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Od kláštera Osek na Selesiovu výšinu, k Lomu, Libkovicům, Hrdlovce a zpět/From The Osek Cloister to Lom and back
By Samotar, 27 September 2015
By ll, 25 September 2015
Matěj Spurný: The Fall and Rise of the City of Most - On the Dynamics of Socialist Modernity (excerpt)
Today, north of Hněvín Hill, sparkles the surface of a lake. Its waters mercifully conceal an extraordinarily dramatic story of post-war Czech history, a story that is both unique in its scope and characteristic of the principles behind it. One of the most valuable historical towns of north Bohemia was wiped off the face of the earth here. Treasures of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, burghers’ houses, a monastery, churches, three squares, public buildings, and boulevards, attesting to the wealth that the local elite had accumulated here after the industrial revolution, were demolished, levelled to the ground. Fifteen thousand people lost their homes. The tangle of little streets and old houses was substituted for by a rationally organized town that was built a bit further away, the kind of town about which modern architects and urban planners all over the world dreamt about. It was a town that was supposed to open the way to a more dignified life for its inhabitants.
This is the story of the city of Most, a story set in north Bohemia in the 1960s and 1970s. The reason for destroying old Most (Brüx, in German) was the ‘black treasure under the town’. Coal, thanks to which Most became rich and grew, turned out, after the Second World War, in times of the resolute building of an energy base, to be fatal for the old town. Mining was moved from deep pits to the surface, from the outskirts of the town right into its central streets. The problem was that one could have dealt with the coal under the pavement of the historic town in various ways, so the post-war history of Most could have followed other paths. That is why searching for the roots and circumstances of the decisions that determined the post-war story of this town continues and why it remains relevant. Of the tangle of questions, one in particular emerges as the most fundamental: What was the intellectual and social context in which it was possible to justify such a gigantic experiment resulting in the disappearance of one of the most valuable historic towns in the Bohemian Lands?
When considering these questions, other questions arise. What was the role played by the former Sudetenland, expulsion, and deracination? Or did the utopia of progress and a more dignified life for everyone play more important roles? Or is it rather a story dictated by ideas which reduce the world to economic indicators? What was typical of the Communist discourse and what was rather a general part of the Modernist discourse of the 1960s and 1970s? Can one find similar stories elsewhere in the Eastern bloc and in the West? During the thirty years in which the destruction of the old town and the building of the new one were being considered and then carried out, did the predominant way of people’s thinking about their natural environment, about the signs of being civilized, and about everything that belongs to a dignified life change? In this article, I cannot answer all these questions, but when thinking about what happened in Most it is important to bear them in mind.
CLEARING THE TOWN: FROM IDEA TO DECISION
The decision to demolish the town of Most may, in retrospect, be perceived as an example of the highhandedness and omnipotence of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, against whose plans ordinary citizens were helpless. An examination of the primary sources, however, tells a different story. The destruction of the town was not pushed through highhandedly; on the contrary, it smoothly followed on from long existing notions and models of behaviour. Well into the 1950s, the notion was not being pushed for by the Communist Party, but by the top managers and engineers of the State-owned mining company. It was indeed possible to defend oneself against destruction on a vast scale, and town councillors did indeed seek to defend the town during the most hard-line period of the Communist dictatorship. Despite the great power of the economic and political elite, no actor was omnipotent. This is a story of negotiations, not of totalitarian power.
The knowledge that there was coal under the town already influenced its architectural and urban development from the late nineteenth century onwards, mainly in the gradually diminishing willingness of the inhabitants of Most to invest in their own town. From about the beginning of the twentieth century, rich burghers were building their homes on the slopes of Hněvín outside the original town boundaries, in places that could not be threatened by possible plans to mine local coal. The Zahražany district, which thus emerged, was the only important large-scale investment in the town in the periods shortly before and after the First World War; even in the 1950s, the town as a whole still comprised about ninety per cent of the buildings that had been erected here during the Austro-Hungarian Empire 2. By the end of the First World War, there was little investment in new building, the renovation and modernization of flats, or in infrastructure and public utilities. With the development of opencast (strip) mining, even before the Second World War, uncertainty was intensified and recollections of individual houses falling into the shafts began to fade when faced with the greater likelihood of the total mining of the coal under the town itself.
The presence of this possibility in the political debate and mainly in the internal plans of the mining enterprises (which were gradually consolidated into Severočeské hnědouhelné doly [North Bohemian Lignite Mines, SHD] was evident immediately after the war. The now strictly Czech society and its politicians were ambivalent about Most at that time. It had predominantly been ethnically German, but, already from the late nineteenth century Czechs were settling there. They constituted in particular the lower social strata of the town, and Most, as the place of the largest strike in the history of inter-war Czechoslovakia, became, among other things, a symbol of working-class struggle against oppression and social insecurity.
From the period press, one senses mainly the determination to make Most a living city and the centre of the mining region once again. The Communist daily Sever [The North], for example, writes in early 1947: ‘Come and look at Most today!’ After the author of the article describes the atmosphere of destruction immediately in the wake of the war, he continues with a picture of a town that has now definitely recovered: ‘The hustle and bustle of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists in the street during the day, illuminated signs above shops, restaurants, and cafés, the merry tinkling of full trams, the continuous movement in the arts, entertainment, and sports enterprises of all kinds, that is the mining town of Most today after its resurrection […].’ The festive tone and the theme of resurrection leave no room for doubt about the future existence of the town. In the government materials, however, as early as in November 1945, we find remarks that a ‘large part of the town of Most, as well as the villages around it, have been directly earmarked for mining in the course of five to twenty years’ and that the town of Most should therefore be considered (from the viewpoint of possibly accommodating north Bohemian miners) only temporary. More specific proposals and mainly the constant pressure on the ‘mining of the coalpillar under Most’, in other words, pressure for the demolition of the whole town or the greater part of it in the interests of mining lignite (brown coal), appeared from the SHD as early as in the second half of the 1940s and then mainly in the 1950s — regardless of the two changes of regime and economic system — as part of the endeavour to achieve the unobstructed development of mining, in the interest of the economic rationality of the enterprise and the State.
Until the mid-1950s, the SHD plans for the destruction of old Most or the greater part of it ran into the criticism of the Most Municipal National Committee. The interests of the local administration and communal policy were thus, not only in the period of that years later came to be called the Third Republic (May 1945 to February 1948), but also, indeed mainly, in the ‘constructive’ [budovateský] period of the Czechoslovak Communist Party dictatorship, confronted with the interests of industry, with which it sought to reach a compromise in the form of the destruction of only a lesser, peripheral, part of old Most. These plans, interactions, and conflicts provide a remarkable look into the actual negotiations amongst the key actors in political and economic life in the country in the era of ‘Czechoslovak Stalinism’.
By 1949, as part of the Municipal National Committee agenda, representatives of the SHD declared their intention to mine in the centre of the old town. The Municipal National Committees with a request to decide whether ‘coal mining under Most, and therefore the moving of the whole town southward and south-eastward, would take place’ or ‘whether coal mining would take place only in part of the town, as determined by the “Overall Development Plan of the Town of Most”, that is, all the way to Stalinova třída [Stalin Avenue].’ The Municipal and the District National Committees came out unequivocally against the SHD plan, the first step of which was to begin opencast mining, which would separate the newly built Podžatecká housing estate from old Most; the second step was to demolish the old town centre. In addition to the ‘unforeseeable consequences’, which would, according to a letter from the Municipal National Committee to the Regional National Committee, emerge in the health and hygiene of the residents, the whole plan was, according to the Chairman of the Municipal National Committee, also unacceptable in view of the high demand for housing for workers (which the mines needed anyway). If carried out, the SHD plan would thus be an ‘absolutely disastrous intervention in the development of the town today and tomorrow’. They therefore added: ‘from the viewpoint of both the Municipal National Committee and the urban planners, one could not accept this initiative.’
The historic value of the town was even presented as an additional argument: ‘this regional centre has historically valuable buildings of various style periods, which today are irreplaceable and in themselves form a characteristic whole of medieval origin.’5 The local political authorities in the so-called Stalinist period were able to resist the far more powerful actors such as the State-owned SHD enterprise. The main reason was that old Most still had at its disposal important, even if poor-quality, housing for thousands of miners and other workers. The town had a functioning urban centre with a transportation infrastructure, the necessary services, and facilities for the arts and entertainment.
The managers of the SHD and the whole manager-technocrat lobby began to realize that in order for their efforts to succeed (in other words, to reach the millions of tonnes of lignite under old Most) it would be necessary to present a more thoroughly prepared strategy. That required two steps: first, to offer a comprehensive solution to the problem (in collaboration with urban planners and architects); second, gradually to persuade the central Party bodies in particular about the inevitability and benefits of the whole operation. That meant getting a wide range of influential actors to support the project, from experts in various fields all the way to senior politicians. The development of the Czechoslovak economy, the technological possibilities, and the Sinnwelt of the period nevertheless played into the hands of the SHD economists and officials. Ten years later, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were no longer any serious obstacles to their ambitions.
This new chapter of the story was preceded by three factors from late 1962, which also preceded — in connection with the clearance of the historic town — the oft-cited government decision about the clearance of old Most and the building of the new Most. 6 The first factor was the drawing up of plans, at the initiative of the State, for the clearance of old Most, which were compiled as the roughly 200-page ‘Clearance Plan for the City of Most’ (Likvidační záměr města Mostu). (7) The second was the central Party bodies’ debating and approving of the gigantic project ‘to move’ the city. (8) And the third was the setting up of the Government Commission for the Coordination and Monitoring of the Clearance of Old Most and the Building of New Most.(9) It was hardly possible to thwart these politically serious steps prepared by experts (except in the event of a radical change in the hierarchy of power and economic relations in the region). From the original utopia of coal barons and engineers or an ill-defined alternative for the future, the idea to clear old Most in the interest of mining changed into a real agenda of political and economic planning.
The story could conceivably continue with a detailed description of the stages in which the clearance of the old town took place, how the individual houses were photographed and described in detail and were then blown up, how people moved to new homes, how archaeologists endeavoured to document in the greatest possible detail the historic traces of old Most, and how experts from the State Heritage Institute sought to preserve at least the monuments that could be moved to safety.10 But in the following discussion we are going to take a different path; our aim is to try to understand the construct of the official justification made in those days and its at least temporary persuasiveness. That is why the milieu that helped to create the nature of the relationship between the inhabitants of old Most and their town, and the Sinnwelt of those people who since the nineteenth century held most of the decision-making power regarding changes to that region — from the mine-owners to the architects and urban planners — will interest us more than the organizational details of the clearance of the old town and the building of the new one.
A TOWN IN THE SUDETENLAND
In the clearance of Zvíkovské Račice [a little village in Vltava River valley, near Zvíkov Castle, south Bohemia — M.S.], which had to give way to the Orlík dam, its inhabitants resisted moving into new family homes which were far better than their previous dwellings. If Chrudim or another town in the interior had been earmarked for clearance, the inhabitant would have defended themselves tooth and nail, even if aware of the futility of their actions. Something like that has not even occurred to the inhabitants of old Most, who in fact await this fate in the coming decade. Indeed, each of them is now looking forward to having a flat with large windows and central heating. If they have any fears at all, then it is only the fear that the public services in New Most might not grow proportionately to the population.
František Šmahel, 1963
As the then director of the museum in nearby Litvínov, the now highly respected historian František Šmahel (b. 1934), was, already in the early 1960s, expressing surprise at why the plan for the clearance of old Most did not meet with any noticeable resistance from the local population. The main reason, according to him, was that after the Second World War new people had completely taken the place of the original population: In the great population movement after 1945, the age-old relationships that had been formed by human beings during their many years of living in one place were
torn asunder […]. It is reasonable to assume that most of the local population still has no relationship with their town, the bond formed from a sense of being part of the architectural landmarks is weak, and ultimately almost no one has any idea about the historic value of these landmarks and their value as monuments.
Šmahel’s article was one of the first critical analyses of the problem, pointing out the coming fate of old Most and its historically valuable buildings (which were condemned to annihilation) and defining the idea of the breaking of the bonds between man and the land which had taken place in about a third of the country when, after the Second World War, the original population was dramatically substituted for with a completely new population. This idea, eventually called, among other things, ‘Sudeten homelessness’ [sudetské bezdomoví],14 was later considered in greater detail by some Czech and Slovak dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s and especially by Czech and foreign scholars since the Changes of late 1989.
After the Second World War, the former Sudetenland became a laboratory in several respects. In regions affected by the mass expulsion of the original population and the breakneck resettlement of the regions, the revolutionary transformation of the social and economic structures and also of the natural environment, which the dominant current of Czechoslovak Communist-led policy was endeavouring to achieve, could not be slowed down or brought into line with traditional institutions like the Church, clubs, and associations like Sokol, which had in those places either completely ceased to exist or were weak. The bourgeois elite in the towns and the families that had been farming for centuries in the countryside were no longer there. The relationships between the land and the people, as well as the relationships amongst people themselves, which would have acted as a catalyst to the transformation of social identity and dampened its impact on the natural environment, were missing. That is why the ‘borderlands’ (a term that reflects the Czech view of the Sudetenland) were meant, in the eyes of the new regime, to become the true gem of the new republic that was being built, the first land where this great work would probably be achieved.
The new appearance of the Czech borderlands was shaped by distaste for all the survivals of the old German world. An inevitable result of such an attitude was the alienation of the new inhabitants from the cultural landscape, an essential part of which was not only the material traces of the past (ranging from Church monuments to old stone walls), but also people making an effort to ‘read’ these traces and able to do so. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to describe the new relationship between the environment and its inhabitants, particularly in the industrial areas, as only a vacuum and alienation. How this relationship was formed, particularly in areas with a strong Czech-speaking minority and a mining or working-class tradition,
like the Most region, has been aptly explained by the Canadian historian Eagle Glassheim: by ‘rejecting romantic/pastoral German conceptions of Heimat, postwar Czechs sought to create materialist regional identities in north Bohemia that emphasized labor, productivity, and industrial modernity […].15 This was determined by the ethos of the socialist dictatorship as such, but also by the successes and failures accompanying the settlement of the individual border regions and the renewal of the function of sectors of the economy. Unlike the more remote mountain areas, it was the industrial towns of the north of the country which succeeded in being resettled according to plan. After all, there was something here to follow on from. Partly because of the large strikes that had taken place here in the early 1930s, Most itself, more than any other place in Czechoslovakia, symbolized, also for the linguistically Czech population, indeed particularly for them, the history of capitalist exploitation and the proletarian miners’ dramatic struggle against poverty and unemployment.
The renewal and further development of industry in the borderlands, particularly heavy industry, provided evidence of the success. Tens of thousands of ethnic Germans were exempted from the expulsions and were left to work in industry. Unlike independent farmers, the urban settlers — engineers and labourers — from the interior were not bound to home. The high mobility of the work force, the influx of new workers from the countryside into the industrial centres, and the large-scale State investment in industry and housing soon created advantageous conditions for the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who had come to settle in the border towns. The emphasis solely on industrial identity also overshadowed pre-modern and spiritual bonds between people and the land they lived in. The land became purely a source of raw material, an opportunity for even more massive and efficient exploitation, a quantity measurable by precise economic calculations.
The history of the town of Most was created by Czechs and Germans. By the end of the seventeenth century, Most was a linguistically German town — the linguistically Czech influence did not begin to regain strength until the development of coal mining, when it became necessary to bring in workers from more remote areas as well. This trend at first transformed the ethnic structure of the countryside rather than of the town, which remained mostly German.16 Although the situation quickly changed in the inter-war period, the local bourgeoisie (which included property owners) mostly comprised Germans until the end of the Second World War. Consequently, social divisions and conflicts to some extent corresponded with the ethnic structure.
After May 1945, only a few hundred Germans remained in the town, most of whom were the badly needed miners and specialists with their families, together with a minority of original Czech inhabitants. From the interior of the country and from Slovakia came people mainly without university or even secondary-school education; they were mostly looking for manual work, often just short term. In the first fifteen years after the war, the population of Most grew quickly from 25,000 to 45,000 people; in reality, however, not 20,000, but almost 35,000 people gradually moved to Most at this time; in other words, in this short period more than 15,000 people also left Most (again).17 For many people, Most became a city of temporary residence, a mere stopover in their lives, a place whose future was not really of any interest to them. The almost complete change in the population and the extinction of the German identity of the town entailed not only the disruption of relations between people and their milieu, but also a marked weakening of religious life. Lively places of spiritual meeting became somehow superfluous buildings that could at best be perceived as historic architectural monuments. Although this development was accelerated by the establishment of the Communist dictatorship beginning in February 1948, the contrast between Most and towns of a similar size in south Bohemia and south and east Moravia (areas where settlement had not been disrupted) points to deeper causes of the almost total secularization, which in north Bohemia is linked not only with rapid industrialization but also, indeed mainly, with the expulsion of the original population and the subsequent social structure and cultural identity of the new settlers.
Even though, for example, Glassheim’s emphasis on industrial identity, as well as the linguistically mixed character of the Most region between the wars, or the experienced legacy of the Most-region strikes, which was used in propaganda, somewhat revises the idea of homelessness (that is, the total absence of identification with a place), it is also clear that even these important factors do not cast doubt on the idea of the deterioration or marked weakening of the ability to perceive the land as a set of important references to the history of the community that inhabits it.
The transformation of Most can reasonably be interpreted as a triumph of Communist technocratic thinking. In consequence of the post-war expulsion of most of the former inhabitants of Most, the natural bonds between the people and their environment were torn apart. The new inhabitants of old Most had more understanding for the approach that turned the landscape into a servant of heavy industry than people elsewhere had at the time. The engineers became the new elite in the State, who decided what the environment (and, in consequence, human life) was going to look like. Economic growth and production allegedly justified the destruction of the land and the loss of a whole, compact, late medieval town together with its valuable historic monuments.
All of that may be true, but the story is not actually only about the up-rooting of the natives of the border areas of the Bohemian Lands, which fell victim to a Communist experiment. As I have sought to demonstrate in this article, it is mainly a story about a particular aspect of modern thinking, the impact of which appeared to the east and the west of the Iron Curtain in the second half of the twentieth century. The central, and generally accepted, core of this idea (in both the west and the east) was the belief in the ability to anticipate the future and, consequently, rationally plan it. This conviction, which after the experiences of the Great Depression and the Second World War offered Europe the hope that one would not only overcome the current crisis, but also prevent future disasters, came in a variety of forms. The example of the Most experiment provides us with an opportunity to trace several of them — from the economic reduction the world we live in to mere indicators, as practised by advocates of Communist productivism (but also several variants of economic liberalism in western Europe and North America), all the way to the more complex technocratic approaches appearing in town planning, architecture, and visions of restructuring the land. Even though these approaches originate in considerably different conceptions of the world, and were taken by various actors in the story that I have tried to relate, they have in common the idea of reducing the world and life to values that can be precisely calculated and whose trajectories towards the future can be dealt with as physicists or mathematicians might deal with them.
By the 1960s, the reduction of the world to economic indicators and technocratic forecasts, connected with the period of the scientific-technological revolution, evoked a distinctly critical reaction, again throughout Europe. Just as productivism and technocratic thought found support and inspiration in Marxism (including the humanistic argument that emphasized being considerate of the natural environment and preserving history and the cultural heritage as preconditions of a civilized society), so too did these alternative ways of thinking. A paradox of the socialist utopia is that it could accommodate contradictory discourses; it could end up thinking in numbers or, by contrast, emphasize the values of love and beauty. Throughout Europe, the late 1960s and the early 1970s were a time of a marked change in values. The ‘soft’ factors of society, such as environmental protection, home as a lived-in (rather than as a rationally constructed) environment, and respect for cultural heritage and attempts to preserve it all gained in importance. In the liberal milieu of the countries west of the Iron Curtain, the change took place more quickly and its consequences were more profound, but the countries with State-socialist regimes were not isolated from this change in Sinnwelt. In this context, it might not come as a surprise that the grand finale of the destruction of old Most was later rarely presented as the victory of the progressive forces over the past. And if so, then it was presented in a distinctly less assertive form than back in the 1950s or early 1960s. In the end, the narrative of the destruction of the town and construction of its substitute was overshadowed by the narrative of rescuing a Roman Catholic church. The authorities of post-1968 Communist Czechoslovakia found a brilliant way of connecting the technocratic and the humanistic discourses and of keeping in step with the times.45 It was the discovery of a way to square the circle. Technocratic thought, based on the conviction that one can break the world down into small pieces and then reassemble it like a jigsaw puzzle somewhere else at some other time, proved to be extraordinarily flexible and viable. The rescue of an old church, originally a compromise with the preservationists and the church itself, became the greatest triumph of this way of thinking.
9 NA Prague, f. ÚPV-běžná spisovna (nezprac.), k. 165, sign. 356/1/12, Statut vládní komise pro koordinaci a kontrolu postupu při likvidaci starého Mostu a výstavbu nového Mostu.
This article originated within the postdoc project P410-12-P596 “Velký experiment socialistické moderny” [The Great Experiment in Socialist Modernity] supported by the Czech Science Foundation [Grantová agentura České republiky].
Mgr. Matěj Spurný, PhD is Czech historian, Senior lecturer, Member of the Deparment of Social History.
Fields of research: Modern Social History, Nationalism and Multiethnicity in the Czech lands in the Twentieth Century, History of Modern European Dictatorship
1998-2006: master studies of International Territorial Studies (specialization austrian and german studies); Mgr.; Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague.
1998-2005: master studies of History (specialization Economic and Social History); Mgr.; Faculty of Philosophy and Arts, Charles University in Prague.
2005: studies of modern and contemporary history; scholarship "Studienkolleg zu Berlin"; Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
2005-2010: PhD studies (PhD.); Subject of PhD thesis: Not like us. The social marginalization and integration of minorities in the Czech borderlands while "building the new order" (1945-1960), Institute of Economic and Social History, Charles University in Prague.
2007-2010: Member of international research project Sozialistische Diktatur als Sinnwelt (Socialist Dicatorship as a World of Meaning), Centre for Contemporary History (Potsdam) and Institute of Contemporary History (Prague)
2007-nowadays: Member of research project Mechanismy ovládání a moci. KSČ na FF UK 1968-1989. (Mechanisms of Control and Power. Communist Party at Faculty of Philosophy and Arts)
2010: coworker of Wissenschaftzentrum Berlin on the project Property Reallocation and Symbolic Appropriation: Ownership, Ethnicity, and Memory in 20th Century Czechoslowakia, Poland and Israel
2012: senior lecturer; Institute of Economic and Social History, Charles University in Prague.
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