Academic journal article Kritika

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall ... Is the West the Fairest of Them All? Czechoslovak Normalization and Its (Dis)contents

Academic journal article Kritika

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall ... Is the West the Fairest of Them All? Czechoslovak Normalization and Its (Dis)contents

Article excerpt

Against the backdrop of Stalinist show trials, intellectual censorship, and sealed-off borders, Czechs and Slovaks during the 1950s watched as the "West" was transformed from the once familiar to the imagined. This shift was a particularly heavy blow for the Czechs who, until then, had considered themselves to sit squarely within the tradition of West European culture and thought, sharing in the positive attributes that came with it. Yet Western Europe and its concomitant values had seemingly slipped from their hands and moved irreversibly to the other side of the Iron Curtain. When they looked into their collective mirror, it was the "East" and the Soviet bloc that they now saw. But the Soviet Union, embraced immediately after World War II when it was briefly seen as a centrifuge of progress and political liberation, was increasingly viewed by many in Czechoslovakia as a non-European, and indeed decidedly alien, political and social entity. If asked, most Czechs no longer considered the Soviet Union and Stalin to be "the fairest of them all."

Differences between East and West, both imagined and real, were emphatically symbolized by the existence and impermeability of the Iron Curtain. Not only did citizens assign symbolic significance to this "other Europe," now out of their reach, but so too did the newly installed communist governments anxious to deflect sympathies for the West. Within the state media, the West sometimes became imagined in the most vivid sense, as, for example, in the early 1950s when a genuine agricultural crisis coincided with the Slansky Stalinist show trial. In the press, the presumed guilt of the trial's defendants was reified as potato beetle plagues let loose on the Eastern bloc by the West. These ruinous "American beetles," as they were known, were said to have been swept in with the "help of the clouds and winds of the Western imperialists, as well as with the help of their terrorist agents sent over." (1) More commonly, any knowledge of the West was simply expunged from everyday life. As Heda Kovaly writes in her memoir: "Once I was listening to the news on the radio and caught the word 'Netherlands.' I pricked up my ears but the news item was only that the Soviet Folk Dance Collective had enjoyed a great success in Amsterdam. That was the only bit of news from the West that we had had for months." (2)

Both the silence and the caricatures began to dissolve in the 1960s as the West was permitted finally to permeate the Iron Curtain. Simultaneously, intense feelings emerged over what that Cold War barrier--both its physical incarnation and its intellectual, political, and economic fallout--had meant to postwar Czechoslovakia. Famously, at the 1967 Writers' Congress in a castle outside Prague, Czechoslovakia's best-known writers and intellectuals publicly expressed for the first time their deep disappointment over postwar socialism and bore witness to this collective bitterness over Czechoslovakia's ejection from the "West." Here the writer Ludvik Vaculik took to the podium to lament: "in 20 years not one social question [lidska otazka] has been solved--from people's primary needs ... to more subtle needs.... And I fear that neither did we rise on the world scene; I feel that our republic has lost its good name." (3) What he meant was that the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic had lost its place in the West--both geographically and culturally. As political and social liberalization now crept into Czechoslovakia, culminating in the Prague Spring, the "West," like a long-censured monument to the dear and departed, was slowly unveiled again and opened to the viewing public.

My purpose here is to trace how the "West," once resuscitated from the censure of the Stalinist 1950s, was re-imagined in various forms and incorporated into the project of communism in quite surprising ways. (4) My focus is on two periods; first, the 1960s and the Prague Spring; and second, the 1970s and 1980s, known as normalization. …

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