Category Archives: Czechoslovakia

Irish reactions to the Velvet Revolution in 1989

Here in the Czech Republic, it is no ordinary Tuesday. Today in the Czech calendar is Freedom and Democracy Day. November 17th 1989 marks a significant day in the modern history of the Czech Republic. November 17th 1989 occupies a position in the narrative of Czech history,  like October 28th 1918, of the beginning of a hopeful new era. It marks the emergence from the oppression of regime foisted on Czechs from outside. In 1918, it was casting off the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire to form the First Czechoslovak Republic. In 1989, it was casting off a calcified Communist regime which had since the beginning of the 1970s enforced ‘normalization’ following the crushing of the Prague Spring. These are the parallels between 1918 and 1989, and as with any narratives of national freedom, they are highly seductive. But, the truth of the events of 1989, the ‘velvet revolution’, and the end of Communist rule beginning with the student protests on November 17th that year are decidedly more complicated. Continue reading

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De-industrialization, heritage, and the recession: Waterford, 2009-2014

Reading Alex Niven’s  Folk Opposition this week, I was engaged particularly by the passages that looked at what Nivens titled ‘Oppositional geography’ where he discusses in the book the remaking of the Newcastle/Gateshead docklands during the years of New Labour and the building of new bridges like The Millenium, Newcastle’s sixth bridge, The Baltic art gallery, and the concert venue, The Sage. All of it, after the positivity of the early Blairite years passed, the recession hit, Newcastle in Niven’s view, ended up with little more than a “cosmetic growth” bereft of a meaningful “social or economic infrastructure”, something which “which was certainly not one of the legacies of cultural regeneration”.[1] This struck a particular chord with me when thinking of Waterford and its fortunes since the beginning of the recession. My knowledge of Waterford history has grown thanks to my PhD research, in the very period when Waterford seems to have very little else to look to for comfort. It’s hurlers haven’t delivered on so much promise, its football club is low down in the League of Ireland First Division, each sport in the city left harking back to what was and what might have been. Like Newcastle, and plenty of other parts of England and the rest of Britain, Waterford is a city whose identity has had to shift as manufacturing (and shipping before it) declined.

With the exception of a handful of projects, the city centre in Waterford was until the recession relatively untouched during the Tiger. Among the changes to the city’s landscape – its physical but also social and cultural geography – was the fairly nebulous concept of the “John Street Village”, that saw most of the city’s nightlife being squashed into one unmanageable area that deprived the rest of the city centre of passing footfall once the shops closed, and the pedestrianisation of what became John Roberts Square. Another contentious development in the early 1990s was that of City Square, built on Arundel Square and which while incorporating some of the city walls found during the development of the shopping centre, still more could have been done to excavate the area. John Roberts Square were both reasonably successful ventures excepting the lack of licensed premises in that part of the city thanks to the afformentioned village, which amounted to little more than a poor mans attempt at Temple Bar minus the culture. Other changes included the building of the Millenium Plaza, which has been quite successful especially on those occasions when Waterford has been host to the Tall Ships Festival, once prior to the recession and once since. Not unlike what Nivens had to say of England’s north-east, many of these changes to the city during the Tiger merely papered over the cracks off the effects of de-industrialization and regional neglect, the true effects of which did not begin to be felt until 2009.

Back in 2009, the first and most visible sign that the recession had come to Waterford was the closing up of the Waterford Crystal factory. I remember the day distinctly: it was late in January and I had just got off the bus from Cork, it was an aptly grim day, and my mother told me that the factory was to close and that the workers had locked themselves in when security came to shut the doors to begin the process of receivership. It was the first sit-in, an occupation of a workplace, that I had ever seen, and was to set a precedent for the coming years in Ireland, and in Waterford.

As well as the site of the factory, this huge tranche of land directly across my street was also home to the Waterford Crystal visitor centre. All through my childhood and especially in summer, coach upon coach with visitors from near and far (it was a perennial lazy school tour/day-out choice too, I remember three such visits!) could be seen entering the factory and the visitor centre to take the tours. Now all of that would stop. In the past number of months, work was begun to demolish the plant for a new redevelopment of the site. In the same period, a major transformation of a moribund part of Waterford began, and the new House of Waterford Crystal, a brand new visitor centre and showroom was opened in the old ESB building on the quay. This same area, now the Viking Triangle [2], being based around a section of the original Viking settlement of the city and centering in particular on Reginald’s Tower, the Bishop’s Palace and the new Chorister’s Hall, each in turn telling a different aspect of the city’s history, inviting you to enjoy 1000 years of history in 1000 footsteps. I should state that each of the three museums are wonderful and display brilliantly many aspects of the city’s history – from our Viking beginnings through our ecclesiastical history when Waterford was described by some as Parva Roma (little Rome) through our Georgian history and on to the history of the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from pig-buyer’s strikes to the Royal Showband. These are all wonderful and important additions to the cultural and the social life of the city. Yet, the clash between heritage and history, the contradictions that are wrapped up in a city which anyone will tell you is economically on its knees and can turn only to its past for answers, is striking.

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Demolition of Waterford Crystal begins. Source: http://www.rte.ie

In recent times, Waterford has seen yet more sit-ins and actions from workers in Europrice, The Park Inn, and as part of the campaign run nationally by Elvery’s to retain their jobs. Job losses have been felt in TalkTalk and Honeywell and plenty of other places as well. Work is scarce in Waterford, and each time I’m home, and a little more of the Glass factory is knocked down, and the site cleared, it acts as a reminder that for all the regeneration around The Mall and the Viking Triangle, heritage – so important, and so vital to any city that has as proud a one as Waterford – can not alone save a city. Waterford Crystal may well indeed have had a “unique place in industrial history for its blending of mass production and high art” but today it is both a part of Waterford’s growing heritage industry and a pile of rubble across my street.[3] Important though it is to understand and celebrate that history and heritage, it is worth taking note of Niven’s conclusions about the north-east of England, and to ensure that the strides made by the new developments in the city celebrating its past, don’t become mere window dressing over a deeper problem.

 

[1] Alex Niven, Folk Opposition, Alresford: Zero Books, p.44

[2] See the report on the Viking Triangle here:http://www.waterfordcity.ie/documents/notices/Viking%20Triangle.pdf%5B

3] Brian F. Havel, Maestro of Crystal: The Story of Miroslav Havel and His Role in Waterford Crystal, Dublin: Currach Press 2005, p.270. See also Eleanor Flegg, “Tradition in Transition”, Irish Arts Review, Spring 2014: http://www.irishartsreview.com/tradition-in-transition/

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Filed under Czechoslovakia, Employment, Irish History, Twentieth Century, Unemployment

Prague: Silence, History and the Magical City

Before I ever started visiting Prague with regularity, the city was increasingly on my radar thanks to the writing of Tony Judt. I began reading Tony Judt when one of my sisters bought me his monumental Postwar for Christmas a number of years ago and through friends I discovered more of Judt’s work just as his illness seemed to have finally conquered him. His final few works which include The Memory ChaletIll Fares The Land and his conversation with Timothy Snyder, Thinking The Twentieth Century, all give special mention to the Czech Republic and to Prague and to the famed Prague Spring of 1968. Since I began reading this work, a change in personal circumstances has meant that I now visit Prague on a regular basis and over the course of my accumulated visits, I have learned incrementally more and more about the city, about the Czech lands and their history. I have toyed with the idea of writing something about this oft-written-about city previously for The Dustbin, but for the first time, and following my most recent visit, I feel I finally have something to offer up, something like a coherent thought about the place…

 

“It is as if we conjure the dead and they speak only

Through our own damned trumpets, through our damned medium:”[1]

 

These lines of Jack Spicer’s from his poem Imaginary Elegies sum up for me the job of the historian, and the care we need to take when we conjure the dead through our damned medium: our damned medium being history. A poetic expression of EP Thompson’s famed rallying call to rescue people from the condescension of posterity, it also acknowledges that when historian’s conjure up the dead, in whatever fashion, they make noise again where there has since been silence.

Like many European capitals, the sheer wealth and depth of the history that courses through the streets of Prague can be overwhelming for the visitor – from the remarkable architectural heritage to be found at places like Vysehrad, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Charles Bridge and the Waldstein Palace to the seemingly endless public statuary that reminds one constantly through works that are sometimes simple and other times monumental in every sense, of the long deep history which the streets of the city have had to bear from Hussite Revolution to Fascist invasion and much more besides. In that respect, Prague can like so many great cities, seem to be drowning in its own history and the competition moreover of each of these different facets of the city’s history to interest and intrigue the thousands upon thousands of tourists wending their way through Old Town past the sellers of knick-knacks and tack. But as with all cityscapes which are teeming with the weight of so much history, pulling you in different directions and through centuries as you turn from one street to the next, crossing one set of tram tracks at the end of a square to turn on to another, there is also the presence of how silent those pasts can actually be, despite this noisome melange.

What turned my mind to the notion of silence was a number of exhibitions I viewed on my most recent trip to Prague. At the DOX, the contemporary art gallery, there were three particular exhibits that upon reflection had something vital to say about history and silence. The three exhibitions of which I am thinking are the poster as propaganda, 1914-2014, an exhibit of various samizdat publications and finally an exhibition of the Chinese photographer Liu Xia. Reflecting on all three of these exhibitions as I saw them together under the one roof, the theme of silence (especially imposed silence), especially strong in Liu Xia’s work, struck me as equally important to the other two exhibits as well.

The enforced silence of Liu Xia, under house arrest since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, is a silence that must no doubt resonate deeply and strongly in Prague, a city where silence under the Nazi and Communist regimes was a part of everyday life. With every visit to the city, you become more and more acutely aware of all that has passed on its streets and squares. The different exhibitions that I saw at the DOX each taught me something important about how to understand the history of the Czech Republic and its capital.

The first exhibition on the poster as propaganda tool was a fascinating sweeping history of the twentieth century in central Europe first but gradually widened out to consider other global struggles and revolutions, the onset of globalization, the war on terror and the recent crisis of late capitalism. What struck me as particularly interesting was the periodization of the exhibition. Periodization is a vexed issue at the best of times for historians but the lay out of this exhibition was particularly interesting in terms of the periodization that was employed. Some standard periods were employed such as 1918-1939, but it was towards the post Second World War era that things got interesting in this regard. There was no periodization from 1945-1968, as one might have thought given the shift that was caused by the Prague Spring and its aftermath, or from 1968 to 1989 and the Velvet Revolution – instead the exhibition went with the far broader brush stroke of 1945-1989. Perhaps this was to indicate the wider battle between both sides in the Cold War. Yet, for the Czech people that broader period is probably best understood in terms of the Soviet takeover in 1948 until the Prague Spring in 1968 and from the subsequent “normalization” period that followed until the emergence of Charter 77 and then the Velvet Revolution. The silencing of these two distinctive periods in Czech history meant that the exhibition was to be understood by those who saw it in this much grander narrative, but robbed the viewer of the nuance that a more atomized periodization would have provided.[2]

One of the more striking posters displayed was a Czech poster imploring people not to forget Lidice, a town carpet bombed out of existence by the Nazis in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heidrich. Film footage of the town’s destruction was powerful but so too is the knowledge that all official records of the town were destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to eradicate, to silence, this place out of history. This was a violent kind of censorship, an important theme that carried over elsewhere in the gallery and in particular in the exhibition of Liu Xia’s photography.

The photographs being exhibited were disturbing in their sense of claustrophobia, but perhaps the most disturbing element of the entire exhibit was the room containing the last filmed footage of Liu Xia since she was under house arrest. In this video too, silence was a powerful thing. The video was taken by two friends of the photographer who made a daring, and successful, attempt to enter the photographers home, they breathlessly rush to the top of the stairs and then as viewers we see Liu Xia whisper, quite silently, messages into one of her two friends ears before both decide it would be better and safer to leave of their own volition. This coupled with the photographs give extra meaning to the exhibitions title “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia”.[3] In the video we see the silence of secrecy between friends, another important theme in recent Czech history and something which informed the movement that produced the various samizdat publications that were the life’s blood of many artists and writers who were not a part of the official culture of normalization – writers like Bohumil Hrabal or Vaclav Havel. The particular samizdat publication which was the focus of the DOX exhibit was Pražská imaginace (Prague imagination). [4]

Here again in the samizdat publication we see a kind of silence that was brought on by the effects of normalization – the retreat from public life into the private world and what Tony Judt has described as “pro forma political conformism”.[5] It was in this private rather than public world that samizdat publications circulated. The weird state of difference between one’s public face and private opinion has recently been examined by Paulina Bren who asked “what then was ‘normal’ about normalization? That nothing, and yet everything, was normal was hinted at by ordinary citizens’ own adoption of the term…”[6] In such a world, and again as Bren notes, in a world where whats passes for normal is a state in which there is nothing happening, then the silent, covert writing, publication and reading of samizdat work becomes an important whisper in an otherwise silent society. It was in precisely this context which Czech action art emerged. As Pavlina Morganova has recently written of early Czech action art, its function was as “a public performance and an attempt to penetrate the routine lives of other people.”[7] In other words, an attempt to break the silence, the stillness, imposed by communism and particularly its normalized form after 1968.

Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source: http://www.artlist.cz/?id=1222

Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source: http://www.artlist.cz/?id=1222

So in the magical city of Kakfa, the Golem, of Kepler, there were disruptions of the everyday with the hanging of empty frames on streets to create fleeting images, cobblestones were replaced by flowers, and Czech artists interrupted the silence of normalization by actions and activity that was often collective. Magic was returned in fleeting moments that only some may have seen, and they may have been amused, bemused, or cheered by these noisy moments that have left no physical traces today, but whose power is not silent, or silenced. Such are the moments that make history.

 

[1] Jack Spicer, “Imaginary Elegies, I-IV”, in Allen, Donald M., The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Berkely: Univesity of California Press [1999 edn.], p.143

[2] Jaroslav Anděl (curator),“The Poster in the Clash of Ideologies, 1914-2014”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague, 14 February-19 May 2014.

[3] Liu Xia, “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” (exhibition), DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition runs from 28 February-9 June 2014.

[4]Jiří Hůla (curator), “Pražská imaginace, 1985-2005”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition officially ran from 6 March-20 April 2014.

[5] Judt, Tony and Snyder, Timothy, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Wiliam Heinemann 2012, p.234

[6] Bren, Paulina, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2010, p.3

[7] Morganova, Pavlina, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Prague: Karolinum Press 2014, p.49

 

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Kafkaesque Nightmares

Review of Jo Langer, Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (2nd ed. London: Granta, 2011)

convictions

In the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak revolution, like the Russian before it, began devouring its own children. Former high officials of the Communist Party were arrested, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions detailing their activities as imperialist/ Trotskyist/ Titoist/Zionist spies. Those who had spent time in the west before or during the Second World War were most vulnerable, likely to have been traitors, corrupted into serving capitalism. Jews, ironically and sickeningly, were as a group also particularly vulnerable, as in a new twist on the racist stereotype of the ‘wandering Jew’, were deemed ‘cosmopolitan’, open again to the lure and corruption of the west and in particular, that of Israel. Ironic and sickening in that communism was supposedly an ideology that knew no boundary of ethnicity or religion, and in that the accused communist Jews were often the first who for years had been ‘wandering’ in the west due to being forced into exile for their communist and anti-fascist activities, many volunteering in the fight against Franco in Spain, and continuing their struggle in the underground resistance throughout Europe during the Second World War. Communist states, supposedly solidly built on anti-fascist foundations, now saw those with the clearest anti-fascist credentials as suspect. Even those at the very top of the pyramid were prone to a crushing fall, and the terror culminated in the infamous trial of former secretary-general of the party Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other defendants from 1951-3. Of these, eleven were Jewish, and in total, twelve were hanged. The story of the trial has been told well in the account of one of the defendants, Artur London in his 1968 book L’Aveu, published in English variously as The Confession and On Trial, and made into a film by the former name in 1970 by Costa-Gavras. A powerful accompaniment to London’s account is that of Jo Langer, wife of an imprisoned victim of the trial, Oscar Langer.

In her memoir Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (1979), we get a viewpoint so often missing from history – that of those who are left behind; the families of the victims, left to fend for themselves against the cancer of lies, intimidation and surveillance that spread throughout society. Jo and her husband, both communists and Jews, had lived in the United States during the war. Many of their family members had perished in Nazi concentration camps. Despite the safety and relative prosperity of life in the US, Oscar immediately accepted an invitation back to Czechoslovakia after the war to play a role in the reconstruction of his country. Jo, Hungarian by birth, unhappy in her marriage and relatively content with life in the US, was wont to leave but nevertheless overcame her reluctance and accompanied her husband to Bratislava. Their immediate deprivation was seen as temporary, and a necessary discomfort to be endured while Czechoslovakia, with help from the Soviet Union, rebuilt the country along socialist lines. Oscar, a leading member of the party in Slovakia, went further however. Throughout her memoir, Jo gives us snippets of the guilt she was made to feel for anything considered even a small luxury while others in the world went without basic necessities – the ever-present ‘Chinese coolie’ in their relationship as she terms it.

And yet Oscar, despite his devotion to the party, was arrested and placed on trail, accused of assisting Slánský. Avoiding eventual execution, he was nevertheless imprisoned, tortured, kept in solitary confinement and forced to give a confession as to the nature of his relationship with Slánský, whom he had never even met. Twice he attempted suicide, and both times failed. Jo was kicked out of her home and with her two daughters, banished to a remote village in rural Slovakia, her apartment given over to accommodate party officials. Deprived of work and the right to live in Bratislava, she and her daughters eked out an existence of poverty and fear. Eventually allowed back to Bratislava, she recounts how all her old friends kept away from her and how all doors remained closed to her and her family because of her husband. Scraping by in a dilapidated basement working mostly translating official documents into Hungarian, she suffered constantly. Not allowed to see her husband for three years, she nevertheless fought on, battling the bureaucracy and at times, paying grovelling visits to officials she despised and lived in fear of, in the hope of seeing the release of her husband, once estranged, but now united with her against the terror. And yet she fought alone. Oscar, despite all that existed before his eyes, refused to believe the party and his comrades could be responsible, believing instead that the security apparatus was acting above the party.

In 1960, Oscar was amnestied and released. His return was bittersweet however. His wife felt him more domineering than ever, never commending her for what she had done to survive, eager to forgive party officials and hold meetings in their house for the reform of the party while Jo worked to provide for their family both outside and within the home. His relationship with his children Susie and Tania was no less strained. In short, he failed to see what lay before his eyes, preferring to believe instead in an imaginary world where the party could do no wrong and where his wife and children were at fault for being too decadent and not struggling enough to build socialism in their country. Weakened by his ordeal, he died two years later.

Jo and her daughters would eventually escape as the tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring in 1968. The hopes for ‘socialism with a human face’ convinced others, but never her, having seen the result of 1956 in her native Hungary, and the opportunism of those who had committed her husband to prison embrace socialist reform in 1968, biding their time for the return to totalitarian rule. Her account, though cynical at times, is an important and ultimately heartrending one. Her struggle – as a worker, Hungarian, communist, Jew, immigrant, and woman – is inspiring and shocking. She presents a courageous testimony to the Kafkaesque ordeal of Central and Eastern Europeans in the twentieth century, and the complexity of individual lives witness to and struggling to wake from this nightmare.

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