Engineers of Human Souls

Marching Forward, Not One Step Back. The Designers of Communist Cultural Policy
The radical changes that occurred in the way culture was perceived, following the Communist coup of February 1948, are reflected in the preparations and proceedings the Congress of National Culture held on 10-11 April 1948, which was covered in contemporary press reports and in a collection of documents published shortly afterwards, in June 1948.
The speech given by Gustav Bareš at the Congress of National Culture was accompanied by an article in Svobodné noviny [Liberated Newspaper] published on 11 April 1948, the second day of the congress:
“The February events have shown that cooperation with reactionaries leads to a united front with the arch enemies of the republic, to the path of treason. Everyone now has the opportunity to reflect upon and draw lessons from the February events, and to align with the people...”
The first day of the congress opened with a speech by Jan Drda:
“Politics and culture are two curiously communicating vessels, and those who oppose political progress inevitably become enemies of cultural progress and development.”
Ladislav Štoll, who was among the principal speakers at the congress, not only by the length of his speech, received loud ovations for the following words:
“How many times have we heard the enemies of socialism declare, under the pretext of protecting the autonomy of the cultural domain from politics, that socialism would expect the poet and the artist to compromise their mission. They said that it would expect him to turn political editorials into poetry, to rhyme political theses, to relentlessly repeat the word ‘people,’ to write, paint and make music for propaganda purposes, to make tendentious art à la thèse, and so forth.”
Among the three keynote speakers was also Václav Kopecký, who likewise received a thunderous applause:
“We are holding this congress as a celebration of the fact that in the February defeat of the reactionary conspirators, the fate of all reactionary obstructors and suffocators of our national Czechoslovak culture has been sealed for them to be crushingly defeated once and for all.”

But it did not stop with the proclamations made at the Congress of National Culture; measures were taken that resulted in the dismantling of the existing cultural infrastructure and the removal of the people who had built it, managed it and worked in it, and their replacement with artists’ associations designed on the Soviet model.
The last of the three speakers was Zdeněk Nejedlý (Minister of Schooling and Education), whose congressional speech lacked the angry vigour of those made by the speakers before him. But he amply made up for it in his four speeches made on Czechoslovak Radio about the trial of the ‘anti-state conspiracy centre’. They were published by Československý spisovatel (The Czechoslovak Writer) in 1953:
“None of us would have believed in our wildest imagination what has now been revealed as a sober, undeniable fact. So much wickedness, so much dishonesty, moral depravity and falsehood, so much lying while pretending to be decent people… Then came our anger, loathing and contempt for those who proved to be worse than criminals, as if they were not even human... Now the ulcer has been cut out, let us demonstrate that the body has remained healthy... A communist is at heart an optimist, he believes in people. But woe betide those who abuse that trust. Then he knows no mercy. Not out of personal hostility or malice, but because he feels that his virtuousness and his passion for the communist cause have been violated. Then he will not hesitate to impose even a death penalty, whether it be his own brother...”
At the Congress of National Culture, in the first stage of the implementation of the new cultural policy adopted by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, socialist realism had not yet become the only permissible artistic method; in the next phase, at the constituent congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers held on 4-6 March 1949 (the press dubbed it ‘the congress of the engineers of human souls’), it was declared to be the sole and binding creative method. From the ideological standpoint, these were three precepts or requirements that were to be observed by those involved in literary production from that point on:
“[...] the Czech and Slovak writers who are firm supporters of our people’s democratic system, which is moving towards socialism, want to take part in the socialist building of our homeland, in the uncompromising struggle against reactionaries and in the determined efforts to secure global peace.” (p. 29, Dějiny (A History))
The statutes of the Union were modelled on those of the Soviet Writers’ Union of 1934. The matter was closed for discussion; from then on, writers were to be judged by how their works supported and toed the Communist Party line.
What followed was smear campaigns, attacks, denunciations, imprisonments, and executions; censorship was introduced, and ‘objectionable’ literature that was labelled cosmopolitan, decadent, formalist, modernist, avant-garde, etc. was destroyed. The total number of volumes destroyed is estimated at 27,000,000 (p. 28, Dějiny [A History])
The dispute over Seifert and his Píseň o Viktorce (Song of Viktorka, 1949), and Nezval, a man of letters and a regime linchpin, was featured in the press and in the speeches of two rival speakers, Gustav Bareš (head of the Cultural and Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, who was dismissed from all political offices in 1952) and Václav Kopecký (Minister of Information, Minister of Culture, member of the Central Committee and the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party). The radical rejection of Nezval's pre-war writings (by Bareš), which was rooted in Stalinist and Zhdanovist concepts of art, versus the so-called moderate assessment of Nezval (by Kopecký) were, more than anything else, a power struggle. While there may have been slight differences in aesthetic views between some representatives of the two opposing camps, what eventually tipped the scales was how persuasively the speakers were able to defend their political positions. Václav Kopecký emerged victorious from this power play.
On 22 January 1950, a working conference was held that focused on the fundamental issues of Czech poetry, and the speech given by Ladislav Štoll’s (member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia), entitled ‘Thirty Years of Struggle for Socialist Poetry’ marked out a course that became a binding ideological and political guideline for the evaluation of Czech literature in the first half of the 20th century: “Socialist realism is not a group movement. It is a great historical culmination and outpouring of the artistic creative forces liberated by socialism, of all the healthy human potential, feelings, qualities and emotions that previously could not be expressed because of private ownership, because they were stifled in humans by the dark instinct for private ownership.”
Štoll included some presumably cautionary tales of poets in his presentation and critiqued their poetry. First, he found traces of petty bourgeois idyllicism and sentimentality in Seifert’s poetry (p. 46), and then moved on to Teige: “Today we can see clearly that his goal – under the mask of a 'leftist' idiom – was to strip the young, powerful, budding poetry off its revolutionary social function and divert it onto a course of indulgent bourgeois cosmopolitanism.” At the same time, Teige was described as a villain who abused Seifert’s lyrical potential (pp. 48-49). František Halas did not escape Štoll's scrutiny, either: “There is no doubt that Halas’s poetry is in its essence (for it is not a matter of a handful of selected verses) the poetry of the epoch of decay, sickness, extinction, the poetry of the old world.”

In Podivuhodní kouzelníci. Čítanka českého stalinismu v řeči vázané z let 1945−55 (The Wondrous Magicians. A Reader of Czech Stalinism in Verse from 1945 to 1955), Antonín Brousek wonders how there could have been such a significant “decline in the average artistic quality, along with a sweeping return to the forms of expression and poetic devices that had long been surpassed – to descriptive realism, antiquated symbolism and impressionism, to flowery narratives à la Svatopluk Čech, and adaptations of peasant folk songs in the style of Hálek and Sládek?” The published poems tirelessly repeat themes that were directly connected with the building of socialism and fighting the enemies, along with negative emotions such as anger, hatred, vengefulness, and verbal violence.

One of my hands writes my verses
And the other holds a gun.
Pavel Kohout

If they do not keep in step,
Take a belt to them.
Jiří Šotola, “Pochod”

It is so hard to remain still:
At home!
Just pity me, my sorrow's pain!
Dear comrades, I will never want to
be away from you again!

Milan Kundera, “Vánoční vyznání”

This website uses cookies.

We use cookies to personalize content and ads, provide social media features and analyze our traffic. We also share information about the use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. They may use the data together with other information they collect about you while using their services.

Deny all
Show details
Allow all