Reality Czech A country examines its communist past

Sunday, January 27, 2002

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- A bust of Lenin with a bashed-in skull adorns the newly opened Museum of Communism, where visitors can imagine being interrogated by police beneath a single bulb in a bare-walled chamber.

The museum in downtown Prague reflects a new trend: Twelve years after the Velvet Revolution brought down communism, many Czechs seem obsessed with re-examining the darker aspects of their totalitarian past.

More to the point, they are debating whether the old demons might return to haunt their future.

Although the Czech Republic belongs to NATO and is well on the road to membership in the European Union, recent opinion polls suggest that one in two Czechs thinks he or she had a better life under the communists.

Such nostalgia can be downright dangerous, other Czechs warn.

"We should avoid making the old regime prettier than it was. It was a miserable regime," said Pavel Tigrid, a former chancellor to President Vaclav Havel.

It's a legacy that Czechs can't seem to escape.

Hate speech

In November, a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Vlastimil Protivinsky, faced charges of disseminating hateful ideologies for calling the Czech Communist Party "evil" during the 1998 election campaign.

When the news hit the media, Havel swiftly intervened to grant amnesty to the priest, and the justice minister fired the investigator handling the case -- a former member of the STB, the communist regime's dreaded secret police.

Activists and politicians launched a "Stop Communism" campaign warning that democracy was in danger.

"The investigation was stopped, but ... the iceberg of communist thinking remains hidden beneath the surface," the group's petition said. "Our democracy can be shipwrecked by that."

Ten percent of Czechs were dues-paying members of the Communist Party. Thousands worked for the secret police. Others were members of the communist youth union, trade unions or militia.

"Most of our citizens ... in a way collaborated with the regime or at least tolerated it," said Havel, the playwright-turned-president who led the crusade against communism and remains the country's respected moral authority.

When the communist government was peacefully toppled in the fall of 1989, Czechs started building a new system.

Pragmatically, they focused on economic reform rather than past crimes and punishment. But although the business world remained open to everyone, high-level functionaries and police under the communists were banned from holding posts in the state administration.

Legal party

Promoting communism was declared illegal, but the party itself was not banned. Today, communists are the third biggest bloc in the 200-seat parliament, where they hold 24 seats, and party membership is 120,000, though it has been slowly declining.

Not everyone is worried about a communist resurgence.

"Whenever something serious happens that has to do with our ugly past, the public reaction is immediate and absolutely healthy," said Martin Fendrych, a commentator for the weekly magazine Tyden, referring to the case of the priest.

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