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Reassessing the past: changing public understanding of Czechoslovakia's treatment of minorities

Through painstaking research conducted over two years in Prague, Professor Mary Heimann exposed how Czechoslovakia’s reputation for liberal, democratic values was at odds with reality.

Professor Heimann’s research showed that Czechoslovakia consistently pursued Czech and Bohemian-centred policies that excluded and alienated the other nationalities and regions in the state, despite enjoying a reputation for liberal, democratic values and the decent treatment of its German, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish, Romany and Rusyn-speaking minorities.

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding through the Research Leave scheme in 2007 supported the completion of the principal output of this research, the book manuscript, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed.

Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed

First published in 2009, by Yale University Press, the book has gone into three editions, and was noted in the Czech Academy of Science’s 2010 report of the most significant books to have been published in the humanities in the last 20 years. It continues to attract widespread, international interest, including from diplomats and policy makers, and was reviewed in Foreign Affairs, The Economist, Tribune and the US Foreign Service Journal.

The book describes how Jews and Gypsies (Roma) began to be persecuted by the Czechoslovak authorities before the Second World War and were virtually eliminated by its end. It details the state’s post-war ‘cleansing’ of German and Hungarian speakers and gift to the Soviet Union of autonomous Ruthenia. It also examines the state’s recurrent Slovak-Czech tensions.

Response to the book

The book launched an entirely new debate and sparked widespread public and private discussion about Czechoslovakia’s past.

Petr Pithart, former Czech Prime Minister, said in a televised panel discussion in 2013:

"Your book has helped by sparking our conscience […]. We can’t go back and rectify things, but we can make our understanding more precise. We will always need to grapple with national myths and superstitions. Some of them are impossible to uproot […]. I believe that your book will contribute to a certain cleansing of the atmosphere in this country. But it is going to be painful."

The success of the book led to Professor Heimann’s continuing contributions to high profile and significant policy symposiums and discussions. In September 2010 Professor Heimann met with leading Central European diplomats, scholars and policy members at the Czech Embassy in London, at which passages of the book were read aloud by the Czech Ambassador, and debated by those present, including former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Czech Senate panel discussion

In 2013 Professor Heimann took part in a panel discussion in the Czech Senate (Parliament), held in front of a live audience and televised across the Czech Republic. The importance of Professor Heimann’s work for the Czech nation was specifically commented upon by the former Prime Minister during this broadcast.

NATO Partnership for Peace program

Professor Heimann’s insights into Czechoslovakia’s peaceful division into separate Czech and Slovak republics in 1993 were presented to the NATO Partnership for Peace workshop held in Kiev, Ukraine in 2015. Professor Heimann’s research helped formulate policy recommendations to the NATO Partnership for Peace program and is contributing to efforts to resolve the current conflict in the South Caucasus. As such, the benefits of her research are likely to be felt for some time yet.

Professor Mary Heimann

Professor Mary Heimann

Professor of Modern History, Deputy Head of History

+44 (0)29 2087 5157