Český a slovenský zahraniční časopis  

Říjen 2010

Has the Czech Republic fully come to terms with the memory of the Second World War?

Muriel Blaive

History, collective memory and memory politics form an unhealthy triangle in the Czech Republic today. Due to the long communist rule, and due to the absence of free public debates and to the deficiencies of history research and teaching which ensued, the war and postwar periods are prone to being politically instrumentalized without much reaction from civic society. The three traumatic events which have affected the Czech Republic in the recent past, i.e. the Nazi occupation, the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans and the communist repression, and the respective collective memories of these events, are interacting, influencing each other and competing – under the auspices of politicians of all sides.

This official memory politics is the result of a form of nationalism which was taken over from the First Republic, reshaped by the communist regime and transmitted to the post-1989 democracy without ever being much challenged. First, I will reflect on the relationship between the instrumentalization of nationalism and the collective memory of the Holocaust; then I will argue that the memory politics concerning both the Second World War and the communist past are determined by the Sudeten German issue; and finally I will offer to explain this entanglement by referring to a self-fulfilling national democratic script.

The crucial importance of the national question

Western societies have been discussing for decades, and now completely accepted, the notion of singularity of the Holocaust. Western European countries, including West Germany, collectively built a strong sense of shame for their participation to the Holocaust, for the harmful nationalism which had led to the Second World War, and for the war itself. A tedious historical work took place in various countries to establish local responsabilities in terms of collaboration with the Nazis, in a conscious and determined effort to fight the easy explanation that “We were all victims.”

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Czechoslovak communist regime also formally denounced petit-bourgeois nationalism, but in fact it exploited the nationalist fibre to the core in order to legitimize its own rule, mainly by using, fueling and instrumentalizing popular anti-German (or anti-Austrian) feelings. (This can be shown with particular acuity at the level of local public spheres: see for isntance the case of České Velenice, a Czech border town to Austria, where anti-Austrian feelings were used and instrumentalized in order to entice the local population to participate in the border guarding. See Muriel Blaive, “České Velenice, městečko na hranici s Rakouskem “, in Muriel Blaive, Berthold Molden, “Hranice probíhají vodním tokem. Odrazy historie ve vnímání obyvatel Gmündu a Českých Velenic” (The Border Runs Through the River. Historical Imaginaries in Gmünd and České Velenice), Brno, Barrister & Principal, 2009)

What is puzzling outside observers today is that the Czech Republic is distinguishing itself by its continued absence of wide public debate on the Holocaust – not only as opposed to Western Europe but as opposed to Poland, for instance.

The explanation I would advance here is that the Holocaust history and collective memory is best left unresearched so as not to endanger what we could coin the Czech “victimization narrative” of the Second World War. The Jewish tragedy is understood as part of the Czech tragedy, which is nice and denotes the absence of issue around the Jewish question, but the Czech tragedy is rather not discussed too much, lest unsavoury details such as everyday collaboration, compromission and denunciations might be unearthed. Paradoxically in the best communist tradition, school manuals still dedicate the largest part of their coverage of the Second World War to Czech resistance movements, while leaving little space to the Holocaust and even less to everyday life and collaboration.

I think it is implicitely feared that radical Sudeten Germans would gloat about the lack of resistance, if not the passive acceptance, of the Nazi occupation by Czech society and that they would criticize the Czechs even more for the injustice of their own postwar expulsion. The “victimization narrative” is thus locked by the Czech unease concerning the Sudeten German demands that the Beneš decrees be repelled and that they get reparations – a nigthmarish issue for Czech authorities in the past ten years, who had to fend off radical attempts to bring the issue to the European level and even to prevent the Czech Republic from entering the European Union.

Post-1989 Czech historians have unfortunately not been challenging this national political narrative as much as one could have hoped, although this might be beginning to change. Many members of the older generation have been too cautious and too unwilling to stir issues deemed “ugly”, such as mixed Czech-German marriages during the war, lest they might shock the public and they be challenged in their enlightening role as historians. And now there is even a new anti-communist generation on the rise, who is particularly visible at the newly created Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which, as its very name indicates, is ever more eager to establish the parallel between Nazi and communist repression and to rewrite history exclusively in terms of heroization and victimization – in the case of both regimes.

The paralyzing Sudeten German complex

It is in this context that the collective memory of the Second World War and that of communism have formed an uncanny alliance in the face of the Sudeten German problem. To treat nazism and communism as two equally horrible forms of totalitarianism has the advantage to strengthen the collective body, and to show how unlucky the Czechs have been in history (and thus how unthinkable it is to deprive them of their one and only victory, the expulsion of the Germans.) This vision now even poses as being scientific.

One example is the Czech part of the large exhibit on Czech-Austrian relations Separated – Cut off – United (Horn, Raabs and Telč, May-November 2009) , whose implicit aim was to exculpate Czechs and Austrians from their past and to present them as equal, and thus brotherly, victims of the USSR (communism) and of Germany (nazism). Nazism in Austria was explicitely paralleled to stalinism, but to stalinism in the USSR and not in Czechoslovakia (“From Auschwitz to Vorkuta”, went the explanatory board.) It thus implied that stalinism and communism are synonymous and also that the level of communist repression in Czechoslovakia was in any way comparable to that in the USSR – a gross manipulation, considering that communism resulted in some 20 million dead in the USSR, against some 2 000 to 3 000 in Czechoslovakia – a figure shocking enough for a society which is not prone to political violence. An openly revisionist additional result of this dubious comparison is that if Austria and Czechoslovakia are presented as equally victim of nazism and communism and if Czechoslovakia is declared an “innocent” victim of communism, then it stems from it that Austria is an “innocent” victim of Nazism as well.

As a result of the communist and post-communist memory politics concerning the Second World War which it was exposed to, Czech society still feels like a genuine victim and as a resistant, meaning:only like a victim and a resistant and in no way as a co-perpetrator or silent observer who chose not to take action out of fear, selfishness or cowardice. Yet there would be much to research on the war period and the occupation in Bohemia-Moravia. American historian Benjamin Frommer, in his pioneering work both on the postwar retribution policy and on the implication of the Czech police in the Holocaust during the Nazi occupation, has unambiguously demonstrated that Czech society was passive, sometimes passively antisemitic, and in any case unwilling to risk anything to protect their Jewish compatriots, while Czech police was collaborating with its usual efficiency. The unit at the Ministry of Interior which was specialized in researching the enemies of the state before 1938 was swiftly converted to anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi purposes and dutifully investigated (Czech) denunciations of Jews in order to deliver the latter to the Germans. The same unit was of course put to the service of the communist secret police equally swiftly at the end of the war. (Ben Frommer, National Cleansing , Cambridge University Press, 2005. - See his presentation “The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Measures in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia”, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and Public Spheres, Vienna, June 2010. He is preparing his next volume on this topic.)


This short reflection on memory politics in the Czech Republic illustrates how it is guided by instrumentalized nationalism. The communist regime “nationalized” the collective memory of the Second World War in Czechoslovakia in order to strengthen its legitimacy. That is why in 1989, neither the Czechs (nor any of the other Central European populations) felt in any way responsible for the Holocaust, nor had a feeling of collective responsibility with the “duty to remember” the memory of the victims, which had meanwhile become so prevalent in Western Europe. That is also why there is a clear misunderstanding today between the former “east” and the former “west” as concerns the memory of communist repression in relation to the Holocaust.

But this stability in terms of memory landscape was made possible by the post-1989 official memory politics, which was ironically the best follower of the national script promoted by the communist regime in that it continued to view Czech history, now including communist history, almost exclusively in terms of victimization and heroization. The new democracy clearly differentiated the Germans from the Sudeten Germans and established cordial relations with Germany but continues at home to wield the “Sudeten German danger” in order to mobilize Czech nationalism. One of the best illustrations might be the 2003 presidential election, when President Klaus was elected by the Parliament only thanks to the communists, who sided with the conservatives in view of the presumed “soft” attitude of his main opponent, former dissident Jan Sokol, on the Beneš decrees issue.

Such a continuation has been made possible thanks to yet another factor, a tendency running deeper in Czech culture. It is linked to the self-image of the Czechs as a democratic nation, a “national transcript” which is both “public” and “hidden”. (See James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts , New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990.)

This national self-image, which we could assimilate to a democratic myth, has been used and instrumentalized by political elites all along the twentieth century, for legitimate but also for illegitimate purposes. The democratic myth of the Czech nation served to justify its own existence and thus to break down the Austrian empire; it served its positive self-image in comparison with its Central European neighbours in the interwar period; it justified the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans; it served again its positive self-image in comparison with its Central European, now communist, neighbours, as a would-be more mature, more successful and altogether more civilized communist regime – for instance between 1945 and 1948, in 1956 or in 1968. Finally, it was fully relegitimized by the impeccable image of the Velvet Revolution and put to use again after 1989 in the form of anti-communism – and, as we have seen, in the form of continued silence concerning the Holocaust. The country which was one of those who fought the least against the communist regime now was the one which implemented the toughest lustration policy.

The extreme politicization of the country’s recent history is particularly visible in the absurd parliamentary directives which aspire to guide historians’ work. The law creating the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes stipulates that its employees’ mission is to research the period from 30 September 1938 to 4 May 1945 and from 25 February 1948 to 29 December 1989 in order to establish a pre-given “criminal nature of the totalitarian regimes”. The hypocrisy of this would-be scientific approach cannot be a good recipe for the future. Film and literature, which don’t have the same qualms as politicians, paint a rather different picture of Czech society during the Second World War. Until today, the novels of Jiři Weil Mendelssohn is on the Roof and of Josef Škvorecký The Cowards remain some of the most accurate descriptions of what Czech society was like during the Second World War. It would be good if they could serve as a research example in the future.

The Czech Republic needs its own “Jan Tomasz Gross” as in the Polish case or perhaps even more appropriately its own “Robert Paxton”, after the American historian who shattered the resistance myth which had prevailed in France in the postwar decades concerning the German occupation. He showed that the Vichy regime had actively participated in the deportation of the French Jews and that the resistance, although admirable, was confined to a limited number of people ; the vast majority, understandably scared, simply attempted to live as normal a life as they could in difficult circumstances and did not remain impervious to daily cowardice and compromissions. (Robert Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1944-1944, New York, Columbia University Press, 1972.) This was not pleasant to hear, but to face this unpleasant past and to teach children about the fragilities of society and of their own parents and grand-parents most definitely served French democracy.