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Discussing the Merits of Microhistory as a Comparative Tool : The Cases of České Velenice and Komárno

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)


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 Please do not quote without author’s consent.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 »((1)), 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.((2)) 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. »((3)) 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((4)) ), 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. »((5)) 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((6)) 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.((7)) 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((8)) 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((9)), or even on Poland((10)) and Hungary((11)), 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.((12)) 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.((13))

The reason for this state of being is that Czech historiography of communism has generally developed since 1989 a « strict concern with political history. »((14))  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. »((15)) 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.((16))

« 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. »((17)) 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 […] »((18)) 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((19)) as well as in standard or even specialized dictionaries ((20)) (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.((21))

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.((22))

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.((23))  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. »((24)) 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.((25))

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. »((26)) 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. »((27)) 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.((28)) 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.((29)) 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. »((30)) 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((31)) ), or that they heroically engaged into anti-regime activities, or that they betrayed their family or their nation.((32))

Human beings in all their complexity tend to be classified into superficial categories of ‘victims’, ‘heroes’ and ‘traitors’, practically without any in-between.((33)) 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((34)) – 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.((35))

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 »((36)), 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. »((37)) 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.((38))

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.((39))

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. »((40)) 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((41)) 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((42)) of them guided by more than 12,000 full-time functionaries for a 15 million population((43)) – 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. »((44)) 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 »((45)), 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.((46))

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.((47))

To British observers, the hatred against Germans in Bohemia after the war was equalled only by the hatred against Hungarians in Slovakia.((48)) 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.((49)) 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((50)), as well as a peace treaty in 1947, which reestablished the 1938 borders.((51)) Relations were very bad between the two countries, including among communists.((52)) 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((53)), the person who bears the biggest responsibility in the country for the show trials and for the policy of everyday terror((54)), 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.

  1. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 2. []
  2. Idem, xii. []
  3. Idem, xii. []
  4. See, accessed 28 January 2011. []
  5. James Scott, Domination, 224. []
  6. Idem, 3. []
  7. See the program “Border studies” led by Libora Oates-Indruchová in the frame of the research field “Communist and post-communist times in Central Europe” on []
  8. For instance Sandrine Kott in her study of East German factories, see Sandrine Kott, Le communisme au quotidien (Paris: Belin, 2003). []
  9. For isntance and among a wide choice, Alf Lüdtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life : Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) ; Konrad Jarausch, ed., Dictatorship as Experience : Towards a Socio-Cultural History of the GDR (New-York:  Berghahn, 1999); Thomas Lindenberger, ed., Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur. Studien zur Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR (Cologne, Böhlau, 1999) ; Sandrine Kott, Emmanuel Droit, eds., Die Ostdeutsche Gesellschaft. Eine transnationale Perspektive (East German Society. A Transnational Perspective) (Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag 2006) ; Katherine Pence, Paul Betts, eds., Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2008); Belinda Davies, Michael Wildt, Thomas Lindenberger, eds., Alltag, Erfahrung, Eigensinn. Historisch-anthropologische Erkundungen (Everyday, Experience, Agency. Historico-Anthropological Investigations) (Frankfurt; Campus, 2008). []
  10. See for instance Jan Kula, Sandrine Kott, Thomas Lindenberger, eds., Socjalizm w zyciu powszednim. Dyktatura a spoleczenstwo w NRD i PRL (Socialism in Everyday Life. Dictatorship and Society in the GDR and in the People’s Republic of Poland) (Warsaw: Trio, 2006) and generally the other volumes published in the editorial collection W krainie PRL (In the shadow of the Polish Democratic Republic) at the same publisher’s, for instance Krzysztof Kosiński, O nową mentalność. Życie codzienne w szkołach 1945-1956 (On a New Mentality. Daily Life in Schools 1945-1956) (Warsaw : Trio, 2000) or Błażej Brzostek, Robotnicy stalinowskiej Warszawy. Konflikt społeczny 1950–1954 (Workers in Stalinian Warsaw. Social Conflict 1950-1954), (Warsaw : Trio, 2002). []
  11. For instance Mark Pittaway, “The Social Limits of State Control: Time, the Industrial Wage Relation and Social Identity in Stalinist Hungary, 1948-1953”, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol.12, No.3, September 1999, 271-301;  Martin Mevius, Agents of Moscow. The Hungarian Communist Party and the Origins of Socialist Patriotism, 1941-1953 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Sándor Horváth, Kádár gyermekei: ifjúsági lázadás a hatvanas években [Children of Kádár: Youth Rebels in the 1960s] (Budapest: Nyitottkönyv, 2009); Sándor Horváth, Lordok Háza. Társadalmi gondoskodás Budapesten 1945 után [House of the Lords. Social Care in Budapest after 1945] (Budapest: Napvilág, 2011, forthcoming). []
  12. The only ambitious oral history publication these past twenty years has been a large collection of interviews with former dissidents and former communist officials, see Miroslav Vaněk and Pavel Urbášek, eds., Vítězové? Poražení? Životopisná interview. I.díl Disent v období tzv. normalizace II.díl Politické elity v období tzv. normalizace (Victorers? Vanquished? Biographical Interviews. Vol.1. Dissent in the so-called Normalization Period. Vol.2. Political elites in the so-called Normalization Period) (Prague: Prostor, 2005), 1960 pages (two volumes.) The Oral History department, led by the said Miroslav Vaněk at the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague, is dynamic and productive but currently consists of two full-time researchers and one part-time student helper, which certainly indicates what priority it has in the scale of this approximately 50-researcher strong institute. []
  13. For instance the project « Ourselves », see Zdeněk Konopásek, Otevřená minulost. Autobiografická sociologie státního socialismu (Open Past. Autobiographical sociology of State Socialism) (Prague: Karolinum, 1999) ; or the project « The reconstruction of communist rule » with the microstudy of a small town by sociologists and social anthropologists, see Jiří Kabele, « Late socialist and revolutionary achievements of the township of Filipov », in Muriel Blaive, ed., Communism from the Viewpoint of Societies (Prague: CeFReS, 2006), 101-115. See also the excellent study Jiří Kabele, Martin Hájek, Jak vládli? Průvodce hierarchiemi reálného socialismu (How Did They Rule? A Guide to Hierarchies of Real Socialism) (Brno, Doplněk, 2008). For an overview of Czech qualitative research from the 1980s to the 2000s, see Barbora Špalová, « ‘La révolution de velours’ dans les sciences sociales tchèques », Critique internationale, n°32, July-September 2006, 107-131. For valuable historical works which are not centered on political history but on cultural history despite not being microhistorical works in the strict sense, see Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and His TV. The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), Petr Roubal, “Politics of Gymnastics. Mass gymnastic displays under communism in Central and Eastern Europe“, Body and Society, vol.9, no. 2 (2003): 1-25 or Martin Franc, Řasy, nebo knedlíky? Postoje odborníků na výživu k inovacím a tradicím v české stravě v 50. a 60. letech 20. století (See-weed or Dumplings? The Attitudes of Nutrition Experts on Inovation and Tradition in Czech Cuisine in the 1950s and 1960s) (Prague, Scriptorium, 2003). An excellent micro-analysis of the Secret Police methods and of the reaction and attitude an individual could have in the face of persecution can also be found in the personal testimony of former underground poet and musician Petr Placák : Petr Placák, Fízl (Snooper) (Prague: Torst, 2008). []
  14. Pavel Kolář and Michal Kopeček, « A difficult quest for new paradigms : Czech historiography after 1989 », in Sorin Antohi and Balázs Trencsényi and Péter Apor, eds., Narratives Unbound. Historical Studies in Post-Communist Eastern Europe (Budapest: CEU Press, 2007), 220. []
  15. Idem, 220. []
  16. See for instance Petr Blažek and Tomáš Bursík, eds., Pražský proces 1979. Vyšetřování, soud a věznění členů Výboru na obranu nespravedlivě stihaných. Dokumenty (The Prague Trial 1979. Investigation, Judgement and Jail Sentence of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted Members. Documents) (Prague: ÚSD, 2010); Katka Volná and Jakub Jareš and Matěj Spurný and Klára Pinerová, eds., Prověřená fakulta. KSČ na Filozofické fakultě UK v letech 1969-1989 (Vetted Faculty. The Czechoslovak Communist Party at the Faculty of Arts in Prague in 1969-1989) (Prague: ÚSD, 2009); Jiří Hoppe and Jiří Suk, Dvojí identita Klubu angažovaných nestraníků. Před invazí 1968 a po pádu komunismu 1989 (Double Identity. The Club of Engaged Non-Party Members. Before the 1968 Invasion and After Communism’s Fall) (Prague: Euroslavica, 2008), etc. []
  17. See the text of the law in English translation on the webpage of the said institute,, accessed 14 January 2011. []
  18. Idem. []
  19. See for instance the issue Totalitariansim in Czech history (Das Konzept des Totalitarismus in der tschechischen Geschichte/Existoval v českých dějinách totalitarismus?), jointly published by the prestigious Czech and German journals Soudobé dějiny and Bohemia in which, despite the editors’ best efforts and wishes, no author proceeded to any epistemological analysis of ‘totalita.’ []
  20. For instance in the Slovník cizích slov (1993), Slovník spisovné čestiny pro školu a veřejnost (1994), Akademický slovník cizích slov (1995), Oxfordský slovník světové politiky (2000), Slovník antropologie občanské společnosti (2006), etc. []
  21. For an excellent reading of Arendt, see Abbot Gleason, Totalitarianism. The Inner History of the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). []
  22. Milan Otáhal, « K některým otázkám dějin ‘normalizace’ » (Some Questions Concerning the History of ‘Normalization’), Soudobé dějiny, 1/95, 5. []
  23. On the crucial role played by democracy in Czech self-representation, see Muriel Blaive, « La démocratie pour les Tchèques: une légitimité politique et une composante identitaire », Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest, 1/2003, 59-82. []
  24. Pavel Kolář, Michal Kopeček, « A difficult quest », 176. []
  25. Idem, 219. The table of contents of the journal Soudobé dějiny in its first fifteen years illustrates the general absence of interest for topics other than repression, resistance and the ‘three dates’ of Czech communism (1948, 1968, 1989.) See Věra Břeňová, ed., Soudobé dějiny, Bibliografie 1993-2008. Obsah ročníků I-XV (Soudobé dějiny. Bibliography 1993-2008. Contents of the Volumes I-XV) (Prague: ÚSD, 2009). []
  26. Michal Kopeček, Hledání ztraceného smyslu revoluce. Zrod a počátky marxistického revizionismu ve střední Evropě 1953-1960 (Prague: Argo, 2009), 10. For an English-speaking review of this book, see Muriel Blaive, H-Soz-u-Kult, 9 November 2010, accessible on []
  27. Michal Pullmann, Konec experimentu. Přestavba a pád komunismu v Československu (The End of the Experiment. Perestroika and Communism’s Fall in Czechoslovakia) (Prague: Scriptorium, 2011), 13-14. []
  28. James Scott, Domination, 12. []
  29. Idem, 3. []
  30. Idem, xii. []
  31. On this refusal to distinguish separate periods of the communist rule, see Pavel Žáček, « Nejsme nástroj pomsty » (We Are Not an Instrument of Vengence), Mladá fronta Dnes, 14 November 2007, 14. []
  32. See for instance this article on the « Theory of totalitarianism and the concept of radical transformation of the countryside », where the ‘totalitarianism theory’ is reduced to Carl Friedrich’s definition in five points (ideology, mass party, monopoly of violence, monopoly of information, physical and psychological control of the population) as a « methodological background » to account for collectivization, without the peasant population being considered a social actor of its own at any point or in any way. See Petr Blažek, « Teorie totalitarismu a koncept radikální proměny venkova » (The Totalitarianism Theory and the Concept of Radical Transformation of the Countryside), in Jan Němec and Markéta Šůstková, eds., III. Kongres českých politologů. Olomouc 8.-10.9.2006 (III. Congress of Czech Political Scientists) (Prague: Česká společnost pro politické vědy, 2006), 838-842. []
  33. A textbook example of this primitive conceptualization is the accusation of ‘informant’ uttered against Milan Kundera by the head of the oral history department at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Adam Hradílek : see Adam Hradilek and Petr Třešňák, « Udání Milana Kundery » (Milan Kundera’s Denunciation), Respekt, 19, n°42, 13 October 2008, 38-46. For a full analysis of this case, see Muriel Blaive, « L’ouverture des archives d’une police politique communiste: le cas tchèque, de Zdena Salivarová à Milan Kundera », in Sonia Combe, ed., Archives et écriture de l’histoire dans les sociétés post-communistes (Paris: La Découverte, 2009), 203-226. []
  34. See the interesting analysis of the so-called “Third Resistance” movement, i.e. essentially random victims of the communist repression who progressively came to reinterpret their life of victimhood as one of active resistance to the regime, in Françoise Mayer, Les Tchèques et leur communisme (Paris, EHESS, 2003). []
  35. See Petr Uhl, « Lépe je morálně nesoudit » (The Best is Not to Cast Any Moral Judgement), Právo, 24 January 2011. See also his opponents’ answer, historians of the ‘totalita’ inspiration, Ivo Pejčoch and Prokop Tomek, « Protikomunistický odboj existoval » (The Anti-communist Resistance Did Exist), Právo, 24 January 2011. []
  36. James Scott, Domination, xii. []
  37. See the film Hranice bez opony (A Border Without Curtain), Petr Kudela, Krátký film, 1990. []
  38. Cf. for instance Gerhard Sälter, Grenzpolizisten. Konformität, Verweigerung und Repression in der Grenzpolizei und den Grenztruppen der DDR 1952-1965 (Border Policemen. Conformity, Refusal and Repression in the Border Police and Border Guards of the GDR 1952-1965) (Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2009) or Edith Sheffer, Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain, PhD Dissertation, Berkely, University of California, 2009, accessible on (accessed 2 December 2010), forthcoming at Oxford University Press, August 2011. []
  39. Václav Havel, « The Power of the Powerless », in Paul Wilson, ed., Open Letters. Selected Writings 1969-1990 by Václav Havel (New York: Vintage, 1992) (first edition of the essay, 1978), 133. []
  40. Idem, 134. []
  41. This is a reference to the ‘bible’ of microhistory, with a key discussion on the comparative merits of the microhistorical scale as opposed to traditional forms of history or other social sciences : Jacques Revel, ed., Jeux d’échelle. La micro-analyse à l’expérience (Paris, EHESS, 1996). []
  42. If the figure stemming from a list stolen at the Ministry of Interior and published unofficially in 1992 by former dissident and fanatical anti-communist Petr Cibulka is to be believed. See « Kompletní seznam spolupracovníků StB » (Full Inventory of the Secret Police Collaborators), Rudá krávo, 2, (13), 1992, Rudá krávo, 2, (14), 1992 (II. díl), Rudá krávo, 2, (15), 1992, (III. díl). []
  43. See Pavel Žáček and Petr Blažek, « Czechoslovakia », in Krzysztof Persak and Łukasz Kamiński, eds., A Handbook of the Communist Security Apparatus in East Central Europe 1944-1989 (Warsaw: Institute of National Remembrance, 2005), 109. []
  44. James Scott, Domination, xi. []
  45. Idem, xi. []
  46. See Muriel Blaive, « Identity and Ethnicity at the Slovak-Hungarian Border », in Muriel Blaive, Barnabás Vajda, Final Report on the Border Study Komárno/Komárom (Vienna: LBI EHP, forthcoming, 2011). For additional literature on Komárno, see Elena Mannová, « Southern Slovakia as an Imagined Territory », in Steven G. Ellis and Raingard Esser, eds., Frontiers, Regions and Identities in Europe (Pisa: Edizioni Plus, 2009), 185-204 ; Elena Mannová, « ‘Sie wollen keine Loyalitat lernen!’ Identitatsdiskurse und lokale Lebenswelten in der Südslowakei 1918-1938 » (‚They Won’t Become Loyal!’ Identity Discourse and Local Experiences in South Slovakia 1918-1938), in Peter Haslinger and Joachim von Puttkamer, eds., Staat, Loyalitat und Minderheiten in Ostmittel- und Südosteuropa 1918-1941 : Buchreihe der Kommission für Geschichte und Kultur der Deutschen Südosteuropa (State, Loyalty and Minorities in Easteran and South-Eastern Europe) (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2007), 45-67 ; Eva Irmanová, Maďarská menšina na Slovensku a její místo v zahraniční politice Slovenska a Maďarska po roce 1989 (Hungarian Minority in Slovakia and Its Place in Slovak and Hungarian Foreign Policy After 1989) (Prague: Albis International, 2005) ; Stefano Bottoni, « Komárom/Komárno. Offizielle und inoffizielle Beziehungen in einer ungarisch-slowakischen Zwillingsstadt (1960-1985) » (Komárom/Komárno. Official and Inofficial Relations in a Twin Hungarian-Slovak Town 1960-1985), in Włodimierz Borodziej and Jerzy Kochanowski and Joachim von Puttkamer, eds., « Schleichwege ». Inoffizielle Begegnungen sozialistischer Staatsbürger zwischen 1956 und 1989 (‘Secret Paths’. Inofficial Encounters of Socialists Citizens 1956-1989) (Cologne: Böhlau, 2010), 67-89. []
  47. See R.W. Seton Watson, A History of the Czechs and Slovaks. “People of whom we know nothing” (Hamden: Archon Books, 1965) (1st edition 1943), 374. []
  48. See John Parker, “Power and Politics”, in Czechoslovakia Six Studies in Reconstruction (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1946), 14. []
  49. See Stephen Borsody, “State- and Nation-building in Central Europe: The Origins of the Hungarian Problem”, in Stephen Borsody, ed., The Hungarians: A Divided Nation (New Haven: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1988), 371. []
  50. See Stephen D. Kertész, Diplomacy in a Whirlpool (Notre-Dame: University of Notre-Dame Press, 1953), 124-125. []
  51. See Stephen Borsody, “State- and Nation-building”, 371. []
  52. In the immediate postwar period, the good-willing, internationalist, discourse of communist ideology on ‘brotherly cooperation’ was completely overcome by national hatred, as is testified by the very hostile clash between Czechoslovak and Hungarian communist leaders at the first meeting of the Kominform in Szklarska Poręba in September, 1947. See Giulano Procacci, ed., The Cominform Minutes of the Three Conferences 1947/1948/1949 (Milan: Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, 1994). []
  53. See Jacques Rupnik, The Other Europe (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988). []
  54. See Karel Kaplan, Dans les archives du Comité central (Paris: Albin Michel, 1978). []

Les droits nationaux interprétés « à la lumière des directives telles qu’interprétées par la CJCE (UE) »

Dates : 6 et 7 mai 2011

Lieu : Düsseldorf

Organisateurs :  Groupe d’études franco-allemand sur le contentieux du travail

Programme : L’influence de la CJUE sur les juridictions nationales

Le droit communautaire a remodelé les droits nationaux dans leurs dispositions, par l’adoption de textes nouveaux conformes ou par modification des textes existants. Mais au-delà de ces réformes légales, les juges, lorsqu’ils sont appelés à appliquer un texte de droit national, doivent l’interpréter en tenant compte des normes de l’UE et de l’interprétation qu’en fait la CJUE. La Cour de cassation française utilise une expression très significative : elle interprète « à la lumière des directives telles qu’interprétées par la CJCE/UE ». La rencontre des 6 et 7 mai 2011 avait pour objet de comparer les usages et pratiques des juges allemands et français confrontés à l’application d’un texte national ayant donné lieu à des normes et interprétations européennes (Sont exclues ici les normes du Conseil de l’Europe et l’interprétation de la CEDH).
Rappelons que les interprétations données par la CJUE s’imposent aux juges nationaux, quelle que soit l’origine de la question préjudicielle. L’interprétation donnée en réponse à une question allemande s’impose au juge français, bien que les règles nationales soient différentes. Les juges doivent donc connaître la jurisprudence de la CJUE et l’adapter à leur droit. Ceci explique en partie certaines évolutions dans les domaines de prédilection du droit social européen.

Selon une méthode éprouvée au sein du GEFACT, nous avons choisi trois thèmes clés relativement à la problématique envisagée et confié leur présentation à un « couple » mixte franco-allemand. Le vendredi après-midi Sonja Jung (Allemagne) et Chantal Verdin (France) ont traité du transfert d’entreprise ; samedi matin Corinne Sachs-Durand (France) et Meinhard Zumfelde (Allemagne) ont traité de l’information et de la consultation des salariés ; samedi après-midi Gerhardt Binkert (Allemagne) et Philippe Grangier (France) ont traité des congés payés. Ces exposés sont systématiquement suivis de débats.

1. Le transfert d’entreprise
Sujet emblématique des bouleversements opérés dans l’ensemble des droits des États-membres, quel que soit leur droit national avant l’adoption de la Directive 77/187/CEE du 14 février 1977 ; qu’ils connaissent ou non le mécanisme du transfert automatique du contrat de travail au « repreneur », il a fallu s’adapter au nouveau « vocabulaire européen » et en adopter les concepts propres en la matière.

a. Allemagne
En droit allemand, le sort du contrat de travail en cas de transfert d’entreprise a été fixé dans le Code civil dès 1972, par la suite l’article 613 BGB a été révisé à différentes reprises pour se mettre en conformité avec les directives européennes (1977, 1998 et 2001) ; la dernière réforme date du 4 janvier 2002.
La vision allemande du transfert d’entreprise s’attache plus au maintien des droits collectifs, à la survivance des institutions représentatives (comité d’établissement) qu’au maintien du contrat de travail pris individuellement. Ceci marque une différence essentielle entre les deux droits étudiés quant à la compréhension de cette notion ; là où la France met l’accent sur le maintien des contrats, le droit allemand préserve le comité d’établissement.
Cette vision pose problème en cas de transfert partiel de l’entreprise : comment interpréter « l’entité économique »  chère au droit européen ? Celle-ci est assimilée par la jurisprudence allemande à la notion d’établissement, ensemble constitué par une communauté de travailleurs subordonnés  œuvrant pour un entrepreneur et par des biens matériels ou immatériels au service de cette entreprise. Mais la CJCE condamne cette vision trop « organisationnelle » qui met hors champ de la règle les salariés isolés (aff. C-466/07, Klarenberg). Le BAG a fait évoluer sa jurisprudence et se réfère désormais à la notion européenne d’entité économique  permanente et s’intéresse à la préservation de son identité en appliquant la méthode du faisceau d’indices1. La situation est désormais examinée in concreto (BAG 24.4.08, 8 AZR 268/07).
Cependant, les juges allemands restent attachés à la notion d’établissement, privilégiant le critère de la structure organisationnelle du travail (BAG 17.12.09 – 8 AZR 1019/08, NZA 10, 499). D’importants problèmes se posent pour identifier « l’unité économique » dans les entreprises de services dont l’actif est plus constitué d’éléments incorporels, essentiellement les salariés, que de biens corporels. Le cas des cantines est exemplaire : le BAG considère rarement que cette activité puisse constituer une unité économique et refuse d’appliquer les règles sur le transfert d’entreprise (BAG NZA 2010, 499).
De même, les opérations de concession et de sous-traitance ont donné lieu à des controverses jurisprudentielles parfois réglées par la CJCE qui étend le domaine de l’application des règles protectrices du transfert d’entreprise le plus largement possible dès lors qu’il y a, selon sa définition, une entité économique qui conserve son identité, même parfois sans transfert d’éléments corporels significatifs (en particulier lorsque ces éléments appartiennent à l’entreprise cliente, aff. Güney-Görres, CJCE NJW 2006, 889, BAG NZA 2006, 1039).
Dans le droit allemand comme dans le droit français, les difficultés viennent du caractère concret de la notion de transfert au sens européen, qui lui donne un aspect changeant selon les espèces et difficilement saisissable, d’autant que les juges tendent de déjouer les stratégies d’évitement des entreprises.
b. France
Chantal Verdin rappelle l’ancienneté de la règle française : le maintien du contrat de travail en cas de modification dans la situation juridique de l’employeur est inscrit dans le Code du travail depuis 1928. Dans un arrêt célèbre de 1934 la Cour de cassation en faisait application dans une affaire de concession de gestion de la distribution d’eau dans laquelle aucun lien juridique existait entre l’ancien et le nouveau concessionnaire (attribution par la ville). La Haute juridiction française soulignait alors l’esprit du texte rédigé dans le sens d’une plus grande protection du salarié (arrêt Goupy, 27 fév. 1934, GADT n° 62).
Malgré l’ancienneté de la règle, dont le texte est resté quasi inchangé, les juridictions françaises ont du adapter leurs décisions à l’interprétation que la CJUE a faite de la Directive de 1997 sur le « transfert d’entreprise », réformée par la Directive du 12 mars 2001. Ainsi, en 1986 (Cass. Soc. 12 juin 1986), la Cour de cassation était revenue sur sa propre jurisprudence de 1934, en jugeant que la règle sur le maintien du contrat de travail ne s’appliquait pas lorsqu’aucun lien de droit n’unissait les concessionnaires successifs. La CJCE en a décidé autrement par un arrêt du 10 février 1988, aff. Tellerup, ce qui a obligé la Cour de cassation à opérer un nouveau revirement dans des arrêts rendus en Assemblée plénière le 16 mars 1990.
Au fur et à mesure de ses décisions, la CJCE a élaboré une définition du transfert d’entreprise, inscrite désormais dans la directive et reprise dans les décisions nationales. Pour autant des zones d’ombre demeurent d’autant que chaque situation appelle un examen concret de la situation. Il n’en reste pas moins que les contrats doivent être maintenus dès lors que ce qui est transféré (possible transfert partiel) constitue une organisation structurée, et que ce transfert s’accompagne de « moyens corporels et incorporels ».
Cependant, une difficulté subsiste concernant les entreprises de services, essentiellement composées de main d’œuvre (nettoyage, bureaux d’études…). En ce cas l’interprète s’intéresse aux aspects économiques : y a-t-il transfert d’entreprise ou simple perte d’un marché ? Sur ce point la CJCE a eu une jurisprudence hésitante, tandis que la Cour de cassation a toujours considéré que la « simple perte d’un marché » n’entrainait pas le transfert obligatoire du contrat de travail. Certaines  conventions collectives imposent ce transfert au nouvel attributaire du marché (cas des entreprises de nettoyage par ex.), sans que cette obligation engage le salarié qui peut dans ce cas refuser le transfert, tandis que dans les cas de transfert relevant de la règle légale le salarié ne peut s’opposer au changement d’employeur.
Un autre point a donné lieu à débat en France, c’est celui de l’identité des employeurs. Après avoir jugé que la règle n’avait pas lieu de s’appliquer en cas de transfert entre personnes privées et personnes morales, la Cour de cassation a du se conformer à la vision européenne pour qui le statut de l’employeur importe peu, ce qu’il faut examiner c’est la situation concrète de travail, dès lors qu’il y a subordination et transfert d’entreprise, le contrat doit être maintenu(CJCE 26 sept. 2000, C-176/99, aff. Mayeur ; Cass. Soc. 25 juin 2002, Bul. Civ. V n° 209). Cette position a obligé le législateur français à revoir le statut de la fonction publique pour permettre d’incorporer des salariés venant du secteur privé par reprise d’une activité économique (Ex. : une clinique absorbée par un hôpital public).
Il n’en reste pas moins que certaines divergences demeurent en particulier quant aux moyens matériels qui sont transférés, la Cour de cassation ne reprend pas la distinction européenne concernant les entreprises constituées essentiellement de personnes. Il semble d’ailleurs que la Cour de cassation soit prudente face à des entreprises dont les  conventions collectives prévoient la reprise d’une partie (en %) du personnel, le risque d’une interprétation trop sévère serait la dénonciation de ces  conventions collectives protectrices malgré tout des salariés.

2. L’information et la consultation des salariés
Samedi matin, Meinhard Zumfelde et Corinne Sachs-Durand présentaient la problématique posée en matière d’information et de consultation des salariés.

a. Allemagne
Selon la méthode traditionnelle d’approche concrète chère au GEFACT, Meinhard présente une affaire soumise au tribunal du travail de Gelsenkirchen (30.11.2006 – 5 BVGa 9/06). En l’espèce, un hôtel employant 140 salariés avait décidé d’externaliser la partie nettoyage (40 salariés concernés) à une entreprise spécialisée. En cas de restructuration, la loi allemande oblige l’employeur à négocier avec le Betriebstrat (BR) un accord de compensation ou un plan social, mais la loi sur la constitution de l’établissement n’interdit pas à l’employeur de poursuivre l’opération de restructuration alors même que les négociations sont en cours. En l’occurrence, le BR intentait une action contre l’employeur pour que les juges interdisent le transfert des salariés tant qu’un accord n’avait pas été trouvé.
Le Tribunal de Gelsenkirchen reconnait l’urgence de la situation et constate que bien que les contrats des 40 salariés concernés soient repris par le nouvel employeur, cette restructuration entraîne une profonde modification de l’établissement. Il y a donc, selon le Tribunal, une obligation de négocier et en vertu de la Directive 2002/14/EC établissant un cadre général relatif à l’information et la consultation des travailleurs dans la Communauté européenne, il existe un véritable droit à la négociation du BR. La compensation du défaut de négociation prévue par la loi allemande qui se résume à des dommages et intérêts est insuffisante relativement à la violation du droit. La sanction la plus adéquate est la suspension de l’opération de restructuration tant que l’accord n’a pas été trouvé. Ainsi en a décidé le Tribunal du travail de Gelsenkirchen. La référence au droit européen n’est pas réservée aux juridictions suprêmes.
La décision peut être critiquée sur l’application directe de la Directive, lui attribuant un effet horizontal douteux. Un autre argument aurait pu être tiré de la loi sur la procédure et les pouvoirs du juge en matière de mesures provisoires. Quoi qu’il en soit, l’effet utile du droit européen est ici respecté en même temps que l’obligation de négocier prévue tant par le droit allemand que par le droit de l’UE.
b. France
Corinne Sachs-Durand souligne les difficultés en droit français, posées particulièrement dans les groupes de société et qui concernent au premier plan les groupes européens. En son temps l’affaire Renault-Vilvoorde avait défrayé la chronique et montré l’intérêt du droit européen en matière de comité d’entreprise européen. Les questions en termes de pouvoir et de responsabilité se posent notamment lors de la mise en place des institutions représentatives du personnel et lors des restructurations au sein du groupe.
En matière de mise en place des institutions représentatives du personnel (IRP), le droit français n’impose aucune obligation d’information des salariés tant sur l’effectif que sur la structure sociale. Cependant, la jurisprudence européenne (aff. Bofrost du 29 mars 2001, C-62/99, Ads Anker du 15 juillet 2004, C-349-01, et Kühne et Nagel du 13 janvier 2004) reconnait une information nécessaire des salariés des entreprises concernées par la mise en place d’un comité d’entreprise européen. La Directive révisée en 2009 intègre cette jurisprudence, on peut y voir une préfiguration d’un droit plus général des salariés à l’information en matière de mise en place des IRP.
Le droit français doit évoluer dans ce sens, non seulement pour la mise en place d’instances européennes mais pour toutes les IRP (délégués du personnel, comité d’entreprise).
Dans le domaine des restructurations, le droit européen prévoit une portée assez large de l’information et de la consultation des représentants des travailleurs (Directves 2002/14/CE, cadre général relatif à l’information et la consultation, 2001/86/CE, statut de la société européenne, 2009/38/CE, comité d’entreprise européen). Mais la responsabilité des entreprises semble traitée différemment par la CJUE selon qu’elle porte sur les questions économiques ou sociales. En matière économique la société mère est responsable tandis qu’en matière sociale ce sont les filiales qui sont responsables (S. Vernac, L’information et la consultation des représentants des travailleurs lors de la restructuration d’un groupe, à propos de l’arrêt Akavan c/ Fujitsu Siemens, CJCE 10 septembre 2009, RDT 2010 p. 285).
En France, la Cour de cassation adopte une position comparable à celle de la CJUE (Cass. Soc. 13 janvier 2010, Flodor, P. Bailly, L’obligation de reclassement dans le groupe, AFDT 8 octobre 2010), seul l’employeur est responsable de l’obligation de reclassement, même si celui-ci doit être recherché dans l’ensemble des sociétés du groupe en France ou à l’étranger.
Pour autant, les droits d’information et de consultation du comité d’entreprise évoluent également dans le contexte d’internationalisation et de restructuration des groupes d’entreprise. Dans un arrêt du 26 octobre 2010 la Cour de cassation a reconnu au comité d’entreprise de deux filiales françaises d’un groupe néerlandais le droit de recourir à une expertise relative à une opération de concentration lancée par une société américaine sur la société mère. La Cour de cassation considère que dans la mesure où les salariés des filiales françaises pouvaient être indirectement affectés par cette opération ils avaient un droit légitime à une information économique circonstanciée (P. Bailly, Précisions sur l’obligation d’information et de consultation en cas de concentration, Liaisons sociales Europe n° 264, p. 4).
Peut-on envisager le développement d’un droit général à l’information des salariés et d’une responsabilité en termes d’information dans les groupes de sociétés ? La question reste en débat.

3. Les congés payés
Le troisième axe de ce séminaire a donné lieu à exposés avec cas pratiques de Gerhardt Binkert et Philippe Grangier. La question des congés payés est plus nouvellement arrivée sur la scène judiciaire européenne, mais le dialogue avec les juges nationaux est nourri et pose des questions insoupçonnées jusqu’alors, entrainant dans les deux droits étudiés de profonds bouleversements dans des jurisprudences considérées jusque là comme constantes. On constate d’ailleurs que ce sont les mêmes points qui suscitent interrogations et bouleversements dans les deux pays.
a. Allemagne
La loi fixe le cadre général et la période de référence, les conventions collectives contiennent des dispositions plus favorables et plus précises. Le congé payé est annuel et ne peut être reporté sur l’année suivante que dans des cas très exceptionnels. Les congés non pris sont perdus, même si la maladie en est la cause, sans indemnisation possible. Ce n’est qu’en cas de rupture du contrat que les congés non pris donnent lieu à indemnisation pour l’année en cours.
Une différence d’interprétation opposait la Cour d’appel du travail de Düsseldorf à la Cour fédérale qui réformait ses arrêts rendus en matière d’articulation entre maladie et congé. La Cour fédérale considérait que le salarié malade pendant toute ou partie de l’année ne pouvait prétendre à des indemnités pour congé non pris. La Cour de Düsseldorf a posé une question préjudicielle à la CJCE qui a répondu par la décision du 20 janv. 2009, aff. C-305/06 et C/6520/06, Schultz-Hoff et Stinger. Son interprétation rejoint celle de la Cour d’appel, fondé sur la Directive 2003/88/CE : la finalité du droit au congé annuel est de permettre au travailleur de se reposer, l’expiration de la période de référence ne peut mettre fin à ce droit et si le salarié ne peut prendre ce congé en raison de son état de santé, il doit être indemnisé à hauteur des droits acquis.
La décision de la CJCE a conduit la Cour fédérale à réviser sa jurisprudence, ce qu’elle a fait dans un arrêt du 24 mars 2009 (9 AZR 983/07), sans faire une application directe de la directive qui n’a pas d’effet horizontal, elle modifie son interprétation du droit national en se référant directement à l’interprétation communautaire. En l’occurrence, la loi allemande pouvait être interprétée ainsi sans nécessiter une intervention du législateur pour rendre une « interprétation conforme ».
Gerhardt Binkert fait part de son avis critique vis-à-vis de la décision de la CJCE qui a obligé la Cour fédérale à revoir sa jurisprudence. Il reproche à la Cour de Justice de ne pas respecter les fondements des droits nationaux et de donner ici une valeur quasi patrimoniale au congé qui peut être monnayé, alors que la finalité est le repos annuel. La Cour européenne, par une « jurisprudence débordante » ébranle un édifice législatif au-delà de la seule question traitée.
D’autres exemples pris dans la jurisprudence sont présentés :
Cour d’appel de Düsseldorf, 31.3.2010, 12 Sa 1521/09. Un salarié cadre qui n’a pas pris de congé pendant six ans réclame une indemnisation équivalente à ces périodes. En se référant à la jurisprudence de la CJCE (Schultz-Hoff et Vicente Pereda), la Cour d’appel condamne l’employeur à payer les congés non pris.
Cour d’appel de Berlin-Brandenbourg du 7.10.2010, 2 Sa 1464/10. Un salarié, malade du 10 août 2006 au 30 juin 2008 (rupture du contrat), réclame les indemnités de congés payés pour 2006, 2007 et 2008. Contrairement à sa jurisprudence constante, la Cour d’appel opère un revirement pour se mettre en conformité avec le droit communautaire et reconnait en quelque sorte la valeur patrimoniale du droit à congé payé en octroyant l’indemnité demandée. On s’éloigne ainsi d’un droit au repos.
Cour fédérale du 23.3.2010, 9 AZR 128709.
Cour d’appel de Düsseldorf du 20.1.2011, 11 Sa 1493/10. La  convention collective pour le secteur des services publics prévoit que le congé payé s’éteint au 31 mars de l’année suivante. Cette règle issue d’un régime spécial relève de la négociation collective. Les partenaires sociaux sont libres de fixer leurs règles et la Directive ne peut limiter ce droit, donc l’interprétation qui en est faite par la CJCE ne s’impose pas. Le droit en ce cas s’éteint effectivement le 31 mars de l’année suivant l’année de référence.
Cour d’appel de Düsseldorf du 8.2.2011, 16 Sa 1574/10
Cour d’appel de Düsseldorf du 18.1.2011, 8 Sa 1274/10. Une  convention collective prévoyait un accroissement du nombre de jours de congé selon l’âge des salariés (moins de 20 ans = 30 jours… 31 ans et plus = 36 jours), une salariée de 24 ans réclame 36 jours de congé. Elle obtient gain de cause sur le fondement d’une discrimination liée à l’âge.
b. France
La loi française fixe à cinq semaines la durée légale des congés payés annuels. Les  conventions collectives peuvent prévoir des aménagements plus favorables. Un salarié travaillant au mois cumule deux jours et demi par mois, mais ne peut en profiter qu’au cours de l’année suivant la période de référence  qui va en général du 1er juin au 31 mai suivant.
La question des congés payés a donné lieu à un dialogue récent fondé sur l’interprétation de la Directive 2003/88CE relative au temps de travail qui impose à tous les États membres la mise en place d’un congé payé annuel obligatoire de quatre semaines. Des problèmes de conformité sont apparus sur trois points particuliers : le droit au report des congés payés à raison de l’absence du salarié pendant la période de référence, le droit de percevoir une indemnité compensatrice en cas de rupture du contrat de travail et le droit à congé lié à une durée minimale de travail effectif.
I. Le report des congés payés en cas d’absence s’analyse différemment selon la cause de l’absence : maladie ou congé parental notamment.
Traditionnellement, la jurisprudence française considérait qu’en cas de coïncidence entre congés payés et absence (maladie ou congé maternité ou autre), la première cause de suspension prévalait sur la seconde. Ainsi, un salarié en arrêt maladie avant la date prévue de son congé continuait à bénéficier du régime de l’arrêt maladie et conservait la totalité de ses droits à congés payés, tandis que le salarié malade pendant ses congés continuait à consommer ses jours de repos en se soignant. La CJCE appelée à se prononcer sur ces questions a considéré d’une part que le droit à des congés annuels est « un principe du droit social communautaire revêtant une importance particulière auquel il ne saurait être dérogé et dont la mise en œuvre par les autorités nationales compétentes ne peut être effectuée que dans les limites expressément énoncées par la directive » (CJCE 10 sept. 2009, aff. C-277/08, Pereda, S. Laulom, Le droit aux congés annuels des salariés malades sous influence communautaire, Sem. Soc. Lamy 2010 n° 1444). La juridiction européenne ne fait pas de distinction selon l’ordre dans lequel interviennent les motifs de suspension (CJCE 14 avril 2005, aff. C-519/03, Merino Gomez ; CJCE 20  sept. 2007, aff. C-116/06, Kiski). Les congés annuels doivent permettre au salarié de se reposer (directive fondée sur la santé et la sécurité des travailleurs), tandis que la finalité des régimes d’arrêt maladie  est seulement curative. Le salarié malade pendant ses congés ne peut bénéficier d’un repos réparateur.
La Cour de cassation s’est conformée à l’interprétation européenne, considérant que les congés doivent être pris dans une période distincte du congé maternité (Cass. Soc. 2 juin 2004, n° 02-42 405), que le salarié a droit à un report de ses congés en cas de maladie professionnelle ou d’accident du travail (Cass. Soc. 27 sept. 2007…). Enfin, se référant directement au principe énoncé par la CJCE, la Cour de cassation a décidé en 2009 que « lorsque le salarié s’est trouvé dans l’impossibilité de prendre ses congés payés …en raison d’absences liées à une maladie… les congés payés acquis doivent être reportés après la date de reprise du travail » (Cass. Soc. 24 fév. 2009, n° 07-44 488).
De même, en matière de congé parental, la Cour de cassation considérait que la décision du salarié d’exercer son droit à cette suspension, purgeait les droits à congés annuels en cours (Cass. Soc. 28 janvier 2004, n° 01-46 314). La CJUE, considère quant à elle que le salarié a acquis un droit au repos qui ne peut être fondu dans un autre droit dont la finalité est différente (CJUE, 22 avril 2010, aff. C-486/8, Zentralbetriebstrat der landeskrankenhaüser Tirols). La Cour de cassation française sera donc probablement amenée à réviser sa position sur ce point.
II. Indemnité compensatrice en cas de rupture du contrat de travail
Sur ce point, il semble que droit national et droit européen soit plus en phase : le salarié ne peut prétendre à une indemnisation pour congé non pris qu’en cas d’empêchement majeur, c’est-à-dire lorsque le contrat est rompu avant que le droit à congé soit épuisé (CJCE, 20 janv. 2009, aff. C-305/06 et C/6520/06, Schultz-Hoff et Stinger). La finalité de ce congé est bien le repos, la restauration des forces physiques et morales, elle ne peut se traduire financièrement. On notera que cette rigueur touche essentiellement le congé payé annuel, d’autres repos tels que ceux acquis en application d’accords de réduction du temps de travail peuvent donner lieu à certaines capitalisations.
Cependant, la CJCE a considéré que le salarié malade pendant la période de référence devait voir ses congés reportés ou bien indemnisés s’il ne peut les prendre sur la période suivante. La Cour de cassation n’est pas encore allée jusque là, considérant que le droit s’éteint avec la fin de la période de référence, mais elle sera probablement amené à réviser cette jurisprudence et, à l’instar de son homologue allemand, de reconnaître le droit du salarié empêché à une indemnisation financière.

III. Le droit lié à une durée minimale de travail
Sur ce point on relève une divergence entre les deux ordres juridictionnels. Le droit français exige une ancienneté minimale de dix jours (un mois avant loi du 20 août 2008), alors que la CJUE y voit une discrimination, les salariés employés sur des courtes durées étant traités moins favorablement que les autres (aff. Zentralbetriebstrat der landeskrankenhaüser Tirols précit). La Cour de cassation pourrait donc être amenée à écarter l’application de la loi française, cependant il faut noter qu’une proposition de loi supprimant le délai de carence est d’ores et déjà déposé au Parlement.

4. Conclusion
Ce premier séminaire de travail a permis de constater l’impact des décisions de la CJCE/UE sur les interprétations nationales. Celles-ci ont été profondément remaniées par la vision européenne. La CJCE/UE doit désormais être considérée comme une forme de Cour suprême dont les décisions tendent à harmoniser l’interprétation du droit communautaire. Néanmoins ce rôle est fort complexe dans la mesure où la Cour de justice répond le plus souvent à des questions posées par des juridictions nationales qui ont des problèmes de compatibilité entre le droit européen et leur droit national, mais la réponse qui est donnée s’impose aux vingt-sept États-membres qui doivent à leur tour réinterpréter leur propre droit.
Ces difficultés et l’ampleur de l’impact sont particulièrement visible dans le domaine ancien du transfert d’entreprise et celui, plus nouveau des congés payés. Progressivement ce sont les notions elles-mêmes qui sont mises en cause : l’établissement cède sa place au contrat individuel, le droit au repos prend une valeur patrimoniale.

Marie-Cecile Escande-Varniol