Saved by Czech

Other men change wives. Some change cars. Some change gender. The point of a midlife crisis is to demonstrate continuity with one’s youth by doing something strikingly different. To be sure, “different” is a relative term: a man in the throes of such a crisis usually does the same as every other man—that, after all, is how you know it’s a midlife crisis. But mine was a little different. I was the right age, at the right stage (divorcing Wife #2), and experiencing the usual middle-aged uncertainties: What’s it all about? But I did it my way. I learned Czech.

Early in the 1980s I was teaching politics at Oxford. I had job security, professional responsibilities, and a nice home. Domestic bliss would have been too much to ask, but I was inured to its absence. I did, though, feel increasingly detached from my academic preoccupations. French history in those days had fallen among thieves: the so-called “cultural turn” and “post”-everything trends in social history had me reading interminable turgid screeds, promoted to academic prominence by newly founded “subdisciplines” whose acolytes were starting to colonize a little too close to home. I was bored.

On April 24, 1981, the New Statesman carried a letter from a Czech dissident, writing under the pseudonym Václav Racek, politely protesting an essay by E.P. Thompson in which the great British historian had described East and West as coresponsible for the cold war and its attendant crimes. Surely, “Racek” suggested, communism had a little more to answer for? Thompson responded with a long and patronizing dismissal, comparing the Czech dissident’s “naive” desire for liberty with his own “defense of British liberties,” but conceding that in his misinformed innocence “it is not difficult to understand why a Czech intellectual may think in this way.”

I was furious at Thompson’s arrogance and wrote in to say so. My intervention—and the sympathies it expressed—elicited an invitation to London to meet Jan Kavan, a ‘68-era exile. When we met, Kavan was hysterical. He had given an interview to Thames Television in which, carried away by enthusiasm, he had—he feared—inadvertently revealed information about the Czech underground that could get people in trouble. Would I please go and stop the film being shown?

I was flattered that Kavan should suppose an obscure Oxford don capable of wielding such influence. I knew better but pretended otherwise and headed for the studio. The editor of the program listened respectfully to me; quickly ascertained that I knew virtually nothing about Czechoslovakia, the underground opposition, or even Kavan himself; calculated that I was peculiarly without influence even by the standards of my profession…and threw me politely out the door.

The film duly ran on television the next night. To my knowledge no one suffered seriously from its revelations, but Jan Kavan’s reputation took a severe blow: many years later, when his political enemies in the post-Communist Czech Republic accused him of …

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