Milan Cecil believes that the best way to prevent history from repeating itself is using it to fight against the future.
Surveying the events in Europe and America, Cecil believes that we're at a turning point. The good news: We can use history to make better choices than we did years ago, and he should know. Cecil has lived through the communist days of his native Slovakia; he saw communism fall in the Velvet Revolution; and now he's seeing his grandchildren's generation not know what it was like to say or write the wrong thing to someone you thought was a friend, only to be visited by the police for interrogation.
"So many things are happening in Europe and the States that indicate that history might easily repeat itself," Cecil said while in Billings last week.
Cecil was in town with history teacher Jana Kerekretyova, who is an instructor at C.S. Lewis preparatory school in Bratislava. Together with local history professor Jenifer Parks, they're building a really innovative program with Rocky Mountain College. Cecil is a longtime friend of community leader Bill Simmons who is helping to build the cultural exchange.
In a pilot program they hope to start in 2018, students at Rocky will take a course on 20th-Century central European history. It will focus on the rise of fascism, then communism, then collapse and finally looking toward the post-Modern era. The idea is to learn in Billings, travel to Slovakia where students will meet with folks who lived through those eras, then travel to where history happened.
"We're in a special moment in history," Cecil said. "These people who lived through the history are still alive."
"Looking at today in history, there are patterns and they can repeat themselves," said Kerekretyova. "There were authoritarian regimes that affected the way everyone lives and it was largely not for the better. But it was a process. It didn't happen in an instant. It was over time and we can ask, 'What were the processes that led to that?'"
For Cecil, it's not just about teaching history, it's about a deeper responsibility to the next generation.
"I deeply believe what the German poet (Johann von) Goethe said that your responsibility to your children is to give them deep roots and strong wings," Cecil said.
Combining Goethe's philosophy with fellow countryman Vaclav Havel's philosophy that the most powerful weapon any society can use is the truth, they hope to build a historical and cultural exchange that gives local students a perspective about their own American republic.
Cecil tells the story of how his country slowly adapted to the regimes which controlled almost every aspect of daily life, including trying to coerce beliefs. Cecil grew up and continued to practice as a Christian, becoming what he described as a "second-class" citizen even though he was a computer programmer and his wife was an architect.
At least several times a year, he was brought in for interrogation about his religious beliefs, something viewed as Western and against communism.
"For the first -- I don't know -- three or five times, it was terrifying," Cecil said, "But then, you get used to it. It's kind of like having a gun stuck to your head. When it's pointed at you for 30 seconds, it's terrifying; when it's pointed at you for 42 years, you kind of get used to it."
He could withstand the interrogations by himself; however, the treatment of his children bothered him.
He remembers one of his daughter's first day of school. The students were all asked to sing a song, and his daughter, Katarina, sang a hymn.
The teacher recoiled. Where, she wondered, had Katarina learned such a thing? Surely, it must have been from a grandmother, the teacher said. But, Katarina, Cecil's daughter, being young and oblivious to the danger, told the teacher she had learned it at Sunday school.
"My kids did not have the right to choose for themselves. They would be stigmatized and that was unfair," Cecil said. "But then I remembered Goethe. I knew that I had to give them their heritage -- their roots."
For people who take religious freedom as a catchphrase, a guy like Cecil is a reminder of just how amazing a country like America still is, even with its present unrest and friction. There's no making it great again. It is still and has been for a long time. A person like Cecil is a reminder of that.
Cecil remembers gathering with other Slovaks in the town square of Bratislava during those heady days of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. He watched as the communist system in Czechoslovakia crumbled. It was an epiphany.
"I was crying in Bratislava's main square," Cecil said. "Not because I got freedom from the secret police, but because my kids got the chance to be in a different world."
As a journalist who has spent more than two decades playing around with worlds like "freedom" and "liberty" on opinion pages, I suppose that's the best definition I've heard of freedom.