Writing the history books

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.”

Even though critics question the quality of the scholarship, the institute has produced some potentially interesting work.

It has published multiple books including "Victims of the Occupation," about the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush a reform movement known as the Prague Spring; "Prague Through the Lens of The Secret Police"; and "On the Cold War Front," which was also an exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary (in 2008) of the start of the anti-communist resistance from abroad.

The books, written in both Czech and English, read more like coffee table literature than academic research. On a base level there is interesting information inside, though the writing, at times, descends into Cold War-like dogma.

In the book of photos taken by the secret police, the introduction says the photos were taken by people "who are morally twisted and wicked at heart." At another junction it says, "The members of the secret police were also sick. They were employees of a psychotic state apparatus."

All but the staunchest supporters of the country's communist past would condemn the totalitarian regime in general and the StB in particular, but the writer's personal antipathy doesn't make for trustworthy scholarship. 

In addition, several incidents have further clouded the institute's standing. Last year the institute produced historical documents claiming a controversial pair of brothers — Josef and Ctirad Masin — had planned to assassinate top-level political figures, perhaps even Czechoslovakia's first communist president, Klement Gottwald, who died of illness in 1953. At about the same time, then-Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was lauding the Masins as national heroes for their plan.

The Masins have long been controversial figures here. Were they really planning to assassinate top-level communists, or were they murderers? They never did assassinate anyone, but they did kill several innocent people, in what appears to have been a desperate attempt to flee the communist-ruled country.

Another explosive case erupted last year when an institute researcher published a lengthy article in a weekly magazine accusing world-renowned writer Milan Kundera of informing on a pro-democracy advocate in 1950. The man was wanted for deserting the Czechoslovak military. Not only did the lengthy story fail to offer a compelling motivation for why Kundera would have informed, it suggested another another man potentially had a far greater incentive to inform, though the writer chose not to finger him.

Additionally, the whole case against Kundera was based on a single piece of paper that slipped out of an archival file. Even though the document was a police report with Kundera's signature, it seemed flimsy evidence upon which to base either a journalistic or scholarly article.

But Jiri Reichl, the institute's spokesman, defended the accusation against Kundera.

“Of course it's a true story,” he said. “No other document says it's not true. Why else should a policeman write a memorandum about Kundera?” Reichl insisted there is no political pressure on the institute, or its director.

Dvorakova, the political scientist, is among many who dismiss the Kundera accusation — based on existing information.

"The StB had a department of misinformation; you could reconstruct anything,” she said. “Files need critical analysis. This is the problem — it's not done."