Manifestation : Atelier : Silence et prise de parole dans les sociétés de type soviétique
Date : 11 novembre 2011
Lieu : Vienne, Ludwig Boltzmann Institut
Responsable : Muriel Blaive
Programme : Silence et prise de parole dans les sociétés de type soviétique. Etude de cas : les intellectuels communistes
Texte de Muriel Blaive (muriel(AT)cefres.cz)
Draft. Please do not quote without author’s consent.
History of communism in Central Europe can be read as a history of domination, resistance, collaboration and accomodation. In his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance, anthropologist James Scott shows that the practice of domination always creates a « hidden transcript », both among the dominant(s) and the subordinate(s), and a « public transcript. » The public transcript « refers to an action that is openly avowed to the other party in the power relationship »(()), it is the « official story » ; the private transcript refers to what actually hides « behind the official story », a « critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant » as far as the subordinates are concerned, and « claims of their rule that cannot be openly avowed » as far as the powerful are concerned.(()) Mundanely put, we always speak and behave differently in front of our superiors, equals, and subordinates. Social and power relations entail a permanent adjustment and readjustment of our conduct, speech and attitude.
On the basis of an ethnographical study of Malay peasants and of numerous examples taken from literature on slavery, serfdom and caste subordination, James Scott convincingly claims that a « comparison of the hidden transcript of the weak with that of the powerful, and of both hidden transcripts to the public transcript of power relations offers a substantially new way of understanding resistance to domination. »(()) Were the hidden transcripts more carefully dissected and analyzed, and the energy source they constitute for a potential rebellion taken into account, social eruptions which see a seemingly all-powerful rule suddenly collapse like in Central Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, or even after a single act of defiance like in Tunisia’s 2011 ‘Jasmine Revolution’ (Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation(()) ), would cause much less astonishment. Ruling elites (and social scientists) are « often taken by surprise by the rapidity with which an apparently deferential, quiescent, and loyal subordinate group is catapulted into mass defiance » because « they have been lulled into a false sense of security by the normal posing of the powerless. »(()) Decoding the « hidden transcript » is the only way to overcome these appearances and to reach the social reality beyond. For us historians it is also a precious tool to retrospectively analyze the relations between the rulers and the ruled under a past dictatorship.
If in this project Scott was primarily concerned with « resistance », the issues we may have in analyzing communist and post-communist Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic include also the other face of the coin when dealing with power and domination, i.e. collaboration or at least, in less dramatic terms, accomodation to the rule on a daily basis. Drawing on Scott’s demonstration, I argue that the ideal method to deconstruct hidden transcripts and to analyze the discrepancy – or conformity ! – between the hegemonic public conduct and the backstage discourse resides, in the case of contemporary history as a discipline, in microhistorical studies based on oral history. Even more to the point, it lies in comparative microhistorical studies. Since the advantage of contemporary history is that witnesses are still alive, interviews are ideal to deconstruct and analyze subordinate and dominant discourses, to decode power relations, and to examine both the « key roles played by disguise and surveillance » in these power relations(()) and the equally key role played by the adaptation of the public transcript to pre-existing sources of legitimacy which the communist regime, as any efficient or relatively efficient ruler, managed to preempt, redefine and (ab)use when taking over power, in order to create and claim a definite amount of popular support.
To substantiate my claim that comparative microhistory is a useful methodological tool to study communism’s social cosmos, I make my argument in three stages.
First, I discuss the predominant resort in the Czech context to a tailor-made, home-grown definition of ‘totalitarianism’ when referring to the communist past. By analyzing the shortcomings of this approach, I point at the ability of microhistorical studies to challenge this theoretical discourse. I argue that they contradict in an essential way visions which present themselves as intrinsically valid for the whole country but which amount to abstract ideologies disconnected from the situation on the ground.
Second, I illustrate my point by switching to field work. I attempt, on the basis of an oral history study I led from 2006 to 2008 in České Velenice, a small Czech town at the border to Austria, to reconstruct essential features of the Czechoslovak communist rule. These results would have been clearly unattainable had I sticked to the ‘Czech totalitarian approach‘, which will allow me to strongly argue in favour of microhistory.
And lastly, I refer to our program at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and Public Spheres in Vienna, where we collect microstudy cases as a way to do comparative history of communism.(()) The conventional comparative level in international scholarship is that of the country – or, in ‘Western‘ terms, of the ‘nation‘ –, which is legitimate insofar as communism was state-centered. But one can extend the possibilities of comparison for instance to given institutions, like factories, within a given country(()) or by juxtaposing intra- or inter-national (local) cases.
In this latter frame, the comparison level we have chosen is that of border communities. To show how useful this comparative method can be, I then oppose my České Velenice case to another field study I conducted in the Slovak town of Komárno at the border to Hungary, interviewing both Slovaks and Slovak Hungarians. I finally attempt on the basis of this comparison to derive some generalities concerning the Czechoslovak communist rule which can answer to the situation in the whole country, or even contribute to the history of communism as such, without contradicting these two specific cases. This will finalize my case in favour of comparative microhistorical studies as a way to contribute to history of communism.
Microhistory is a valid method for studying communism : the Czech case
Considering the quality and amount of scholarship written on East Germany(()), or even on Poland(()) and Hungary(()), it might appear superfluous to underline that microhistory is a valid method for studying communist countries and that it has significantly contributed to our knowledge of communist rule. Yet if the reader might bear with the following explanations, in the Czech context it is not such an established point of reference since neither micro-, nor everyday or even oral history are much developed as far as history of the communist and post-communist period is concerned.(()) There have been only very few such studies worked out since 1989, and most of what does exist has been written by sociologists or anthropologists in the form of qualitative research rather than by historians.(())
The reason for this state of being is that Czech historiography of communism has generally developed since 1989 a « strict concern with political history. »(()) This « one-dimensional approach » is « indebted to a simplified theory of totalitarianism, stressing coertion at the cost of consent as the foundation of dictatorial regimes », an orientation which « brought about a narrowing of themes and questions. »(()) The predominant narrative has been one of victimization, which progressively came to be symbolized in the course of the 1990s and even more in the 2000s by the use of the term ‘totalita‘ (totality.) It culminated in 2007 with the creation of the Institute for the Study of Totalita[rian] Regimes (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů), an ‘institute of national memory’ on the German and Polish model. Research in the past twenty years, even if and when it is of good quality, has been centered on show trials, dissent, repression and resistance and/or around the three key events of the Czechoslovak communist rule : 1948 (the takeover), 1968 (the Prague Spring) and 1989 (the Velvet Revolution.) Monographs are the exception, source editing is the rule.(())
« Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it », opens law 181/2007 which created what I coin the ‘Totalita institute.’ « The Parliament of the Czech Republic, aware of its duty to cope with the consequences of the totalitarian and authoritative regimes of the 20th century, hereby expresses its will to investigate and recall the consequences of the activity of criminal organizations based on the Communist and Nazi ideologies advocating suppression of human rights and rejecting the principles of a democratic state in the years 1938-1945 and 1948-1989. »(()) The mission of the institute as defined by the law is not only explicitly to document the « systematic destruction of the traditional values of European civilization, deliberate violation of human rights and freedoms, moral and economic decline accompanied with judicial crimes and terror against proponents of different opinions […] »(()) but implicitly, since no other indication is given, to research only in the direction of this repression and of an a priori expected, corresponding resistance.
The increasing domination of the ‘totalita narrative’
In what we could call a national transcript, i.e. a collective point of reference in public and private speech, both among academics, political elites, journalists and average citizens, people commonly say ‘under totalita’ to say ‘under communism.’ But despite the fact that historians have increasingly come to analyze the ‘totalita’ period in the frame of the ‘totalita’ paradigm, to the best of my knowledge no epistemological reflection was ever led on the difference between ‘totalitarianism’ (‘totalitarismus’ in Czech) and ‘totalita.’ Both terms are being used indifferently and interchangeably in academia(()) as well as in standard or even specialized dictionaries (()) (including in translations from Western languages), yet ‘totalita’ has little in common with Hannah Arendt’s theory in its original subtelty, especially as regards the population’s participation to the domination scheme.(())
In the absence of a public definition of the difference between the two terms, one of the first ‘explanations’ of totalita in post-1989 historical works can be found in a 1995 article by Milan Otáhal in the journal Soudobé dějiny :
The years 1969-1989 constitute the final stage of the communist totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia. […] November 1989 simultaneously put an end to the period of totalita, which constituted a definite anomaly in Czech history, and opened a new phase characterized by the return to the original values of European civilization.(())
As there was no mass terror anymore in the 1969-1989 era, the « communist totalitarian rule » cannot be seriously meant here in a strict sense, nor can it be equalled to the 1948-1953 period in a long-term filiation, as opposed to what the formulation « final stage » would imply. But for the vast majority of authors, academics as well as journalists, totalita did come to implicitly equate, at various degrees, a denial of the Czech democratic tradition because of police repression, an unforgivable and irreversible moral disqualification.(()) The communist regime’s resort to violence means that this period has been excluded from any legitimate place in a Czech history permeated with the quest for a national (democratic) identity, what Pavel Kolář and Michal Kopeček call the « paradigm of nation-centered history. »(()) Collective dealing with the communist past through this original denial has translated into a persistent refraining from the vast majority of Czech contemporary historians to publicly confront and analyze the population’s role in accepting and maintaining the communist dictatorship for over forty years, i.e. to concentrate on, or even only consider, collaboration and accomodation to the communist rule. Everyday and oral history would have been ideal methodological tools in this perspective ; this is why they are correspondingly underdeveloped.(())
A few historians don’t feel bound by this implicit, but unacknowleged and hence undiscussed, intellectual frame and their works are shedding a highly interesting light on Czech communism. Michal Kopeček’s recent volume Seeking the revolution’s lost meaning. Birth and development of marxist revisionism in Central Europe, 1953-1960 offers a counter-narrative both to right-wing anti-communist fundamentalists and to left-wing supporters of ‘drawing a thick line over the past’ (and thus forgetting about history of communism) with the words : « If we want to understand our own national, Central European or European past, we have to understand the [historical] defects [of nazism and communism] not as something external, un-organic, standing outside of us, but as an essential component of our own past and thus of our identity. »(()) The totalita paradigm would fail not only to explain, but even to restitute, the internal rifts and intellectual diversity within an allegedly monolithic system at the beginning of the 1950s which the author describes and analyzes here.
Michal Pullmann, in his volume on Perestroika and the Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia also claims the « necessity to put aside our prejudices concerning normalization, to stop demonizing it and to acknowledge that it is not useless to analyze the speeches of Yuri Andropov or of Lubomír Štrougal. […] At the same time, it is important not to remain at the level of the communist leadership or of the oppositional circles, but to subject other sections of pre-revolutionary society to a detailed examination. »(()) Both volumes bring to the knowledge of communist Czechoslovak intellectual and economic history and point to the insufficiences of the totalita narrative by unveiling a complex social reality beneath the public transcript of domination.
Reaching beyond the surface
In his volume, James Scott comes up with a vivid anthropological description of social actors’ agenda. In the epigraph to his own text, he quotes sentences pronounced by president Václav Havel in May, 1990 : « Society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and […] it is extremely shortsighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face. None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population. » His other epigraph, an Ethiopian proverb, phrases a similar contents in irreverent terms : « When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts. »
The totalita narrative’s most prominent shortcoming is that it fails to go beyond the « hegemonic purpose » made apparent by displays of domination and consent.(()) On the surface, the public transcript provides an illusionary appearance of power relations through a « stereotyped, ritualistic cast. » In simpler terms, « the more menacing the power, the thicker the mask » of subordination on the part of the ruled.(()) Yet this picture of absolute power and domination is misleading. The reality of social relations was, and remains, infinitely more complex :
First, the public transcript is an indifferent guide to the opinion of subordinates. (…) At the very least, an assessment of power relations read directly off the public transcript between the powerful and the weak may portray a deference and consent that are possibly only a tactic. Second, to the degree that the dominant suspect that the public transcript may be « only » a performance, they will discount its authenticity. It is but a short step from such skepticism to the view, common among many dominant groups, that those beneath them are deceitful, shamming, and lying by nature. Finally, the questionable meaning of the public transcript suggests the key roles played by disguise and surveillance in power relations. Subordinates offer a performance of deference and consent while attempting to discern, to read, the real intentions and mood of the potentially threatening powerholder.
In consequence, we can appreciate why « even close readings of historical and archival evidence tend to favor a hegemonic account of power relations. »(()) If social scientists take the strategic pose of the powerless and the overdramatization of the powerful’s mastery at face value, they fail to restitute the vast world of social interacting, of micro-resistance but also of micro-collaboration, what German historian Alf Lüdtke calls the « agenda » of social actors (Eigen-Sinn), which is lying behind this appearance wall :
The theatrical imperatives that normally prevail in situations of domination produce a public transcript in close conformity with how the dominant group would wish to have things appear. The dominant never control the stage absolutely, but their wishes normally prevail. In the short run, it is in the interest of the subordinate to produce a more or less credible performance, speaking the lines and making the gestures he knows are expected from him. […] In ideological terms the public transcript will typically, by its accomodationist tone, provide convincing evidence for the hegemony of dominant values, for the hegemony of dominant discourse. […] Any analysis based exclusively on the public transcript is likely to conclude that subordinate groups endorse the terms of their subordination and are willing, even enthusiastic, partners to their subordination.
We might argue that this faulty reading of the public transcript is in a way an anthropological, current transcription of certain aspects of Arendt’s totalitarianism’s theory – which were illuminating in the 1940s and 1950s but which, as is shown here, need readjustment today. Like the original totalitarian theory, the totalita narrative doesn’t ascribe much interest to private transcripts, but it is also much more superficial : its opportunistic first or second-degree reading of the public transcript (either as the ‘truth’ or as the ‘exact opposite of the truth’) leads it to the pre-drawn problematique, in any given power situation, that subordinate groups were either forced into submission without any agenda of their own (the process of daily compromission is turned into a mere reaction to abject terror) and this, regardless of the period under study (stalinism, post-stalinism, Prague Spring or normalization(()) ), or that they heroically engaged into anti-regime activities, or that they betrayed their family or their nation.(())
Human beings in all their complexity tend to be classified into superficial categories of ‘victims’, ‘heroes’ and ‘traitors’, practically without any in-between.(()) In this logic, social actors who implement any micro-agenda of their own, for instance James Scott’s ‘farting peasant’, tend to become ‘anti-communist activists’, people who try to negotiate a micro-deal for a punctual issue in their lives become ‘resistants’, people who surrender to a micro-concession become ‘agents’, people who are unjustly arrested for any offence become ‘heroes’ as long as the offence in question was not clearly criminal(()) – or sometimes even in that case : journalist and civil rights activist Petr Uhl has criticized the new law proposition on the so-called ‘Third Resistance’ (an armed resistance to the communist rule of debatable size, motivation and modus operandi but held in high esteem by the proponents of the ‘totalita institute’) by pointing out that half of the designated ‘heroes’ inventoried by historians Prokop Tomek and Ivo Pejčoch, who were executed by the communist regime, had been prosecuted for criminal offences before the communist takeover.(())
As we will now see, micro- and oral history are adequate tools to fight this systematic ideological overinterpretation. The « meaning of the appearances can be known only by comparing it with subordinate discourses outside of power-laden situations »(()), i.e., in our case by interviewing ‘small people’, ‘regular’ social actors and local elites.
České Velenice, a small town at the border to Austria
In the course of the Velenice project, I led 40 interviews of town people on their life at the border under communism and post-communism, as well as on their perceptions and images of Austrians and of themselves, all semi-directive.((For a discussion of the methodology and for a full presentation of the results, see Muriel Blaive, « České Velenice, eine Stadt an der Grenze zur Österreich » (České Velenice, a Town at the Border to Austria), in Muriel Blaive and Berthold Molden, Grenzfälle. Österreichische und tschechische Erfahrungen am Eisernen Vorhang (Border Cases. Austrian and Czech Experiences of the Iron Curtain) (Weitra, Bibiothek der Provinz, 2009), 137-270. The interviews quoted here are taken from this volume.)) I proceeded by ‘snow-ball effect’, although maintaining as much as possible equal proportions between genders and generations (approximately 20-, 40-, 60- and 80-year-olds) and representing a variety of social backgrounds, with however a predominance of workers and employees due to the town’s economic structure.
The Iron Curtain entailed a tough border regime in Czechoslovakia, all the more so in České Velenice that, like East Berlin, the town was literally sitting on the border (before 1918, it constituted the industrial suburb of the Austrian town of Gmünd) and the Forbidden Border Zone was sometimes no wider than 25 meters. The predicament of living in a town in eye’s view of the capitalist enemy was that people had to participate in the guarding of the border by denouncing potential escapees – and by denoucing each other if they failed to denounce these escapees. Auxiliary Borderguards, i.e. civilians (very often workers) who denounced trespassers to the border guards and were even entitled to arrest them under certain circumstances, were massively recruited among the local population. Olga Rájová, a 58-year old industrial photographer who moved into town from the hinterland in the 1970s, describes the social atmosphere :
O.R. Here I disliked it from the very first moment. Even the people were somehow close-minded, they were mean, I don’t know, I don’t know. I disliked it from the first and I still dislike it.
M.B. How would it show that people were rude ?
O.R. Like this : here, every other person was an ‘Auxiliary‘, either at the border guards or at the police. They denounced each other, they hid things from one another, they envied each other.
M.B. What would they denounce, for instance ?
O.R. Small crap things, I would say. Nobody had any relationships, there was nothing here, actually everything was monitored. […] And the people have remained the same [until now.] I tell you, it will take another two generations before the people mix up with others, before these things are slowly forgotten, before it becomes different.
What these interviews rapidly revealed is indeed the extent to which this surveillance and control network was oriented against the town’s own collective body, i.e. the extent to which it was a self-surveillance and self-control network. The interviewees collectively estimated that perhaps up to half of the town population was spying on behalf of one or another of the state authorities, as did a documentary film from state-owned Krátký film shot in 1990 which sneered : « As it were, half of the population in the border region was collaborating with the borderguard units. »(()) In the absence of nearly any research on this topic in the Czech Republic, this claim is at the moment impossible to substantiate but it is not unrealistic in view of German findings currently being worked out at the research department of the German Federal Commissioner for Stasi Files (BStU) and elsewhere.(())
Focussing on the grim reality of communist Czechoslovakia hence means confronting the issue of the collaboration of the population with the secret police (StB), or the other services that used civilians for denunciation purposes, i.e. the army and the border guards. But the social practice of denunciation has to be analyzed in the context of a permanent negotiation taking place between the rulers and the ruled on the precise terms of the domination scheme. Former dissident, then president Václav Havel analyzed already in the 1970s in his famous essay The Power of the Powerless the ideological language which allowed this negotiation to take place. He grounds his analysis on a fictitious character, a greengrocer who puts the sign Workers of the world, unite! in his shop window in order to display his compliance with the socio-political order :
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan « I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient“ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, « What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting? » Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power.(())
The agreement upon such a ‘slogan’ is what James Scott would call a public transcript. In everyday life under communist rule, respecting the public transcript allowed negotiations to take place between the people and regime. The bargaining process of a tit for a tat was made possible by the ideological, official language : ‘I sign this paper supporting socialism, but you let my child go to university.’ – ‘I write reports on this colleague sabotaging the working morale by his criticism of socialism but you promote me to the position which I deserve.’ – ‘I join the party and officially support the regime of popular democracy but you let me buy this plot of land to build my house.’ To quote Havel again, « The primary excusatory function of ideology is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. »(()) As he underlines it, people move in this logic from supporting the system to becoming the system.
To save appearances, however, both parties always negotiate in the realm of what is potentially acceptable for the other party. This is illustrated by the testimony of Jiří Tajemný, a train driver from České Velenice whom I interviewed and who was ‘offered’ (in reality: pressed) to step into the communist party [KSČ] :
I had two small children then, so I stepped into the KSČ and then they tried to drag me into the Militia and there I resisted. I told them I would not go carrying weapons in any militia, and that was it.
If a mutual agreement was shattered by a vehement refusal, for instance : ‘You will not get a visa to go to Spain’ ; ‘I will not carry any weapons and join the militia’, the other party usually did not insist and a compromize was sought on a new base ; a new public transcript was brokered. The problem is of course to know when a person found the strength to resist and to negotiate a better deal : some refused to become even a party member, some refused to become an informant or a member of the militia, some refused everything and some refused nothing. Fear is not a quantifiable entity and the authorities resorted to the worst types of blackmailing and pressure to lead people to ‘voluntarily’ behave in the way which they expected of them.
But as in all negotiation, counterparts were offered and sought. České Velenice’s inhabitants were forced to live in a severely policed town and to watch each other, but the train drivers had privileged access to foreign consumer goods since they were allowed to travel to Austria and to the rest of the Eastern bloc, most people had outstanding housing conditions compared to the rest of the country and many benefited from an excellent education (the Velenice railways gymnasium was renowned) and from a genuine social mobility upward. The fact that the town was secluded and shut down also from the rest of the country rendered it in a way claustrophobic but also exceptionally safe, quiet and protected.
České Velenice’s situation was not the result of an abstract ‘totalitarian’, evil system, but of a real, concrete, compromize on a daily basis. Josefa Kramárová, a 38-year old train station employee, analyzes how the denunciation logic and the overwhelming police presence defined social relations in town :
J.K. Here, there was a policeman behind each corner, they searched you, they escorted people all the way to their houses, there was simply a lot of denunciation going on, you see ?, there was a real totalitarian crassness here. […]
M.B. You said people denounced each other. Did they know it about each other or was it secret ?
J.K. They knew it.
M.B. And they didn’t mind ?
J.K. Well, like this they had [the others] in their palm, they had something on them, everybody had something on everybody else like this.
M.B. It must have been a very unpleasant atmosphere.
J.K. It was their own mistake. I guess it suited them in a way, considering how they splashed about in this [mud], I guess they simply liked it.
In fact, she intuitively underlines the importance of the citizens’ own involvement in a form of bargain with the regime :
M.B. Why was the regime so tough here and not somewhere else ?
J.K. Because people created this among themselves. They made it worse.
M.B. Because they collaborated with the border guards, the militia, the StB ?
J.K. Yeah, they simply went too far. The people themselves denounced each other. They simply made it worse. Not the regime but the people made it tougher for themselves in this regime. People created this themselves !
Police repression and threats played a crucial role in creating this particular atmosphere, and without it this state of affairs would not have endured, but actual violence was not resorted to on a massive scale in České Velenice. The benefit of switching scales(()) and of observing a small community so to speak with a microscope resides precisely here : the communist regime lasted in time and was rooted in society only because the people themselves participated in the repression policy by surveying and denouncing each other. Judging by the number of secret police informants uncovered in the archives after 1989 (some 160,000(()) of them guided by more than 12,000 full-time functionaries for a 15 million population(()) – and in fact disproportionately concentrated on the 10-million Czech part of Czechoslovakia), the generalization potential of this discovery at the level of the Czech nation cannot be questioned.
Four findings on communist rule as derived from České Velenice
To summarize my findings concerning the cmmunist rule in general as I could derive them from my České Velenice microstudy, I would cite these four elements :
the acute awareness on the part of the interviewees themselves that life under communism was a history of simultaneous collaboration and resistance and that the thin line between the two was going through each and every individual. As one of my interviewees put it when describing the atmosphere of massive denunciation which was reigning in town, « People created this themselves ! » ; and as another one put it in a parable about the border : « The border between good and bad was not so clear. Why should it be ? Nothing is like this in life. »
social relations between the rulers and the ruled were permeated by a permanent bargaining process, in which the regime and the population negotiated and renegotiated the price of the subordinates’ continued subordination. The rise of consumer society in Europe in the 1970s combined with regular shortages which exacerbated the Czech consumer’s appetite turned consumer goods into a major negotiation factor in this process.
the relative success of communist rule was predicated on capturing the ‘national transcript‘ of Czech culture : egalitarianism, democracy (understood by the communists in the sense of increased social security and social equality, if not as political democracy) and anti-German/Austrian feelings, which the communist regime confiscated to its own benefit with consumate professionalism. The role of propaganda was here crucial.
and finally, a uniform domination doesn’t exist. Terror exerted against individuals and arbitrariness do pervade the relationship between the rulers and the ruled even in the moments when they exist only as threats and are not applied ; but as a counterpart, « subordinates in such large-scale structures of domination nevertheless have a fairly extensive social existence outside the immediate control of the dominant. »(()) In a perspective in which the issues of dignity and autonomy are privileged, social reality becomes more complex than the outward appearance of a police state. « Slaves and surfs ordinarily dare not contest the terms of their subordination openly. Behind the scenes, though, they are likely to create and defend a social space in which offstage dissent to the official transcript of power relations may be voiced »(()), i.e. in historical terms, to have their own agenda (Eigen-Sinn.)
None of these findings is earth-shattering in comparison to similar studies led in Germany, Poland or Hungary. However, it shows that Czechs experienced a comparable predicament to their neighbours. The historical and political elites who are now trying to promote a thoroughly anti-communist ‘1989 ideology’, would certainly not be wishing to hear that « People created this themselves » or that « The border between good and bad was not so clear. » If only for this intellectual challenge, microhistory is fundamental. Let us however proceed to my second point : microhistory has its own intrinsic value as a comparative method.
Microhistory as a comparative method: the case of Komárno
The classic criticism addressed to microhistory as a discipline is that generalizations of single cases might be misleading or hazardous, that they are sometimes too predicated on the specific to bring a relevant contribution to the global picture. at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and Public Spheres in Vienna, we collect and confront microstudy cases as a way to do comparative history of communism – between different countries but also within single countries, namely among border communities. To show how useful this comparative method can be, I will now oppose my České Velenice case to another field study I conducted in the Slovak town of Komárno at the border to Hungary.(())
If České Velenice was part of the Austrian town of Gmünd before 1918, Komárno was part of the Hungarian town of Komárom. Both are avatars of the Allies favourable disposition towards newly-born Czechoslovakia in the post-World War I settlement. But this redrawing of the map created sizable ethnic minorities (Austrians in České Velenice, Hungarians in Komárno, which constituted in fact some 80% of the latter’s population under the First Republic) and fueled nationalist resentment in both cases. Democratic Czechoslovakia and authoritarian Hungary entertained hostile relations in the interwar period. Southern Slovakia was reoccupied by Hungarian troops after the 1938 Vienna Awards under Hitler’s patronage, just like Bohemia was invaded by Nazi Germany.(())
To British observers, the hatred against Germans in Bohemia after the war was equalled only by the hatred against Hungarians in Slovakia.(()) Yet the parallel ends here. President Beneš wanted to expell 200,000 Hungarians from Slovakia but this request was rejected at the Potsdam Conference in August, 1945 and replaced by the principle of a population exchange.(()) The Slovak Hungarians were also expropriated on the basis of the ‘Beneš Decrees’ (just like the Sudeten Germans, the ‘collaborators’ and the ‘traitors.’) An agreement was signed in 1946 with unhappy Hungarian state representatives(()), as well as a peace treaty in 1947, which reestablished the 1938 borders.(()) Relations were very bad between the two countries, including among communists.(()) But all in all, ‘only‘ 50,000 Hungarians were sent to Hungary, while another 50,000 was deported to Bohemia, although the latter were allowed to come back in the 1950s and their citizenship and minority rights were progressively restituted by the communist regime.
This situation partly explains why the public and hidden transcripts in Komárno have been very different from those in České Velenice. The two towns were part of the same country for 75 years but have been worlds apart in the way they have experienced communism and post-communism. In České Velenice, as we have seen, the Iron Curtain border was invested with a high political significance. It was heavily guarded and ascribed the highly symbolical value of defending the country against the so-called ‘Western threat.’ It was overdetermined by rule and domination.
In Komárno, the border didn’t have such a crucial political importance, since Hungary was also a communist country. Both regimes were eager to prevent any trouble with the Slovak Hungarians. Kádár’s Hungary did not want to be accused of encouraging Hungarian revisionism and Husák’s Czechoslovakia feared the contamination potential of a regime which was more liberal than its own. The two governments thus agreed to limit contacts despite their citizens’ numerous overcrossing family ties. On the Slovak side, visas were limited to a maximum of two a year, which could be extended to four a year for the borderland population.
The main human and historical issues in Komárno thus have little to do with communism, collaboration, or dealing with the communist past. Because the local Komárno population was not mobilized to take part in the border guarding, the issue of collaboration is greatly relativized. Because the people were not massively ‘compromized’ before 1989, they don’t have to deal with this issue today. The most striking trait in the Komárno interviews is in fact the absence of interest for socio-political and ideological issues. Pell-mell, communism, democracy, Hungarian fascism, listening to Radio Free Europe, belonging to the communist party, the differences between the Hungarian and the Czechoslovak communist regimes, settling accounts with the old communist system, 1956, 1968, 1989, even 1993 (the establishment of the new Slovak state), or Slovak politics, are all items which prompted indifferent and absent-minded responses from the interviewees.
The question of nationalities
If it was more or less spared this collaboration ordeal, the Komárno population had to deal, however, with another type of historical predicament: that of having to share one territory between two ethnic communities. Since the 1920 Trianon treaty, the Hungarians in Komárno and in Slovakia in general have been mobilizing their energies, if not obsessing, with their own identity in their new national status. The salient essentialist and metaphysical issue at stake in both Komárno communities is one of mirrored identity: for the Hungarians as a minority in Slovakia and for the Slovaks as a minority in the town. The interviewees had much to say on these topics and I questioned them in detail on how they conceive of their own cohabitation, on language questions, parents and children, school and education, national and state loyalty, and on their relationship to Hungarians from Hungary. I led 30 interviews, out of which 20 with Slovak Hungarians of all generations and 10 with Slovaks (so as to answer to the ethnic proportion in the town.)
The communist rulers didn’t manage nor even attempt to deny this existential question ; they instrumentalized it to redefine the local public transcript. The regime was judged by the Komárno population not only on the realm of its socio-economic program or utopian ideology (although it did seduce about 30% of them, in a town after all solidly industrial, to vote for the communist party already before the Second World War), but mainly on the place it could offer to the Hungarians as a national minority in Slovakia and to Slovaks as a national minority in Komárno.
This switch in the people’s central issues of concern as compared to the České Velenice inhabitants exerted a significant influence on the historical perception of the Hungarian interviewees. In my sample, they collectively share a vision of history in which the ideological question is reduced to its national dimension. The issue is not whether communism was better as a regime than democracy, but of how the Hungarians have been treated as a national minority under either regime. I had a surprising dialogue with an 85-year old Hungarian worker, during which I had a hard time to figure out who he meant as being « the democratic president » :
G.C. I was born in 1923 under the First Czechoslovak Republic. At the time we Hungarians had more rights than now. Then the Hungarians were oppressed. I think it’s not right.
M.B. When ?
G.C. Until there was democracy, or whatever it is called. Because what’s his name, the president who brought home the Hungarians from the Czech Republic ?
M.B. Dubček ?
G.C. No, before him.
M.B. Masaryk ? Novotný ? Zápotocký ?
G.C. No, he was a communist.
M.B. Gottwald ?
G.C. Yes, Gottwald. He was a true democrat. Because before him, Beneš and Masaryk sent away the Hungarians to the Czech Republic and Gottwald brought them back home.
To see Klement Gottwald, known as the architect of the stalinization of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in the 1920s and as Stalin’s most faithful Czech pupil in the 1950s(()), the person who bears the biggest responsibility in the country for the show trials and for the policy of everyday terror(()), depicted as « the true democrat » among the past Czechoslovak presidents can indeed happen only either to a fanatical communist – or to a Hungarian from Slovakia.
I also asked a young Hungarian interviewee (aged 16) what she thought of the Hungarian minority rights before 1989 :
T.B. Before 1989 ? Well, the Beneš decrees are still valid until now, and that’s why it’s a prejudice and it was surely so already before.
This peculiarly politicized view on history also contributes to relativizing the importance of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Many of my Hungarian interviewees (but not the Slovaks) didn’t attribute any symbolic importance to the 1989 events, to the point that some couldn’t remember in which year exactly it took place and wondered why I kept questioning them on this particular date (for instance with the question « How has your life changed from a social and economic point of view since 1989. ») The old worker I quoted before provided again an interesting answer :
M.B. How has your life changed since 1989 ?
G.C. Until I retired I was working, and then I went into retirement.
So much for revolution, democracy, market economy and other liberal and neo-liberal sources of pride in transitional Czechoslovakia. His answer displays his utter uninvolvement in politics – and would make some Prague elites, self-satisfied and proud of the 1989 events, shudder.
The commonalities between the two cases
We may now wonder what can be found in common between Komárno and České Velenice, two towns in one and the same country, but where the problematiques at hand are widely diverging, where the population had a completely different experience of communism and correspondingly a very different experience of post-communism.
The answer resides in the fact that we can find in Komárno, just like in České Velenice, an ‘Eigen-Sinn‘, a collective and individual agenda of social actors : maintaining their own ethnic identity on the territory of Komárno, i.e. survive as Hungarians in Slovakia and as Slovaks in this Hungarian town – both communities interestingly arguing that their culture was better defended under communism. We can also outline a public transcript (‘Don’t interfere with the communist rule and we will guarantee your minority rights.’) The interaction with the regime in Komárno was indeed centered on the national question : can the Hungarians strike a deal with the regime to cherish and develop their own identity ? Can the Slovaks strike a deal with the regime to integrate the Hungarian minority while developing a Slovak state culture ? The answer being positive in both cases, the social ‘agreement’ appeared to have functioned to the mutual satisfaction of the parties concerned.
The juxtaposition of these two studies shows that the regime was quite flexible ideologically speaking and willing to make a number of compromizes to ensure a certain harmony in the different communities composing the country. It managed to capture the national transcripts through radically different contexts : in České Velenice, it used and instrumentalized anti-Austrian feelings, in an explicitly xenophobic and demagogic way, to legitimize its own rule and social practice of denunciation ; in Komárno, where legitimizing its own rule entailed on the contrary to act as an appeasement force, it used and instrumentalized the concerns both of the Hungarian majority (but minority in Slovkia), who wanted and needed a free space where to express its national identity, and after 1969 of the Slovak minority (but majority in Slovakia), who was intent on making a serious claim on being a Slovak state within Czechoslovakia. In the Czech borderlands, the regime’s explicit will was to worsen national tensions and to encourage xenophobia. In the Slovak borderlands, the same regime’s explicit will was to defuse national tensions and to discourage xenophobia. Czechoslovak communism appropriated for itself, reshaped and instrumentalized nationalism or nationalist feelings (unless it is the various communities which used and instrumentalized communism for their own purposes) at the expense of its ideological coherence but effectively so as to ensure its own rule.
These individual cases are each in their way ‘extreme‘: no other town was so close to the Iron Curtain as České Velenice, no other relatively important town (35,000 inhabitants) was as ‘Hungarian‘ as Komárno. But they show that when the national question was concerned, the communist rulers could hold completely contradictory positions in order to negotiate separate, but effective public transcripts adapted to local contexts. The comparative microhistorical method which I am defending here shows that communism and nationalism went hand in hand, despite the propaganda on proletarian internationalism which characterized communist ideology. This is certainly yet another key to the regime‘s decades-long stability – and this, not only in Czechoslovakia.
The hidden transcripts
On the other hand, the hidden transcripts that could be unveiled in the course of this oral history study did show points of disagreement with the communist rule. For instance, the České Velenice people were upset by the policy of shooting to kill if trespassers attempted to pass the border. Nearly all of the interviewees volunteered disparaging comments at this modus operandi and claimed to disapprove of violence under any form. Keeping people prisoners of their own country is a cornerstone of the communist dictatorship which was simply never understood nor accepted.
In Komárno, the Hungarian interviewees and their families never endorsed either the official version of history presented by the communist regime (and by post-1989 Slovak democracy) concerning the war and post-war period : for instance, fascist leader Admiral Horthy (who invaded Southern Slovakia in 1938 and restituted it to Hungary) is still seen as a hero by Komárno Hungarians of all generations, even by the youngest, a vision which has been transmitted for decades in the family environment as a counter-narrative to school teaching. The entry of the Soviet troops in 1945 is also still widely seen as an ‘occupation’, whereby the Slovaks of Komárno (and the Czechs of České Velenice) see it as a ‘liberation.’ The latter two communities followed the regime on this count but not on the 1968 Warsaw Pact intervention, which they massively see, even in the most communist families, as an ‘occupation’ despite all propaganda to the contrary – and despite the corresponding public transcript.
In fact, the particular hidden transcript around the 1968 invasion, and the particular, subsequent public transcript, i.e. the communist interpretation of this event, are not just ‘any’ hidden and public transcripts: they constitute a distinctive sore point in the ‘bargain’ between the regime and the Czechoslovak population because it was non-negotiable and thus could never be resolved or pacified. The narrative of the ‘fraternal help’ was perceived not only as a lie (which was, after all, the fate shared by much of communist propaganda), but as a lie which gashed national honour and which could never be warranted adequate compensation in the frame of the communist domination relationship ; being universally, albeit secretly, resented, it is one of the elements which sealed the regime’s eventual fate. At the crucial, historical moment called Velvet Revolution when this hidden transcript was first uttered publicly under the form of the slogan ‘Living in truth’, the communist order of things instantly collapsed. The interviews of former local regime officials which I could lead show that they were painfully aware, for twenty years, that the apparent acceptance of this Soviet occupation was only a pose on the subordinates’ part. They knew it all the better that theirs was also a pose, an intellectually, politically and morally ‘corrupted’ attitude which proved to constitute a lethal breach to the domination system because it was due to backfire sooner or later.
These two studies taken in a comparative perspective can contribute to the historical study of communism in Czechoslovakia, and doubtlessly in the rest of East Central Europe as well, by the finding that there were degrees to the hidden and public transcripts : some were ‘negotiable’, others ‘irreconcilable.’ The ‘negotiable’ ones allowed the dictatorship to function relatively smoothly on an everyday basis because the public transcript, despite its stonewalling discourse and its monopoly of violence, was flexible to a degree. Microstudies reveal interaction between the rulers and the ruled in every case. Despite their subordinate position, the dominated exerted a significant influence on the public transcript, and modified it by exerting pressure until a version acceptable to all parties (admittedly in the specific, uneven and unfair framework of a dictatorship) could be brokered. These ‘negotiable’ transcripts are to be studied in order to understand and analyze how these regimes could last so long and what compromizes everyday domination demanded, and obtained, on both sides. The ‘totalita’, and even the totalitarian, paradigms are perfectly ineffective at this level.
The ‘irreconcilable’ transcripts, on the other hand, are those which caused in the long term the fall of the regimes and are to to be studied and catalogued in order to understand how the latter could collapse in what appeared to be such a sudden manner.
In both cases, only comparative microstudies can triangulate the issues of concern and sources of legitimacy at any given scale (town, region, nation, country, the Eastern bloc, Europe) which found the basis for this social relationship. All levels contribute a different and useful viewpoint, and all need to be practiced.