There was no censorship in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s

Jan Čulík

(A lecture, presented at University College, London, on 25th April, 2008)


A related powerpoint presentation is here

On 22nd April, 1953, the Czechoslovak government secretly created the Office for the Supervision of the Press - a preliminary censorship office, which was accountable to the Interior Ministry and cooperated closely with the Czechoslovak secret police. Editors-in- chief of newspapers, radio, television, publishing houses and organisers of cultural events had to submit all materials to appear in the public domain ahead of publication.

The strict and efficient system of censorship was in place in principle until 1968, but in the early 1960s, the communist authorities were began to lose their ideological ardour. The Soviet-style totalitarian zeal was diluted by strong Czechoslovak democratic traditions, by common-sense and by pragmatism. The fact that preliminary censorship had been institutionalised and hence it was not totally arbitrary, made it possible for liberal journalists and cultural activists to fight a rear guard action against it in the de-stalinisation period of the 1960s.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the Czechoslovak government abolished Hlavní správa tiskového dohledu, the censorship office on 13th June 1968. The abolishment of censorship was confirmed by Law No. 84/1968, dated 26th June, 1968.

But shortly after the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968, the Czech National Assembly adopted Law No. 127/1968 which cancelled Article 17 of Law. No. 84/1968 about the impermissibility of censorship. This law also created two new separate censorship offices: the Office for Press and Information and the Slovak Office for Press and Information. The task of these new offices was to "direct and control the mass media in a unified manner".

Yet, after the Soviet invasion, preliminary censorship was replaced by self-censorship by editors and journalists. This is very important. Previously, throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, it was possible for the journalists to play a cat and mouse game with the censors. It was the censorship office which decided what was due to be published, and so the journalists could simply risk to submit inflammatory material to the censor to see whether it might be passed. What is more, in the mid 1960s, as Antonín Máša remembers in Robert Buchar´s film Sametová kocovina, censorship was no longer ideological. In the 1960s, the censors merely edited out individual sentences, for instance insults aimed at the Communist Party, the army or the Soviet Union, but they no longer actively imposed ideology onto the texts they were assessing.

The situation after the Soviet invasion changed radically. Henceforth, the individual journalists became responsible for what they published. Possible subsequent punishment, which included the closing down of the periodical for up to three months, hanged as a threat over all journalists, who became too afraid to risk publishing anything controversial.

Václav Havel remembers the new situation in an afterword to his plays from the 1970s:

“August 1968 was not the usual exchange of a slightly more liberal regime for a slightly more conservative regime, it was something more. It was the end of an era, a disintegration of a particular spiritual and social climate, a profound mental break. The whole existing world had collapsed, the world in which we knew so well how to behave, the peaceful, slightly comical, very Biedermeier world of the 1960s. Ominously, a new world appeared, ruthless, gloomy Asiatic and hard.”

The new regime of the 1970s was virulent. It was openly aggressive, it was bloody-minded. It was ideologically extremist. An as yet unknown generation of people came to dominate it; third raters who were unsuccessful in the 1960s. It was only now when the celebrities of the 1960s had been turned into non-persons, that the third raters were given power and they started using it with a vengeance. Watch this clip of Jiří Menzel – he had a serious problem at the film studios after 1970 not so much for his political views, during 1968, but because he had had committed the unforgivable sin of winning an Oscar for Closely Observed Trains.

Thus the beginning of the 1970s was marked with an unusual hysteria, traces of which can be still sometimes felt in the Czech Republic today, when politicians display their tendency to go for extreme, bloody-minded solutions, regardless of the views of the public. The psychological parametres of the onslaught of normalisation were strange. Unlike in the 1950s, when many people genuinely believed the communist ideology, the third raters who took over after the defeat of the reformists of 1968 knew very well that their new regime was illegitimate and that it was fully dependent foreign power. Yet they enjoyed their newly acquired power and exercised it to excess, out of spite, exactly because they knew that they were wrong, they behaved. ideologically, in the most extreme ways possible.

The slide towards renewed ideological oppression in the public sphere after the Soviet invasion was of course slow. Husák´s normalisation did not take off until two years after 1968, in the spring of 1970. During this period, there were lone voices of renewed neostalinist hysteria, first the Czech-language of the Soviet occupiers Zprávy, which was freely distributed by the Russian soldiers, but no one touched it, and then there was the hardline stalinist weekly Tribuna. These were minority publications and most people looked at them as something extremely weird. It was not until 1970 that the spirit of Zprávy and Tribuna became the prevalent discourse on Czech radio and Czech television, in the Czech public sphere.

All this needs to be explained because the traditional notion of the institution of the censor which writers and journalists are trying to bypass did not exist at the beginning of the 1970s. Mass purges took place at the beginning of normalisation, and suddenly there were no writers and journalists who would want to bypass censorship. The people who were now in control of the Czech media strove hard to surpass the demands of any censor. At the same time, they were well known by their incompetence: in the early 1970s, after the sacking of all professional TV newscasters, the newcomers who had mastered the TV studios were incapable of putting together a live broadcast. For several months, they spent a whole day pre-recording the half-hour main evening news to be broadcast at seven pm. These early Husák stooges were often anonymous: virulent anti-reformist commentaries were broadcast on Prague radio by someone who called himself "Xaver". (I wonder whether this is why Kundera gave Jaromil´s alter ego in his novel Life is Elsewhere, written in Prague at this time, just this name.)

Václav Žák has pointed out in his recent lecture at the 1948-1968 conference at Glasgow University that throughout their modern history, the Czechs have always reacted by adopting extreme measures, after the fall of the previous regime, in a kind of hysterical attempt, trying to exorcise the excesses of the previous regime, thus, under the new regime, they committed excesses in the opposite direction.

In this sense, it is extremely interesting to ask why it is that although in 1968, the Czechoslovaks enthusiastically supported the Prague Spring reforms, within a couple of years they almost just as enthusiastically accommodated themselves to the Husák regime, so much so that it is Husák´s normalisation which has undoubtedly had the most lasting impact on the current Czech society; it is not the liberal 1960s (which almost no one remembers now), nor is it the Stalinist 1950s, nor, of course is it the democratic inter-war Czechoslovakia (which also no one remembers now).

The feeling of hangover and the feeling of shame may have had a lot to do with the fact that the Czechs and Slovaks quickly abandoned the reformist spirit of the 1960s, accepting Husák´s modest consumerism, allowing themselves to be deprived of political liberties.

Žák argues that the Czechs and Slovaks felt embarrassed after 1968 that they had been deceived by their leaders – that they had naively believed that the liberalisation of the communist system was possible. The impact of the Soviet invasion was such that everyone belatedly realised that Czechoslovakia was a mere colony of the Soviet Union and that there was no point attempting to fight for freedom until and unless there is a regime change in Russia. And since no one believed that there could ever be a regime change in Russia, almost everyone gave up and accepted what Husák´s normalisation offered them.

The switch-over from the liberal regime of the 1960s to a much harsher, hysterical post-invasion “punishment” regime was done extremely effectively. The population accepted it almost without a murmur of dissent. The sacked 1968 reformers were almost totally isolated from society, which had suddenly become extremely conformist and docile. It is still not quite clear what the reasons for this were. It is possible to speculate that a major demographic change which occurred around 1970 had something to do with this. By this time, most of the people who had experienced the interwar democratic Czechoslovak republic, had gone off the scene – henceforth, the Czechoslovak public sphere was populated only by individuals who had actually reached maturity under communism.

I am trying to explain all this in order to point out that the traditional notions of censorship, being applied from the above onto recalcitrant society, whose writers are attempting to outwit the censors, is inappropriate for Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and most of the 1980s. No one was trying to outwit the censors in the 1970s, everyone had just given up. The reformists were purged in their hundreds of thousands and the third raters, who replaced them, instituted a regime of intense, ideological zeal, which was all the more absurd since it was obvious that no one believed the official propaganda any longer.

Tomáš Pecina wrote in Britské listy that the beginning of the 1970s was paradoxically the time, when the official communist media in Czechoslovakia finally lost all their credibility and legitimacy. From approximately 1970 onwards, the West had an information monopoly in Czechoslovakia. People believed only the Western broadcasting corporations, falling under the spell of what they had to say – which of course created problems after the fall of communism, because reality wasn´t as black and white as Radio Free Europe made out: it was simply not true that everything in the West was ideal and everything in the communist bloc was wrong and that the solution to all problems was to apply ever more anticommunism. But even though Western media had a total information monopoly on Czechoslovakia from 1970 onwards, this still did not mean anything. The Czechoslovak population remained passive. Most people kept themselves informed, but did nothing. As long as the Soviet superpower existed, there was no point trying to liberate oneself, it was much more sensible to build a second home in the countryside.

The Soviet rulers realised after crushing the Czechoslovak liberalisation movement of the 1960s by the Warsaw Pact invasion that the Czechs and Slovaks had almost managed to free themselves of the communist yoke by using their intellectual elites. This is why it was most important for the normalisation of the 1970s to paralyse the Czech and Slovak intellectual elites and to cut them off from the body of the nation.

The Nazis were the first to know that intellectuals were a danger to totalitarianism, and, as Václav Černý states in his memoirs, they launched a direct, ruthless assault on the two most 'subversive' strata of the Czech nation: the intelligentsia and the army. Nazi rule was however too short to complete the task. That was achieved later by the communists.

Under Husák´s communism, an intellectual had two choices: to conform to communist propaganda and relinquish all attempts at original, independent thought in public (privately, you could think what you wanted) , thus submitting to emasculation and enforced silence, or to defy the authorities and become a non-person. Either way the lines of communication between the intellectual 'head' of the nation and its 'body', the ordinary people, were blocked. Without the head as a guiding force, the decapitated body of the Czech nation blindly and aimlessly stumbled off track, being tempted materially, even under the cloak of communist ideology, towards various consumerist vices. Under Husák´s communism, people had to abdicate their adulthood. They filled their lives instead with various displacement activities.

From the early 1970s, the "normalised" Czech media functioned in terms of emotional campaigns, for something or against something. This blotted out all meaningful discourse, but the meaning of these campaigns was purely ritualistic – no one believed what was being said. The medium was the message. What mattered was that rituals were being carried out. As you remember, Václav Havel explained in his essay Power of the Powerless that if the manager of a state greengrocer´s shop put the slogan “Proletarians of the World, Unite” into the shop window amongst the cabbages and potatoes, this did not mean that he had any particularly strong views about the shape of the global proletarian movement, it was a simple signal, sent to the authorities, meaning: “I am a coward and I am ready and willing to subjugate myself, I will do whatever you want.” People do that in all kinds of totalitarian regimes. Rituals like these tend to survive to this very day: in the Czech Republic, some people read the daily newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes as a demonstrative gesture that they are pro-American, pro-Western and pro-establishment.

Radio and television would pick up a topic and harangue the public about it for weeks on end. Thus, there were media campaigns against the reformists from 1968 - Czechoslovak radio closely collaborated with the secret police in early in the 1970s they broadcast edited wiretaps of conversation by several dissidents, including the writer Jan Procházka – who in their private conversations used vulgar expressions – this of course felt shocking on public service radio – the programme was designed to discredit the adversaries of the normalisation regime by non-communist means. A similar campaign to discredit writer Ludvík Vaculík was launched in 1977, after the emergence of human rights manifesto Charter 77 of which Vaculík was a prominent signatory. During a house search, the secret police confiscated a photograph of Vaculík, lying naked on a tombstone in a cemetery, and published it in a wide circulation weekly. Vaculík´s reputation was damaged in particular in catholic Moravia where he comes from. The media campaigns were also on international themes: There was saturation condemnation of Augusto Pinochet and hundreds of commentaries supporting the US black activist Angela Davies. The habit to use campaigns for various more or less artificial causes or against them has survived in the Czech media to this very day.

This was the time when the concept of "communist"; and "communism" changed in a radical way in the Czech context. When I arrived in the United Kingdom in 1977, after experiencing about seven years of life in Husák´s normalised Czechoslovakia, I realised in a conversation with Igor Hájek, my colleague who taught Czech studies at the University of Lancaster, that I was using the expression “communist” in a way which was totally different from his.

For Igor Hájek, who had left Czechoslovakia shortly after 1968, the communist was, maybe a slightly naive, but usually idealistic person, who was trying to do the best for his community and was trying to rectify the abuses of the Stalinist past. For me, the expression "communist" was synonymous with the worst scum of society; communists for me were those third raters, the unscrupulous, aggressive careerists who had absolutely no morals and used ideology, in which they did not believe, to further their own careers and to exercise power over their fellow human beings. In this personal self-indulgence, they did not hesitate to destroy other people´s lives. The only measure by which they assessed whether their behaviour was acceptable, was the criterion of success.

The ethos of the normalisation era imprinted itself deeply on the soul of the Czech community. In many ways, the current life in Czech society and politics is a continuation of the ways, developed in the 1970s and 1980s. Most current Czech politicians are the product of the normalisation era of selfishness and vindictiveness – let us consider for instance the current, allegedly conservative, Czech Prime Minister Topolánek, who is a graduate of a communist army school from the 1970s.

It is interesting to note that it was my traumatised concept of communism and communists that has survived until the present time. The contemporary Czech media, just like me in the 1970s, still see communists as people who can never be given the benefit of the doubt: every communist is and always has been a criminal who could never have had good intentions. Within this mindset, it is then only logical that the Czech right wing newspapers see the whole period of communist rule as an era of unmitigated terror, a regime run by criminals, without any modifications.

In his article from 1978, dealing with the mediocrity of officially published Czech literature in the 1970s, writer and critic Igor Hájek wondered why it was that the communist regime ascribed such excessive importance to literature as to wishing to censor it or to ban non-conformist authors. Surely, he says, it would be very difficult to think of a time when a poem or a short story in itself started a revolution. He argues that in societies where there is no public debate, literature can assume an important political role.

In the wake of the August 1968 invasion, the action was first taken against all cultural organisations which had taken part in the reform movement of the 1960s. The organisations which refused to expel reformist activists from its leadership, were simply disbanded. The Union of Czech Writers was one of the most important such organisations – it fought for survival for more than a year, but eventually, it was disbanded in October 1970. The publication of all its periodicals and monographs was stopped. In 1970, first lists of banned books and authors were issued by the Czech Culture Ministry. Thousands of books were then removed from public libraries.

In 1972, all public libraries were purged of materials "critical of Marxism-Leninism, the policy of the socialist [i.e. communist] states and of the Marxist-Leninist Parties", further items to be removed comprised "revisionist and right-wing opportunist literature, works praising the capitalist order, the pre-war Czechoslovak Republic, works by T.G.Masaryk and Edward Beneš and by other bourgeois politicians, all works (regardless of their content) by authors who have emigrated from Czechoslovakia or aligned themselves with the right-wing forces in 1968 as well as unproblematic works with a problematic preface or an afterword." Libraries were inspected on the basis of lists, published by the central State Library of the Czech Republic. All the offending titles were banned. The Prague University Library held a special collection of Libri Prohibiti, for which it purchased titles brought out by Czech emigré publishers. This collection was not made accessible to the public until after 1989. Censorship after 1968 was so petty that even many academic publications were suppressed. Thus, for instance, the fourth volume of the academic Dějiny české literatury (A History of Czech Literature), edited by Jan Mukařovský and covering the period 1900 - 1945 was ready for publication in 1969, but it was suppressed for being "ideologically confused". The work was not published until 1995.

The ministry suppressed the work of 400 Czech writers, most of whom had actively participated in the reforms of the late 1960s and in the Prague Spring of 1968. These writers and other intellectuals were pushed into a political ghetto. They were isolated from society by sackings, by police surveillance and by harassment.

Czechoslovak society underwent serious political purges after 1968. Several hundred thousand people, who had been involved in the liberal reforms of the 1960s, lost their jobs. In 1969-1972, the banned writers of Czechoslovakia gradually created a samizdat literary culture. They started publishing books and periodicals in typescript. The mainstream typewritten publications circulated usually in up to 70 copies and according to estimates, such titles reached on average about a thousand readers.

Samizdat publishing reached its heyday after the emergence of the human rights movement Charter 77 in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. Writers and publishers of Czechoslovak samizdat closely cooperated with several Czech emigré publishers who operated in the West from the early 1970s. The most well-known of these was the publishing house of Zdena and Josef Škvorecký, "68 Publishers" in Toronto, Canada, which brought out on subscription more than 220 original titles in 1971-1993. A number of these titles were published in translations into Western languages particularly in the 1980s. The works of Czech authors Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Josef Škvorecký, Bohumil Hrabal and others, paradoxically, gained international recognition at a time when they could not be published in their native country.

It is very difficult to relate the existence of the dissident literary culture to any issues of censorship relevant to the Husák era. There was clear blue water between the dissidents and the rest of society. Nothing by an awowed dissident could be published in an official publication. Some writers (Bohumil Hrabal, Jiří Šotola, Miroslav Holub, Jan Skácel) were eventually allowed to print expurgated versions of their work in the official publishing houses. There were exceptional, preposterous cases, when poet Jaroslav Seifert, the later laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was part of the school curriculum and pupils were taught about his left-wing poetry from the 1930s, but were not told that in his old age, Seifert had become a Charter 77 signatory – the poetry from his dissident era was not published for a long time – it was published by émigré publishing houses in the West.

When Charter 77 was launched in January 1977, the media started a saturation campaign against its signatories; thus giving the manifesto extraordinary publicity. Needless to say, the manifesto was never published by the official media. The whole nation was forced to sign a statement condemning Charter 77 – if you objected that you could not possible condemn something you have not read, you were branded an accomplice of the Charter 77 activists and got into serious difficulty. What the regime hated most was courage and independence. The overwhelming majority of the nation bowed down and signed the countermanifesto. Just like during the Nazi occupation, after the assassination of Heydrich, the Czech cultural elite gathered together in the National Theatre in Prague to swear allegiance to Nazism, Czech actors, musicians and TV entertainers gathered together in the National Theatre in 1977 to condemn the Charter 77.


The impact of independent Czech literature on the consciousness of Czech and Slovak society in the 1970s and 1980s was relatively small. Under the pressure of two decades of fierce political propaganda, which eliminated the possibility of critical public discourse, Czech and Slovak society developed its own distinctive culture of subjugation, whose typical features were conformism, consumerism, extreme self-interest, wariness of the public sphere and avoidance of politics. It is these values that prevailed in Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism in 1989, rather than the values of the dissident intellectual community.

In this sense, there is an intriguing case of a highly popular, propagandist entertainment television series from the 1970s, which “normalised” Czechoslovak Television made in the depths of the Husák era, from 1974 until 1979, in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and the purpose of which was to persuade the population, by means of entertainment, to accept a rewriting of modern Czechoslovak History, so that the liberal 1960s would be seen as a time of crisis and the Stalinist 1950s the time of genuine values and happiness. The police investigator Major Zeman is the epitome of all the best values a citizen of the communist country should have: He is a proud communist who never hides his views. His name (meaning Yeoman) harks back to the proud, nationalist, tradition related to the land. He is associated with domesticity. He loves his wife and is worried when the birth of their first child is complicated. He is clumsy at home and does not even know how to use the corkscrew properly. He is at a loss at how to communicate with his teenage daughter. He represents everything that is cosy, homey and comfortable. He uses force against the enemies of the land. These include treacherous professors, intellectuals, subversives, drug addicts, rock musicians, hooligans. In the 1970s, this detective TV series had reached record viewing figures. 85 per cent of the population of Czechoslovakia watched these films.

After the fall of communism, this series from the 1970s has been re-shown repeatedly on television, both by public services, and in, particular, by commercial stations, who have used the series unashamedly in order to boost their viewing figures. Recently, the series has been released on DVD and there are many pirate versions of it on the internet.


As I am trying to point out, the situation after the reimposition of authoritarianism in the wake of 1968 in Czechoslovakia has been extremely complex. To date, it remains more or less unresearched. Let me recap: There was no official censorship in Czechoslovakia after 1970, those who suppressed ideas and spread ideological jargon, did it willingly, out of their own initiative and to excess. The population of Czechoslovakia enthusiastically supported the liberal reforms of 1968, but when the post-invasion clampdown came, it adjusted itself happily to the conditions of Husák´s normalisation era, so much so that six years after the suppression of the Prague Spring, 85 per cent of the nation watched with enthusiasm a propagandistic entertainment series made to discredit the liberal 1960s.