>Czech Republic: Same ole history (not ) repeating itself?


I shouldn’t be reading about Czech politics, should I? But, as ever, I couldn’t turn down the offer of free review copy and a long deadline from a journal, so I have been doing precisely that. The book in question is Kapitoly z dějin české demokracie po roce 1989 (Prague, Paseka, 2008) edited by Adéla Gjuričová and Michal Kopeček of Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History (USD). This collection brings together by younger researcher associated with the USD and various Western specialists on Czech politics and society. The idea of publishing the collection is to move the sub-discipline of ‘contemporary history’ beyond its original German and East European rationale as a means of ‘coming to terms’ with the totalitarian past toward. More recent political events in the Czech Republic need unravelling using a historian’s skills the editors argue.

The book divides into three loose thematic sections: the origins of the post-1989 Czech political system; Czech culture’s reflection of post-communist transformation; and the place the Czech experience into a broader Central European region. Despite its title, which loosely translates as Aspects of Czech Democracy After 1989 the book’s unifying theme is less democracy than the Czech national identity, the Czech transition from communism and the way the historical past has impinged upon contemporary politics and society.

The collection begins with a discussion of Václav Havel’s career between 1969 and 1992 by Jiří Suk. As author of a magisterial prize-winning history of the Velvet Revolution, Suk ably documents the decline and fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime, the emergence of the Civic Forum movement in November 1989 and the broader transitional power structures of 1980-90; and the new president’s place within them. However, like many similar English language treatments of Havel, Suk’s attempt to use the playwright-president as an emblematic figure encapsulating recent Czech political history is not wholly successful. Ultimately, his essay offers a rather familiar account which reduces the rich palette of anti-political, pre-political and political positions held by Havel and other dissidents to intellectual blueprint for the Civic Forum movement and catch-all explanation of their failure in political office after 1989. The omission of Havel’s record as President of the independent Czech Republic – his eloquent, but quixotic promotion of civil society in 1990s; his diagnosis Czech society’s ‘foul mood’; the condemnation on ‘mafia capitalism’; the Rudolfinum speech blasting the Klaus government in 1997 – also give the essay an oddly partial feel.

Magdalena Hadjiisky’s exploration of the emergence of the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) from disintegration of the Forum movement in 1990-1 offers more original insights. In her case studies of provincial Civic Forum organizations in Brno and Ostrava, she show that, in addition to the demands of a ‘right-wing’ coalition of grassroots anti-communists, frustrated Forum officials and ordinary Czechs sceptical of ex-dissidents claims to leadership on the basis of dissident activism in 1970s and 1980s, spontaneous pressures for more hierarchical party-like structures also existed. The question has to be asked, however, just when Dr Hadjiisky is going to publish her excellent research on Civic Forum – scattered in various articles and papers in Czech, English and French and a several years old doctoral theses. Are French academic publishers really so obtuse?

Similar tensions are also identified by Deanna Colley in her study of the Czech student movement in 1989-80. However, Czech students’ organizations suffered the additional problem of reconciling their role as an interest group with loftier images of themselves as ‘guarantors of the Revolution’. As James Krapfl notes in his novel essay relating rival political narratives of revolution of 1989-90 to archetypical literary genres shows, such mythologization was ubiquitous in the politics of the time.

Perhaps the most original element in the book is its discussion of reactions to post-communist transformation in Czech cinema, fiction, and popular culture after 1989. Interestingly, these are generally at odds with prevalent mainstream political discourses of essentially successful reform process. Despite the diversity of authors and genres in Czech literature since the fall of communism, Alena Fialová finds several common motifs in their treatment of political and social change: the Revolution of November 1989 as a time of political innocence, altruism and idealism, but it is invariably followed by fictional protagonists’ disappointment. The ‘turning of coats’ by former communists, who emerge as the real winners of the transformation process in everyday life, is another a stock theme. Works of pulp fiction, perhaps unsurprisingly, take such populist constructions to extremes, depicting both ex-dissidents and ex-communists as creatures of corrupt and shady political system with their roots in the Communist period. More literary authors, by contrast, stress the corrupting effect of money, power and consumerism and the moral and ethical dilemmas that flow from these.

Petra Dominková finds a similar preoccupation with the negative or ambiguous impacts of transformation in Czech cinema after 1989. Many Czech films take as their protagonists archetypical ‘Little Czechs’, whose provincialism and lack of sophistication leaves them struggling (sometimes comically) to cope with the opening of Czech society to the wider world and the demands of the market economy. Germans and Western foreigners are also generally presented as somewhat overbearing and unwelcome outsiders Despite some recent films exploring the harsh experiences of Czech Roma, minority groups are often depicted either stereotypically or not at all. Martin Franc’s study of ‘Ostalgia’ in the Czech Republic seeks to extend this perspective by examining how attitudes to the former regime are refracted through popular culture and patterns of consumption. However, despite an engaging discussion of the re-emergence of ‘normalization’ era detective series and soap operas, 80s pop music and utilitarian ex-socialists brands on Czech TVs and supermarkets, in practice, it seems difficult to distinguish a specific post-communist Ostalgia from nostalgia generally or work out where Ostalgia or commercial imperatives for cheap mass market TV.

Only three essays discuss contemporary aspects of Czech politics after the Velvet Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Hana Havelkova’s chapter on Czech feminism after 1989 gives an interesting overview of women’s organizations in the Czech Republic and provocatively argues that the much maligned Union of Women (SŽ), which dates from the communist period, has in fact genuine roots in small town and rural Czech society. The Communists, she notes, amalgamated but then rapidly dismantled Czechoslovakia’s once extensive mass women’s organizations after taking power in 1948. SŽ, she claims, was created as a result of societal and intellectual pressures in the Prague Spring. Sadly, however, we don’t hear much more of this as the chapter is rapidly sidetracked by a terminological discussion about whether women’s and feminist organizations are or are not a social movement. Vladimír Handl examines the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), an electorally important, if isolated, force in Czech politics and a highly unusual example in Central Europe of an orthodox communist party with mass support. Handl‘s presentation of his own reseach and a effective and thorough synthesis of Czech, English and German literatures, skillfully tracks the party‘s development from 1990, rightly pinpointing how EU membership and the gradual shrinkage of its ageing support base represent both a danger and an opportunity for the KSČM. Adéla Gjuričová’s discussion of the centre-right Civic Democratic Party’s turn in late 1990s from Thatcherite neo-liberalism to historic Czech nationalist themes is also empirically rich. However, she is less thorough than Handl and misses opportunities for a wider comparative and/or historical perspective on the party founded by Václav Klaus. Klaus’s reflections on Czech statehood, nationalism and national identity as early 1992-3, as well his more recent writings as President on immigration, multi-culturalism and civic and national cohesion clearly merit examination. ODS’s ‘national turn’ of the late 1990s also needs to be set in comparative context alongside the ‘nationalization’ of liberal forces elsewhere in CEE. The experience of Hungary’s Fidesz is an obvious point of contrast. Looser parallels might also be drawn with earlier episodes in Czech history such the national liberalism of 19th century ‘Young Czechs’.

The issue of ‘liberal nationalism’ is addressed head on by Michal Kopeček, who surveys both dissident and academic writings on liberal nationalism in Central Europe, he argues that, although crosscut by nationalism, liberalism the region was historically stronger than is often assumed. Somewhat surprisingly overlooking the (neo-)liberalism of the Civic Democrats and their efforts to crafts a new form of ‘national liberalism’ he argues that despite the weakness of Czech liberal centrist parties after 1989, dissident historians’ debates of 1970s and 1980s firmly established a liberal nationalist consensus in Czech political life, which draws its strength precisely on the unresolved and conflictual nature of debates on Czech history and identity.

However, he suggests, this consensus was too weak to block legalistic forms of ‘coming to terms with the past’ such as the Czech lustration law, leading to polarized and formulaic public debates on communism and unwelcome attempts by the state to act as guardian of ‘national memory’. The USD is the process of being swallowed up into a new Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and both the intellectual position sketched in this chapter and the introduction’s call for a contemporary history going beyond the study of totalitarian regimes seem a critical response to this.

A somewhat different perspective is offered in the book’s concluding chapter by Jiří Přibáň. Přibáň argues that the law always encapsulates and shape the collective and national memories, which underpin and legitimize both current institutions. Contrasting decisions by Constitutional Courts in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, he argues, that strict doctrines of legal continuity, which block retroactive decommunization laws, in the name of maintaining rule of law may be misconceived. Concepts of retribution are, he notes, an element in most systems of criminal justice. The notion of political discontinuity inherent the notions of 1989 as a democratic revolution, he suggests, can legitimately be accompanied by the principle of legal discontinuity of retroactive decommunization laws intended to enact historical justice and protect democracy.

The parallel theme of neo-liberalism and economic nationalism also emerges in Martin Myant’s discussion of the Czech capitalism after 1989. In the early 1990s politicians across the political spectrum were in thrall to historical stereotypes of the Czech industrial and entrepreneurial tradition. This led both neo-liberals and social democratic visions of distinct ‘Czech capitalism’ with limited foreign ownership. Only as these ideas went out of fashion, as the costs of flawed coupon privatization and asset sales to dubious would-be Czech captains of industry became apparent did a distinct Czech model of capitalism emerge. This, Myant notes, was a complex combination of liberal and social market elements which defied easy comparative classification with roots in the Czech Republic’s fine political balance between left and right.

I am sympathetic to editors’ call for a more professional and thoroughgoing research into more recent Czech political history. Although making great strides recently, Czech political science has occasionally been characterized by certain shallowness of empirical research. The genre of political history and political biography as they exist in the English speaking world seem wholly absent in the Czech Republic. Although his collected works and correspondence have come out, the only full length biography of Václav Havel, for example, is John Keane’s distinctly flawed Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (see Kieran William’s caustic review here).

Kapitoly z dějin české demokracie, however, falls somewhat short of its editors’ ambitions to use contemporary history to break new ground and open up new perspectives in other disciplines. Much of the collection reflects Czech contemporary historians’ well established interests in the Velvet Revolution and the transition from communism. Despite reference to political science literatures, many contributions are essentially rather traditionally constructed pieces of historical writing lacking any real element of interdisciplinary synthesis. The collection succeeds, however, in bringing together a range high quality scholarship in a single, well researched volume, and, as such, deserves to pull in broad Czech-speaking readership interested in current politics and society in the Czech Republic and fed up of the superficial and partisan found in most Czech language books on contemporary politics.

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