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7 hours ago by HelloNurse

The article focuses on Philip Roth's fictionalized adaptations of those interesting times, but there's also "Why write? : collected nonfiction 1960-2013" (ISBN 9781598535402, according to my public library catalog) which contains a lot of collected essays and interviews about Czech dissident writers and Roth's visits to Prague.

12 hours ago by saiya-jin

> as a teenager, he watched as the Soviet-backed communist party secured its coup d’état in 1948;

Good read describing as things really were, but this part is not fully correct - communists got to the power legally by winning the elections, in 1946 in Czech part of Czechoslovakia and in 1948 in Slovakia.

People were naive, uninformed and generally saw soviets mainly as liberators from nazi occupation (which was true). Few knew what stalinism brings, without exceptions and those few either were quiet or didn't matter enough.

As soon as they got full power, democracy was effectively disbanded, political opponents either executed or jailed, and things like 'famous' uranium mines in Jachymov started operating like execution camps for undesired (something like soviet siberian gulags with added benefit of handling radioactive material without any protection). Ironically all this uranium was given to Soviet union for free AFAIK, and it was worth billions even back then (I guess some sort of ransom for very active 'protection' from evil capitalism).

10 hours ago by sn41

Prisoners handling radioactive material without protective material and gear, was also done in the Gulag system - e.g. Butugychag in Magadan, Siberia [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butugychag

12 hours ago by inglor_cz

Czechoslovak-born here. This is not completely correct either.

Communists won the election in 1946 and formed a coalition government in which they were the strongest force, but not completely dominant. There were other "bourgeoise" ministers. Unfortunately, Communists controlled the ministry of the interior and cleansed the police of "reactionary elements", thus cementing their control over the civilian law enforcement. Not over the army yet, though.

There were regular elections scheduled for May 1948 and opinion polls were indicating that Communist share of vote is actually going to diminish. So they preempted them by staging a coup supported by People's Militias (a completely illegal armed militia of the party) on February 25, 1948. After that, the democracy was toast and it was full speed towards Stalinism, show trials etc.

Some of the army generals wanted to suppress the coup militarily, but the aging President (Beneš) did not allow that. IDK if it would have been better or worse. Civil wars tend to leave a very toxic legacy.

8 hours ago by xkriva11

There is an important lesson in it. People should be able to vote bastards, but this must always be reversible. If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were part of the Czechoslovakian constitution at that time, this development would not be legal.

However, at that time, it was not existing and, if it existed, it would be probably quite hard to put it into the legal system because of the fresh edicts against Germans. In the end, the third Czechoslovak Republic failed because of its rooted nature and kind of deserved its fate. You cannot displace 1.2M of people and try to look as a democratic state (no matter how necessary it was).

3 hours ago by HideousKojima

>If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were part of the Czechoslovakian constitution at that time, this development would not be legal.

Which wouldn't stop anything in and of itself. The current Chinese constitution allows freedom of speech, for example.

4 hours ago by vkou

> You cannot displace 1.2M of people and try to look as a democratic state (no matter how necessary it was).

There are a number of democratic states that have happily uprooted a lot more people than that, both before, and after WW2. Most of them haven't failed.

6 hours ago by tpm

That development was not exactly legal even then, but there was no one who would stop them because the superpowers carved up Europe and this was Stalin's area. He could do what he wanted.

1.2M.. I think the current estimates are 2.4M expelled Germans, not counting the expelled Hungarians from Slovakia (many of which later returned and were granted citizenship).

11 hours ago by mjaniczek

As somebody born after 1993 (thus into Czech Republic, not Czechoslovakia) who (thankfully?) didn't experience that period, thanks for the writeup.

10 hours ago by Radim

As another Czechoslovak (born 1981 under socialism), I was eagerly awaiting inglor_cz's response the moment I saw this article on HN :-)

11 hours ago by vkou

> IDK if it would have been better or worse. Civil wars tend to leave a very toxic legacy.

Had it done so, it's very likely that the USSR would have intervened.

11 hours ago by inglor_cz

So might the Western powers. That was still the moment when Americans had the only working nuclear weapons on Earth.

The width of the possible scenarios is unsettling, one of them may be Prague turning into European Hiroshima.

9 hours ago by Context_free

> So they preempted them by staging a coup supported by People's Militias (a completely illegal armed militia of the party) on February 25, 1948

On February 21st, 1948, the non-communist ministers handed in resignations, without any pressure from the communist party. You left that part out. On February 25th the resignations were accepted. This was not a "coup" - they lost the elections in 1946 and decided to abandon the government in a failed power play. Also, as you note, the president of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, Benes, a non-communist, presided over this.

The militias committed no violence, took over no buildings or the like and were not involved in the cabinet. The majority of Czechs did not find factory workers being armed to defend themselves to be as threatening as you apparently do.

If you really want to see elections being fixed, look at the fixing of the elections in Italy in the same year against the communist/socialist coalition.

3 hours ago by dang

Please do not post ideological flamewar comments to HN, regardless of what you're battling for or against. It's not what this site is for and it kills what it is for.


7 hours ago by inglor_cz

Whoa, a real world tankie on HN.

Czechoslovak Communist Party was since 1929 an obedient servant of Stalin with zero own will. The chairman Gottwald was a sycophant who later hanged his own friends (Slansky, Reicin) on request from Moscow.

Yes, the coup was nonviolent, much like occupation of Sudetenland 10 years prior, because our elite decided to throw in the towel. There was no one left to defend our democracy against a powerful foe.

"factory workers being armed to defend themselves"

What an incredible load of B.S. People's Militias were Communist equivalent of Iraqi sectarian militias after the ouster of Saddam. They acted as an armed fist of the party for the possible case that democratic politicians decide not to go quietly.

May 1948 elections were a travesty, as were all other elections until 1985 (the last ones under Communist power).

11 hours ago by throw4738

Jachymov had strategic importance for survival of the Soviet Union. Soviets invested into building mine and provided initial workforce. Jachymov was not some siberian gulag for wood choping. Soviets also paid for uranium. Mine was closed as too expensive.

How Czech communist party ran the mine, and what it did to its citizens is something else.


9 hours ago by vHMtsdf

Regarding uranium extraction in Czechoslovakia, the Soviets later mined uranium in other sites by pumping sulfuric acid into the ground. This has caused a lasting ecological damage which has to be managed to this day.

The acid was meant to dissolve the ore and was then sucked back out. The only issue was that they ended up pumping a more sulfuric acid into the ground than sucking out. This created an underground lake of sulfuric acid in an with other underground water "lakes". This sulfuric lake is threatening to spill into these water sources.

I heard about this from my teachers at the university who were involved in the modelling of the underground spill. Using a limited number of wells, they were supposed to predict how the spill is spreading and what actions to take to stop it.

I found some pictures from the site here: https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/pitna-voda-tezba-uranu-kys...

7 hours ago by flohofwoe

On the East German side of the border, Uranium mining started essentially as gulag-style worker camps under Soviet control right after the war, and a few years later was moved into the "Wismut AG", which was a company under shared East German / Soviet ownership. From the tales of my grandparents, it was a mix of Soviet oppression and Wild West. In the Wismut, the miners were very well paid (for post-war East Germany), but they were a rowdy bunch and quite often had quarrels (also physical) with the East German police and Soviet camp guards (who of course couldn't simply "mow down" their highly qualified work force). Eventually in the mid- to late 50's, it calmed down, and working for the Wismut was more or less a normal job (albeit with a high risk of dying early of lung cancer and/or silicosis).

After the reuninification, the German government invested big into fixing the environmental damage that was done in 40 years, and that took over a decade. Props to them for this, the Erzgebirge is quite a nature paradise today.

11 hours ago by tpm

> communists got to the power legally by winning the elections, in 1946 in Czech part of Czechoslovakia and in 1948 in Slovakia.

This is actually so wrong as to be an outright lie. The 1948 elections took place on May 30, after the Communists took power in the coup of February 25 (this was not the only important event - they took over power gradually before that). The 1948 elections featured only one party. From that it should be completely clear these were not really elections as there was nothing to choose from and in any case the Communists didn't really care, they already had all the power they needed.

10 hours ago by saiya-jin

I will rephrase it since I see what causes a friction - in 1946 Communists won in Czech part of Czechoslovakia, in Slovakia it was Democratic party with over 60% (Demokraticka strana). Still, Slovakia was only 1/3 of whole republic, so communists won the elections overall, especially in Czech border regions with Germany, where arguably a still-unacknowledged atrocity happened after WWII - brutal forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Sudet Germans.

Its true that in 1948 the elections were a sham since there was only a single party to vote for - communist one, hence their total victory in both Czech and Slovak part of the republic. But the true rise to power was in 1946 that enabled all that came later, and was done via those democratic elections.

Coup d'etat sounds like there was a democratic government overthrown by some communist fringe movement outside government, which isn't true. They got to power and got majority, and used it to remove everybody else. Maybe my idea of coup d'etat is incorrect and this whole discussion is kind of pointless.

10 hours ago by tpm

The finer point is, I think, that they did not get they power legally in the elections, because no such power can be granted in elections. Elections are a way to elect the national assembly which can then create a government, write laws etc.; but things that happened after 1946 and especially after 1948 were not supported by legal power, but by Stalin's terror and totalitarian dictature.

8 hours ago by motohagiography

It's frustrating to hear stories about writers under totalitarianism, not just because of the pervasive state oppression, but because not one of them will prevent it from rising again. Writers like Havel and Solzhenitsyn's work ostensibly contributed to the ending of the European totalitarian system, but only decades after it rose, and after those cultures were destroyed. I worked with people who left or escaped communism, and many had brought the indolent bureaucratic cynicism and shame of the societies broken by communism with them. It takes generations to recover.

The necessary condition for it to prevail is when people (young men in particular) lose their sense of social identity and personal networks so that they are isolated from each other and can't get more than three to five together at once to privately share their experience of the movements infiltrating their communities. It's a playbook.

If only we would treat writers today as the canaries in the coal mine for this same totalitarian force of history, and learn how urgent these lessons from the 20th century truly are.

7 hours ago by mrslave

And what group identity do young people, or young males as you identify, have today? Sports teams, comic book movies, fancy sneakers, streaming subscriptions, fast food, alcohol, and video games. Group solidarity was destroyed and now every "community" is a virtual group of fan-based product consumers. Or possibly also - according to the news - an oppressed minority activist group. I don't see this as caused by or leading to totalitarianism, but I agree it is terrible.

6 hours ago by germinalphrase

The larger risk - in my opinion - is that many of these communities (as much as they are) rely on communication channels that they cannot control (whether privately or publicly owned). Fracturing those communities is far easier and nearly cost free compared to interrupting in person communities (even as persistent surveillance makes in person communities easier to suppress).

4 hours ago by motohagiography

Something that never seemed to bubble up coherently in mainstream anti-capitalist discussions was whether there was a totalitarianized capitalism, which would have been a useful perspective, but I think progressive intellectuals of the 80's and 90's couldn't acknowledge totalitarianism as a thing because it undermined the certainty of their own narratives. They couldn't punch left, even if it was Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other genocidieres, and that deprived them of a framework with a lot of predictive power.

However, when viewed as what totalitarianism technically is - a movement that attacks truth itself with the objective of subjugating the individual human spirit and neutralizing all possible opposition, the cynical neo-liberals of the 90's would have qualified. Totalitarian movements use other factions and nations as vehicles, so that they used consumerism as a means to globalizing their ambitions is really secondary to what they meant to achieve.

When I look at suddenly controversial and borderline dissident writers today like Matt Taibbi and Glen Greenwald, and even recently, Naomi Wolf, who seem to have defected from the progressive narrative, I think it's because they weren't "leftists," but in fact principled believers in truth and the human spirit, and against totalitarian movements. They aren't neutral or bi-partisan at all. They're a-partisan in that their objections today are against people and movements that make truth their target.

6 hours ago by ppf

Indeed, and the worldwide response to Covid has highlighted just how far down this path we have already come as a (Western) society. We already were a society of isolated, atomised, under-developed and ineffectual individuals, and that has only accelerated in the last year.

6 hours ago by dmos62

> movements infiltrating their communities

That became very specific very fast. I don't think that negative things happen because of "movements" infiltrating "movementless" communities. Further, even if you take destructive movements towards oppression, limited identification, hatred, etc., I'd argue those are just symptoms of wider problems. Addressing them has its place, but, if that's all you do, it's like treating chronic mouth odour with tooth paste.

8 hours ago by sosull

This is really insightful. I appreciate you taking the time to write it.

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