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Lawrence Reed Columnist

Published Thursday, December 06, 2012

A museum worth every minute

More than 150 years ago Karl Marx predicted that communism was inevitable. History, he claimed, was marching toward a communist paradise. In hindsight it would appear that if anything about communism was inevitable, it was that it would sooner or later be relegated to the status of museum relic. In the capital city of a formerly communist country in Eastern Europe, that’s exactly what has happened.

Visit Prague in the Czech Republic these days and there’s a spot you won’t want to miss. It’s the Museum of Communism, amidst the city’s main shopping district and just a five-minute walk from the foot of beautiful Wenceslaus Square.

The man behind the museum is not himself a native Czech. He is Glenn Spicker, an American entrepreneur who was attracted to Prague’s new business opportunities after the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” expelled the communists from power. He introduced bagels to Prague and opened a jazz club and several successful restaurants.

It soon struck him that what was missing in the city was any vivid public reminder of what life was like before 1989. So he spent several months and $28,000 searching flea markets and junk shops for almost a thousand bits and pieces of memorabilia — including busts of Marx and Lenin, textbooks, posters and samples of the shoddy merchandise that once adorned dingy state-owned storefronts all across the country. The museum opened its doors in December 2001.

Exhibits that explain the communist “dream” greet the visitor upon entering. Slogans, propaganda and all the paraphernalia of promises made to be broken remind one of the wildly utopian vision once offered by Marx and his followers. Communist theoreticians boasted that they would produce a “workers’ paradise” of happiness and abundance, but nothing of the sort came to pass in anywhere the system was tried.

In Spicker’s museum the reconstruction of an interrogation room used by the secret police provides a chilling refresher in state terror. Records show that under communist rule Czech political dissidents were executed by the dozens; more than a quarter million were imprisoned. The secret police employed no fewer than 200,000 spies paid to keep watch over their fellow citizens.

In another corner of the museum sits a replica of a grocery storefront, shabby and unattractive because that’s the way storefronts looked under communism. Shelves were often bare or stocked with goods few people wanted. Shoppers had to endure long lines to secure the most basic of commodities.

Spicker’s museum does have a sense of humor. To help raise money to pay the bills, the museum gift shop offers postcard reproductions of communist-era propaganda photos but each with an added caption. One depicts a peasant woman holding aloft in the breeze a piece of cloth. The caption reads, “You couldn’t get laundry detergent, but you could get your brain washed.”

Communism was one of history’s most infamous lies. The truth demands that its record be documented and displayed. Glenn Spicker’s museum does precisely that, for which men and women everywhere should be grateful.

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(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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