Historians attack ‘flawed’ proposal to recognise opponents of Communism

02-12-2010

Czech historians are mounting a campaign against a government-backed proposal to give recognition to those who defied the Czechoslovak Communist regime. It’s not the principle itself they are objecting to but the particularly poor way they say the proposal has been cobbled together.

Historians do not often usually agree on anything other than stubborn facts, and even there some might feel there is room for argument. But the Senate proposed and government-backed move to give recognition to participants in the so-called third struggle against Communism has mustered some rare agreement. More than 40 historians from top Czech universities and historical institutes, such as the Institute for Contemporary History, have signed up to a petition denouncing the flawed format the current proposal has taken.

Jakub Jareš is an historian at Prague’s Charles University and one of the co-authors of the petition. He explains the reasons for the action.

“Our main misgiving over this is that this law has been badly conceived. There are a lot of problematic and unclear criteria in there. That gives rise to a clear risk that it will not be the merits of these people who fought against communism which will determine whether they deserve recognition but some state official who will decide about it.”

The historians say that the drafting of this proposal is a dog’s dinner which raises countless problems by trying to categorise the types of action being recognized and those disqualified from such recognition. The proposal, for instance, includes a broad brush disqualification for anyone who was once a member of the Communist Party apart from the brief interlude before and after the Prague Spring no matter what they did before or later. The historians suggest that Czechs should have taken a lead from a similar law that has already come into effect in neighbouring Slovakia. Mr. Jareš again.

“There is a Slovak law from 2006 which can provide some particular inspiration here. It does not create any artificial distinctions between resistance and opposition which is the case of the Czech law. This for instance has a rather basic clause saying that 12 months of anti-communist activity counts as resistance but anything less, say 11 months and 29 days, is just opposition.”

He says the Slovak law creates simpler categories such as domestic and foreign member of the resistance with the status of ‘opponent’ to the regime granted to everyone unjustly jailed and who did not give into offers to collaborate with the secret police.

Those sort of distinctions are far from academic, for Czech recognition as a resistance fighter also carries the status of war veteran and the state benefits that go with that.

The historians also point out other problems such as the fact that many documents, such as Soviet secret service KGB files as well as other Warsaw Pact files, are not open and cannot be consulted to determine whether certain claims are truthful or not. They also have reserves about the central role envisaged for the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in giving expertise about claims. The petitioners say such a role for the often criticised institution which has been riven by internal battles is likely to create doubts about the expertise being offered.

The historians will spend the next week collecting more signatures and eventually present the petition to parliament. But the latest episode seems once again to underline just what a minefield is posed by Czech attempts to come to terms with their recent history.

02-12-2010