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Peace: The View from Prague

Some time ago, two appealing young Italian women arrived in Prague with a women’s proclamation calling for everything good: respect for human rights, disarmament, demilitarization of children’s education, and respect for all human beings. They were collecting signatures from both parts of our divided Europe. I found them touching: they could have easily been cruising the Mediterranean on the yachts of wealthy husbands (they could surely have found some)—and here they were, rattling around Europe to make the world better. I felt sorry for them because virtually none of the better-known Prague women dissidents wanted to sign. (Understandably, the two did not even try to approach nondissidents.)

The reason was not that Prague women dissidents would disagree with the content of the declaration. Without conferring in any way about it, they all, individually, refused for a different reason: it seemed to them ridiculous that they should sign something “as women.” Gentlemen, with nothing to sign, treated this feminine action with a gallant attentiveness and a quiet smile. Among the ladies, the prevalent mood was one of vigorous distaste, a distaste all the more vigorous since they were not absolved from deciding whether to sign or not and felt no need to be gallant. (Incidentally, in the end about five of them did sign.)

I wondered what aroused this sudden spontaneous distaste among my women friends for associating on the basis of gender. It surprised me.

Only some time later did I come up with an explanation. One of the traditions of the Central European climate is, after all, an intensified sense of irony and self-irony, together with humor and black humor, and, perhaps most important in this context, an intensified fear of exaggerating our own dignity to an unintentionally comic stage, a fear of pathos and sentimentality, of overstatement, and of what Kundera calls the lyric relation to the world. Yes, my friends were suddenly seized with the fear that, as participants in an international women’s venture, they would make themselves ridiculous. It was the fear that they would become “dada,” to borrow a term used by the Czech theoretician of art, Karel Teige; that, unwittingly, they will become funny in the earnestness with which they seek to reinforce their civic opinion by stressing their helpless feminine condition.

Apparently they were seized by a sudden remembrance of how repulsive it was when the vice-president of Czechoslovak television, Mrs. Balás, again and again in her televised talks larded the official “peace” theses with predictable references to women and children, full of fake sentimentality. My women friends among the dissidents undoubtedly know a great deal about the sad position of women in our country. In spite of that they find objectionable even the faint suggestion of feminism in the fact that the declaration in question was strictly a women’s affair. I do not mean to disparage feminism; I know little about it and certainly do not believe it is an invention of a few hysterics, bored housewives, or rejected mistresses. Still, I have to note that, in our situation, even though the position of women is incomparably worse than in the West, feminism seems “dada.”

Feminism, to be sure, is not at issue here. I wanted only to illustrate that strange, almost mysterious horror about everything overstated, enthusiastic, lyrical, pathetic, or overly serious that is inseparable from our spiritual climate. It is of the same kind and springs from much the same roots as our skepticism about utopianism: enthusiastic emotions and rationalistic utopianism are often no more than two sides of the same coin.

I would cite another example. It would be naturally inappropriate for Charta 77 to make jokes in its documents.* Recently, though, it occurred to me that some people might be getting bored with Charta 77 because, as it seems to them, it takes itself much too seriously. Knowing only its documents, not its authors, they can easily get the impression that Charta 77, forced for years to repeat the same theme over and over, has become stuck in the rut of its own seriousness, its martyrdom, its fame; that it lacks the ability to rise above itself, to look at itself from a distance, and the ability to make light of itself—and for the very reason that its rigidly serious tone might end up making it seem unintentionally ridiculous. I do not know whether such an impression really exists, and, if it exists, how widespread it is; even less can I judge whether, if such an impression exists, it is justified, or to what extent it is unfair to us. In any case, though, this speculation is something to think about.

It seems that in Central Europe what is most earnest has a way of blending, in a particularly tense manner, with what is most comic. It seems that it is precisely the dimension of distance, of rising above ourselves and making light of ourselves, that lends our concerns and acts just the right shattering seriousness. Or is not Franz Kafka, one of the most serious and tragic authors of this century, at the same time a humorist? I think that whoever does not laugh at his novels (as Kafka himself is supposed to have laughed at them when he read them to his friends) does not understand them. Is not a Czech Hasek or an Austrian Musil a master of tragic irony or of ironic tragedy? Or is not Vaculík’s Czech Dreambook, to cite the work of a contemporary and a dissident, a book oppressive in its humor and merry in its hopelessness?

The life of a dissident in Czechoslovakia really is not something particularly jolly, and spending time in Czechoslovak jails is even less so. Our frequent jesting about these matters is not in conflict with their seriousness, rather it is its inevitable consequence. Perhaps we could not stand it at all if we were not at the same time aware of how absurd and thus how comic it all is. Many of those who sympathize with us abroad could not understand our joking or would take it for cynicism. (More than once I noted that, when meeting with foreigners, I do not translate much of what we say, just to be sure.) And when a dissident friend of mine, tasting various exotic (for us) delights at the American embassy, described them by quoting Patocka’s famous sentence, “There are things worth suffering for,” we all laughed, and it never occurred to any of us to think it unworthy of the dignity of Patocka’s heritage, of his tragic death, and of the moral foundations of the dissident stance generally.

Perhaps it is a part of the plebeian tradition of Czech culture, but here we tend to be more intensely conscious that anyone who takes himself seriously soon becomes ridiculous, while anyone who always manages to laugh at himself cannot be really ridiculous.

People in the West, for various reasons, are more afraid of war than we are. They are also significantly more free, they live more freely, and their opposition to armaments has no unacceptably serious consequences for them. Perhaps all that together makes the peace fighters on the other side, at least as seen from here, seem a bit too earnest, perhaps even mildly pathetic. (There is something else as well, something of which we here are probably insufficiently aware: for them the fight for peace is probably something more than simply a matter of certain demands for disarmament—an opportunity to build unconforming, uncorrupted social structures, an opportunity for life in a humanly richer community, for self-realization outside the stereotypes of a consumer society, and for expressing their resistance to those stereotypes.)

Our distrust of all overstatement and of any cause incapable of seeing itself in perspective may also affect that reticence which I have sought to analyze here. Since we pay a rather harsher price for our interest in the destiny of the world, we may also have a stronger need to make light of ourselves, to desecrate the altar, as Bakhtin so superbly describes it. For that reason alone, we have to be a bit more reserved than we might wish in our relation to the various much-too-earnest overstatements (which, at the same time and not accidentally, are not bought at a high cost) with which some Western peace fighters come to us. It would be absurd to force on them our black humor and our irrepressible skepticism, or even to demand of them that they undergo our serious trials and learn to see them in an ironic perspective. It would, however, be equally absurd if they expected from us their own brand of overstatement. To understand each other does not mean to become like each other, only to understand each other’s identity.

There are, to be sure, still other reasons for the reticence with which I am concerned here. For instance this: Czechoslovaks learned only too well, by their own fate, where a policy of appeasement can lead—they still have not quite got over it. For many years to come, historians are likely to conjecture whether the world would have had to go through the Second World War with its millions of corpses if the Western democracies had been able to resist Hitler forcefully and in time. Is it any wonder that in this country, whose present decline began at Munich, people are especially sensitive to anything even remotely reminiscent of the prewar capitulation to evil?

I do not know how much real courage there would be in this country in any extreme situation. I do know, however, that one idea is firmly rooted in our common awareness: that the inability to risk, in extremis, even life itself to save what gives it meaning and a human dimension leads not only to a loss of its meaning but inevitably, in the end, to the loss of life as well—and not of one life only but of thousands and millions of lives. Certainly, in a world of nuclear arms capable of exterminating all of humankind, many things have changed. Still, the fundamental experience retains its validity: that “one must not” tolerate violence in silence in the hope that violence will just run its course. (To believe the opposite would mean, among other things, to surrender to the inhumanity of technology once and for all.)

Should such a tolerance of violence by some miracle avert rather than accelerate the coming of war, I cannot imagine to what a world, to what a humanity, to what a life, and to what a “peace” it would open the way. To be sure, a universal moral imperative and the concrete political ways of following it are two different things. I believe that there are more effective and more meaningful ways of resisting violence or the threat of violence than by imitating it blindly—that is, by promptly matching every one of the opponent’s blows with one of our own. That, however, would take me too far afield.

So let me just cite an example. How much trust or even admiration for the Western peace movement can we expect from a single sensitive citizen of East-Central Europe when he has noticed that this movement did not ever at any of its congresses or any of its demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of participants get around to protesting emphatically that one important European country five years ago attacked a small neutral neighbor and since that time has been conducting, on that neighbor’s territory, a war of extermination that has already claimed a million dead and three million refugees? Seriously, what are we to think of a peace movement, a European peace movement, that is practically unaware of the only war being conducted today by a European state? As for the argument that the victim of aggression and its defenders enjoy the sympathies of Western establishments and so are not worthy of the support of the left, its astonishing ideological opportunism can provoke only one reaction—complete disgust and a sense of limitless hopelessness.

I shall only try to sum up some of the points that appear to me common to all independent East-Central European thinking about peace and the peace movement.

  1. Foremost, in spite of one’s reticence, may be a certain basic sympathy for the moral ethos of those who, in an advanced consumer society, place a concern for the destiny of the world ahead of concern for their own personal well-being. Are we not, here, doing something similar to what the Western peace movements are doing, albeit in different ways and under different conditions? This “pre-rational” reason of itself guarantees a certain basic sympathy for the Western peace movement among our dissidents.

  2. A close second, however, may be a clearly polemical conviction: war is caused not by weapons as such but by political realities (including the policies of political establishments) in a divided Europe and a divided world which make possible or directly bring about the production and installation of those weapons and which, in the end, could lead to their use as well. No lasting, genuine peace can be achieved simply by opposing this or that weapons system, because such opposition deals only with consequences, not with reasons. Opposition to weapons—assuming, of course, that it is an opposition to all weapons and not only to those suitable for protest demonstrations—can at best induce governments to accelerate various disarmament negotiations, though that is probably the most we can expect from it.

  3. Nor could disarmament negotiations, even if successful (which in light of our experience so far seems unlikely), resolve the present crisis by themselves. After all, so far virtually everything that an agreement has slowed down has soon accelerated again. At best, successful negotiations could create a more favorable atmosphere for a real resolution of the crisis. Atmospherics, however, are one thing, the will to resolve the crisis is something else. Basically, negotiations can achieve nothing more than perpetuating an explosive status quo—only with a smaller amount of explosive technology.

  4. Thus the only meaningful way to a genuine European peace—and not simply to some armistice or “nonwar”—is by way of a fundamental restructuring of the political realities that lie at the roots of the current crisis. That would require both sides to give up, radically, their defensive policy of securing the status quo, that is, the division of Europe into blocs, as well as the policy of power or superpower “interests,” subordinating all their efforts to something quite other—to the ideal of a democratic Europe as a friendly community of free and independent nations. What threatens peace in Europe is not the prospect of change but the existing situation.

  5. Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens, there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace: a state that ignores the will and the rights of its citizens can offer no guarantee that it will respect the will and the rights of other peoples, nations, and states. A state that refuses its citizens the right of public supervision of the exercise of power cannot be susceptible to international supervision. A state that denies its citizens their basic rights becomes dangerous for its neighbors as well: internal arbitrary rule will be reflected in arbitrary external relations. All suppression of public opinion, all abolition of public competition for power and its public exercise, opens the way for the power of the state to arm in any way it sees fit. A manipulated population can be misused in the service of any military adventure whatsoever. Unreliability in some respects evokes justified fears of unreliability in everything. A state that does not hesitate to lie to its own people will not hesitate to lie to other states. All of this leads to the conclusion that respect for human rights is the fundamental condition and the sole genuine guarantee of true peace. Suppressing the natural rights of citizens and peoples does not secure peace—quite the contrary, it endangers it. A lasting peace and disarmament can only be the work of free people.

Roughly, this is the position of various independent civic initiatives and groups in the countries of the Soviet bloc. It has become evident that reflections on the bitter daily experiences of the citizen of a totalitarian state quite logically converge at the same point—at a new appreciation of the importance of human rights, human dignity, and civic freedom. That concern, and with good reason, bears on all reflections about the problem of peace as well. It may be that this way of understanding the deep-rooted presuppositions of peace, bought at a high cost and marked by a new vehemence, is the most important contribution that people with independent minds in our part of the world can make to our common awareness today.

For us it is no longer comprehensible that anyone could still believe in the possibility of a disarmament that would bypass human beings or be bought at the cost of their enslavement. That appears to us as the most foolish of utopias, comparable perhaps only to a hope that all the weapons of this world will, on their own, turn themselves in for scrap iron or into musical instruments.

The intensity and the mode of stressing the continuity of peace with human freedom tend naturally to be different at different times and in different places in our part of the world, and depend, in various ways, on a concrete situation and setting. Still, when we are confronted with the view that our perennial introduction of human rights into every discussion about peace complicates the situation and interferes with agreement, we all, for evident reasons, fall prey to the hopeless feeling that anyone could still believe in the help.

translated by Erazin Kohák

  1. *

    This refers to the group of dissidents who in 1977 signed the Charta 77 demanding human rights and who continue to carry out dissident activities.

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