do well to redouble their collective efforts and acquire this important material more comprehensively than they have done till now.

(1) Henry Kamm, "Poland Reawakens to its History as Communism's Mirror Shatters," in New York Times, January 26, 1995: A1.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) For total book output of the Polish and Czech publishing industries during the post-1989 period, see tables 1 and 2 in the appendix to this article.

(5) Jan Kren, "Czech Historical Scholarship at a Turning Point," East European Politics and Societies 6:1 (1992):152-69.

(6) Jerzy Borejsza, "Einige Bemerkungen zur polnischen Zeitgeschichtshistoriographie nach 1989," Osterreichische Osthefte 44:1-2 (2002): 247-58.

(7) Ibid., 249.

(8) Ibid., 253.

(9) Jaroslav Panek, "Sodobno cesko zgodovinopisje," Zgodovinski casopis, 51: 1 (1997): 89-98.

(10) Ibid., 95.

(11) Podiven, Cesi v dejinach nove doby, 1848-1939 (Prague: Rozmluvy, 1991); 2nd ed. (Prague: Academia, 2003). Podiven consisted of the dissident historians Petr Pithart, Petr Prihoda, and Milan Otdhal.

(12) Chad Bryant, "Whose Nation?: Czech Dissidents and History Writing from a Post-1989 Perspective," History and Memory 12:1 (2000): 30-64.

(13) Irena Grudzinska Gross, "Post-Communist Resentment, or the Rewriting of Polish History," East European Politics and Societies 6:1 (1992): 141-51.

(14) Kren, "Czech Historical Scholarship at a Turning Point," 168.

(15) Christiane Brenner, "VIII. Kongress der Tschechischen Historiker," Bohemia 40 (1999): 507-10.

(16) Martin Nodl, "Mozne pristupy ke studiu dejin ceske historicke vedy v letech 1945-2000," Soudobe dejiny 8:1 (2001): 9-22.

(17) Oldrich Tuma, "Legitimizacni funkce ceske historiografie pred rokem 1989 a po nem," Soudobe dejiny 8:1 (2001):109-14.

(18) Oldrich Tuma, "Czech Historiography of Contemporary History, 1945-1989," Historica 9 (2002):125-54.

(19) All OCLC-and Czech National Bibliography-derived values are based on database searches conducted in October 2005.
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Author:Biggins, Michael
Publication:Indiana Slavic Studies
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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