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Interpreting Socialism. Individual Engagements with State Policies in the ČSR after 1953

Sebastian Lambertz

Betreuer: Prof. Maike Lehmann (Universität Köln), Prof. Martin Schulze Wessel (LMU-München)

This project posits that the perception of socialist ideology and policy by their recipients was considerably more heterogeneous than the socialist rulers in Eastern Europe and many Western observers thought. Between acceptance and opposition, a wide range of different interpretations of socialist values and ideas showed that the ideological guidelines provided by state and party authorities were open to individual appropriation and adaptation to different situations. As a result, the socialist ideology was used by people to make sense of their lives both in a manner intended by the Party and in ways, which at first sight might appear to  contradict the ideological guidelines.

In socialist Czechoslovakia this was especially important in the time between 1953 and 1963. Starting with the protests against the currency reform of June 1st 1953 several events – such as Nikita Khrushchevs secret speech – called into question the legitimization of socialist rule in the country. In connection with this, state and party had to find new ways of re-establishing their relationship to the working class and other parts of society again and again. This not only changed the way socialist values and ideas were perceived by both sides but also provided new ones.

How Czechoslovak citizens – which included party members as well – interpreted and adapted the provided values and ideas in the constant state of crisis of the mentioned years is what my project investigates. By analysing petitions and appeals written to state and party authorities by Czechoslovak citizens I explore, how these individual perceptions influenced the relationship between rulers and ruled. I argue that a partial openness of the ideological discourse enabled the people to adapt at least parts of it to their own environment in many different situations. This increased the chance of agreement with underlying socialist values and ideas, which in turn stabilised socialist rule in Czechoslovakia during the sample period.

To achieve this, I consider petitions and appeals as expressions of the adaption of the values and ideas, which were important for the respective writer. The authors present their own interpretation of the provided guidelines against the background of their lives, in this manner entering negotiations with state and party authorities about how to interpret socialism. Juxtaposing the authors’ interpretation with the official one(s) publicized in printed press will allow me to analyse the appropriation process and to identify those values and ideas, which turned out to been meaningful to the individuals.