You are Director at the NGO “Antikomplex” from the Czech Republic mostly dealing with the memory issues between Germany and the Czech Republic. How far is this work of culture of remembrance advanced in the Czech Republic, namely in respect to the Sudetes Region – one of the major topics for “Antikompex” – as well as the Nazi occupation and the Beneš decrees?
“Antikomplex” was founded in 1998 and has been dealing with a trauma evolving in the Czech society. It was a trauma of the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from the Czech Republic, which took place right after the World War II and at the beginning of the so-called “wild explosion”, namely the atrocities of the German speaking population. Three million of Germans were expelled from the Czech lands. It creates a trauma in the society in a way that people know and feel a bit guilty for this because innocent people were expelled from their homes. On the other hand, people said we had the right for that because of the World War II and it was Germany, which had gone to the war. I think this problem damaged the relationship between the Czech Republic and Germany. People were not talking to each other and had fear. The topic was also widely used by politicians. It is political instrumentalisation, which somehow influenced many outcomes of the elections, cross-border cooperation, mutual relationship between societies. We thought it would be good to establish an organization, which would assist in dealing with this kind of wounds, to overcome them, to deal with the past. Therefore, we started activities – such as exhibitions or public debates – and opened this question for the Czech society. I would say the young generation is already open to it. They understand what happened, they know that it was kind of atrocity, that there was no right to do this. On the other hand, they certainly understand that it was almost an unbearable idea for the Czech people with their experiences that they would have had the same status with a group, which was so tightly connected to the perpetrator. I think to open these conflicting memories to the public and to show to them the national narrative, the dominant one we live in, is highly recommendable. It can heal the society. It can give you a feedback that we are perhaps not as democratic as we thought. Hence, we should work at our tolerance and openness towards the neighboring country.
You also work with the older generations and local communities. How would you describe this work? How is it progressing?
Of course, the work with the older generations is always more difficult because the “Antikomplex” team is quite young. We may be suspicious towards older people, because they had their own experiences. We organise events with Germans and Czechs simultaneously. They talk to each other, and they do not need us as an intermediary. I think that this is the most fruitful approach: If they talk, they see each other – and the past suddenly acquires a face in their former neighbours, what can help to reconcile and to think about the past in a different way.
Our talk takes place in the Lithuanian town of Raseiniai, where you are coordinating a workshop on historical memory and culture of remembrance at the Forum for Young Professionals “Europe Lab”. You have a bunch of people from different countries – EU, non-EU, Eastern Partnership, the Russian Federation… Which were the most interesting experiences with people’s culture of remembrance here?
In Vilnius and Raseiniai, we are dealing with a culture of remembrance and historical memory. And I was quite surprised that there were people with so many different backgrounds in our workshop. They are able to reflect on their national memories. They know that their background is in conflict with their partners right next to them. I think it is even surprising for them, how different the memories in the EU or Russia may be and how many skeletons we have hidden in our closets. Yesterday, one of the participants said his country had an army of these historical skeletons in the closet. First of all, we have to deal with these skeletons, overcome old conflicts and traumas to be able to build up an open society and to understand the neighbouring countries. I saw that it was interesting for the participants not only to hear about what was the background for Swedish, Finnish, Russian, Hungarian person, but also how it was sometimes hard to confess that we actually did not like to talk about that and that, due to our national PR techniques, as long as myths of us as “good guys” may be somehow damaged. Even for them (they are between 25 and 35), it can be hard to say: ‘Yes, we have done that and that, and we forget about what we have done.’
Your organisation is also a member of the Working Group “Historical Memory and Education” at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Nowadays, you have been working at the travelling exhibition devoted to the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II. Can you, please, tell us more about this project?
Indeed, “Antikomplex” is a member of the Working group “Historical Memory and Education”. Therefore, we decided to compare national histories presented in the school textbooks. While discussing the topic, we learnt that there were actually many stories of the World War II. A Polish story is different from a Czech or an Italian one. So, six partner organisations from Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia decided to make an analysis and comparison of histories in the school textbooks. The questions are: How does the narrative look like? What are these first impressions kids and pupils get at school? What are the pictures of the World War II they have been growing up with? And it turned out that we had six different stories about different wars. For each nation, there are other events, figures, people, and heroes, who are important. We would like to show the results in this travelling exhibition in Moscow, Prague, Berlin, and any other city, which would like to display it. We would like to show that we think sometimes that our memory is the only one, but we have to confess that there are many memories and many different memories about the war can help us to live together in Europe, to understand that there are different memories and narratives behind the people you are living with.
I have a question about the value of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum for your organisation. Why did you decide to join the Forum?
We are an organisation dealing with the past, and we thought we are the only one from the Central Europe. We came across different organisations and were inspired by their approaches. To deal with the past, to deal with the conflicts of perception of the past is a really important issue for almost every country. For us, it is a special case, as long as we are located in Prague. Of course, Central and Eastern Europe has some problematic issues with Russia. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum can help us to open up and start a dialogue with Russian partners on memory and conflicts of perception. It can be really fruitful to start a debate on it to understand each other. We think that a common history with the Soviet Union or Russia was always bad to us. But, perhaps, it was also bad for Russian people as well. To find out that our Russian partners are also challenged by the state, by the public opinion is contributing to the common cooperation. We are enjoying the time with the Forum which has been offering us many cooperation opportunities.
What current challenges do you see for the work of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum?
Well, I must confess that I thought in the beginning that the biggest issue would be the language, which is actually not a problem at all. Of course, there is a distance which counts. In order to discuss things, we have to meet. One may discuss everything face-to-face. Besides, a challenge is that one of the both parties lacks something from time to time. It may be money or people in the team. It may be a problem for producing something. Certainly, there are different law systems in Russia and the EU. And we have to respect both. There are administrative, bureaucratic issues… But in my opinion, the main challenge is distance.
And the very last question. What would you like to wish to the Forum members?
I wish the Forum members and organisations developed in peace. To fight against something (it can be a state, bureaucracy, or lack of interest) is very hard and tiring. I would like to wish peace for our work and enough energy to overcome all the barriers.
Thank you very much for this interview.
The interview was shot on 25 July 2015 at the Forum for Young Professionals “Europe Lab” (23-26 July 2015, Vilnius and Raseiniai, Lithuania) by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.