Trouble in Prague

When the conservatives are in power, the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) hums with activity. When the post-Communists dominate, they invariably try to throw a monkey wrench into the anti-totalitarian machinery of remembrance.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | April 18, 2013

Memory is the most precious weapon to transmit our traditions, which includes the heritage of liberty. Hence, individuals, communities, and nations cultivate memories of triumphs and calamities to derive lessons from the past for today to march boldly into the future. This process has just been dealt a serious blow in the Czech Republic. The unreconstructed Communists and transformed post-Communists have targeted, once again, the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR). They have dismissed its director and warned that more purges are imminent. The objective is at least to marginalize this six-year old body through firing and budget cuts exactly as has happened in neighboring Slovakia.

Established in 2008 to study the Nazi (1939-1945) and Communist (1947-1989) occupations, the USTR is the main depository of former Czechoslovakia’s Communist secret police (StB) documents. It is headed by a seven person supervisory board that makes all the important decisions, including administrative appointments, and a 15-people strong academic council, which is a rather toothless scholarly and ethical advisory body. Along with the Gauck Institute in Berlin and the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, the USTR is Central and Eastern Europe’s prime vehicle of research, learning, and educating about the crimes of totalitarianism. Its work has further a national security function, including to benefit NATO, and, hence, the United States. USTR vets politicians and other civil servants rooting out Communist agents, unmasking their links to the Soviet Union’s KGB and the GRU, as well as the modern day successor spy outfits of Russia – the FSB and SVR.

The Institute’s work is mandated by law and it draws funds from the state budget. That makes it dependent on political changes of the nation’s electoral scene. When the conservatives are in power, the USTR hums with activity. When the post-Communists dominate, they invariably try to throw a monkey wrench into the anti-totalitarian machinery of remembrance. According to the Czech Radio, there have already been four USTR directors in as many years, all victims of ever changing political winds. A way out of this quandary would be to privatize the Institute. Unfortunately, the Communist revolution in the Czech lands destroyed the propertied class, which would otherwise gladly have endowed and supported the USTR. The only people with serious money in the Czech Republic are post-Communists and their allies. Privatization would mean the death of memory.

The only solution for now then is to continue the political game and reliance on the taxpayer. In the latest installment of the drama, the left-controlled Senate of the Republic appointed a new supervisory board of the USTR, which proceeded to dismiss its director, Daniel Herman, on a technicality. A former anti-Communist dissident, Herman cried foul. At least some of his employees backed him publicly, as well as the anti-Communist trades unions. Several USTR academic council members quit in disgust, including the chairman Michael Kraus and Cardinal Miloslav Vlk. The conservative Prime Minister Petr Necas of the Civic Democrats stressed that the dismissal of Herman was politically motivated.

The firing was initiated by social democrat senator Jiří Dienstbier Jr. with some nefarious behind the scenes work by the USTR supervisory board chairPetruška Šustrová. Critics have charged that the new interim director Pavla Foglova’s only qualification for the post is her friendship with Šustrová. The latter is an erstwhile liberal dissident and former minister of the interior, considered rather lenient toward the Communists and fierce against their mostly youthful conservative critics. For example, in November 1990, she branded them “right-wing extremists” for calling for a ban on the Communist party and a free examination of the past. Is this the best person to supervise the Czech nation’s depository of recent history?

The USTR is understandably a thorn in the side of the perpetrators, their enablers, successors, and allies, both domestic and foreign. Hence, they would like to emasculate it. This is not so much a conscious and monolithic collusion of the enemies of freedom, but rather a convergence of various political interests. On the foreign side, it is obviously in Moscow’s favor to muzzle a dangerous source of information and remembrance. On the domestic side, according to the Czech News Agency (ČTK), it is all about coalition politics. The Czech Communists (KSCM), after years in political wilderness, have recently scored some significant gains in local elections. They still toot the horn of central planning and free beer for everyone. And they are very keen on obscuring the similarities between their current party platform with an eerily identical Red plank from the past, sans the terror. Some of them were high functionaries of the Communist party and its secret police. Further, the Czech post-Communist socialist Milos Zeman, who has just won the presidency, does not like being reminded that he used to be a card carrying Red and that his socialists are merely Communists transformed (CSSD).

Meanwhile, the Czech post-Communist liberals are eager to continue the grand coalition with the post-Communist socialists that gave them power after 1989, while using as fig leaves a few bona fide dissidents, including Vaclav Havel. The liberals would like a progressive coalition government to rule the nation again. To accomplish all this they dismiss the past and jointly embrace the future of the European Union’s behemoth state. The USTR with its principled defense of liberty is simply inconvenient. Moreover, it is dangerous. Thus, the by-word of the detractors of the Institute is its “de-politicization.” Apparently, in the Czech Republic, if one remembers the past, one “politicizes” it. Only collective amnesia will please the left. As former director Herman put it, “There are people and forces who are afraid of the truth…the project of an open past is very important.” Apparently, it is too important to be left in the hands of supporters of freedom like Herman.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. He is scheduled to deliver a few lectures at the USTR in the summer. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.