“They sell hippie wigs at Woolworths, man.” The recently celebrated 35th anniversary “Withnail and I” is set in London in the late 1960s – and nicely encapsulates how the revolutionary spirit of flower children was made into a business.
I thought of a department store hippie wig when I recently read an advertisement for Czech housing. A house in Prague, where a legendary dissident family lived in the 1970s, has undergone a luxurious renovation. The ad text declared that you, too, could live in the underground resistance (if you had five million SEK to spare).
To the viewer peppered with housing advertisements may seem as innocuous as batik jackets. But in central Europe, this is part of a development with consequences for the entire European Union.
This week, a trial was to begin between the dismissed historians and the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Perhaps the postponement of the trial is due to the fact that the trial is radioactive and not really related to labor law. The result may mean that the use of history in the Czech Republic follows the development in Hungary and Poland – where it became a tool of increasingly authoritarian rule.
Disengaged historian is Muriel Blive. Her research examines the form of the “contract” between the communist regime and the Czech public. The institute’s management considers this to undermine their accepted truth – that these countries were “totalitarian”. The term is used to explain the lack of resistance by saying that there was no room for such. Something post-1990 suited those who, in the name of nationalism, wanted to portray their people as passive victims.
Since the politically charged chapter—which was met in an open letter signed by, among others, historian Timothy Snyder—the institute has also attempted to censor a book.
But without free research, it is difficult to understand how dictatorships have survived for 40 years. Why do the majority choose to ignore rights when they are violated? The irony is not only that those who became members of the Communist Party were acquitted because it offered benefits. It becomes difficult to understand how and why some resisted. Opponents turn into statues, or advertisements for housing, without context.
In fact, the dissident Vaclav Havel expressed the same thing as Plaev in an article titled “The Power of the Weak” in 1978. Havel saw life in the system as a ritual in which the consumption and warmth of summer are contrasted with the undisturbed everyday life. Cottages, I went on the Labor Day train. The resistance was to break the ritual.
The danger of misusing history and victimhood rhetoric is clear if you look at Russia. But the problem also exists in the European Union. The culture of memory in Central Europe, reluctant to talk about what people might value in regimes—welfare, for example—and what dissidents fought for—human rights, for example—also shows up in so-called illiberalism. In Poland and Hungary, where Viktor Orbán equates his party with resistance to the pre-1989 regime, abortion and gay rights are being thrown into the trash. The demonstrators were dismissed as enemies of communism to the public, and Brussels is considered equal to the Soviet Union. In a Sweden that believes it is immune to the erosion of democracy, while rights are under attack by our autocrats, it is worth highlighting.
As Muriel Bliffe said when interviewed for an upcoming book:
“The new generations have become radicalized and immature, with the same belief in simple and wrong solutions as when their parents believed in communism. I am convinced of the narrative of hero and victim. Because they never learned the difficulties of living with elections on a daily basis in a dictatorship. In other words – they are ideal candidates for populism.”
Or to put it another way: buy a hippie wig or a maverick apartment. For the time being, there is nothing to protest about.
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