Veronika Pehe: One of the most pressing questions of dealing with the legacy of communism in Central Europe has been what to do with the archives of the security forces. Secret police files are of course sensitive materials, especially if they implicate well-known individuals. Several countries have opted to set up such archives as part of larger institutions which also have research and educational remits. Do these files deserve this special treatment of having their own institutions dedicated to them?
Muriel Blaive: I think the security forces archives absolutely deserve special attention, but in my opinion, they got this special attention for the wrong reasons. This was because they could be used as a political tool, and very rapidly, in every Central European country – apart from Germany where the rules were stricter – they were misused for political purposes to discredit political oponents. While what they are fantastic for and what they should really be used for, is for historians to understand society under communism. In that sense, they are irreplaceable.
The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) joins other European institutions such as the Polish IPN, the Slovak ÚPN, or the German Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records. What should be the role of such institutions in post-communist societies in terms of the memory work they can do?
A good institution of that sort would spend incredibly many resources on reading, analysing, presenting, and explaining those files to the people of their countries. But that is an ideal state that does not really exist.
They can do a lot for the memory of the period. They now ensure access to the archives in relatively good conditions. It doesn’t work perfectly everywhere, but in principle, citizens are entitled to look at these files, and this is, I think, a good thing. The second thing they can do – and this should be their crucial role – is to interpret these archives and to make them available to the wider public in a way that makes the past understandable to everyone, especially to the younger generation, who were not personally confronted with the question of collaboration with the secret police. A good institution of that sort would spend incredibly many resources on reading, analysing, presenting, and explaining those files to the people of their countries. But that is an ideal state that does not really exist.
These institutions are state-sponsored, their boards are appointed by parliament and thus subject to a certain degree of political pressures. What can be done to avoid the instrumentalization of the past?
What could have been done, but was not, and now it is too late for that, was to set very strict guidelines and an ethical codex, but their implementation requires know-how and a lot of money. Only the Germans had both, because they had already had the experience of dealing with the archives of the Nazi period. And this was not only due to West Germany, but perhaps more to the point, because there was a rivalry between East and West Germany, and so even the East Germans were eager to prove that they could deal with the past. This kind of healthy competition and all the financial help of West Germany guaranteed that there were strict guidelines, so the archives were not abused. But this of course was not possible in countries where you didn’t have Western Poland, Western Czechoslovakia, or Western Hungary to foot the bill, and where you also don’t have such a strong tradition – or did not have in 1989 – of civic education. There was no know-how, there were no people, there was no money, and all these countries were left to anarchy in this respect. That is why even where the archives remained completely closed they were nevertheless politically abused. It took at least ten years after 1989 in each country to try to put some semblance of order to these archives, and sometimes without much success.
Germany has been at the forefront of these efforts and in the Czech Republic, the German case is seen as an example of how to go about dealing with the past. But many also commend the Polish IPN as a model. How would you say that the projects of ÚSTR and IPN compare?
What could have been done, but was not, and now it is too late for that, was to set very strict guidelines and an ethical codex, but their implementation requires know-how and a lot of money. Only the Germans had both, because they had already had the experience of dealing with the archives of the Nazi period.
I would say that IPN benefitted from the start from a situation that did not exist in the Czech Republic, namely that historical research was much stronger in Poland from the 1950s to 1989. There were so many more historians, more exiles as well, much more discussion – it’s also a bigger country – and this created a space for a richness of reflection that is difficult to compare with the Czech Republic. Poland had a big head start, and I think they greatly benefited from, for instance, Jan Gross’s input with his book Neighbours, not even necessarily because of the book itself, but because of the debate it provoked and because of the immediate necessity of the Institute to confront itself with this kind of painful reflection – it had to create a committee to actually investigate Gross’s claims. The need to have a point of view on whether what he presented in the book could be true or not created a huge momentum in the quality of historical research in Poland. IPN is not perfect, it definitely had its ups and downs and suffered a lot under the Kaczyński adminstration, but it had a potential that from the start made its situation easier than in the Czech Republic.
As for what ÚSTR can do: I think it also has potential, and it has a huge advantage compared to the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague in that it has these archives and is willing to use them, while historians from the more traditional agencies of the Academy of Sciences are mostly not willing to dip their fingers into material that they fear might be too controversial. This is where USTR should really seize its chance.
In Germany, the history of the GDR was initially perceived through a totalitarian paradigm, i.e. a narrative about an oppressive regime and a subordinated population, but this has been contested since. In the Czech Republic, however, the totalitarian interpretation seems to be present already in the name of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.
Every institute of this kind started with the same intent of documenting the extent of the persecution and suffering, which was a very legitimate aim right after 1989. Yes, East Germans needed to prove that no, they were not just cowards, they had not just enjoyed themselves; yes, they had suffered, there was a dictatorship, they went to jail, they were persecuted, and it was morally extremely important for them to make that point, as it was for the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Romanians, and everyone else. This is perfectly legitimate. What happened in all countries was that little by little, the sources started to contradict the intent, that is, the political and ideological intent. It turned out within a few years that yes, there had been a dictatorship and people acted under constraints for sure, but the dictatorship did not deprive them of all choices. Therefore, at some point, the human factor comes back. Some measure of freedom, internal freedom, did exist, people had the choice – not everybody had to become a collaborator, for instance – and then where do you take it from there?
Following from the contradiction you describe, you’ve mentioned at other times that there might be some space for nostalgia in relation to the communist period. In what sense could nostalgia be seen as a positive force?
It is a completely misleading argument to evoke nostalgia when discussing the history of communism, for the simple fact that everybody has nostalgia, not just in post-communist societies. I have a lot of nostalgia for France in the 1970s: it was so nice, everybody had enough to live on, there was no unemployment, little crime. We lived simple lives, we went on vacation with our car, we didn’t go very far, nothing much happened, nobody took the plane, nobody went to America, it was a very self-sustained and small life style, we loved Luis de Funès films, and that was our life. I loved that life! We didn’t drink Coca Cola every day, it was something very special. Yet my nostalgia for my childhood does not automatically make me a communist, does it. The same goes for every European society. So when we start to conflate nostalgia for life under a dictatorship, it gets fishy very fast and is misleading. I think it is wrong to deny people the right to nostalgia for the communist period on the grounds that it was not “democratic” and therefore they should not feel anything positive. It is just simply off the mark, we are talking about human nature versus political imperatives of the present.
Some of the historians who criticized ÚSTR put forward the objection that by focusing on the archives of the security forces, the institute would study only the repressive aspects of the regime, while we also need to look at the everyday aspects of the period. What can the secret police (StB) files tell us about everyday life?
I really wonder how you want to study repression without studying everyday life, because how can you study how people dealt with repression without seeing how they dealt with it in their everyday life? That’s where the notion of everyday life is seriously misunderstood in the Czech context and abused for political purposes. It is used by people to say that if you study everyday life, you deny that there was repression, which is just wrong. In reality, if you study everyday life, you see precisely how repression worked and this is what we need to know – this alleged triviality of everyday life is an ideological argument, not a historical or methodological one. The secret police files are one of the very good sources for mapping out the extent of repression, and that might include the extent of the lack of repression, as it might show how people internalized the notions of what was allowed or not allowed, forbidden or not forbidden, and what they could negotiate for themselves in terms of power relationships with the regime. It is a perfect source for that. Of course you must keep in mind that it is not the only one, you cannot base your entire analysis on this one source only; after all it shows you the point of view of the StB, it’s a top-down source that primarily shows you what the StB wanted to see, which is not necessarily the same as what actually happened. It shows what StB officers had to report to their superiors and what they were expected to say. To give just one example. In the sources from 1956 in the Czechoslovak StB files, there is not one single mention of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, although everyone knew about it, everyone talked about it. It was a serious source of concern for the Czechoslovak authorities, but you will not find a single mention of it in the archives. So you have to be aware that not everything is in the archives; it is not just black and white and if you turn it around, you will also not get white and black – that’s not the way it works. But StB files are an important source that can offer a very interesting angle on the way you can understand society at the time – namely, that the Czechoslovak communist regime in 1956 enjoyed a genuine degree of social, political, and economic legitimacy.
This black-and-whiteness you mention has also been at the centre of the critique by historians and others that the scholarship that will result from studying these archives will reproduce a dichotomy of victims and oppressors.
Well, only a very naïve scholar would say that, because the whole point of source criticism is that you don’t fall into this trap. The point of source criticism is to compare sources. It would be very ill-advised to base any study on only this one source alone, without contextualization. And since we are talking about the history of communism, oral history for instance is an excellent point of comparison since you can get the other side of the coin. Of course you get access to this other side only with years of delay in the stories of eye-witnesses, which you also have to factor in and analyse, but you can get the other side. There are also many other sources: the press, the foreign press, testimonies, literature. The bottom line is, you can only get a quite complete picture of any given period if you compare different kinds of sources.
Muriel Blaive is a socio-political historian of postwar, communist, and post-communist Central Europe, in particular of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. She graduated from the Institut d’études politiques in Paris and wrote her PhD in history at EHESS in Paris. Currently, she is Advisor to the Director for Research and Methodology at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (Prague). She has published widely on topics including de-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia, dissent and collaboration, the legacy of communism, the Beneš decrees, and the memory of the Holocaust.