Past imperfect, future tense

June 9, 1995

Historians in post-communist Eastern Europe are busy reclaiming the past. Huw Richards reports. A Russian joke of pre-glasnost vintage tells of Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun watching a military parade in Red Square. Alexander looks down on the parade and says: "With men like that, I might have conquered the world." Attila says: "With weapons like that, I might have conquered the world." Napoleon looks up from his copy of The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia and says: "With books like this, nobody would ever have heard of Waterloo."

If instruments of coercion have always been the primary weaponry of totalitarian systems, control of the supply of information is an essential back-up. Ensure that your people only hear what you want them to hear about what is going on in the world and how it got that way, and you are well on the way to controlling the way they think. As Orwell put it: "Who controls the past controls the future - who controls the present controls the past."

Hence politicians' distrust of historians. Anyone whose stock in trade is asking how the world got that way - and treating the answers received with a judicious scepticism - is a threat to the monopoly claimed by the authorised version. The more contemporary and the closer to home the historian's interests are, the greater the threat.

Stories like Oldrich Tuma's are not uncommon in the post-communist states of central and eastern Europe: "I started my studies in 1969, but had to leave in 1975 and was not allowed to finish my doctorate in 1980. I then had a series of different jobs allowing only limited access to academic work. I was, however, able to publish some studies of the Byzantine Empire - these were not so ideological and I was freer to say what I wanted."

But what Tuma really wanted to do in the years before 1989 - and Czechoslovakia's communist rulers were determined he should not - was to study the recent history of his own country. Six years on from the Velvet Revolution of 1989 he is able to do so as a senior research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague.

The task facing the staff at the institute is not only that of reclaiming their country's recent history, but of restoring the repute of their subject. Director Vilem Precan says: "Until 1990 this was the most feared and hated area of research because students in the history faculty knew there was no freedom in research. They were only interested in research if they were seeking a political career."

One consequence of this was that the early days of the institute, which was set up in 1990, were dominated by former emigres like Precan, who was forced into exile for his part in co-authoring a "Black Book" on the Soviet invasion of 1968 and spent the 1970s and 1980s in Germany, creating a major archive of modern Czech documents in Schweinfurt and helping to organise a network to smuggle books into Czechoslovakia. "He is not compromised by involvement with the former regime, has an excellent record as a historian and good international contacts," says Tuma - who notes the particular importance of international links to an academic community starved of such contacts during the "normalisation" of two decades following 1968.

One consequence of such contacts is the support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation - one of three roughly equal sources of funding for the institute, the others being the Academy of Sciences and state grants awarded for special research projects. This diversity has cushioned the effect of academy funding cuts - adding a further dozen fellows to the 15 founders of 1990, initiating collaboration with around 40 historians in Czech universities and creating a scholarship scheme for promising young researchers.

The institute not only does research - it can point to around 40 publications plus a quarterly journal Soudobe dejiny - but creates the infrastructure that supports it. One of the tasks that will facilitate major research projects on the post-1968 period is the creation of authoritative bibliographies.

Among the institute's planned research projects is one examining how the popularity of the Communist Party, which in 1948 had far greater mass support than its Hungarian or Polish confr res, became so dissipated over the next 40 years that today there is hardly a Czech with a good word to say for it. Jerzy Holzer, professor of history at Warsaw University, provides an international perspective. "Czechoslovakia was richer and more successful in the interwar period," he says. "While Hungarians or Poles may not necessarily have liked Janos Kadar or Wladislaw Gomulka (party leaders in Hungary 1956-88 and Poland 1956-70 respectively), there was little doubt that their standard of living was higher than it had been under previous regimes. That was not necessarily the case for Czechs."

Precan says that the Czech vote for communism was not a vote to become a Soviet protectorate. "People did not vote for Stalinism or the incredible stupidity of Antonin Novotny (party leader 1953-68)," but notes that the heroes of the reformist "Prague Spring" of 1968 are no longer as popular as they were at the time. "Many of them capitulated under Soviet pressure or subsequently tried to resurrect their careers."

Tuma says: "We knew about this, but the documents that have become available confirm it. Ludvik Svoboda's (president in 1968) reputation is almost destroyed while Alexander Dubcek's (party leader in 1968) is a mixed picture - he showed a lack of statesmanship and indecision. The one whose reputation is still very high is Frantisek Kriegel, the only leader to stand out to the end against Moscow."

There is a notional rule barring access to documents until 30 years have elapsed, but this is often dependent on the attitude of individual archivists. Both Tuma and Milos Trapl, professor of modern Czech history at the Palacky University, Olomouc, point to the disorganised state of many archives. Neither believes that any particularly spectacular discoveries have emerged from newly opened state and party collections, although Tuma notes: "It is becoming clear quite how little the leadership knew about what was really happening and how public opinion was changing at the grassroots." Trapl says: "There have been a series of 'bubble' discoveries, mainly by journalists, which cause a brief sensation and are then disproved."

The use of archive discoveries for political purposes became an issue in Hungary last year when state television, supporting the then government of the right, ran a weekly series called Socialism without Laws with the apparent aim of discrediting ex-Communist leaders of the Socialist Party. This tactic may have misfired. Janos Barta, head of history at Lajos Kossuth University, Debrecen, says: "I don't like the socialists and I don't like their leader, Gyula Horn. But I don't believe the stories we are being told in this programme." The Socialists won anyway.

To compare the Czech Republic and Hungary is to be reminded that the apparent Soviet monolith concealed massive national differences. While Precan points to a limited history of political involvement by Czech historians their Hungarian counterparts are heavily engaged in government - front benches dotted with historians. Socialism without Laws continued a long tradition of the use of history for ferocious political polemic.

And where the Czechs had their revolution in 1989, sweeping away an entire ruling class, the Hungarians underwent a longer period of evolutionary change. Attila Pok, senior researcher at the Institute of History, Budapest, points to a thaw in government control from the mid-1960s and the subsequent emergence of a younger, less dogmatically Marxist generation of historians. Even so there were limitations. His colleague Peter Sipos says: "You had to be careful when writing about the events of 1956 and Hungary's relations with neighbouring countries. This did not mean that you could not study them, but you had to be very careful about the language you used."

Such taboos are now under close examination from a newly created Institute for the Study of 1956, while an Institute for Political History is leading the study of Communist Party history, using the party archives. Where the Hungarians resemble the Czechs is in mild exasperation over access to archives. Again a relationship with the archivist is generally more important than any rules allegedly governing access. There was a vigorous debate over the ownership of the party archives, concluding with the decision that they were "basically national property" but stopping short of taking them away from the successor Socialist Party. Draw a line between the governing practices of the liberalising Hungarians and the Stalinoid Czechs and Poland's rulers occupy an intermediate position - for historians as much as any other group. Jerzy Holzer at Warsaw University notes that Poland has no tradition of the strong state and Zdislaw Mach, dean of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow, argues: "Things are always done half-heartedly here. This can be exasperating when you need an economic transformation, but means they were no more efficient at destroying academic freedom than they were at anything else. For instance, I was never sure whether you had to seek permission before publishing abroad."

Holzer points out that this could make a researcher's life unpredictable. "They might ignore some things and come down very hard on others." Serious taboo areas were the Communist Party before 1956 and the treatment of peasants in Poland, but Polish intellectuals, never a tractable bunch, became adept at illegal publishing in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today Holzer points to party relationships with the Soviet Union, with other groups within Polish politics, Edward Gierek's economic modernisation policies of the 1970s and the enigmatic career of Wladislaw Gomulka as issues that will be illuminated by fresh research.

But even with freedom of research, he foresees continuing limitations: "These come from within rather than from the state. There is a demand for sensational history feeding mythologies of heroic anti-Communism or justifying the Communists. And there is still tremendous sensitivity over Poland's treatment of its Jewish population - this is a part of history people do not want openly discussed. There are limits in market systems too."

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