“How will you mark the anniversary?” I asked Václav Havel earlier this year. No need to say which anniversary.
“We shall hold a symposium,” he said. It would discuss the significance, not just of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion, but of all those “years of eight” which have been turning points for Czechoslovakia and the whole of Europe in the twentieth century: 1918, 1938, 1948, 1968. Interested Western scholars, intellectuals, and writers would be cordially invited. Perhaps I would be kind enough to prepare a paper? They would try to hold the meeting quite openly. They would inform the authorities.
In early November, a few days before the date of the planned meeting, Havel himself went to the prime minister’s office, and explained the project to an official deputed to receive him. This man said neither yes nor no. But actions speak louder than words. On November 10, as we, the Western guests, began to assemble in Prague, virtually all our Czechoslovak hosts—scholars and members of the country’s main independent groups—were locked up or placed under house arrest. Havel was in hiding.
A lady with a red flower would meet us at breakfast, we were told. She would lead us to the meeting place. So there we sat, on Friday, November 11, in the faded Jugendstil splendor of the Hotel Paríz, a score of academics, writers, human rights activists, and parliamentarians from Western Europe and the United States, waiting for the lady. Several prominent Western guests, including Marion Gräfin Dönhoff of Die Zeit and the eminent dean of Copenhagen University, Ove Nathan, had been refused visas on the grounds that the gathering was “illegal”—although by what law the Czechoslovak representatives could not say. Our hosts were in prison. Plainclothes police swarmed around the hotel. I anticipated arrest, expulsion.
Then in through the glass doors came not a lady with a red flower, nor yet a policeman with handcuffs, but…Václav Havel. He walked quickly to our table, sat down, and formally declared the meeting open. Within seconds, three plainclothes men were behind him. “Well, in this moment I am arrested,” said Havel. But before they hurried him away he managed to repeat, with quiet emphasis, that he had declared the symposium open.
Sally Laird of Index on Censorship photographed the scene. More secret police moved in to confiscate her film. As we argued with them we noticed a large, muscular woman in a tight-fitting leather jacket sitting in the foyer, with not just one flower but a whole bouquet. She moved toward us and theatrically distributed unmarked envelopes. Inside, we found the most extraordinary poison-pen letter it has ever been my privilege to receive. Typed and photocopied, with the text in English, German, French, and Italian, it read as follows:
I am warning you that the action called symposium CZECHOSLOVAKIA 88 is illegal and its performance would be contrary to the interests of Czechoslovak working people and consequently illegal. In this connection your efforts to take part in this action would be considered as a manifestation of hostility to Czechoslovakia and in virtue of this we should have to draw relevant consequences against your person.
“I am warning you…” but the document was unsigned. Kafka! thou shouldst be living at this hour.
Someone asked the lady with the bouquet to identify herself. She said she ensured order in the hotel. In subsequent conversation we tentatively identified her as a secret police officer who had watched over the Havel family, presenting herself as “Lieutenant Novotna,” which is to say something like “Lieutenant Smith.” Briefly detained in a police car the next day, three of us were again handed a crumpled copy of this fantastical “Advertisement” (the German text, incidentally, was headed “Achtung“) by another plain-clothes man. We asked him whence it came. From the City Council of Prague, he said. But, we insisted, who is this mysterious “I”? He pointed to himself, adding helpfully, “police!”, as if, sitting in a police car, we might not have realized.
By this time we were visiting such few of the Czech and Slovak symposium participants as were still at home—usually under house arrest—and the families of those in prison. Earlier we had attempted to reconvene the meeting in a private flat, as had been done successfully in the case of the independent cultural symposium in Budapest in 1985.* But here, police in front of the door had simply prevented any Czechs from getting in.
We had drafted a strong statement of protest against this “blatant violation of the Helsinki Final Act,” a statement sent directly to all the delegations at the Vienna Helsinki review conference, but which also came back within hours to most of Czechoslovakia, via the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America. We had briefed our ambassadors. We had laid flowers on the grave of the philosopher and founding father of Charter 77, Jan Patocka. Among our group was Max van der Stoel, who, as Dutch foreign minister in 1977, had been the first visiting Western politician to meet with Patocka in his capacity as leader of the human rights movement. Following that meeting, Patocka had been hauled in for eleven hours of interrogation, at the end of which he collapsed and died. Now, on his first visit to Prague since that time, van der Stoel spoke movingly at Patocka’s grave. Patocka is dead, he said, but we all know that his spirit, and the spirit of freedom, live on in Czechoslovakia. The ceremony was filmed by an independent video team.
Then we had marched up to the headquarters of the Central Committee and delivered a letter of protest addressed to the Party leader Milos Jakes. A clever-looking official at the door assured us—in fluent Russian—that he would pass the letter on to “Comrade Jakes,” but regretted that there was no one to receive us on a Saturday. And who was he? What was his name and position? “I just work here,” he replied, glasnost glinting from his glasses. Two photographers took pictures of us from across the parking lot. Then we marched down to the main secret police office in the Old Town, demanding to know why and where our hosts were imprisoned. Once again, the officer at the door explained that no one was working on the weekend—at which point a man in plainclothes pushed through our group to enter the building, somewhat undermining the general contention.
Now, as we paid our individual visits, I was interested to observe the surveillance techniques of the police. Perhaps naively, I had not realized before how they use nicely dressed young couples, boy and girl walking arm in arm. And then I was glad to note that they, at least, have no shortage of hard currency. Three of us alone, myself and the Parisian scholars Pierre Hassner and Aleksander Smolar, were honored with the attentions of at least two foreign cars, a blue Ford Sierra and a red Fiat Uno. Spying the latter after one of our calls, and feeling tired and hungry, we thought to ask our narks for a lift home (“home” in this case being, aptly enough, the Hotel Jalta). As we walked toward the car, the driver started the engine and pulled slowly away. We pursued them down the road.
Amusing for us—but no joke for our Czech friends sitting in prison. In theory, the Czechoslovak authorities’ handling of this “action” was relatively sophisticated. Earlier this year they received harsh criticism in the Western press, and a drubbing at the Vienna review conference, for breaking up an East–West peace seminar, and expelling all the foreign participants. Now they would allow the foreigners to stay, but lock up all the Czechs—initially for forty-eight hours and then, in some cases, immediately again for part of another forty-eight-hour period (thus abandoning all but the barest shreds of legality). We, mean-while, would be allowed to go where we please. We would have what the Germans call Narrenfreiheit, jester’s freedom. All doors would be opened to us, and the police would politely usher us into empty rooms. Better still, we would bring suffering to the innocent. For if we were foolish enough to visit anyone not already well known to the police, those people would surely feel the “consequences” with which we were merely threatened.
In practice, this exercise in damage limitation did not go quite as planned: because of Havel’s coup de théâtre; because of the black comedy of “Lieutenant Novotna”; because we made our own protest dramatically, urbi et orbi; and because West German television managed to film Havel’s arrest through the window of the restaurant, and to get the film out. It was shown on the television news in several Western countries. People in Slovakia saw it on Austrian television. At the Vienna review conference, Western ambassadors lined up to deplore the Czechoslovak authorities’ action.
It was, indeed, a prime-time “advertisement” for the present regime in Prague.
On Monday, November 14, the following commentary, signed “Václav Dolezal,” appeared on page 2 of Rudé Právo, the central organ of the Czechoslovak Communist party:
Attempt at Provocation
Fourteen days after the provocative demonstration of anti-socialist forces [see below, i.e. the unofficial Independence Day demonstrations on October 28] the same group of people attempted another form of provocation. It took advantage of cooperation with organizations for psychological warfare of the North Atlantic Pact. Western broadcasting stations took an active part too. What was up?
In the past weekend days, the so-called Charter 77 wanted to organize a “symposium” called Czechoslovakia 88 in Prague. According to the foreign press, some twenty persons representing various official and unofficial Western structures, many of which take extreme anti-Czechoslovak positions, were to come to participate in the action, under the cloak of tourism.
The interest of these “also-tourists” was not devoted to inspecting the cultural glories of our capital, but rather to encouraging the so-called dissidents to develop even more anti-socialist activity. They failed to achieve this goal. They wanted to use materials prepared beforehand to discredit our social system and to blacken our homeland in the countries of our neighbors. According to the foreign press, these materials, often glorifying the pre-1938 political structures, describe our previous political positions from subjectivist positions and sometimes antagonistically. A series of organizers of this provocation have been detained.
A similar action with the same political intentions was organized by émigré and other centers in Vienna on Sunday. The intention behind both the mentioned actions was a single aim: to defame the efforts of our Party and society for reconstruction, but also to complicate the Vienna meeting [i.e., of the CSCE] and, at variance with the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to interfere in the internal affairs of the CSSR and to infringe Czechoslovak sovereignty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
See my "The Hungarian Lesson," The New York Review (December 5, 1985).↩
See my “The Hungarian Lesson,” The New York Review (December 5, 1985).↩