“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 …
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