"EUSTORY influenced my career"
Dr. Zdeněk Hazdra works as Director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague. As student, he was among the prize winners of the first Czech EUSTORY History Competition in the year 2001/2002. Katja Fausser, Managing Director of EUSTORY, talked to him about the relevance of this early experience and how the EUSTORY approach can contribute to the dialogue on 20th century history in Europe.
KF: As participant of the Czech history competition, you returned to the Czech National History Competition to honour this year’s winners. Do you sometimes think back at this early research project of yours?
ZH: This year, I have presented awards to the winners of the Czech round of EUSTORY for the third time already and it is always a very special occasion for me. In my mind this is a moment when I return to the times when I was a student and I started to be interested in modern history. At the same time, I am also aware of a certain paradox, because back then it would have never occurred to me that I would one day represent an institution whose mission is to study the Nazi occupation and the Communist dictatorship and in this way make the public aware of how easily a free society can become unfree. As a student I did not, of course, imagine that the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes would once become an important partner of EUSTORY in the Czech Republic under my leadership and that I would have a possibility to offer my congratulations to other successful participants in this European competition.
KF: The competition you participated in focused on the totalitarian regime 1948 – 1989 in the Czech Republic. How was your fascination for this academic field enriched by EUSTORY?
ZH: I was preparing my paper for the EUSTORY competition as a high school student and I spent a lot of time with political prisoners of the Communist dictatorship. I also met a number of people who were active in the anti-Nazi resistance. Thanks to their stories, I realised how strongly the two totalitarian regimes and their ideologies affected the Czech society and how profound an impact they made on it. Of course, as a historian I must preserve a certain measure of detachment and a sense of perspective; however, my relationship to history has been greatly influenced by the memories and narratives of people who experienced numerous twists and turns of the 20th century. At that time, my interest in modern history truly overlapped with EUSTORY’s mission. I am quite sure that my participation in this competition influenced my choice of future career: the decision to study history with a focus on contemporary history and to dedicate myself to the study of authoritarian regimes.
KF: According to our archives, the title of your contribution was »Three different, but similar fates«. What was it about?
ZH: In my paper, I detailed the fate of a soldier who, in the summer of 1939 (at the age of eighteen), left the Czech lands, which were occupied by the Nazis, in order to join foreign resistance in the ranks of Czechoslovak troops, which were just being established. He was captured by the Soviets and later fought at Tobruk and on the Western Front. After the defeat of Hitler Germany he returned to his homeland. However, after the Communist coup he became a class enemy and spent several years in prison. The second story was about a private farmer, who resisted the collectivisation of the country near Nymburk, a small town in Central Bohemia, where I was born. And because he defied the Communist government and its agricultural policy, he found himself in a group of peasants that were tried in a political trial. All the convicts spent several years in prisons of Communist Czechoslovakia. The third person I wrote about was a Roman Catholic priest, who cooperated with the resistance during WWII and who spent about ten years in prison during the Communist regime. These men came from different social environments, they each had a different profession, each of them wanted to live their life. But their lives were first affected by the Nazi occupation and shortly afterwards by the establishment of the Communist dictatorship. As a result, all three were imprisoned and faced political persecution. That is why I called my work »Three different, but similar fates«.
KF: EUSTORY history competitions mainly focus on European history from a grass root perspective. What can this approach add to the field of historical research?
ZH: I would say that this approach is not only valuable for historical research but also for society as such, for how it reflects history. In this way, we are able to understand that each of us is part of history, that we are not just objects subjected to imaginary history-shaping forces and that we too are responsible, and that every person by their actions helps to shape history. Whether we agree or not, history (like politics) affects our lives, not just in the sense of everyday life, but also in the long run. History is primarily about people, their ideas, passions, actions and disappointments. Every person went through a certain experience that can help us understand the period atmosphere in society. Clearly, social status, the level of education or the ability to bear testimony of the concrete witness also play important part. But still, each such testimony has its weight, aside from the »historical experience« that I have already mentioned, it can also reveal important information that is not to be found in the archives. But above all, it serves as a mirror, in which we see a certain path, the fact that we are heading somewhere and that each of us has a certain responsibility on this path, both towards ourselves and towards society.
KF: Your academic career includes working stations in different European countries. How did your experiences abroad influence your perspectives on European history?
ZH: I believe that every experience in a foreign country provides you with a certain sense of perspective. It is always worthwhile to get an idea of how your neighbours or even people from distant lands see your country and its history. This helps you realize that your nation is not the centre of the universe. After all, we have plenty of experience with this issue in Europe. It is simply not possible today to study the history of individual national societies separately, detached from events going on in neighbouring countries and without knowledge of the international context. If we go back to modern history, we must always remember that Europe experienced two world wars and that people on much of its territory made a negative experience with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. But at the same time, historical experience differs from nation to nation – and also each nation reflects its history differently. This is sometimes quite unexpected, there is no logic to it that might easily be predicted. It is also reflected at a political level; one example is Czech-German relations, which have luckily been improving. This is yet another reason why it is extremely important to know history and to cultivate the dialogue about history: both within every society and among nations. It is utterly important to ensure that history does not place a burden on our future relationships, but that it is a means leading to mutual respect and understanding.
KF: Your institute puts a special emphasis on educational projects. How can institutions of non-formal education enrich the history education at schools?
ZH: The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is legally obliged to educate and popularise; this makes it unique among other scientific institutions in the Czech Republic. In less than three years, we have been able to build a department of education, which has excellent staff and which organises seminars and educational courses for teachers of Civics and related subjects, prepares educational materials and at the same time does research in the field of didactics of history and memory culture. Its most important educational outcomes include the portal »Socialism Realised. Life in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1948-1989«, which aimed at people from abroad who are interested in the period of Communist dictatorship. The project was very well accepted by foreign students both in the Czech Republic and abroad. It is the very first educational project of this type and scope that has been initiated in so-called post-Communist countries. I see a great importance in the cooperation between the Institute and schools as well as civil society and organizations dealing with modern history and human rights issues (e.g., PANT, People in Need, Post Bellum). Our aim is to enhance the ability of not only students but the society as such to navigate themselves through complex issues and to think critically. In this respect, teaching history can be very useful – and ultimately, it should lead to the promotion of democracy and human rights.
KF: Thank you!