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Re-writing Czechoslovak history

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From the day it was published in October 2009, Dr Mary Heimann's book Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed has prompted continuous, lively debate.

Dr Mary Heimann's book coverThe book shines a spotlight on less well-known periods in the former state's history, in the process overturning the widely held view of Czechoslovakia as a blameless country at the mercy of its aggressive, domineering neighbours.

Dr Heimann unearths previously untranslated state archives, legal statutes, secret police files, newspaper records and other primary sources to present an account of a  state which was not only a victim, but also a perpetrator, of extreme nationalist  policies, including what would today be called 'ethnic cleansing'.

A senior lecturer in the department of history at the University of Strathclyde, Dr Heimann writes that Czech and Slovak nationalists "turn out to have been no more immune from the temptations of authoritarianism, bigotry and cruelty than anyone else".

Research impact
The book has provoked strong reactions, both positive and negative, in the Czech Republic and across central Europe. It has also been hailed as an important revisionist work in Britain and the USA. It has been widely reviewed in prominent publications such as the US journal Foreign Affairs, The Economist, The Financial Times and The Times Literary Supplement.

Dr Heimann's book has also been discussed in the Czech Parliament, profiled on the Czech world service, and made the subject of a forthcoming academic conference to be held in the Czech Republic this summer.

She has received hundreds of emails and letters from readers of history around the world, including a former head of British intelligence, Balkans specialists, royalty and a Foreign Secretary, and been interviewed by the Times Higher Education and BBC radio 4 about her research findings.

Published by Yale University Press, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed sold out in both Europe and the US soon after its release and was reprinted in February. At the moment only English language versions are available; however, it is also being translated into Czech and Slovak.

Research background
Dr Heimann's deviation from her research roots in English religious history was prompted by a desire to create an interesting course for her final-year students of 20th century political history.

Keen to avoid a familiar Great Powers perspective, Dr Heimann chose Czechoslovak history to look at the period from the view of a small power. It also allowed students to explore what happened to people’s lives as a result of a change in regime.

"As my thinking developed, I began to realise that most accounts of Czechoslovak history skated over the darker aspects. They also put far too much emphasis on 'the Czech voice'. This made me wonder what other nationalities in the state – Slovaks, Rusyns, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Jews, Gypsies and others – had to say.

"The answers proved startlingly different enough to lead me to gradually reassess the whole of Czechoslovak history."

Setting out to write what was originally intended to just be an up-to-date textbook in English, Dr Heimann instead spent three years learning Czech and moved to Prague for two years to research her controversial account.

Her work was made possible through research sabbaticals funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Postgraduate research
Students inspired to follow Dr Heimann's example can apply for full-funded language training and Masters or PhD places from the Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies (CRCEES), a partnership between eight Scottish and northern English universities and six universities across central Europe.

The £4.7 million research council-funded initiative, based at the University of Glasgow, supports postgraduate research and teaching on aspects of language, culture, identity, politics and economies of the central European states.

Dr Heimann said: "It is extremely heartening to see former students of Czechoslovak history at Strathclyde either move to jobs in the Czech Republic or else take advantage of the chance to learn Czech, from scratch, right here in Glasgow. Thanks to CRCEES, they can learn Czech – or any number of other Central or Eastern European languages – and pursue their research interests with excellent supervision and training and the security of full external funding.

"Without the excellent Czech language teaching available to me through CRCEES, it would not have been possible to pursue my research interests in Scotland.  I would have had to move to London, if not to Prague."

For more information on CRCEES visit http://www.gla.ac.uk/crcees/.