“He who controls the present controls the past”

The history of the world is full of political changes. Revolutions, coups and peaceful democratizations have determined how political power travels from one hand to another, followed by a deep transformation of society. Like many other countries, Czechoslovakia experienced a regime change and thus went through a transition period from being a Socialist one-party state to a liberal multi-party democracy. A regime change is a challenging situation not only for the obvious logistic problems which a full societal change implies, but also because the official historical narrative has to adapt to the new reality. As George Orwell says in 1984, “he who controls the present controls the past”. During a transition, the political structure is turned upside down, so those who used to be the radical antisystem become the system and vice versa. In that sense, how do we use history to shape the present? Is it possible to treat the past in an objective way? Do official sources try to rewrite history? Organisations like Socialism Realised and Memory of Nation try to recreate life in Communist Czechoslovakia from testimonies and personal experiences to challenge the common recreation of the past.

The Czech Republic experienced the hardships and benefits of being a socialist regime, and the collective memory is often quite biased regarding this matter. While there is a general negative perception of communism, the Communist Party of Czech and Moravia (KSCM), the heir of the old Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (nowadays illegal) has been consistently obtaining around 12 per cent of the votes since the first plural legislative elections in 1990, becoming the third most voted party in 2013 with 15 per cent of the votes and 33 seats out of 200. Even though communism is often political authoritarianism, a good percentage of the Czech population also acknowledges that during the Socialist regime, the economic and social aspects were fairly positive. There was free healthcare and education, as well as full employment which granted a stable public pension scheme.

Graffiti painting shows Czech support for Communist Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Photograph: Miguel Peña Novo

Similarly, the contemporary national heroes of the Czech Republic, most of them characterized as freedom fighters, did not explicitly challenge the idea of communism, but the authoritarian nature of the regime. Alexander Dubcek for instance, whom the collective memory portrays as a Czechoslovak patriot, was also a convinced Marxist. As first secretary of the Communist Party, he triggered the reforms of “socialism with a human face”, which launched the 1968 Prague Spring. Regardless of his political ideology, polls show that he had the support of around 78% of the Czechoslovak population. When he appeared with Vaclav Havel in Wenceslas Square during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which saw the end of a Socialist Czechoslovakia, the crowd cheered him as a hero. “Dubcek was a good person and a good leader”, says Lukas, an engineering student at the Charles University in Prague. “He tried to give us more freedom but was stopped by the Soviet Union”.

Regarding the Soviet Union however there is fewer division of opinions. Public opinion still regards Russia as the Czech Republic’s main threat, something which ice hockey games between the two countries clearly shows. “The Soviets invaded us and that’s why all Czechs hate Soviet Russia”, says Peter, another Czech student. It can be said that the modern Czech national identity was partly constructed as a reaction to Soviet imperialism, as a way to revendicate popular sovereignty in the Czech Republic. The historical importance of key Czech characters such as Jan Palach and Vaclav Havel evolves around how they opposed the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Even then, the impact of the USSR on the Czech Republic is two-sided. It is quite common to find small homages to Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in the Prague liberation, as in 1945, Czechoslovakia was freed from the Nazi occupation both by Czech and Slovak partisans under Soviet military training.

Homage to an anonymous Soviet soldier who died in the liberation of Prague, 1945. Photograph: Miguel Peña Novo

In the end, this shows that transition periods and regime changes are complex political processes, because everything gets transformed, from the economical productive model to the organisation of society. History is written by the victors, therefore the losing side tends to be disregarded by the official narrative. Nonetheless, we should always remember that historical events are not often as polarized as some scholars portray them; its never black and white, but a mixture. Regarding Czechoslovakia, the past is nowadays used as a guideline not to follow, but after some research, there are a few things which have not been analysed to a proper extent.

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