Tuesday, 16 January 2018

POST COMMUNISM IN THE EASTERN BLOC: GERMANY, HUNGARY, AND THE CZECH REPUBLIC

MUSINGS ABROAD

BY: KRISTEN MCLAUGHLIN

A brief search through Google or a Europe travel guide will show what the majority of post-communist Eastern European museums focus on: World War II, Jewish heritage, and memorialization of atrocities, particularly during the communist era. Portrayals of communism in particular are fascinating, as the Cold War is fairly recent in the memory of the world, with many people who lived through it still around. It can tell us plenty about how a country views heritage preservation, history, storytelling, and what they deem important aspects of their country's identity.

There is a fascination in North America with the Cold War and all it entailed, and what it has meant for politics and society still today. However, I am interested in how some of the smaller museums in post-communist nations decide to tell certain parts of the larger story.



A map showing the Eastern Bloc, or Communist European countries, in red. Source.

To be sure, the aftereffects of communism--or any type of government regime--can last decades or even centuries. The Cold War ended only in 1989, when museological discourse was going through large shifts throughout Europe. Where and when different countries picked up and began working on institutions like museums again varies. I will be looking at three countries and three museums that tell us different ways countries memorialize communism (or not).

Germany -- Stasi Museum, East Berlin

Germany is well-known for recognizing and telling the stories of the atrocities that occurred both within and outside of their borders. Examples like Berlin's Jewish Museum and Holocaust Museum are well known, but there are other museums that hold fascinating stories about the recent past.

Last year I read a book titled Stasiland by Anna Funder, that covered the work of the female journalist as she went to East Berlin to find stories about the Stasi, the secret police (or Ministry of State Security) of East Berlin, created in 1950. It was an insightful look into a world I hadn't known about. The level of surveillance, espionage, and manipulation of everyday people by the Stasi is heart-breaking. There was virtually no part of life that was not monitored by the Stasi in East Berlin. So when the author went to a little museum in the original Stasi office buildings, I knew it was a place I'd want to visit someday (and still do). The museum is run by the Antistalinistische Aktion Berlin-Normannenstrasse (ASTAK), which was founded by civil rights activists in Berlin in 1990. The building was taken over by activists, who wanted all the information in the building kept secure and safe for the future. They wanted it to be kept a memorial and research centre on GDR Stalinism.

Since 1990, ASTAK has used these original Stasi offices as a museum to showcase different exhibitions and provide information, not only on the Stasi itself, but also for citizens, so they could know what and how the government had been keeping track of people or--in some instances--how they disposed of loved ones.

The story of the Stasi is a lesser known one in life behind the Iron Curtain. This museum uses a combination of artifacts and archival records from these very buildings to demonstrate the dangerous level of power and control the Stasi possessed. This museum is where 68 miles of shelved records were saved, as well as 41 million file cards, 1.7 million photos and negatives, and 15,000 bags of shredded remnants, which are now being slowly pieced back together.


Espionage technology on display at the Stasi Museum, which was used by the secret police everyday to monitor the citizens of East Berlin. 

Hungary -- Memento Park, Budapest 

Memento Park, or Szoborpark, is an open-air museum in Budapest, dedicated to the monumental communist era statues of Hungary. There are statues of Lenin, Marx, Engels, and several well-known Hungarian communist leaders. A quote by the architect of the park, Akos Eleod:

"This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship."

After the fall of the communist regime in Hungary in 1989, many of the communist statues were immediately removed. These form the basis of the current collection in the park. The park was not created as a symbol of heroism for the individuals on display, but rather, as a critique of the ideology that used these statues as symbols of authority. It walks a fine line of memorializing, critiquing, and showcasing, without giving too much power to these statued figures of history.


Welcome to Memento Park. Source.

Czech Republic -- Museum of Communism, Prague 

In the Czech Republic, reminders of communism outside of museums are hard to find, with nothing like Memento Park on display in the nation. Czech people were quick to get rid of anything that reminded them of communism. A memorial for Jan Palach, who set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of the Prague Spring in 1968, sits outside of the National Museum in Prague. This is one of the few public reminders of this time. It lacks the concrete architecture of other communist cities; its grand cathedrals and spires are of a medieval era preceding that of the mid-1900s.

The one thing they do have is the Museum of Communism, which is dedicated to presenting an account of the post World War II communist regime in, what was at the time, Czechoslovakia. However, this is an example of a museum that does not tell an objective story: it tells an emotive one, one with a point of view, where labels are never simply "the regime" but "the oppressive regime".



Diorama set-ups in the Museum of Communism in Prague. Source.

Museums about a topic like this--so life-altering, so dangerous, so dark--can be difficult to keep unbiased, difficult to keep objective. The question becomes: do museums about this type of history need to be objective? Can they have emotion, points of view? Or must they do a better job to convey a neutral point of view on a painful topic so as to not bias visitors?

In fact, the Museum of Communism is a private collection created by US businessman Glenn Spicker in 2001. According to one disgruntled visitor, "As far as I'm concerned, Prague doesn't have a Museum of Communism as of yet . . . for now, at least its streets continue to serve that purpose."


These three museums/memorial are three different examples of how some post-communist countries are choosing to remember the roughly 50 year period of their history. If anyone has visited the old Eastern Bloc and can recommend good/interesting/difficult museums to visit, leave a comment with your suggestions!


2 comments:

  1. Great article! I think although not explicitly said, it's important to discuss how communism was viewed by the people then and what is the political state is now. For instance in all three of the countries you mentioned communism didn't go over as well as say in Tito's Yugoslavia. Meanwhile if you look at the situation now, East Germany adopted all of the liberal leanings of the West as West German money flooded into the territory. Meanwhile Hungary didn't see this influx of cash, and has adopted this artsy vibe that makes Memento park absolutely possible. This acceptance of the past by the people of Hungary is also typified by a statue that was erected by the current regime in Budapest of an angel being attacked by a German eagle. The people protested it as Hungary's initial involvement with the Nazi's resembled more that of Austria, than that of Czechoslovakia - a humbling honesty in my opinion. Lastly it is still illegal in the Czech Republic to form large groups in the streets, so perhaps this provides insight into a possible link to the state as to why there hasn't been a proper communist museum created by the citizens. I would love to see how the memory of communism is dealt with in the former Yugoslav states, especially Serbia, as they seemed to prosper in communist times, but have fallen on harder times since the 90s. Also, if you ever get the chance to go to Budapest, the Tower of Terror is a dark reminder of what happened during the communist times there, it doesn't pull any punches.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment Greg! I completely agree that it is important to talk about how things are remembered by those that actually experienced these events versus how governments remember them. That is actually where my true interest lies, but I couldn't fit it all into the article!

      It's so interesting about the ties and interrelations of all of these countries and, like you say, how they differ in their relationship to communism and economy. Yugoslavia is truly fascinating in that respect, as is Serbia. You've given me an idea for a future article where I might focus on these countries!

      I also had no idea about the fact that it is illegal to gather in the Czech Republic; that really says a lot about the mentality that still exists in the country and why such remembrances may be more subtle than in places like Hungary, as you say. I definitely want to visit Budapest and I will make a note of the Tower of Terror.

      Thank you so much again for the comment, Greg! Your perspective/knowledge is very interesting and helpful. Keep your eye out for future articles. :)

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