Springtime in Prague

Half of traveling is the reading you do so you see things with an attitude. We’ve been reading the essays and speeches of Vaclav Havel. Communist hard-liners put him in prison; now a grateful Czechoslovakia has made him president–major irrelevant American writers can only dream of being taken so seriously.

We watched Havel step out onto the balcony of the presidential palace and look down on cheering thousands. A grinning aide raised his hand and shook it. Havel refused to play the demagogue. He did not even speak. Instead he led the crowd in song, an anthem sung softly as everyone raised two fingers in the gesture that can mean peace or victory. The single flag being waved was the Stars and Stripes, held high by someone in the courtyard.

The occasion was a band concert on the eve of May 9, which is a national holiday recalling the liberation of Prague by Russian troops in 1945. On May 6, Patton’s Third Army had liberated nearby Pilsen. But to please the Soviets, Eisenhower ordered Patton to stay out of Prague. We’ve lost count of how many Czechoslovaks have reminded us of this.

On May 6, 1990, we came through Pilsen by train. Enormous American flags hung from apartment buildings. A party of Czech revelers boarded the train actually dressed in U.S. Army fatigues. As our Prague hotel clerk would tell us a few hours later, “Last year we heard it was the Soviet army [that freed Pilsen]. This year we can say it is the American army.”

Years before we read Havel we read Good Soldier Schweik. Schweik’s still a symbol: we’ve bought a Schweik doll and a Schweik lithograph. This small, highly cultured nation has persistently resisted the call to arms and tragedy: Czechoslovakia offered the Germans no resistance in 1938, the Russians none 30 years later. Now the people seem wryly fatalistic about the German businessmen who fill all the best hotels.

What anger your people must feel at the time lost! we said to Jaroslav Veis, an essayist for the distinguished new daily Lidove Noviny (“People’s News”). Surely Czechoslovaks wonder what their country could have become since 1945.

Veis said, “The people wonder [what would have happened] if the Austro-Hungarian Empire had not been dissolved. Or if it had been dissolved vertically instead of horizontally. [Stretching from Germany to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia has been invaded by both.] They wonder if the Americans had marched to Prague. They wonder if [President Edvard] Benes had fought the Communist People’s Army in ’48 . . .

“These discussions usually end in the 13th century,” said Veis.

In Poland this year, President Havel recalled visiting that country as a student in 1957. “I admired the freethinking Polish spirit,” he said, “and the special heroism which was radiated by Polish culture and which deep in my soul was dearer to me than the eternal skepticism, and sometimes even the cult of the mediocre and the downtrodden, which so often appear in Czech literature.”

An honest man, Havel conceded that his own plays are in that skeptical tradition. He also noticed that “our peaceful revolution” of last November followed harder-won victories in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. “We will not forget,” said Havel, “the nations that had to pay for their freedom in blood, and without whose victims we could hardly have been able to wake up to our own freedom so quickly.”

In 1977 Havel and some other doughty intellectuals signed Charter 77, a declaration of human rights (precipitated by the arrest of a rock band Havel admired, Plastic People of the Universe) issued at a high price in jobs and liberty. But for the most part, the people here grudgingly acted as their own jailers. In his celebrated 1975 essay “Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak,” Havel surveyed the bleak landscape:

“On the one side, bombastic slogans about the unprecedented increase in every sort of freedom, and the unique structural variety of life; on the other side, unprecedented drabness and the squalor of life reduced to a hunt for consumer goods.”

A later essay drew a distinction between “living within the lie” and “living within the truth.” The latter may be rare in any nation’s history, but Czechoslovakia is attempting it now, and the attempt is stirring to see. At one end of Wenceslas Square, there’s a statue of Tomas Masaryk, founder of modern Czechoslovakia, that’s been up just about a week. The statue looks down Na Prikope, Prague’s busiest street. Large paperboard cylinders have been installed around the street’s lampposts, cylinders displaying old photographs and front pages that walk the public through 20th-century Czech history. Here’s Masaryk, Benes, the postwar Communist leader Gottwald, Novotny, Dubcek, Husak . . .

In store windows, TV screens endlessly repeat clips of pivotal moments–the ’68 invasion, the police assault of last November 17 on student demonstrators (which triggered the brief political frenzy that toppled the government).

Gravely, the people ponder all this. And halfway down the street a chilling note has been struck: a blank white wall, topped by the dour effigies of Gottwald, Novotny, Molotov, Gierek–all the high priests of the theocracy that suffocated Eastern Europe for 40 years. Above them all, beaming, Papa Joseph Stalin presides.

Prague’s fate did not turn simply on Patton’s army standing fast. In 1945 the Czech Communist Party, hardened by resistance, was already formidable. In 1948, with little help from the Russians, it took over the country. Before Dubcek, Communism ran wide and deep in Czech society. Almost everyone we’ve met here was once a Communist or had Communist parents. 1968 discredited Marxist-Leninism, but its stultifying rule persisted until Gorbachev withdrew Moscow’s support. Then the government of ’89, like the governments of ’38 and ’68, found itself on its own. The Czech Communists acted like Czechs when the people finally rose up. Though they sputtered and diddled, they did not resist.

After the Party

“It’s a funny time,” mused Ladislav Koppl. “The Party’s gone, but the future’s not arrived. There’s a certain hanging in the air.”

On May 9 we took a tram south to Koppl’s apartment for drinks and dinner. A sociologist now dabbling in market research, Koppl had just done a survey for the Christian Democrats (with focus groups and all) of how voters perceive the 23 parties running slates in the June 8 parliamentary elections. Koppl said voters perceive no differences, there being none.

“The programs are a bit moralistic and general, but everyone wants the same, from the Social Democrats to the Republican Party,” Koppl said. “Everyone wants prosperity, a market economy–some unemployment accepted–democracy, and pluralism.”

Even the Communists? we said.

“The Communist Party is devoted in its campaign to democracy,” Koppl told us.

Koppl’s father, an economist, joined the Communist resistance in ’44. He remained in the Party until he died in 1982. “But I don’t expect he had any illusions about the Communist Party since 1956, the uprising in Hungary.” What kept him in? we asked. “It was a sort of commitment,” said Koppl. “A commitment without any illusions. A commitment to his basic belief there should be social justice in society, to the culture represented by left-leaning Czech intellectuals before the war.”

Koppl remembers his parents stalking out of a Swiss movie house in 1975. They’d just seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by emigre Milos Forman, and the audience had totally missed the point.

“The bloody Swiss weren’t able to see it was a political film,” said Koppl. “Basically it was a film about Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, Big Nurse being the Soviet Union and the madhouse being Czechoslovakia.”

Was your dad comfortable with this allegory? we asked.

“Yeah, sure,” said Koppl.

“You might say it was a part of common sense,” offered Jan Jirak, a young journalism professor who was also visiting. (Jirak and professor Barbara Kopplova, who’s Koppl’s wife, are rewriting Charles University’s journalism curriculum, now that Marxist-Leninism has been abolished.)

“Since 1968 his Party membership was a nuisance to him,” Koppl said. “But he saw it as an obligation to our future, my sister’s future. The entire Communist system was taking hostages. You could tell the Communist Party fuck you, but if you did your son couldn’t go to secondary school.”

In 1968, Koppl interrupted “a nice holiday in France” because Moscow was rattling its sabers and according to the International Herald-Tribune “Czechoslovakia was very defiant and ready to mobilize the Czech army.”

Oh, sure. Koppl rushed home to join his unit, and he twiddled his thumbs a month later as the Russians marched in. “We were quite bitter about that,” says Koppl. “We were not able to win, but we were able to put lorries on the airfield and stop the invasion. But [President Ludvik] Svoboda gave orders not to. Some units circled the wagons but there was no real conflict.”

Koppl turned on the TV to look for political ads, which run at the same time each evening. Tonight, though, there weren’t any, probably because of the holiday. The parties have each been given four hours total on TV, and media specialists from America are in town trying to teach them the high art of slickness (“Some get it, some don’t,” said Stuart P. Stevens, who works for Republican clients in the States). Koppl said there’s no telling what you might see–a couple of days earlier the Friends of Beer party had aired an eight-minute documentary on brewing.

“Do you know Anheuser-Busch?” Koppl asked as we were leaving. He had a Budweiser tasting to run in the morning. We thought about the various pilsners we’d drunk, the dark Flek beer, the sensational 12 percent Budvar. Then we thought about all the money Anheuser can spend to make Bud irresistible.

Budweiser is a famous American beer, we told Koppl, and we’d better say no more than that. No, don’t prejudice me, he laughed. He’d find out for himself tomorrow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/World Wide Photos.