30 years after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, have we come full circle?

Source: History News Network / https://historynewsnetwork.org / By Gideon Remez /

I’m dedicating these remarks to the memory of my dear friend and esteemed colleague Tatiana Hoffman, who might have been a much better speaker tonight were it not for her sudden and untimely death three years ago. She came to Israel in 1968 as Tatiana Stepankova, a young reporter for Czech Radio, was stranded here by the Soviet invasion, and became a perennial treasure for our own media. By virtue of her personality and professional integrity, as well as her intimate involvement with the Prague Spring, she was for us a personification of the drama that stretched from then to the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and after. Many of us felt that in some ways it paralleled Israel’s own story as an arena of the Cold War. As we suspected then and know now, it was indeed no coincidence that the Soviet-abetted Egyptian artillery barrages across the Suez Canal which preceded the War of Attrition began right after the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia.  Likewise, we saw a resemblance between the oppression of liberty there and the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jews and the ultimate liberation of both.

In that heady autumn of 1989, Tatiana and I were co-editors of Voice of Israel radio’s world news program. Her lasting friendship with the leading figures of the Prague Spring, who now led its revival, granted us a unique advantage to cover the thrilling events not only there but throughout Eastern Europe.

During our studio time on a Thursday night, we learned that Vaclav Havel had just been released from his umpteenth prison term. In short order she succeeded in putting a call through to his home, and was told “too bad you didn’t call a few minutes ago, Alexander Dubcek just left.” So, we had only one world exclusive, which was quite a scoop in itself, but the interview’s content was understated and self-effacing in a typically Czech fashion. Havel characteristically refrained from any triumphant declarations or predictions, and said mainly that he was just very tired.

Fast-forward now to the following April and Havel’s visit to Israel – the first by a Czechoslovak leader — at the peak of his glory as president. From his address at the Hebrew University, one passage has stuck in my memory ever since as a constant reminder and warning. Evoking Franz Kafka, Havel confessed: “I would not be at in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal.  Nor would I be surprised if I were to wake up in my prison cell and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. Every step of the way I feel what a great advantage it is to know that I can be removed at any moment from this post.”

I took this then – as I did Havel’s unprepossessing small talk over beer in Jerusalem’s pedestrian mall – as another indication that his humility had not been diminished by victory and honor. But since then I have increasingly realized how apt his premonition was for the broader condition of society and politics. What the Czechs and Slovaks finally won in 1989 after long years of such admirable, patient, non-violent resistance was not only the fortunate exception rather than the rule; it can much more easily be reversed than achieved. All the more so if too much satisfaction and confidence is allowed to set in – as it did — that the happy end of history has been achieved and ensured for good. I wish I had Havel’s genius to present this gloomy message in his sardonically poignant style.

When invited to take part in today’s event I did not know that the Czech Republic alone would be co-sponsoring it with Tel Aviv University. Only when I received the program did I find out that the Slovak half of the Velvet Revolution would be absent from the stage, if not – I hope — from the audience. I can only hope that this omission is not yet another omen of how in thirty years we have come nearly full circle.

Slovakia, indeed, provided an early instance of the pendulum-swing to the other extreme of malevolent proto-autocracy almost equal to the one that was thrown off in the Velvet Revolution. We were glad to see the apparent repulse of this retrograde trend in Slovakia, after it affected the Czech Republic as well to some degree. The very anniversary that we are celebrating tonight was marked in Prague by mass protests – two or three hundred thousand, depending on your source –led by surviving leaders of the velvet revolution against the present regime that they see as corrupt. The protesters are counter-charged that they are trying illegitimately to overthrow a duly elected government. That’s an argument that sounds familiar to Israeli ears, as it is the main defense of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s supporters against his indictment on multiple counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

So overall our relief appears to have been premature. This menacing tide has now swept your neighbors in Poland to the north and Hungary to the south, and it shows little sign of receding. The wave from west to east that we so blissfully assumed would permanently transform Europe and beyond has become a backwash from east to west that now threatens to destroy what we never doubted was indestructible.

Let me borrow a phrase from another great heir to the Czech tradition of the ironic absurd – Havel’s contemporary and translator Tomáš Straussler, better known as Tom Stoppard. His play’s title Travesties applies so well to the mutations of democratic leadership that are now playing out in the once-United States and once-United Kingdom. They vividly illustrate how the most contemptible crooks, liars and demagogues can be no less rapidly destructive than monstrous ideologues.  Moreover, this holds true in what many of us too readily trusted as the impregnable, if imperfect, bastions of enlightenment no less than among recently converted newcomers.

History is repeating itself as Havelian satire rather than farce. Again, an autocratic Moscow is working to expand its sphere, weaken its adversaries and break up their alliances. In areas like Syria, where neither the European revolutions of 1989 nor the so-called Arab Spring achieved the goals of the Prague Spring, this Russian purpose is still being pursued by armed force. Elsewhere, the subversion is subtler: instead of sending in the tanks as in Prague, it manipulates the supposed apotheosis of free expression – the media and internet – against itself. But the results are just as pernicious.

However, most of the fault is not in our adversaries but in ourselves. Speaking for my  fellow baby-boomers in the West, we indulged ourselves to take for granted – as the human norm, rather than a fragile evolutionary breakthrough – those hard-fought achievements of our parents who were justly called the greatest generation. We raised our children on the facile delusion that democracy requires only the mere shell of elected government and majority rule. This ultimately allowed too many of us and them to accept demonization of any restraint by constitutional institutions, any protection of minority rights or individual freedoms, as – horror! – elitist and undemodratic machinations of a “deep state.”

To this was added the ingredient of economic mismanagement – the crisis of unfettered capitalism that within less than 20 years followed the collapse of corruptedsocialism; the Prague Spring had, after all, called for socialism with a human face. The failure of both systems left too many behind without any system on which to pin their hopes for betterment. So one needed only to channel their resentment with populist and chauvinist slogans in order to fan a racial, religious and xenophobic backlash – and there was the recipe for a replay of the 1930s scenario no less than the postwar one, with little basis in sight to expect a near-miraculous redemption like the one whose not-so-happy anniversary we are marking today. Maintaining real democracy, it appears, depends on a sophisticated, enlightened and benevolent electorate, of which sadly we have not educated enough.  Consolation is offered by pointing to the much better tendencies that some polls show among the nextgeneration, the millennials. I do fervently hope this is so, and that the presently ascendant forces will not nip it in the bud.

Finally – we’re here to discuss Czechoslovakia, not Israel. But the past year has climaxed a similar process here too, as I briefly alluded before. Our nation’s own revolution — of which we mark a major anniversary in two days: the United Nations Partition Resolution of 29 November 1947 — has lost, at the very least, whatever velvet lining it had and faces an unpromising near future. Pardon me for ending a congratulation to foreign friends with such a domestic admonishment – but as Havel so presciently warned, we too are now summoned before our own tribunal.

The Vaclav Havel Center