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EDITORIAL

When politicians lecture historians on the past

“I HAVE a problem with anyone whose opinions presented before 1989 [the fall of communism] differ from those [expressed] afterwards, who has not gone through any self-reflection,” said Juraj Kalina of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in an interview with Sme daily, who for a brief period of time appeared to the ruling Smer party to be the best candidate to run the Nation’s Memory Institute (ÚPN), which among others things administers the files of the communist-era ŠtB secret police.

“I HAVE a problem with anyone whose opinions presented before 1989 [the fall of communism] differ from those [expressed] afterwards, who has not gone through any self-reflection,” said Juraj Kalina of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in an interview with Sme daily, who for a brief period of time appeared to the ruling Smer party to be the best candidate to run the Nation’s Memory Institute (ÚPN), which among others things administers the files of the communist-era ŠtB secret police.

It actually makes sense that someone with ambitions to manage an institute that looks into crimes committed by oppressive regimes would talk about self-reflection. It is a concept which, among other things, implies that people need to take responsibility for their past actions and attitudes, since it is not possible to change out of a communist outfit and into a democratic one overnight.

It also makes sense if someone who is to manage such an institution says he will refrain from attending any events commemorating Jozef Tiso, the Roman Catholic priest who led the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak State and under whose presidency at least 70,000 Slovak Jews were sent to Nazi death camps.

Moreover, it also seems right for a candidate to such a post to remain reserved, if not antagonistic, towards the installation of a historically inaccurate and heavily mythologised sculpture that attracts right-wing extremists.

Yet weirdly enough, the ruling party made Kalina’s candidacy, which was described by Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), as one of the best picks Smer had ever made for a top public post, a rather fleeting event.

Politicians rarely make good historians, and when interpreting history they often tend to confuse historical facts with the sediment of ideology that far too often clouds these events. It gets even worse when politicians long for influence over institutions which should be working to remove that sediment.

The way in which Smer rejected its own candidate after Kalina offered some of his opinions is a lesson in how political preferences and in-fighting within a single party can trump professional qualities, which in the case of Kalina had been acknowledged even by the opposition.

Kalina’s comments on the sculpture of ninth-century regional leader Svätopluk, erected in the main courtyard of Bratislava Castle in 2010, has become a thorn in the side of some Smer deputies, with Smer MP Dušan Jarjabek saying that he was surprised by Kalina’s attitude towards the sculpture, adding that one cannot lead the ÚPN if one does not understand the historical essence of such a sculpture.

“The controversial equestrian statue that the previous government installed at the castle depicts the mythical, rather than the historical, Svätopluk,” Elena Mannová, a historian and expert on mythology and historical memory from the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) told The Slovak Spectator in an interview back in 2010.

Another historian, Marína Zavacká, commented the same year that the statue of Svätopluk had become an instrument of ideology and politics.

Svätopluk was simply not fated to become a work of ‘art’ widely appreciated by historians. It has, if anything, polarised society, while many viewed its installation as an effort by Smer to win the hearts of nationalist voters.

Actually, when Robert Fico unveiled the statue of Svätopluk during his first government, shortly before the June 2010 parliamentary elections, he said he wished for it to become a destination for pilgrims to honour Slovak nationhood. Yet the first ‘pilgrims’ were a group of about 60 right-wing extremists, including Marián Kotleba, the former head of Slovenská Pospolitosť, an organisation banned for its extremist activities, who gathered to honour ‘King Svätopluk’.

It is perfectly reasonable for Kalina to express dismay at the prospect of the site luring extremists – and it should be reasonable too to expect a party which declares itself to be guided by social-democratic values to accept that.

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