Czech totalitarianism institute faces questions over research

Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has often been at the centre of contemporary political battles over the country’s communist past

August 20, 2019
Communism museum poster Prague
Source: iStock

A Czech institute set up to research the country’s past under Nazism and communism has been engulfed in a row after an academic appointed to evaluate its work accused it of trying to “suppress” the “memory of totalitarianism”.

This is only the latest feud over the research direction of Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR). Since its establishment in 2008, it has been fought over by political factions as part of a wider debate over how to view the country’s communist history.

Aviezer Tucker, a specialist in totalitarianism at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, was invited earlier this year to sit on the USTR’s research evaluation panel.

But in June the committee was dissolved in acrimony after Dr Tucker clashed with other panel members. He accused the USTR of becoming “an institute of national forgetfulness and neo-totalitarian apologetics” in an open letter. The institute has hit back, claiming that he has distorted reality and spread “insults and falsehoods”.

The dispute turns on the extent to which the institute, which employs about 70 historians, should focus on totalitarian repression during the Nazi and communist periods or pay more attention to “ordinary life” under these regimes.

“The message that they are trying to [spread] is that the private lives of people…[were] not that affected by totalitarianism,” Dr Tucker told Times Higher Education. Using “micro-level” research, “of course you will not necessarily see the big picture of how totalitarianism impacts everyday life” because ordinary people were generally too afraid to document their oppression, he said.

He perceived a wider agenda to make the population “forget about communism” so that the present government, a coalition between a new populist party and social democrats, “can repeat some of the aspects of it”.

Ondřej Matějka, the USTR’s deputy director, said that in its early years, the USTR was more of an “activist” institution, but since he joined in 2013 it had focused more on “research and education”.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a “contract” between the population and the communist regime, in which the people were provided with “limited living standards” and “social safety” in return for their acquiescence to authoritarian rule, he argued. This “inconvenient truth” had to be grasped in order to understand how democracy could be eroded again, he argued.

Martin Schulze Wessel, professor of eastern European history at LMU Munich and a member of the evaluation committee, told THE that the institute “must be concerned with researching the rule of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, including the violent practices of the regimes. Undoubtedly, however, these regimes are anchored in society. So it must also be a matter of researching everyday history.”

Dr Tucker is not the only scholar to have raised such concerns. In 2015, the deputy chairman of the USTR’s union criticised a new research agenda that was perceived as shying away from totalitarian repression in favour of exploring everyday life, a focus he claimed was driven by the country’s social democrat and communist parties, the former of whom won back power from the centre-right in 2013.

Last month, USTR union leaders unsuccessfully called for the country’s senate to block the appointment of František Bublan, a former social democrat interior minister, to the institute’s council, claiming that he had once tried to dissolve it. Mr Bublan claims that the institute had previously been used to discredit left-wing politicians by revealing links to secret police under the communist regime.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Dispute over the direction of totalitarianism research institute

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Reader's comments (1)

The claim that late Communism was based on a "social contract" resembles claiming that Hegel's master slave relation is based on a contract. Here is the contract: I will not kill you if you become my slave. You are free to disagree, but then I will kill you. Some contract.... A crude attempt to legitimize a totalitarian undemocratic regime with no legitimacy.

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