It was a police state in which people were punished for criticizing the government, or sometimes even for not supporting it visibly enough.
A wide range of books and music were banned because the governments thought they were bad influences.
The “Iron Curtain” had to be made into a full-on militarized border, not to keep the capitalists out, but to keep the citizens of the Soviet-bloc countries in. Some risked their lives to get out, and some of those made it, while others ended up dead or in prison.
And while the state-run economies did manage to industrialize formerly agrarian societies, but they brought stagnation in places like the Czech lands that started the communist period relatively advanced, and they had trouble everywhere with innovation and the efficient use of labor and capital, so that by the 1980s there was an obvious gap between the Soviet bloc and the west in terms of technology and the material standard of living of the median citizen.
So to an American it’s hardly a controversial statement to say that the communist regime here was bad.
But the Czechs—or at least some of them—are having an interesting discussion about just how bad it was, and about the meanings of specific words used to describe it.
In 2007 the Czech government created the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR, Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů), focused on the Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945 and the communist period of 1948 to 1989.
An advisor to the institute’s director is Muriel Blaive, a French historian who now splits her time between Prague and Vienna. She has now set off a firestorm in the Czech media with an article questioning whether the communist era was in fact “totalitarian,” even in the high-Stalinist 1950’s.
Google dictionary defines “totalitarianism” as:
a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.According to Wikipedia, it is
a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. A distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is an "elaborate ideology, a set of ideas that gives meaning and direction to the whole society".This degree of total control also gives it total freedom of action. It orders people about as it pleases, with no need to concern itself with what the citizenry want. The people must obey, on pain of harsh consequences up to and including death, torture, and the suffering of their family members—and so they obey.
Dr. Blaive looked in the archives of the StB (Státní bezpečnost – State Security, the secret police in communist Czechoslovakia) and found that they were spending a lot their time studying the mood of the population. This information was passed along to others in the government looking for ways to buy the public’s compliance by satisfying some of the public’s desires.
As she says in an interview with Jan Čulík on Britské listy, every regime tries to ingratiate itself with the public so as to keep the populace from rebelling, and that this applies to today’s government as well.
At some level this is trivially true: whether you’re talking about a communist dictatorship or a representative democracy, if people’s lives are bad enough, the government runs the risk of a popular uprising, and any rational government will take measures to reduce that risk.
But by focusing on that commonality, Blaive is ignoring the elephant in the room, the thing that makes a dictatorship different, which is that it reserves the right to lock people up for things that in a meaningfully democratic country the government is forbidden from considering to be a crime.
But in an interview with the website a2larm.cz, she makes an even more striking claim:
The opening of the archives showed me—though I must emphasize that this is my personal view, not that of the entire institution—the exact opposite of what what Pavel Žáček and his allies hoped when they first brought up the idea of the USTR. They were convinced that the archives would testify to the totalitarian nature of the previous regime and to the extent of its evil. That was ultimately the original thought of all so-called „commemorative institutions.“ In Germany for instance the goal of the East Germans was to show that they truly suffered, so that the West Germans couldn’t fault them for their low level of anti-regime activity. A similar ideology dominated the opening of these archives in Poland as well. But what happened everywhere—and this is why together with my colleague Thomas Lindenberg I predicted as long ago as 2007 that it would happen in Czechia as well—was that the more broadly the research continued, the more the archives documented the absence of resistance, and to the contrary the extent of cooperation. Instead of providing proofs of the evil of the totalitarian regime, they show that between the rulers and the ruled there was a continual process of negotiation. When I was serving on the scholarly advisory board of the USTR in 2013-14 I already noticed that the institue was actually documenting more the opposite of what it had wanted to dcoument since its founding. Under the previous regime there was a lot more negotiation on the individual and collective level than we had assumed.For Blaive, this cooperation and lack of opposition is evidence that the communist regime wasn’t totalitarian. In that interview she doesn’t really specify the logic, but implicitly it seems to be that if the regime were actually oppressing people and forcing its will on them, you’d see more of that in the archives of the secret police.
But I don’t see any consideration of the opposite conclusion: the relative paucity of resistance is a sign of how far the totalitarian system succeeded in eliciting obedience.
Starting in 1948 you had people being killed at the border for trying to leave the country (for example, see here).
By the 1950s there was in some parts of the border a fence with an electric current of 2,000 to 3,000 volts, and in other places, a double line of barbed wire, sometimes with minefields in the space between the two fences (see here).
Political prisoners were sent to work in uranium mines where those with long sentences were referred to by the term "mukl", from an acronym for "men designated for liquidation," because it was assumed few of them would survive their sentences in the harsh, unsafe conditions of the mines.
You had political opponents subject to what is known as "judicial murder," where a person is sentenced to death on rather transparently trumped-up charges.
Against that background, a researcher is surprised that most people were willing to go along?
This isn’t the absence of totalitarianism, as Blaive would argue, but is rather its triumph. By using exemplary violence and cruelty, the regime worked its way into people’s thoughts.
That is, if there even is such a thing as "totalitarianism."
Let‘s look back at Blaive’s argument in the interview with Jan Čulík referenced above, where she says that the communist regime „negotiated“ with the public so to stave off rebellion, and therefore wasn’t totalitarian. But if that criterion is valid, it strips the word „totalitarian“ of any meaning.
In 1943 the Nazi government arrested many Jewish men married to "Aryan" women. The men’s marriages to non-Jews had given them a measure of protection to that point, but the regime finally decided to move against them.
The wives and other relatives protested in Rosenstrasse, next to where the men were being held. After a week of demonstrations, including standing firm with machine guns pointed at them, the women got what they wanted. The regime implicitly "negotiated" with the women, ultimately deciding that getting its way by physically repressing them would cost too much in terms of lost public support.
In other words, by Blaive’s standards, Nazi Germany in 1943 wasn’t a totalitarian regime.
Blaive explains that the name of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes gives away the political intentions of its creators. "That of course goes against genuine scholarly research. If you were going to reach the conclusion that the regime was totalitarian, that should have been the conclusion, and not an assumption." And she argues that what she’s doing is carrying out exactly that sort of investigation into whether the communist regime truly was totalitarian.
But there’s ample room here for misunderstanding. She gives the impression that she’s asking the question, "Was the communist regime in Czechoslovakia totalitarian?", when in fact she’s asking, "Is there even sch a thing as a ‚totalitarian‘ regime?"
If you take "totalitarian" to mean that a regime has total control and therefore total freedom of action, then it’s quite reasonable to argue that totalitarianism has never existed, and that argument has been made for a long time.
But if you take such evidence from one particular dictatorial regime in one particular country and you frame it as saying that this particular regime wasn’t totalitarian, it’s easy to be misunderstood as saying, "This regime wasn’t so bad."
As a result, other aspects of the discussion end up being more interesting than the direct question of whether this or that regime was or wasn’t totalitarian. For one, what are the implications of this question for the current Czech political scene. Also, what are the range of motivations and circumstances that lead people to some mix of acceptance of, collaboration with, and support for a lawless state?
I hope to get to those questions soon.
(The next one is here, on how this plays out in Czech politics today.)