Jan Krčmář, 26. 1. 1988, Vienna, Austria


Location Vienna, Austria
Date 26. 1. 1988
Length 14:10

Watch and Listen

Full video (mp4, 14 min)
Preview video (mp4, 1 min)
Audio track (mp3, 16 min) Show player

TranscriptPlease note that this transcript is based on audio tracks and doesn't have to match exactly the video

Tell us the story of your victimization.

Well, my father was a Czechoslovak diplomat who had been based in London during the War and before the War, and came back after the War. I continued my studies in Czechoslovakia until 1952 when I matriculated, and I was not allowed to study law because I was of bourgeois origin, my father having been a lawyer as well. My father lost his job and to make things worse, I had also been brought up in England, so that all these things compounded made me a class enemy. And I was just not allowed to study, and I had to go and work manually because that was one way of cleansing my crimes of being of bourgeois origin. I worked in a factory, I worked building a bridge, and I did various menial jobs, and with me were people who had been graduate lawyers, shopkeepers, judges, chemists. You name them, they were all sort of people who had the same kind of menial jobs as I did. And we all worked earning our living in that way. There were certain categories later when there were further purges, where they had actually sort of stratified people according to where they were allowed to work. There were five categories, the top being those top party people and screened members who were allowed to work in ministries and central offices, and it went down to people who could only hold manual jobs in factories. And then there were those who were not allowed to work in Prague or any of the big cities and had to work in either the steel mills or coal mining. I was put into that category at that time.

Could you tell us something about this grading system? Were they publicly made clear to you you belong to Grade IV?

Well, it wasn’t made absolutely public, but it was known. These grades were more or less a semi-official secret, but everybody knew, and it sort of seeped through, that after these purges somebody who had worked in the ministry, for instance, had to work in a factory, in an administrative job in the factory, but still only in a factory, whereas people who before that had maybe worked in a factory could move up to a ministry or even to, I don’t know, the Central Committee or something like that.

Could you give us two examples of some of the distortions created by central planning?

Yes, you had cases, for instance, where everything was planned, factories had to fulfil their plan and fulfil their quota, but of course there weren’t parts, or there weren’t enough parts to go round. So usually the case was that one would spend the first fortnight doing nothing or practically nothing, and then the next fortnight, when the spare parts and all of the parts that were necessary arrived, we would be doing sixteen 24-­hour shifts in order to fulfil the plan, because we were paid piecework, which meant that we had to produce anyway in order to earn a living, and at the same time the management was paid a bonus according to the fulfillment of the plan. So there was interest on both sides to do this. And then, for instance, when I worked in a steel mill outside Prague in Kladno, that was in 1959 to 61, again in the steel mill the administration was paid a bonus according to the fulfillment of the plan, and there they would include even rejects which went into the gross tonnage because the plan was fulfilled by gross tonnage. Which meant that the steel mill had in fact fulfilled its plan on paper, but of course half of its production wasn’t available anyway.

Could you tell us something about ideology and propaganda in the 50s? I’d like to know how it was transmitted on the factory floor level, what sort of things you were told and how workers reacted to it.

Ideology was everywhere, it was in the papers, in the radio, there was no television at the time but it wasn’t so much a matter of total ideology. It was more the atmosphere created by the ideology, where people would hear something or read something, know that it wasn’t true but they wouldn’t dare say anything against it. The party members in the factories who were more or less under orders to push over the party line, would give us pat phrases, and probably wouldn’t even believe them themselves, or partly believe them. Apart from that, on the factory floor itself it wasn’t so bad because people didn’t have to act the part so much, because they had nothing else to lose, because the thing was that of course in a socialist state where manual labour is supposed to be the basis of productivity, it has always been used as a punishment. So that once somebody was working with his hands, he had nothing else to lose. It was the people in the administration, in schools, they were the ones who had to be afraid of losing their jobs. And they were the ones who would then at least parrot the party line.

Could you give us one example of something you were told that no­one believed that was part of the party’s ideology.

Yes, for instance there was the great case of the monetary reform of 1953, where there was a panic because the party bosses or the people inside the party knew there was going to be a reform. And they started a buying spree, which then spread, because everybody then began to know about it. At the same time you had the party bosses in the factory, or the factory managers would call meetings, and assure the workers that there was not going to be a monetary reform, that everything was fine. But people a) didn’t believe them, that they went on buying, and secondly, about a month later it happened. So that was one example of the total emptiness of the phrases.

What was the effect of the reform on people’s savings?

The effect there was that people practically lost everything. Up to a certain amount, which was very small, you got 1:5, above that it was a rate of 1:50, old Crowns for new Crowns. And of course a lot of people who had maybe saved a lot of money before that were afraid of taking all their money to be changed because they would be asked questions of where they had got the money before, so many people lost everything.

What kind of people joined the party in the 50s, and was this a different kind of people than in the 60s?

I would essentially say that the people who’d joined the party in the late 40s were still people a lot of whom had joined it from idealism because they thought that there was something that could be done. But people who’d joined the party after, let’s say, ’49, were the ones who joined because they wanted to keep their jobs, or they wanted to get promotion. But both sides could still somehow talk together, even though there was a slight split but they were all on one boat and they were all part of the elite, so that they all worked together. And after ‘68, let’s say the most vocal part of the party was expelled or lost their party membership, but again, those who stayed were more or less those who stayed for more careerist reasons; there was more careerism in those who stayed after ’60 than there was in those during the 50s.

Could you tell us about the grading system?

The grading system, and this was in 1958 when there was a second line of purges, because a lot of people had somehow managed to get back into reasonable jobs in administration. There was this new purge, according to which people were again graded according to their backgrounds and according to what they had been before 1948. These grades suddenly ran unofficially. It was never officially published but there were grades of one to five, where in grade one you were passed for working in central offices and central administration, in grade two you were allowed to work in second-level jobs, grade three was still administration, grade four already meant that you would have to be passed from an adminis­trative job into a manual job, and the fifth grade were people who would not be allowed to work in Prague or large cities, but had to work either in the steel mills or in the coal mines.

What was your feeling when Stalin died?

When Stalin died, I think nobody really cared. There was maybe a sense of relief that perhaps things were going to change, but in fact Gottwald died a week later and for the majority of the people it didn’t make much difference. Mind you, many of the party members took it very very badly. When it was announced that Stalin had died, I saw even young party members bursting into tears because for them he was still the god. But the rest of us, we had more or less sighed a sigh of relief, even though we didn’t know what was going to come after it.

Was the flowering of democracy in the party and society in ‘68 and ’69 a surprise to most Czechs?

I think that the Prague Spring itself was. Things had loosened up, in the late 50s and early 60s things were becoming a little looser, life was a bit easier, there was more in the shops available, there was more to read, films were getting better, but the control of the society was still very very tight and you were more or less checked on every step. In ’68 itself, when Dubcek came to power, everybody said – so what, it was just one apparatchik for another. There was maybe a relief that Novotny had gone, but nobody knew who Dubcek was anyway. And it changed only gradually, because he came in with the same pat phrases that Gottwald had had about democracy, everybody had heard those before. But it was only then that suddenly people started realising by reading the papers that maybe they began to actually mean what they were saying, so the reception began to sort of snowball, and people actually thought, OK, right, maybe they really mean what they are saying.

Did you, non-party people, think that the communist party might really be becoming genuinely a democratic party, were you intending to join it?

In the mid-1968 yes, there was a definite converging of opinion, the party itself had become less flaunting, less closed, secondly, it had become more democratic. And there was even a feeling, I myself almost joined the party, because it suddenly seemed that my point of view and its point of view had somewhere converged.

Was the Soviet invasion a shock to you?

The Russian invasion was a tremendous shock, it was almost unbelievable. I remember I was asleep on the morning of the 21st of August, and I was woken up by planes landing in one-minute intervals at the airport just outside Prague, and I remember getting up and not knowing what had happened. And then, I lived just above the radio station, I got out in the morning and I saw truckloads of Russian troops with red berets, fully armed, coming down towards the radio station, and being blocked off by a bus driver who’d swerved and stopped them at the crossroads. And it was an unreal feeling, nobody actually could really believe that the Russians had come. And also nobody had, because there was no reason for them to come. At least that was our opinion.

What did people feel like after it was clear that Prague Spring was destroyed by 1970? What was the feeling with most Czechs?

Well, I think most people, at least friends of mine, and I myself more or less realised that it was over on the 21st of August, because it was obvious that it was going to stop, and it was also obvious because the whole mechanism for the so-called normalisation had in fact existed since 1948 for most people, or I would say for 80–85% of the people who had been second-class citizens for 20 years. After a brief breathing space of being equal citizens, it was for them just going back to being second-class citizens. It was much harder for the party elite, who suddenly dropped from first-class citizens to second-class citizens, and suddenly had to live the way everybody else had lived. But for most of the people it was just going back to where things had been in 1967. In 1969 there was no difference.

Could you tell us about an example of the communist lie, the devaluation story?

Yes, before the devaluation in 1953, the party people had been informed that there would be a devaluation and of course they began going on to buying sprees. And this spread to everybody else, and there was a real buying panic. And in factories and on the radio and in the media people were assured that there would be no monetary reform, there would be no devaluation, that the currency was perfectly safe. And then suddenly it came and people, many of them lost absolutely everything, because there was an exchange rate of 1:5, one new Crown for five old Crowns, up to the first 300 Crowns, and then it came down to 1:50 for everything else. And there were people who maybe had several thousand Crowns, who were afraid of bringing them because they were afraid that there would be questions asked where they had managed to amass so much money.

Thank you very much.

Jan Krčmář (1933)

Jan Krčmář

Journalist and translator

Born in Cologne into the family of a Czechoslovak diplomat, he completed primary and secondary school in London as his father had been transferred to Great Britain in 1936. After returning to Prague in 1947, he continued at the English Grammar School, which he completed in 1952. Because of his bourgeois origin, he was repeatedly denied admission to further studies. Instead of studying at the faculty of law, he worked manually on the construction of roadways and a railway bridge in Prague nicknamed “the Bridge of Intelligentsia” for the fate many of its builders shared. He worked on the assembly of military planes and after his military service, he translated and worked in other blue-collar positions in heavy industrial plants.

He also earned a living as an interpreter and translator and from 1965 he was an editor at the English foreign office of the Czechoslovak Press Agency where, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968, he issued the last news on the situation to be despatched abroad. He was forced to leave the Agency when Rudé právo, the communist daily, denounced him as a “reactionary element working with the British Embassy” in 1969. He accepted an offer from Reuters and became a co-founder of its Prague office, where he worked until 1981. As part of the ‘Decontamination’ action, organized by the communist Secret Police to force critics of the regime to emigrate, he was forced to move and subsequently lost Czechoslovak citizenship. He continued in the Reuters editorial board for Eastern Europe in Vienna where he worked as the reporter until 1998. During his time in Vienna, he informed, besides others, of the breaking events in Eastern Europe, except for Czechoslovakia, which he was banned from entering. The most interesting situations he covered included that in Poland with the Solidarity movement, the rehabilitation of the former Hungarian prime minister Imre Nagy, the exodus of Bulgarian Turks and of East Germans to the West, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the coup in Bulgaria and the revolution in Romania. First from afar and soon afterwards from Prague, he also covered the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he informed of the bloody fights during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the fall of the Albanian regime, and the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia.