Implementing Post-Communist National Memory in the Czech Republic and Slovakia

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Abstract

This chapter contains an analysis of two similar attempts to institutionalise 'national memory' in the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the fall of Communism and dissolution of Czechoslovakia. The study focuses on two documents that create a legal basis for such institutionalisation and on the main actors who initiated the decisions to create these institutes. It is argued that although the original reasons explaining the necessity to establish these new institutes in Bratislava and Prague were defined firstly as moral and scientific, the institutes became primarily ideological tools of the new governing post-Communist elites that served to centralise control of the collective 'national' memory.

In 2002 and 2007, two similar institutes were established in the Slovakian capital Bratislava and the Czech capital Prague. The first one was named Ústav pamäti národa (UPN, The Nation's Memory Institute), the second one Ústav pro Studium totalitních re^mü (USTR, The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes). According to their founders, both these institutes were supposed to bring their societies moral satisfaction for struggling in the past, by disclosing unlawful practices of oppressive forces from two of the most brutal dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism. Moreover, they were supposed to produce new scholarly works about these two regimes and contribute to the democratic education of new generations of young Czechs and Slovaks.

Both Institutes were supposed to deal with the period that began in the late 1930s and ended in the late 1980s when, with the exception of 1939 to 1945, Czechs and Slovaks were living in a common state with their lives heavily affected initially by the German occupation and the Second World War, and later by Soviet dominance and the Cold War. The key moments that the impact these two periods had on the life of the Czechs and Slovaks under Nazism and Communism became what the German historian Jörn Rüsen calls 'borderline events' (Rüsen 2001, 232-253). Due to the traumatic nature of these events for the Czechs and the Slovaks, and the fact that these changes could not be explained within already existing and previously dominating historical narratives, it is possible to classify them as 'catastrophic events' that made searching for a new sense of history and creating new historical narratives inevitable (Rüsen 2004, 46; Cavalli 2008, 169-182). Even though the vast majority of the Czechoslovak society saw the change from Communism to a pluralistic system as positive, the process of creating new post-Communist narratives was far from easy (Kopecek 2008, 232-264; Koláf and Kopecek 2007, 173-248). Public debates surrounding the Slovak TJPN and Czech USTR clearly illustrated these problems.

This shared history has made the UPN and the USTR special in the post-Communist part of Europe. Institutes of National Memory were also established in some other countries of the former Soviet Bloc, such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. None of these, however, were as closely connected by the shared past they were about to study as the Czech and the Slovak institutes.

Similar subjects of study and similar characteristics of work do not necessarily mean that UPN and USTR became mirror images of each other. Different perceptions of traumatic history in the Czech and Slovak republics and different development in these two successor states of the former Czechoslovakia turned these seemingly very similar institutes into two institutions with different priorities and even with partly different functions in their societies. The main purpose of this chapter is to show that while the original reasons explaining the necessity to establish these new institutes in Bratislava and Prague were defined firsdy as moral and scientific, UPN and USTR became primarily ideological tools of the new governing post-Communist elites that served to centralise control of collective 'national' memory. …