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Writing the history books

Is the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes producing legitimate scholarship or pursuing a political agenda?

Tourists and Czech citizens look at pictures displayed at the "Prague 1968" exhibition, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion into then Czechoslovakia, in Prague, Aug. 21, 2008. The Czech Republic is grappling with how to interpret its communist past and the new Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has found itself at the middle of that controversy. (Petr Josek/Reuters)

PRAGUE — A generation has passed since the dissolution of the Czech secret police — since they stopped tapping phone lines and searching for traitors — and yet Czechs still hunger to know who betrayed their country.

Many of those answers lie in the secret police files that are only starting to be read and analyzed as part of the country's attempt to grapple with its communist past. But whether the process is more of a historical reckoning or a modern-day witch hunt goes to the heart of the current debate here.

It has been difficult to separate the study of the past from the biases of the present, generating a controversy that centers on the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. The institute, which opened its doors 18 months ago, oversees the country's vast collection of secret police files that were once under the control of the dreaded Interior Ministry.

That material numbers 280 million pages across five buildings in two cities. The institute is in the process of digitizing the archives and creating an electronic registry, with the goal of strengthening democratic traditions by studying these communist-era documents, according to its website. The institute was created by the state and endowed with government money, leading some to charge that its findings will be politically motivated and that the money could have been better used for rigorous independent academic research.

“It's politicians trying to influence history — so it's like the [communist] past," said Vladimira Dvorakova, who heads the political science department at the University of Economics in Prague. She alleged that the institute's refusal to reveal its operating budget (GlobalPost made multiple requests for the information), which is supposed to be public, is further proof that the institute's operations are politicized.

The prevailing zeitgeist over the past 20 years has been that the secret police, or StB as it is commonly known here, was the epitome of the old regime's evilness. Yet understanding the communist era requires more than studying the secret police, academics say.

The secret police, indeed, are easy to villify, and going after them doesn't involve asking tough questions about some of the more hidden but still pervasive effects of the decades of communism. By focusing on the secret police, critics charge, the government is trying to create a contrast between the communist state and its democratic self.

“It's important to understand the politics of communism,” Dvorakova said. “The StB is only one part of history and it's exaggerated. It is almost like watching the past through the StB."

The preamble to the law creating the institute employs the philosopher George Santayana's aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Critics of the institute find that ironic because they believe that in setting up the institute under the auspices of the Senate today's politicians are making the same mistake as their Communist predecessors — politicizing academic research.

“We have not really been able to deal with our problematic national past sincerely,” said Jiri Pehe, director of the local New York University study program. “The past is still used instrumentally — that is for political purposes.”