Two Recapitulations and One Stocktaking

15. 3. 2017

A. J. Liehm: Názory tak řečeného Dalimila / The Opinions of Dalimil, Dokořán, Praha 2014, 680 pp.; Milan Uhde: Co na sebe vím / What I Have on Myself, Torst/Host, Praha/Brno 2013, 648 pp.; Petr Uhl (a Zdenko Pavelka): Dělal jsem, co jsem považoval za správné / I did What I Thought was Right Torst, Praha 2013, 600 pp.

One early evening this April, a writer, former dissident and politician Milan Uhde (1936) gave a talk in the auditorium of Olomouc University’s Arts Department. It was a charming performance laced with characteristic self-irony. What had he achieved during his two years as the Minister of Culture in the Czech government (before Czechoslovakia split up)? There was apparently only one achievement he could boast about: helping to secure the survival of a fine military orchestra, which had been under the threat of closure after the fall of the previous regime. His intervention had given the orchestra a chance to adapt to the new conditions of free arts and a free market. The talk offered a fresh perspective even on issues he had discussed many times before. A fantastic performance, not only for someone who is 88 years old… Yet you could have fitted all of the audience in the great auditorium around four café tables.

Later that evening I stopped in a student pub for a beer. The students were singing a song from the musical Balada pro banditu /A Ballad for a Bandit with Uhde’s lyrics, repeating the chorus over and over again. This is the third generation for whom this faux folk song is a staple of their pub and campfire repertoire: Zabili, zabili / chlapa z Koločavy. / Řekněte, hrobaři, / kde je pochovaný… (They killed, they killed / a man from Kolchava / Gravedigger, tell me / Where he’s buried…). Nearly all Czechs and almost every Slovak knows it by heart. An Internet search engine brings up multiple hits for the song lyrics but only the seventh gives the author’s name. The song has become folklore: almost everyone knows it but hardly anyone knows who wrote it.

The Hollywood-style musical was shot at a Hollywood pace and achieved, in Czechoslovakia’s 1970s terms, Hollywood-level success. Milan Uhde claims—and there’s no reason to doubt the veracity of his memoir—that it took him two weeks to write the play [based on Ivan Olbracht’s 1933 novel Nikola Šuhaj loupežník] for a Brno theatre The Goose on a String. The film version of A Ballad for a Bandit followed in 1978. By 1975 Uhde, a prohibited author, could no longer be acknowledged as the author and could most definitely not be credited in the 1978 film: after all, he had signed Charter 77 a year earlier.

It would never have occurred to the students singing Zabili, zabili… that just around the corner from the pub they could come by an autograph of the author of their beloved song. Surely the tall, burly man, a politician, chairman of Czech Television’s Board of Directors, with his charming, lively, slightly histrionic as well as schoolmasterly delivery, couldn’t possibly, in another day and age, have written the ballad of the slain bandit?

But maybe this is what all three Czech authors (more accurately: two authors and one interviewee) of seminal memoirs published in Prague over the past six months have in common. The famous yet unknown playwright. The ninetyyear-old journalist revered by the nation and hated by Brezhnev’s Kremlin. The leading Charter 77 figure who has shocked every reviewer: how could someone who had spent nine years in jail “under the Communists“ be so vehemently opposed to anti-communism, of all things?

It took some guts for A. J. Liehm (1924) to publish in book form his almost entire output written for Listy, the exile newspaper, from Czechoslovakia’s early “normalisation“ in 1971 to the heady days of “perestroika“ in 1988 and 1989, when people went out into the streets for the first time after many years, and Alexander Dubček made a public comeback. This was also the time when the issue resurfaced of the legacy of Prague Spring and the future role for its representatives, i.e. not only Dubček’s but also Liehm’s.

Antonín Jaroslav Liehm—whom his readers recognized for decades just by the initials AJL— was a journalistic star of the highest order. Destined for a stellar future after the war, he was prevented from climbing up the ladder by his extraordinary intellect and stubborn character; he was perhaps the most influential critical guide to the “new wave“ of Czechoslovakian cinema in the 1960s, the best period in his country’s film history so far. But he also “enjoyed“ a popularity of a different kind. The pamphlet entitled On the events in Czechoslovakia, known at the time as the “White Book“—distributed by the occupying army after the August 1968 invasion and authored by an unspecified “Soviet journalist press group“—cites Liehm several times as one of the men who had planned to take power over Czechoslovakia after a counter-revolution. The canonic interpretation of the Prague Spring, Lessons Drawn from the Crisis Development in the Party and Society following the XIII Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (1970) mentions him, alongside František Kriegel, Jiří Pelikán, Eduard Goldstücker and others as a representative of the “forces championing Zionism in politics, a key tool of international imperialism and anti-communism“—apparently being endowed with a defiant intellect and a German-sounding name was evidence enough, even without the requisite “origins.“

Present-day Czech culture and politics would be missing a great deal without AJL. Even though his return from Paris exile to his native Prague shortly before his 90th birthday was noted warmly by the media, in the still prevalent “postVelvet“ atmosphere, epitomized primarily by Václav Klaus, it is considered right and proper to say that someone is a “man of 1968, but otherwise an interesting (decent, bright, experienced) person“… In the post-1989 public discourse being called a “man of 1968” is definitely not a compliment.

AJL defends the Prague Spring but he is far from being nostalgic about it. In one of his articles written in exile he said: “In 1968 there were plenty people in the world, in Europe in particular, who believed in democratizing and humanizing what Moscow referred to as socialism, and the Prague Spring appeared to offer an interesting option. (…) Nowadays, twenty years later, the situation is fundamentally different, in that nobody believes in such an option anymore. And that includes the Czechs and Slovaks, who have, of course, always favored, and always will, any improvement of the stupid system they live in, but would send packing those who try to preach socialism with a human face or any other face, for that matter.“ (1988, p. 411). This wasn’t his only hunch. In 1984, writing about the prominent representatives of Husák’s real-existing consumer socialism, he pointed out something the Czech world is still characterized by: “First and foremost, these people are anti-socialist and fiercely anti-communist, as befits members of the bourgeois class. They have understood the essence of our system and quickly adapted to it.“ They join the Communist party and other official institutions “because membership is a condition of social advancement“, “they join […] without any inhibitions, in fact they would often do anything to become members, without giving up any of their anti-socialism or anti-communism“ (pp. 335–336). Indeed, it was this kind of “anti-socialism or anti-communism“ that had a significant effect on the generalized condemnation of the “men of 1968,“ whereas you rarely hear any objections to the “pragmatic“ former members of the Communist party.

What has stood the test of time in the 18 years’ worth of essays, opinion pieces, reviews and interviews? In a few samples, necessarily chosen at random, what strikes one after all these years more than it did at the time (when the readers were probably most interested in a critical view of the situation in Czechoslovakia ) is the fact that in those days Listy in general—it bore the subtitle “A Journal of Czechoslovakia’s Socialist Opposition”— and its commentator AJL in particular were much freer (or simply, more relaxed) when writing about the US than many other important exile magazines and, quite understandably, than Radio Free Europe. No committed Czech intellectual, from 1956 onwards at the latest, could have failed to be fascinated by Poland; and AJL obliged with several opinion pieces focusing on John Paul II, Martial Law, an interview with the writer Tadeusz Konwicki, as well as an especially noteworthy interview with the noted critic Jan Kott.

Although a political animal par excellence, AJL does not expect works of art to reinforce his own views. He is quite brilliant at capturing the high aesthetic and intellectual standard of Josef Škvorecký, who was born in the same year, yet whose depiction of Prague Spring must have clashed with that of Liehm the citizen. His obituary of Ferdinand Peroutka (1978, p. 650)— the legendary Czech journalist of the interwar period who had to flee his the country at the time AJL embarked on his journalistic career— is a wonderful tribute across generations and human stories.

Few people are as vulnerable in the eyes of future generations as those who comment on public affairs in print, while other people’s expressions of loyalty to dictatorship, or simple mistakes or errors of judgment, are soon forgotten. Readers’ complacency, however, is cheap and easy: they have the advantage of knowing “how things turned out.“ AJL frequently knew “how things would turn out.“ It was quite a daring thing to do—to publish in book form nearly all of his writings for one of the two or three significant exile papers of the second of the four decades of Communist rule. But he could afford to do it.

Here is his assessment of Václav Havel: “Havel voiced the feelings of his generation (…) with great accuracy, across political and other affiliations. Right up to the generations that will follow. Whoever fails to comprehend this will lose in this country once and for all.“

AJL made this observation in 1968. The promising playwright was only 32 years old.

Milan Uhde’s memoirs begin with a drama he would have been unable to grasp at the time: the German occupation interfered with the childhood of a boy from a “mixed marriage,“ leading to incomprehensible events: “My parents were inventive in their resistance. For example, they managed to prevent me from noticing the disappearance of my maternal grandfather and grandmother from my life.“ (p. 16). These are chilling sentences showing that religious or “racial” issues played no role in the boy’s life up to that point. That was what things had been like in his middle-class family of lawyers in Brno, a city that was by then predominantly Czech but which was still significantly influenced by German language and culture.

The young boy took words seriously, sometimes including those of Nazi propaganda. Initially he also made much of the postwar promises about building a new order. In this respect he fits a simplified, yet generally accepted cliché that Czech intellectuals born in the 1920s were more prone to become fanatical believers in communism. This included Uhde’s professor of Marxism at university, Jaroslav Šabata, who spent many years in prison after 1968 and whose portrait in Uhde’s memoirs is as respectful as several previous depictions of the man. Milan Uhde, by comparison, is a “1936 man“, a label often applied to uncompromising writers among Havel’s intellectual peers. Not that some of them, at least, had not been socialists, or that they always rejected the socialist regime’s potential human face. However, they had kept their distance from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, to say the least. Breaking with “real existing socialism” was for them a financial (albeit severe) drama rather than an existential, fundamental one as it was for the likes of Šabata or Liehm. Uhde’s existential drama took place after 1968. While he felt no desire to conform and recant publicly after the August invasion of Czechoslovakia, nevertheless, as he describes with great candor, he had initially hoped to remain at least a tolerated author. The turning point came when he resolved to publish his work in the West and especially after he signed Charter 77. He subsequently became one of its most distinctive and influential personalities outside Prague.

It is this that is so valuable about Uhde’s memoirs, maybe more so for Czech than foreign readers in this instance. Fate has given the Czech Lands only one metropolis with everything that this entails: before the War the theatres outside of Prague used to be referred to—not pejoratively—as “country“ theatres (these days the correct term is “regional“). Brno is the only city that defies these categories, and not only in terms of official institutions. It is the only city that also boasted something that might be called a “Charter 77 scene,“ compared with all the other towns and cities that basically had only one or two courageous individuals. A depiction of postwar Brno, a city left with just one “regional“ publishing house and a single literary journal, Host do domu (whose quality improved continuously in the 1960s) is quite rare in memoir literature. However, Uhde’s depiction of a “normalised“ Brno is far from being just black-and-white or grey, the color often used to describe the two decades under Gustav Husák. In those years it was solidarity shown by a few individuals that helped Uhde become one of the most successful Czech playwrights—albeit not under his own name.

While Milan Uhde is in many ways a typical “1936 man“, he is rather isolated in terms of his post-1989 civic stance, even though he served as a Cabinet Minister and a Speaker of the Parliament. Being that rare case—a member of the older generation of the erstwhile democratic opposition (“the dissenters“) to embrace the Right and promote a market that was as free could be—he found himself at loggerheads with friends of many years’ standing when he supported the privatization of Prague’s Barrandov Film Studios. He championed a democratic system with a (conservative) emphasis on the role of political parties, whereas Václav Havel was rather sceptical of party affiliations. While this has estranged Uhde from many of his Charter 77 friends, as a suspect humanist intellectual he has never gained the full confidence of the newly-constituted Right led by Václav Klaus either.

It its only seemingly paradoxical that Petr Uhl—journalist, self-taught legal expert defender of political prisoners (he is an engineer by training) and himself a long-term political prisoner (having served nine years in total)—the most Left-leaning of our heroes, should be most distant in spirit from the previous regime. Born in 1941, he grew up at a time when Moscow was actually less influential than the independent, non-Moscow based French, German or Polish Left of the 1960s: “One of the things I brought back to Prague from Paris was Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski’s open letter to the Polish United People’s Party“ (p. 74).

His book provides a further reminder that at least from the 1970s onwards, the non-conformist circles in Poland followed Czech affairs much more avidly than the other way around, yet the Polish influence is far from negligible, as can be seen in, for example, Květen, the first post1948 Czech literary journal that was not wholly conformist, or the impact the Polish Orange Alternative had on the (much less witty) young dissident grouping, The Society for a Funnier Present.

In 1968 Petr Uhl was one of those young people who drew their inspiration from the Western European Left, as well as the Polish student and the nascent dissident movements. While that entailed standing up for at least parts of the Prague Spring legacy, Uhl was not a “dissident“ in the narrow sense of the word; since his heart had never been in what he and his friends criticized not as a Communist regime but rather as a Bureaucratic Dictatorship, he could not possibly have become an “apostate.“ That was one of the reasons why he was skeptical about Alexander Dubček’s political comeback at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. And it was also a reason why his opposition to the Lustration law brought him closer to Dubček:“He had a good heart and came from a political culture that was different from mine, yet not a hostile one. I had many reservations about him but I came to recognize that while some moments in his life might be described as failures, they were not the result of his being afraid. It wasn’t out of cowardice that he signed the Moscow Protocol after the August 1968 invasion or the package of extraordinary measures adopted by the Presidium of the Federal Assembly in August 1969 but rather out of a realization that it was, unfortunately, inevitable.“ (p. 106). This is characteristic of Uhl’s approach to politics and people: he doesn’t approve of a “bureaucratic“ notion of politics yet at the same time he is not dismissive of human decency and is prepared to enter into a political alliance where there is common ground. This happened in Charter 77 as well as in the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted in relation to Václav Benda, a conservative Catholic and a Pinochet admirer: a reliable ally in a good cause, a sensible and brave man.

When he speaks of people whose guilt he regards as proven and not atoned for, Uhl can be blunt and harsh, however, not just in blanket terms, applying collective guilt: he rejects the notion of the Sudeten Germans’ collective guilt while being severely critical of the postwar role played by President Edvard Beneš and repudiating the notion of the collective guilt of all the members of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party.

Uhl can sound schoolmasterly; you have to read him very carefully to find humor and detachment, but it is worth the effort. This is how he describes his first encounter with his newlyminted father-in-law and his son’s grandfather Jaroslav Šabata in 1976, after the latter’s release from a five-year prison term: “We both felt we had to analyze the course and implications of the Seventh Congress of the Communist International as well as other issues, for example, whether the decision to establish People’s Fronts had been the right one. (…) My father-in-law spent about an hour at our place before travelling to Brno. I walked him to the Museum subway station but somehow we couldn’t bear to break off this fundamental debate on the Communist International.“

Less than a month later came the publication of Charter 77, in which the two men came to play a major role.

The temptation to tell the author of a memoir what he should have done better or what he should have thought is as great as it is pointless. More to the point is the question of what kind of witness an author bears to his own life. Uhde’s and Uhl’s life summaries are among the best and most comprehensive Czech memoirs of recent years. AJL’s memoir, The Past in the Present (Host, Brno), appeared twelve years ago, well before his current stock-taking. It is good that after publishing his memoir he has been granted time for more work. Let us hope that these stocktakings of Milan Uhde and Petr Uhl too are far from definitive.

Václav Burian

Václav Burian is a journalist, an editor of the bimonthly Listy, and a translator of Polish literature.

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