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Review October 2023

Czechoslovakia’s forgotten university

Review by Mikuláš Pešta
Marta Edith Holečková
ISBN 9788073089214
202 Pages
Published by: Filozofická fakulta Univerzity Karlovy
Senovážné náměstí in 1962, where the main building of the University was located. Source: Fortepan / Szathmáry Géza dr.

In the last decade, only a few fields of academic historical research have grown as much as the studies of student mobility from the countries of the “Third World” to the state socialist countries of East Central Europe during the Cold War.  Focusing especially on the Soviet Union and East Germany, researchers such as Quinn Slobodian, Constantin Katsakioris, Julie Hessler, Marcia Schenck, Sara Pugach, James Mark and the Socialism Goes Global team, and many others have highlighted the place of Eastern Europe in the global history of academic mobility and transfers of knowledge. Despite being a country with one of the most proactive policies in the Third World, socialist Czechoslovakia as a host to international students escaped the attention of historians for a time. The general policies of Czechoslovakia towards the Third World were previously outlined by Petr Zídek and Karel Sieber.1 Daniela Hannová has focused on the social aspects of Arab students’ lives in Prague and Tereza Stejskalová on Third World students at the Czech Film Academy in Prague.2

In her timely contribution Marta Edith Holečková introduces the University of 17th November that was founded in 1961, modelled after the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. The school operated in the heyday of Czechoslovak (and general socialist) internationalism in the 1960s, lived through the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was eventually dissolved in 1974.

Her book is important not only because it covers a topic hitherto unexplored, but it also presents a new interpretation of the University. Before her book, the school was generally remembered either as a curiosity of the failed communist experiment or, worse, a “terrorist training centre” which served for the recruitment of agents to the Czechoslovak secret services and for the indoctrination of foreign students by communist ideology. In Czech public memory, the latter image was shaped and fostered mostly by the testimonies of defected Czechoslovak operatives, which, however, turned out to be extremely unreliable.

Here, Marta Holečková busts myths yet again. As she shows, the school was far from being an ideological pillar of the communist regime.

Instead, Holečková presents an alternative perspective. She does not focus on the context of the Cold War and the struggle between the East and the West, but rather frames the narrative in the history of decolonization and relations between the socialist countries and the “Third World”. This approach allows her to move beyond the black-and-white premise and explore the multi-layered realities of non-European foreigners in socialist Prague. She dedicates a considerable part of the book to the analysis of the social environment the students were confronted with. And not only them – there is also an analysis of how the students were perceived in Czechoslovak society. What were the images of the “Third World” in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s? Did the students actually fit those images? What did the students expect when they applied for scholarships and did their studies in Prague meet their expectations? As it turned out, many students experienced paternalistic or even straight-out racist behavior and were disillusioned by the socialist reality.

Another part of the book deals with the university itself, its organization and institutional history. Here, Marta Holečková busts myths yet again. As she shows, the school was far from being an ideological pillar of the communist regime. The expertise of the teachers was often more important than their political reliability – especially since Czechoslovakia did not have enough specialists who could speak foreign languages fluently and had an impeccable political profile at the same time. The purges at the university in the early 1970s (which were a part of the “normalization” process after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968 and hit all levels of the state apparatus) rid the school of many esteemed specialists and was one of the reasons why it was dissolved a couple of years later. Moreover, the university did not only serve to educate foreigners; local students attended it as well and it also provided language courses for Czechoslovak experts who were to be dispatched abroad. This is an important finding which sheds light not only on the nature of the East-South relations, but also on the dynamics of Czechoslovak educational system.

The book is mostly based on archival documentation from the University itself. These documents are stored in the National Archive of the Czech Republic. However, the collection is still unprocessed and access to it for researchers is limited. Therefore, the fact that Holečková was permitted to study the collection extensively and to some extent mediate its content to other historians is another benefit of her research.

Since Marta Holečková wrote and published her book, the amount of scholarship in the field has perhaps doubled. However, there is still much to be explored in relation to the University of 17th November, foreign students in Czechoslovakia, and socialist internationalisms in East Central Europe. One could examine student communities from individual countries, their formal unions, their relations and evolutions. One could look into the position of the school in the international context of the Eastern Bloc. Or explore the trajectories of students after they graduated and see how many stayed in Czechoslovakia, how many of them assumed important positions in their home countries and how a Czechoslovak education helped them achieve their goals. But any researcher who wishes to pursue these questions will build on the research done by Marta Holečková.  

Mikuláš Pešta is assistant professor at the Institute of World History at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University. He worked as a post-doctoral research associate in the “Socialism Goes Global” project at the University of Exeter. In his research, he focuses on the contacts between Czechoslovakia (Central Eastern Europe) and African and Asian countries and national liberation movements in the field of education, cultural diplomacy, ideology, and the secret services. Currently, he researches the role of Prague-based international organizations and student internationalisms during the Cold War and beyond.


Note: Part of Marta Holečková’s research on the University of 17th November has been published in English in the journal article: Holečková, Marta Edith. “‪The University of 17 November in Prague: Students from Third World countries in Czechoslovakia, 1961-1974‪”, Cahiers du monde russe, 2022, Vol. 63, No, 3-4, p. 647-668.

1 Zídek, Petr and Karel Sieber. Československo a subsaharská Afrika v letech 1948–1989. Ústav mezinárodních vztahů. Prague: Ústav mezinárodních vztahů, 2007.

2 Hannová, Daniela. “Problémoví elegáni. Arabští studenti v Praze v 50. a 60. letech 20. století.” In: Acta Universitatis Carolinae: Historia Universitatis Carolinae Pragensis, 2014, Vol. 54, No. 2, pp. 105–125 and Stejkalová, Tereza (ed.). Filmaři všech zemí, spojte se! Zapomenutý internacionalismus, československý film a třetí svět. Prague: Tranzit, 2017.