Czechoslovakia is not just another little country in Eastern Europe. It differs from all the others in at least one critical respect. It is the only country between Germany and the former Soviet Union that has had an authentic democratic past. From 1918 to 1938, it was a thriving, free outpost of the West of a special type. It was a multinational state with Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Jews. While Poland had a military dictatorship under Marshal Pilsudski and Hungary had another under Admiral Horthy, Czechoslovakia was guided by a professor, Tomášs Garrigue Masaryk. If Czechoslovakia with the benefit of such a past cannot make the transition from communism to liberal democracy, the outlook for the other states of Eastern Europe is far bleaker.

Czechoslovakia also has a special claim on the West. It was the West, primarily France and Great Britain, which helped cut short the life of Czechoslovak democracy in 1938. “Munich” is still more than the name of a city; it is a symbol of betrayal and self-delusion. For the next half century, Czechoslovakia’s history was imposed on it from the outside. The Nazis made Slovakia into a puppet state and the Czechs into a protectorate, the Soviets made both of them a satellite within their empire. If ever a country was a victim of circumstances beyond its control, it was Czechoslovakia.

Suddenly, in November 1989, Czechoslovakia awoke from a long nightmare. It produced a novel political phenomenon—the “Velvet Revolution.” From a distance, it appeared to be the ideal type of revolutionary change—the collapse of an oppressive Communist regime and the bloodless victory of an aroused people. In the long, equivocal history of revolution, something new had emerged. In the past, old regimes were overthrown after more or less protracted, violent struggles. Czechoslovak communism seemed to come to an end in a way that was untainted and unprecedented.

Three years later, Czechoslovakia is a sorely troubled country. It is beset by innumerable practical problems but above all by a crisis of identity. The country is about to break up into two parts, Czech and Slovak, which at best cannot fail to be painful. The separation will tear apart three quarters of a century of bonds between the two peoples. Both Czechs and Slovaks are about to enter a dark tunnel; no one knows how long it will be or what it will be like on the other side.

Something else helped the Velvet Revolution to unravel. Other revolutions have devoured their favorite children. This one did something else—cast them aside. In only two years, they went from winning everything to being wiped out politically.

How did the “Velvet Revolution” come to this? The answer must start with another question: What kind of revolution was it? What led up to it and what led away from it? Was it really a revolution or something else?


It was, at best, a peculiar revolution. It did not start out to be one. It began as something much less, by a part of the population from which it was least expected to come.

Czech students had not been notable for their political activism. Something changed toward the end of the 1980s. In August 1988, the first sign of ferment came in the form of a protest demonstration, largely made up of young people, on the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. A new, younger generation was somehow shaking off the traditional indifference and apathy. As Petr Pithart, a professor and future Czech prime minister, later attested, “In years past, no one expected it.” Young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five were distinctly different from the preceding generation in their attitudes.1

Certainly no one expected the repercussions of a student demonstration in Prague on November 17, 1989. It was not called to protest against the Communist regime: it was held to honor the death of Jan Opletal, a student executed by the Nazis fifty years earlier. Even the Socialist Union of Youth, the official Communist organization, voted to join the demonstration.

But the turnout proved to be far larger than expected. Speakers went far beyond the ostensible cause and called for academic freedom, respect for basic human rights, the liberation of political prisoners. Instead of disbanding in an outlying square, as had been agreed with the authorities, the swollen crowd attempted to march to the city center, Wenceslas Square, where history had long been made in Prague. Before they were able to get there, riot police went into action, brutally beating young and old alike. A rumor that a student had been killed inflamed the crowd. It turned out to be false but was reported by Radio Free Europe and contributed to a growing conviction that there was no turning back.2

What started in Prague soon spread. Students revealed an unsuspected talent for organization and discipline. They fanned out to other university towns—Masaryk University in Brno, Palacký University in Olomouc, and elsewhere—bringing the message of November 17. A nationwide movement was born. When the students looked for allies, they turned to another unlikely source for help—the Theater Academy of Musical Arts. It brought in directors, actors, and audiences from the exuberant Prague theater world. They, too, had not been known for their direct political engagement.


Yet students and their theatrical allies could start a revolution but could not finish it. At first, their elders looked on with wonderment and apprehension. One older group was ready to take the leap and propel the movement into a new stage.

Czechoslovakia did not lack intellectuals who were willing to sacrifice their careers and if necessary their lives to resist Communist repression. The principal effort to do so went back to 1977, when a small group of dissidents came together to form Charter 77. It was not the product of a political event; it arose from a protest against the trial of a rock group, oddly called The Plastic People of the Universe which displeased the Communist authorities, because it did not conform to their tastes in musical expression and personal behavior.3 In the peculiar Czech setting, the threat to the freedom to play rock music gave rise to a defense of every other freedom.

Charter 77 was not a revolutionary document. It carefully restricted itself to “respect of civil and human rights,” and pledged abstention from oppositional activity or “a program for political or social reform.”4 In its day, the Communist regime seemed to be too solidly entrenched to think of being able to overthrow it, but the self-restraint was also self-imposed. In the view of the best-known of the charter’s initiators, Václav Havel, the aim was a fundamental moral change in social consciousness—a long-range perspective that made an immediate political change secondary.5

Charter 77 obtained about 1,250 signatures, of which about 950 to 1,000 remained by 1987.6 These largely came from individual intellectuals, Catholic reformers, and former, disaffected Communists. They differed so much in their political outlook, extending from left to right, that they could not have agreed on much else. They were a band of loosely associated individualists rather than an organization and least of all a party. They could not conceivably have threatened the regime, though that did not save them from isolation and persecution. They existed, as they themselves put it, in a “political ghetto.”

But the demonstrations, gaining strength day after day, enabled the dissidents to break down the walls of their ghetto and brought to the students the political support of an older generation. On the third day of the demonstrations, November 19, Havel called a meeting of dissidents in a Prague theater at which a new type of organization was hastily set up. Called the Civic Forum, it brought together student leaders and their dissident elders to deal with the crisis brought on by the demonstrations and official efforts to repress them.7 It gave the budding revolution spokesmen who had previously been talking to themselves.

Most of the Czech and Slovak population remained on the sidelines, waiting incredulously for the outcome. If it was a revolution, it was largely set off by students and intellectuals. Workers were gradually drawn in by flying squads of students who went from factory to factory explaining, exhorting, entreating. When the workers came out, they were following, not leading. Had it not been for the students, there would have been no revolution.


As the demonstrations went on, building up to 100,000 people, then 200,000, both sides had to make up their minds what to do about them. The Civic Forum, mainly a nonstop talking shop, had to decide what its aims were. The Communist leadership still had plenty of force in the police, army, and People’s Militia to put down the challenge. No one expected the Communists to give up voluntarily.

The “Proclamation” of the Civic Forum on November 19, 1989, was not a revolutionary document. It expressed the wish “to open a negotiation” for the purpose of discussing four demands: the resignation of those Communist leaders responsible for the Soviet intervention in 1968; the resignation of two Communist officials held responsible for the police attack on November 17, 1989; a commission to investigate these actions; and the immediate release of all political prisoners. When no reply was received by November 22, the Civic Forum called for a general strike on November 27. But the sense of a gathering revolution was still not present; the strike was described as a “political protest” with “no other aims.”8

The first official Communist reaction on November 21 took a hard line; it called for the restoration of order “by all possible means.” But the old discipline was lacking. One of the hard-liners, Miroslav Stepán, the Prague Communist chieftain, tried to rally the People’s Militia, made up Communist Party members. It refused to respond. On November 24, the Central Committee narrowly voted against using the army to put down the round-the-clock demonstrations. The Communist front was clearly cracking, and the Civic Forum’s bid for negotiations offered the best way out of the impasse.


In Slovakia, events followed the Czech pattern. The Slovak version of Civic Forum took the name of the Public Against Violence. Like its Czech counterpart, it was largely made up of intellectuals, some of whom had also paid for their dissidence.

In Prague, where the basic decisions were made, the next stage hinged on whether the Communist leadership was willing to accept the offer of negotiations. The preliminaries were arranged by two unlikely intermediaries, a politically minded rock musician, Michael Kocáb, and a young journalist, Michal Horácek. They were responsible for setting up a negotiated revolution.

The two sides were ostensibly so unevenly matched that they made a strange couple.

The Civic Forum was a last-minute improvisation. Like Charter 77, it had no organization, no discipline, no ranks, no party program, nothing but the best of intentions. As Timothy Garton Ash, who was present for part of its sessions, noted, it spanned the political spectrum from a Trotskyist to a conservative Catholic.9 It received its raison d’êetre from the boiling demonstrations in the squares but had no means of giving them a representative political form or doctrine. It hardly knew where it was going from one moment to the next, except that it was thrown into the breach to mediate between the power that was and the power that was to be.

The power that was—the Communist power—was willing to negotiate, because it saw negotiations as the lesser evil. In ordinary times, the Czechoslovak Communist Party would have been the least vulnerable party in Eastern Europe. It benefited from a standard of living generally higher than elsewhere in the region. It provided a kind of welfare system that was minimal but assured a guaranteed income and lifetime employment. If workers gave little of their energies, little was demanded from them. After forty-one years in power, the Party’s tentacles were everywhere. The better jobs required Party membership, no matter whether there was much belief or faith behind it. On the other hand, it was a moribund party with a large, passive membership and a sclerotic leadership. The one thing not tolerated was political opposition, but even the opposition that existed took the form of “dissidence,” which implied reforms within the system, not a revolution to overthrow it.

But these were not ordinary times. The Czech Communist leaders were attuned to every nuance and tremor in the rest of the Communist world and especially in the Soviet Union. They knew that they had to respond to the slogans of glasnost and perestroika coming out of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, but they did so with obvious discomfort and reluctance. They paid lip service to political and economic reform without undertaking any substantial changes.

Yet a shift in the top leadership in December 1987 showed that something had to give. Gustáv Husák, secretary-general of the Party since 1969, was replaced in December 1987 by Miloš Jakeš, who had previously been in charge of agriculture. Husák doubled as president and held on to this office, an indication that the old guard was still entrenched. Jakeš, no more a reformer than Husák, only made matters worse. He was an embarrassment; every time he opened his mouth, he made people laugh at his mangling of the language and inabi-lity to express himself intelligibly. When the great student demonstration erupted on November 17, 1989, Jakeš and Husák were still the top Communist leaders.

With Jakeš in 1987 had come in, as the new Czechoslovak prime minister, Ladislav Adamec, who had been the prime minister of the Czech government.10 Adamec was now thrust into the front line to conduct the negotiations with the Civic Forum. Negotiations to give the Communists a soft landing had already been carried out in Poland and Hungary, but there “reform Communist” factions had served as go-betweens. In Czechoslovakia, “reform communism” had been stamped out by Soviet tanks in 1968 at the time of the “Prague Spring” and its “communism with a human face.” From then on, the Czechoslovak Party had been the most rigid in Eastern Europe; it either lacked reform Communists or they dared not come out into the open. Adamec, though an old-timer, saw his opportunity and belatedly adopted a reformist line.11

As late as October 22, 1989, Adamec had held an interview with Austrian journalists in Vienna in which he had defended the Czechoslovak regime’s human rights record and had attacked two Czechoslovak dissidents, Vacláv Havel and Jirí Hajek, as “absolute zeroes.” Adamec had declared: “They attacked our party. Why should we put up with that? Do you know any party in the world that freely surrenders its power?”12 A month later, Adamec had changed his mind or had it changed for him.

We now know more about what happened inside the Czechoslovak Communist movement in the period before November 1989 and what made it succumb to the temptation of a negotiated settlement. The most circumstantial and authoritative disclosures have come from Adamec’s closest aide, Oskar Krejcí, in a little-known series of articles published in 1991.13

Krejcí revealed that the Czechoslovak Communist leadership had been strongly influenced by the so-called Round Table negotiations in Poland in February-April 1989, between the ruling Communist circles and a Citizen’s Committee that had been formed to back Solidarity.14 According to Krejcí, Adamec took the hint and advised Jakeš that he was ready to resign as prime minister if political changes were not carried out in Czechoslovakia. Jakeš showed no sign of yielding. In May 1989, Adamec sent the government spokesman, Miroslav Pavel, to Moscow to find out whether he had the backing of Soviet leaders for political changes. They listened, took notes, and said nothing.

Soon after the first demonstration on November 17, 1989, Václav Soukup, head of the government’s international department, went to Moscow to report on the differences in the Czechoslovak Party between the Jakeš standpatters and the supporters of Adamec’s line that political changes were necessary if the Party was to survive. In addition, Moscow emissaries came to Prague, advising that the Soviet Union intended to remain neutral and counseling against using military force.15

Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak Party was getting bad news from its own private opinion polls, not revealed to the public. One question repeatedly asked was whether it was important to stress the Party’s “leading role” in the government. “Yes” votes went from 67 percent in 1986, to 60 percent in 1988; to 41 percent in June 1989, to 14 percent after November 17, 1989. In May 1989, 57 percent of Communist officials declared that they did not have confidence in their top leaders. Krejcí attributes the “Velvet Revolution” to the existence of widespread “reform” sentiment among the rank and file, who knew that something was wrong but not what to do about it, as a result of which they deserted their leaders in the critical period in November 1989.

The negotiations themselves, according to Krejcí, were unusual in that they were conducted with Adamec as prime minister and not with the real power, the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In effect, the top leadership was so demoralized that it could not take responsibility for approving the negotiations or for opposing them. Adamec knew that he did not have the Party’s full backing but went ahead anyway as long as he was not told otherwise. His manner of conducting the negotiations betrayed his constant awareness that he was maneuvering between two fires and could not hold out for long in the middle.


These were peculiar negotiations. They began on November 26, the day before the threatened general strike. The decision to negotiate was, in effect, the opening to the Velvet Revolution. Power was in the streets. The immense, all-embracing Communist structure was faced with collapse. Yet the Communists were invited to negotiate and to salvage what they could.

In the Civic Forum, a debate took place on whether to take all power away from the Communists. The decision went against such a policy for a practical reason that cast a long shadow on future events. It was argued that the members of the Civic Forum were intellectuals who had had no previous experience in government. They reasoned that they needed at least six months to master the mechanics of government. For this purpose, the Communist bureaucracy in place could enable them to get ready.16 By this time, too, the most notorious of the Communist old guard had been forced out of the leadership and younger, less unsavory substitutes had been pressed into service. On November 26, the Party’s presidium and secretariat were purged of fifteen of its twenty-four members.17 In effect, the old guard was losing the struggle for power within the Party.

The negotiations were eerie, conducted between the persecuted and their persecutors. At one side of the table sat a delegation of fourteen, headed by Ladislav Adamec, Communist prime minister and member of the highest Party body, the presidium, or politburo. Adamec was flanked by advisers and representatives from various front organizations.

On the other side of the table sat a group of eleven representing the Civic Forum, headed by Václav Havel. He knew best what it was to be persecuted by Adamec’s party—for years he had been unable to do anything or go anywhere without being trailed by the secret police, had spent almost four years in prison during which he had nearly died, and was then repeatedly picked up for interrogation. At the third session two days later, he was joined by Jan Carnogursky, representing the Public Against Violence in Slovakia, who was released from prison just in time to get to the meeting.

Both sides behaved with the utmost civility. On the table beside them was a recording machine, taking down every word, all of which were subsequently published. The first words were:

Adamec: We don’t know each other yet, right?

Havel: My name is Havel.

Adamec: My name is Adamec. How do you do?18

This opening was greeted with applause. Adamec and Havel introduced the members of their delegations. Havel invited Adamec to talk to that afternoon’s rally. Adamec agreed on condition that the Civic Forum should help to limit the economic consequences of the general strike. Both sides seemed to be sparring, feeling each other out, not sure of what they wanted. They agreed to meet again two days later.

On November 28, Adamec was accompanied by a smaller group closest to him, including Marián Calfa, a minister in his government, Krejcí, and Pavel. For the first time, Havel presented a list of demands. They included the resignation of Adamec and his government as well as that of President Husák. Yet Adamec was also asked to appoint a new government. Havel gave assurances that he had not delivered an ultimatum, merely “a way to preserve peace and order in Czechoslovakia.”19 Adamec agreed that political changes were necessary but insisted that they had to be carried out in accordance with existing law or he intended to resign.

The Civic Forum was determined to get a new government but not an entirely new one. For reasons of its own, it wanted Adamec to head the new government, in order to establish a continuity between the new and the old. The question was where to strike the balance—more of the old or more of the new? Adamec’s strategy was to hold on to Communist predominance but to shift the political center of gravity away from the hard-liners to those Communists who supported “change,” whatever that might turn out to be. With this in mind, he reshuffled his cabinet to include fifteen Communists—none of them well-known hard-liners—and five non-Communists. According to Krejcí, Adamec saw himself as occupying a middle position between the “dogmatic” Communists on the one hand and the Civic Forum on the other, a balancing act that he hoped to achieve with his new government. The new cabinet was announced publicly but was quickly rejected by both the demonstrators and the Civic Forum. Adamec lost his nerve and decided to get out of the line of fire.

The crisis over Adamec’s resignation and the new government came to a head at a meeting on December 5. Adamec startled the group by suddenly announcing that he was resigning as prime minister and that he had just returned from the Soviet Union. He had gone to Moscow on December 3 to attend a meeting of the Warsaw Pact and had returned the following day. Adamec gave the impression that he had acted with Gorbachev’s backing:

I took the job because Gorbachev asked me to do it. Not because he is Gorbachev, but because he is carrying out a policy which the world needs. I took the risk.20

Krejcí, however, knew better. Adamec, he reports, failed to get Gorbachev’s active support in Moscow.21 This disappointment explains why Adamec returned from Moscow determined to resign. It seems that the Soviet leaders in this period looked on benevolently but were determined to abstain from outright intervention in the affairs of other Communist parties as their predecessors had routinely done.

In any case, Havel and his associates made every effort to get Adamec to change his mind. They offered to help him succeed in his new role. When he adamantly refused, they looked around for a substitute, and Adamec produced the name of a young Slovak, Marián Calfa, a minister in his old government.

By now, the Communist leadership was in such disarray that Jakeš was succeeded as secretary-general by Karel Urbánek, who met with Havel’s group on December 6 and unburdened himself of the Party’s predicament:

We are aware of the fact that we don’t have the trust of the people. We simply lost it—this trust. We are aware of it, I say it quite openly.22

Urbánek informed them that he had given orders to disarm the People’s Militia and had asked the entire Central Committee to resign. The Party, he assured them, had no right to interfere in the formation of a new government. It had crumbled and did not want responsibility for the government.

At a later meeting that same day, Adamec came with Calfa, Krejí, and Pavel. This time Adamec thought that only half the ministers in the new government might be Communists. It did not seem strange to him or to his interlocutors that so many Communists should still be appointed.

The details of the new government were worked out on December 8. All sides agreed on Calfa as the new prime minister. President Husák put up no resistance; he was willing to appoint the new government and resign.

The makeup of Calfa’s government was decided on December 9 and publicly announced the next day. The biggest holdup concerned the minister of the interior, in charge of the police. It was so difficult to decide on a single person for the job that a compromise was reached to appoint a committee of three, made up of Calfa, Valtr Komárek, a respected economist though a Party member, and Carnogursky.23

In the end, the new government was made up of seven Communists, two nominal Communists,24 four from Communist front organizations, three experts or technocrats, and four from the anti-Communist opposition. Calfa and Komárek soon resigned from the Party. Among the oppositionists in the new government were Jirí Dienstbier, the foreign minister, and Václav Klaus, the finance minister. Husák, the aged symbol of all that had been wrong in the past, resigned as president, and Havel, the symbol of all that was hopeful in the future, was elected to take his place on December 29. There was something shameless about the unanimous vote for Havel by the same legislature that had just as unanimously served the Communist Party before the revolution and had watched in silence while Havel was persecuted. The new government was understood to be merely a stopgap until free elections could be held in June 1990.

Thus ended the twenty-three days of the Velvet Revolution from November 17 to December 10, 1989.


Was it a revolution? A collapse? An abdication? A negotiated settlement?

It was, in effect, all of these. And like everything else that is all things to all men, it left an ambiguous legacy. It was not the ideal revolution it seemed to be from afar.

Some aspects of the revolution were real enough. The Communist structure has all but disappeared. There is freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The barbed wire has been removed, and the borders are open. The secret police no longer spread fear and trembling. Free elections have been held twice in three years. Legislatures legislate. Elected officials carry out their duties. If there is also disillusionment and even cynicism, they are expressed in the open and without fear.

But the very nature of the revolution determined its limitations. Since the downfall of communism was not anticipated, little thought had been given or preparations made for the day after. As Havel put it later, “The end of Communism took us all by surprise.”25 The mixed character of the new government gave no signal that a truly new day had arrived.

Communism was dead, but Communists were very much alive. If Communists could be present in strength in the postrevolutionary government, other Communists could hardly be penalized merely for having been Communists. “We are not like them!” Havel had exclaimed at a demonstration. The Civic Forum was certainly not like the Communists, who would have filled their prisons with their opponents, if they had come out of the crisis of November-December victoriously. The anti-Communist opposition was so unlike the Communists that it was determined to empty the prisons, not fill them.26

The euphoria of the moment swept all questions and problems aside. But euphoria is notoriously short-lived. It fed on getting rid of the past rather than looking forward to the future. Or it confused the two, as if it were enough to get rid of the past in order to face the future.

Once the euphoria was over, the new world did not seem all that different from the old. To the students and others of the younger generation, who had set the revolution in motion, the denouement was especially hard to take. When they went back to school, the same professors greeted them. The rector of a university was removable but no one else. To them, little, if anything, had changed. Yet there were no other professors to take the place of the old ones.

During a visit this autumn to Palacký University in Olomouc, the second largest city in Moravia, a typical story unfolded. The new rector was Professor Josef Jarab, a specialist in American literature. A notorious dissident, he had been marked for dismissal by the previous Communist rector. By chance, he received his notice of dismissal the same day that a meeting of professors and students had elected him to be the new rector. The professors had split, but the students had unanimously tipped the balance in his favor. It was all irregular but effective in the circumstances. The old rector quietly gave up and went back to the medical school from which he had come; he suffered nothing else. Otherwise, nothing changed. Since the school—and every other institution—still operated under the Communist Labor Code, which made dismissals illegal, it was impossible to introduce new teachers into the faculty. The best that could be done was to try to set up a new Law Institute—it could not be called a Law School—to bring in younger and perhaps less compromised instructors. But money was in short supply, and the outcome was very much in doubt.

Within a year after the Velvet Revolution, it was common knowledge that students felt their efforts had been wasted and that they had been “cheated.” If they are asked what they had expected to happen, they do not know, but they believe that their elders somehow took over the revolution and made a mess of it.

They are not the only ones.27 In the factories, too, little has changed. The same managers and executives who used to belong to the Communist Party to get or hold their jobs still manage and make decisions, only their self-interest now comes first. When one asks whether there was no other way, the inevitable answer is that factories and other establishments would have to close down for lack of managerial replacements. Many small businesses have opened, mainly in Prague, but they do not present this problem.

On a larger scale, perhaps the most urgent need of the revolution was to replace the Communist constitution with a democratic one. But this task was put off, and the Communist constitution, modified by legislative amendments, still prevails. The constitutional problem has now been envenomed by the Czecho-Slovak split and probably must await its outcome.28

In democratic countries, Communist parties are legal, and Czechoslovakia is no exception. A Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia was formed after the revolution and claimed a membership of 500,000 at its first convention in October 1990.29 In Slovakia, a different development took place. There the Party decided to change its name and program. It became the Party of the Democratic Left, with an able young leader, Peter Weiss. He told me in Bratislava this autumn that the Communist Party in Slovakia had had 450,000 members in October 1989, before the Velvet Revolution. Thinking that they could not be left to drift, Weiss and others decided that it was best to form a new party of democratic principles to wean them away from their past allegiances. The PDL now has 45,000 members and is the second largest party in Slovakia. It is something of an anomaly—a party made up chiefly of ex-Communists which describes itself as democratic and is largely accepted as such. Two small orthodox Communist parties joined together to form the Communist Party of Slovakia in August 1992. But there were so many Czech and Slovak Communists that they are scattered in all the present parties.

Getting rid of Communists in the new Czechoslovakia was not the aim of the Velvet Revolution. Most Communists were admittedly in the Party for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons. The most difficult question was: Should opportunists be punished? And if they were, how—and how many? Havel once said that “only a few” had protested against the Communist regime. “We are all—though naturally to differing extents—responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators.”30 This was an exaggeration, and Havel’s self-castigation was not well received. But there was a kernel of truth in it. Almost everyone had somehow to get along in the Communist system, if only to survive. Such people as Havel were exceedingly rare. In effect, Communists were protected after the fall, because there had been so many of them and in so many essential occupations. Active, dedicated anti-Communists had been too few, too isolated, and too restricted to intellectuals to replace them.

The Communist leaders were not punished, because that would have required a different kind of revolution. It would not have been negotiated with a part of the Communist leadership and would not have resulted in putting Communists in the first post-Communist government. If the Communists had not been assured of getting off so easily, there is no way of telling what resistance they might have put up sooner or later, despite their temporary impotence. In a matter of days, there were far more ex-Communists than Communists. Unfortunately, no one has invented a machine to test the difference between Communists and ex-Communists in these peculiar circumstances.

The presence of Communists in public life became so embarrassing that a “lustrace“—usually translated as “screening” or “vetting”—law was passed in January 1991. It was mainly designed to expose ministers and members of parliament who had collaborated with the Communist secret police. In October 1991, another law was passed barring former Party officials, members of the People’s Militia, the secret police, and their agents or informers from serving in “leading posts” throughout the state sector (though not in elected posts, such as member of parliament) for a period of five years. Though there were some debates about the fairness of punishing entire categories of people without examining each case judicially and individually, the main trouble came from something else. The commission in charge of the investigation was unable to protect its files, which contained hundreds of thousands of names of real or alleged collaborators. They were leaked to newspapers, which simply published huge lists of names without regard for how, when, or why. No other evidence was necessary to ruin a reputation or career. No distinction was made between higher-ups and underlings or between those who volunteered and those who were blackmailed or intimidated. In effect, the former secret police was made judge, prosecutor, and jury in a bizarrely different setting.

One of those caught in this dragnet was Jan Kavan, a member of parliament, whose case has received the most publicity, because he decided to fight the allegations. Two decades ago, he was an exiled student leader in London, where his services to the anti-Communist opposition were unquestionably outstanding. But he was now accused of having had unspecified relations with the education attaché in the Czechoslovak embassy, who was as likely as not to have merely wanted to get credit for another agent or informer.31 Yet Communists can be elected, on a Communist ticket, to the postrevolutionary legislatures, while newspaper reporters and even an editor have been fired as a result of having had their names turn up on a list. The ultimate irony is that this type of legislation has been pushed by legislators who discovered their uncompromising anti-communism only after the revolution.

The persistence of Communists or ex-Communists in Czechoslovak politics is not the real problem today. What disturbs most people is that Communists or ex-Communists—the two terms are often used interchangeably—have done remarkably well despite their political downfall. In effect, Communists, even at the top, with very few exceptions, were able to get off scot-free and were permitted to get as much as they could out of the new system.32

They did it by being insiders who knew best how to exploit the new opportunities. Stories abound of privatized businesses taken over by their own Party-installed managers who succeeded in transferring the property to themselves. Communist politicians shed their old ideology and overnight transformed themselves into rabid nationalists as they discovered what would bring them votes in their new political guises. The success with which Communists turned their coats and adapted themselves to the new “market economy” was not anticipated and nothing was done about it.

By 1992, popular discontent was so intense that Václav Havel, as president, felt it necessary to confess that an error had been made. In his New Year’s address, he declared that he too was disturbed

that the various fraternities of the nomenklatura—the former Communist elite, including members of the former state police—retain control over many enterprises and offices, continuing to enrich themselves dishonestly, merrily capitalizing on stolen money and continuing to rule over those who have always lived honestly and blamelessly. These people are exploiting the fact that we failed to make a resolute and quick break with the past and to limit the influence of those who had participated actively in its creation. I do not agree that the error occurred in the very first days of the revolution, when we allegedly negotiated too considerately with the opponent. Those who assert this have very quickly forgotten that the former regime retained up until the last moment all the possible and impossible instruments of power and that it was not at all certain these instruments would not be used against the people.

For this reason a certain caution was called for, and if the blood of innocent people was not shed in our country, perhaps it was because of this caution. Most likely the error took place later, in the first months of 1990, when all of us underestimated our former opponents’ extraordinary artfulness and their unusual ability to adapt to new conditions. It will probably be a long and difficult process to remedy this error, but remedied it must be—in a cultured, legal, and civilized manner.33

Since these words were spoken, nothing has been done to “remedy this error,” and it is probably too late to do much about it. Havel is no longer president, and the imminent Czech-Slovak split cannot help. Paradoxically, then, there is still a Communist problem in Czechoslovakia, but a different one. Yet the present problem has its roots in the period of the Velvet Revolution, or, as Havel prefers, the one immediately after it. He absolved the revolution itself in a way that casts some light on the original motivations of those largely responsible for it.

Havel made it appear that the Civic Forum side in the negotiations of November-December 1989 was inhibited by the “instruments of power” that the Communists still possessed and might have used to put down the demonstrations bloodily. Yet all the evidence points to a precipitous collapse of the Party leadership and the mass flight of its membership. On December 7, 1989, Havel and others had met with the newly appointed minister of defense, General Miroslav Vacek. He assured them that the army was not going to intervene and that the People’s Militia was being disarmed.34 Krejcí views Adamec’s appointment of Vacek as minister of defense in the abortive government of fifteen Communists and five non-Communists as a decisive factor in making the Velvet Revolution possible.35 When the new Communist general secretary, Karel Urbánek, cringed before the group on December 6, 1989, and confessed that the people had deserted his Party, the signs of Communist resistance neared the vanishing point. When even the “changed” Communist, Adamec, learned that he could not get Soviet backing, he could think of nothing better than to resign.

Yet one can never tell, and the fact remains that the “blood of innocent people” was not shed. That aspect cannot be lightly dismissed, whatever the reason. Still, a nagging question remains. Was it really necessary to pack the postrevolutionary government with so many Communists, including a prime minister who was a minister in the past Communist government? Was enough thought given to the symbolic presence of so many Communists in the new social and political order? Or was there something else at work in those hectic, euphoric days besides the potential threat of Communist violence?

The Civic Forum’s insistence during the negotiations on keeping Adamec as prime minister was the critical decision. It did not derive mainly, if at all, from the fear of Communist violence. Instead, Adamec and later Calfa represented a much desired legal continuity, a desideratum odd in a revolutionary situation. The Civic Forum was made up of people who had been dissidents for so long that they found it difficult to play the role of revolutionaries. Instead of seeking to overthrow the Communist regime, they wanted the new government to issue out of it. If the collapse or abdication had come less suddenly and unexpectedly, they might have been better prepared to face it. As they improvised a strategy during the negotiations, they played safe by asking for the minimum—and getting it without a struggle.

The velvet side of the revolution may or may not have been the better, or even an unavoidable, course; but it could not be the result of a process of part revolution, part collapse, part abdication, and part negotiated settlement without Czechoslovakia paying a price for it. The price was not clear at the outset, with the consequence that future problems arising from the character of the transition were not immediately recognized. The problem of the transformed Communists was only one of them. Other problems—constitutional, political, economic, Czech-Slovak relations, the fate of the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence—were next in line to haunt the Velvet Revolution.

December 17, 1992
(This is the first of two articles.)

This Issue

January 14, 1993