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The Prague Advertisement

I fear my translation does scant justice to the full semantic absurdity of the original. As I read it, I remembered the lines that Auden wrote following the Soviet invasion twenty years ago:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

But the ogre that Auden had in mind was the Soviet Union, and that ogre is changing. He has begun to master speech. So in Prague his dwarfs are left bewildered, lost. The drivel still gushes, or dribbles, from their lips. But it lacks even the force of consistent absurdity. The materials for our symposium “glorified the pre-1938 political structures,” splutter the dwarfs, who dare not even sign their own names. Yet they themselves are now making obeisance to the great architect of those “structures,” Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, in an attempt to gain some patriotic legitimacy. And the people laugh at them in the streets.

I asked the receptionist in a hotel for a copy of Rudé Právo. “Why on earth do you want to read that?” she said. I explained that I had heard there was this commentary about our symposium. “Oh, I must read it,” she cried, but when she reached the sentence about “organizations for psychological warfare of the North Atlantic Pact” she could go no further. She was just doubled up laughing.

  1. The Permanent Symposium

On Sunday most of the Western participants departed to Vienna, for the “parallel” symposium organized by a formidable company of exiled Czech and Slovak intellectuals, and for a widely reported press conference arranged by the International Helsinki Federation. On Monday virtually all our hosts were out of prison, although some of them had to walk several miles home, after being released in the early hours when there was no transport of any kind. They swapped tales about their latest prison experiences. How the ordinary prison guards were angry with the secret police for disturbing their settled routines. How the interrogations were perfunctory and absurd.

Havel himself had at one point been interviewed by our charming “Lieutenant Novotna,” who, it turns out, is a familiar figure to him. She marched in and announced, “I have come to debrief you.” I suggested to him that after the liberation she should really be sent to work in the theater, what with her looks and her proven aptitude for the theater of the absurd. He said he might write her a part in one of his plays.

Havel and the others were of course exhausted by their days in prison. But they were also buoyed up by the international support. They were moved by news of the ceremony at Patocka’s grave, encouraged by the protests they heard via Western radio stations, and delighted with the way in which we had interpreted Havel’s opening words. We had understood this as an invitation to continue the meeting as best we could. I think it was Pierre Hassner who first observed that since Havel had formally opened the meeting, it could not end until he formally closed it.

The meeting thus continues. It has become a permanent symposium. As I left, Havel asked that those who write something relevant to the theme should, wherever it appears, mark it as “a contribution to the permanent symposium Czechoslovakia 88.” Until, of course, we can all gather again in Prague, to close the meeting.

  1. Czechoslovakia 88

What does this tragicomedy tell us about the subject of our aborted discussion, Czechoslovakia 88? It tells us, obviously, that the present regime in Czechoslovakia is still going backward where Hungary, Poland, and, most important, the Soviet Union are going forward—although not uniformly so. Indeed, after the removal in October of Lubomír Strougal as prime minister, the present government looks more reactionary than ever. As one Czech historian commented to me, between interrogations, it is a bitter irony that in 1988, in the age of Gorbachev, they have finally achieved the government that Brezhnev hoped for twenty years ago, after the invasion. Yet this is a Brezhnevite government without Brezhnev, a regime whose time has gone.

For this episode also tells us that the regime that has imposed the grotesque abnormality of “normalization” in Czechoslovakia for two decades is now profoundly unsettled, confused, and wavering. It is unsettled from the East, for if Gorbachev is behaving like Dubcek, and Poland and Hungary almost like free countries, then how on earth do they justify their continued immobility? By reference to the great socialist model of the German Democratic Republic? Or perhaps Bulgaria? It was interesting to note that both the Polish and the Hungarian press reported Dubcek’s speech in Bologna on November 13 reaffirming the continued relevance of the Prague Spring. There have been signs that senior Gorbachev advisers, at least, can barely restrain their desire to reassess the Prague Spring in the direction of Dubcek’s plea. Still, Gorbachev’s close political ally Aleksandr Yakovlev was in Prague the day after our meeting, and Rudé Právo carried a front-page photograph of him looking pensive between the beaming figures of Jakes, Vasil Bil’ák, the veteran reactionary, and their ideological watchman, Jan Fojtík. It might have been captioned: “Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?

Secondly, the regime is unsettled from below—by the new flowering of independent initiative and civil courage inside Czechoslovakia. This is of course partly inspired by the impact of Gorbachev, the examples of neighboring Hungary and Poland, and the new East–West détente. But it is also the result of internal processes of political and economic decay, on the one hand, and intellectual and social emancipation on the other. The political leadership is now of Brezhnevite biological antiquity, while, on the other side, a new generation is thrusting forward, a generation impatient with the compromises and evasions of their parents. I heard of one girl who took part in the largely spontaneous demonstration in Wenceslaus Square on Independence Day, October 28. On August 21, 1968, she had confronted the Soviet tanks in the same square—as a three-week-old baby in a pram.

The authorities now face opposition and protest not merely from the old front line of Charter 77, not only from intellectual samizdat, but from thousands of young people who have found the courage to speak out, and from the no less than six hundred thousand people who have signed the petition for religious freedom initiated by a simple Moravian farmer earlier this year. On the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion, thousands of young people demonstrated in the center of Prague, chanting “Dubcek!” and “Freedom!”

Then, in mid-October, the authorities suddenly found themselves confronted with a serious, explicitly political opposition platform: the manifesto of a Movement for Civil Liberties, entitled “Democracy for All.” Although many of the first signers of the manifesto are Chartists, it differs fundamentally from the original Charter 77 program by attempting to spell out a concrete program for systemic, political change. This program goes far beyond that “socialism with a human face” which Dubcek nostalgically recalled in his Bologna speech. Dubcek summoned Machiavelli and Gramsci as his intellectual ancestors. But the patron saints of this manifesto are rather Montesquieu and Keynes. It is a somewhat baggy document, as you would expect from a coalition of independent persons and groups with widely differing political views. But the central common ground is plainly stated: liberal democracy, the rule of law, a mixed economy.

Then, in another attempt to gain some patriotic credibility, the authorities suddenly declared that the seventieth anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s independence on October 28, 1918, could be celebrated as a national holiday. (Canny shopkeepers hedged their bets by putting in their windows the slogan “Long live October!”—which could refer either to Russia’s revolution in 1917 or to Czechoslovakia’s independence in 1918. Only a few risked putting out a picture of Masaryk.) Then the authorities locked up virtually all the front-line opposition leaders, to ensure that there would be no genuinely patriotic manifestation. Yet that is what they got nonetheless, with a largely spontaneous and mainly young crowd, again chanting “freedom,” and being pursued down the narrow streets by rather ineffectual water-cannon.

The new interior minister, Frantisek Kincl, is a professional policeman, and police tactics have toughened. The roundups of oppositionists in connection with October 28, and again in connection with this symposium, are the worst in years. As I write, many people have been, or are about to be, hauled in for interrogation about the “Democracy for All” manifesto. An attempt is clearly being made to deter others from joining them. Worst of all, the prime mover of the petition for religious freedom, Augustin Navratil, has been confined to a mental hospital with a diagnosis of “paranoia querulans”—and this at a time when even the Soviet Union seems to be desisting from the abuse of psychiatry for political purposes.

Yet at the same time the regime is making halfhearted gestures of reform and relaxation. Extraordinarily frank accounts of the country’s economic stagnation have appeared in the official press. The Slovak Minister of Culture had an article in Rudé Právo saying that it was an unhealthy condition for there to be two cultures in the country, and they should seriously consider what were the reasons behind the emergence of Charter 77. Official theater groups can take slightly more license. Confronted with the formation of an independent Helsinki group, and anticipating another unofficial demonstration on human rights day, December 10, the authorities have proposed the formation of an official human rights committee on the same date.

As Tocqueville taught us long ago, this inconsistency, this wavering between increased repression and half-baked reform, is characteristic of an ancien régime in its last years. How long the twilight period will last, and how the transition will come about—whether fast or slowly, peacefully or less so—is of course very hard to say. It is rumored that younger men such as the Prague Party secretary, Miroslav Stepan, will shortly step up into more prominent positions. They too have had a part, albeit a junior one, in the grimy business of “normalization.” By most accounts, Stepan’s political generation is composed largely of opportunists, careerists, and cynics. But this is not necessarily a disqualification. In Hungary, Károly Grósz and his contemporaries are hardly the world’s purest idealists. Yet they are making what are, with all due caveats, really striking attempts at political and economic reform, out of insight into necessity. One man’s cynic may be another man’s realist. Nor is it entirely clear that what Czechoslovakia needs above all at this moment is another decent, limited idealist like Alexander Dubcek.

What is more, it is possible to argue that when the moment of change comes, Czechoslovakia might actually be better placed than Poland and Hungary, because its once powerful economy, although seriously run-down, is still in a less catastrophic state, and relatively free of the crippling burden of hard-currency debt. Yet this cuts both ways. For without their deep economic crisis, and concomitant dependency on the West, would the Polish and Hungarian leaderships ever have felt compelled to launch such radical reforms? Here is a crux of the East European dilemma. You can have economic crisis and political reform (Poland, Hungary). You can have no economic crisis and no political reform (GDR, Czechoslovakia). You can even have economic crisis and no political reform (Romania). But can you have political reform without economic crisis? Maybe Czechoslovakia will yet be the first to achieve that feat, as Milan Simecka optimistically suggests in a paper prepared for our symposium. Maybe.

  1. The World

What happens will depend mainly on developments inside Czechoslovakia, in the Soviet Union, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe—in that order. But it will also depend on us. “The world sees you!” the crowd chanted at the police during the October 28 demonstration. But does it really?

In 1988, as at all these turning points which were the subject of our symposium—1918, when Britain, France, and the United States gave Masaryk the international license to create an independent Czechoslovak state, 1938, when, at Munich, Britain and France sold that independent state down the river, 1948, with the Communist coup, and 1968, with the Soviet invasion—in this “year of eight,” too, the fate of this small country in the center of Europe still crucially depends on the attitude of the Western as well as the Eastern world.

Now the current line being peddled to the West by the Jakes crew goes roughly like this: “We really want to press ahead with our own perestroika [“prestavba“], with economic restructuring above all. But for this we need order and stability at home. Ordnung muss sein. Therefore you must give us credits and technology while understanding why we have to lock up dangerous criminal elements”…such as the country’s most famous playwright Václav Havel. A feeble line, you might think. Yet strangely enough there are signs that some Western governments are half-prepared to swallow it. This applies to Austria and to some extent to West Germany, both of which have a particular interest in a stable setting for their own national rapprochements, with Hungary and the GDR respectively, and a history (even a philosophy) of promoting economic ties irrespective of political circumstances.

More surprising is the case of France, whose foreign minister earlier this year made the extraordinary statement that Czechoslovakia’s human rights performance was improving (an assertion he subsequently modified), and whose president, François Mitterrand, has chosen Prague of all places, and this of all times, to pay a state visit—scheduled for early December. One might understand his regal reluctance to follow in Mrs. Thatcher’s wake to Poland or Hungary, but this is carrying the personal competition a bit far.

To offer such high-level political recognition or economic support to the present regime in Czechoslovakia is not just morally questionable. It is also politically short-sighted. It ignores a prime lesson of recent East European (and not just East European) history: the longer fundamental reforms are delayed, the more difficult they are to implement, and the less likely they are to occur peacefully. Such an approach is thus likely, in the longer term, to achieve the opposite of the desired effect.

There is a time to praise and a time to scold; a time to finance and a time to refrain from financing; a time to travel and a time to wait. With the Czechoslovak regime in its present, repressive yet unsettled state, this is the latter time. It is a time for watchful waiting and for strictly conditional encouragement. Encouraging the old guard to depart. Encouraging the new guard, when it comes, to try to behave as befits a deeply civilized country, in the heart of Europe, in the late twentieth century.

  1. To Be Concluded

There are now reasons to believe that, for once in the history of Czechoslovakia, this sea-change may occur before the calendar turns up another “year of eight.” It almost seems a pity to spoil the pattern. But they have waited long enough.

So I look forward to hearing Václav Havel formally close our permanent symposium, in the Slovanský Dum, Na Prikope 22 (first floor), Prague 1—and well before 1998.

This article is a contribution to the permanent symposium Czechoslovakia 88.

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