Vol 1, No 16
11 October 1999

L E T T E R S:
History, Historiography and Myth

Martin D Brown

After reading the last issue of the Central Europe Review on the theme of the uses of history, I felt that had to respond to some of the issues addressed. The two articles on this subject, "Reckoning and Reconciliation" by Joanna Rohozinska and "Making History" by Andrew J Horton, both tackled the tricky subject of popular perceptions of the past.

History, especially interpretations of important national events, has always been an emotive subject in Eastern Europe. As it has been in the West. But attitudes toward history have recently acquired even greater significance in the East during the present period of post-Communist transition.

As a result, any journal that deals with contemporary Eastern Europe needs to be particularly sensitive when it comes to looking at how its people view their past. I don't want to come across as pedantic or patronising, but as both a historian and a lecturer in history, I feel that there are some serious points which need to be made.

In fact, the subjects addressed in Joanna Rohozinska's article "Reckoning and Reconciliation" are neither history nor historiography but a rather newer sub-set of these disciplines: the study of national myths and mythologies. A rather fine distinction, I know, but I think that in terms of precision and definitions, it is an important one.

In essence, it is the difference between what can be proven to have occurred and what people like to think may have happened. History is the study of what can be proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, from the primary materials that remain. Myths are what is popularly believed to have happen in the past (ie that Europe was divided up at the Yalta Conference etc), inaccurate beliefs which are then used to justify actions or policies in the present. Obviously, Joanna Rohozinska is completely correct when she notes that Eastern Europeans often have trouble telling one from another, a legacy of the nationalist projects of the nineteenth century. But may I also point out that we suffer from similar perceptive dissonance in the West.

If you think that this is neither here nor there, could I add that Andrew J Horton has inadvertently repeated two classic myths about the former Czechoslovakia in World War II in his article. The first regards the Heydrich assassination; the second, the liberation of Prague.

It is certainly open to debate as to whether Heydrich's assassination can be regarded as a success for the Czech home resistance, the UVOD, in the short term. After all, Heydrich's Sicherheitsdienst had already succeeded in decimating its membership and effectiveness by early 1942. However, in the longer term, the resistance owed its allegiance to the exiled Government in London, lead by Edvard Benes, and for them the assassination was a definite success.

For Heydrich was not assassinated in order to inconvenience the Germans; he was killed to show London and Washington that Czech resistance was effective and, more importantly, to help the exiled Czechoslovak government politically - first, in getting the British to publicly annul their adherence to the Munich Agreement and, secondly, to help bring Benes's post-war plans for Czechoslovakia closer to fruition, especially the recreation of Czechoslovakia within her pre-1938 borders and promoting the policy of transferring the Sudetendeutsche. From these perspectives it was a stunning success.

In addition, although Czech resistance is now widely seen as a joke, this was not the case at the time. British Intelligence, SIS, went to great trouble to help the Czech Deuxieme Bureau escape from Prague in March 1939. This intelligence organisation, in turn, helped run Czech resistance under the UVOD. Rather than blowing things up, what most people think resistance was, it provided high-class intelligence to the Allies about German activities in the Protectorate. This included a warning about the approaching invasion of Russia in 1941. As a result, the British rated them as being as good as the Poles. Rare praise indeed from the Brits.

As for the liberation of Prague, it is totally anachronistic to suggest that it could only have been successful if the Americans had arrived first. This idea is a result of looking at the liberation through the prism of the Cold War. Communists dominated the National Council in Prague, which led the uprising, (ironically, the last remnants of the non-Communist resistance had been more or less wiped out after the Heydrich assassination) the last thing they wanted was the Americans to arrive first. So, from the perspective of those who were running the thing, it worked out perfectly.

Many Czechs I have spoken to still believe that the Russians stopped the Americans from advancing. This also is not true. The final decision was entirely in the hands of General Dwight D Eisenhower, his Russian opposite number had said that they didn't want the US 3rd Army to advance, but the final decision was Eisenhower's. He decided to let the Russians take Prague, note I said decided, not was told or forced, but decided. He could have ordered his troops to move ahead but didn't for three reasons:

  1. His commander on the ground was George C Patton, someone Eisenhower wished to keep on a very short leash due to past experiences. In addition, he was the last person you wanted in a delicate situation involving the Red Army as he was just as likely to attack them as the Germans, and Eisenhower knew that.
  2. Eisenhower did not believe that military actions should be taken for purely political reasons. He refused to risk his men in a race to liberate Eastern European capitals and is on record as saying so. This attitude stems directly from his education at West Point at the beginning of the century and was common in the American armed forces.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, America and Russia were still Allies in May 1945. The Cold War was at least two years away. Why shouldn't he let the Russians risk their lives if they wanted to? After all everyone still believed that free and fair elections were just round the corner. That may now appear naive, but it's true.

It was only later that Eisenhower began to regret his decision.

Lastly, a Czech friend told me recently, with a completely straight face, that American troops had cried when they were told they couldn't advance on Prague. This too is nothing more than a myth. Most American soldiers had no idea where they were in Europe. The majority also thought that they had liberated the Sudetendeutsche from Nazi oppression and fraternised with them enthusiastically. A stern rebuke had to be issued from SHAEF stating that they were enemies who were soon to be transferred.

I'm sorry to go on at such length, but I think a serious and knowledgeable journal such as CER should be aware of the varying interpretations of the past that exist. Not in order to enforce some overarching truthful interpretations but in order to tell one from another. Disentangling history and myth is not an easy task, and historians are only just being to realise the importance of the latter in people's everyday perception, but as commentators we should be hyper sensitive to these differences. For myths are very powerful in Eastern Europe, as they are in the West, and we should all be informed to a level where we can tell them apart.

Martin D Brown, 8 October 1999





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