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After the Berlin Wall, nostalgia for communism creeps back

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some in Eastern Europe miss the days of full employment and before free elections brought extremism.

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That was just fine by Julius Mich­nik, who arrived here in 1943 as a 15-year-old apprentice. He attended mandatory morning exercise in the town square, then donned his uniform and headed to the factory.

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"If you worked hard, you made enough money; even enough to save some," says Mr. Michnik, now president of the company's alumni association.

In time, he joined the party. "I was a Communist," says Mich­nik, who later had 1,500 workers under him. "To be a director, you had to be.… But I'm not ashamed. I never did anything bad to anybody."

When the regime crumbled in 1989, so did the firm. Asian competitors meant that only a sliver of the workforce remains.

"This is the hardest thing to learn about the new system: Things rise, things vanish," says the mayor. "How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself."

Laid-off workers remind Michnik of what was lost. "Work, it's the most important thing," he says. "I see all the unemployed here, spending their last cents in the bar around the corner. When there's no work, no money, there's no happy life."

Unemployment: 14 percent

Back on the Czech side, Jan Klan is from the youth wing of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, the third-largest parliamentary party.

Just 26, Mr. Klan is a Communist candidate for parliamentary elections next year. His grandfather was a Communist, as was his mother, the local party official in their Bohemian village of Záborí nad Labem.

When the system disintegrated, some neighbors turned on her. "They blamed her for what the Communists did," says her son.

Whereas the Communist era boasted "full employment," joblessness here is now 14 percent. Drawn to Communist solutions, Klan joined the party in 2003.

In the old days, too, the party ordered Záborí nad Labem residents to regularly clean up their village. They resented it, but the village stayed tidy. Today, no one is required to pick up litter or tend to vegetation – and residents decry the slovenliness.

If elected, Klan says he would offer residents an economic incentive to clean up. But what if he has no budget, or if they simply refuse? Would Communists revert to their brutal methods of the past?

"We would want to change the mentality, that they should do it for the good of the village," he says. "I know there were some mistakes in the past that we would want to avoid. It would be against human rights to force someone to do something."

Mr. Reichl, of the Prague Institute, says such whitewashing – simply noting "mistakes" – drives his colleagues to not only expose the regime's secrets, but "do PR for history," to puncture nostalgia with public events, exhibits, and classroom education. "We don't want the younger generations to forget," he says. "We want them to think about the history of their own family and friends, and what actually happened during this period."