The Big Ban Of Symbols

February 17, 2005

Opponents of Communism Seek Prohibition of Party and its Symbols

When Britain’s Prince Harry wore a swastika on a German soldier outfit at a costume party last month, it’s doubtful he knew an EU-wide philosophical debate on the impact of political symbols would follow. But now a simmering row has erupted over whether the hammer and sickle is as offensive as the infamous Nazi logo.

Sylvia Koch-Merin, a European Parliamentarian (EP) from Germany, called for an EU ban on Nazi symbols after the Harry debacle became a media sensation. This did not sit well with right-wing EPs from at least six former Eastern bloc countries, who say many of their West European colleagues do not understand the suffering caused by the Soviet regime. Led by Jozef Szajer, the Hungarian vice-president of the conservative People Party’s faction in the European Parliament, along with former Lithuanian president Vztautas Landsbergis, six EPs submitted a letter Jan. 25 to EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini urging a ban on communist symbols such as the hammer and sickle and red star.

Koch-Merin is puzzled. “The Nazi symbol is something more European than the communist symbol,” she told The Prague Post. “The Nazis covered all of Europe with their systematic murder of Jews and other minorities. I don’t see communism in that context.”

Back in Prague, two senators also launched a campaign this month to criminalize Nazism and communism, even though the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) is the third-largest party in the lower house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. Czech MPs and Frattini have indicated that such bans have little chance of success, so why bother with the attempt?

The call for bans is meant to put a spotlight on two matters of importance for fierce critics of the past regime, the current power of the communists and their relatively normal status compared to outlawed neo-Nazi parties in countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

“There is a clear double standard in treating the two ideologies,” Czech EP Jan Zahradil said, adding that the EPs who sent the letter did not expect, nor necessarily want, an actual ban on visual reminders of the totalitarian regimes.

The EPs instead were seeking to grab Fratinni’s attention prior to a Feb. 24 meeting of justice ministers from the 25 EU member states that will address a proposed directive to combat racism and xenophobia.

“Social hatred and the promotion of class struggle is no less dangerous than racial hatred,” Zahradil said, “but many EU leaders have a romanticized view of far-left movements because they were part of them in their youth.” He refused to name names, although German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Javier Solana, the EU high representative on common foreign and security policy, were both once active in radical left-wing movements.

What’s in a name

In the Czech Republic, senators Jaromir Stetina and Martin Mejstrik want to amend paragraph 260 of Law 140, which states, “A person who supports a movement blatantly aimed at the suppression of human rights and freedoms or that promulgates national, racial, religious or class hatred” faces five years in jail. The amendment would change the start of the law to “… supports or propagates communism, Nazism or any other similar movement.”

Senators Jaromir Stetina and Martin Mejstrik helped launch the Web site zrusmekomunisy.cz (abolish communism).

The revised law would make the KSCM illegal, according to Stetina, as its name and symbols represent “human rights crimes” committed under the last regime. “The change would force the KSCM to leave the word communism out of its name, putting an end to the lie that we all live,” Stetina said. “In schools we teach that communism is bad and then you see the communists walking around as if nothing has happened.”

It would be up to the courts to determine exactly what communist-era symbols are in violation of law, he added.

Stetina says his intent is not to ban ideology or political parties. “All we want to do is restore criminal responsibility,” said Stetina.

The word communism, for Stetina, signifies “millions of deaths, not only in our country; this is an international affair. When you compare the number of victims of Nazism and communism, you will see there is no significant difference.”

He said the older EU states need to have a deeper understanding of their neighbors’ experience. “Can you imagine having a political party in Germany that would just add one letter to its old NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers’ Party] name? That’s what the Czech communists did. It was the KSC and now it is the KSCM.”

In the former Eastern bloc, the KSCM is the only parliamentary party besides the Slovak Communist Party with the word communism in its name.

In 1991, when he was a Czechoslovak MP, Charles University political science professor Vladimir Dolezal introduced a ban similar to what Stetina proposed. It was approved by Parliament but quickly struck down by the Constitutional Court.

Dolezal now says he would do things differently. “Today I am afraid that something is wrong with our country if we have to use a law to ban something that should instead be governed by the more democratic principle of common sense,” he said.

Petr Uhl, a former anticommunist dissident who spent 10 years in jail under the last regime and served as this country’s first post-1989 human rights commissioner, also opposed a political party ban on freedom-of-speech grounds. “I can find no calls for sympathy with violence, racism or suppression of the rights and freedoms of citizens or dismantling of the democratic order in the KSCM program or practice,” Uhl wrote in an open letter to Stetina.

As for the KSCM, party member and MP Jiri Dolejs does not deny that its predecessor, the KSC, perpetuated human rights abuses. “But symbols alone bear no guilt for what people do in their name,” he said.

The KSCM is committed to political pluralism, he added, brushing off the idea that the party needed to change its name. “The party name is a trademark and has a certain value,” he said.

The KSCM, with 100,000 members, is the largest political party in the country. That’s what bothers David Cerny, the well-known Prague artist responsible for the upside-down horse in the capital’s Lucerna pasaz and the babies crawling up the Zizkov television tower. He has submitted a proposal to the interior ministry to register a new party, the Nazi and Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, to call attention to the disparity in how the two ideologies are viewed.

“The poor, stupid, demented babicky [grandmothers] would stop voting for the communist cretins if the name of the party was changed,” Cerny said.

— Dan Macek and Petr Kaspar contributed to this report.


German EPs and lawmakers have called for a ban on Nazi symbols

• The trouble: Six prominent right-wing EPs from former Eastern bloc countries say their West European colleagues downplay the suffering caused by the communist regimes

• Their solution: They have in turn urged the EU's justice commissioner to also ban communist symbols

• Here in Prague: Two senators launched a campaign this month to criminalize Nazism and communism

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