Theory & Science (2001)

ISSN: 1527-5558

From The Wall To The Wall:
The Revision Of History In 21st Century Czech Republic

David Keplinger
English Department
University of Southern Colorado


Helen Mandelova, head of the Association of History Teachers and veteran of the old regime claims, �Today there is a tendency to let each person teach what he or she believes is best. This is a big mistake�� Having gone from a state ordained system to total, open interpretation of history, Czech students have begun to lose faith that any event can be properly chronicled as �history.� Outside of the classroom, many Czechs of the working class believe that conditions today in the free market are much more severe than under communism. Further, persecution of former members of the communist party in the democratized Czech Republic is well documented. Rather than to living through another �Gulag outside of Eden,� as Milan Kundera has characterized certain communist regimes, Czechs seek a point of synthesis, economically and within the educational system, between their history and future.

In a small coal mining city in the eastern recesses of the Czech Republic, “Ladya H” had at one time been the headmaster of an affluent high school. Years before, Ladya had made the decision to join the communist party so that his daughter could attend university. He succeeded as an administrator and sent his daughter to college. In 1989, she graduated from university with her degree in Russian language. In the same year, the “Velvet Revolution” soon incited an antithetical wave that turned their lives upside down: Ladya was demoted from his position of leadership, and his daughter was doomed to unemployment.

During the two years I taught English in the Czech Republic, I heard many stories like Ladya’s. Moreover, two of the four English instructors in my department at Ladya’s school had been teachers of Russian before the revolution, neither having belonged to the party at all. After the overthrow of the communist regime, Russian teachers were forced to learn English or German to fluency in six months, or lose their jobs. Unfortunately, such stories, photographic negatives of Vaclav Havel’s ascent from prisoner to president, are still common in the democratized states of Middle and Eastern Europe.

“Everything is changing,” one of my colleagues would say, as we would wait together in line at the SOROS offices. Working for SOROS, a non-profit foundation encouraging open dialogue between the East and West, I had come to the Czech Republic in 1995 as one of many eager American teachers. Indeed, everything was changing—and this change had instigated a bureaucratic nightmare: endless reports, long lines at the office of employment, at the police station, and the courthouse. Likewise, my city was transformed from a seemingly blighted clump of factories and panalak apartments—prefabricated tenement buildings of the 1960s and 1970s—to a revision of its former glory in the golden years of the Czechoslovak democracy (1917-1937) led by TG Masaryk: Muchian faces have been restored on the old Austrian facades, the cast iron spiral staircases have been buffed and preserved, antique streetlamps shine in the five hundred year old town square, and radios everywhere blare swing music from the 1930s.

In the midst of the Velvet Revolution’s backlash of punishment and retribution, it was not hard for me, an outsider, to discern that American influence upon the Czech media and economy far exceeded the influences of other Western states. The older generation, some the intellectuals who helped design the communist regime—but who themselves came to criticize it—were increasingly dissatisfied with the violent swing from one politico-economic extreme to the other, from strict socialism overseen by Gustav Husak to the free market leadership of recent years. Others, who for fifty years had suffered under the communists, felt differently. Many subjects of the totalitarian state lived through severely limited opportunities to travel, study, and to speak openly. These individuals, and moreover their children, still tend to romanticize the America they see on TVNOVA, the most progressive of the new television networks, whose programming includes Friday and Saturday night erotic films, commercial advertising (the other television stations are still run by the state, though they too have begun to advertise), and a frightening number of American serials like “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Beverly Hills 90210”—which tend to reinforce already badly warped stereotypes about American life. Today, youth is the prominent metaphor for freedom and openness. Credibility and the young are as one; a young TV news anchor brazenly reads her nightly broadcasts, tossing pages of news copy onto the studio floor. Youth as truth. Anchors for the TVNOVA news are mostly in their early thirties, and are sometimes younger still.

In the classroom, when I would push my students to find positive things to say about life before the revolution, those who obliged were often criticized collectively. When I asked my students to find in their book bags some product made in America, or some representation of American influence, everyone usually had at least one item: T-shirts, pictures of film and music stars, Coca Cola, news clippings of hockey and basketball teams, song lyrics, etc. Indeed, English words are also an increasingly common feature of Czech speech, thanks particularly to the computer; words like FAX and image and design have been added or adapted to the language (a common Czech verb ending, -ovat, is simply attached to the new term, producing the verb “faxovat”), just as Latin words and German words were added or adapted over the centuries, themselves the symptoms of occupation by an invading empire.

Since 1989, the pressures facing the new generation have multiplied exponentially. Under communist rule, the individual’s freedom to think and act was sacrificed for the good of the whole. Under capitalism, the self becomes navigator of desire. But within a system based primarily on competition, which in theory will improve quality and ensure low prices, the self is isolated: it subsists on its own creativity, its own aggression and, most importantly, its personal morality, borrowed variously from the sometimes contradicting influences of the Church, the television, the newspaper, and the radio. Under communism, the individual placed total faith in the state (sacrificing personal desires). A free market society encourages choice, and choice is dangerous unless tempered with self-responsibility.

The new propaganda insists that life under communism was a prison sentence. For many it was. The old communist motto, vsechno vsem, everything for everybody, did not always live up top its promise. In theory, no one was without work, no one was without a place to live, and everyone earned basically the same salaries, from doctors to coal miners. Off the record, I learned early on that high-ranking officials had been awarded far more privileges than others in the communist state system, while those who were not members of the party enjoyed limited opportunities to travel, and in some cases, their children were not admitted to university. In between these extremes stood the middle class factory worker, already a member of the trade unions, with neither the money nor desire to travel. This individual’s children would more than likely work in factories as well, get married at eighteen or nineteen, and live in a state-owned flat. This middle class life was quite regimented: a great many of one’s life choices were pre-determined. Today there is more personal freedom under the new system, but average Czechs are still not free to travel as they like: prices for basic necessities are many times higher than before 1989, whereas salaries have increased at a much slower rate. As a result, people suffer longer working hours to maintain far lower living standards under capitalism. The major flaw of communism was its cultivation of apathy, a work ethic without incentive that still haunts the Czech workplace; the primary flaw of laissez-faire capitalism, I think, lies in its disregard for social programs. Under communism, where choices were few, less pressure fell on the individual to decide what was best. Only those who had had possessions and power before the communist take-over in 1947 remember with bitterness what they had lost. Only the very courageous were willing to criticize the communist state, and they were punished for doing so. The communist regime sought to produce an entirely prefabricated citizen, one who did what was asked and did not ask questions. Now, capitalists urge young Czech entrepreneurs to find their own way. After many economic disappointments, however, neither system seems right: objective fairness and personal freedom remain darkly incompatible.

From the Wall to the Wall

One of the first major revisions of Czech society in 1989 was its history. History was rewritten to be remembered correctly, i.e., to celebrate the glorious achievements of the most recent “winners”. Many adjectives in history books were replaced with their antonyms: former virtues were no longer tolerable; bad became good. I know from my experiences that in the air was an exciting new sense of experimentation, of reaching out to touch what once had been forbidden—an excitement similar to what may have swept through Western Europe at the time of the Renaissance: just as the old world was falling to pieces, a new one was being built. Then, too, it was understood that at the moment values were being redefined, there would be a period in which no values could be shared at all, no clear moral support beam could hold them up. Similarly today, smaller groups begin to impose upon the larger whole their private value systems, as demonstrated by the growing skinhead attacks against gypsies throughout the country. In 1996, a leading Czech newspaper for speakers of English living in the capital—numbering 40,000 at last count— reported that “the number of racially motivated crimes rose from 70 in 1993 to 280 last year. The number of Romanies [Gypsies] murdered by skinheads has grown from fewer than six in 1991 and 1992 to 28 by last year” (Prague Post).

The same newspaper reports that “History teachers are flooded with information from every side. They can choose from dozens of textbooks and design their lessons as they please, since there is no official, state-approved syllabus for history courses” (Prague Post). Nevertheless, Helena Mandelova, head of the Association of History Teachers, and a veteran of both regimes, claims:

Today there is a tendency to let each person teach what he or she believes is best. This is a big mistake...You cannot expect them to be familiar with everything from prehistoric times to modern history, and at the same time introduce the latest views of certain events to their students (Prague Post).

In the above article, two versions of the 1968 Soviet invasion are compared. In the 1984 textbook History II, the Soviet Occupation was described as a situation in which “Socialism in Czechoslovakia is grossly endangered. The employment of military force by five socialist brother countries is the only correct solution” (Prague Post). In 1990, in the post-revolutionary text The World and Czechoslovakia in the Twentieth Century, the same event is described in this way:

The country is occupied by the armies of five nations, the majority of whose troops are Soviet. The presence of military units from other countries creates pretense that the intervention is a form of international help and covers its true nature, which is a Soviet invasion (Prague Post).

In America, the Soviet invasion was seen ultimately as a threat to U.S. interests, as a free market society in the Cold War confronting the “evil” of communism. The American media capitalized on the invasion, however, as a call for resistance to the Western European states. Here, the same event is reported in Life magazine, September 6, 1968:

If the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia restored the credibility of military power, it destroyed the credibility of almost everything else about the Soviet leaders. They failed spectacularly to pass the first basic test of Leninist statesmanship: the smooth conversion of physical power into political pressure...Mass Communist parties in France and Italy may at last shake their own Leninist addictions and seek a genuine democratic identity (1968, p. 61).

In this case, objectivity is clouded by the underlying U.S. concern that communism will soon threaten other existing free market countries. The writer, James H. Billington, alludes to the worsening conflict in Vietnam when he writes (though also evoking, sadly, America’s role in that country’s history), “For communists and revolutionaries in the underdeveloped areas, the Russians appear as simply another conservative power carving up its spheres of influence” (1968, p. 61). Clearly, the Soviet invasion of a liberated Czechoslovakia—which had for months made headlines for its calls of viva; viva pluralism, viva democracy, viva the end of “the dictatorship of the working class” under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek—was not so much an issue to us. Our concern was the effects the communist coup might have on more strategically and economically important European countries. At any extreme, our histories betray our true motives.

The Hopes of the Past, Future Developments

Hegel theorized that two opposites, the binary of thesis and antithesis, would inevitably meet, come together as a new invention, synthesis. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno conclude similarly that “Under existing conditions, the gifts of fortune themselves become elements of misfortune” (1994, xvi). Where is the synthesis for the Czech Republic and other Central and Eastern European nations, currently suffering their respective disappointments some ten years after the revolutions? I include this passage from their introduction, which has direct bearing on the current situation in Middle Europe, as well as in the West and elsewhere throughout the world:

The task to be accomplished is not the conservation of the past, but the redemption of the hopes of the past. Today however, the past is preserved as the destruction of the past (1994, xvi).

What Adorno and Horkheimer mean by “the destruction of the past” is illustrated in the Czech persecution of communists over the past twelve years. To take Hegel’s theory of dialectic one step further, however, we may not have to wait long until the synthesis of those two philosophies, communism and capitalism, becomes the dominant form of government in Middle and Eastern Europe. It will be a time when “the hopes of the past” are rediscovered, avoiding the pitfalls of totalitarianism.

What were the hopes of communism? Entire populations willingly sacrificing personal wants, for the sake of the whole. In that system, the ideology of the state provides an Eden-like environment in which all members of the society are rewarded equally for their work. Marx’s theory was a response to the lopsided balance of wealth and power within the bourgeois regimes of nineteenth century Europe. In the twentieth century, the rise of communism was followed by the rash imposition of its ideals on the people it had once claimed to liberate. Instead, it bound them within the paradise it had envisioned, holding the idea of itself above the outcry of its chosen people. In Czechoslovakia after the war, the beast of communism fed on fear. The country had only just emerged from ten years of occupation by the German army. The intellectuals who masterminded the transformation of a one-time democratic state into a communist state were quick to imprison and silence any member of the society who protested the values it extolled. It gave birth to a totalitarian extreme, inspiring celebrated Czech novelist Milan Kundera to report in 1985 that “the danger that threatens us is the totalitarian empire. Khomeini, Mao, Stalin—are they left or right? Totalitarianism is neither left nor right, and within its empire both will perish” (Carlisle, 1985, p. 72). In Czechoslovakia, while the general atmosphere of fear and discontent under communism grew, the state-ordained paradise disintegrated.

In an article written for The Atlantic Monthly, Hungarian founder of the Open Society Fund, George Soros labels the last twelve years “a period of disorder” (1997, p. 55) wherein small skirmishes, under the immense threat of the Cold War, were ultimately contained by two superpowers. We are no longer engaged in that struggle. Everywhere uprisings break the order that had once been imposed by fear. Rather than returning to fear, Soros’ vision of the Open Society integrates the old and new ideologies, which at one time seemed irreconcilable:

The concept of the open society needs to be redefined. Instead of there being a dichotomy between open and closed, I see the open society as occupying a middle ground, where the rights of the individual are safeguarded but where there are some shared values that hold the society together. The middle ground is threatened on all sides. At one extreme, communist and nationalist doctrines would lead to state domination. At the other extreme, laissez-faire capitalism would lead to great instability and eventual breakdown (1997, 55).

Here, the new order aims to preserve common values threatened by capitalism, preventing the rise of societies governed solely by material gain. It is also an adaptation of the Marxist notion that societies would evolve, moving to preserve a social order within a system that encourages personal and economic freedoms. But it is my suspicion that, for some time yet to come, the governments of the new states will continue their struggle to avenge the past. In life, and in Middle and Eastern Europe especially, such compromise is still rare.


Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max.The Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, 1994: xvi.

Billington, H.R. “ Cost to Soviets: Loss of their Dazzling Myth of Infallibilty.” Life 6 Sept. 1968: 60-61.

Carlisle, Olga. “A Talk with Milan Kundera.” Interview. The New York Times. 19 May 1985, sec. 6: 72.

Soros, George. “The Capitalist Threat.” The Atlantic Monthly. Feb. 1997: 45-58.

The Prague Post, 3-9 April 1996.