There are matters about which one really cannot joke. And there are also matters from which it is considered highly improper to seek any kind of profit. Among these is surely human dignity, the death of innocents or teaching about Man’s darkest sides – those that have throughout history generated so much cruelty and horror. Whoever thought that then Education Minister Josef Dobeš (Public Affairs, VV) throwing away hundreds of millions of crowns for a bizarre “Individual National Projects” (IPn) initiative, which is supposed to support the Czech education system, could end up alongside other mythical failures such asOKNO or SPORT?
This question was asked by many during the unveiling of an entirely new IPn on April 20 – coincidentally, the date of Hitler’s birthday. The people from the Research Center for the Archeaology of Evil o.p.s (a form of NGO, which translates as “Mutually Beneficial Company” under which profits are permitted but they must be funneled back into the same “beneficial” services) behind a new proposal to study evil – and one should note that they don’t even have a website – quite possibly chose this date deliberately in order to kick off the academic debate by invoking the infamous Nazi leader and the memory of the Holocaust. This overall goal is undoubtedly a noble one, but in this case it is accompanied by a curious whiff of something not quite right.
Their project is entitled “Unde malum” which translates from Latin as “From whence cometh evil”; this is a question that has been pondered as far back as during the time of St. Augustine, though in this case, the sum allotted for such pondering has been provisionally budgeted at Kč 90 million. The project is meant to prevent racism and point to the origins of evil in human society. It will be dependent on a grant from the EU’s Education for Competitiveness Operational Program (OP VK in Czech).
This overall goal is undoubtedly a noble one, but in this case it is accompanied by a curious whiff of something not quite right. The official annotation notes that it seeks to “create a more effective systematic framework for the acquisition and adoption of awareness in the field of the prevention of racism and xenophobia and the study of genocides, mass killings and other forms of ethnic and race-based violence in rudimentary, tertiary and further education.”
This much is noted in official publicity materials, which we append here in PDF format for readers to study in full (in Czech only). But before we are “transported” to Friday’s roundtable, which was attended by an unusually large number of people, it is important to present a few additional details relating to this endeavor. Even the philosopher Michel Foucault — who in his innovative approach towards the perception of history coined the notion of “the archaeology of knowledge” — would have been surprised at how easy it has become to create a new field of science, one no doubt accompanied by essential testimonies (énoncé)...
“The source of this systematic framework will be a newly formulated scientific discipline based on the principle of the study of the origins of evil in human history (the archaeology of evil). The aim of the proposed activities within this field is to prevent the gradual forgetting and doubting of incidents of mass killing and racial violence (for example denial of the Holocaust), and systematically study the causes and contexts of such events.
The findings of these studies would then be presented to future generations in order to assist in the reduction of racist and xenophobic tendencies both in terms of the human mindset and social dealings.” What is apparently proposed in this new discipline is basically designed to be a kind of Czech version of “genocide studies.”
One of the main figures proposing this project is Pavel Chalupa, the head of the board of trustees of the Research Center for the Archaeology of Evil o.p.s., which was founded in 2004, but has since changed its name several times. The last time was on February 15, 2012, when the former “Via Carolina” became today’s “Center”. The director is one Šimon Krbec, who last June 28th even managed to lodge this new kind of science – namely the “archaeology of evil” – as a trademark for a variety of products including CDs, movies, photographs, books and even for school educational aides.
The expert guarantor of the Unde malum project is the well-known expert on extremism Zdeněk Zbořil, who undoubtedly deserves respect for his many years of study in this field. In an introductory seminar, attended by representatives from NGOs such as People in Need, Open Society Fund and Post Bellum, Chalupa primarily pointed to his contributions within the framework of the Czech-German-Jewish cultural festival Devět bran (Nine Gates), which celebrated its twelfth annual gathering last year. Among its partners were the ČEZ Foundation, and companies such as Eltodo, the Prague Transit Authority or the now infamous ProMoPro, as can be evidenced at the festival’s website.
In order to organize such an event, the cooperation of politicians has been and still is crucial; members of the current honorary board include the PM, chair of the Senate and head of the Chamber of Deputies as well as Prague’s mayor. According to Czech Position sources, Chalupa and Antonín Zelenka, the current head of the Ministry of Education’s press office (who became famous during the era of the so-called “television revolt” of 2000), are friends.
Re-education and cultivation within 31 months?
Following the emotionally-charged presentation, which was backed by music and collated the theses contained in publicly presented documents, a question and comment section took place. Given that this plenary session was attended by a remarkably polite and aware (considering the times) audience, they mostly began by applauding the very idea of a battle against human hatred and the proclaimed idea of a study of genocides and the creation of an archive and educational programs and so on. But…
The first to raise an objection was Michal Frankl from the Jewish Museum: “I view this project in a very critical light. It is very ambitious and the weakest possible word I can find for it is that it is ‘naïve.’ In the Czech Republic, there are other and more notable institutions that have preoccupied themselves with these issues for a long time.” The historian was pressing the issue of experience, noting that for this o.p.s. to be seeking Kč 90 million for an all-encompassing study of everything from Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia and for the construction of an archive to document evil represented a rather nebulous approach at best.
An ethnographer present at the gathering then expressed surprise at the “audacity” of the authors in seeking to compare such disparate cultural environs and causes of mass violence; a sociologist followed by criticizing the manner of both the presentation and the proposed preventative educational approaches while an oral historian wondered where in 2012 one is supposed to be able to locate so many first-hand witnesses to record the promised archive videos. ‘[T]his project is not only risky but in essence it’s also harmful.’
Another questioner then asked which authority will be responsible for coordinating cooperation between other organizations of the MALECH variety, while other participants criticized the use of words such as “want to” rather than the offering up of precise plans. This was followed by someone arguing that “this project is not only risky but in essence it’s also harmful.” Many of the debaters expressed doubts about the idea of fulfilling such lofty goals within a 31 month timeframe, as pending approval, such a project could conceivably run from June 2012 to December 2014. Also of note is the fact that Unde malum did not even figure on former Education Minister Dobeš’s list of thirty IPns, which he officially presented at the beginning of March and which was published at the time by Czech Position.
“Nothing is black and white. Within this spectacular criticism of the project, we must also see the competitive battles of beneficiaries, because the regular sourcing of grants has led them to fear the entrance of a new subject, who is unafraid to – thus far somewhat amateurishly – stir up the stale waters of a subject in which not much has been done in recent times,” says one impartial voice with an understanding of this field of study.
Playing to a neo-Nazi stereotype?
The IPn presentation must have left even Jana Škeříková, the Ministry of Education representative attending the gathering feeling a little unsettled. She sought to explain that so far, this was only a project focusing on the archiving option and that it was ultimately comprised of three pillars. Kč 28 million is meant to go to the first key activity (a research framework); the second, an archive of evil, should get another Kč 15 million; finally, the third pillar, educational programs, would receive an additional Kč 20 million from EU funds. More money will go towards the hiring of the 36 staff that will realize the project, including financing meals, terrain work and travelling to conferences [around the globe]. ‘It saddens me that this project wasn’t consulted with organizations that are [already] focused on this subject. This represents a slap in the face for all those who have undertaken such work.’
Further, films and documentaries are to be made (which would be screened by Czech Television), with students shown a docu-drama on the subject; a research magazine and “evil” anthologies would be published, educational programs will be crafted, with seminars and courses for schools and perhaps even police officers.
“It saddens me that this project wasn’t consulted with organizations that are [already] focused on this subject. This represents a slap in the face for all those who have undertaken such work … The budget was startling to me, because it can’t be compared to something like Post Bellum,” said this civic organization’s director Mikuláš Kroupa reacting to the Kč 90 million figure. Post Bellum’s annual report – the organization has been working for more than a decade to document the “memory of the nation” – shows donations in 2010 totaling 1.483 million and grants of Kč 614,000.
It’s as if for all these years the activities of ethnologists, historians, anthropologists, Roma history scholars or any other experts were essentially for nothing. And another expert, who specializes in monitoring far-right and extremist websites, added to the criticism from yet another angle: “It was at one of these sites that I learnt of today’s discussion. The project is ideal fodder for such extremist literature. It plays into the hands of those who use phrases such as ‘Holocaust industry.’”
The responses from the backers of the project to the barrage of criticism included the sentence “Well, you could have come up with a project like this too!” Materials made available for this presentation also indicated just how the idea to funnel Kč 90 million into such a project came about. First comes the idea to create a new scientific branch in the Czech Republic called “genocide studies” (June 2011). Then a consultation takes place with a specialist in teaching events surrounding the Holocaust in the Swedish town of Uppsaly. And on August 24, the project is presented to Dobeš, the then education minister, and only after that do his deputies and top staff assess the idea. Surely that is the wrong way round!
Can one really exhaustively analyze the ancient history of evil?
The author of these sentences was traumatized as a child to see tufts of hair and mountains of glasses at Auschwitz. In Yerevan, Armenia he looked on lamentably at the flame, which beneath the large memorial gave eternal testimony to the hundreds of thousands of Armenians killed between 1915 and 1923. On August 6, he was in Hiroshima as it marked the day when death came without notice from the skies. But nothing in his life caused as much shock as an outwardly calm location around a church in the Rwandan town of Nyamata...
It was here in an adjoining diocese that in 1994 twenty thousand Tutsis sought shelter in the naive hope that its ordained grounds could protect against the Hutu Interahamwe militias. Even 15 years after the fact, hundreds of musty bits of clothing, reeking of putrefaction – of death — remain at this site. It is the stench of evil.
“They killed them any which way they could. Machetes, hammers, sickles, sticks, spears… Often farm tools and even hoes were used. People were tossed into a cesspool so that they would drown in feces. Other corpses were tossed onto a pile, with a naked woman clutching a baby at her breast deliberately placed at its very top. Before that, they managed to rape her before piercing her vagina with a lance,” recalled a groundskeeper when we walked through this “charnel-house” among the shelves containing hundreds, if not thousands of hacked-through and smashed skulls. He too could not hold back the tears.
Those who like to read human horror stories might do well to reach for the Gérard Prunier book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (1995). There are no holds barred in this account of the hell that was unleashed during this genocide. “Sadism coupled with racism reached unbelievable extremes. A Hutu professor, whose Tutsi wife was in the final stages of pregnancy, was forced to watch as the unborn fetus was torn from its mother’s body and then forced into his face. ‘Here, eat your bastard!’” writes Prunier. Women were forced to kill their children and children were forced to kill their parents.
That is evil. It is hard to say how and whether genocides from all corners of the earth can be compared – and then how to figure out how to tell such stories to schoolchildren? Perhaps it is possible. But if someone really wants to concern themselves with the “archaeology of evil” then it should certainly be done expertly and responsibly. And without a registered trademark protecting its interests.