Questions to the narrator
- 00:11How would you describe the revival of Czechoslovak culture in the 1960s?
- 04:09The Prague Spring of 1968 is often interpreted as reform movement within the Communist Party, as a movement from above. The pro-reform communists were putting things right after the Stalinist era of the 1950s. But what about the people who were not in the
- 07:13How did you experience the period of normalisation, that transfer of cultural life from the public sphere into the underground, into the private sphere, into what is known as the independent culture?
- 10:33How would you define the independent culture and how would you rate its significance?
- 12:09What’s the impact of the unofficial culture on Czech society today?
TranscriptPlease note that this transcript is based on audio tracks and doesn't have to match exactly the video
Jacques Rupnik: How would you describe the revival of Czechoslovak culture in the 1960s?
Jiří Němec: After the very brief thaw that occurred after the 20th convention of the Soviet Communist Party which was partially also transferred here in Czechoslovakia in 1956–1957, the official powers succeeded in slowing it all down again. A couple of books were published, but then the reverse wave came. The time when slightly different voices could be heard again did not come until the early 1960s, primarily because coincidentally a journal of young artists was founded, and they were joined by young reviewers. This was Tvář [The Face]; founded in 1963, it began to be published in 1964, but unsurprisingly it was closed down in 1965, so the last issue was published in December 1965. The journal was actually the first forum after February 1948 in which the publication of one’s text did not depend on ideological aspects but purely artistic or scholarly considerations. As a result of that, the journal also published texts about authors who were not fully in line with the Marxist ideology, such as Josef Florian, Jakub Deml, Richard Weiner, authors such as Heidegger, who was published for the first time after 1948, and also texts which dealt with Catholic literature or at least Catholic points of view, besides other texts which lacked an ideological bias. And this led to sharp animosity not only from the communist dogmatists but also from the pro-reform communists who followed their own interests and plans, and called this a “flank-attack” on themselves, as they were also criticised in Tvář, and their artistic qualities were called into question by the reviewers. This was slowed down later, but it is interesting that another journal, Sešity [Notebooks], began to be published in its stead and in a few years did the same thing as Tvář did, perhaps in an even more radical way. However, the decisive event in my opinion was the convention of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers in 1967 where important pro-reform communist writers, such as Vaculík, Kundera, Klíma, but also writers who had never showed any affinity for such ideology, such as Václav Havel, made a speech which was a certain summation of the communist regime’s rule and which transcended the literary sphere, and to which the official powers again responded very harshly. However, after that, as we all know, there was the well-known January plenary session, after which it all took a different turn, censorship was abolished and free press began to be published.
The Prague Spring of 1968 is often interpreted as reform movement within the Communist Party, as a movement from above. The pro-reform communists were putting things right after the Stalinist era of the 1950s. But what about the people who were not in the Communist Party? What was your and your friends’ experience of that? What did it mean to you?
I can tell you how it was for me. I had presented myself as a non-Marxist since the 1960s, and, in February or March, as soon as we began to see that the pro-reform communists meant it seriously with giving non-Marxists a chance, we obviously also began to organise ourselves. I participated in organising the so-called Work of Council Renewal, which was actually a sort of grassroots organisation that was meant to replace, complement or reinstall all the functions the Catholic Church, Catholic intelligentsia and Catholic believers had been unable to do after 1948. Our objective was also to help the interned bishops return to office. And what I see as most important was the restoration of the Greek Catholic Church, which was forcefully united with the Orthodox Church in 1950. This was the so-called Uniate Church, with the highest number of worshippers in eastern Slovakia. It is characteristic for the year 1968, perhaps unlike the so-called Gorbachev reforms in the Soviet Union, that it was carried aloft by a big wave of spontaneous sympathy from below, not only from those who supported Marxism, but also those who did not accept Marxism but took seriously the words from the Action Programme and the government’s declaration from the spring of 1968 that they would be treated as equal, still within the framework of the building up of socialism, but as we know, there are many models of socialism, so in the end why wouldn’t we consider democratic socialism, just like the Work of Council Renewal action programme did, to be an acceptable framework for the activities of a Catholic? This was the religious sphere. And of course the cultural sphere was very turbulent. Many new works were created, works that had been put away in drawers, as it were, since the 1950s were published. It was a very lively period. Unfortunately, the replacement of Dubček with Husák in April 1969 actually brought everything to a halt. There was a fight for every position, and after that it just slowly died away.
How did you experience the period of normalisation, that transfer of cultural life from the public sphere into the underground, into the private sphere, into what is known as the independent culture?
I myself tried, for as long as possible, to at least publish some books, mostly translations. I collaborated with the Vyšehrad publishers, Mladá fronta, Horizont, and tried to publish my translations from the end of the 1960s, and after 1969 we began working on some new ones. But this all ended in 1971. I have to say that my response was similar to that of the nation as a whole – a certain depression, and considered what to do next. I was never affected as much as the highly involved pro-reform communists. I was never a party member, so they could not expel me, I had a modest job as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at a clinic in Prague, and could keep it. And I looked for a way out by coming closer to the young people with an interest in rock music. That was the time when the so-called Czechoslovak underground in the closer specific sense was established, especially around bands such as The Plastic People of Universe and DG307, and we made lasting friendships then. I would primarily like to mention my friend Ivan Jirous, the sort of driving force behind the whole movement which later appealed to many other people, as Václav Havel noted so well in his Long-distance Interrogation. And the repression against The Plastic People and DG307 actually gave birth to Charter 77, because the solidarity in response to the punishment of the groups of young people, then also with the huge support of Professor Patočka, who became closer to them than he had been to his students before, the solidarity campaign in the spring 1976 and the very diverse company that met in the corridors of the court in Prague where the trial was held in the autumn, all these informal meetings with the “long-haired” and doctor Kriegel, gave birth to a society that established itself as Charter 77 on 1 January 1977.
How would you define the independent culture and how would you rate its significance?
I think that the significance of the independent or, as I prefer to say, unofficial culture in modern-day Czechoslovakia is highly difficult to rate. There has been a substantial shift against the 1960s. Sometimes we use the notion I think was coined by Václav Benda: the parallel polis. We no longer write texts to be put away in drawers. We try to publish them immediately in Czechoslovakia now, and this means unofficially. But it is true that the number of readers is limited, unlike for instance in Poland, where the unofficial culture is said to be greater than the official one. That’s something we cannot expect here. But the ideological importance of the breakaway from the official sphere cannot be appreciated enough, as it means the regeneration of the thinking of our nation primarily in its pluralistic anti-totalitarian form. And that’s a great investment in the future, one which cannot be evaluated by the number of people who are now contributing to it, whether as writers or as readers.
What’s the impact of the unofficial culture on Czech society today?
It does not have such a wide impact as in Poland, but it’s true that it has also inspired people who are not part of the unofficial culture themselves but are very effective in contributing to what we call the grey zone. I would divide our culture up into three spheres. First, there is the official culture which we cannot take too seriously, even though there are several excellent writers and historians who publish officially, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Then there is the sphere in theatre or film art where the artists very carefully follow what is produced in the unofficial sphere. And it is indirectly through these people, and there are many of them, that the unofficial culture influences the grey zones and large swathes of the population.
Jiří Němec (1932–2001)
A Czech Christian philosopher, clinical psychologist, translator, editor, initiator and signatory of Charter 77, the husband of Charter 77 signatory Dana Němcová, with whom he had seven children. Having begun his studies at the Medical Faculty of Charles University, he switched to the Faculty of Arts where he studied Medical Psychology. After graduating in 1958, he worked as a clinical psychologist at the Phoniatrics Clinic in Prague. In the 1960s he was part of the editorial circle of the Tvář [Face] journal, in which he published his texts and translations. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and the rise of the “normalisation of society” in the era of President Husák, he was involved in the music underground and in 1976 co-organised a petition demanding the release of the band members of The Plastic People of the Universe. After signing Charter 77, he was sacked from his job and went to work nights as a security guard. He was the co-founder of Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted in 1978 and was imprisoned for seven months for his anti-regime attitudes. He organised and lectured at home seminars. In 1983 he emigrated to Austria where he was awarded a Dr. phil. degree in 1987. He was involved in the preparation and publication of the collected works of the philosopher Jan Patočka and published in exile magazines, especially Paternoster. After 1989 and his return to Czechoslovakia, he led the Institute of Humanities at the 1st Medical Faculty of Charles University. From 1993 he was a scholar at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences. In 2002 President Václav Havel awarded him the Medal of Merit in memoriam.
He is the author of many scholarly and theological texts and popularising articles, reviews and other texts published in samizdat and exile periodicals. He translated, and contributed to translations, of Martin Heidegger, Michael Foucault and others; worked on the Czech and German edition of the collected works of Jan Patočka and an edition of correspondence between Jakub Deml and F. X. Šalda. His own books include The Kidnapping of Europa: a Divertimento on Philosophy of History (samizdat, Expedice Edition, 1985) with Martin Hybler, The Kidnapping of Europa: Myth – a Divertimento on Philosophy of History (Praha: Dauphin, 1994), Letters from Ruzyně (Revolver Revue, 2001), Letters from Ruzyně and New Chances of Freedom (Praha: Pulchra 2011), and Diaries I. (1960–1964) (Praha: Triáda, 2018). His complete bibliography comprises more than three hundred items.