OSA | Visions after the Fall: Program
Visions after the Fall: Museums, Archives and Cinema in Reshaping Popular Perceptions of the Socialist Past
Roman Krakovsky: "The Representation of the Cold War: The Peace and War Camps in Czechoslovakia 1948-1960"
During the Cold War, East and West each developed its own representation of itself and the other. First, the image of oneself was created in isolation, without reference to the other. The West defined itself in relation to the defence of democracy and the East in relation to the defence of peace. Secondly, one's own image was defined in the wider context of the East-West relationship. The representation of oneself was always completed by the representation of the other. The "other", on the other side of the iron curtain, became, for the West, the antidemocratic and even totalitarian camp, and, for the East, the imperialist camp of war.
The purpose of my contribution would be the analysis of the socialist representation of "oneself" and the "other" and its dynamics in Czechoslovakia, during the founding period of the 1950s. Every year, the East-West relationship was magnificently exposed during May Day, the most important celebration in the socialist camp. Its main goal was to strengthen the social link of the socialist community and to display the power of proletarian internationalism in the world. Consequently, the representation of the socialist and imperialist camps was one of the key aims of the ritual.
May Day also gives an opportunity to use sources to this day rarely exploited by historians of communist regimes, such as iconography and dramatic performances. I would use materials collected in the Czech Historical Archives and in the archives of the Czech Press Agency (CTK), the heir to the Czechoslovak Press Agency. For the interpretation of these spectacular performances, I would rely on the principal daily newspaper of the Czechoslovak communist party, Rudé právo, and the newspaper of the Czechoslovak Youth Union, Mladá fronta (May Day allegories of East and West were conceived and performed mainly by the students). Even if these representations do not reflect reality, they are an eloquent testimony of a certain way of thinking which deserves to be analysed.
The representation of the Peace and the War Camps began with two speeches made at the beginning of 1946. In his "Two Camps" speech, delivered on 9 February 1946, Stalin declared that communism and capitalism belonged to two different camps, fundamentally incompatible and irreconcilable. A month later, on 5 March, at Westminster College, Churchill made his "Iron Curtain" declaration in which he confirmed this new phase of international politics. This new dichotomy was developed through the most important peace conferences at the end of the 1940s (1948: World Peace Congress of Writers at Wroclaw; 1949: World Peace Congress in Paris; 1950: First Polish Peace Congress at Wroclaw, etc). The propaganda campaign which followed in the East spread the new concept within the population.
The East-West representation during May Day shows to what extent sight, of all the senses, was important. To represent the opposing camps of East and West, real and material figures (the atomic bomb, dragons, members of the Ku-Klux-Klan, coffins, etc.) are used in the parade and the media provide graphic detail of the performance. The purpose is to engage the spectator and the reader even more in the event, associating sight with persuasion.
The East-West representation systematically follows a number of fundamental principles. The first is the essential dichotomy. A representation of "oneself" always appears with a representation of the "other". The Peace Camp always defines itself by what it is not, that is to say in opposition to the War Camp (the outside enemy) and to the traitor and revisionist within its own ranks (the inside enemy). The second principle is inversion. The representation begins with the allegory of the War Camp. The allegory of the Peace Camp only comes later. The third principle is comparison. The distinction between oneself and the other becomes clear by comparing the two allegories. The East defines itself according to what it recognizes as the enemy. Accordingly, the allegory of the War Camp used in the People's Democracies is just another way of looking into a mirror with the images reversed.
To complete the representation of the other, it is necessary to establish a relationship with him. This relationship is negative and is built on feelings of revulsion and disdain and their corollaries, laughter and mockery. Laughter and its antithesis, fear, are here closely associated. Laughing at the "Imperialist" shows the true nature of People's Democracies. The image of the horrible monster is hereby projected on the West. The diabolic and diabolized bodies of the enemy, represented as man-animal or man-object figures dressed up as recognisable objects of fear produce shock and surprise among the spectators. In these circumstances, laughter and derision are just another way of admitting the regime's own fears and constructing its identity, to maintain and update it. Thus, the image of the Western enemy strengthens cohesion and identity in the socialist community.
During the 1950s, the aggressive and belligerent themes remain the main characteristics of the "other". The Peace Camp, on the other hand, is represented by symbols of work and by the achievements of the construction of socialism (models of new factories and housing, co-operative farmers on tractors or the results of the planned economy). This socialist iconology is completed by the vertical relation where "up" means the radiant future and "down" the outmoded past.
By the mid-1950s, the opposition between the preparation of the new war and construction of the future is completed by a new attribute, the atom. The atom reinforces the dualistic attitudes because it radicalizes the definition of the enemy. The image of the West hardens and scenes of its burial become increasingly frequent in the second half of the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, the atom is systematically present in these scenes. Moreover, its use is often shown as responsible for the defeat of the War Camp.
In 1960, the allegory of the War Camp suddenly disappears from the parade, a sign that the Peace movement is weakening. The theme of defending the Peace is only used in calls to proletarian solidarity with the "oppressed people" of countries such as Vietnam or Chile. This evolution can be explained by institutional change in Czechoslovakia, the maturing of the strategic relationship between East and West as well as by the fact that the dichotomy between a War Camp and a Peace Camp had simply run out of steam.
Roman Krakovsky is currently working on his doctoral dissertation "Time and Space in an Authoritarian Regime. Celebrations in Czechoslovakia (1948-1989)" at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne. He is also a teaching assistant for the undergraduate and graduate courses on symbolic politics and cultural politics in Central and Eastern Europe 1945-1989 at the Institute of Political Sciences in Dijon and in Sorbonne Nouvelle. He is the author of Rituel du 1er mai en Tchécoslovaquie 1948-1989 [May Day Ritual in Czechoslovakia 1948-1989] (2004) and of numerous articles on symbolic politics, social history of Central and Eastern Europe and the everyday communism.
Date: June 9, Friday
Time: 3-3.30 pm
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