“Good-Bye, Lenin” – Hello, Communism?

Today we return after a long absence to the Czech press and, once again, the timing is propitious. For yesterday was the last day of a three-day weekend in the Czech Republic, since each year 17 November is celebrated as the day, in 1989, of the brutally-suppressed student demonstration against the Czechoslovak Communist regime that set off the “Velvet Revolution.” This would topple that regime in short order, and replace it with a new government, most of whose key functionaries (including foreign minister – Jiri Dienstbier, formerly your friendly neighborhood window-washer – but of course topped of by President Václav Havel) were plucked either from jail or demeaning manual occupations.

(Actually, 17 November was an important day of commemoration even before 1989. That was the day in 1939 when the Nazi occupiers moved against university student agitators by executing nine of them, sending a further 1,200 to concentration camps, and closing down all Czech universities. The students of 1989 therefore had for 17 November a ready-made, “50th anniversary” pretext to gain from the Communist authorities license to hold demonstrations – except that it soon turned out that they were against the then-government, and the riot police moved in.)

The thing is, this year 17 November has for many a sad and ironic tinge to it, and that is because that same Communist Party is now the second most-popular political party in national opinion polls, and is openly planning its path into government again by means of elections that have to occur by 2006. But is it really “that same Communist Party”? That’s the Kc 64,000 question. For now, let it suffice to say that the KSCM (Czech initials for the “Communist Party of the Czech Lands and Moravia”) has never renounced the policies or the behavior of its totalitarian predecessor, the KSC (“Communist Party of Czechoslovakia”), beyond some grudging admissions that “it’s true certain mistakes were made.” This sets it apart from almost all of what used to be its “fraternal socialist” ruling-party counterparts elsewhere in the East Bloc – with the exception, of course, of the Russian Communist Party. (There’s also a similarly-unreformed Communist Party of Slovakia.) On the other hand, the Communist parties in Poland and Hungary, to cite but two prominent examples, have gone down another path since 1989: they have transformed themselves into true social democratic parties and are in fact both currently the party of government in their respective countries! (Not that either is having a very easy time of it, but that’s another story . . .)

It’s no surprise, then, that although the growing political power of the KSCM should be something of note regardless of the time of year, the November 17 holiday, a holiday of liberation from Communism, naturally helps to focus public attention on the issue. (That should probably also have been true of a recent incident in which the new memorial to the victims of Communism in Prague – dedicated only last year – was vandalized, but I didn’t pick up any mention of this in the articles that follow.)

The leading Czech business newspaper Hospodarske noviny was on top of all this as early as last Friday with a series of articles on the Czech Communists.


There’s a lot to choose from here, but probably the most interesting is the interview HN writer David Machacek conducts with KSCM Central Committee Chairman (Yup! That’s his title!) Miroslav Ransdorf (The Time for Offensive Has Come. We’ll Win the Next Elections), complete with a series of tables down at the bottom giving current levels of KSCM political support and representation in the Czech parliament which are excellent – but, of course, in Czech. (By the way, it’s that very last table that gives the level of voter support for the KSCM through the years, and which reminds us of the big “The KSCM is coming!” scare of 1999, when at 24.5% the Communists had even greater absolute levels of voter support than they do now. Perhaps this provides a little historical perspective to current worries about the party’s strength.)

As you can gather from the article’s title, Ransdorf has a confident outlook on his party’s electoral prospects. And he has a secret plan about how to get the KSCM into power – presumably a plan that stays within the bounds of Czech law, but still a secret plan nonetheless. “We’ll have a party conference in the spring,” he says, “then everything will become clear.” But the main point is that the days of the party’s “defensive style” are coming to an end. “The sense of defeatism and appeasement has disappeared . . . . It has turned out that the public is prepared for a dialog with us,” Ransdorf declares, so the time has come to push for broader inclusion and cooperation with other political parties, and above all for victory in the 2006 elections. Machacek asks him straight out “You’re not bothered by your party’s past?” Ransdorf answers, “I’m convinced that the lesson which history gave us we have accepted with the attention it deserves, and that Communists are united in putting their past behind them, whereas other parties are still living in their past.”

HN focuses in on the KSCM’s economic aims in an accompanying article, The Communists’ Further Target: The Economy. This piece outlines the party’s strategy of preparing for going into government out of the 2006 elections by first gaining influential political and economic posts at levels just below the top. Like seats on the “Czech Consolidation Agency,” the body charged with restructuring and privatizing former government-owned and/or failed businesses. The Communists’ growing political influence is making it ever harder to keep them of that Agency’s board. The KSCM has also made big inroads into power in the regions, where already they can claim mayors in two major cities (Havirova and Karvina) and in more than 350 towns – and even more vice-mayors and city council members than that. Influential businessmen are increasingly coming from among Communist ranks, as well. This article then cites Czech historian Marin Nechvatal, a specialist on Communist history, who sees parallels with the situation just before the Communist take-over of the country in early 1948: “At the end of the Second World War Gottwald [then leader of the Czech Communists] said: ‘We’re not yet strong enough to govern by ourselves, and we’re already strong enough so that they can’t govern without us.'”


Overall, then, Hospodarske noviny provides a good outlook on both the KSCM’s current political and economic strengths and its future intentions (no matter how secretive Miroslav Ransdorf pretends to be). But truly superb coverage comes once again from an extensive article in the weekly Respekt (Getting Up in Arms is Correct – that’s my interpretation of Bourit se je správné, all you Czech-speakers out there), which in my mind is fast taking up a position as a supplier of informed commentary second only to Germany’s Die Zeit. Writer Adam Drda’s sub-title is “Fourteen years after the fall of Communism, the KSCM is the second most-popular party: What about that? [Co s tím?]”

“What about that?”, indeed. Time to sound the alarm, if you ask Drda. Allow me to quote a few excellent (translated) sentences at length: “Fourteen years after the fall of the regime there is a serious danger threatening of a restoration of the Communist government, something one part of society wouldn’t even realize was happening, another part would not permit to happen, and another part would even ask to happen. The situation is all the worse because Western Europe constantly underestimates this neo-Communist threat.”

At the core of Drda’s depiction of the rise of the Communists lies a very intriguing treatment of the role of Czech President Václav Klaus in all of this. The Czech Republic’s first president, Václav Havel, would have nothing to do with the Communists. (Although, very ironically, he was instrumental in the early days after 1989 in preventing that party from being outlawed outright in Czechoslovakia, something that many were urging at the time.) After elections, for example, when it was the President’s function to meet at his official residence, Prague Castle, with representatives of political parties represented in Parliament to discuss the formation of a new government, he would do that – except that KSCM representatives would never be invited. But Václav Klaus is very different on this point: he has shown no compunction about meeting with the KSCM – about meeting with the KSCM collectively, with representatives of other parties in attendance, and about meeting with KSCM leaders privately. But that’s really no surprise, if you remember that Klaus’ election as President in the first place (Czech presidents are elected by a combined vote of the lower house and the Senate) was clearly made possible by Communist votes. You would have thought that, back last February, the Socialist candidate would have won, since that party, the CSSD, headed (and still heads) the governing coalition, while Klaus’ right-wing ODS was in a clear minority in the opposition. But, first of all, the CSSD never quite got its act together about just who its one candidate was supposed to be, and then it turned out that there were plenty of CSSD and CSSD-allied legislators who were willing to take advantage of the secret ballot to show their unhappiness (over one thing or another involving the current government and/or Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla specifically) to vote against the party line. For a while, the prospect of stalemate loomed, with none of the candidates being able to gain the required majority of votes for election and so the Czech Republic having to function for quite some time, until the law could be changed, without a President – until all those worries went up in smoke, as the tide turned quite clearly and Václav Klaus waltzed to victory.

It was good that a president was finally elected – even, as it seemed, with Communist votes (and there was the curious phenomenon of a closed-door meeting Klaus had had with the KSCM caucus between voting rounds – what did he tell them then?), because a stalemate leaving no Czech President would have been rather traumatic for what is, after all, the rather young Czech state. (Although Slovakia has already had to go through that. That’s another, although quite interesting, story involving ex-boxer and demagogue Vladimir Meciar – no, he was not the president – which must be left for another time.) What’s really disturbing, to Adam Drda, is the way President Klaus, with a distinctly right-wing background, has ever since his election been such a good Boy Scout in seemingly honoring whatever promises he made at the time to repay the Communists for their support. That must be the explanation for his subsequent behavior – or has he just lost his mind? Drda finds that this right-wing former economics professor, a professed acolyte of Margaret Thatcher, “has accelerated extraordinarily the Communist [political] rise.” Especially in foreign policy, Klaus has been singing out of the red-velvet Communist songbook: he is suspicious towards the European Union, defiant towards the Germans (particularly on the question of compensation for Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of WWII), and is rather unappreciative of recent high-profile American undertakings in the Middle East. What’s more, it seems that he has a high regard for Russia and for Vladimir Putin (who knew?), something he clearly expressed in a recent state visit there – while most Czech people who remember 1968 have a real problem with their president expressing such sentiments, particularly when they involve a former career KGB man. (Klaus also had a particularly tight relationship with Slobodan Milosevic – back before he became President, of course.)


All of this came to a head for Adam Drda in an article President Klaus recently published in the leading Czech daily Mladá Fronta Dnes (which is strange, because in the past he has preferred to publish in the just-as-respectable Lidové noviny). It’s quite a remarkable essay, which presents a revisionist history of the forty years of Communism in Czechoslovakia. “I don’t agree with those,” Klaus writes, “who reproach the common people for collaborating with the totalitarian regime, for not getting up in arms, not demonstrating, not forming various opposition groups, like a group of intellectuals did – most of them ex-Party members.” No, he says, even the common people did resist the Communist regime, with passive resistance, with a drawing away from public life. In other words, Czechs and Slovaks who lived through that time should not feel guilty about it; just by shutting themselves away each summer weekend in their country cottages they were resisting the regime, and preparing the moral groundwork that just needed the spark of the suppressed student demonstration of November, 1989, to result in the disappearance of the Communists from power. What is more, they shouldn’t feel guilty either about those groups of “dissidents” that they might have heard about, who at the time seemed to be doing much more, at much more personal risk, to oppose the regime. Those were just Party dissidents, sore that they had been thrown out of the Party for some reason or another and so determined to make trouble.

Not only does this completely misrepresent the history of Czech resistance to Communist rule, such as it was – gardening at one’s summer cottage really did very little to disrupt Czechoslovakia’s Five Year economic plans, or to gain free speech, or the freeing of political prisoners, and Charter 77 (the leading dissident movement) was certainly not in any way dominated by ex-Party members – but it also serves to lessen the current Czech electorate’s resistance to future Communist rule. (Klaus’ article also wasn’t especially helpful, Drda notes, in not mentioning the KSCM even once.) For, if people can be convinced that in fact that they were resisting during those times, so that the old Communist regime’s downfall was just a matter of time, then they should be able to do it again if something goes tragically wrong with any future Communist government. And those bands of intellectuals now warning against the Communists? Ignore them – they were just trouble-makers before, and they’re just trouble-makers now, going about screaming about how the sky is falling.


But Adam Drda is not afraid to join their ranks, and to analyze what such a future Communist government could look like. First of all, he writes, at this point it may be too late to head such a thing off, as the KSCM has already advanced too far and gained too much political and economic power – unless there somehow occurs a massive electoral repudiation of them at the next elections. But what would a Communist government look like? “It would lead gradually to a limitation of personal freedom, to practical pressure on the free conduct of business, to the switching of foreign policy orientation to China, Russia, and similar lands, to systematic restrictions on freedom of speech and to the Gleichschaltung of justice.” (Gleichschaltung is the famous Nazi term meaning the complete perversion of justice by political aims, under the pretext of making justice uniform, of “everybody being in the same gear.”) Yes, membership and NATO and the EU could be expected to counteract such developments – but NATO and the EU can be abandoned, something the KSCM has long advocated.

Finally, Drda compares the refusal to remember Communist crimes, the seeming amnesia on the part of the growing part of the Czech electorate willing to vote for them, or at least not object to their presence, with denial of the Holocaust. It’s time for people to wake up to the truth about their past; the only remaining hope might well be that massive electoral repudiation of the KSCM in the 2006 elections. So it is necessary that a holiday like November 17, above all, be better used to recall memories of that past, as unpleasant as they might be.


Finally, a look at Lidové noviny’s several contributions to the November 17 occasion, which I thought appropriate to discuss at this later point because they might help to dispel any overpowering sense of gloom which may be afflicting my honored readers at this stage. Most to the point is this report about an artists’ movement called S komunisty se nemá mluvit! (“You don’t talk with Communists!”) This movement has managed to enlist a bunch of local rock musicians to further their cause, mainly embodied in a petition to the president and government protesting at the Communist influence – “Do not negotiate with extremists about the character and future of this land!” it reads in part. Now, I doubt that you, dear reader, have ever heard of any of the groups mentioned in the article, unless of course you’re Czech or you live there or have lived there. (Well, what about Ecstasy of St. Theresa? Anybody? They sing in English, have appeared on John Peel (Who? Here.), and looked like they were going to hit the big time – back around 1994!) Still, via benefit concerts the word is being spread, money is being raised, and the petition is being signed – seven-and-a-half thousand signatures in just three months of existence. Great quotes here, too, from some of these involved musicians: Have Czech voters simply forgotten everything, or are they totally lacking in morality?

Then there is a pair of interesting articles, based on recently-released historical archives, describing what those wild-and-crazy apparatchiks on the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party were up to just before the storm that would sweep them away broke in November, 1989. (Here is the summary article – also showing a neat old-fashioned Communist poster, in good proletarian style, but alas! reproduced at too small a scale, while this is the full article, with all the details.) Yeah, what were they up to? Well, for one thing, they apparently had no clue about what was brewing, which was strange because, at that point, there was already an opposition-led government in Poland, Erich Honecker had resigned in the face of widespread street demonstrations in East Germany, and the Hungarians had completely opened up their borders to the West. No, the top thing on the Central Committee’s November, 1989 agenda was preparing for the annual party conference, to take place in May, 1990 – including such vital details as arranging the entertainment for the follow-on party, featuring singers Helena Vondrackova and Karel Gott (still popular Czech singers, by the way, although getting old). One burning issue was (as usual) that of doing something about faltering production: reports indicated that only 65% of the production quota for radio receivers was being filled, only 56% for televisions, only 48% for bicycles, and only a sad 29% for videomagnetofony, which I would interpret to be a VCR except I find it hard even to imagine a Communist-manufactured VCR. (Help me out here, Czech friends!) Related to that problem was the one of the general increase in prices that was needed (i.e. the deliberate shrinking of the proletariat’s purchasing power), precisely because of the big gap that was opening up between their pesky proletarian desires and the goods that were available to satisfy them. But such price-rises were always a tricky thing to do politically – they tended to bring pesky proletarian agitation; better, it was decided, to hold off until May and then put them through as a decision of the “people’s delegates” to that party congress. Also on the agenda was a plan to support more tourism – not Czechoslovak tourism to other countries, by any means, but rather foreign tourism into Czechoslovakia, to try to earn more of that precious “hard” Western currency. (Presumably the Central Committee did not have in mind those thousands of East Germans who, in September, had flocked to camp out on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague, located just below the Castle, to gain permission to emigrate to the Bundesrepublik; those teutonic cheapskates didn’t even pay for lodging, for heaven’s sake – sorry: for Lenin’s sake? – preferring to camp out on the embassy grounds.)


Then there comes the interesting news in another article, actually a movie review (Good-Bye, Lenin, Forever!), that the hit German film “Good-Bye, Lenin” opened in the Czech Republic precisely on the November 17 holiday. Have you heard of it? (Check out this, in English.) It’s a film I saw here about a month ago – and I don’t go to see films. The plot basically (don’t worry about reading this; I won’t tell you how it turns out – not that “how it turns out” is really vital to the film, to be honest) is that the mother of a young man living in East Berlin falls into an eight-month coma, during which time the Wall falls. When she comes to, her family is warned that her fragile health cannot allow any sort of shock – such as the simple news of what has happened in Germany while she was in the hospital, particularly in view of the comradely enthusiasm she had shown towards the German Democratic Republic in her prime, as an elementary school teacher. So the family – mainly the son – determines to build up a fake world around her sick room in which the East German Communist regime is still going strong. Naturally, that turns out to be a problem – mother likes to watch the TV news, meaning that the TV news must be simulated, and mother likes to look out the window, which means that it is a problem when a huge Coca-Cola advertisement is painted one day on the wall of the adjoining apartment block.

“Good-Bye, Lenin” was a pretty good movie, with some funny moments – not the best I’ve ever seen, but I was happy to try to track when it would be opening in Amsterdam after I first read about it a few months ago in the Economist. (It had won some sort of prize at the Berlin Film Festival.) But I also think that, given what this entry has just discussed about the growing power of the KSCM, it is not really the best movie to be showing in the Czech Republic at the present time. (Not that anything other than availability, and sheer commercial considerations, determine what is shown in Czech movie theaters at any given time.) That is because the film’s message is essentially one of nostalgia for the DDR, the sense that, yes, we had to live under the Communists and put up with the Stasi, but life was so much easier and comfortable then – the state took care of us, and told us were we were going to (read “had to”) go work, and neighbors were truly interested in each other and involved in each others lives. (Of course they were: the Stasi were paying them – or forbearing from using incriminating information against them, as the case may have been – to inform on each other, so that any dissidence could be identified and nipped in the bud with a visit by the secret police. Ladies and gentlemen, many were the the wives in the German Democratic Republic who informed to the State on their husbands, and husbands who informed on their wives – just in case you haven’t heard of this fact already.) Czechs, I would submit, don’t need right now anything broadcasting the message that life under the Communists really wasn’t so bad – even though it’s also true that they would be vastly entertained by the way the film depicts the transition to capitalism: the advent of satellite dishes, BMW, Mercedes, and Burger King (well, in the film maybe – Burger King is not yet present in the Czech Republic, but we can think of an even more famous chain that certainly is), the new worries about finding a job when the State’s not there anymore to assign you one, of surviving on your State pension when it provides you with a quarter of the purchasing power that it once did.

The Lidové noviny reviewer, Darina Krivankova, expresses similar sentiments. Her minor objection is to the plot development dominating the last part of the film, which I won’t reveal but which she sees as an irrelevant distraction. Given the film’s skill in recreating the experience of East Germany turning into part of a united Germany, she is willing to write “if only every film had only such a minor stain on its beauty . . .” But her major objection is more serious: the film is based upon a construct of amoral lies, about the true nature of the East German regime, about the true nature of oni – “them” in Czech (and in Polish*; in fact there is a famous Polish dissident’s book whose title is that one word only), namely the “them,” the Communist authorities, who were once unassailable in their power, whether in East Germany or Czechoslovakia or wherever else, against whom thousands of Czechs rallied in November, 1989, in Wenceslas Square, to jingle their keys, cheer Václav Havel on the balcony, and demand of “them” that they get out! Krivankova hopes – but can’t be sure – that those viewing “Good-Bye, Lenin” will recognize that lie, rather than letting themselves be convinced by it, and use it as a final form of farewell for the life that once was. (Ah, but what about the youngsters born too late to know Communism?) In any case, though, she is sure that many, many Czechs will be viewing it – already six million Germans have, and, as she points out, recent Czech history in this regard runs perfectly parallel with recent (East) German history.

At least good, old-fashioned capitalist marketing will make sure there is no doubt that they do. Click here to learn about your chance (if you can read Czech, that is – and can stand flashing banners), sponsored by Atlas.cz, Exotica, and “Good-Bye, Lenin,” to win a trip for two to Moscow, where you can (in fact, will be expected to) visit the mausoleum and give the big guy a personal “good-bye”! (Hey – Lenin always claimed to be a proletarian: does that mean that he’s now a “working stiff”?)

* Attention, Czech and Polish purists! E-mail me if you want, but this is to let you know that I’m fully aware that, strictly speaking, “oni” in those languages means “they” (i.e. nominative case), not “them.” Trust me, “them” is what fits here, and most readers will not begrudge me that.

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