Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Archives full of explosive revelations

By Tereza Nosálková |
Hospodářské noviny |
22 October 2008

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is gradually throwing history back at the Czechs. Some are finding it hard to cope with.

The archives are supposedly full of documents of denunciations similar to the one now talked about in connection with the writer Milan Kundera. And some politicians have decided to take action following the international stir over the Kundera case.

The Communists and the Social Democrats have been consistent in criticising the Institute. And even some of its earlier supporters are beginning to join the camp of critics. "If the institute publishes cases out of context, without proper investigation, it will meet with great resistance from me," says Přemysl Sobotka, president of the Senate. It is the Senate that appoints members of the board that supervises the institute's work and nominates or dismisses its head.

Read it in context
"Archives, not only the newly established Archive of Security Forces, hide a great deal of information that can be simplistically perceived as "sensational". Other cases will surely come up.This is a taxation of sorts for our attempt at greater openness of the archives," says Jaroslav Cuhra, historian and expert on communism. He thinks it is necessary to take the context and the times of the creation of the documents into account. That is exactly what the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes neglected, according to a number of its critics, when it published a story, describing one writer's denunciation, a week ago in a Respekt article. The critics reprimand the institute for not placing the materials in context, but rather releasing them without any control, similarly to when the institute published material on military counterintelligence and four MPs fell under suspicion.

Some historians backed Kundera, but the researchers maintain that the document is authentic. "I can't see any mistake on the part of the institute. It is part of a complex process. What should the historians do when they discover a document like this? Should they put it back where they found it? I don't think so," says Jiří Gruntorád, member of the institute's board and the man behind the project of a samizdat and exile library Libri Prohibiti.

He also says that Czech public will face more uneasy tests of how well it can cope with the behaviour of its members in the totalitarian regime. But even he emphasises the context. "We know about the file which states that Václav Havel went to the police to bring them an issue of an exile magazine Svědectví, which he found in his mailbox. He did not do any harm; he was only understandably worried that it might be a provocation," says the former dissident.

Pavel Žáček, the institute's director, does not comment on the Milan Kundera case. He did not respond to Hospodářské noviny's request for an interview. "It is the direct superior of the researcher who is in charge of communication with the public," says Jiří Reichl, the instutute's spokesman.

Havel calls for caution
In connection with the Milan Kundera case, former President Václav Havel asked young historians in particular for greater caution.

In an article in the current issue of Respekt he writes that otherwise, they might, in good faith, do more harm than good.

Havel said Kundera got entangled in an altogether Kunderaesque world late in his life, after managing to stay out of it so cleverly in the past.

"Milan you need to stay above it! There are worse things in one's life than being disgraced in the press," Havel writes.