Intangible Heritage of a Totalitarian Society


The following text is rather a methodological comment than a piece of research in its own, of the facts that survived from the past. Firstly, it seems that it is necessary to clarify what we mean when we speak about intangible heritage or heritage and the importance of its current research. The collocation „intangible heritage" itself, evokes a number of issues and perhaps even some suspicion of purposeful political manipulation with the past. Intangible heritage can be defined, for the purposes of this text, as the stereotypes of behaviour, values and approaches acquired on the basis of historical experience of a group and passed on from generation to generation.

Intangible heritage, understood in this way, then represents a significant characteristic for further development of a society, especially and namely by means of earlier adopted and still surviving ways and modes of behaviour. These, therefore, even determine the practical form of the function for newly established institutions, a new form of which includes the out-of-date content. The function then becomes rather a dysfunction when opposing expectations, the representatives elected in a democratic way behave as if they were appointed by the superiors to govern the inferiors. And, what is even more interesting, the voters understand their choice as a purely formal matter after which they again accept their former role of powerless victims of a totalitarian regime. This experience can be felt at a number of levels. Students reflect this experience as unwillingness to discussions and formulation of their own points of view and it is connected with a very low ability for mutual co-operation. The workers then may reflect the prevailing feeling of mutual competition which is again connected with a very low level of mutual solidarity, apathetic relation toward the fate of the company they work for and the unwillingness to be involved in the decision-making within the participative management framework (Musil, pp. 26-53). A very interesting fact that was found within the above-mentioned sociological research can be seen in the conception of workers, that the management and decision-making roles belong to the managers and that any participation in this process might bring chaos into the system. The extraordinary feature of this approach might appear, in comparison with the recent world trends, in management putting a considerable emphasis on the active involvement of employees in management (vide e.g. Dahl, pp.297-300, Gibson, etc.). Numerous discrepancies between the approaches of Czech and Western citizens might be found. Perhaps, another essential distinction is worth mentioning and namely that of the extent of mutual trust that in accordance with the Eurobarometer survey represents prevailing mistrust among people in the Czech society contrary to the prevailing mutual trust that the citizens of western European countries dispose of.

If we want to understand and cope with these distinctions, we have to find a sort of concept enabling the connection between the historical experience of the Czech people and the ascertained approaches. Last but not least, it is also necessary to justify the reasons for the statement based on the existence of experience that we might call the Czechs one. I mean such experience that is able to explain the values and approaches which are common for the contemporary Czech population.

I would like to refer to the works of E. Fromm who tried to solve the problem by the explanation of socio-psychological sources of Nazism (vide Fromm 1941 and 1990). In accordance with this conception, the character of a person is the result of the mutual interaction of active and creative human nature with its outer environment. Such environment can be constituted, firstly by the family, and later on, by the whole society. The environment can be understood and reflected in its different forms: school, job, political system, etc. All these environments, however, reflect the basic characteristic of the system, thus, in our case, the totalitarian one (meanwhile we avoid the development phases of this system). We are much more entitled to such a statement than ever before since any particular environment that would prevent accepting the principles of the totalitarian society comes into conflict with the authorities in power and is eliminated. The reason it happened is due to the fact that any independence manifested in this way is therefore a denial of power of the governing elite that did not want to admit its own denial in any case. In order to prevent this, the secret police was established and was connected with the system of providing information to a great extent (this topic in the former U.S.S.R. can be examined e.g. in Bullock, p.400). We can then accept the statement that every single environment that a person enters during his life includes, besides specific and characteristic features, the same elements and ways of its functioning. In other words, any human experience inside the social system is somewhat unique and special in one way but it may be the same as the experience of others in other aspects. This might be explained even more precisely in respect to their attitude to power, at least from the point of view of the polarity ruling-ruled and eventual transit degrees between these two marginal poles. However, even people found on the opposite sides of this polarity gained, despite all mutual distinctions, a somewhat similar experience. It was the experience with power as a privilege. It was experience with power that does not serve the public but that is the power thanks to which it is possible to manage and exploit others for one's own benefit.

Due to these facts we are entitled to speak about the common experience of people living in a totalitarian social system1). We are then empowered to even speak about social features of their character, common values, etc.

The character of the society and the character of people living in it are thus in compliance. In a simple way, neglecting accompanying effects, we can agree with E.Fromm that people are willing to do what they have to do in a given system. If the institutions of an out-of-date system become extinct, the acquired experience, people have inside, does not become extinct in the same rapid way. The totalitarian system thus survives in the minds of those who used to be its components either as the governing elite or its victims. This statement comes close to the conceptions of the French school Annales with its specialization to the research of mental dispositions, i.e. psychic automatics reflected especially in day-to-day practical behaviour of the whole population.

The identification of such surviving psychic stereotypes is an inevitable prerequisite for the complete and truthful recognition of the past. It does not merely comprise a positivistic description of institutions and individual events. Under no circumstances should this understanding be reduced to the reproduction of the totalitarian ideology. It can be seen as an absolute mistake if this ideology considers itself to be a truthful statement about the essence of the system. The overall point of view can show us the social system as a structure created by elements interrelated by means of mutual functional interdependences that are embedded in the behaviour of people. At the same time they are forced to behave in compliance with formally established rules and thus become inferior to the system and its principles. Due to the works of historians and to our experience, we know that the influence of this system was very strong even in day-to-day lives of people irrespective of experience in public or private situations. There was, however, a reverse relation in which people acting on the basis of their interests and conscience or awareness consequently reformed the system. The reality, however, can be considerably different from the official self-interpretation.

In this way we can come across the real life of people on one side, and the official ideology on the other. These two „worlds", the world of real experience and the world reflected in official versions, gave rise to the tension and influence that existed between them. These two worlds coincided and overlapped in some ways but they were quite different in other ones (see more in Valach, pp.69-138). But even the communist ideology itself comprised an essential discrepancy between the democratic and humanistic ideals proclaimed on one hand, and historically traditional, non-democratic conception of power on the other.2)

We might become aware of a very complex and multilevel system expressed both in the structure and forms of functions for official institutions as well as in the ideology and culture of that period and even in the forms of day-to-day actions and psychic stereotypes connected with them. And on the contrary, these everyday actions corresponded not only to what was required officially but also to the way how people interpreted these requirements and real conditions of their lives for themselves, how they assessed them in the context of their own interests and needs. This conduct of theirs influenced by the self-understanding, left various traces whether of a substantive character or in the form of folk humour of that period, etc.

All of that today represents very important evidence about the real character of the past. We would hardly manage to reveal its real content without having such important evidence. The importance of these traces can be appreciated in the light of the research done and I would like to refer especially to the works of P. Fidelius and V. Macura who show surprising, at first sight invisible, content of the totalitarian ideology using literature, poetry and also daily newspapers of that time.

Let us prove this statement with an example. Communist ideology, as we know from the Czechoslovak but also from the Soviet past, acknowledged Marx as its ideological founder. And as far as I can admit, this statement is widely accepted even in the contemporary Czech Republic. Some distinctions, however, might arise if we examine it in detail. Lenin can be differentiated from Marx at least in three essential points:

1)  Marx´s works do not refer to anything about the party as the vanguard of the revolution

2)  We also cannot find anything about the party as the source or moreover the creator of class consciousness of the proletariat that would not exist without it

3)  Marx never speaks about a monolithic party having in mind that other parties would be forbidden or even abolished (vide Svensson, p.95).


Petr Fidelius in his cited work herein proves on the basis of daily newspapers and some party documents of that period that whenever the communists spoke about the people, working class or even their own communist party, they always had in mind the person of the communist leader. At first sight the paradox statement that people equal to the leader does not find its logic with Marx but with a much older and until now highly appreciated author, Platon (vide Popper). He might also explain the above-mentioned three differences between Marx and Lenin. They indicate that Lenin did not accept Marx´s theory in his heart but that he adhered to Platonism. He followed the principles, as I suppose, in compliance with which he was brought up and educated and which he possessed as the intangible heritage from the tsarist regime.

Furthermore, if we ask a question about the reasons for accepting this theory by wide strata of the population, we may find a similar answer. People accepted communist ideology only in the form of such principles that affected their upbringing and education - an authoritarian, hierarchical system of power dividing people into two categories, the ruling elite and the elite adoring, obedient and passive lot.

Thus, we may come to the conclusion that totalitarian ways of thinking are deeply rooted in history and that they are a very dangerous and deeply rooted intangible heritage that we carry inside of us. The examining of this is therefore our long-run, but ever more urgent task.

PhDr. Milan Valach, Ph.D.

Author of the book „Svět na předělu" (World at the Crossroads). This book deals with revealing the sources of totalitarian thinking in European culture with the emphasis on the analysis of the communist ideology and practice.


1)  In the case of totalitarian and authoritarian systems in general, congruence will definitely be greater than in the case of democratic systems because we can always find a set of experience characteristics for one or the other social system.

2)  Such discrepancies are numerous. I have managed to determine eight of them (vide Valach, chapter 3.2.1.)





Bullock, A.: Hitler and Stalin - Parallel Lives. Oxford 1993.

Dahl, R. A.: Democracy and Its Critics. Yale Univeristy Press 1989.

Fidelius, P.: Řeč komunistické moci. Triáda, Praha 1998.

Fromm, E.: Escape from Freedom. New York 1941.

Fromm, E.: Man for Himslef. New York 1990.

Gibson, R. ed.: Rethiking the Future. London 1997.

Macura, V.: Šťastný věk. Pražská imaginace. Praha 1992.

Musil, L.: Participation. In: Možný et al.: Social consequences of a change in    ownership, pp. 26-53. MU, Brno 1995.

Popper, K.: The  Open Society and Its Enemies. Czech edition: Praha 1994.

Svensson, P.: Teorie demokracie. CDK, Brno 1995.

Valach, M.: Svět na předělu. Doplněk, Brno 2000.


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