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23 September, 2011  ▪  Bohdan Kopchak

Overcoming Nihilism

Why an American decided to set up a Museum of Communism in the Czech Republic

The Ukrainian Week is continuing a series of articles on how former socialist camp countries and Soviet republics said goodbye to their communist past. The first instalment was about the Museum of Occupation in Georgia, while this one focuses on the Czech Republic.

Why did the Czechs refuse to properly judge the actions of at least a hundred communist government and party leaders, StB (Czech KGB) functionaries, prosecutors and judges who were “breaking” kulaks, bourgeois elements and the clergy in the 1950s and the 1960s and imprisoned dissidents en masse in the next two decades?

THE LUSTRATION DILEMMA

One of the commonly believed but not ultimately proven theories is that Václav Havel, opposition leader and the main negotiator with the communist regime back in 1989, struck a behind-the-scenes deal with the communists: they would completely surrender their political positions in favor of democracy, while the new government would guarantee that there would be no repression against them and no expropriation of their private property. A large body of indirect evidence points to the reality of this agreement. For one thing, in the 21 years since the end of the communist era, only two persons were brought to full account and put behind bars: Miroslav Štěpán, former chief of the Prague city communist party organization, and one old judge, Ludmila Polednová-Brožová, who was involved as the prosecutor in politically motivated trials back in the 1950s. The presence of a certain compromise between the advancing elite and the “old” nomenklatura is further evidenced by the consent of the new government to have Marián Čalfa as the first premier of the non-communist federal government of Czechoslovakia – he had just turned in his party membership card.

In the early 1990s, there was a discussion about whether the Communist Party should be outlawed. Following the revolutionary slogans of late 1989 and early 1990 – “We are not like them!” – there was consensus that despite the communists’ criminal actions, they would not be deprived of the right to continue to exist. Instead, the Communist Party would be reduced to a marginal role in elections. But events followed a different course. In fact, the Communist Party has not been represented in any Czechoslovak or, later, Czech government, but at the same time it has never left parliament and has always finished third or fourth in elections behind the main ruling and opposition parties.

The rightist government led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas is dreaming of outlawing or disbanding the Communist Party. Neither the premier nor his spokesperson have made their guiding considerations public knowledge, but when Interior Minister Jan Kubice presented a report to a government meeting in early July saying that the contemporary Communist Party does not violate the Czech law on parties and that there were no grounds to demand a court-approved ban, Nečas voiced his discontent and the minister was told to “work more” on the task and even get the best private attorneys to execute it.

The above considerations about the dubious principles of the victors and the long-time wavering on the issue of the communists paint a clear picture. Taken together, this throws at least some light at why neither Czech politicians nor the Czech National Museum have expressed any interest in opening a Museum of National Oppression, a Museum of the Security Service or a Museum of Communism. The Institute of National Memory (UPN) has been active in the country for several years now, and the Institute for Documenting and Investigating Communist Crimes has been operating (quite harmlessly, however) within the police since the early 1990s. But there is no state museum of communism or of communist crimes. In many ways the Czech Republic had the same negative post-totalitarian experience of its neighbors which manifested itself in the discrepancy between words and deeds. For example, there is a valid Czech law on lustration which prohibits former communists and members of repressive communist agencies from holding government posts, but loopholes can be found in any law — as public servants have proved in practice for a long time. For example, a person who falls under the lustration law and may not hold a public office can simply be tasked with performing the same duties without being appointed officially.

NEED FOR A MUSEUM OF COMMUNISM

What the state did not want to do was undertaken by private people, former political prisoners and entrepreneurs. František Zahrádka (born in 1930) took people out of the country to the West after 1948 when the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia and closed the borders. At 19, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for antigovernment underground activities. In 1956, a court reviewed his case and reduced the sentence. He was released in 1962. For 13 years he went through prisons and labor camps where he worked in uranium ore mines – mines he calls concentration camps.

“Even if you merely approached the fence, the guards would immediately open fire,” the 81-year-old man, founder and director of the Museum of the Anticommunist Underground in the Czech city of Příbram recalls. Back in 1992, this small museum occupying 180 square meters was fortunate to rent the facility from the town for the symbolic price of one Czech koruna. For two decades now it has received subsidies from the government (some USD 14,000 a year) allowing it to pay for utilities and provide salaries to several committed pensioners.

“Groups of students and teachers often visit our museum,” Mr. František, who essentially obtained his education behind bars, says with pride. “Educators, priests and scouts were with me in prison and the penal colony,” he adds. The museum focuses on colonies whose inmates worked in mines. Uranium ore – a strategic resource for the Soviet Union and its nuclear bombs – was extracted in 18 mines in Western Czechoslovakia using almost exclusively manual labor.

Praguehas had its own Museum of Communism for 10 years now. But it came into existence on the private initiative of an American without any subsidies or government support. Czech politicians did not come to the opening ceremony and have traditionally ignored the museum ever since. “We invited politicians and museum representatives, but no one responded. We have welcomed the governor of New York, the Canadian minister of culture and the BBC, but we do not see any interest from representatives of the Czech state,” Jana Czepiczkova, co-owner of the museum, says.

“There is a paradox,” she continues, “The idea to found this museum came to a person of non-Czech origin. Glen Speaker, co-founder and co-owner of the museum, is an American. He thought it was an interesting idea and said: ‘Let’s make a museum.’ I liked it, too, but many Czechs reacted saying, ‘This is nonsense! No one will be interested in it!’ But we built the museum anyway and now have many visitors.”

Its stands, photos and exhibits tell how and why communism came to Czechoslovakia and what ideals and slogans were proclaimed that contradicted real life. It tells the story of a Central European country that turned into a state fenced with a barbed wire. Empty shelves, environmental problems and propaganda on every corner – this is what life in the country was like. People who went through all this tried to quickly leave it behind in the early 1990s. Czech parents rarely tell their children about socialism and communism and history textbooks offer a measly few sentences on the topic.

Just like the Příbram museum, the one in Prague is fairly small (just 450 square meters), even though its exposition is well designed and is vivid and inspiring. It meets the needs of Western tourists (80% of all its visitors), but the children of the Czechs who lived under communism for over 41 years, feel that the museum’s collection is very small.

“We will be reconstructing the part about 1989 and have plans to make further changes to the exposition next year, but the concept is not undergoing any fundamental changes. We want to expand the museum and enrich the exhibit but lack the space to do it,” Ms. Czepiczkova says, adding that the owners of this centrally located building have extended the rent contract for another 10 years.

THE CASE OF THE MAŠÍN BROTHERS

The Czech Republic has a law on the illegal nature of the communist regime. In the early summer of 2011, the Czech parliament passed a regulation on the anti-communist underground: former political prisoners will be formally granted the same status as fighters against Nazi fascism, as well as being issued a special ID and a bonus to their pensions provided the latter are below the average.

A full-fledged museum of four decades of communist captivity will not enjoy government support and will not come into being until Czech politicians make up their minds, once and for all, about how to treat the case of the Mašín brothers. When the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, the new authorities cruelly repressed the brothers' father who was in the military. The young men took this as a challenge to mount resistance to the antidemocratic regime and they employed all their resources to this end. They started a private war which included, among other things, attacks on police departments and a money collector’s car to procure cash and arms and later, in 1953, illegally cross, as a group, the border with Eastern Germany to reach the American sector in Western Berlin. They left corpses behind in Czechoslovakia and in the communist part of Germany. Eventually, almost entire divisions were called to capture the “bandits.” Some of them were seized alive, given medical treatment and later executed or cast into prison for many years. But the Mašín brothers and their friend Milan Paumer reached the American sector safe and unharmed. As US residents they later fought against communism with the American army in Korea.

Czech MPs again proposed to presidents Havel and Václav Klaus to give the highest awards to the members of this group who waged armed struggle against communism. Historians supported the idea, but the country's leadership was again either afraid of the fuss that the communists and some left-wing social democrats would raise or possible rejection by society. To some Czechs, the group led by the Mašín brothers are heroes, while to others they are criminals who tied up and killed an accountant in cold blood and stole money that was to be paid as wages to workers. Ctirad Mašín, chief of the underground group, died in 2011, aged 81, in Ohio, USA. Neither he nor his brother ever visited their homeland after 1989. On numerous occasions the brothers explained that they did not want to return to a country whose politicians did not have the ability or desire to settle accounts with the communists. The Czech leftists responded that the brothers were afraid they would be charged with murder, arrested and tried in court.

“He was a courageous man, and this is what I respected him for. He showed he was a hero by his struggle against totalitarian dictatorship which threw our country into captivity for decades,” Nečas said of Ctirad Mašín. His words will not evidently change the fact that this underground group will not receive any government honors. Neither are opinions about whether the Czechs and their country need a full-fledged Museum of Communism likely to change in the near future.


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