Primary School Teachers as a Tool of Secularisation of Society in Communist Czechoslovakia

Jiří Zounek, Michal Šimáně, Dana Knotová. History of Education. Volume 46, Issue 4. 2017.


Persecution of individuals or groups of people for their religious beliefs is an important part of history and the twentieth century was no exception. Totalitarian ideologies arising in various places in the world have played a considerable role in this process. One example is Nazi Germany, whose ideology led to the genocide of millions of people of the Jewish faith in the 1930s and 1940s. While the persecution of Jews during the Nazi dictatorship has received much attention our knowledge of persecution due to religious beliefs in countries with communist regimes remains less developed. Studies dealing with these issues tend to concentrate on relations between communist regimes and the local Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican, or other churches operating in these countries. The course and forms of secularisation in societies with totalitarian regimes tend to be neglected in the research. One reason for this may be the fact that such persecution was not as visible as that in Nazi Germany. The primary goal of the communist dictatorship was ‘re-educating’ the numerous believers in favour of socialist ideology, depriving religious beliefs of any role in their lives, rather than disposing of these people.

The communist establishments used a variety of means to achieve their goals. They spread their ideologies through the period media in sophisticated ways and also focused on the system of education. The latter offered an immense potential for ‘bringing up’ a new generation loyal to socialist ideas. It is hardly surprising that while working towards obtaining absolute power, communist totalitarian regimes strove to restructure their educational systems and systems for training teachers. The restructuring concerned not only the educational system itself but also school curricula. Schools and teachers were to become tools for advancing socialist ideology. They were to pass the ideology on to the younger generations, thereby raising ‘new individuals’ loyal to Marxism-Leninism, including the idea that societies should consist of people free of religious beliefs.

The interfaces between education and religion have been treated by many books on both Czech and international educational history. The research on these issues, however, often focuses on the secularisation of educational systems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and/or describing the history of education in a variety of countries which have not experienced any totalitarian regime. Research mapping the topic in countries that have experienced totalitarian dictatorships hardly exists, or covers the topic only marginally. Another feature shared by these volumes is that they tend to treat the topic from a macro-historical perspective by focusing on general characteristics, based on statistical data and analysis of political documents of legislation.

Research within the field of Czech history of education and education systems is distinct from similar research abroad. Although nearly two and a half decades separate us from the end of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia and the so-called Velvet Revolution, little has been done in researching the contemporary history of Czech educational sciences and education. It is only after the beginning of the new millennium that the first studies covering socialist education in the former Czechoslovakia appeared. Systematic research of socialist education in Czechoslovakia has still been lacking, which is also true for sub-topics such as how educational policies interacted with religious beliefs, and this is covered in the following pages.

First, however, is a short section in which we introduce the methodology of our research, covering the methods and historical sources used in the study, as well as the limits we set for our research. The next section provides historical context for primary education, matters of faith and secularisation in former Czechoslovakia. Following that is the main topic of our study, which is a description of atheisation policies in communist education.


This study is one of the outputs of a research project focusing on the history of communist education and the work of teachers at primary schools in the region of South Moravia in the former Czechoslovak Republic. It aims to describe, explain and interpret everyday situations teachers found themselves in, having to meet the tasks assigned to them by the party in power and comply with the directives of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCZ) designed to implement its secularisation policies. We are specifically interested in what tasks teachers were expected to perform and how they complied with these expectations. We are also concerned with the ideological-political training of teachers-to-be during their study at pedagogical faculties. We are interested in how this training took place and how it was perceived by teachers. Rather than capturing the macro-historical dimension of these issues, our approach to the topic draws on recollections by teachers/witnesses. Our research is thus part of a broader stream of ‘new histories’, or ‘history from below’.

This study is based mainly on data collected through oral history interviews and archival research. We employed oral history as it mediates not commonly available or half-forgotten knowledge, ‘based on personal communication by persons who participated in or witnessed a particular event, process or period’. Moreover, this method can mediate valuable information on individual perceptions of everyday situations by the witnesses as well as their opinions and attitudes. The power of oral history as a method is even more evident when the difficulty in accessing historical sources deposited in archives is considered. In some cases, oral history may provide the only possibility of getting to understand our recent past.

Our analysis is based on data from 12 interviews with six respondents (five women and one man) aged 70-76. All respondents taught in primary schools before 1989. The total recording time was 18 hours. The selection of respondents for the sample population was guided by the topic. Only period witnesses with experiences related to the topics were included in the sample population. This shows one of the limits of oral history as a method: the ‘silence’ emerging in the interviews especially when sensitive topics are discussed. A number of our period witnesses did not want to speak about matters of faith under communism, or digressed from answering such questions to other topics. The reasons they gave for wishing to keep silent varied. For some a significant factor was a desire not to recall events which in them still evoke negative emotions to this day. In other cases, there was a fear of conflicts with former colleagues who hold different views. Another reason could be their prevailing faith in communist ideals, which are now in opposition to the majority views of Czech society. The witnesses would then be afraid of a negative reaction from the greater society. From a methodological perspective this presented a significant challenge for the interviewers. In these cases, we had to try and build up absolute trust with the interviewees. This included measures such as promises of significant anonymisation of both their private details and records of persons and places (including the names of schools, areas or towns) that the witnesses have mentioned in the interviews. We employed the same approach for anonymising interviews with all other period witnesses as well.

The goal of the interviews was to acquire information on the operation of primary schools in communist Czechoslovakia as well as on the everyday life of teachers. Usually two interviews were conducted with each period witness. The first one asked about the respondent’s biographical record, with as little interference as possible from the interviewer, who typically asked only supplementary questions. The second interview had the form of a dialogue between the interviewer and the period witness; the questions were based on the first interview. They concerned, for instance, points that needed clarification or explanation of interesting or little known facts, with the aim of deepening our understanding of the topic. Second interviews did not take place with every respondent, however. This happened, for instance, when the health of an interviewee deteriorated, or when all information needed was covered by the first interview. Two period witnesses had a history of CPCZ membership although one of them was expelled after 1968. Four had never been CPCZ members. The interviews were analysed using ATLAS.ti® software (Scientific Software Development GmbH) for qualitative data analysis. The results of the analysis have been used to structure this paper.

Our study of archival historical sources provided us with a different perspective. These documents mediated for us a deeper understanding of the historical context and the general period context, and were useful in revealing the opinions expressed and processes employed by the regime and CPCZ leadership. They also helped us to fill in the ‘blanks’ in the interviewees’ narratives, which often treat material selectively, this feature reflecting the very nature of oral history as a method. On the other hand the state of preservation of archival material did not allow us to reconstruct the period reality based on quantitative data, which is absent in both period and contemporary publications. We studied archival sources in the National Archive of the Czech Republic.

Primary Schools and Education of Primary School Teachers in Communist Czechoslovakia

The history of Czechoslovak education after 1945 is closely connected with events at the end of the Second World War. Due to its major role in liberating Central European countries from the Nazi dictatorship, the Soviet Union secured considerable influence in the region. One of the consequences of this was the adoption of the so-called Košice Governmental Programme, a document setting out the principles of future Czechoslovak policies. This programme defined the political and economic, but also cultural, orientation of Czechoslovakia towards the Soviet Union. In education this involved, for instance, removing anti-Soviet comments from textbooks and giving priority to Russian within the hierarchy of foreign languages taught in Czechoslovak schools.

The turning point in the development of Czechoslovakia, including its education system, was 1948. In February 1948, the CPCZ took over all political power and state administration. The date marks the beginning of a governmental monopoly and a non-democratic regime. After February 1948, a period of political tightening followed, which naturally affected even the lives of ordinary Czech citizens. The main feature of the new regime was its banishment of any democratic opposition. Especially in the first years of its existence, the communist regime persecuted its adversaries in ways that included even absurd staged trials.

Future developments in education and child-rearing were managed (often without a meaningful plan, lacking expertise, and rather chaotically) exclusively by the CPCZ, which was keen to imitate the educational system in the Soviet Union without applying critical judgement. Schools were, for instance, involved in dealing with political and economic issues—a change affecting the whole system of education. A lack of workforce in metallurgy and agriculture was to be dealt with by intensifying study at primary and secondary schools. For this purpose, the party in power replaced the existing primary and secondary schools with 11-year secondary schools while shortening compulsory schooling from nine to eight years. From then on, students wishing to study at university could apply upon finishing the 11-year secondary school, i.e. as early as 17 years of age. University training for primary school teachers was not exempt from these changes. Pedagogical faculties, established in Czechoslovakia in 1946, were closed in 1953. Training for future teachers was taken up by newly established pedagogical schools, higher pedagogical schools, and pedagogical universities. The duration of study at these institutions ranged between two and four years, depending on the level at which the teachers-to-be intended to teach.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, a wave of criticism of the Stalinist government moderated the effects of the totalitarian regime across the entire eastern Communist bloc. Censorship became less strict and some persecuted people were rehabilitated. This process affected Czechoslovakia, where the peak of this political loosening in 1968 is usually referred to as the Prague Spring. During this time, within the CPCZ and throughout society, voices demanding reform of the CPCZ and its policies, aiming at putting into practice the so-called ‘socialism with a human face’, could be heard.

The relaxed atmosphere of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s spread to education and child-rearing as well. Unlike in the previous period, the Czechoslovak schooling system was no longer to imitate the Soviet system; paying attention to the real needs of Czechoslovak society became a new priority. This was, however, far from abandoning communist ideals, as the definition of the mission of Czechoslovak schools in the new School Act of 1960 shows. According to that, schools were to ‘bring up the young and working people in the spirit of the science-based world outlook, Marxism-Leninism … [forming] enthusiastic builders of communism’. The School Act returned compulsory schooling from eight to nine years and established so-called nine-year primary schools. Eleven-year secondary schools were cancelled as a concept and the secondary level of education was gradually implemented at vocational secondary schools, grammar schools, etc.

Training for primary-school teachers underwent a transformation as well. The three types of institutions for educating primary school teachers were merged into so-called pedagogical institutes in 1959. Applicants had to undergo an entrance process organised in agreement with regulations concerning higher education and co-organised by regional or district and city administration committees. This is how the CPCZ was involved in the entrance procedure, and its presence was tangible in the actual process. In addition to checking the candidates’ level of knowledge and personal attitude to the official ideology, applicants’ (absence of) religious beliefs were checked. The goal was for students of pedagogical institutes to feel positive about socialist ideology and to scorn any religious ideology. Pedagogical institutes offered only diplomas enabling graduates to teach at primary schools. The curricula of these institutes were divided into three areas: politics, pedagogy, and a subject specialisation. The key area of pedagogical institutes was politics and ideology, permeating all courses but transmitted primarily in a course called Fundamentals of Marxism and Leninism. Pedagogical institutes were restructured and transformed into pedagogical faculties in 1964. The curricula remained basically the same as those of the former pedagogical institutes.

The invasion by Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968 put a stop to the rising wave of reformist effort both within the CPCZ and across Czechoslovak society. A new round of communist power tightening and political purges followed, the latter being designed to prevent the regime’s adversaries and pro-reform forces from playing any role in influencing the operation of the country. These policies were applied until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which marked the fall of the communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia and a change of direction towards a democratic regime.

As in many other areas of post-1968 Czechoslovak society, Normalisation and Consolidation in education meant a return to previous practices, i.e. to the situation preceding the reformist movement. School was to fulfil not only a pedagogical role but, according to the Report on Developments, Issues, and Perspectives in Czechoslovak Education of 1971, it was also to play a distinct political role. It was to be an ‘important ideological tool, with whose help the Party arms the maturing generations and masses of people … with communist morals’. A key position in this process at schools was to be played by teachers, who even pledged their commitment to the task:

I promise I will always work in the interest of the working class and implement policies of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia…. I will adhere to the principles of communist education when cultivating love for their socialist homeland in pupils … bringing them up in the spirit of the Marxist/Leninist world outlook.

Teachers were expected to meet the requirements of the party in power not only in their educational work but also in their private lives, by their attitudes and behaviour and their participation in public life.

Secularisation of Society in Czechoslovakia from the Perspective of Teachers/Period Witnesses

The establishment of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1948 was the first step towards a change in (the thinking of) its whole population. The party in power started inserting Marxist-Leninist ideas into the political, economic and cultural domains from the very first days of its rise to power. All directives of the system of administration and government were based on the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism. It was used to explain all reality including facts outside politics. One of the goals of the CPCZ based on Marxism-Leninism was to create an entirely secular society—a society where religious beliefs would be pointless, considering the socialist view that religion is the opiate of the people and a sign of human weakness and backwardness.

The CPCZ thus faced a very complex task. Prior to 1948, 75% of its members stated they were religious and 90% of people voting for the CPCZ were religious. This situation was bound to influence relations between the state and the individual churches operating in the Czech Republic, and required finding some way of coexisting on an everyday basis. This is why after 1948 the Communist leadership persistently tried to integrate the individual churches into their system of political power, to curb their links abroad, and to create national religious circles loyal to the goals of the regime. To accomplish this, the communist regime adopted several so-called religious acts in 1949. They prepared conditions for establishing the State Office for Affairs of Religion (Státní úřad pro věci církevní) and bodies subordinated to it at the level of administrative regions and districts. The newly established Office was governed by a minister appointed by the president of the country while the regional and district sub-offices were managed by church secretaries. The Office inherited the jurisdiction and all property of the individual churches and religious societies which had operated in the Czech Republic up to that time. It oversaw the operation of these churches and was in charge of establishing norms concerning church-related and other religious issues.

The adoption of the church acts occurred simultaneously with a wave of persecutions by the state. The CPCZ used the same tools employed against the political adversaries of the regime. In a number of absurd staged trials against churches, for instance, male religious orders and the Greek Catholic Church were dissolved, a number of bishops and regulars were disposed of or imprisoned, and the religious press, religious literature, religious ceremonies, etc., were subjected to restrictions.

As for daily life, public exercise of religious beliefs was bound to cause problems for practitioners, leading even to their exclusion from a number of professions. The professions inherently requiring atheism, or even involving the education of others in atheism, included the teaching profession. The CPCZ acted in this way reflecting the fact that, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czech teachers were leading protagonists acting in favour of removing religion from the public and private lives of people. Balík and Hanuš state that this older tradition was among the reasons for the relatively easy subordination of Czech schools to the totalitarian regime after 1948.

Around the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, a change in the approach to teaching religion occurred. Religion was a compulsory school subject until the end of the 1952/1953 school year. A 1953 decree of the Ministry of Education, Science and Arts, however, introduced a new change. From then on, religion was to be a non-compulsory subject at primary schools. Instruction was to take place exclusively in schools and was banned from parsonages. Applying for this subject was intentionally made complicated by requiring parents to apply on behalf of their children by submitting a signed form at the beginning of the school year. This step completed, they should have been reminded by the school leadership that religion classes were optional only and voluntary. In some cases, headmasters even required parents to come to the school and sign the application in their office. This enabled them to pressurise the parents to withdraw the application. Many teachers had committed to the goal of zero attendance in their religion classes. Many headmasters also claimed they had no application forms for religion classes in the first days of the school year, and/or scheduled religious instruction for evenings. The motivation for headmasters to have as few children as possible apply for religion classes was often external (apart from their being communists by persuasion). The number of children attending religion classes was one measure of the success (or lack thereof) of secularisation. When headmasters were evaluated by their superiors, these data were considered.

This is how the cancellation of compulsory religion in primary schools is recollected by a teacher called Lara:

Like we received christening in our family, so I myself was attending religion till [19]52…. And well because our folks didn’t put any pressure of course, well my father anyway, he knew about things as a teacher, so we basically, when it ended, we stopped going to religious education all of us, and none of us, neither my brother nor me nor our sister attended it any more.

Her report points to another fact, that her father—a teacher—‘knew about things’. Simultaneous with the cancellation of religious instruction in 1953 as a compulsory school subject was another process: massive dismissals from employment of religiously faithful teachers who were not willing to give up any signs of their belief in public life. In addition, attending religious instruction and the practice of religion were both obstacles to enrolment in higher levels of education, and such children were ridiculed and bullied for their beliefs and the beliefs of their parents. The discontinuation of attendance for religious instruction in Ms Lara’s family could thus be due to the father’s attempt to avoid dismissal and to protect the futures of his children.

By 1954, the CPCZ had succeeded in paralysing all church life in the Czechoslovak Republic. The extent of this paralysis was such that from the second half of the 1950s on, the Communists did not perceive churches and religious societies as a serious threat. The situation was so favourable for the party that there was no need to adopt any further restrictive measures. This, however, does not mean that the totalitarian regime stopped monitoring religious beliefs in the country. Religious instruction never featured in primary school curricula again from 1953 until the end of the communist regime, and was managed by special regulations by the State Office for Affairs of Religion and/or the Ministry of Education. The educational system in the Czechoslovak Republic was entirely secular from 1953 onwards.

Personal religious beliefs started to be a factor at teacher training institutions in the 1950s as well. Ms Lara, for instance, witnessed the following situation when studying at a higher pedagogical school:

I remember that three girls in our grade had to leave the school because they didn’t want to sign, that it was in their files that they had been christened … they didn’t want to renounce the church by their signature…. Well she left the school … rather than signing at the faculty that … she was renouncing the church … so she essentially had to leave or be left’, well. She dropped out after the first year.

Besides the fact that students were persecuted for their religious beliefs, this story reveals the lack of consistency on the part of the communist regime in enrolling applicants at teacher-training institutions. Applicants’ attitudes towards religious ideologies were one factor in the application process. The fact that in the 1950s the communist regime needed to increase numbers of university-qualified employees in various areas of society may have played a role. Primary schools, from which teachers hostile to the new political system had recently been banned, were among them. The main goal was thus to meet the quotas, rather than verify attitudes towards religion in individual applicants. Such screening, as the report by Ms Lara shows, took place only later, after admission and studies had already commenced. The report by Ms Lara testifies to one of the strengths of oral history as a method for studying contemporary history in comparison with traditional methods. Available archival sources do not reveal any relevant information on this topic.

While preparing for their teaching careers, student teachers were exposed to subject-related courses as well as ideological and political training. Teachers-to-be were to become an ideological tool of the regime and bring up their pupils consistent with the Marxist-Leninist worldview and atheist morals. For this purpose, a course called Fundamentals of Marxism and Leninism was included in the curricula of pedagogical institutions. Knowledge of the subject was even tested in the final exams, an experience recalled by one interviewee as follows: ‘The appalling bullshit we had to blurt out at the exams … was something I, and I believe hardly anyone, could put up with’ (Ms Nora). Student teachers, even if their focus was, say, mathematics, physics, geography, or arts, had to study Marxist philosophy, the history of all the unions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the CPCZ, and the origins and history of the international workers’ movement—topics related neither to their teaching specialisation nor to the philosophy of education.

In connection with the loosening of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s there was a trend on the part of pro-reform communists to interpret religion in a more favourable light than the official communist establishment wished. This can be seen in the preparations made for a number of changes, which incited many a hope among religious people. Visible effects of reform included, for instance, the restructuring of staff in important positions in the Office for Affairs of Religion, amnesties granted to clergy, the release of imprisoned clergy, and the restoration of the Greek Catholic Church and monastic orders. In the realm of education, some previous regulations concerning religious instruction were moderated. Applications for religious instruction were, for instance, submitted to priests, not headmasters. Religious instruction could take place outside school buildings and was extended to Grades eight and nine. The trend also affected teachers. In July 1968, the Central Committee of the CPCZ approved a document in which the Marxist philosopher Vítězslav Gardavský stated that ‘the party disapproves of any discrimination for reasons of faith, especially discrimination against religious teachers’. Religious teachers who had previously been hiding their beliefs could now go to church without risking punishment.

The invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968, however, put a stop to these reform efforts. At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s the pre-reform principles of communist power were restored. The new political leadership enforced vast political purges without any restraint, affecting mainly people who had been active during the Prague Spring. This reversion to pre-1968 norms included state policies towards religion. In the first years of this so-called Normalisation period, several pieces of legislation were adopted restoring the original (anti-)church acts adopted at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s. The return to the old ‘order of things’ (i.e. the norm, hence the term ‘Normalisation’) was again associated with personnel purges in the leadership of church departments of the ministry as well as among bishops and monks.

The restoration of the (anti-)church acts also affected primary schools. Religious instruction, for instance, could only be offered in grades two to seven, and only once a week. The state-approved clergymen teaching the subject were not paid for their work. Applications were again collected by school leaders and the signatures of both parents were strictly required. There were annual campaigns pressurising parents not to enrol their children or to withdraw their applications. The campaigns were administered and checked by the school and church administration. These events led to a number of conflicts between parents and administrative bodies, a feature typical of the Normalisation period.

One of the forms these campaigns took was teachers paying visits to believers’ homes. ‘We had to visit families; we were ordered to go and had to go and persuade those parents not to sign up their children for religious instruction’ (Dáša). The teacher was assigned the task by the headmaster, who, in turn, was implementing an order from the district educational administrative authority. The visits to families were preceded by a conversation between teachers and parents. Then the teacher visited the family. Even the introductory conversation was perceived by the teacher called Dáša as very unpleasant. She entered the conversation fearing how the parents would react to questions concerning their children and belief. Her worry was justified, as for example the following reminiscence shows:

The father … came to the parents’ meeting and I said to him: ‘Mr XX, I have to tell you something, you hold an important position in the [agricultural] cooperative; do you have to send YY to church classes?’ And he tells me: ‘Well, let me put it this way—if I didn’t know you, I would just kick your ass and that’d be it.’

Only the hitherto good relations with the agricultural functionary saved the teacher from a stronger expression of emotions that her question provoked in him. Although these conversations were extremely unpleasant for Dáša, she had to undertake them unless she was ready to face a conflict with her superiors. The same was true of the visits she had to pay to religious families in their homes. During the visits the teacher did not dare to mention religion at all, despite this being her main task: ‘they were talking to me but I didn’t dare to say a word about their belief. When you are in their home, mentioning it would be like cutting the branch you are sitting on.’

One of the reasons for keeping silent about the main point of the task was the sense that it would be inappropriate to ask questions relating to families’ religious beliefs. In this context what Dáša says about cutting off the branch she is sitting on is interesting. In the context of her narrative, the remark indicates she feared a potential loss of respect from the parents and their children in her class. Inappropriate behaviour in the homes of religious believers could potentially worsen the class climate or even jeopardise learning. Although Dáša did not succeed in her task, she was not punished by the state apparatus. No reports were submitted on visits to homes and conversations with parents. The outcome of the visits was not reported in any way.

What Dáša says is surprising from another point of view. Her narrative shows that even people in locally important positions, such as the above-mentioned agricultural functionary, were religious. And this was not a rare phenomenon in socialist Czechoslovakia. After the new regime was established and especially after laws were put into effect directing the country towards Marxism-Leninism and so-called atheist morals, inhabitants of Czechoslovakia had only three options for coping with the new situation: to renounce their beliefs, to keep their beliefs absolutely private and give up any public signs of being religious or to hide their beliefs, for instance by going to church at a location far from where they lived.

The last option was, however, strictly monitored by the regime. Teachers and headmasters played a role again. The teacher called Nora, for instance, recalls:

Our headmaster himself was ordered by party members to go as far as to … and there he was watching in front of the church to make sure there that none of our children were entering it. Patrols were all around … but they could not intervene, they just reported who was seen.

Having to hide their faith could interfere with the psychological and moral development of religious children. Secret, and from the state administration’s point of view illegal, religious instruction was organised in private homes and/or took place undercover under the label of leisure-time activities or hobby associations, such as a tourist group or a young firemen’s club. Some children thus received religious education without being allowed to speak about it in public. Nora the teacher was aware of the situation, recollecting:

Children attended religious classes held in secret. The situation was so harsh that parents who were religious were going to another church far away … with their children. They took their children for classes at another parish in the afternoons and the children knew enough to say they were not going to religion classes when asked at school.

Children from faithful families thus learned during the communist era not to express their true beliefs in public, in order to avoid punishment from the state apparatus. According to Gruner and Kluchert, they developed so-called double morals, a typical sign of people living in totalitarian regimes.

The communist regime used teachers for their political goals in a variety of ways. New graduates from pedagogical institutions assumed their first job positions following placement orders. Through this mechanism, the central administration sent new teachers to municipalities where teachers were needed more than elsewhere. Teachers had little say in the decision on where they would work, and were often sent to very distant places. In rare cases, teachers could be spared from moving to distant locations by contacts in educational or other administrative bodies. This was the case of the 17-year-old teacher Vanda:

There were the placement orders and many of my colleagues had to go to the Ostrava region whether they wanted to or not; the placement orders ruled. Well, I was lucky about this, or rather lucky in the middle of the general misery, because a cousin of mine … was in the school administration in….

What did the teacher refer to by the word ‘misery’? It was another of the political tasks assigned to teachers by the regime. In Vanda’s case, the task was dismantling the congregation of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, as evidenced by the following recollection:

‘We need you here because we need to deal with one place where teachers as well as the kindergarten teacher, they all joined the Seventh-Day Adventists.’… And he told me, ‘we need you there as a socialist teacher … we need you there because we are trying to deal with it now, so we thought, we need to dismantle this, we need to send there someone who is not going to be in harmony with them’.

The teacher, Vanda, could have declined the placement but in doing so she would risk a placement far from her home. There was a relative who may have been able to protect her from the worst, but Vanda agreed to the offer in the end—but stated clearly: ‘I’m not going to speak against their faith, not a single word. This is just something you will not ask me to do.’ Instead of pressurising the parents of religious children to send their children to school on Saturdays and renounce their faith in favour of securing their children a good future, she chose to act considerately. For instance, she accommodated the Adventist children by teaching them voluntarily in her spare time what they missed while away from school on Saturdays. She herself acted as the Adventists themselves would, as they told Vanda on one occasion, ‘Let’s do it, if it is for the sake of the children’.

Issues concerning religion, going beyond non-compulsory religious instruction, arose at primary schools in totalitarian Czechoslovakia. For instance, history lessons often touched on religious themes. The teacher had to be very prudent, as a situation described by Žaneta shows:

We were just learning about religion, how Christianity was created and so on. Well, this is taught in History, Grade 7…. And I had those pictures, you know, to show things to the kids, the history, how religion originated in Rome and so on, and there was unfortunately a picture of the Pope—and that was a problem.

The headmaster was listening to Žaneta talking from the adjacent room and confronted her later. He said ‘that I shouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about how Christianity originated, that I should have mentioned only the facts of history and kind of avoid talking about the present’. This, again, shows how the politics of the Party regarding the secularisation of society infused teachers’ work. Czechoslovakia, except during the period of political relaxation during the Prague Spring of the mid-1960s, had no political relations with the Vatican, or these relations were very tense due to the policies of the CPCZ regarding religion. Telling primary-school pupils in history lessons about the Pope or the Vatican was clearly undesirable.

An important task of primary school teachers besides teaching was writing comprehensive evaluation reports on students leaving compulsory school. These evaluation reports were attached to students’ applications for secondary schools. The evaluation criteria were not limited to pedagogical concerns such as the level of knowledge, intellectual skills, or potential for further education. Teachers also had to evaluate ‘whether their parents were Communist Party members or had been expelled after 1969, that was a compulsory item, whether they attended religious instruction, whether their parents were religious—these paragraphs were given emphasis in the evaluations’ (Dáša). These were criteria which were essential for determining the future paths of children in the education system of totalitarian Czechoslovakia. Nora reported: ‘Every form teacher tried—I think all did, including the Communists—to write as little as possible and harm the child as little as possible.’ She adds, however, that this did not always work. The headmaster submitted the evaluation reports to a committee appointed to approve them, which consisted of party members from among the school staff. If the committee viewed a report as missing too much information, the teacher had to provide additional information to redress the alleged shortcomings.

This practice caused a big problem for the teacher to whom we refer as Nora. The situation concerned a pupil from the class where Nora was a form teacher. The girl was the best in her class in all subjects throughout primary school, and also won awards in all kinds of knowledge-based competitions organised by the school administration. However, when she wanted to pursue her studies at a grammar school, a problem arose:

she was attending classes of religion and did not attend the Pioneer meetings, her parents told her not to, and now she was applying for grammar school … and I did not mention the religious instruction in the report, I did not mention she was not a member of the Pioneer organisation, I withheld this information.

Nora goes on to tell how the head of the committee that was approving evaluation reports written by individual teachers removed her from a lesson to talk to her in the corridor and pressured her to change the report. Nora refused. She expected punishment but nothing happened. The reason was that the committee itself added the information to the report and refused the girl a recommendation for grammar school studies. In this way, Czechoslovakia lost talented students.

Fortunately, the story of the girl ended well. Nora disagreed with the committee’s rejection and decided to support the girl in another way. She arranged a face-to-face meeting with the headmaster of the grammar school to which the girl was applying. Nora did not know him, but ‘I knew he was a good man, although he was a party member, and I even knew that in the past he had enrolled students from other places in the country whose parents were involved in the political upheaval of 1968’. The headmaster heard Nora out and decided to enrol the girl despite the official stance of the communists:

We will do it this way: I will receive the paperwork, including the negative recommendation, and her final school report, and you will get for me from her parents all her awards and copies of school reports starting from, say, grade five or six. I will attach this to the files and should there be an inspection, this will justify why I enrolled a child who had not been recommended to study.

The girl was finally admitted to the grammar school thanks to Nora and the grammar school headmaster’s refusal to act as if indifferent. Both took considerable risks, which could have deprived them of their jobs.

Efforts to protect children from the violence of the communist regime were not exceptional among teachers. For instance, a teacher called Čeněk spoke of several pupils who were members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Although these pupils did not go to school on Saturdays due to their faith, teachers in his school ‘learned to keep silent about this’. This was true even for the comprehensive report on one of the pupils: ‘I was his form teacher, I was writing the report, and there was not a single word, of course, about it … it was important to keep silent’.

Secularising the youth was a priority of the CPCZ until the mid-1980s. The goal was to bring up the young in the Marxist-Leninist philosophy. To prevent communist youth from being influenced by churches, from 1948 the Central Committee of the Party strove to influence how young people spent their leisure-time as much as possible. Tools of secularisation included, for instance, secular TV broadcasts (weekend shows for the young) and festivals, tourist club assemblies, etc., organised on days of important church holidays. The party lessened its efforts in the second half of the 1980s when the geopolitical situation changed in connection with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika. At this time, the tone of the documents of the Ideological Committee of the Central Committee of the CPCZ became less resolute. This can be evidenced by the following quotation from a document called ‘The Concept of Secular Education’ from May 1989:

The interests of further development of socialism and winning over all honest people to build socialism shall govern even our attitude to religion, and believers. In the current circumstances of socialist society, religion must not be viewed merely as a hangover from the past … by motivating people for honest work, giving them a sense of responsibility and leading them to respect general values of humanism, religion may also play the role of a positive factor in socialist society.

One specific effect of the party becoming more lenient regarding the relations between church and state was the rising numbers of children enrolled in religious instruction: in 1989, rates increased by as much as 2000% in some administrative regions compared with the previous year.


This study has focused on the history of the communist education system, specifically with regard to the policy of the secularisation of society in communist Czechoslovakia. We examined the topic especially through oral narratives from teachers/period witnesses, who taught at primary schools during the communist dictatorship. Generally speaking, the communist regime of 1948-1989 strove to transform Czechoslovak society towards acceptance of socialist ideas. All of reality was to be explained by Marxism-Leninism, religious faith having no place in the new society. Schools and teachers were important tools for implementing these policies. The educational system, including the training of teachers, was adjusted to the needs of meeting the goals of the totalitarian regime. Teachers underwent studies including ideological and political education taught under the label of Fundamentals of Marxism and Leninism. The goal was to produce teachers loyal to socialist ideas and ready to pass these ideas on to future generations in their schools and in other activities. To meet this end, one of the components of the enrolment process at pedagogical institutes was checking applicants’ attitudes towards religious ideology.

Reports by our respondents who were willing to speak of the secularisation policies indicate that this effort failed. Students approached the course in Fundamentals of Marxism and Leninism with negative feelings. They were far from enthusiastic about the compulsory ideological and political training as it was typically irrelevant to their study specialisation or personal philosophy. Only the wish to get a diploma and work as a teacher motivated them to pass this part of their studies.

Ideological and political training was a tool through which the communist state tried to shape teachers who would fulfil politically driven tasks alongside their pedagogical activities in schools. Teachers had to visit believers’ families in their homes, make sure that children did not attend church, and specify in comprehensive reports whether the children were believers or not. It is interesting to see how it was that teachers satisfied these expectations. Our interviews show that the main goal was not to harm the children. To do this, teachers opted for the simplest strategy—passive resistance to the pressure of the Party. This consisted in keeping secret that a particular child was from a religious family. Teachers did not report religious students to the Party administration and intentionally withheld relevant facts about pupils when writing comprehensive reports. They also avoided taking active initiatives or speaking openly against the regime, protecting not only the pupils but themselves as well. The teacher to whom we refer as Nora, however, acted differently: she acted in favour of a girl actively, jeopardising her own career. It is interesting that she relied especially on her colleagues’ outgoing attitude, willingness to help, and innate goodness, and her efforts succeeded despite the communist regime.

Our research is also a methodological contribution to the field as it has revealed one of the limitations of oral history as a method. This is the ‘silence’ of period witnesses when sensitive topics are brought up. For this reason, results of oral history research must be treated with caution and findings should not be generalised. In our research sample, teachers who spoke about secularisation in their oral interviews generally said that they were primarily trying to protect children from harm. This, however, does not mean that there were no teachers in communist society who wrote their evaluation reports meticulously in line with their conviction about the correctness of communist ideas. The oral interviews that we recorded, nevertheless, do not contain evidence of this. Keeping silent about these issues may have to do with a variety of personal reasons, among them negative perceptions of advocates of the previous regime (and CPCZ members) in current Czech society.

Despite the aforementioned limitations of oral history, the oral interviews we recorded have revealed a significant finding with which we will conclude the study. The Adventist saying ‘Let’s do it, if it is for the sake of the children’ was followed by some teachers in primary schools in communist Czechoslovakia as well. Both religious people and teachers accommodated one another in the totalitarian regime, especially in the interests of protecting children’s futures from the pressures and punishments of the communist dictatorship. This and other similar findings prove the strengths of oral history as a method in comparison with traditional methods of historical research based on examining period archival materials. Such materials could be edited and manipulated in totalitarian regimes to suit the regime’s needs and propaganda. Certain kinds of data were also simply not collected by these regimes. Oral history thus enables us to understand the phenomena under investigation from a different perspective, and also reveals many characteristics by differentiating them from the general descriptions of the phenomena; oral history mediates deepening the macro-history view of history and supplementing it with new insights.

Before concluding, it is worth emphasising that the findings yielded by our research cannot be generalised. As has already been mentioned, the scope of study is strictly the former South Moravia region, which was, for historical reasons, more religious than other regions in the former Czechoslovakia. Exploring and comparing these issues in other regions of the former Czechoslovakia, or undertaking comparative research in the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, is a challenge for further research.