Questions of guilt and innocence: telling stories about wartime Czechoslovakia

Developing a new understanding of a nation’s experience during the Second World War can be an emotive, controversial area, particularly when discussions reveal a new, more painful history.

Dr Rajendra Chitnis, from the School of Modern Languages, works on this very issue, with scholars from both the Czech Republic and throughout the world, who are trying to unravel the Czech experience of occupation and its aftermath. The Czech situation belongs and conforms to a much broader and historically longer European discussion about how nations choose to tell the history of their war. In the Czech context, the dominant narrative was established soon after the 1945 liberation of occupied Czechoslovakia, not only by those seeking to restore the liberal democratic First Republic or bring about Communist revolution, but also by a public anxious to forget its own acts of appeasement and collaboration, and Western governments and intellectuals anxious to redress the perceived ‘betrayal’ of democratic Czechoslovakia through the 1938 Munich agreement.

“A national narrative emerged that asserted Czech innocence” said Rajendra. “It justified the initially violent expulsion of Bohemian Germans and allowed criminality and violence to become embedded in post-war institutions. Until very recently, this narrative remained uncomplicated in school textbooks, still dominates media and political discourse, and is fiercely defended by the current Czech president, Václav Klaus. Research now, however, is making old prejudices untenable by allowing Czechs to understand better the experience of occupation and expulsion nationally and in their own localities, and to see and discuss how their present society and self-perception effectively took shape in the post-war.”

Rajendra has used a study of the theme of guilt in Czech literature and journalism after 1945 to show not only how the post-war establishment tried to eradicate the notion of Czech guilt in relation to the occupation and expulsions, but also how some Czech intellectuals opposed these efforts. For them, the concept of guilt could sustain an idea of humanity and act as a brake on the ruthless pursuit of social and nationalist utopia in post-war Czechoslovakia. Using previously unexplored archival material, Rajendra is now developing a case study of a little-known Roman Catholic Ruralist writer, Václav Prokůpek (1902-74). For the purposes of a Stalinist show-trial of Roman Catholic intellectuals in 1952, in which Prokůpek was the lead defendant, a narrative was constructed that presented him as a long-standing enemy of Czechoslovakia, a Fascist supporter and collaborator, and proponent of the feudal exploitation of the peasantry, who wanted to establish an authoritarian Catholic commonwealth in Central Europe. Prokůpek served thirteen years in prison and labour camps. Although his conviction was quashed in 1968, the primary objective of marginalising him and his associates and their worldview from Czech intellectual history has been successfully achieved. Rajendra’s work offers a counter-narrative based on detailed analysis of Prokůpek’s fiction, journalism, correspondence and other papers. He will not only document Prokůpek’s war-time activities, but place them in the context of a coherent, consistent worldview, within which they might clearly be seen as a bold, patriotic and practical form of anti-Fascist resistance. 

“Czech scholars have often found it hard to assess the contribution made by mid-twentieth-century Roman Catholic intellectuals who, for some, are collaborators, and for others martyrs”, Rajendra commented.  “Since 1945, moreover, the Czech countryside has lacked any strong voice able to defend its interests and articulate its worldview, with devastating consequences for agriculture, animal welfare, the environment and village life, all themes of Prokůpek’s writing. Raising awareness of the place occupied in Czech intellectual life by people like Prokůpek ought not only to transform understandings of political and literary history, but also to encourage those striving now to let the countryside be heard.”

This research opens a window into improved national understanding of the complexity of citizen roles under occupation and shows that the simplistic categorisation of people as either resisters or collaborators fails to acknowledge the wide spectrum of responses in between. The ultimate ambition of the research in which Rajendra is participating is the reframing of public history and discourse through the acknowledgement of actual wartime experiences and analysis of the contexts in which they took place and were retold.

Rajendra said: “I believe the outcome for Czechs could be greater self-confidence, whether in their dealings with government and authority, with ethnic or other minorities or with international partners, especially those geographically and historically closest to them.”

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