M. Spurný: Making the Most of Tomorrow

Making the Most of Tomorrow. A Laboratory of Socialist Modernity in Czechoslovakia

Spurný, Matěj
Václav Havel Series
Anzahl Seiten
456 S.
520 Kč
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Gregor Feindt, Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz

“Making the Most of Tomorrow” is a remarkable story of urban utopia in socialist Czechoslovakia and the state’s attempts to realise it. The town of Most (in German: Brüx) was literally built on coal but also comprised one of the historically most valuable old towns of Northern Bohemia. Between 1965 and 1985, Most was demolished for the sake of surface mining and rebuilt as a new, modern and allegedly improved settlement. The project of a new Most was economically important to Czechoslovakia’s heavy industry but also aimed at demonstrating socialism’s technical and social progress. Yet it reproduced many of the shortcomings of socialist industry, administration, and every-day life. Matěj Spurný studies the destruction and reconstruction of Most in great detail and illuminates this changing, often contradictory process from the first plans to move the town in the 1940s to its finalization in the 1980s.

Spurný’s study, originally published in Czech in 2016[1], contributes to recent studies in the cultural history of East Central European state socialism and sheds new light on how institutions and individuals negotiated the scope and legitimacy of socialist modernity.[2] Spurný does not aim to reconstruct the moving of the town, but first and foremost analyses the “Sinnwelt” of state socialism, i.e. the construction of meaning that underpinned any legitimate action, and thus carve out the “essential factors of the thinking and behavior of that period” (p. 67). Including a wide – at times confusingly wide – array of actors from ministries, local administration, state institutions to industry, but also residents or dissidents, Spurný provides insights into decision-making and legitimisation under state socialism. Beyond its micro-focus on Most, the exploitation of brown coal and its consequences, the book links the north Bohemian basin to the larger picture of Czechoslovak state socialism, the criticism of modernity and international organisations.

Following the introduction, the book is organised in five chapters that bring forward different perspectives on the project of new Most and develop a chronological trajectory. Spurný discusses the alienation that inhabitants experienced after World War II. Situated in the borderlands or Sudetenland, the town was predominantly German with a strong Czech minority. Yet this often conflictive ethnic diversity perished after the expulsion of the German-speaking population. The remaining Czech inhabitants and new settlers arriving in Most, however, failed to overcome this alienation and uprootedness during the 40 years to come. Spurný also digs into the logics of numbers, technology and economy that stood behind the plans to dismantle the historic old town, as well as the utopian visions that fueled the plans of a new Most next to the surface mine. Criticism to such technocratic plans emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of Czechoslovak normalization and emerging environmentalism. Finally, Spurný discusses the attempts at “reconciling” modernity and heritage conversation since the 1970s.

Spurný tells a comprehensive story that is both analytically deep and offers a broad contextualisation of the town, its decision makers, and their motifs and actions. His analysis of socialism’s changing Sinnwelt is particularly important for the understanding of socialist East Central Europe and adds to deconstructing state socialism as a monolithic and totalitarian regime. Since the 1940s, when the North Bohemian Lignite Mines first considered mining the coal underneath the old town, Most had been the focus of utopian planning and of competing claims by local and state administration, industry and experts. For engineers and politicians, it was beyond question that the extraction of this coal was both feasible and economically necessary to raise the living standard of the region and the entire country. It seemed evident that only a new town could provide citizens with much desired modern living conditions, yet how to construct this new reality remained contested, and the way to legitimise this path changed over time.

Cultural heritage, for instance, only began to play a role since the 1970s, when it was reconceptualised from a deplorable reminiscence of a pre-socialist past that needed to be overcome to a valuable reminder of past generations’ arduous work. Eventually even socialist politicians argued for rescuing Most’s gothic church. In 1975, the building was moved nearly a kilometer in a technically challenging operation that was conceived as a symbol of both the state’s capabilities and its willingness to protect the town’s cultural heritage. Spurný argues that the post-Stalinist Sinnwelt was governed by a form of technocratic socialism that replaced the template of ideology and the cults of personality with the rule of experts.

Along the story, Spurný follows a number of subplots that reappear in different chapters, for instance the diversity of Most’s society. The town had been culturally diverse for much of its history, divided between German and Czech speakers and with a long working class tradition. After the Second World War and the forced migration, this constellation changed dramatically. “Bordermen” settlers from other parts of the Czech lands symbolised the socialist reconstruction of the borderland after the war and the “new materialist regional identities” (p. 116) with an emphasis on labour, socialism and modernity. Roma contradicted this imaginary as entire families followed their breadwinners from Eastern Slovakia and formed a new deprived social group. Right until its final demolition, they inhabited the lowest quality of flats in the old town of historic Most. Yet, their segregation continued when separate quarters were being built for the Romani inhabitants of new Most. With this analysis, Spurný carves out the racialised scope of socialist modernity and reveals that both socialist planning and practice was meant for white Czechs and Slovaks, but not for others.

Spurný employs a cultural understanding of state socialism. He depicts the project of moving Most as a contingent process of negotiation and production of sense that exposes how Marxism significantly lost importance before and after 1968. Linking his micro-history to modernist architecture, the UNESCO and economic ideas, Spurný demonstrates that the history of planning and technocratic rule permeated the bloc confrontation and Czechoslovak state socialism integrates neatly into contemporary European trends. Spurný’s broad argumentation is most impressive, yet it tends to construct Most as a peculiar exception. Asymmetric comparisons to the destruction of towns, cultural heritage and local communities for other industrial projects such as reservoir dams or transport infrastructure would have allowed for differentiating the author’s findings.

Regardless of such suggestions, Spurný’s account of Most is a fascinating, intellectually stimulating and well-written story of an extra-ordinary attempt at socialist modernity. With the English edition of “Making the Most of Tomorrow” at hand, one can only hope that this research will resonate not only with scholars of Central and Eastern Europe, but with students of modern history in general.

[1] Matěj Spurný, Most do budoucnosti. Laboratoř socialistické modernity na severu Čech, Praha 2016.
[2] Cf. for instance, Pavel Kolář, Der Poststalinismus. Ideologie und Utopie einer Epoche, Köln 2016; Vítězslav Sommer / Jaromír Mrňka / Matěj Spurný, Řídit socialismus jako firmu. Technokratické vládnutí v Československu, 1956–1989, Praha 2019.

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