The political act, in its distinctive essence, is a matter of interests defined in terms of power, which ideologies seek to clothe with rational necessity and moral worth. More particularly, judgments of necessity and worth are relative to the interests and power of the observer; what appears inevitable and noble to one may be condemned as capricious and vile by another. For example, the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army, as seen from the Western vantage point, may be judged unnecessary, an exaggerated response to a political threat, which lost the Soviet Union more throughout the world than it gained for its European empire. But from the Soviet perspective, it cannot be termed irrational, that is, without an objective connection with the interests and power of the Soviet Union. For it is an existential fact, well recognized by the Czechoslovakian historians of the nineteenth century, such as Palacky, who were also the awakeners of Czechoslovakian nationalism, that Czechoslovakia, unable to stand alone, had to lean on one or the other of its powerful neighbors to the East and to the West.
In other words, Czechoslovakia has never had to choose between independence and alignment, but between alignment with Russia and alignment with Germany (for which in the inter-war period France was a temporary and ultimately ineffectual substitute). In the measure that Czechoslovakia moved away from Russia, it was bound to move closer to Germany. It was against this threat that the Soviet Union reacted, and may well have overreacted, in 1968.
However, the political act as the functional employment of certain means for achieving certain interests defined in terms of power is also subject to moral judgment. The political act establishes a relationship between the holder and the object of power, in which the latter is of necessity diminished in his human worth; he is reduced to the means for somebody else’s ends. Hence the essential immorality of the political act. What makes that immorality tolerable is the proportionate relationship between means and ends. That is to say, the human quality of the object of power is diminished for the sake of ends endowed with a transcendent value. The extreme case is the sacrifice of life in war for the sake of the nation’s survival.
At the other end of the spectrum, the extreme disproportion between means and ends may make the moral condemnation of the means employed inevitable. Genocide is a case in point. The documents before us are another. These documents were issued by the Czechoslovak Minister of Education, Professor Hrbek, in the middle of September of this year; their authenticity has been vouchsafed by two independent sources. They were brought from Czechoslovakia to France where they were translated into French. They were there discovered by a group of American scholars who translated them into English. They are published here without changes apart from corrections in spelling and punctuation.
The purpose of these documents is twofold. Their first and immediate purpose is not only to …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Czechslovakia March 26, 1970