Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
Hillel J Kieval
Roughly 50,000 Jewish citizens called Czechoslovakia home in 1945, out of a prewar population of 315,000. More than half chose to emigrate. Others attempted to conceal their roots. Still others hoped to rebuild the Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. Before they could establish a new modus vivendi, before the wounds of the war could begin to heal, the Communist Party came to power with dreams of transforming society. It brought the state under the Soviet Union's sphere of influence and ruled until 1989. For those who did not emigrate by 1950, the communist years were marked by renegotiations of ethnicity, nationality, religion, and citizenship, periods of persecution and others of relative freedom and renaissance.
"Re-Negotiating Czechoslovakia" uses the Czech case to think broadly about how the terms of ethno-national and civic integration changed for the Jewish citizens of Central Europe's nation-states after the Holocaust and through four decades of communist rule. The years 1945-1989 represent the final chapter of a two-century-long experiment in which government officials sought bureaucratic solutions to the so-called "Jewish Question." The leaders and administrators of the Czechoslovak party-state faltered in their attempts due to the paradigmatically modern difficulty of trying to force Jews to conform to categories developed for thinking about Christian and formerly Christian Europeans of supposedly exclusive ethno-linguistic communities. Czechoslovak officials struggled mightily and in vain to separate Jewish identity and practice into distinct ethnic and religious components, virtually criminalizing the former under the guise of anti-Zionism and officially supporting the latter in the name of freedom of conscience. Managing these divergent, often-competing, yet inextricably linked priorities engendered inter-ministerial conflicts, which opened avenues of influence for Jewish leaders. Indeed, the Jewish leadership and the state administrators in charge of religious affairs entered into a relationship characterized by a mutuality of interests for decades. This was reflected, in particular, in how they both used the restitution and sale of Jewish properties to their joint benefit. Thus, where some now see "collaboration," this dissertation argues that a willingness to work with the state actually maintained the Jewish communities through 1989. It also inspired a counter-culture that came to define post-communist Czech Judaism. By thus identifying intra-state friction as a major determining factor of Jewish-state relations, within the contexts of domestic and international politics and Soviet dominance, this dissertation offers an alternative to studies that treat the Central European states as satellite monoliths, driven, where Jews were concerned, by antisemitism alone. It additionally provides a window into how these states operated in general, as Jewish affairs brought so many of their component parts together.
An exploration of a wide range of sources demonstrates further that Jewish-state relations also depended significantly upon local popular culture. Despite the pretensions of Czechoslovakia's first communist leaders to revolution, their policies and rhetoric facilitated, by 1952, the transmission of native, pre-communist, anti-Jewish tropes into the party-state system, where they persisted for decades. The association of those early Stalinist years with antisemitism then set the groundwork for communist reformers and, later, even the liberalizing state of the 1960s to deploy the Holocaust as a symbol with which to call for and mark political progress. Holocaust memory (like property restitution) thus emerged as a site of contestation wherein Jewish-state relations intersected with broader political and cultural currents. This dissertation thus also complicates the claim that the Communist Party attempted to hide the truth about the Holocaust, and, instead, attributes much of that perception in the West to changes in the politics of memory on both sides of the Iron Curtain after 1967.
Finally, "Re-Negotiating Czechoslovakia" concludes with two arguments. First, through the twentieth century a plurality of Czech Jews living around the world and also in the Czech lands came to see themselves as members of a transnational, sub-ethnic Czech-Jewish community: the Czechs of the Jewish people and the Jews of the Czech people. Second, most scholarly and popular accounts of Czech-Jewish history have reflected broader trends in narrating the Cold War, centered upon the revelation of "communist crimes" and a national othering of communism, which have prevented the emergence of more nuanced and sympathetic accounts of the history of Jewish-state relations during the period of communist rule. This dissertation participates in the very revisionist movement whose emergence it seeks to identify in the conclusion.
Labendz, Jacob Ari, "Re-Negotiating Czechoslovakia. The State and the Jews in Communist Central Europe: The Czech Lands, 1945-1989" (2014). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 1315.