Connect to share and comment

Writing the history books

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

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 Last year the institute produced historical documents claiming a controversial pair of brothers — Josef and Ctirad Masin — had planned to assassinate top-level political figures, perhaps even Czechoslovakia's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."