My Father’s Generation

In the storm unleashed by the article Denounced by Milan Kundera published by Respekt, one voice that sounded loudest and clearest. It was the voice of Czech writers and intellectuals born around 1930, my father’s generation. They share a common history and have exerted an influence over Czech society that is completely unprecedented in Central Europe. They have also exerted a decisive influence over my own thinking – and through my father, also over my life. Today, to my great surprise, I find myself embroiled in a row with this generation, which is something I have never thought possible. Among the wide range of often conflicting views expressed in this debate, what struck me most was the unified circular defence (as in the title of one of my father’’s books) of Milan Kundera that was mounted by my father’’s generation, as well as the arguments used in its support. It made me see the past – including my own – from a new perspective.

My father Milan Šimečka, who used to know Milan Kundera well, was also a committed communist in the early fifties and a reformed communist in the sixties;  the 1968 invasion turned him into a dissident, an influential writer and philosopher. For the last thirty years of his life, before his death in 1990, he devoted his entire intellectual energy to analyzing the system that he had helped create. We spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours discussing the past, and I witnessed the torments of his self-questioning and his search for an answer to the Jaspersian question of guilt. I felt fortunate that he gave me a chance to became a dissident too, although he thought it was something he was to be blamed for. The communist regime added me to its list of enemies at the tender age of fourteen, and deprived me of the option of becoming one of its quiet and conformist supporters, despite my initial efforts.

Yes, I was fortunate, because I was able to accompany my father to regular meetings of banned Czech (and a few Slovak) writers. It was a remarkable company where those who had, in the fifties, served years in prisons and uranium mines, such as Karel Pecka and Zdeněk Rotrekl, rubbed shoulders with others whose publications in those days had glorified communism and who were destined to live a life of privilege. With astonishment I followed their discussions, often triggered by Pecka’s reproach: You participated in the regime that had thrown me and thousands of others into prisons. You did not want to know, you were blind and deaf, because you chose to be.

In those days I thought he was too harsh in his judgement. After all, they got their punishment in the form of a publication ban, they did admit their mistakes, their writing was informed by their feeling of guilt, and some of them, including my father, were even imprisoned by the regime. After all, it was they who compiled and signed Charter 77, they represented the ethos of universality of human rights and indivisibility of freedom. What was  the point of making them repent, what use was this moral superiority of victims, a sentiment which, I must admit, I was not keen on?

It is no coincidence that these discussions always started after midnight, after many glasses of wine. It was like a nightmare that descends at a time when otherwise strictly guarded secrets are allowed to escape from your consciousness. Yet, however harrowing, these debates had something exciting about them. They were like a theatre play about a trial where the crime was not an action but rather the act of thinking and writing. Its participants were searching for the causes of the moral and intellectual failure of the authors under indictment, and there was an acceptance that their guilt was exonerated by their later writing, which was much better than the work of their youth.

An unasked question

But what if there was another kind of failure, apart from intellectual. Is it possible that a young communist could have functioned under the regime of the early fifties without affecting other people’s lives by his or her mere being that involved things like raising hands at party meetings? In those discussions this question was never raised, not even by the otherwise relentlessly probing Karel Pecka. And in the context of the Kundera debate I realized that I had never put this question to my father either. For example, I never asked him whether he may have been part of a decision to expel a fellow student from university. I never asked because at the time I was not ready for the answer either.

And this is how a great part of Czech society feels today. Partly due to a much stronger position the communist party held in Czechoslovakia after the war, compared with all the other Central European countries, my father’’s generation represents the only clear historical trajectory the Czechs followed in the second half of last century. Unlike in Poland, where communist intellectuals always faced natural competition, for example from the Catholic thinkers and where, in the end, all paths met in Solidarity. Unlike in Hungary where there was no space for such a generation after 1956 and especially under Kádár’s more lenient regime. And unlike in Slovakia where writers and intellectuals blended with the normalization.

In the Czech Republic no real alternative was available to the interpretation of history provided by this generation. It suited society, allowing it to get over the past and to keep adoring its heroes, especially writers, in line with good old Czech tradition. One of the outcomes of the Czech interpretation of communism is the widely shared notion that the previous regime was, above all, a sophisticated incarcerator of the spirit, that for several decades it had been poisoning society with its disrespect of freedom, and destroying free thought and literature. Although this interpretation is, quite rightly, based on an Orwellian concept of totalitarianism that attacks human soul, it does not leave much room for the history of the banal evil. It was the writers who took it upon themselves to interpret this horrific practice, i.e.  life itself, through their novels. Milan Kundera’s defence is thus, more than anything else, a defence of an aesthetic interpretation of history which must not be disturbed by embarrassing details showing banal, unliterary side of life.

The Kundera affair is explosive because it destroys this generation’’s domination of literature that was meant to explain the past in a more truthful way than life itself with its banal and embarrassing truths such as those represented by a crude police document stating that a Mr. Kundera informed on a Mr. Dvořáček. In Czech society literary fiction has effectively replaced real memories that nobody wanted in the past and nobody wants to hear and evoke today. Incidentally, Kundera’’s novels were particularly successful in fulfilling this task of literature.

The memory of the majority

It is not easy to discuss communism in the Czech Republic in terms other than the spirit of its aestheticized literary interpretation because if you try, you will be immediately suspected of obsessive behaviour, or, to use Adam Michnik’’s words, bolshevik anti-communism. In 1996, at Václav Havel’’s birthday party, I saw Karel Pecka standing alone, leaning against a column. When I asked him what he was doing there all alone he said with a grim smile: I’’m waiting for the communists. They will be back. At that time I read his words as sad evidence of anti-communist obsessiveness. Today I read them as sad evidence of the loneliness of a man whose memory is different from that shared by the majority of Czech society.  This makes the voice of his generation practically inaudible but in the Czech Republic it is regarded as bad manners to express the simple and embarrassing truth – that it is his contemporaries, including Kundera and, let’’s face it, my father, who are to blame for silencing this voice.

The Czech majority memory has no room for parallels between nazism and communism because it holds that you cannot compare war with piece, since  a necrophilic idea of German superiority cannot be compared with the idea of material equality that actually has something noble at its core (which is why so many future writers had succumbed to it in their youth). But by completely rejecting their communist past, the Czechs might deprive themselves of a significant part of their intellectual and literary heritage. All this is understandable, particularly as memories of communism in its final phase are more likely to evoke a sense of slight nostalgia than of horror. Yet this kind of memory is treacherous. For Karel Pecka and thousand of others their life in the fifties’’s prison resembled a state of war rather than peace. And it did not make any difference to them whether the ideological hatred that had landed them in that prison was motivated by racial or class considerations.

Paradoxically, it is the generation that, through Charter 77, tried to break through the unwillingness of Czech society to perceive communism as a totalitarian regime, that today passionately protests against the publication of a police document. Dvořáček was a political prisoner whose story reflects the whole turpitude of the fifties into which Kundera’’s denunciation fits in a shocking, yet logical way. I was raised on Charter 77, and its authors’‘ and signatories’‘ ideas of the universality of human rights and the indivisibility of freedom have become part of my being. The weekly Respekt of which I am editor, continues its own generational experience of the 70s and 80s, when reality and literary fiction finally became separated. For the documents issued by Charter 77 and VONS (Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted) were a much more powerful testimony to the nature of  communism than the best samizdat novels.

The generational row about the interpretation of history, particularly the fifties’‘ history, has long been under the surface and I myself was in denial about its existence. The passionate discussion unleashed by the chance discovery of a police document and the personal story it brought to light, has revealed how deep the roots of this row are and how fundamental it is. It is a row about whether or not we ought to deal with the banal evil (of which denunciation was key symbol in the fifties) as something that is bad in and of itself regardless of its historical context. It is a row about whether we should perceive our history as a closed chapter that allows only only one definitive interpretation or whether we should search in it for a key to our own freedom, to avoid the risk that we will send other Dvořáčeks to prisons in future. It is all about making sure that in a future historical context we do not turn into the next generation of culprits.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 24 November 2008.

We are grateful to Martin M. Šimečka for the permission to publish this text in English.