Archive for October, 2007

Post-communist Slovakia and the Czech Republic

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Kraman: Reading Response #8, November 2, 2007

Carol Skalnik Leff, The Czech and Slovak Republics: Nation Versus State. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

In her folksy but highly detailed and thoughtful book, The Czech and Slovak Republics: Nation Versus State, Carol Skalnik Leff, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana, provides an in-depth analysis of the historic, cultural, political, economic, social, and diplomatic issues and potentialities that have resulted in the union and disunion of the Slovak and Czech peoples from 1918 to the Velvet Divorce and beyond. While she provides an adequate, if unquestioning — background of Slovak-Czech relations during the twenty years of the First Republic, her focus is on the post-communist period of the 1990s. Using mainly secondary sources from the 1980-1990 period, she is confident in arguing — based on the Slovak-Czech experience — that the multiplex transitional process of the Eastern European nation states from communist authoritarianism to capitalist individualism can be accomplished with delicacy and without armed conflict. In particular, Leff details the pressures that were put on the communist block countries to make the political and economic changes needed for entry into the European Union. Her book would benefit from an update to reflect the events since its publication during which eight of the communist block countries, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, were accepted into the union in 2004. Her book might also have compared and contrasted the structure and functioning of the Czech’s First Republic with their post-communist democracy.

The young woman serving as a guide on a Vltava River cruise in 2006 expressed great disappointment with the liberal-conservative stalemate in the Czech legislature at that time. Of course there are several Western countries suffering from this problem right now.


Wrestling with sources – Jan Gross and Neighbors – Andrew Graulich

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Jan Gross raises numerous issues and questions in his work (and not only in Neighbors, but in Revolution from Abroad and elsewhere) regarding the nature of totalitarianism, the complicity of communities, Polish-Jewish relations, and the private versus the public realms in a totalitarian society. In writing Neighbors, and exploring these questions, he departs from traditional historical discipline in his treatment of his sources, and I wanted to comment on this departure.

His tack is truly that, a tack, in its sense of not only a new approach, but one that is “sharply divergent from that previously followed” (Merriam-Webster). Within historical work in general, source material, especially that derived from eyewitnesses or other personal testimony, has been treated carefully, with a healthy skepticism appropriate to the nature of such a source. This is reflected in law as well, where eyewitness accounts are traditionally seen as the least reliable form of evidence. It could be summarized in the old Napoleonic code idea of “guilty until proven innocent.” With Gross, in Neighbors, his treatment now takes on our more familiar “innocent until proven guilty” approach. That is to say, he accords veracity to his source material, accepting it essentially as prima facie evidence of the events witnessed until other evidence surfaces that contradicts.

Clearly this raises the hairs on the necks of historical academia. Yet Gross is grappling with a tremendous challenge: when most of your sources of historical evidence are destroyed, dead, buried, wiped out, what do you do? He doesn’t cast aside his analytical abilities; he’s not simply believing without reason. He’s trusting, and attempting to verify, but the possibility of verification is slim in most circumstances. When faced with either not telling the story at all, or telling it with at least implied caveats, he’s clearly opted for the latter. Whether or not his critics agree with his work (and certainly many do not), he has to be recognized for wrestling with methodological challenges in an historical field fraught with them. Regardless of what archival material still might remain unexplored, nothing will alter the fact that the historical evidence from the Holocaust will not, I believe, substantially change. The tremendous loss of life, the destruction of communities, will continue to present the murky reality Gross is seeking to plumb. Do we accept the grey areas of our discipline, as he has, and acknowledge that history of this type will be “messy”? Or do we steer clear of such challenges? Is this a false dichotomy? These are among the questions raised by Gross’ methodological approach, and they are well worth asking, and debating.

Jan Gross’s Neighbors and Its Critics

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

By Laszlo Taba 

 Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001)

Slavic Review, Volume 61, Number 3 

Neighbors is a controversial book by Jan Gross that uncovers the massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland in 1941. What makes this incident so surprising is the killers were not the Germans; the killers were the residents of Jedwabne itself, who wiped out their Jewish neighbors. Gross’s book, then, threatens the strongly held conviction that Poles and other Central Europeans, caught between Germany and the Soviet Union in WWII, were innocent bystanders.  (more…)


Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Neighbors By Jan T. Gross


            Neighbors By Jan Gross is a fantastic story about a slice of the Holocaust.  I have spent a lot of time in my education career studying the Holocaust, as before I switched to the field I have chosen to focus on I had wanted to make that my focus.  I thought I had read most of the narratives and most books I could get my hands on, but this book was one that I had never had a chance to read so I was excited to undertake it.  Right off the bat a quote struck me. In the sources section of the book the author states that “ Since it appeared impossible to save the Jewish people who were being methodically annihilated by the Nazi- organized killing process, a sense of obligation grew among Jewish record-keeps that they must at least preserve the evidence of the very process of destruction.”[1] We here it time and again about the banding together of Jewish people in the hopes that they might be able to record the things that happened to them so that the rest of the world could learn and ensure that such things never happen again. (more…)

Kurlansky’s Revolutionary 1968!

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

23 October 2007

Beth Gryczewski

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. Ballantine Books: New York, 2004.

Kurlansky has written a comprehensive, creative and intriguing book on “the year that rocked the world, 1968.” Far from what I expected, the book seems to cover, literally, all of the events that rocked the world in 1968, from beginning to end. This is a fantastic worldwide perspective of events that seem disparate, or rather separate and distinct. However, Kurlansky demonstrates that they are not separate and distinct, but altogether related, interconnected by this new capability of instant worldwide information via satellite. Kurlansky covers everything from the Civil Rights movement to the Equal Rights movement, the presidential campaign, election, and assassination of King and Kennedy in the U.S. to the student protest movements in Vietnam that turn into student protest movements in France, Poland, Czechoslovakia. He covers the Prague spring that turns into the Soviet invasion of later that year, he discusses the rebels in Latin America, including Castro in Cuba and Che Guevara, as well.


Reading: Bradley Abrams, The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Posted by Misha Griffith
We found in Gross’ book Neighbors that modern historians can unearth a wealth of interesting findings by revisiting old questions. Gross showed some mass killings of Jews in Poland, long considered solely the handiwork of the Nazi invaders, to be a disquieting occurrence of Pole-on-Jew violence. Bradley Abrams, in his 2004 narrative The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation, questioned the long-held Cold War concept that Communism came to Eastern Europe “solely on the backs of Red Army tanks.”(285) (more…)

Ceausescu’s cult of personality

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Gilberg, Trond. Nationalism & Communism in Romania: The Rise and Fall of Ceausescu’s Personal Dictatorship. Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1990.  

The good thing about being the “dear leader” and holding absolute control over all political and economic aspects of a state is that when things go wrong, blame can be spread over all the intermediary functionaries who were too inept to implement the flawless plans of the leader.  The bad thing about it is that when the pedestal you’ve built yourself begins to break apart it’s going to be an ugly fall.  Trond Gilberg provides an in depth look at Ceausescuism in Nationalism and Communism in Romania.  Ceausescuism can be described as a blend of Marxist elements and traditional Romanian nationalism shaken up and implemented by a delusional paranoid sociopath.  Characteristic elements of Ceausescuism are: a populist emphasis, a strong leader, Romanian nationalism and chauvinism, isolationism and autarky, personality cult and megalomania, and a bit of Marx. (49-56)  (more…)

Red Eagle

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Red Eagle: The Army in Polish Politics 1944-1988 is essence the story of an army, cloaked in a mystique derived from centuries of tradition and national myth, the officers of which comprise a semi-autonomous caste within the socio-political framework of a nation-state, whose self-interests were inextricably linked to the fate of ruling regime. If this sounds at all familiar, it might be due to staggering parallels readily apparent between Michta’s narrative and István Deák’s history of the Habsburg officer corps. By now however, the sources from which these parallels derive should be readily familiar to students of east European nationalism.

Although largely contradictory of official Marxist-Leninist political doctrine, the perennial presence of the army as an active, influential agent in the internal politics of the Polish communist state was both tolerated and exploited by Moscow and accepted by the Polish people. Permitting this was the unique, and more importantly, insulated position the army occupied within the national heritage, a product of a Polish military ethos derived largely from its centuries of existence as a national institution when no Polish state itself existed. Whether fighting as an element of the Napoleonic, Habsburg or Imperial Russian armies or as an insurrectionist force on behalf of the homeland, accumulated tradition translated into a national ethos the held up the army as a perennial protector of the homeland and thereby claimed “an implicit right to intervene” in internal politics when it deemed political instability threatened the state. This ensured that irregardless the political character assumed by the regime, the army would play a key role in its legitimacy.

What is gathered from Michita’s narrative is a sense of the symbiosis between communism and pre-established nationalist structures. Despite the original intent of communism to surpass nationalism, it would in the case of Poland, as in everywhere else it rose to power, assume a national character rather than obliterate it. While, as Michta points out, there was little in the way of doubt that the Polish general staff were socialists, their actions vis-a-vis their relationship and degree of autonomy sought with regard to the PUWP and Moscow respectively were inherently and historically Polish in character in that they were driven largely out of self-interest. Thus the army’s role under communism and its relationship to the politics of the Polish state would remain largely unaltered from the position it had occupied prior to the Second World War.

From Michta’s narrative, an important questions arises: Are nationalisms inherently immune from the efforts of outside forces to alter their character or is their dynamic nature strictly a function of internal mechanisms? The question is posed here because Michta demonstrates that only after the Polish army stepped outside of its traditional role as state protector and into an active role in Polish politics following the 1981 intervention did it “forfeit its claim to national military tradition.” The result of such an unprecedented action in violation of an historically understood ethos was that for the first time in Polish society, there formed an active, anti-military/pacifist movement.

A note on sources: Michta draws from a hearty cross section of internal Polish documents including public memoranda, memoirs, newspapers and proceedings of the PUWP as well as from Western defense appraisals of the polish military and various secondary sources. The one factor that stands out is that with the exception of Norman Davies and a handful of others there were (in 1988) so relatively few non-Polish scholars working on the Polish question, a pattern that seems to be repeated time and again when it comes to the historiography of Eastern Europe.

The Rise of Communism

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Kraman: Reading Response #7, October 23, 2007

Bradley F. Abrams, The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation: Czech Culture and the Rise of Communism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

In his book, The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation, Bradley F. Abrams, Associate Professor of History at Columbia University, provides an excellent description of the course of Czech governance — from the formation of the First Republic in 1918 as a liberal democracy, but was soon directed by the oligarchic petka headed by the Agrarian Party’s Antonin Svehla with Tomáš Masaryk as the first president – through the betrayal at Munich, the Nazi occupation, and World War II — to the 1945-1948 takeover of the National Front government and its Košice Program by the Communist Party led by Klement Gottwald. Abrams, using only secondary sources, focuses intentionally on the extended and extensive public debate that took place in the Czech lands after World War II among the Communist, Socialist, Catholic and Protestant parties over the future – the soul — of the Czech people and their culture. He argues that the Czech people were in shock and insecure because of World War II and the repeated economic, political, diplomatic, and military failures of the Western democracies in the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time, the Czechs were impressed by the immediate economic, political, and military successes of the Soviet Union that appeared as a gentle liberator and protector after the oppressive five-year Nazi occupation.

In the public debate, the Communist party had a clear direction and was able to describe how their communal way led from the historic and cultural past of the Czech people to an egalitarian future in the orbit of the Soviet Union. The socialist and the protestant parties were unclear on new directions for the Czech people and their culture, and the Catholic party stubbornly opted for an unacceptable status quo ante. As a result, the vast majority of the Czech people and even the other major socialist parties could accept in principle the Communist Party proposals for changes in the government. This new acceptance was directly reflected in party membership. In 1945, the Communist Party had fewer than 30,000 members. By 1947, the party’s membership had increased to about 1,300,000, and it was by far the largest party with about one quarter of the voting public.

In Abrams’ view, the governmental crisis of February 1948 did not constitute the Czech peoples break with their western origins and orientation and the beginning of their integration into the Soviet block. When Klement Gottwald called for mass demonstrations because the three non-Communist ministers resigned over the dismissal of some police officers, he was able to replace the ministers with Communist party members and take control of the government. The attempt of the non-Communist parties to cause the government to fall and force new elections misfired, and they found that they had simply surrendered the government to Communist control in a blood-less coup. For Abrams, however, the Czech peoples’ break with the West came in the 1930’s with the Depression, the betrayal at Munich, and the Nazi occupation.

Abrams is convincing in placing the responsibility for the loss of the Czech people to Communist control on the other Czech political parties because they were inactive when action was needed and had little or no response to the new directions proposed by the Communist Party in the mid-1940s. At the same time, however, Abrams demonstrates that the responsibility may be placed on the Western allies that tragically failed the Czech people in the 1930s.

The break of the Czech people with the Soviet block came when they realized that they had accepted Stalinist totalitarianism, rather than Slavic socialism.

Jan T. Gross, Neighbors

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Lessia Shatalin
In Neighbors, Gross describes the massacre of 1600 Jews in a town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941 by their Polish neighbors. It is important to acknowledge the controversy of the book, that is – it for the first time assigned blame to the Poles for the murder of Jews during World War II in this specific town. However, the book is much more than the recollection of the events of that day, as it’s focus is on the relations between Jews and Poles before, during and after the war. Gross tries to understand how could the non-Jewish population of a small town turn on their Jewish neighbors with whom they lived side by side for centuries. Was it a collective effort and a collective hatred that led them to commit the massacre or was it an effort of a small group with a willing or un-wiling support of the others? According to Gross it was a small group who began the efforts to rid the town of Jews and he tries to answer why did this group found supporters. Why was there anti-Semitism among the Poles?
One of the reasons why Poles turned on their Jewish neighbors was their resentment of the Jews that was instituted by the totalitarian regimes, both the Nazis and the Soviets. As these regimes set different groups against each other. If the town was not occupied by the Nazis the massacre would not have happened; therefore one needs not to undermine the involvement of the Germans. However, it was not the Germans who did the killing, but the Poles, while Germans were photographing the event. The other motivation that Gross describes was purely materialistic, as those who organized the pogrom then robbed the houses of perished Jews. Moreover, Jews were believed to be sympathetic to the communists, who Poles resented for attempts of sovietization during the occupation. Hatred towards Jews found roots in “medieval prejudice about ritual murder”, as Jews were viewed by Catholic Poles, as those who killed the Christ. They were also blamed for the outbreak of the war.
Therefore, anti-Semitism was present in that town before, during and after the war. But it was not until the Nazi occupation that it materialized into a massacre of the town’s Jewish population, except for a few that managed to survive. Few Poles who helped Jews were afraid to admit that after the war, as anti-Semitism was still present in the community.