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Inquisition in Czechoslovakia

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 weed out from the Ministry of Education and the universities the supporters of the 1968 reforms but also all those who are not completely identified with the neo-Stalinist course of the present pro-Russian regime. Their long-range purpose is to establish ironclad controls over the minds of the remaining employees and faculty in order to prevent a recurrence of the events of 1968 and to assure full support for the new policies. To those ends they propose to kill not the bodies of men but their souls. By confronting the objects of power with the choice between complying to the satisfaction of the authorities and risking social, political, and professional disgrace, the questionnaires aim at the degradation, corruption, and ultimate dehumanization of man in order to make the holders of power secure in their power. To that end, they employ five devices.

  1. They make men defenseless before the authorities. How is one to answer the questions pertaining to “personal evaluation”? If one declares oneself satisfied with one’s work and capable of carrying it out, one’s superiors may disagree. If one answers these and similar questions in the negative, one’s superiors may disagree again. In other words, the object of power, by being compelled to give definite answers to questions which are of necessity a matter of subjective valuation, delivers himself into the hands of the holders of power.

  2. They force men to denounce themselves without ever learning what is, as it were, the “optimum” of denunciation required. They may reveal more or less than is required, and in either case they must lose.

  3. They force men to denounce their superiors, subordinates, and colleagues, again without knowing how much or little of such denunciations would satisfy the authorities.

  4. They force men to lie. How else can most of the recipients of the questionnaires answer, for instance, the question: “Are you today sincerely convinced of the righteousness of the policy of the Party, the National Front; are you ready consequently to realise it and gain for it also other co-workers?” (A10)

  5. They force the object of power to expose himself to the denunciations of others: “Are you fully aware that eventually, the untruth and incompleteness of your own evaluation will unambiguously testify against you…. Are you aware that you will also be evaluated by a collective of co-workers, and eventual contradictions in data will be investigated?” (A15)

Two facets are particularly terrifying in this scheme of moral emasculation and spiritual destruction. One is the employment of the victim to design his own moral and spiritual doom. He cannot blame what happens to him on others. He has said too little or too much, or the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, and thus has sealed his doom and that of others. Perhaps even worse, even if he has been successful in avoiding for the time being all the pitfalls of the questionnaires, he will lead the cursed life of a master dissembler in constant dread of being found out.

What adds to the terror of his fate is the inescapable nature of his predicament. Whatever he does serves only to entangle him further in the self-made network of denunciations, evasions, and lies. There is no prospect of salvation short of suicide. There is only the prospect of an infernal existence where indeed homo homini lupus, where men must use and destroy each other in attempting to survive.

The scheme of the questionnaires will bring out the worst in man. But it will do more. By putting a premium, both in moral duty and survival, upon behavior detested by decent men, it will not only make relatively decent men into knaves, ashamed of themselves, but it will transform the latent Iagos, which all societies harbor and decent societies try to repress, into paragons of totalitarian virtue, proud of themselves. The liar, the informer, and the agent provocateur become the ideal man.

The inmate of the concentration camp could console himself with the thought that he was the innocent and passive victim of the violence of others, and he could find in the camaraderie of the doomed the remnants of human ties that bind men together. The men to whom these questionnaires are addressed can have no such consolation, nor can they find satisfaction in such ties. They are forced to make their own prisons, devastate their own souls, betray and suffer betrayal, and in the end detest themselves. In the face of the enormity of the crime against humanity here committed, it adds nothing more than a slight touch of irony that the author of these questionnaires is a professor, that is, a man who has chosen as his life’s business to profess the truth, and that he is in charge of educational institutions whose supposed purpose is to safeguard and add to the truth.

Letters

Czechslovakia March 26, 1970

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