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Rewriting History or Liberation from the Shackles of the Past

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Photo: dismantle the Prague Stalin in 1962, Source: Collage The Gaze
Photo: dismantle the Prague Stalin in 1962, Source: Collage The Gaze

The experience of Czech society during periods of transformation - changing symbols and monuments dedicated to "yesterday's heroes" in the public space and reconciliation with the historical past.

Rethinking history and breaking free from a totalitarian past are natural processes for society during pivotal moments in history, not only in Ukraine but also globally. The lively debates sparked by the law on decommunization (officially titled "On the Condemnation of the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) Totalitarian Regimes in Ukraine and the Prohibition of Propaganda of Their Symbols") have not subsided since its adoption in 2015. Particularly notable is the removal of monuments from the Soviet era, controversial communist figures, and the renaming of Ukrainian cities, villages, and streets. Under the provisions of this law, over 50,000 streets and nearly 1,500 settlements have already been renamed. As of 2020, 1,300 Lenin monuments in Ukraine have been dismantled.


Photo: Dismantling of the Lenin monument on Bessarabska Square in Kyiv, Source: Roman Chornomaz Facebook

Pro-Russian political forces in the Ukrainian political landscape opposed the adoption of this law. In 2017, members of the "Opposition Bloc" even appealed to the Constitutional Court to declare the law unconstitutional, but in 2019, the court reversed its decision. Russian propaganda effectively manipulated information about this law and the decommunization processes, not only within Ukraine but also globally. The emphasis was primarily on portraying this law as "anti-Russian," suggesting that Ukrainians are trying to "deny" or "rewrite" their history, especially regarding communist crimes on Ukrainian territory.

The experience of "decolonization" and "decommunization" is not unique to Ukraine, especially when it comes to Central European countries that were part of the so-called "socialist camp." In the 20th century, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary transitioned from one political system to another – from empires or kingdoms to independent republics, from Nazi protectorates to "free" communist socialist republics, and then to independent countries with a Western democratic orientation. Removing some monuments and erecting others was a common phenomenon. Examples from the Czech Republic show that reconciliation with the past is sometimes impossible without demolition, especially when it comes to a traumatic or totalitarian past.

Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

After the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic on October 28, 1918, Czechs began eliminating any references to their belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Monuments and busts of Austrian-Hungarian emperors and figures associated with the empire disappeared from pedestals. For example, the equestrian statue of Austrian Emperor and Czech King Franz I was removed from the fountain, and the monument to Marshal Radetzky in Prague was first closed and then relocated to the lapidarium of the National Museum. However, Emperor Joseph II, the central sculpture on Moravian Square in Brno, was dismantled by Czechoslovak legionnaires one night and buried in the city slaughterhouse area. 


Photo: Emperor Joseph II monument, Source: Wiki

The most affected was the monument to the Virgin Mary on Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) in the center of Prague – the Marian Column. In 1650, at the initiative of the then Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III Habsburg, a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected as a thanksgiving for her defense of Prague when the Swedes failed to capture the city in 1648. On November 3, 1918, a group of Prague firefighters, influenced by Franta Sauer, a prominent figure in the Prague bohemian scene and a friend of Jaroslav Hašek, destroyed the monument. Sauer convinced people that the removal of the Marian Column was a demand of the National Czechoslovak Committee (the state body tasked with preparing the transfer of power and legislation for the new state). 


Photo: Bohemian instigator Franta Sauer (first from the left), Source: Wiki

Although Franta Sauer was tried in 1924 for the destruction of the Marian Column, the court considered the crime expired due to the statute of limitations, and the defendant defended himself with "patriotic feelings." In 2020, the Virgin Mary was again installed on Old Town Square, initiated by the "Community for the Restoration of the Marian Column."

Revenge of the Occupiers

With the onset of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in the fall of 1938, the first to go were monuments and sculptures that somehow reminded people of independent Czechoslovakia: memorial plaques, monuments, and busts of the first president, Masaryk, Czech legionnaires, and the youth sports community "Sokol." Interestingly, these monuments were the most common targets for dismantling - first by the Nazis and later by the communists.

"The destruction of Masaryk's monuments and, in general, artworks symbolizing the independence of Czechoslovakia was particularly notable during the Protectorate and mostly in areas where German-speaking citizens lived. The same Masaryk monuments that remained were mostly eliminated by the communists after the February coup in 1948. Thus, the statues of Masaryk were replaced, for example, by workers and activists of the Five-Year Plan,"

says Edita Jiráková, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) in the Czech Republic.


Photo: The bust of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in Valašské Meziříčí, Source: Pametnimista.cz

The bust of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in Valašské Meziříčí was unveiled in 1925. In June 1940, German occupiers ordered its liquidation, and the bust disappeared. In 1946, a new bust of Masaryk was installed, but by 1950, the communists again "liquidated" Masaryk. During the Prague Spring in 1968, Masaryk's bust was once again placed in its location, where it stood until 1974 before being dismantled again. In March 1990, Masaryk returned to his place with an information plaque about the history of this monument.

The period of communist rule in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989 is considered a time of communist totalitarianism. Therefore, Czechs sought to remove communist monuments from the public space at the first opportunity.

Goodbye, Stalin!

Photo: Dictator Stalin's monument or "meat queue" in common parlance, Source: Wiki

The first notable dismantling of a communist monument was the Stalin Monument. On May 1, 1955, the colossal monument, which, together with the pedestal, had a height of 30.5 meters, a length of 22 meters, and a width of 12 meters with a grand pump, was unveiled under the slogan "To our liberator - the Czechoslovak people." Behind Stalin, representatives of the Soviet and Czech peoples - workers, collective farmers, innovators, scientists - stood in two rows. Among the people, the monument was immediately dubbed the "meat queue."

The monument's author, the renowned Czech sculptor Otakar Švec, took his own life a few days before the unveiling. A year earlier, his wife had done the same, supposedly due to this work. At the time of creating the sculpture, the euphoria from the Soviet liberators among the Czechs began to wane, and pressure from Moscow intensified. The true nature of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia had already manifested itself with political processes, camps, and collectivization. Otakar Švec could no longer refuse to execute this project, even a substantial fee did not bring satisfaction.


Photo: Another victim of Stalin - Czech sculptor Otakar Švec, Source: Wiki

After Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev declared the debunking of Stalin's personality cult, Czechoslovak party officials decided to dismantle the Prague Stalin. In October and November 1962, it was blown up.

"We can talk about the removal of monuments and symbols of communism from November 1989. Let's not forget the attempts to dismantle communist symbols that occurred after the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968. Although they were not of great scale, they were even more daring," says Edita Jiráková.

For example, a monument to a Red Army soldier in Karlovy Vary, which stood in the city center, was destroyed by a group of young people on August 21, 1968. However, in 1970, an author's copy was installed. In the late 1980s, it was moved to the cemetery of military burials. In Liberec, at the same time, they blew up a monument to a Red Army soldier in the gardens of the Soviet army.

After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the massive installation of monuments to Red Army soldiers, liberators, and communist officials began, lasting almost the entire period of the so-called "normalization" (1968-1989). In Prague, a monument to Marshal Konev was erected to commemorate the liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis on May 9, 1980. The three-meter statue of Konev held a bouquet of lilacs and flowers with which Prague residents greeted the soldiers in May 1945. After transferring the monument from the ownership of the National Museum to the ownership of Prague 6 city council, discussions began about removing the monument altogether. They intensified after 2014, when the Russian Federation annexed Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 


Photo: Marshal Konev monument in Prague, Source: Wiki

In 2015, Prague 6 did not decide to eliminate the monument but approved the installation of additional information plaques in Czech, English, and Russian, stating that Ivan Konev not only commanded the Ukrainian front, which participated in the liberation of Prague, but also played a key role in suppressing the Hungarian uprising in 1956, building the Berlin Wall in 1961, and directing the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, acts of vandalism continued, and on April 3, 2020, Konev was removed from the pedestal.

"He didn't have a mask. The rules are the same for everyone. Outdoor areas only with a mask or other mouth and nose coverings," commented Ondřej Kolář, mayor of Prague 6, on the dismantling. The monument was transported to the storage, and there are plans to install it in the future Museum of the 20th Century Memory. Russians wanted to take Konev to Russia, and in 2020, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appealed to the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for this. However, he received a response that the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot give away something that is not its property because the monument belongs to Prague 6. Russia even lodged a protest note with the Czech Republic, and Ondřej Kolář was guarded due to the potential poisoning with ricin by Russian agents, as reported by Czech media.

The largest number of monuments from the period of the totalitarian communist regime was removed in the early 1990s.

"Even before the decisive events in November 1989, students who declared an occupation strike turned Lenin to face the wall, and instead of Lenin's bust, they installed a bust of Masaryk. Someone painted red hands on the monument to Gottwald (Czechoslovak prime minister – ed.) in front of the CPC building. Administrators of buildings spontaneously removed the inscriptions 'Glory to communism,' and gradually in cities, people removed red stars and hammers and sickles from roofs and building facades," says Edita Jiráková. "The destruction and removal of communist symbols mostly occurred in the first years after the Velvet Revolution in November 1989 when society was filled with positive expectations for the future and shook off the chains of Soviet occupation."

Reconciling with the Past: Discussion and Implementation

In the Czech Republic, decisions about dismantling monuments are made at the level of local self-government to which the monument belongs. The discussion about removing monuments from the communist period intensified in Czech society again after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In many Czech cities, monuments to Red Army liberators or the Soviet army were painted red or defaced, such as the monument "Honor and Glory to the Soviet Army" in Litoměřice: "1945 liberator 1968 occupier 2022 murderer of children." In August of this year, the figure "68" appeared on the pedestal, which for Czechs is a sign of the occupation. On October 16, a note about two dead Czechs in Vrbětice, who died as a result of explosions at ammunition depots in 2014, was added. According to Czech intelligence reports, Russians were involved in this incident. Thus, the Litoměřice Red Army soldier today is not only a symbol of a historical period but also a trigger for current events related to Russia. An initiative group of residents continues to demand the removal of this monument because there are no burials under it.


Photo: monument of so called "Red Army liberators" in Litoměřice, Source: Facebook

Reconciliation with the past, in Czech, a literal translation of "alignment," is a lengthy and challenging process in which there will never be a unanimous position of the entire society. Some believe that a monument is only a historical past that should be accepted and respected, or valued for its artistic value. Others believe that a monument reflects the essence, and if a person or event is associated with crimes, then such a monument further legitimizes the crimes committed against the same society in public space. Therefore, without any compromises, it must be removed. And this applies not only to Ukrainian or Czech society.


Photo: Sculpture of Maria Theresa in modern Prague, Source: Wiki

Another significant factor is time. If at the beginning of the 20th century, Czechs eliminated everything that was "Habsburg," then in 2017, in Prague, a sculpture of Maria Theresa was installed for her 300th anniversary – the only woman-queen on the Czech throne, an educational reformer, according to the initiators of the installation. Opponents in a petition against the installation of the monument accused her: "Eliminated the Czech court chancellery, ruled a backward empire where torture, murder of evangelists, and oppression of subjects were constantly applied. Drove hundreds of thousands of people into dynastic wars." After the restoration of the Marian Column, a similar initiative appeared for the restoration of the monument to Marshal Radetzky.

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