• Email
  • Print

Czechoslovakia’s Imprisoned Conscience

Contrary to appearances, Prague Spring, the fleeting period of democratic reform in Czechoslovakia, did not emerge from nowhere. It was as if several different streams combined to break the dam of bureaucratic rule. Some of them were barely visible, while others were subterranean, ignored by the press, unseen by the public, and isolated from the others slowly moving in the same general direction.

Such was the case of the Prague student movement, which exploded during the winter of 1968-1969 and dealt one of the final blows to the ossified regime of Antonin Novotný. Yet it had been germinating for several years before then.

During those middle years of the Sixties, the student movement was hardly more than a small cluster of people irritating the authorities, particularly by constantly questioning the practices of the Czechoslovak Youth Union, the official organization for young people, the only one permitted, which served as the bureaucracy’s special weapon for keeping young people—especially students—quiet.

Coming to school, a student had two worlds to choose from. On the one hand, the world of the bureaucracy, represented by the officers of the Youth Union. This world had certain attractions: the hollow satisfaction of consorting with slightly more powerful people, better chances to travel abroad, and, for a few, the possibility of preferment in certain jobs later on. But it was a world full of officious bustle, steeped in compulsive pretending. “Thanks to the Government and the Party, we’re day after day increasingly happy.” An officer of the Youth Union was expected to pronounce slogans as inane as this with a straight face.

To choose this public world, and what passed for politics in it, was not exactly selling out, for there was little to sell. It was a fact of this cynical life that some people wanted to get ahead badly enough to shed a scruple or two. That was their affair. It would have been different if they could really do harm to others, but even if they rose in the hierarchy of the Youth Union they were seldom able to do this. They were ignored or ridiculed by their fellow students who viewed them as harmless.

The other choice was to carve out a strictly private world, limited to a few friends. One could spend one’s energy in collecting stamps or reading novels but also—and this was crucial—avoid the pervasive hypocrisy of the regime. The private world was in many ways restricted but it was, at least, decent.

There was no point in challenging the established order. Why bother? Whoever tried got burned just enough to dissuade others. People would be sympathetic but would not speak out in another’s defense. The price of maintaining one’s private but decent world was to ignore the larger, public but hypocritical one.

But the political situation changed perceptibly in 1963. Slight ripples of de-Stalinization finally reached Czechoslovakia, causing a stir here and there, including in the universities. Alone or in tiny groups people emerged who were constitutionally incapable of accepting either of the two available worlds. They embarked upon the quixotic task of searching for a third way: for a life that would be both public and decent. In the universities, this meant a struggle to change the Czechoslovak Youth Union, the only legitimate vehicle for going public.

The regular political pronouncements of the Union were full of ritual grandiloquence. The dissidents called simply for “decency.” This was their consciously understated way of demanding integrity, justice, truth, loyalty, honesty. To ask for decency did not mean spelling out a specific political ideology; rather, it was a cry against unprincipled opportunism and corruption. To be decent simply meant to live by the dictates of one’s conscience. Such an idea might sound old-fashioned or romantic, indeed quite divorced from the world of “real” politics. Today one can spend years studying political science without ever discussing anything of the sort. Yet for a tiny band of Prague students in the mid-Sixties, the ideas of decency and of living by one’s conscience were the only ones they could rely on. The group quickly came to be called the “Prague radicals.”

The best known among them was Jirí Müller. Originally from Brno, in South Moravia, he studied at the Czech Institute of Technology in Prague. He was a man of unusual modesty, with an insatiably inquisitive mind, which, however, worked with the precision one would expect of a student of mechanical engineering. Never seeking to dominate his peers, he still did much to reshape the intuitive and frequently rambling discontent into a political vision. In December, 1965, the Communist party and the Youth Union sponsored a “National Students’ Conference,” an unusual occasion conceived as a stage-managed act of thanksgiving to the Communist party, and as a forum for an officially sanctioned sprinkling of irrelevant petty criticism. But Müller used this platform to present what became a major political statement of the Prague radicals.

The concrete details of Müller’s speech are less important than the new approach he proposed. He called for a far-reaching reform of the Youth Union aimed at decentralizing it and making it more democratic; and he demanded that freedoms guaranteed by the law actually be practiced rather than being savagely limited by “custom”: i.e., by Communist policies which, having been introduced years before, had meanwhile lost their original raison d’être but had turned into sacred taboos nevertheless. Müller was able to make a thunderbolt of a statement—in our tightly controlled society it was a liberating revelation—simply by suggesting the obvious: “We can do not only what is permitted and sanctioned, we can do all that is not specifically forbidden.”

This was as concise a program as one could imagine, and summed up the aims of the Prague student radicals: to explore the limits of the unforbidden, bang on the walls of various restrictions. In the process, some walls crumbled and some heads cracked.

The radicals made a painstaking effort to stick strictly to the rules, no matter how disadvantageous they were. In order not to provoke anybody, they used an extraordinarily colorless language, which sounded like a mimicry of the official bureaucratic style. They would write about “efforts to press internally for the progressivization of Youth Union work.” But of course they could not avoid official displeasure. Within a year after Müller’s memorable speech at the National Students’ Conference, every one of his reform proposals was killed. Worse, the rules were changed so that student representatives who had been elected would henceforth be appointed—so as to prevent Müller and his comrades from getting elected. Prague radicals were stopped even from organizing a Vietnam Defense Committee because they did not care to put it under official control.

When Prague students started visiting the Chinese Embassy in search of information about the Cultural Revolution, the authorities became panic-stricken. They struck back. In 1966, during the Christmas holidays, Müller was expelled from the Youth Union, thrown out of school, and drafted into the army. The timing and coordination of these events were perfect and frightening. Never before had we seen three or four distinct bureaucratic structures cooperate so smoothly.

The harshness and the illegality of these measures were astonishing, and quite out of proportion to Müller’s activities. It became obvious that “doing what was not forbidden” would result in more and more things being forbidden both by law and by custom. Efforts to introduce decency into bureaucratic rule clearly threatened that rule.

There was no way back for Müller’s comrades. They refused to disown him. This is how one of them described a meeting with the authorities. “One after another we said our No to the entire spectacle and to every one of its parts. Each of us said it in his own way, none kept quiet, none talked too much. Once my own struggle was over, I listened to my friends’ statements, made with quivering voices and dealing with the most serious matters of their lives. I clearly realized that certain human matters are worthy of the greatest pathos, that greatest pride is derived from following one’s conscience, and that greatest victory is in overcoming one’s own fears for the sake of a comrade.”

Predictably, the persecution of Müller produced a backlash among the students. Schools were in greater ferment than ever before. Müller’s influence grew in spite of his banishment.

In 1968, with the coming of the Prague Spring, Müller was discharged from the army and readmitted to school. The Czechoslovak Youth Union, the strait jacket that he had sought to stretch, ripped in the seams and came apart within weeks. Müller, enormously respected, became once again one of the most far-sighted leaders of the student movement. The Prague Spring which he had helped bring about was the epitome of what he and his friends had sought for in earlier years: decency in public affairs. But modesty was an integral part of the kind of decency he stood for, and he shied away from publicity. He has always loathed celebrity and cults of personality. Now that everyone could speak his mind, the Prague radicals felt they could afford to keep quiet, and perhaps do some work at school.

Still Müller had much to do with the events of the spring of 1968 and even more with the struggles that took place after the August, 1968, invasion. He then became the principal architect and moving force of the amazingly successful worker-student coalition which acted as a pressure group on Dubcek and the other wavering leaders.1 Müller believed that real cooperation between students and workers depended on both groups being free of tendencies to elitism and subject to the decisions made not by prominent leaders but by the students and workers themselves. He saw both this alliance and the councils of labor that were springing up in factories at the time as central to the Marxist vision of democratic socialism that he and his comrades hoped would transform Czechoslovakia, and in which they still believe. However, even today it appears that the events which preceded 1968 were decisive for what followed, for it was then that people of Müller’s generation made choices and decisions that would affect the rest of their lives.

Many stories have recently appeared in the American press about what happened to the student movements, ideas, and leaders of the Sixties. Czechoslovakia is absent from this retrospective view. Not conspicuously absent, since the Czech experience itself often seems entirely forgotten. Nor would Czechoslovakia fit the fashionable hypothesis that radical students have generally become embourgeoisé. Unlike so many of his peers in other countries, Müller has landed in prison rather than in the ranks of the middle class.2

Today life in Czechoslovakia is even worse than when Müller began his political activities. One no longer even has the choice between a public life of hypocrisy and a private one of decency. The present rulers have found it necessary to banish decency from private as well as public life. Never in Czech history has corruption been so widespread: both in the practice of outright graft and bribery and in the methods the authorities use to break the country’s morale. The most flagrant example of the latter were the sham national “elections” held in 1971: a regime set up by Soviet invaders forced people to pretend they supported it. For the official record, they did: but the 99.8 percent of the “vote” that Dr. Gustáv Husák claims to have received in November of that year will hardly fool anybody.3

Jirí Müller (as well as Alexander Dubcek and thousands of others) refused to go along with the election charade. On the contrary, he shared responsibility for a manifesto that urged people to abstain or to vote against the single slate of candidates that were offered. Thousands of leaflets printing this manifesto, endorsed by several opposition groups operating inside Czechoslovakia, appeared throughout the country.4 The infuriated authorities arrested hundreds in retaliation, Müller among them.

Three years before the invasion, Jirí Müller had translated the quest for decency in politics into an invitation to do “what was not forbidden.” Three years after the invasion, what was and was not forbidden was determined not by law but by the license of those in power. Not even in Czechoslovakia is there a law against abstaining in elections—and yet those who dared to do so were routinely fired from their jobs.

Nor is there a law against distributing leaflets. And yet, in the summer of 1972, nearly fifty people were charged with subversion of the republic for doing so and were put on trial. Jirí Müller received one of the harsher sentences: five and a half years in prison. As this article is written, he is, at thirty-one, beginning the fourth of those years. His struggle is obviously far from over, and he may never see the end of it: according to recent reports, he is going blind, and has been refused medical attention. He was recently brought to court to face still more charges.

If he recanted, his lot no doubt would be easier. But if the past ten years of his life indicate anything, he will not do so.

  1. 1

    I have elsewhere written about these matters. Cf. Pavel Tomalek (pseud.), Czechoslovakia 1968-69: The Worker-Student Alliance (MIT Center for International Studies, 1971).

  2. 2

    Some other student leaders also spent time in prison and have since lived under close surveillance. One of them, Ivan Dejmal, was drafted into the army upon his release from prison and, when recently discharged, was again arrested. See The Guardian (London), January 23, 1975.

  3. 3

    Except, naturally, a couple of American political scientists who in their disarming but dangerous innocence wonder “where were the Dubcek supporters during the elections? Earlier they had risked severe penalties when they had taken to the streets. Surely they would also have been ready to stay away from the polls, or to vote against the candidates presented to them, had they been hostile to the Husák regime.” Frank Dinka and Max J. Skidmore, “The Functions of Communist One-Party Elections: The Case of Czechoslovakia, 1971,” Political Science Quarterly 88 (September, 1973), p. 398.

  4. 4

    For its text, see New Politics, Winter, 1972, pages 91 and 92.

  • Email
  • Print