25th February 2023 - seventy-five years since the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia
25. 2. 2023 / Jan Čulík
In 1939, the German army marched into Bohemia and the Czech state ceased to exist. In 1945, Russian troops marched into Bohemia and the country was once again called an independent republic. The people were delighted with Russia, which had driven the Germans out of the country, and because they saw the Czech Communist Party as its loyal arm, they transferred their sympathy to it. Thus it was that the Communists seized power in February 1948, not by blood and violence, but to the cheers of about one half of the nation. Now pay attention: the half that cheered was the more active, smarter and better half.
Yes, argue all you want, the communists were smarter. They had a generous program. A plan for a whole new world in which everyone would find their place. Those who opposed them had no grand dream, but only a few moral principles, worn and dull, from which they wanted to sew patches on the torn trousers of conditions as they were. No wonder, then, that the enthusiastic and generous ones quickly began to realize their dream, that just idyll for all.
I emphasize again: an idyll and for all, for all men have always longed for that idyll, for that garden in which the nightingales sing, for that territory of harmony where the world does not strive against man and man against other men, where, on the contrary, the world and all men are made of one single substance, and the fire that burns in heaven is the same that burns in men's souls. Everyone is a note in Bach's beautiful fugue, and those who do not want to be a note remain a black dot, useless and devoid of meaning, which can only be caught and squashed between the fingernails like a flea.
At the very beginning, some people admitted that they had no nature for idyll and wanted to leave the country. But since the essence of the idyll is that it is a world for all, those who wanted to emigrate proved themselves deniers of the idyll and had to go behind bars instead of abroad. Soon thousands and tens of thousands more followed them there, and eventually many Communists, such as Foreign Minister Clementis, who once lent Gottwald his hat. On movie posters, illicit lovers held hands, marital infidelity was harshly punished in the courts of honor of citizens, nightingales sang, and Clementis's body swayed like a bell ringing the new dawn of humanity.
And then those young, clever and radical people suddenly had the strange feeling that they had sent an act into the world and it had taken on a life of its own, ceasing to resemble their ideas and heedless of those who had given it birth. So those young and clever people began to shout at their act, to call it out, to admonish it, to chase it, to persecute it. If I were writing a novel about a generation of those gifted and radical people, I would call it The Pursuit of a Lost Action.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 68 Publishers, Toronto, 1981, pp. 14-15
So much Milan Kundera on today's seventy-fifth anniversary of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. You can see from this that he was extremely traumatized for most of his life by the fact that he supported the Stalinist communist regime in the 1950s "out of his own stupidity," as he repeatedly indirectly writes of himself. Throughout his literary works, he then developed the theory that the human brain is absolutely imperfect, we fall prey to simplification and misinterpretation, and we can never properly understand what goes on the world and act effectively. While there may be something to this theory to some extent (note that no political party in any country in the world, when it comes to power, ever manages fully to implement its electoral program and always ends up in electoral disfavor after a few years) it unfortunately leads to passivity and inaction. If we are so stupid by nature that we do not understand anything, there is no point in doing anything.
And yet - Kundera at least wrote a whole series of novels that (at least for a short time) - reached the whole world.
But what interests me about this quote from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is something else.
Contemporary anticommunists will use today's seventy-fifth anniversary of the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia to repeat their unconvincing mantra: the claim that the righteous Czech nation was a victim of colonization by a cruel Eastern empire, and that communism was imposed on Czechoslovakia from the outside: "We suffered," "The nation was a victim," and "It was a disaster from the outside" that the Czech world suffered.
I don't know. It may be the anniversary today, but I'm afraid that we "members of the older generation, and also the younger ideologues are still going on about something that the younger generation is not interested in. We are like the proverbial grandfather who kept boring his grandchildren with stories about the horrors of the First World War.
But what interests me is what the communist legacy means for today. And - yes, I confess that I am still affected (traumatised?) by the shocking discovery I made as a teenager in the early 1970s that a nation that was enthusiastically pro-democracy in 1968 had, in just eighteen months, completely turned around and begun - perhaps not enthusiastically, but certainly assiduously - to collaborate en masse with the post-invasion powers.
You can, of course, say What could those people have done? The second thing is - and this is something that young people today in the age of the internet and social media will not be able to understand - that in the seventies it was impossible to make contact with other people. There was no internet, and I felt a huge frustration as a teenager that I couldn't get together and connect with anyone. I had a few friends at school and in my study group, but there was no way to communicate further.
But still: criminal oppression in the fifties was something people did voluntarily. No one had to become criminal judges, jailers and executioners.
Similarly, the seventies and eighties would have been very different in Czechoslovakia if people had stuck to ethics and simply not done some things. I'm not saying that it was possible and reasonable to take revolutionary actions against the communist regime. Most people rightly concluded that until there were changes in Moscow, nothing more radical could be done. But it was possible to do a lot of "small work". Just not to participate in certain everyday things. It was possible to do that.
The trouble is that for a large part of the population it was profitable to collaborate with the communist regime.
Simply, and I stress again, people were making life hell for themselves and for others - for career reasons.
I know that people's motivation is complex. Even though nobody in the 1970s could believe in the communist ideology, because it had all been discredited during the 1968 Prague Spring, everybody humiliated themselves in the vetting process purely because they wanted to keep their jobs. And then there did appear people again, at least some of them, who began to believe fiercely in the communist ideology.
There is a cautionary lesson for today: society is extremely vulnerable to accepting official propagandistic rubbish. This is still true today. Note the enormous extent to which people in the Czech Republic - and indeed probably everywhere, certainly in Britain - are influenced by media owned by oligarchs that distract from what is really going on in society. It is extremely difficult to bring their attention to what is really going on because society has a habit of mechanically succumbing to what is the most common and widespread discourse.
Yes, of course, Czechoslovakia was a Russian colony for over forty years. I read sometime in the early 1990s a sort of testimony in the then weekly Tvorba, how Czech communist reformers tried to messianically convince Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow that they had succeeded in "improving communism" and that "the Czechoslovak road to socialism" would have been advantageous even for the Soviet Union. Brezhnev silenced them (it was after the invasion): "No Marxism or communism matters. You are our colony, Russia's colony, and you will remain to be one forever."
Yes, but still - the regime would have been as the people themselves behaved. See Poland: it was far more liberal than Czechoslovakia. How is that possible?
Well, of course,"acting always only for one's own career benefit" continues to this day. The worst was in the 1990s, when the new democratic regime managed to discredit itself quite nicely.
We have receievd this testimony in recent days. I am publishing it here without the author's knowledge, so I must anonymise it:
I thought I might be of some use in local politics. But I was wrong.
Every meeting, and I was at all of them until I suspended my membership a few years later, was conducted in such a way that Mr. XY systematically shot down all suggestions and proposals from those present. When the meeting was over, he stayed in the room with two or three colleagues over a pint and only then did they put together what was going to be done, what the meeting was supposedly about, and what the agenda was going to be. As far as my initiative was concerned, he said that our local organisation would not go into the local elections with my proposed programme of cleaning up after the dogs. Our neighborhood was full of dogs at the time and kids were picking through the excrement on their way to school. I had the youngest child in first grade at the time.
Not to belabor the point, there was no job for me, the topic of cleaning up the noxious excrement was eventually taken up by other municipal politicians and the predators in my political party pounced on the political positions offered to them, and by their behavior, they even drove me out of the Prague City Council to which I was elected.
I later learned about Mr. XY's behavior from a friend, a classmate of my sister, who worked at [a major Czech industrial firm]. She told me that she tried to persuade him, as a deputy minister, to give this company some kind of contract (she did not specify) when they were travelling together by plane. She said he seriously asked her how much they would offer him for it if he did it. She was completely shocked by his behaviour!
And then one more comment from a reader on the state of Czech society today, seventy-five years later:
I occasionally glance at your website and note that all debate has almost completely disappeared from it.
Yesterday I was a fellow passenger on a train with five students, and for about three hours they did not exchange a single sentence with one another.
Throughout the entire post-war period, even in the cruelest times, some subculture was secretly or surreptitiously maintained to make our lives at least a little bit bearable. In short: the dance-hall music from the West, the subversive folk humour, which existed, within limits, even on TV, radio and in the press, the selection of books in the journals Světová literatura, Literární noviny, Host do domu,the theatre Semafor, , the smuggling of hints between the lines, foreign radio, being different in what you wore.
This is not to make light of the weight of the Communist past, I have not the slightest reason to do so.
I am merely reminding you that today's society does not live in the hope of a better future. I don't know whether it has given up, being aware of the weight of shared responsibility, or whether it believes that it can get along just fine without participating in the debate on the state of public affairs.
What is disturbing is society's search for bizarre thought processes and mostly dead-end ways to solve our current multi-modal crisis. Thus, it shows that the power of sound rational or technological reasoning succumbs in the face of bedtime and SciFi notions of everyday reality.
We have also discarded the slogan that reminds us that there is no democracy without open debate.
Is this really the case?