Anticommunism is driving the Czech Republic dangerously close to Holocaust relativization
22. 5. 2023 / Muriel Blaive
“There is here a very high number of dead, at a time when we remember the Warsaw Uprising, there are here the trials from the communist era in Czechoslovakia as in the Soviet Union, etc. etc. Isn’t it dangerous from the point of view of a historian to relativize the Nazi or the communist regime? Can’t it come back?”
The fear that the crimes of communism might be relativized and that communism might “come back” resonates more and more often in the Czech public sphere. How realistic is it? And are communist crimes really comparable to Nazi crimes?
Česká verze tohoto článku vyšla v Deníku Referendum ZDE
Communism and Nazism were not equally murderous in Czechoslovakia
In Czechoslovakia, the eight-year Nazi occupation resulted in 360,000 victims (dead people), including 270,000 Jews exterminated in the frame of the Holocaust. The 41-year communist repression, on the other hand, caused 3,500 to 5,000 victims (dead people.) If we speak of genocide, on the territory of Czechoslovakia in its 1938 borders there was a genocide of the Jews and Roma by the Nazis (resulting in the almost complete disappearance of the Jewish minority from Czechoslovakia and of the Roma minority from Bohemia-Moravia); on the other hand, the Czechoslovak communist regime did not commit a genocide (i.e., a systematic murder) against any political or ethnic category of the population. Crimes against humanity were committed by the Nazis under the protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia and prosecuted at Nuremberg, but no Czechoslovak communist crime was prosecuted yet under the heading of crime against humanity, nor does it look likely any will ever be.
All told, within the borders of Czechoslovakia the Nazi regime was 70 to 100 times more murderous than the communist regime in a fifth of its duration. Does it amount to denying that there was communist repression, too, including a bloody one? No, it does not. Does it mean that anyone who died as a result of communist repression is less deserving of compassion than someone who died at the hand of the Nazis? No, it does not mean that. Is Milada Horáková, for instance, less worthy of our respect just because there were altogether “more victims” of Nazism than there were of communism in Czechoslovakia? Of course not. Political death (or torture, or repression) always is a tragedy, no matter the regime, no matter the number of people concerned – the life and bodily integrity of every single individual is sacred.
But the opposite is also true: is a Jewish victim who died at the hand of the Nazis less deserving of recognition that a victim of communist repression like Milada Horáková? I am pretty sure the answer Milada Horáková herself would have provided, all the more so that she herself had also been persecuted by the Nazis, would be an emphatic “no.” The Czech public needs to understand that by claiming that “communism and Nazism were equally murderous”, it is casting aside these (predominantly Jewish) 360,000 victims of Nazism as if they had not existed. It is their suffering which is relativized – which is incidentally forbidden by Czech law because this is akin to Holocaust denial. Does the Czech Republic really want to broadcast to the world that it has become antisemitic?
The weaponization of collective memory
There is in Central and Eastern Europe a mounting sense of frustration and even injustice at the way the EU treats the memory of communism compared to that of Nazism, in particular at the way it refuses to place a sign of equality between the two types of repression. But this refusal does not stem from a Western willingness to humiliate its Central European members nor from its unwillingness to recognize the extent of communist repression: it stems first and foremost from the figures. In every EU country that experienced both regimes, just like in the Czech Republic, the Nazi regime was considerably more murderous than the communist regime.
Communist regimes carried out of course several genocides in other communist countries: the Holodomor in Ukraine, the Cambodian genocide, as well as bouts of extreme terror in the Soviet Union, in Vietnam, and elsewhere. The point is not, ever, to disregard the level of individual and collective tragedy caused by murderous communist regimes. The question that concerns us here is whether it is pertinent to use the insane campaign of murders committed for instance under Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia as justification to outlaw the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia today. This is a question of politics, not of history. A more pertinent question would be to know if the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia ever carried out mass murder or advocated or justified such a crime.
Moreover, there is also the value of the symbol. The Nazis invented the death factory. I don’t know if the Czech public keeps in mind that we had here a regime which supported an entire industry of locating civilians across Europe, arresting them, deporting them in trains (imagine the logistics), triaging them, stripping them naked, and mass murdering them in gas chambers, load after load, every day for more than two years. We can imagine the logistics of gas production and delivery, building of the chambers, and functioning of the chambers on a daily basis, with an army of people tearing off gold teeth, robbing the belongings of the deceased, and shoveling mountains of corpses into fire pits. Let us also briefly mention the medical experiments carried out in the camps. And I am not even talking of the Shoah by bullets in the east of Europe, before Auschwitz, where 1,5 million civilians were rounded up village after village, marched to forests, forced to dig their own graves, stripped naked, and shot into pits before being submerged by ever more layers of gunned down civilians. The earth was moving for days afterwards under the effect of the gasses trapped underneath.
This monstrous design is unrivaled in European history, and this needs to be said and repeated. It is not denying the suffering resulting from the communist repression to say that the Nazi carrying out of the Holocaust is the most horrible event that ever happened on European soil. And yes, I know that the Gulag was inhumane and that to deliberately let people die of hunger was also horrible. In the following section, I propose to solve this “moral rivalry” conundrum.
Neither relativize the crimes of Nazism, nor trivialize the crimes of communism
To sum up so far, it is misleading to claim that communism and Nazism are “equally murderous” in general without clarifying where. It is certainly not true for Czechoslovakia, nor for any other country of Central Europe. We might say that if we include Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, and if we take into account the whole history of the communist movement, then communist regimes killed significantly more people over a century than the Nazi regimes did in Europe over twelve years. But how relevant is this global comparison?
It is not only misleading to instrumentalize the figures of repression: it is also incredibly unproductive and tasteless. To have “more dead” than someone else is not conducive to good politics, nor should it entitle anyone to moral superiority. To help the survivors of Nazism, communism, or any other dictatorship, to show compassion, to nurse their memory via public commemoration, to compensate them and rehabilitate them, to promote reconciliation and the rebuilding of the social fabric, is an incomparably more fruitful attitude.
Germany, which had to reunite in one country in 1990 the homeland of Nazism with the successor of a communist state, successfully avoided the moral trap of victimhood competition. Historian Bernd Faulenbach, who chaired the historical commission of the social-democratic party (SPD), pronounced the formula that was adopted in Germany and would spare the German state the disaster that a martyrology competition would have entailed. He advocated “neither to relativize the crimes of Nazism, nor to trivialize the crimes of communism.” This is the most humane recipe of conduct that can be. This level of nuance and respect for all victims could, and should, be a source of inspiration also in the rest of Europe.
Can communism come back if we admit that Nazism killed more than communism?
No, it cannot. It is completely unrelated. Why would communism need to have as many or more victims than Nazism to convince people not to vote for the communist party? This is absurd. Moreover, no society has ever benefited from misrepresenting the past. On the contrary, a democracy gets stronger as it earnestly examines its own past and educates its citizens as to the mistakes which must never be repeated. Czechs already don’t vote for the communist party anymore. However, if the country really doesn’t want to see the communist party, or any other extremist party, come to power, then it should lead an honest government that benefits all citizens. I must admit that as a historian I am puzzled by some of the choices the Czech state made after 1989. It claimed to break with the past, but it denied Czech passports to the children of the people who had emigrated for political reasons and were born abroad. It also systematically appealed against the people who won their trial against the ministry of Interior after wrongly finding their names on the Cibulka list of StB collaborators. Was it really judicious for the Czech state to perpetuate the toxic influence of the StB on social fabric even after 1989?
If Czech elites don’t want a frustrated population, they should work on perfecting the justice system. Why were so few communist perpetrators ever put on trial? Why did the administration hinder rather than facilitate the work of ÚDV (the Institute for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism)? Why have all efforts to indict communist criminals nearly stopped today while older Nazi criminals are still put on trial elsewhere in Europe? Why has the notion of crime against humanity never been invoked against communist criminals in the Czech Republic while other former communist countries have done so?
If they want to prevent the communist or any other extremist party from grabbing power, Czech political and intellectual elites would also be more inspired to fight against the economic inequality and corruption that have flourished in this country since 1989 and that have poisoned the everyday life of ordinary Czechs. Is it normal that one million people are under foreclosure? Is it normal that we have so many billionaires while many ordinary people are struggling to make a living? Do we seriously believe that communism might come back if the media acknowledge that Nazism killed more than communism in this country, while people would mysteriously fail to notice the level of corruption and poverty today?
Anticommunists need to get a grip with “revisionist history”
The notion of revisionist history has been twisted and turned in the Czech Republic to mean “denial of communist repression.” I do not know precisely how this misunderstanding came about. It is true that a few of the very first revisionist historians in the US at the beginning of the 1970s produced a highly dubious narrative, arguing for instance that Stalin had no power. But they were rapidly marginalized and ridiculed, and other revisionists produced from the very beginning some of the finest scholarly works on Soviet communism, for instance Sheila Fitzpatrick. In any case, at the latest from the 1980s, revisionist history, which entails, to cut a long story short, a vision of history that is socio-political rather than simply political, became firmly established in both Nazi and communist history. It is by now the dominant methodological trend in Western Europe.
And yet, by a strange anachronistic twist, a majority of intellectual elites here still firmly believe that revisionism is synonymous to denial. Elsewhere in Europe and in the Western world, to be revisionist is to be normal – it is to be a traditionalist historian that is frowned upon and criticized. In Germany, the most prestigious research institute dealing with the communist past, the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam, created in 1992 with Eastern and Western German historians, is based on the principles of revisionist history: i.e., on the knowledge that it is insufficient and misleading to blame the carrying out of dictatorial regimes on an abstract sense of “evil”, while society would be divided only between perpetrators, victims, and traitors.
The Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies in Dresden is led by one of the founding researchers of the ZZF and my former boss at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna, revisionist historian Thomas Lindenberger. In Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, in the US, the UK, France, Spain, Italy, etc., the best and most stimulating historical production on communism in East Central Europe can be called “revisionist.” At the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague, and also at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, a large part of the historical production is “revisionist.” Does it mean that it denies communist repression? Of course not. On the contrary it is an ideal method to deconstruct repression, so as to better analyze its mechanisms. Revisionism is a good methodology to reveal suffering. It is especially a good methodology in the Czech case as it reveals intimate details of a repression the people were submitted to almost in silence for forty-one years.
Contrary to a widely held belief, everyday life history is the best way to study repression
An even stranger myth, which also is a Czech specificity, is the oft-repeated statement that the study of everyday life is a method to trivialize communist repression. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Where else but in everyday life can the historian detect paths of domination that were not spectacular, yet were toxic for ordinary people? If a Czechoslovak citizen was quietly threatened and blackmailed by an StB agent, this will not come out in traditional political history: no blood was involved, no outward drama was recorded, no revolution took place. Yet this person was a victim of the police and, if they submitted and agreed to collaborate, also, simultaneously, a participant in the repressive regime. This intricacy of motivations, this perversion of the dictatorship, is best uncovered by everyday life history. If we want to state that communism was “evil”, then let us specify that it was mainly evil in the way it turned people into their own police by leading them to surveil each other: this is what Václav Havel called the “auto-totality of society.” Incidentally, in this sense also Václav Havel is an honorary revisionist historian.
A final word on everyday life and repression: no one has analyzed in greater detail the perverse logic of Stalinist repression than everyday life and revisionist historian Wendy Goldman. Instead of claiming as her political historian predecessors that “Stalinism was repressive” and resulted in “so many million dead”, she analyzed how and why it was repressive. How did we come to the high number of victims of the 1930s repression campaign? How did people embark into a massive campaign of denunciations? How were they led to become their own police and accuse each other? Goldman shows that this repression went out of hand even from the point of view of the authorities because of the logic of public self-criticism that entailed a snowball of denunciations. This is more useful to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past than by comparing global figures of Nazism and communism out of context.
So, in short: no, everyday life and revisionist history does not amount to denying the extent of communist repression. On the contrary it is the only way to really document it in all its complexity.
Why is the Czech public sphere so retrograde when it comes to modern historical methodologies?
The strange Czech belief that social history in its various forms is a way to deny communist repression is a peculiarity that is difficult to explain. I blame the misapprehension of revisionist, social, and everyday life history on the heritage left by the communist regime itself. Almost nowhere else but in Czechoslovakia was the subjugation of social sciences to the official ideology so pronounced. Poles and Hungarians had a much better access to Western social sciences at the time, with a samizdat market that operated on a much bigger scale. East Germans had linguistic access to the historical production of West Germany. But Czechs and Slovaks remained stuck in a tiny intellectual bubble and were fully submitted to the distaste and contempt of the communist regime for social sciences and critical reflection. The methodology of contemporary history thus remained here in a form that was common elsewhere only until in the first half of the twentieth century, if not the nineteenth century, i.e., with a naïve belief in “facts”, “archival documents”, and “historical truth.” A great number of historians are now back to international level, but society remains curiously conservative in this regard.
Yet no one should know better than Czechs that facts can be twisted, and “historical truth” is rewritten by whoever is in power. The best way, and in fact the only way, to build a strong and critical civil society, a society capable of deconstructing populist narratives on its own, is to educate the public about how to approach sources and narratives in a critical way.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past (William Faulkner)
This is incidentally what the educational department of ÚSTR was doing with consummate professionalism before it collectively resigned in view of the pressures exerted on it by the new ÚSTR leadership. As so often in the past, history is being dictated by politics.
The historical lesson of the day remains clear, however: beware of people who discourage any expression of critical mind, they are usually no friends of democracy. It would be sad to see the Czech Republic turn the corner of populism and start to rewrite history not only of communism, but also of Nazism. To avoid falling into the trap of relativizing the Holocaust is an important first step.