Without History We Are Dust

Across Europe, a rising far right is on the offensive against LGBT people.

Portrait of Czech painter Jana Zrzavého, 1912, by Bohumil Kubista. Mahulena Nešlehová: Bohumil Kubišta, nakladatelství Odeon, Praha 1984

Interview by
Jaroslav Fiala

Historians Anna Hájková (University of Warwick), Jan Seidl (Masaryk University Brno), and Ladislav Zikmund Lender (Brno University of Technology) are board members of the Society for Queer Memory in the Czech Republic, a nonprofit organization that documents history, organizes popular events, and offers university courses on queer history. Established in 2013, the Society for Queer Memory is a unique institution due to its recognition of history as a political instrument in documenting past lives, as well as its openness to lesbian, gay, and trans historical experiences.

In the atmosphere of rising populism and backlash against gender studies across Central and Eastern Europe, activist research on non-heteronormative history has gained a markedly political dimension. The Society’s work has faced resistance but is welcomed in the small but vocal Czech left-wing scene. Previously, only a few Czech researchers bothered to address the history of homosexuality. Overall, academic historians tended to view gender and queer history with skepticism if not open derision. These trends are not specific to Eastern Europe alone: the extreme right around the world calls for abolishing gender and queer studies from the universities. As this interview makes clear, queer history offers a constructive, useful vantage point from which to observe — and fight — the drift to the Right.

Jaroslav Fiala, editor-in-chief of the Czech progressive daily Alarm, sat down with the three historians to talk about a liberation history, neoliberal capitalism, and the memory of LGBT people that would otherwise be overlooked.


JF

All three of you work for the Society for Queer Memory. What, concretely, do you do?

AH

We founded the Society for Queer Memory together with other activists and scholars five years ago. We work on the history of homosexuality, a fairly (but not entirely) new topic in the Czech context. The first conference on the topic took place in 2009, and several books were published. A few years later, we felt that academic research into queer history had made decent progress and decided to move away from a purely academic perspective and start collecting memoirs and remembrances from older members of the LGBT community. We were conducting a kind of rescue operation, researching and documenting these memories for later research. So, basically, what we do is record oral history, collect troves of archival documents, books, and magazines, along with physical items such as pieces of art or artifacts from everyday life. Our long-term goal is to build up a regular archive and museum of Czech queer people, also capable of producing its own scholarly work.

LZL

The Society for Queer Memory fills in a gap in the sense that all institutions that focus on documenting people’s memories are heteronormatively defined — that is, heterosexual orientation is regarded as the norm. There is no space for questions of other sexualities — not about who slept with whom, but what it meant for people’s life experience. These institutions do not think in this way at all. This memory, which in heterosexual society is passed on from generation to generation, is lost for LGBT people, because until quite recently, they had a huge problem if they wanted to create a family and pass on their memory to their children. This is what we want to change.

JF

Which historical period do you focus on the most?

JS

Mostly the second half of the twentieth century — that is the time which living people’s memory reaches. But all three of us, as individual researchers, have also worked on earlier periods where recourse to archival sources is essential, for no or very few survivors remain alive today. For example, I have dealt with issues of persecution, emancipation, and everyday life of queer people in this country in the 1930s and 1940s. As the Society for Queer Memory, however, we diversified our activity over time. In addition to collecting oral histories, we also try to motivate new generations of students when they start to look for topics for their BA, MA, or PhD theses, seeking to interest them in queer history. These are also, but not only, histories of persecution. Today, our main task is encouraging young historians to work on queer history.

JF

Why do you think the history of LGBT people is important for today’s society?

AH

Our point of departure is that sexuality is a place where each society defines itself, what is right and what is deviant and wrong. A crucial contribution of queer theory is that it very much questions this understanding of society as a given, saying: it could be different. A major problem of Czech oral-history collections is not only that they are heteronormative, but also heavily normative. When you look at oral histories of former Communists, they are constantly made to apologize for having been Communists. There is no space for them to say, “I was a Communist and I was happy.”

We want to write a liberating history, we want to pose heretical questions that will enable us to write a different kind of history. History is not only an academic discipline; it is also an incredibly important social field, because it shows people that they have value. People without history are actually dust. History is not only about lining up to buy produce during the Communist era, about the Prague Spring, the Czech Resistance’s assassination of leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, or the liberalization of abortion laws. If people leave behind their memories, they cease to exist — and here, I think, is the larger political dimension for our society.

Simultaneously, I am terrified by the populist turn around the world. Suddenly, we have to fight hard for things that were taken as a given only a few years ago. Of course, the Czech Republic has a critical left scene, be it Alarm Magazine, or the Feminist Society at the Charles University in Prague. But now there are all these people fighting against all this. This is where I see our role: not to give in and to fight for an open society of all its citizens.

JF

Do you think that this could influence school education or our conceptualization of history?

JS

I have the feeling that Czech history can be seen as a continuation of subsequent civilizational questions that our society faced, indeed questions related to how we deal with the oppositions between what I would call “complementary identities.” There is the relationship of Catholics and Protestants in early modern period, the emancipation and struggle of the working class in the nineteenth century, from then until World War II it was the relationship of Czechs and Germans, after 1948 the opposition of people supporting the socialist regime and those against.

These oppositions are part of the canon of Czech history and everybody is taught about them in school. It’s always as if there is a minority being opposed by a dominant majority holding real or symbolical power. The minorities — the Protestants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries or dissidents after 1948 — sometimes chose a form of secrecy. I think one of these questions is how society should address those who have untraditional or nonnormative sexualities. This fits well into the logic of these civilizational questions, and also led to some forms of self-censorship among certain parts of society. In this way, queer historians can enrich the canonical historical narrative by offering a perspective that helps us discern larger processes.

LZL

Many queer people placed the core of their activity into shaping cultural values. However, after they died these works ceased to exist because they were estranged from the direct memory of the person in question, and more distant relatives had no relationship to these items — they were sold, there was no one to take them in, and most importantly no one understood them in a queer context. At the Society for Queer Memory we try to fill in this blank so that people who are, let’s say, a bit older could pass on their memories, have a place to pass on their inheritance, things, and documents archiving their life. Other institutions, which are all heteronormatively defined, wouldn’t consider them interesting or valuable.

JF

Do you think that queer history is mostly a history of oppression? To be more precise, a history of victims of repression?

AH

This definitively applies for me, as I work on the Holocaust. The image of people who participated in any same-sex activity was perceived as so monstrous that they were not allowed to talk about it. Whenever queer behavior is mentioned in Holocaust histories, it is always in the third person and in the overwhelming majority of cases sounds something like: “They murdered my mother, my sister died on the death march, but the worst thing that happened to me in the camps was that at night, my bunk was next to two lesbians, and that made me sick.” You find statements like these over and over.

It took me many years to find Margot, a Jewish lesbian survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. She is originally from Germany but has lived in the US for seventy years. She was deported when she was fifteen and met the love of her life in Theresienstadt. She recalled how in the segregated home for youth where she lived in the ghetto, some girls climbed into the beds of their “girlfriends” when the lights were off, in secret, but never talked about it during the day — let alone later in life. Both Margot and her lover married men after the war and lived fairly heteronormative lives. Margot eventually divorced and found a partner, but she only had her coming out at eighty-eight years of age.

I found several other queer male Holocaust survivors, which again shows how patriarchal history is. Homophobia against women is far stronger than against men. It is all quite depressing. I found that when people are oppressed, deported, and are forced to live in camps and ghettos, it does not engender solidarity, but instead racism and homophobia.

JF

How does it come about?

AH

This homophobia is a reaction to imprisonment, to differentiate and to “other.” Rather than a continuation of pre-war homophobia, it has an entirely different quality: a society in extremis becomes more conservative and reacts to difference and no-normative conduct far more violently.

JF

But surely there must have been resistance to repression?

LZL

Queer history of course also contains subversive potential — it disturbs established canons, the master narrative of straight, white, rich men about other straight, white, rich men.

It is about searching for ways of self-expression beyond the traditional form. This can mean open resistance or searching for more moderate forms of living a meaningful and happy life despite repression, disrespect, and ignorance. It often projects into the visual arts. As a gay man I focus on the productions of other gay people, be it professional artists or amateurs. They couldn’t always describe their work exactly this way, and yet they found ways to express it. You don’t paint a picture because someone oppresses you, but because it is a unique medium to express a far more complicated experience. Take the example of the famous Czech painter Jan Zrzavý. Several contemporaries, some of them still living, spoke of their queer relationships with Zrzavý. But rather than scandalize the artist, it is our goal to address Zrzavý’s subversive ways of expression that show further paths for people who haven’t found anyone else yet. Only when they look at such art can they find something that connects them to other queer people, or more often, can mediate the queer experience.

JF

You say that queer history is about clashing with norms recognized by the majority of society. Who or what do you think is the source of these hierarchies and norms? State policies, controlling reproduction, or something else?

AH

Biopower, which is a connection of both. According to Michel Foucault, biopower is a means of managing entire populations as a group, by knowing key, often intimate information about their biological functions. The state makes use of the information it can collect about the biological functioning of its inhabitants. As a feminist, I would also add patriarchy as a key source.

LZL

Neoliberal capitalism. We always get to the question of what access a lesbian, gay, or transgender person had to economic or cultural capital and why.

JS

Foucault says that power is not one-directional, not top-down, from the state to the people. It also goes in the other direction. I view it as a cycle: the public power always reflects, to a point, the wishes of the majority. The state/public power then transforms this wish in some way and applies it back to society.

JF

You mention patriarchy and neoliberal capitalism. How does capitalism complicate LGBT lives?

LZL

It’s mostly about starting conditions for members of the queer community. There is a difference between gays and lesbians that can already be seen during the interwar years. The gay man (like the lesbian woman — in Czechoslovakia, paragraph 129 of the criminal code criminalized both male and female homosexuality) was perhaps more threatened by persecution, as statistically more men than women were arrested, but they had much better chances for professional careers and advancement. A lesbian, on the other hand, had far more limited professional possibilities and often could barely afford her rent. One of the very few women who could afford their own place was the Czech painter Toyen. She got a tiny apartment where she slept but did not live, she basically used it as a hotel room. In comparison, gay men built villas, owned art collections, and staged their own queer domesticity.

JF

Why do you think that LGBT memory remained marginalized in the Czech Republic, even decades after the Velvet Revolution in 1989?

JS

It’s not that no one worked on this topic. There were several LGBT journals throughout the 1990s that were interested in this history. But it remained in this bubble, with a limited amount of readers. I would say that only around 2000, when more academics like Věra Sokolová, Martin C. Putna, and Franz Schindler started working on this topic, did queer history and memory receive the status of a legitimate topic — marginal, but still legitimate.

The issue is that the society does not fully appreciate the potential of the queer perspective, which can help us grasp more general processes. That means queer history is perceived as very much a marginal topic. Personally, I have always perceived queer history as a history of a specific kind of sociability. Beyond its status as one of those “civilizational questions” mentioned above, I feel it has tremendous potential for a better understanding of human bonding, human life strategies, and of ways of ascribing meaning to oneself and the surrounding world.

JF

What leads to the suppression of LGBT people’s collective memory?

AH

The majority society writes history. History is always a social construct, and fulfills an immensely important function — it upkeeps all that is upheld in a society as normal, important, and right, and silences, and in extreme cases “others,” all that does not fit in. It’s sad, before World War II Czechoslovakia was a multinational state and to be a Czechoslovak meant something entirely different than today. These days, we have rising waves of populism, looking for its own useful history, to locate the “normal, important, and right.”

Let me show you a tragic example. One of the best-known prisoners of Theresienstadt was Fredy Hirsch, a German refugee, Zionist, a courageous young man who was gay. He worked in a sports club for Jewish youth in the city of Brno, where he met his partner, the medical student Jan Mautner. Hirsch was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, Mautner survived the war but died a few years later of TB. This spring, I approached the editor of the newsletter of the Theresienstadt Initiative, the Czech Holocaust survivors’ association; I wanted to publish there a short text about Hirsch and Mautner to find survivors who may remember them. One survivor vetoed the text saying that writing about their homosexuality “besmirches their memory.” I was flabbergasted. The article came out heavily censored, you cannot tell that the two were a couple, that either of them were gay, or why am I looking for them. I then hoped to interview the survivor who vetoed the story, because I thought let’s at least document such an expression of radical homophobia. However, the entire board of the survivors’ association refused to talk to me and ended with the sentence “stop being so stubborn.”

JF

Do you think they discriminated against you as a woman historian?

AH

If I were a man, it would be seen as important research and my questions would be seen as dedicated. But because I am a woman, it is perceived as stubborn. I really think this is scandalous. I am deeply disappointed on a human level.

LZL

I would say this is an extreme case you encountered in your research. Ignorance plays an important role. Take the example of Ladislav Vlodek, a local Czech painter. Perhaps most interesting about him is that he was in contact with some queer activist journals from the interwar years. There was an article about him a few years ago in a regional anthology, where an art historian analyzed why Vlodek painted young naked men in his private diaries and sketch books so often, until old age. Her conclusion was that he had an inner need to exercise “human anatomy.”

But it’s not only a case of Czech provincialism. I once did research in the archive of the University of Pasadena, where one male painter has an enormous personal collection. There are thousands of photographs of places and people he met. For some reason, the archivists categorized the pictures according to gender. In the women’s box is the artist wearing women’s clothing, while he is described as an anonymous woman with a parasol. The person who ordered his papers did not think at all that the person in the picture was in fact the artist himself in drag, which demonstrates a certain blindness.

JF

Could you compare your activities within the queer scene and research in Great Britain, Germany or elsewhere?

JS

It is perhaps unsurprising that in various countries such community history centers have existed for longer than in the Czech Republic, as has scholarly research on queer history. Many such examples have been a valuable source of inspiration for us, be that the Schwules Museum in Berlin or the QWien Archives in Vienna, just to mention the ones situated closest to Prague. But during last three years, I have attended three big international conferences on Eastern European queer history and it turned out — surprisingly to me, I have to admit — that nearly every post-Communist country, including post-Soviet ones, has quite important research being done on this topic.

At a conference in Paris last year, Dan Healey presented on a dozen small groups dispersed across Russia. Some of those who work on it are not historians by training but artists, and their work is a work in documentary, or they are neither historians nor artists, but have a common feeling that queer history is something worthy of documentation and research. I am quite curious about the future of these activities, since we can witness a kind of populist turn across not only Eastern Europe, but I think Europe as a whole, and that could lead to pessimism. In this country, however, despite a plainly tyrannical, anti-liberal, selfish, nationalist, or even racist mindset underpinning the policy of the current government, it is with much surprise that I observe an apparently frank willingness of our current government to upgrade LGBT rights.

AH

I am most familiar with the situation in Germany and here in the UK. In the British context, there is a small but significant number of academic historians working on queer history, with journals, books, conferences, and the first MA program in queer history at Goldsmiths.

There is also lots happening on the ground, say the LGBT blue plaques or the LGBT department at the London Metropolitan Archives. So it is odd, that unlike the US, Germany, or even the Czech Republic, Britain does not have a Queer Museum yet. In that sense, a museum is an important place that can bring various activities together and then take them further. I see it in cooperation with the Schwules Museum in Berlin, which developed from a small Kreuzberg institution that focused on male homosexuality to a much larger, national player. Their success, however, comes with problems: the Schwules Museum is having embittered debates about the place and validity of lesbian and feminist experience. I quite appreciate that in the Czech context, the split between gay and lesbian queer context hasn’t happened, in fact, we all work on various gendered expressions, and feminist perspective is quite central to Society for Queer Memory.

LZL

In the United States, I want to mention as example three major organizations: One Archives in Los Angeles, GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, and Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York. None of them is part of the traditional institutional structure of museums and archives, they were founded as nonprofit organizations and a as private museum in case of Leslie-Lohman.

Their role is not only to subvert the heteronormative canon of history by collecting the queer past, in the American activist tradition it is rather their social responsibility towards the present and the future. In that way, an organization collecting queer memory and history can play a very strong role in contemporary LGBT+ activism, especially in times that we globally call the populist turn. We can provide one of the strongest arguments for pro-LGBT legislation enforcement: We have always been here, we are not going anywhere, and look how you used to treat us. And that’s what we, as a Society for Queer Memory want to contribute to. What we lack so far is the intersectional approach, we almost do not have any documents about transgender and genderqueer minorities, disabled queer people, queer people of color, and so forth, but I hope that is going to change.