>View from a castle

Two days later I find myself, still somewhat to my surprise at a conference on Society, History and Politics organized by Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History at the chateau-cum-conference centre of the Academy of Sciences in Liblice.

The chateau is lovely, almost embarassingly so, and perhaps not something the Academy will want to draw attention to as it tries to fight off swingeing cuts in its budget driven partly by post credit crunch austerity and partly by the shifting balance of power in Czech higher education. The universities want to get their hands on more of the research spending, hinting very sotto voce that the Academy is an old-style centralized monopoly based on the Soviet model and needs shaking up.

I am something of fish out of water, although the difference in approach are fascinating: dense detailed investigation of localities and time periods without the usual ‘model fitting’ preoccupations of most political science conferences or the concern with big scale (national, European) institutions. The papers (well not mine obviously) are of almost uniformly high quality and perhaps because the Czech language medium forces me to concentrate more, I realise that I learned a lot.

The central focus is much more on 1989 than the Brno conference, but there a still new insights on offer . The mass spontaneity of popular mobilization during the Velvet Revolution was more a subjective experience of surprise and togetherness than a reality; the mass flyers and leaflets produced during the early weeks of the revolution in the Czech lands and Slovakia, when caredully and painstakingly analyzed reveal – outside the more radical and anti-communist capital cities – a desire for a kind of monitory popular democracy firmly rooted in social(ist) property relationships.

Interestingly, Czech contemporary historians’ research interests also bleed into political science and sociology. There are papers on the not-in-fact-quite-so-successful success story of Roma integration in Český Krumlov and Czech political parties after 1989 and their historic identities, although frustratingly I miss the one the role of Social Democrat exiles who re-founded the Czech Social Demoratic party in 1989. Not only would the pre-history of debates about what social democracy means in post-communist CEE be very interesting to know, but clearly the Big Orange Machine currently Czech politics upside down by giving up on early elections might not exist if things had turned out differently in 1989/90.

It would be an interesting piece of academic alchemy if political science and historical methods could really be harnessed together, but it rarely seems to happen, either in the Czech context or generally. Jason Wittenburg’s book on Hungary is the only major work of this kind that really comes to mind. All too ofte, political scientists dabble well intentionedly in historical research and historians in contemporary political processes without quite coming up with anything new.

I pack my bag and switch on the telly to catch the latest political news, but there’s only a discussion of whether Elton John and David Furnish should be allowed to adopt a Ukrainian orphan. “Adoption by two high-quality homosexuals (dva kvalitní homosexuálové) is preferable to life in an Ukrainian institutions”, a spokeswomen for Czech Children’s fund enlightenedly tells viewers. Then we are on the sports news. Slavia Prague play well, but they are outclassed at every turn and eventually beaten by Genoa.

I walk outside with my suitcase to sit and read and soaking the sun and the atmosphere. Then I hitch a lift with the Goethe Institute’s minibus to the rather less lovely surroundings of Holešovice station.

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