Civil Liberty

The area now known as Bohemia was inhabited as early as 500 BC by a Celtic tribe - the BOII, who gave their name to the region. As so often happened in historical Europe, the change of power could be sudden and dramatic: the Huns invaded in the fifth century AD, Charlemagne marched through in 796 and the Magyars in 896.

In 929 AD Prince Václav (who we know as St. Wenceslas) was martyred by his pagan brother Boleslav the Cruel. Much transpired in the next millennium, but the stories of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hussite Wars, the Swedish Invasion, the Habsburgs and WW I each deserve entire historical accounts of their own.

A thousand years later the transfer - and exercise - of power were often performed in ways both more subtle and more sinister.

In 1938 the British (Chamberlain) and French (Deladier) essentially gave Czechoslovakia to the Germans by agreeing to all of Hitler's demands and signing the Munich Diktat. The Germans' rule by terror, especially their treatment of the Jews of Czechoslovakia, is a well-documented story; as is the total destruction of the town of Lidice in 1942.

In 1945 the Russians moved in from the east and, with the help of the Americans crossing the border from the west, "liberated" the country from the Nazis. Unfortunately, the Allies had signed an agreement at Yalta which left Czechoslovakia in the hands of the Red Army. Over 60% of the country's industry was nationalized an people began to join the Communist Party in droves. President Edvard Beneš was forced to appoint the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), Clement Gottwald, as Prime Minister. Gottwald took advantage of the illness of Beneš to succeed him as President in 1948, and an estimated two million Czechs and Slovaks fled abroad.

And this is indeed where our story begins, for it is a story of how people can be ruled by psychology, dominated as much by fear as they were by the violence of the Huns and Magyars over a thousand years before.

Since the KSČ controlled Parliament, the army, the police force, the workers' militia, the trade unions and the air waves, its coup was relatively non-violent. Stalinization soon followed and 90% of the country's industry was nationalized. Communist Party membership reached 2.5 million and most other political parties were outlawed. The largest statue of Stalin the world was erected on a high plain overlooking the capital city of Prague.

It is the manner of the Communists' rule which is of particular interest. To be sure, Stalin's methods included violence - even loyal KSČ members were not immune from arrest and execution if suspected of "Trotskyist," "Titoist" or "Zionist" tendencies.

Less violent methods of control, however, were applied to hundreds of thousands of others. Political opponents, priests, and even bourgeois citizens could find themselves reassigned to jobs in the coal of uranium mines. Their children were discriminated against in schools and other family members found themselves blocked from obtaining meaningful jobs. Censorship was rampant.

In the mid-1960's a reform movement had begun and a moderate compromise candidate, Alexander Dubček, became First Secretary of the KSČ in 1968. The "Prague Spring" of 1968 promised "socialism with a human face," including freedom of expression and a democratic parliament -- and in August Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and once again party hard-liners took over and the smiles left the faces of the people.

Over 150,000 people managed to leave the country before the new KSČ First Secretary Gustáv Husák reasserted the Party's control over state and society. This new form of control was less violent - Stalin-style executions were infrequent - but no less effective. KSČ members received automatic preference for all jobs and their children were guaranteed entrance to the best schools. Control was not always open or obvious. A political dissident could be arrested for ambiguous "crimes against the state" - or he might find his position at work was simply no longer required. For lesser offenses he might find his schedule suddenly shifted to nights and weekends.

A playwright (Václav Havel) speaking out against the government could easily be reassigned to rolling beer barrels onto trucks at the brewery (Time Magazine, 8 January 1990), or a journalist (Jiří Dienstbier) tending coal furnaces in the dusty basements of huge apartment blocks.

It is ironic that Franz Kafka did much of his writing in Prague, as the tortured characters of his stories might as well have lived in the Prague of 1968-1988. It has been said that one out of six were reporting the secret police. Citizens were encouraged, often by their employers, to be "politically visible." Václav Havel in "The Power of the Powerless" describes a green grocer who, by first simply allowing a small sign to be posted in his shop window, gradually gets sucked deeper and deeper into the local Party organization.

No segment of society was exempt. University teachers found it impossible to rise to the rank of Professor unless they belonged to the KSČ (they controlled the Ministry of Education, who in turn approved appointments), and only the most loyal could aspire the posts of Dean or Rector. In theory one could merely pretend to cooperate, but in reality this suited the Party's purposes just as well, as the appearance of cooperation was as important as the fact itself in recruiting new members and showing non-members the error of their ways. Remember, "political visibility" was more important than belief.

The novels of world-revered Bohumil Hrabal ("Closely Watched Trains," "Larks on a String") were banned in his home country. Milan Kundera ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "The Joke") emigrated to France in order to get his works published and the Communists revoked his citizenship.

Jan Patoka, an important spokesman for the human rights group "Charter 77," was arrested and interrogated for eleven days in March 1977 by the secret police. During his interrogation he suffered a heart attack and died ten days later. Flower shops across Prague were instructed not to accept orders of flowers for his funeral and all access roads to the village of Břevnov where he was buried were closed off for the funeral ceremony. Several people were arrested for trying to reach the cemetery. Those who did reach Břevnov were photographed by the police.

Václav Havel, who in 1989 became the first post-Communist President, spent so many years in political prisons that his health was affected. In an attempt to reduce his influence on the populace the government had actually offered to help him emigrate -- an option eagerly sought by thousands of others. He declined, claiming that this was his country and the only way he could help it was to stay home and fight for it.

Travel restrictions were a favorite method of punishment. About 1951 conductor Martin Turnovský was scheduled to lead the world premier of Oldrich Korte's "The Story of the Flutes" in Paris. Communist officials felt the symphonic drama was about them, so they not only denied Turnovský an exit visa but would not let him travel outside the country for four years. Oldrich Korte himself had earlier (1950) been refused permission to live in southern Bohemia's Šumava forest area, because it was only ten kilometers from the West German border (The Prague Post, 30 April 1997).

The 1964 film of Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, "The Shop on Main Street," gave us some hints about what war-time life was like for the oppressed.

Much of this psychological style of control became more apparent in retrospect. Milan Kundera's popular movie "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" tells us of a Prague doctor who loses his job because of his refusal to sign a certain political document. The story of his decline is an object lesson into the fate of those who refuse to toe the Party line. In the later (1997) movie "Bájecná léta pod psa" (literally "Wonderful Years Under the Dog," usually translated as "The Wonderful Years That Sucked") Petr Nikolaev shows us a worker who had to leave Prague to pacify the authorities. In his new location he was unable to even find housing with heat for his family until he agreed to participate in state-sponsored sports and fly the Red flag alongside the Czech flag on holidays ("politically visible" again).

Suppose a school teacher declined to attend party meetings. He could not be compelled to do so, as that would attract the immediate attention of human rights activists. Instead, he would be encouraged by his employer: "Jan, you know you've been complaining how your furnace doesn't work right? Vladimir who repairs furnaces will be at the meeting - you could ask him to come look at it." The implication was always very strong - cooperate with us, we control the things you want.

On the other hand, if Jan still declined to attend the meetings of the school's KSČ chapter, it would not be surprising to find that his office space was needed for some other purpose - but "don't worry, we can put an extra desk in the storeroom." Further refusal to play the Party's game might mean reassignment to night or weekend duties, or to a distant campus far from his home town.

And so it was that Communist rule lasted for 41 years by a sad sort of "voluntary" cooperation. The shop-keeper attended local Party meetings because he needed plumbing supplies delivered. The hardware store sent plumbing supplies where they were advised to because the manager's son wanted into a better school. The school principal enrolled who he was told to because he did not want to be re-assigned to a small village 100 kilometers away. And, of course, the Ministry of Education - controlled by the KSČ - was in charge of that assignment.

The playwright Václav Havel who, after years as a political prisoner became the first non-Communist president of Czechoslovakia in 41 years, commented on the psychological aspects of Communist rule in his New Year's Day address in 1990:

      "The worst thing is that we are living in a decayed moral environment. We have become morally ill because we have become accustomed to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to have consideration for one another and only to look after ourselves. Notions such as love, friendship, compassion, humility and forgiveness have lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represent merely some kind of psychological idiosyncrasy... [But] we cannot lay all the blame on those whose ruled us before, not only because this would not be true but also because it could detract from the responsibility each of us now faces - the responsibility to act on our own freely, sensibly and quickly."

Ludvík Vaculík ("A Cup of Coffee with my Interrogator") summed it quite nicely:

      "The degree of civil liberty is not measured by the way the state treats millions of those who agree with it, but rather how it treats a dozen who don't."

These are lessons that all governments, and all institutions and agencies who hold quasi-governmental powers over their employees, should carefully heed.