• E-Books
  • Office of Scholarly Publishing
  • Latest Catalogs
  • Books for Courses
  • Exhibits Listing
  • View Cart

Quick Browse

456 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 14 tables, notes, bibl., index

$35.00 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-4865-4

Published: Fall 2000

 Add to cart
 View cart

Captive University
The Sovietization of East German, Czech, and Polish Higher Education, 1945-1956

by John Connelly

Copyright (c) 2000 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


In the fall of 1948, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union proclaimed its lessons of history universally valid and began to impose its system of political organization upon the ruling Communist Parties of Eastern Europe.[1] A process of duplication commenced that was unprecedented; within a few years, a once multifarious scenery of cultures and histories between Elbe and Bug resembled a belt of miniature Soviet Unions, each with collectivized agriculture, steel and coal industries, broad alleyways of socialist-realist communal housing, marching columns of uniformed youths, omnipresent banners of little Stalins like Walter Ulbricht, Klement Gottwald, or Bolesław Bierut. Western observers were stunned at the apparent totality and uniformity of transformation. In 1959 Zbigniew K. Brzezinski wrote that "the repetition of the Soviet experience of the thirties would be bound to create an environment essentially like the Soviet environment."[2] A central role in bringing Soviet models to Eastern Europe was attributed to Soviet advisers, to whom, in the words of Joseph Rothschild, East European Communists owed "absolute obedience."[3]

Such visions of an unimpeded and complete Sovietization of Eastern Europe continue to shape the historical imagination.[4] Scholars have long recognized a relative openness in the early postwar period, but the stalinist years (1948-54) are still treated as an "ice age," akin to a natural catastrophe, when the Party/state shaped dormant societies as it saw fit, without regard for their separate histories and cultures.[5] A partial exception has been recognized for Poland, with its relatively mild antichurch policies and inner-Party purges, and sluggish collectivization drive.[6] Yet a leading scholar has recently described Polish society as having "nothing to place in the way of constructing … the Soviet model of a totalitarian state … in all spheres of state, public, and national life."[7]

In their depictions of social reality in stalinist Eastern Europe, historians have largely reproduced perspectives of the 1950s. To contemporaries, the region indeed appeared uniform. In the spring of 1952, after visiting construction sites, department stores, universities, and other public spaces in Warsaw, Gdańsk, and Wrocław, Victor Klemperer, specialist in Romance literature at Halle University in East Germany, and a diary writer of unusual discernment, felt moved to coin the term "uniformitas sowjetica postbellica." After sitting for three hours on the podium of Warsaw's May Day parade, the septuagenarian noted: "this was the dreariest, most uniform, most orchestrated part of our trip to Poland. I survived it. But what did I get out of it? The most complete sense of uniformitas imaginable."[8]

Historians have had little occasion or reason to question such images. On the one hand, they have lacked competing perspectives; and, on the other, they, like inhabitants of the region, remain dazzled by the enormity of state terror in the early 1950s, which claimed victims even among the Party's truest supporters. Regimes capable of such extreme violence appeared unrestricted in their powers, and even if the Soviet system was not duplicated to the last detail, there seemed to be no task of substance that East European Communist Parties could not accomplish in the same way.

This book questions such received wisdom, and attempts to show that behind a facade of uniformity separate national traditions continued through the stalinist period in much of the "norther tier" of East Central Europe, creating different contexts for politics and for societal experience. It explores policies adopted toward a single, central institution, the university, and portrays those years as an episode in the histories of three peoples—the Czechs, East Germans, and Poles. Universities were key to making the states in which these peoples lived socialist because they reproduced not only national histories and ideologies, but also elites, or, in the words of East German ideological chief Kurt Hager, "commanders."[9]

More important, however, than contesting inherited notions of uniformity is learning from differences—differences in the application of Soviet models in East Central Europe. The primary goal of this book is to reveal aspects of historical development that would not be apparent if these three societies were examined separately. In their slavish duplication of Soviet experience, East European stalinists unwittingly created a veritable laboratory for such comparative study: the tremendous pressures for uniformity in effect "controlled" for politics, helping isolate certain "variables" that have suffered neglect in studies of political development—in particular, social structure and political culture.[10] As we shall see, the institutions and programs created in these years in East European higher education were nearly identical; what varied were the people who operated within them. Depending on national environment and sociocultural milieu, they had differing attitudes about the value of education, and about central organizing concepts of this period—the state, in particular, but also Soviet-style socialism.

The diverse experiences of stalinism that are the focus of this book in many ways prefigured the widely divergent paths East European societies took in the post-stalinist era. Higher-education policies of the stalinist years created preconditions for the behavior of intelligentsias in the Czech lands, East Germany, and Poland during the crises that periodically shook the region after 1956. This view challenges the recent interpretation of the post-stalinist period by Grzegorz Ekiert, which stipulates that "cross-national differences in the region and distinct characteristics of different state-socialist regimes were the result of successive political crises and complex responses of the party-states, regional power, and actors within society to these crises." The view suggested here is the opposite: namely, that the propensity to crisis grew out of conditions created in the early postwar years, which themselves grew out of specific national circumstances. The soundness of the socialist edifice depended upon its foundations.[11]

The lessons of Soviet history in regard to university education were clear. Leading representatives of "bourgeois" ideology, especially in the social sciences, humanities, and law, had to be denied contact with students. After the Bolshevik Revolution law faculties in Russia were closed, a number of professors dismissed, and in their place "social science faculties" opened, with "a strong dose of Red Professors."[12] In 1922 some 100 to 150 "anti-Soviet lawyers, literati, and professors" were deported from the Soviet Union.[13] The breaks in the social sciences were deepened in the Stalin revolution of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the very existence of universities was called into question.

After universities had been emptied of enemies, they had to be filled with ostensible supporters: students from underprivileged social strata who would reward the regime with loyalty for upward social mobility. During the early breakthrough periods in Soviet history, preference was given to students of "worker and peasant background." Special courses—called rabfaky (worker faculties)—were set up to give such students remedial instruction for universities, and their numbers rose from a small fraction to over half the student body. They were schooled in Marxism-Leninism, which supposedly channeled the energies of class consciousness. Central direction of all these policies was placed in the Communist Party's Central Committee.[14]

To contemporaries, the higher-education systems that emerged by 1953 in the Czech lands, East Germany, and Poland appeared to be faithful reproductions of Soviet models. In each case the Communist Party Central Committee supervised university operations through a Soviet-style Ministry of Higher Education; at universities Soviet-style "prorectors" were implanted to coordinate "schooling" in Marxism-Leninism; students, who had previously been able to choose the lectures they would attend, were now subjected to planned curricula and obligatory classroom attendance. They prepared for batteries of Soviet-style compulsory examinations from textbooks translated from the Russian—in practically every field. In order to create a socialist intelligentsia, student admissions favored "worker-peasant" students and courses were established to help prepare workers for higher education who had not finished high school: "preparation courses" (kursy przygotowawcze) in Poland, "worker courses" (dělnickâ kursy) in the Czech lands, and worker-peasant faculties (Arbeiter- und Bauernfakultäten) in East Germany. The teaching staffs had changed too: in each place prominent representatives of "bourgeois" disciplines such as sociology or modern philosophy had been removed, and colleagues that remained behind were made to lecture and teach according to detailed, state-approved study programs. Universities increasingly became teaching colleges, as research facilities were shifted to Soviet-style academies of science. Dozens of Soviet professors toured the region, helping turn theory into practice.

Yet when one uses sources that have become available since 1989 to examine how these systems actually functioned, one notices unexpected divergences—before, during, and after the stalinist period. In East Germany wartime migrations and a radical denazification caused an unparalleled break of the professoriate in 1945. Over 80 percent of the teaching staff active at the war's conclusion did not continue, and only in the mid-1960s did the professoriates of the six universities in East Germany again reach full strength. In the Czech lands and Poland, by contrast, the old professoriates freely reconstituted themselves after the war and reached prewar strength within a few years. Yet in 1948 their paths diverged. After the February coup in Prague revolutionary action committees, led by Communist students, purged the Czech professoriate of alleged reactionaries. Especially hard hit were the social sciences; of several dozen professors teaching law in 1948 in Brno and Prague, only six remained by 1951. In Poland, by contrast, no such purge occurred, and though some professors were retired early and several others were limited in their teaching, practically none were dismissed. Even in philosophy, law, and history, fields central to propagating the new ideology, old, non-Communist professors continued teaching through the stalinist period.

In student policies the Communist Parties under study also achieved differing results. Though each proclaimed the need to recast the student body in more proletarian forms, only in Poland and East Germany did the numbers of working-class and peasant students approach the proportion of their classes in society as a whole. The three parties had faced similar challenges. People of working-class or peasant background were drastically underrepresented in the uppers tiers of the educational system throughout the region. In 1935-36, 9.9 percent of freshmen at Polish universities were of worker background, and 11.7 percent of peasant background.[15] As late as 1948, only 7 percent of Czech university students were of working-class origin.[16] In 1932, 3 percent of Germany's students came from workers' families.[17] The three societies under discussion had comparable proportions of manual workers, as well as comparable proportions of university students per age cohort. The major difference among them was the large rural sector in Poland.[18] Yet in the Czech lands, at the moment of greatest success in student admissions policies, working-class and peasant students constituted 42 percent of the student body, in contrast to almost 60 percent in Poland and East Germany.

The Polish and Czech Communist Parties thus diverged in major ways from the minimal expectations upon Soviet-type societies, and they did so in a time when Communists were losing their lives for minor disagreements with Soviet policy. In terms of the ultimate aim of creating loyal and competent elites, these divergences had important consequences: Poland's Communist Party relied on "bourgeois" professors to transmit important ideological messages to the younger generation, and universities therefore proved unfit to carry through an ideological transformation of that country's elites. Czech elites continued to be drawn predominantly from the middle classes and were never made grateful to the Party for their stations in life. They saw their incomes decline relative to those of the working class and were a perennially dissatisfied social stratum. In both Poland and the Czech lands the university-trained intelligentsias, and especially students, acted as destabilizing forces throughout the post-stalinist era, much in contrast to their counterparts in East Germany. In Warsaw of 1968 or 1980-81, and in Prague of 1968 or 1989, students played pivotal roles in movements for reform and revolution. If students filled the streets of East Germany, it was to display support for the regime, even as late as October 1989, when other East Germans were chiseling at the foundations of power.[19]

An investigation of these divergences probes the limits of totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe and helps elucidate the factors that enabled Czechs, Poles, and East Germans to define and maintain their identities in differing ways. Each of the three parts of this study explores one sort of limitation to the Sovietization of higher education in East Central Europe: first, inefficiencies and contradictions in the mechanisms of imperial rule; second, political and intellectual culture, especially in Poland; and third, social structure, especially in the Czech lands.

The book's first part describes Central European and Soviet systems of higher education and tells how the structures of the latter replaced the structures of the former in the late 1940s and early 1950s. To what extent did Soviet officials actually supervise the transfer of their system to Eastern Europe? How may the distrust and mismanagement of an overly centralized system have impeded the duplication of Soviet models in Eastern Europe? It is hoped that this discussion will lend greater precision to the term "Sovietization," which is commonly used to describe the general processes leading to the emergence of Soviet-type societies, with little attention to the exact relations between native and Soviet Communists, or to the exact extent of duplication.

The second and third parts of the book examine how Czech, East German, and Polish societies limited the power of would-be totalitarian states.

Part II shows how a relatively cohesive milieu of Polish professors, united by political and intellectual culture, restricted the abilities of the state to transform it and thus also the university. Milieu is understood as a self-reproducing social unit, with its own values, habits, and demands for loyalty.[20] This section of the book pays special attention to questions of legitimacy and moral capital, and how these quantities shifted according to professors' behavior under the rule of German National Socialism.[21] Collusion with the Nazi regime had robbed the German professoriate of sources of inner strength with which to oppose the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). In the Czech case, not collaboration with Nazi occupiers but rather wartime passivity left professors lacking the will to oppose communism. The war had acted to shift hierarchies at Czech universities and transferred legitimacy to students, who had been at the forefront of anti-German resistance. In Poland, professors were recognized to have accrued moral capital during the war. They had organized underground cultural resistance to the Nazi occupiers and, like Czech students, had paid for their activities with concentration camp sentences. At a deeper level, this section argues that national political culture placed the Polish professoriate in natural opposition to the new regime: for Polish professors, unlike Czech or German colleagues, a socialist state imported from Russia seemed profoundly threatening to national identity.[22]

Part III examines how inherited social structures shaped Communists' abilities to transform student bodies, and thus make future elites. In the Polish case, social structure aided political program. The leadership desperately needed well-trained managerial and technical elites and found a natural constituency in the country dwellers who were drawn into the cities in the early 1950s. Taking students of working-class or peasant background into an expanding educational system was therefore not an insuperable challenge. Its Czech counterpart, by contrast, inherited a modern society with large and differentiated elites, as well as an extensive system of higher education. There was no need to expand universities, but the Party faced the challenge of forcing downward mobility among the middle-class clients of higher education in order to fill universities with children of working-class background. The problem was that workers lived in highly intact and self-confident milieus and hesitated to enter the foreign environments of university campuses.[23] In this case East Germany serves as a foil: it was likewise a highly developed society, but the leadership nevertheless managed to persuade workers to enter the unaccustomed setting of higher education.

Limitations to stalinism in Eastern Europe have received relatively little attention from social scientists.[24] The decisive role of Soviet advisers was considered axiomatic in early studies of Sovietization; because of lack of sources, however, it was not possible to examine ways in which native Communists were entrusted with "Sovietizing" their own societies. In recent years a breakthrough has been achieved by Norman Naimark in his The Russians in Germany, which stresses the initial openness and the complex evolution of Soviet policies in Germany.[25] A careful study of the following period has been completed for Czechoslovakia by the leading Czech expert Karel Kaplan; it demonstrates the presence of a multitude of Soviet advisers throughout the Czech government and Party, especially in the police and army, but also in various ministries, including the Ministry of Education. Kaplan does not actually study the outcome of these advisers' work, however. Russian historians who have dealt with this topic have cast doubt on the extent of their influence in cultural affairs.[26] In particular, Russian historian A. S. Stykalin has shown the practical difficulties encountered by Soviet agents of the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS) in their endeavors to spread Soviet culture abroad, deriving from indecision, fear, lack of translators and other experts, and bureaucratic infighting. It proved safer to leave matters as sensitive as culture in the hands of trusted native Communists.[27]

The issue of cultural or structural resistance to stalinism in Eastern Europe has likewise been little investigated. One rare attempt to expose the diversities of East European stalinism—especially in rates of industrialization—seeks explanations exclusively in the "reluctance" or "resistance" of native Communist elites to adopt Soviet-style socialism.[28] Leading experts on higher education in the region have concentrated on official declarations and duplication of institutions and conclude that Sovietization was practically unimpeded.[29] The few historians who have investigated limitations to Sovietization emanating from society have focused on workers' resistance, a topic that is well developed in the parallel historiographies of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianisms.[30] Jiří Pernes and Andrew Port have rescued from obscurity workers' demonstrations that took place in Brno and in the Wismut mines in 1951,[31] and Padraic Kenney and Jeffrey Kopstein have shown how workers in Poland and East Germany forced their respective regimes to withdraw from confrontation, and thus placed early limitations on wage policies.[32] Within the massive research devoted to the GDR in the past decade a number of important studies have emerged on opposition and resistance, partly of workers, but also of farmers, physicians, and engineers.[33]

These single-country inquiries have helped chip away at the monolith of East European stalinism, but much remains to be learned about the region as a whole. Far more is known about East Germany than about Poland or Czechoslovakia, not to mention the lands farther south and east. Why did the countries of the region take separate paths? Why was Poland regularly shaken by upheaval and East Germany relatively stable? Why was East Germany more permeated by Communist ideology than Poland? Why were Czech students perennially at the forefront of antiregime protest, while Czech workers remained relatively quiescent?

Comparative study shows not only that societies in East Central Europe differed markedly and continued to differ markedly through the stalinist period, but also that the states in the region—which had grown out of local contexts—diverged in their approaches to society. The role of the state as a sovereign agency is often underplayed in social history, as stories are told from previously neglected perspectives. But just as society proved capable of reacting to challenges from above, so did the state often anticipate and react to challenges from below. This fact is readily visible at universities, places where both students and professors, but also state functionaries, had clear interests and competing agendas.

The university is therefore an opportune place not only to explore the diversity of a region thought to be uniform, but also to consider unexplored continuities and discontinuities in the dynamic of state-society relations, and thus to suggest modifications in the periodization of postwar history. The general tendency in describing postwar Eastern Europe has been to connect single-country histories to the timeline of international events. After the relatively open immediate postwar years, the Tito-Stalin split of 1948 caused a renunciation of "national" roads to socialism throughout the East European countries dominated by the Soviet Union, accompanied by purgings of the Party apparatus. The following four to five years witnessed the apparently identical social, economic, and cultural policies of high stalinism. Stalin's death in 1953 initiated a "thaw" in Eastern Europe, with greater room for internal criticism, and the gradual emergence of more liberal groupings in the Communist Parties, as Soviet and East European leaderships sought new bearings within a Marxist-Leninist framework. Khrushchev's secret speech three years later shook the faith of the Party cadre to its core and seemed to presage a return to national roads to socialism. Such hopes were shattered with the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956, and the system as a whole found temporary stability as local "neostalinist" apparatuses asserted dominance over "revisionists"—that is, proponents of a more flexible Marxism.[34]

Viewed from the perspective of university education, all three cases confirm the general accuracy of this received account but also reveal important continuities through the stalinist years, according to local dynamics. As early as 1946-47 certain enduring features of higher-education policy were visible in each place. In Poland the leadership had already proclaimed its intention to engage in broadly based cooperation with the professoriate, regardless of field. The tasks of rebuilding Poland simply seemed too huge to permit the sacrifice of experts, even in the humanities. This strategy of compromise accumulated momentum, and was maintained, despite changing laws and institutional forms.

In East Germany, by contrast, both Soviet occupation authorities and German Communists recognized early the potential of higher education for creating politically loyal elites. In the social sciences, eschewing compromise, they embarked on a program of purging and student selection as early as 1946, through the twin tools of denazification and "democratization," that is, preferences for social background in student admissions. The SED inducted worker-peasant studies into its ranks, and no other Party so skillfully combined the discipline of organizational membership with the incentives of upward social mobility. In contrast to comrades in Poland or the Czech lands, East German Communists insisted from the start on holding government offices relevant to education, whether in the Land (state) ministries or in the central administration in Berlin.

In the Czech lands the Communist Party achieved an impressive election victory in May 1946, but chose to forfeit influence in educational policy by ceding the Education Ministry to the rival National Socialists.[35] KSČ intelligentsia policy became one of neglect, always lagging behind the policies of fraternal parties in such areas as worker training courses or political indoctrination; and, despite pervasive organizational presence, the KSČ never achieved a decisive breakthrough toward the creation of loyal elites. Surprisingly, Czech Communists did not purge the state education bureaucracy until 1950-51 or assert central Party control at universities until after 1953. They behaved much like the spoiler state described by Jan T. Gross—skilled at denying, inept in creating power.[36]

Because of the Polish Party's long-range strategy of compromise, and the relative intactness of the professoriate, Polish universities were poised to take advantage of the opportunities that emerged in the uncertain time after Stalin's death in 1953. Several "excesses"—for example, in the discrimination against "bourgeois" students, in the overloading of lesson plans, in the banishment of "reactionary" scholars to universities many hours from their homes—were now quietly reversed. Although journals in the social sciences and humanities still presented a predominantly Marxist point of view, room now opened within and without Marxism for critical perspectives. Forces from above and below melted the stalinist ice and came together in 1956, a year in which the political constellation in Poland irrevocably changed. Certain intellectual freedoms were reclaimed that the state no longer challenged. Professors of philosophy and sociology returned to teaching, contacts reopened to the West, and ideological pressures were relaxed in scholarly publications.

The years 1953 and 1956 had differing meanings in the East German and Czech contexts. In the former place, the Party leadership proclaimed the "building of socialism" in 1952 and, with it, an intensified hunt for enemies at universities, especially in the Protestant churches' Student Fellowships (Junge Gemeinden). The crisis of 17 June 1953 encouraged the pursuit of a purportedly more liberal "New Course," in which a reconfirmed Ulbricht leadership managed to realize the same goals as before at universities, if less noisily, and with greater attention to the need of using the carrot as well as the stick. Ideological indoctrination continued, as did intensive recruitment of workers for university and attempts to "plan" graduate studies. Valued specialists, particularly in the technical and medical sciences, were offered salaries many times those received by East German workers—or by colleagues in the Czech lands and Poland. The professoriate in East Germany had been purged and recreated; now it was bought off.

The challenges of 1956 sorely tested the East German regime, which was baffled by events in the Soviet Union and troubled by murmurings in its own population. Yet after the Hungarian Revolution, Walter Ulbricht moved quickly to squash ostensible opponents, many of them university teachers and students. Policies of worker-peasant recruitment and indoctrination continued. What stands out about East Germany in comparative context is the unbroken construction of state socialism despite repeated challenges. The next crisis of 1961 was again resolved to the Ulbricht regime's favor, as a wall was constructed through the city of Berlin.

The decisive moment of postwar Czech history was February 1948. In that month a relatively liberal regime, which by and large respected the civil rights of Czechs and Slovaks, was replaced by a Communist regime. At universities power fell in the hands of Communist students in "action committees." Yet because the central Party leadership took little interest in the work of these committees, more or less trusting in the force of intergenerational animosity, there was little coordinated state policy in the early years of Communist rule. The only common currency was radicalism: in the humiliation and removal of professors, in the interrogations and expulsion of students, in the penetration of university curricula with stalinist thought. For a few years, top specialists in medicine and the sciences were paid so little that they became dependent on relatives in the countryside for provisions. The confusion of this period at universities was tied to successive rounds of bloodletting among the Party elite: the man in charge of universities in the Central Committee during this period, Gustav Bareš, was Jewish and feared for his life.[37] Only after Stalin's and Gottwald's deaths in early 1953 did some calculability enter higher-education affairs, as gray Leninists like Ladislav Štoll and František Kahuda became ministers. Rather than spell liberalization, the year 1953 marked an assertion of central power. In 1956 there were student demonstrations in Prague and Bratislava, and several months of heavy criticism by basic Party organizations of the barrenness of everyday life.[38] Yet, like its East German counterpart, the KSČ reasserted control after the Hungarian Revolution and, indeed, purged university faculties once more in 1958. Only in the early 1960s did economic crisis force a discussion of reform.

In part, these stories of postwar intellectual and university policy have been told in a diverse spread of books, dissertations, and articles that have appeared over the past fifty years. A few brief outlines of higher-education transformation have appeared in larger surveys of East European history, but otherwise research has focused on separate cases.[39]

Best known by far is the East German story, because many veterans of the early postwar university struggles emigrated to the West, where they published or contributed basic accounts of day-to-day Communist policy, which have since been supplemented by work appearing after 1989, though not substantially revised.[40] Several first-class histories appeared at anniversaries of the Free University of Berlin, which was founded by East German students.[41] From the East German side a number of university histories, documentary collections, dissertations, and memoirs that can still be used with profit were produced.[42] Initial work on universities after 1989 frequently dealt with their martyrology,[43] yet more recently scholars have turned attention to specific aspects of East German higher-education policy: denazification, construction of individual faculties and disciplines, early postwar reforms, student opposition, and the role of the Soviet Military Administration.[44] Several general studies appeared on East German cultural policy.[45] These are supplemented by memoirs and parts of university history.[46] In a richly documented monograph, Berlin historian Ralph Jessen has investigated the emergence of a distinctly East German academia, while arguing for the continuity of certain scholarly milieus largely beyond Party penetration, especially in the sciences and medicine. In these findings he has been seconded by Anne-Sabine Ernst in her work on physicians.[47]

After the East German story, the record of Polish universities has been most fully illuminated by historical research. The earliest general account was produced in the Federal Republic of Germany, but subsequently valuable works appeared within People's Poland on specific issues: worker-peasant education, early state policy, general policies toward culture, and the histories of single universities.[48] In the 1970s and 1980s several illuminating volumes of memoirs and interviews appeared.[49] Because of his critical evaluations of the Polish United Workers Party, the leading expert on Polish scholarship in the postwar period, Toruń sociologist Piotr Hübner, was limited in publishing, and not until 1992 could the full extent of his efforts become known.[50] The post-Communist period has also seen publication of other more specialized studies—on student admissions, the development of historical sciences, the history of WrocŁaw University under stalinism,[51] as well as new memoirs.[52]

Postwar university history in the Czech lands remains relatively unexplored, having benefited neither from the close scrutiny of a Western neighbor, nor the relatively open political constellation of post-1956 Poland. Two early studies of Czechoslovak higher education based on fragmentary materials were produced in the Federal Republic of Germany.[53] This situation improved briefly during the late 1960s, when a number of important studies appeared on state intelligentsia policies, focusing above all on the phenomenon of "leveling" but also on previously taboo topics such as the university purges in the 1940s.[54] A highly valuable history of the University of Brno was issued just before "normalization" struck universities—that is, the purge of all who sympathized with the Prague Spring.[55] Yet after this, with few exceptions, there was silence until after 1989, when repressed and purged members of Charles University's Institute on University History could again attend to their duties.[56] The fruit of its labors has been a massive and highly valuable four-volume history,[57] which has been supplemented by a number of noteworthy memoirs.[58]

If there has been relatively little scholarship on universities in most of the region until recently, there also has been relatively little clash among historians on issues associated with universities. The goal has been to get out basic facts—for example, the precise method by which certain universities, like Jena, were reopened; the exact extent of discontinuity in certain areas of science; or the Party affiliations of new historians in the 1950s. On a more general level there have been the predictable accusations of a "treason of the clerks" in each country, with such academics as Václav Klaus, Jens Hacker, and Jacek Trznadel leading the attack. Occasions for thoughtful consideration of the intellectual's role under communism have been rare.[59] Relatively little scholarship has emerged in the post-1989 era by which to evaluate the precise extent of the intelligentsia's support for stalinist socialism.[60]

The general view in Poland, where the issue has been most vigorously discussed, is that the intelligentsia was supportive of the Communist regime. Critics have focused above all on the behavior of leading writers, but former dissident Jacek Kuroń has wondered, "How was it possible that the Polish intelligentsia, especially young people, so massively joined the system?"[61] As before 1989, explanations fall roughly into two categories: those that highlight the seductions of ideology, and those that emphasize opportunism.

The most penetrating analysis of the first sort remains the 1951 essay of poet Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, which traces the self-delusion and fatalism that gripped several writers of the author's acquaintance who became Communists in the late 1940s. Memorable are the notions of "Ketman," who masks true belief behind a variety of disguises (professional Ketman, aesthetic Ketman, Ketman of revolutionary purity, etc.), and the Pill of Murti-Bing, which willingly swallowed promised intellectuals complete knowledge and a feeling of social usefulness. Murti-Bing was the dialectical thinking of the "New Faith." Fear and opportunism were secondary in this process: "The pressure of the state machine is nothing compared with the pressure of a convincing argument."[62] The most eloquent response to this approach has emerged from Poland's other great contemporary poet, Zbigniew Herbert, who, unlike Miłosz, stayed in stalinist Poland, where he took great pains to avoid compromise. His rejection of Murti-Bing was not the end point of some tortured journey of the soul, however, but "fundamentally a question of taste." For him, the regime's self-portrayal was nauseating. In interviews he has accused writers who published in the early 1950s of acting out of "fear and bad faith," and for "base material motives."[63]

To a large extent both writers' views derive from indirect observation, however; Miłosz left Poland in 1951 and had spent most of the late 1940s as a diplomat in Washington; Herbert lived in Poland, but in a sort of internal emigration, a place where "no force on earth" could make him read Stalin's Short Course on the History of the CPSU.[64] He did not know the daily concerns and motivations of the writers of that period. How did leading intellectuals actually receive the regime? How precisely did they subordinate themselves, and what were their reasons for doing so? The present study attempts to respond to such questions through analysis of part of the intellectual elite, university professors and students, less well known than leading writers perhaps but in their didactic functions equally crucial for reproducing a nation's self-understanding. Perhaps Miłosz's account exaggerates the deceptive allures of stalinism, but Herbert's dichotomous view cannot do justice to a complex reality. Ironically his principled condemnations emerged in a conversation with literary historian Jacek Trznadel (b. 1930), who as a young adult was an enthusiastic stalinist and at WrocŁaw University did his best to disturb the lectures of the "idealist" literature professor Kolbuszewski.[65] Either Trznadel's new anticommunism is an acquired taste, or the story was more complicated. In general, onetime Communist scholars who later identified themselves with the opposition, regardless of country, tend to pass over these years in silence, with little information about what they did or why.[66]

The younger generation of intellectuals, particularly in Czechoslovakia, has not been so reticent about its reasons for entering the Communist movement. Several figures who achieved fame in the Prague Spring—Jiří Pelikán, Čestmír Cisař, Zdeněk Mlynář, Jiří Hájek, and Alexander Dubček—have left records of their experiences as young Communists in the early postwar years. Yet more persuasive and affecting is the autobiography of a lesser-known figure, Heda Margolius-Kovály, a gifted translator and the widow of a victim of the Slánský trial, Rudolf Margolius.[67] Her decision to join the Party was dictated in part by national circumstances—the betrayal of the West in 1938 and liberation from the East in 1945—but also by the apparent moral superiority of Communists, many of whom, like Kovály and her husband, had been inmates of concentration camps: they "behaved like beings of a higher order. Their idealism and Party discipline gave them a strength and an endurance that the rest of us could not match."[68]

In the case of postwar Germany, Jeffrey Herf has spoken of a divided memory, separating the western and eastern halves of the country; for the Czech generation that matured politically after 1945, memory has also been divided, but the Communists' opponents, who resisted the logics so compellingly presented by Kovály, have been denied a voice. After the upheaval of February 1948, non-Communists were systematically removed from all spheres of cultural production, most significantly, the university. In purges of January and February 1949, young Communists expelled one-fourth of their fellow students; in some faculties, like law, the total was half. The purged were driven into manual work, from which they never emerged.

Central contentions of the Communist side of this generation have therefore gone uncontested. Above all is the myth of a better Czechoslovak way to socialism. Heda Kovály has written that no one "doubted that we would be able to run our own show, in a way that was quite different from the Russian totalitarian model. A 'national road to socialism' was basic to our thinking, even to the thought of Klement Gottwald, the secretary general of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, who was encouraged to believe in it by Stalin himself. Marshall Tito, who had introduced a special brand of communism in Yugoslavia, was still a hero at the time, and following his example in our own country seemed a real possibility."[69]

With these words, Kovály has unwittingly revealed a truth about Czechoslovak communism: in the years of which she speaks Tito was building stalinism. This indeed was the program of Gottwald and his Party. Well before their 1948 coup and the onset of high stalinism, KSČ functionaries repeatedly alluded to the stalinist methods they would employ after achieving full power, including the elimination of political opposition through coercive means, and the degradation of intellectual and cultural life. Their road to socialism always involved terror. What they did not promise, and of course did not anticipate, was how that terror would go beyond their class enemies—for example, the "bourgeois" Czech women's advocate, Milada HorákovÊ, who had spent the war in Nazi prisons, and was executed by the KSČ in 1950—and turn against the Party itself.[70] In the recollections of Czech Communists, stalinism deformed only after it had hurt them personally.

Contrary to the view propagated by the victors of 1948 in Czechoslovakia, the choice for communism did not represent a majority option for the generation of 1945: repeatedly the young intelligentsia throughout East Central Europe rejected communism in the early postwar years in student council elections. They did so not out of some atavistic attachment to the old order, or because they wanted to cover the tracks of collaborators, but rather out of a clear sense of the dangers posed by the revolutionary left to civil rights and intellectual culture. In East Germany students several times elected liberal and Christian Democratic leaders with records of opposition to German National Socialism. They opposed communism as another form of totalitarianism.[71]

What none of the Czechoslovak Communist memoirists has explained is how they, as sensitive and thoughtful young people, could attach themselves to a movement whose cultural and intellectual policies were formulated by dilettantes such as Gustav Bareš and Ladislav Štoll, and whose "information minister" was a man with boundless contempt for the life of the mind: Václav Kopecký.

This work does not exhaustively compare universities and general higher-education policies but rather concentrates on striking differences in Communist approaches to universities in order to bring forth fresh perspectives on the three cases. By focusing on professorial staffing in the social sciences and student admissions policies, it attempts to envision the university as the Party envisioned it: as an instrument of ideological and social transformation.[72] From the early postwar years, Communists made clear distinctions between natural and technical sciences on the one hand and social sciences on the other. For example, on 30 July 1947 a staff member at the German Central Education Administration (DVV) in East Berlin made the following note regarding admission for graduate studies:

The candidates for medical and mathematical-technical subjects must in every case have sufficient academic [fachlich] preparation. Besides this we need to demand that they have a positive political outlook in our sense. For candidates in social scientific faculties political dependability is to be the primary condition. In these fields candidates can be accepted who have not had the prescribed course of development, as long as they can prove that they have established the prerequisites for successful training in private studies.[73]
Relatively little attention is devoted in the pages that follow to medical or natural sciences, which in all three cases preserved significant continuities, whether of personnel or milieu.[74]

Of the university's dual functions to create knowledge and to create elites, this work concentrates on the latter, though continuities in the professoriate did of course have significant bearing on the shape of scholarly disciplines. The continued existence in Poland, for example, of several prewar schools in history, philosophy, and sociology contributed to the relatively advanced standing of Polish social sciences in the East bloc. One need only think of the international reputation of such figures as Leszek Kołakowski, Zygmunt Bauman, Andrzej Walicki, Witold Kula, or Bronisław Geremek, all of whom had studied with prewar professors and published important scholarly work in People's Poland. But they did so after the period under study. Between the years 1949 and 1955 the differences in application of stalinist orthodoxy in Polish, Czech, or East German social science publications were subtle at best. Furthermore, the purgings of the early 1950s did nothing to preclude a reawakening of the Czech social sciences in the early 1960s, a time during which sociologists in Prague and Brno produced world-class studies of social stratification, and Czech historians investigated the past critically. A sort of amalgamation of gifted younger Party scholars, like Pavel Machonin, took place with the recognized experts of the older generation who were still alive, like Josef Král. These promising developments were cut short by the crushing of the Prague Spring. Perhaps in East Germany the liberalization of the early 1960s could have produced social science scholarship of international renown, although the peculiar need in that half country to provide "socialist" alternatives to western scholarship would have complicated participation in international scholarly life.[75] The point is that the policies explored in this study formed a context for but did not determine later developments in the social sciences or other disciplines.

This study limits itself to three societies partly for the sake of manageability, but partly because they constitute a natural context within the region. Universities in East Germany, Poland, and the Czech lands all based themselves on Austro-German models of higher education, and the professoriates emerged from almost identical professional socialization, including doctorate and habilitation under the direction of nearly omnipotent chair holders. Before World War I, professors and graduate students moved freely between the universities in Prague (German and Czech), Leipzig, or Kraków. Like the uniform political logic of Sovietization, the similarities in academic regime across state boundaries help isolate matters of specifically Czech, Polish, and German political culture.

The three societies also formed a natural unit in the views of Communist policy makers, who, somewhat at odds with classical notions of Moscow-centric international relations, traveled to neighboring states in the early 1950s in search of ideas on how to implement Soviet models. And the Czech, East German, and Polish populations took each other to be points of reference as well.[76] The ease of communication strengthened cross-border contacts: Czech and Polish academics simply wrote and spoke with each other in their native tongues, and Germans communicated with functionaries and academics from Poland or the Czech lands in German. Contacts with Hungary, not to mention lands further southeast, were not as easy or intensive.[77]

Slovakia does not quite fit into this context, as no independent Slovak academic elite existed before World War I. An elite emerged only in the first Czechoslovak Republic with the aid of Czech academics, who were decisive in the creation of a university in Bratislava. Within Czechoslovakia, Slovak academic affairs were administered separately from the Slovak capital Bratislava, thus permitting Slovakia to be treated as a separate entity. Still, occasional reference is made to Czechoslovakia when policies were pursued in both halves of the republic.

Historians of Eastern Europe have taken an ambivalent approach to East Germany. Most have considered it outside the East European context, partly for the specificity of German history, partly because of the singularity of a socialist state consisting of half of a country, and partly because of its disappearance after 1989. Joseph Rothschild wrote that his "decision to omit in-depth coverage of East Germany [from Return to Diversity] has been vindicated by history, as that soi-disant state has now vanished from the map of Europe."[78] Historians of East Germany have for the most part agreed on the specificity of that country and left countries further east outside their consideration.

Whether or not one considers East Germany part of East Europe, a study that considers East Germany part of the Soviet bloc tells things about East Germany and Eastern Europe that would otherwise not be apparent. Above all, it helps explain the relative stability of East German communism. What stands out in East German history from the perspective of higher education are four things: the unparalleled delegitimization of the old elites; the strong hand and interest of the Soviet Military Administration in East German development; the continued massive migration of people through an open border, the only open border in the Soviet bloc; and, finally, a relatively cohesive and determined leadership stratum. A comparative perspective points above all to a need to understand East Germany sociologically; perhaps more than any other socialist society, East German society was a postwar creation, formed in part through highly conscious interventions, with instruments fashioned by an unusually resolute Party elite.

One last factor favoring the comparability of Communist higher-education policies in these three societies concerns the archives that were amassed during the stalinist years in the Communist central committees in East Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw. They reflect almost identical organizational principles, with the same divisions and subdivisions and Soviet-style nomenklatura; all that seems to vary are the languages and archival numbering systems. The same is true of the archives of the former ministries of higher education in these three cities. The historian exploring those archives has the initial impression of being in a single, separate world.

Captive University | Home

© 2016 The University of North Carolina Press
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
How to Order | Make a Gift | Privacy