Questions to the narrator
- 00:09Why did you become a communist?
- 02:47Can I jump then to the period after the war, when the Communist Party leadership returned from Moscow to Prague. What were the aims of the Communist Party leadership at that period?
- 05:26So when the Communist Party leadership came back …
- 06:33But even though the Communist Party was very popular, it didn’t wish to become a normal democratic party in post-war Czechoslovak democracy, did it?
- 07:27But it still meant that the Party would be the only functioning political party and have a political monopoly of power.
- 08:02And did it come from sources inside Czechoslovakia, indigenous Stalinism, or did it come mainly from Stalin himself?
- 08:49If they did that, what was the purpose then of the show trials and the terror directed against party members and the party itself?
- 11:21What happened to you?
- 12:21What were these categories?
- 13:31What category did you fall in?
- 13:46And what happened to you exactly?
- 14:36Were you actually physically tortured yourself?
- 15:04Leaping forward now, when the reform movement started in the 1960s, where did it come from in Czechoslovakia, what were the groups that started this?
- 16:31Who were the people inside the Party and in society who started this whole movement towards the Prague Spring, reforming the politics, reforming economies?
- 17:14What was the most important source of those two factors? What was the most important group, the important cause? Was it the economy, the poor performance of the economy?
- 18:05Were there groups inside the party who were also …
- 18:46So was it a group inside the party that was actually leading the Prague Spring?
- 19:12The whole process of the Prague Spring was very rapid. Was there a point at which the party under Dubček and even the reformers, as has sometimes been said, lost control of Czech society?
- 21:11What were Dubček, you and the other reformers in the party basically trying to do? What was your immediate objective and your long-term objective?
- 22:06Dubček, you and others talked a lot about the democratisation of Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring. What exactly were the limits of this? You didn’t imagine returning to a multi-party system, did you?
- 23:54But even so within that system the leading role of the party would still be maintained?
- 24:55What did you, Dubček and other reformers do to provoke the Soviet intervention? What caused that?
- 25:27And what particularly offended them in what you did?
- 26:24How much do you think that what happened in ’68, with the Soviet Union invasion, affected how the Soviet Union viewed the whole of Eastern Europe for the whole of the 1970s?
- 27:27Looking back now on ’68, do you think if it’d happened now that Gorbachev would have intervened?
- 28:26I would now like to go back to 1948. Why did the Social Democratic Party, which was very strong in Czechoslovakia, allow the Communist Party to stage what in effect was a coup, in 1948?
TranscriptPlease note that this transcript is based on audio tracks and doesn't have to match exactly the video
Why did you become a communist?
Why did I become a Communist? I was born in 1913. When I was a boy growing up, it was after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It is difficult to imagine today what tremendous expectations that revolution brought into the world. It was such a great fund of confidence in that Revolution that it existed in full strength in the 20s and 30s, until Stalin with his horrible repressions and terrors started really undermining it. I grew up in that time, and I grew up in a country which was democratic. Czechoslovakia was the only Central European country which started in 1918 as a democracy and remained a democracy, alone in the whole sphere, until it was destroyed when its allies, its friends, allied themselves with her enemies in 1938 after Munich. I grew up in that, in those 20s and 30s. When I went to university it was 1931. It was the time of the great economic crisis, tremendous unemployment in over-industrialised Czechoslovakia – don’t forget that Czechoslovakia was one of the ten most industrialised countries in the world at that time. And I saw that unemployment especially among young people, students and so on. And in 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany and that was the last straw which brought me into the communist student organisation and the communist movement.
Can I jump then to the period after the war, when the Communist Party leadership returned from Moscow to Prague. What were the aims of the Communist Party leadership at that period?
You must know what preceded during the war, before the Party leadership returned from Moscow. You know that the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia was again the only legal communist party that existed, with hardly any interruptions from 1921, when it was formed, until it was suppressed after Munich. That was again a unique phenomenon in Central Europe. And if we later compare the positions of the communists in, let’s say, Hungary or Poland with Czechoslovakia, we must take this into account. The Communist Party became an accepted member or component of the political system of the country. It was against Munich, and went down as an anti-Munich anti-capitulation party, capitulating to Hitler, which increased its standing in the eyes of the people. During the war, you know that the Communist International immediately after the outbreak of the Second World War came out with the instruction to its sections that this war was imperialist and they should work for an immediate ending of the war, that means in Hitler’s interest. By that time, the Czechoslovak Communist Party was illegal. Those instructions from Moscow came late and were not taken into account very much. By the way, those instructions created a terrible crisis in the Communist Party of France, in the Communist Party of Great Britain, which still today feels the after-effects.
So when the Communist Party leadership came back …
When the Communist Party leadership came back from Moscow it was the leadership of a party which was very popular. Because again, the Communists put their men in the resistance movement, they had tremendous losses, and so on. Besides, Czechoslovakia is the only country of Central Europe which never shared a frontier with the Russians until 1945. And thus did not have any bitter memories from the past connected with the Russians. The Czechs and the Slovaks were genuinely friendly people towards the Russians from the past, from history and so on. That friendship was not disturbed or troubled by anything. The Red Army came as the liberator, and the Soviet Union and, with it, the Communist Party was very popular in 1945.
But even though the Communist Party was very popular, it didn’t wish to become a normal democratic party in post-war Czechoslovak democracy, did it?
No, it wished, and I am convinced it genuinely wished to create a socialist political system in Czechoslovakia, different from the Stalinist system. The leader of the party, Gottwald, who then became Prime Minister after the elections in ’46, repeated many times that what the Communist Party wanted was a socialist system different from the Soviet Union, socialism in the Czechoslovak way.
But it still meant that the Party would be the only functioning political party and have a political monopoly of power.
Not necessarily. That came later. The introduction of the monopoly of power of the Communist Party came after February 1948 when the Communist Party took over all the power. And that was one of the crossroads of the Czechoslovak Communist Party – the introduction of the Stalinist system after February ’48.
And did it come from sources inside Czechoslovakia, indigenous Stalinism, or did it come mainly from Stalin himself?
Both. It came mainly from Stalin because at that time, he was convinced that a third world war was imminent, he felt weaker than the potential enemies on the other side and he was nervous about it, and among other things he wanted complete disciplining of his empire. That meant no differences in the political system anywhere. And the Czechoslovak communists accepted that without any misgivings, or without any protest.
If they did that, what was the purpose then of the show trials and the terror directed against party members and the party itself?
Ah, the show trials. You see, from Stalin’s point of view, and when I say Stalin I don’t mean only him personally but the system he created, Czechoslovakia was a dangerous member of his empire because it had in every respect a very deep, very long-standing democratic experience. It was the most westernised [part] of his empire, and that is why it was necessary from his point of view to brutally drive out that tradition of western-type democracy or democratic thought from Czechoslovakia. Already in 1949 there was a trial in Hungary. This disciplining was done with the help of trials in Czechoslovakia. In Hungary [it was] the infamous Rajk trial in 1949, and at that time already the then leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, Rakosi, handed over to Gottwald a list of 60 names of so-called enemies of the state, demanding their arrest and their trials. My name was on that list as well, without my knowing it of course. The argument was that Czechoslovakia was the centre of all the conspirational and subversive activity against the Soviet system, against socialism, and that it was necessary to uproot that nest of vipers. The effect was that most brutal set of show trials in Czechoslovakia, the most brutal of them all. Because Czechoslovakia had to be re-educated by the cruellest means.
What happened to you?
What happened to me? [There were] people who were to be eliminated. There were categories of people. Imagine Stalin thought a third world war was possible, I have to do what I can to prevent the worst for such an eventuality, among other things I have to put heavy industry in a position of absolute priority because that produces arms and so on. That means deforming the whole system of economy. And I have to be sure that the potential enemy will have no allies behind my back. So categories of people were established who had to be eliminated from positions of power, of influence.
What were these categories?
These categories were old communists who had lived for some time in the West. Under that category among others were ex-fighters of the Spanish international brigades who had been caught in Western Europe by the war. People who had been able to fight against Hitler without being ordered by the Soviet Union or her allies, partisans and so on. After the creation of the state of Israel, [there were] Jews, who were suspected even more of being double spies. These were lists of people without any respect to the individual man or woman, what he did or did not do, or what his character was, in those categories.
What category did you fall in?
I was an old communist, lived in the West in my first exile, was a Jew – on all three counts.
And what happened to you exactly?
What happened to me? I was envoy of Czechoslovakia in Israel, appointed in 1949, and I was then appointed Minister to Sweden. I sent my belongings, personal belongings from Tel Aviv to Stockholm, and I stopped in Prague to get acquainted with the new agenda. And I was not allowed to travel to Stockholm any longer. I was detained for half a year, and then I was arrested at the end of 1951, immediately after the General Secretary of the party, Rudolf Slansky, and I was put in that horrible mill.
Were you actually physically tortured yourself?
Not physically, but the psychological torture was enough to make the physical torture unnecessary. I was isolated for one and a half years, for 18 months, completely from the world, interrogated all the time, and then put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Leaping forward now, when the reform movement started in the 1960s, where did it come from in Czechoslovakia, what were the groups that started this?
That came gradually, it was a gradual development. A very important point was 1956 and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin and Stalin’s crimes. Then at the beginning of the 1960s Czechoslovakia suffered for the first time in the history of the so-called socialist countries from adverse economic development, among other things, because of the end of friendship with Mao’s China and so on. And at the same time, in 1961, there was the Party Congress in Moscow which increased the intensity of the anti-Stalinist criticism. So the Czechoslovak party leadership with Novotný could no longer hold back the de-Stalinisation.
Who were the people inside the Party and in society who started this whole movement towards the Prague Spring, reforming the politics, reforming economies?
It came mainly from two sources: from the intellectuals and from the economists. I don’t mean the intellectual economists but from the economy because that performed very badly at the beginning of the 60s as I said already. And there was a tremendous dissatisfaction among intellectuals of all sorts, ever since soon after 1948. And all illusions were suddenly lost.
What was the most important source of those two factors? What was the most important group, the important cause? Was it the economy, the poor performance of the economy?
That came together, that flowed together. Because there were these elements there, this tension. Ever since 1956 the Novotný regime had succeeded in suppressing criticism, in censoring newspapers, books, and taking punitive measures against individual intellectuals and so on, sending them, I don’t know, from an editorial post to a factory for a year or two. Re-education, we know it from the Far East.
Were there groups inside the party who were also …
And as soon as the party leadership was forced to think of the necessity of economic reform, from that moment the party apparatus divided into those who wanted an economic reform to succeed and those who preferred not to have any change because their position would be endangered. And there you had a division. In the 60s, before 1968, if you wanted to hear the best anti-party jokes you could have them in the Party Secretariat.
So was it a group inside the party that was actually leading the Prague Spring?
And by the middle of 1968, very important sections of the Central Committee of the party were convinced that Novotny’s regime, as it existed, could not go on any longer because that would mean a complete collapse of the whole system.
The whole process of the Prague Spring was very rapid. Was there a point at which the party under Dubček and even the reformers, as has sometimes been said, lost control of Czech society?
During ’68? (during the Prague Spring) No, that was not the case. Dubček’s probably greatest achievement and, from the point of view of some, weakness, was that he refused during 1968 to use administrative methods of achieving what he wanted to achieve, that he was convinced and repeated it again and again, and defended himself against pressures from his great allies. Dubček was convinced that he could achieve whatever was necessary by political means, not administrative oppressive measures. Although he was pressured towards using them already at the meeting of the leaders of the communist or socialist countries in Dresden, he was pressurised to use administrative oppressive measures, and he refused. And he never lost control because he had all the levers of power in his hands. Whenever it would have been necessary he would have been able to use them, but he refused.
What were Dubček, you and the other reformers in the party basically trying to do? What was your immediate objective and your long-term objective?
Our immediate objective was to adapt the system in Czechoslovakia to Czechoslovakia’s needs, possibilities and traditions. Very simply. We had the traditions of democracy, we had had a very developed economy before 1945 which was destroyed partly by Stalin’s policy of the Third World War, and we had a tremendous tradition of an organised working-class movement which went with the regime.
Dubček, you and others talked a lot about the democratisation of Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring. What exactly were the limits of this? You didn’t imagine returning to a multi-party system, did you?
Not a multi-party system but some sort of multi-voiced system, let’s say, a pluralist system of some sort, corresponding to the development of our society. Because our society by 1968 was already quite different from Western societies, and it would have been idle to take over a ready-made model of Western democracy, as it was silly or criminal to take over Stalin’s model for Czechoslovakia. We had to create something new and the basis for it was the acknowledgement of the existence of interest groups within our society. That is what Stalin denied. Stalin’s great fraud lied in the fact that he talked always about the moral political unity of the people and he as the voice of it all, the leader of it. That means that he consciously did not want to recognise the existence of interest groups within society. And we wanted to bring those back into full play, to give them the possibility of voicing their interests and defending their interests.
But even so within that system the leading role of the party would still be maintained?
The leading role of the party would have been maintained but in a quite different way, completely basically different. The party would have to really seek the confidence of the people every day with its work. For the time being, for the first phase of our democratisation movement, we eliminated a struggle for power by the creation of the National Front where all the organisations, all the representatives of the interest groups or group interests, would come together and hammer out a common position to every problem.
What did you, Dubček and other reformers do to provoke the Soviet intervention? What caused that?
We did not do anything to provoke the intervention. The intervention came because the Soviet leadership of that day, the Brezhnev leadership, thought that we had gone too far, that we had breached the allowed circumference of a socialist system as they conceived it.
And what particularly offended them in what you did?
Everything, really. They were very much offended that we had eliminated censorship. That was when Brezhnev came to the meeting of the leadership of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in Čop, in Čierna, at the frontier. He came every day with such large stacks of papers, cuttings from our newspapers, and he threw them at Dubček one after the other: “Look what you are writing, how is it possible in a socialist system,” and so on, for instance. But I must add, and that is very important, that during the whole Prague Spring, during all the months of our democratisation movement, we did not endanger any vital interest of the Soviet Union. That must be repeated and must be really very strongly stated again and again, because all the accusations that the Czechoslovak democratic movement somehow represented a threat to the vital interests of the Soviet Union are nonsense and a lie.
How much do you think that what happened in ’68, with the Soviet Union invasion, affected how the Soviet Union viewed the whole of Eastern Europe for the whole of the 1970s?
Oh, the Soviet leadership took the suppression of the Prague Spring as an excuse to deprive the allies, the so-called socialist countries, of their sovereignty even formally in the so-called Brezhnev doctrine and also in the pact of alliance concluded with Czechoslovakia in 1970 and East Germany, where the Soviet Union even had the right, in writing in an international pact, to interfere in Czechoslovakia’s internal affairs.
Looking back now on ’68, do you think if it’d happened now that Gorbachev would have intervened?
Oh, on the contrary. I am convinced that Gorbachev would give a great deal if today he had a successful Prague Spring, and because what he is trying to do is to my mind the clearest and greatest possible historical vindication of the correctness of the Prague Spring of 1968. Because the power that suppressed us in 1968 is trying to do the same thing, and because, as I have repeated ever since ’68, socialism has only one possibility of positive development, and that is democratisation.
I would now like to go back to 1948. Why did the Social Democratic Party, which was very strong in Czechoslovakia, allow the Communist Party to stage what in effect was a coup, in 1948?
The Social Democratic Party in 1948 was deeply divided between a pro-communist and anti-communist wing. And when the crunch came in 1948, the Social Democratic minister in the cabinet did not resign. And by doing that gave Gottwald’s Communist Party the formal argument that he had a majority in Parliament, a majority of one with the Social Democrats, and that his stance, his refusal to abdicate with the rest of the government, was constitutional, that it was not a putsch, that it was not a coup d’état. But it is necessary to know, too, that in 1948 Czechoslovakia had no other choice but to submit to Stalin. Because he would not have accepted anything [else] even for the price of a new war. And all the non-communist, or the anti-communist, parties at that time did not have any alternative political concept. They couldn’t. They tried but they couldn’t because that did not exist.
Both when you initiated and were living through the Prague Spring, to what extent were you self-consciously looking over your shoulder and thinking, we must avoid the mistakes made in Hungary in 1956?
Yes, from our point of view, in Hungary things had happened which were very provocative for the Soviet Union. As you will remember, very early the movement turned against, let’s say, the members of the secret police and they were lynched in the streets and so on. We said that counter-revolutionary forces came to the fore in the Hungarian Revolution. But not with us, and we will guarantee that that won’t happen with us, because in our country the whole movement started from the top of the party, from the highest echelons of the party, from the Central Committee of the party. And the party was in charge, and the party would never acquiesce in excesses of that sort. Hungary called for leaving the Warsaw Pact. Hungary called for neutrality. Which again was [like] a red cloth to the Soviet bull. But we avoided all that, because we considered ourselves to be loyal allies to the Soviet Union, and had the Soviet Union found a modus vivendi with our movement, we would have remained the most loyal and most valuable allies.
But what particular mistakes did you make that the Soviets found provocative?
Well, the mistakes … I don’t know of any mistakes really. The Soviets were provoked because they were confronted with development which was not in their books. And in addition, the Gomulkas and the Ulbrichts came alarmed that we’d endanger their position.
You claimed to have re-created social democracy, was that re-creation particularly provocative?
That was provocative, of course, because the whole policy of the Communist International ever since 1919 was the re-unification of the working class, and that means the elimination of social democracy. And wherever the communists came to power, social democracy was eliminated, by way of unification with the communists and suppression of the rest. When in the middle of 1968 some Social Democratic people came up with the idea to renew the Social Democratic Party, I was against it all the time, because at that moment I considered it to be a tremendous tactical mistake serving only as a purpose for hostile propaganda from the Soviet Union.
Eduard Goldstücker (1913–2000)
Literary historian, writer, translator, pedagogue and politician
Born in Slovakia, he graduated in German and German literature from the Faculty of Arts of Charles University. During his studies he entered the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Before the war he worked as the editor of Ľudový deník daily and as a grammar school teacher. When the Nazis seized power in the country, he fled due to racial and political persecution to Great Britain, where he first took postgraduate courses at Oxford University and later worked at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile in London. At the end of the war he was a secretary at the embassy in Paris. After the war, he continued as a counsel at the embassy in London and then as the ambassador to Israel. In December 1951 he was arrested, and in May 1953 sentenced to life imprisonment in a political trial. He spend two and a half years in the communist prisons in Jachymov and Leopoldov, later to be released and rehabilitated. He went back to academia; at the end of the 1950s he was appointed an associate professor and in 1964 a professor of German Studies and the Head of the Department of German Studies at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, where he also worked as the deputy vice-chancellor. He was a specialist in studies and translations of 20th century German-speaking Jewish authors, especially Franz Kafka, and made a major contribution to the very first conference on Kafka in Czechoslovakia being held in 1963. In the groundbreaking year 1968 he was elected Chairman of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union and also an MP in the Czech National Council. As a vocal opponent of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968, he went into exile again. He became a guest professor and later the due professor of comparative literature at Sussex University. At the same time he was a guest professor lecturing in Stockholm, Los Angeles and Konstanz, and a corresponding member of the German Academy for Language and Poetry. In 1990, after the fall of communism, he returned to Prague.
He is the author of many articles and papers on Kafka topics, reviews and interviews on 20th century literature, and two volumes of memoirs entitled Vzpomínky 1913–1945 (G plus G, 2003) and Vzpomínky 1945–1968 (G plus G, 2005).
He was awarded the Memorial Medal of the Czechoslovak Army in Foreign Countries (1947), Merits for Development Award (1965), Order of Klement Gottwald for the Building Up of the Socialist Homeland (1968) and the Decoration for Science and Art (1993).