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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Resistance was the rage: Czech citizens faced down a Soviet tank in Prague in August 1968, during the Warsaw Pact’s move to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ reform movement. Perceptions of Communist-era life have shifted in the region.

In the airy lobby of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, George Santayana's immortal words are a daily reminder to Czech staffers digitizing millions of Communist-era files: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Yet even the institute's spokesman says his grandparents criticize the organization's mission. They brush aside four decades of neighbors and co-workers spying on one another in the former Czechoslovakia and long wistfully for a time of full employment.

"My grandmother says the Com­munists were great, while my grandfather says we're stupid to open the archives, because people don't have jobs, which is more important than ... history," says Jiri Reichl.

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans and others across the world are celebrating the moment that clinched the end of the cold war. But the Czech Republic reflects another trend across Eastern Europe, 20 years into the traumatic shift from dictatorship to democracy: creeping nostalgia.

Cold Wars end brought harsh competition

Each positive development of "democracy" ushered in negative consequences: Free-market competition brought soaring prices and joblessness; free elections brought extremist parties; free press brought incitement; free movement brought cross-border crime and westward "brain drain."

This nostalgia is born of deep disillusionment with the present, says Libuse Valentova, a Czech professor.

"People here admired the freedom and prosperity of the Western world," says Ms. Valentova, who tears up when recalling her time in the streets during the 1968 anti-Soviet revolt. "Now what they see is materialism, corruption, inflation, lawlessness – and they can't find spiritual or material prosperity."

Generations reared during Com­mun­ism typically yearn for the days of free healthcare and education, of more affordable goods and services. But they forget the years of deprivation, poor-quality goods and services – and the climate of fear and severe censorship. Most frustrating to them is the divide between those who could and couldn't adapt.

Take the city of Partizánske, in neighboring Slovakia. The vast Bata shoe factory, at its zenith, employed 10,000 workers, produced 30 million pairs of shoes, and saw factory officials and ruling Communists control every facet of work and social life.

"Here was 'Strong Bata' and 'Strong Socialism,' " says Partizánske's mayor, Jan Podmanicky. "Families didn't have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided all their needs."

'When there's no work, no money, there's no happy life'

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.

"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."

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