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Velvet Memories Slipping Through Our Fingers?

As the 30th anniversary of 1989’s anti-communist revolution approaches later this year, many young Czechs will likely wonder what all the commotion is about.

by Katherine Schulte and Megan Sokol 12 February 2019

A huge public square overflows with people, packed so tightly that they touch on all sides. Some wave red, white, and blue flags. Some hold banners proclaiming “freedom.” All look to the top of the sloping square, where the statue of a 10th century duke reigns. This image, captured in photographs from numerous angles, shows the demonstrations of Czechoslovakia against the communist regime during the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

 

Yet today, young Czechs might have difficulty placing that image or even communicating the basic details surrounding that seminal event in Czech history, let alone those from many years ago, such as student Jan Palach’s self-immolation in the wake of the Soviet Pact invasion of 1968, whose 50th anniversary was commemorated last month. 

 

The country’s recent past is, critics say, often not thoroughly covered in schools, and it shows. One recent poll [link in Czech] revealed a startling lack of knowledge of important dates in modern history.

 

The metronome

 

The Czech Republic also has few public spaces dedicated to its recent history. Only one museum dedicated to the period exists — the Museum of Communism — but it is privately owned and a commercial venture.

 

This past fall, Post Bellum, a nonprofit organization that collects eyewitness accounts of the 20th century, created a well-regarded exhibit covering modern Czech history that tried to fill the gap. Post Bellum called its project “Memory of the Nation” – a “collection of memories of specific personalities, photographs, diaries, and various archival materials from the totalitarian period of the 20th century.”

 

Even the choice of location for the exhibit was symbolic: on Letna Hill in Prague, which once held the world’s largest representation of Joseph Stalin. However, after commemorating Stalin fell out of favor with the Soviet leadership, the 17,000-ton monument was blasted by dynamite in 1962, and a sculpture of a metronome replaced it in 1991.

 

The Corridor of Witnesses

 

What used to stand as a testament to Stalin is now a memorial to the victims of the Nazi occupation and the communist era.

 

Grafitti in Letna park

 

Below the wall, inside the hill, were the other three parts of the Letna Park exhibit – a corridor of witnesses, a corridor of images, and a series of double-sided signs connecting the two corridors. It covered nine periods, beginning with World War II and ending in 1989.

 

The corridor of witnesses featured multiple videos of individuals speaking one at a time about their experiences under and after communism, projected onto columns. Visitors sat on a bench in the dark and faced the chamber of screens – the screens providing the only light – as they watched close-up faces of those recalling their lives during these time periods.

 

As visitors entered the corridor of images, they had to feel along the walls until they reached the open, barely lit space, surrounded on three sides by chain-link fence and projected images. The tunnel was immersive, using evocative images to take viewers through the air in a fighter plane, or putting them in a cell overrun with spiders and filled with the screams of a nearby prisoner in Terezin (Theresienstadt) – the Czech town used as a concentration camp by the Nazis. The impression was sometimes chilling, sometimes solemn, and often disturbing.

 

“We tried to engage the emotions of the viewer,” said Magdalena Benesova, the head of the education department for Post Bellum. “Maybe not everything is fully comprehensible for the viewer, but his emotions should be touched, and then he or she should seek the information that is missing.”

 

Both the signs and the witness testimonies contained some of those further details.

 

Post Bellum also arranged activities for school groups at the exhibit. Students received one of three possible worksheets, each with different witness stories, including one from a communist collaborator. The worksheets asked students to think about what freedom meant to the witness whose story was listed, and to ponder what freedom means to them personally.

 

The exhibition

 

Schoolchildren hopefully left the exhibit – which closed in December, visited by over 23,000 people – more knowledgeable than when they arrived, said Benesova. “I think they get an experience, and they also get some information and some different viewpoints on history. Maybe they get an impulse to search for more information.”

 

A Parental Responsibility

 

Some of this history, including different perspectives, can be found closer to home, for example with personal contacts such as older relatives who lived through the communist period, or parents who have secondhand accounts.

 

History teacher Roman Elner has started encouraging children to come to class already supplied with information.

 

“Children should search for facts somewhere else — in books, or speak with grandparents,” Elner says. These eyewitness connections are something the children have responded to strongly, he says, along with being able to look at pictures and videos of events they are learning about.

 

In the hallway of the Prague school where Elner is employed, a bulletin board is filled with artwork from young students, reflecting a newer method of learning. The year 1968 – the date of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact countries – is prominent in all of the artistic representations, from the Soviet helmet to the tank with a sideways “8” forming its wheels.

 

Children should be raised by their parents, not their teachers, agreed Miroslav Jandik, an older man who visited the Post Bellum exhibit last fall.

 

Miroslav Jandik

 

Born in 1942, he lived through the rise and fall of communism, and was in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. He called for parents to speak to their children more, believing that what children learn in school is not accurate.

 

Another attendee of the exhibit, Jakub Trunda, a law student at Charles University in Prague, said his grandmother had told him about her everyday life during communist rule and how she was not allowed to run a business.

 

Trunda stressed that he had also studied history at his gymnasium – a high school that offers a general curriculum rather than a technical or vocational one. There, Trunda said, he learned the basics – important dates like 1968 – in his second year, and then in his last years took a specific class on the history of the 20th century.

 

“My professor, he was the type of person that actually hated communists, and he really liked the topic. He was always happy to talk about it,” Trunda said, remembering how his teacher had skipped from the Roman Empire directly to the communist era.

 

Why the Gap?

 

There is no consensus about the reason for students’ lack of knowledge about modern Czech history.

 

Teachers face pressure from having to race through assigned textbooks and from parents, Benesova suggested. “The textbook is like the Holy Grail. This is in the textbook, so you have to teach it. Otherwise, you are a bad teacher.”

 

Parents, she added, remembered dates they had learned – such as 1212, when Bohemia was recognized as a kingdom – and not only expected their children to know the same; they complained if their children did not.

 

Trunda echoed that explanation.

 

“Some professors don’t even have time to talk about it,” he said, “They have to teach about what happened before even the Middle Ages ... the really early times, the evolution of – basically – humans. It’s boring. It takes a lot of time to talk about it and explain everything, and then you don’t have time to talk about more important issues.”

 

Trunda also suggested that the poor timing of the year when students learn about modern history might be a factor.

 

“When you are ending elementary school in the ninth grade, that’s the time when you are supposed to study communism.” However, he noted, once students know which type of high school they will be attending – general, vocational, or technical – “they don’t really care about learning new things or about studying.”

 

Teachers who say they lack time should plan better, countered Oldrich Tuma, the former longtime director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague.

 

“I think it’s up to them to be organized,” he said. “I don’t know how much [discretion] they have to reduce something like ancient history or medieval history, to have more time for modern history, but I would say it’s on them.”

 

The Czech Ministry of Education insists that individual schools do have flexibility in the content of their lesson plans, having been allowed, in a reform of the early 2000s, to come up with their own curricula, as long as they are based on the national framework.

 

Magdalena Benesova

 

“Czech pupils and students are taught according to the Framework Educational Programs (FEP) that set the objectives [which] pupils and students have to achieve at the individual school level,” said ministry spokesperson Aneta Lednova. “Schools form their own school educational programs on the basis of the FEP. Teaching about the period of socialism, and the way [the teaching] will be implemented, is entirely at the discretion of each school.”

 

Post Bellum’s Benesova acknowledged that reality, but said that teachers still sometimes felt pressured to teach everything in the national curriculum.

 

Following in Their Parents’ Footsteps

 

Depending on parents to inform their children is tricky, however, since many are just as uninformed as their children.

 

A poll conducted by Post Bellum in June 2018 found that almost one in three Czech adults, aged 18 to 65, did not know about the 1948 Communist takeover, while one in four did not know what happened in 1968 before the Soviet invasion.

 

Mikulas Kroupa, the director of Post Bellum, told Czech Radio that schools and parents shared the blame.

 

“Unfortunately, this reflects above all on our schools but also of course on their parents,” he told the broadcaster. “It shows that most parents can tell their children only about periods of history that they lived through themselves, namely the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Velvet Revolution of 1989.”

 

Still, in Benesova’s opinion, the polls are not representative of Czechs’ knowledge, and, she said, researchers needed to use more sophisticated questions rather than open-ended ones for a better measure.

 

“A lot of people know the processes, can understand the consequences, but they can’t remember dates,” she said, “and you can’t [show that] from this type of poll.” A public debate should lead to an examination of more relevant data, she said.

 

However, Tuma, at the Institute of Contemporary History, was less troubled by the gaps in historical knowledge.

 

“I can understand that this is just one discipline from many different disciplines,” he said, “and for people who are preparing for their profession – maybe [as] an IT specialist – their opinion is that they don’t need history …1968 happened 50 years ago.”

 

Giving himself as an example, he said he had done well in his chemistry exams, but had since forgotten much of what he had learned.

 

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education said national requirements were sufficient.

 

“We are sure that the Framework Educational Programs deal with this issue adequately,” said Lednova. “Our ministry has also prepared complex methodological informational materials for schools, with the recommendation to directors and teachers of primary and secondary schools to pay due attention to the teaching of the history of the 20th century.” 

Katherine Schulte is a journalism and political science student at the University of Richmond. She was a TOL editorial intern this past fall. Megan Sokol, another intern, assisted in the reporting for this story and took photos.
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