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Appeared in: Volume 7, Number 3
Published on: December 9, 2011
Hope and Change, Czech Style

A conversation with Pavel Bratinka on the legacy of 20th-century totalitarianism in the Czech Republic.

Since Vaclav Havel’s death this past December, Czech mourners have celebrated his legacy and reflected on the Velvet Revolution that he helped lead. One of his oldest allies was Pavel Bratinka, who served with Havel on the Civic Forum, the umbrella group that unified anti-Communist forces. Bratinka was also one of the founders of the Civic Democratic Alliance (a center-right party) and was elected to the legislatures of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

Born in 1946 in Bratislava, Bratinka studied solid state physics but was prevented from defending his thesis when he refused to join the Communist-dominated Youth Union. Bratinka was active in numerous “in-home” or underground seminars—including the famous gathering at Kampa island (“Kampademie”) with Havel, his brother Ivan and Radim and Martin Palouš. He was also a translator of Friedrich Hayek and Eric Voegelin and the organizer of the underground publishing house “Edice Svíce” (Candle Edition). In 1998 he co-founded Euroffice, a Czech and European public affairs consultancy, where he has worked ever since.

Flagg Taylor recently spoke with Bratinka for the American Interest.

Flagg Taylor: What is the legacy of totalitarianism in Czech society today?

Pavel Bratinka: There are many remnants of the totalitarian past. First, people are still, for better or worse, politically passive. We have elections and the turnout is relatively high, but there is little expression of opinion beyond voting—say, by demonstrating or organizing political action committees. People resign themselves to talking in pubs and condemning politicians for this or that. They tolerate corruption and a certain political aloofness that is characteristic of some politicians here. Somehow, disquietingly, the fact that politicians lie or steal is considered normal. There is little politically relevant outrage about these things.

FT: Are there opportunities to participate politically at the local level?

Pavel Bratinka: There are countless opportunities. One can field oneself in local elections, in one’s village, almost at no personal cost. But there are few takers because it involves work, dealing with bureaucratic obstacles, talking with quarreling neighbors and other unpleasantries. Then you have politics at the level of bigger cities and regions. Here there are many more takers, those who want to be in the regional parliaments or city councils because they consider it an opportunity to get rich with public contracts and that sort of thing. This toleration of corruption, in particular, seems to be a vestige of the past. 

We can speak freely, travel freely, plan our lives and have the job that we prefer if we try hard. This is nothing to take for granted in light of our past, of course. For now, however, this seems to satisfy most people. The result is that crooks in the United States who would be behind bars or be led to court in handcuffs are the kind of people here seen smiling from the pages of newspapers. 

FT: Are there signs of change, perhaps with the younger generation? 

Pavel Bratinka: It will still take some time before people will demand more. Freedom from fear or repression is not enough, because people are not sure what they are free for. And they are not sure what the words mean, because they haven’t seen political vocabulary at work in their world. So some people do what they shouldn’t do but justify it by claiming freedom of speech. They try to steal the words for selfish uses. It takes moral courage, moral stamina and a sense of purpose to prevent this. All of these things are still missing.

Maybe the young people will become disillusioned with the status quo. One can hope that new generations not touched by political passivity will become more than mere spectators. But at the same time, the talented young people may choose other enterprises in lieu of politics. And we also don’t know whether recent technological developments will compound the problem or help to combat it. The fall of communism coincided with the outset of this technological revolution. Things that were mere science fiction in the 1970s and 1980s have become real—watching television on your phone, for example. So when the regime fell, the entire world seemed to be changing, too. The change seemed much more profound than just political change. This now enables young people to get information and communicate in ways no one even dreamed of years ago. Now young people can get access to information with a click of a mouse or a tap of a screen—information that I had to acquire in books, in libraries. But they seem to know less and less about historical facts. They don’t connect technological change to political ends in the same way, so what this will all lead to in terms of politics here no one can say yet.

FT: What is the role of political parties in the Czech Republic? There are many of them, are there not? 

Pavel Bratinka: Political parties here are another facet of the problem. With complete political freedom, one can set up a political party in a few hours. But membership in parties is small. We have ten million people in the country, and the parties have only 10–15,000 members altogether. They actually resemble joint stock companies, in which every party member is a kind of shareholder. The party leaders and members regard the party as a commercial enterprise. If you get enough votes and become part of a ruling coalition, you get a chunk of the state budget. People in the parties think of this money as their own personal money. 

Honest people cannot do anything about this. Even if you are a leader of a party now and would like a cleaner system, you are powerless because, if you move against the rotten elements within, you will be (very democratically) recalled. Unless people become far more politically active and we can install something like the American primary system, each party member can in effect be a party power-broker. All political decision-making is in practice restricted to a very small number of power-brokers. 

I know how this works because I founded a political party myself in 1989, together with 12 friends, called the Civic Democratic Alliance. We were part of the government for eight years and we never had more than 3,000 members. Worse, just to illustrate the effects of political passivity, I once came to a city where our party had twenty members, but my meeting was attended only by five. These five were people who had neither good jobs nor a functioning family life. They were interested in party life in order to gain access to power or money or personal fulfillment. In the end, slowly, step by step, my party was taken over by an alliance of such “shareholders.” I left the party with several other founding members. (The party known today as the Civic Democratic Party was founded much later.) 

FT: Perhaps, as the country pays tribute to Vaclav Havel in the wake of his passing, the commemoration will bestir people from their passivity. When and where did you first meet Mr. Havel and where have your paths crossed over the years? 

Pavel Bratinka: I met him in 1977 when I started to work for Charter 77,  just doing the simple work of copying its documents on typewriters. But I was well informed about his activities beginning in the early sixties. With the exception of his four years of imprisonment (1979–83), we met from time to time as my various roles in the dissident world required. Paradoxically, our meetings became much rarer after 1989 when he became President and I became a politician at various legislative and executive positions.

FT: What sort of man was Mr. Havel?  What attributes of his character enabled him to accomplish what he did—as a dissident or statesman?

Pavel Bratinka: He was a very meek man as regards his person, but an unflinchingly hard-line man when it came to defending certain principles.

FT: What are Mr. Havel’s central contributions to the literature on totalitarianism, either in his essays or his plays?

Pavel Bratinka: He used both venues masterfully to depict the inner workings of totalitarian environments. But the essay The Power of the Powerless is his most universally accessible and timeless piece.

FT: How do you think history will judge him as a statesman of the post-Communist period?

Pavel Bratinka: I am tempted to ask in return who is this Mr. History and what are his qualifications for passing judgments. Havel will certainly be mentioned to the extent that “history” is concerned with the Czech Republic. But I wonder whether future generations will be informed about his life. I mean, everybody here was surprised by the emotional wave that swept whole country after his passing. I was surprised by the emotion I felt. Especially startling were crowds of grieving young people who could not remember even his presidential years. It seems that his mortality was just not taken into account. This surprise is something dry history books would not find of significance, I am afraid.

FT: How would you characterize the legacy of the political and philosophical thought of the dissidents? As you suggest, it seems like this legacy is not taught in any systematic way, that what sort of education one receives on this topic depends on the teacher. I have been told that part of the reason is that the generation that came of age around 1968—those who were starting their families around this time—had their political hopes crushed by the Prague Spring and its aftermath. They became disillusioned and retreated into conformity. So they are not eager to revisit this period in their lives. Is this consistent with your view? 

Pavel Bratinka: This is a complex subject, with a history that goes back well before 1968. In 1939 the Nazis came and introduced a brutal terror until liberation in 1945. My great-grandfather was a Jew and married a Christian woman—he survived the war in hiding. Three of his four children went to the Terezín concentration camp. My great-aunt and uncle survived the camps—as half-Jews, they were used for labor. After the war came two and a half years of a kind of nervous new freedom, but then came Stalinism—again a fierce terror but of a different kind than the one we experienced under the Nazis.

As a rule, the Nazis did not boast about killing people and they tried to keep their biggest crimes a secret. The Stalinist regime, on the contrary, staged show trials. Communist henchmen and fanatics roamed the country asking people to sign petitions asking for the death penalty for the accused. The communist regime wanted everyone to become fellow criminals, to join its murderous enterprise. If you just failed to sign such a petition or voted against such a resolution, you could end up working in a nail factory, marked as an “unreliable” or “hostile” element for decades to come. The local communists would then call a meeting demanding death for these dogs of Wall Street, these warmongers and imperialists. If you even abstained from the vote there were dire consequences: You could lose your job or be watched for several years. Your friends would turn away for fear of being associated with you. 

To force millions of people to become fellow murderers rather than mere spectators was a novelty Czechs had not experienced under the Nazis. And you must appreciate the grave results. When the first free federal parliament was elected in 1990, I asked that body to pass a resolution spelling out the worst elements of the past regime and denouncing it as illegitimate. The declaration was to be a reminder to future generations, set down in words while memories were still very fresh. 

And what happened? The draft resolution mentioned four counts upon which the past regime was illegitimate and accursed: denying citizens any means to express their political will; systematically persecuting citizens based on social origin, as well as similar persecution of citizens without distinction; forcing citizens to participate in the crimes and lies of the regime; and denying citizens of the possibility of leaving the country, in effect restoring serfdom. It asked that future laws should take into consideration this declaration. The resolution was adopted, but with almost no public debate and without the clause about it serving as a base for interpreting future laws. The media were not interested. President Havel did not support it, but neither did he attack it. Most people simply ignored it because there was only scant mention of it in the media, and since then we have never had a true accounting with the past. So I think it was not just the period of the Prague Spring that created an aversion to political participation but the experience of having participated in Stalinist politics. It left a toxic stench about politics altogether. 

FT: Let’s talk for a moment about the third count: the forced participation in the lie as a defining feature of communism. In my experience this is not commonly understood in the West. The standard view of tyranny associates it merely with violence, so I emphasize this ideological feature that you describe when talking with my students. Is this understanding common among Czechs?

Pavel Bratinka: They would not formulate it this way. It is a common view, once you ask them about their past. They will talk about the screening of people, being forced into various memberships, the first of May celebrations, the endless queues in shops and the difficulty of obtaining certain goods. So they may not articulate it as I have. But the decisive fact is this: People were forced to express their agreement and joy with things they considered idiotic and criminal. People’s lives were ruined over small things, like in my case refusing to join the Socialist Union of Youth. The Academy of Sciences said that since there was no guarantee that I would grow up into a fully developed socialist man, that was the end of my academic job in physics. They said, “Why are you destroying your life over such a small detail?” I replied, “Why are you destroying my career after investing so much money in it because of such a small detail?” 

All I did was refuse to say “bravo” to crimes and idiocies. I wasn’t taken to torture chambers or anything like that; I just couldn’t get a phone line installed, or get a voucher to spend a holiday with my family in state-sponsored facilities. These seem like ridiculously trivial persecutions compared to those of the Stalinist period in my country or to those of right-wing dictatorships, where people who only potentially opposed the regime were dragged by the secret police to some dungeon to be tortured, killed and then buried in an unmarked grave. But in a way that is why it was so maddening, and why people here today still want to scream whenever they contemplate participating in politics. It reminds them of the petty, the irrational, the insidious. Torture and death are in some ways less threatening to collective sanity than a world that trivializes absolutely everything that could potentially have meaning.

FT: Is the longevity of the communist regimes related to this? 

Pavel Bratinka: I think so. We discovered something important, which is that people don’t fear only the physical pain the powers-that-be can inflict. Sometimes people are willing to risk torture and death at the barricades, so pain is not the decisive factor. It is rather this formula: pain divided by hope. Any small number divided by zero equals infinity. So if the hope for success is zero, the prospect of losing your phone line or losing an opportunity for promotion at work becomes decisive. If there is absolutely zero hope that your actions can contribute to the downfall of the regime, the effect even of small setbacks becomes unbearable. That is what kept people silent and obedient, even though the persecutions of the 1970s and 1980s were milder by orders of magnitude compared with the 1950s. So pain divided by hope is what determines whether people start fighting or continue in servitude. This is what explains the surprising obedience of people at one place and time and their surprising courage at another place and time. I think we see this in the Arab world today, or at least in parts of it.

FT: When did you start to hope? When did your fear-to-hope ratio change?

Pavel Bratinka: In the 1960s, we surfaced from the deep dark waters of the past decade. But the Prague Spring brought the Russian tanks and, as you suggested, this created a lost generation. But some of us were not lost. In the 1970s, we started by doing relatively small things, like not cooperating—not going to vote in Communist elections, for example, as these “elections” allowed us to choose our torturer and nothing else. I started talking about the regime’s end approaching, and I was considered a kind of clown. People would say with a chuckle, “Silence! Bratinka will now tell us when the Communist regime will collapse.”

But I knew it was coming because not everyone laughed. More people were doing small things in order to maintain some semblance of dignity. I saw that in a system that stripped people of their dignity above all else a simple act of non-compliance could be very powerful. The fundamental freedom is not the freedom to choose your government, but the freedom to not be forced to approve something you regard as false or criminal. Democracy is vastly less important than this: It is not the highest thing.

FT: So totalitarianism and democracy do not exhaust the political vocabulary of undesirable and desirable regimes?

Pavel Bratinka: Of course not. There were absolutist governments in Central Europe but they mostly left ordinary people alone. In 1750, a typical Czech villager never met a representative of the Habsburg government. Occasionally there might have been a war, but in the 18th century, wars rarely involved the civilian population. Prisoners were not killed and the locals did not dread officers of the occupation army. Despite a complete lack of democracy, there was still complete intellectual freedom for those who cared to use it. The debates at Prague University in the 15th century were very sophisticated. I wonder whether our students today could even follow them. 

Again, the lesson of totalitarianism is this: Horrible systems can last, even when they apply only petty punishments, if they succeed in taking away any hope for improvement or change by incessantly undermining people’s dignity

FT: In your essay, “Survival as a Way of Human Life”, you speak about the totalitarian East and the democratic West being two embodiments of “modern eternal meaning”, and how their mutual idealization of progress gripped both sides in the Cold War.1 To what extent is the democratic West still in the grip of modern eternal meaning?

Pavel Bratinka: In older times conflicts among men were judged and resolved by using a yardstick that was external and independent of men: God’s commands, natural law, other extrinsic means of coming to judgment in light of what was thought to be an unchanging objective measure. Modernity is when everyone becomes a yardstick unto himself. With no external arbiter, conflicts among men become conflicts among competing yardsticks, and as such they become insoluble in principle. Totalitarian meaning claimed to offer a way out of this societal dead end in that the state—power itself—can direct life in such a way as to prevent all human conflict. Freedom is gone, but there is peace with the totalitarian yardstick. In the West, freedom could exist only because there were still remnants of objective measures for human behavior from the past, which were still respected in practice. They came ultimately from Judeo-Christian traditions and permeated the culture even when it was not strictly or self-conciously religious. 

This is still the case in America, much more than in Europe. European society, at least in its Western parts, is now living off moral capital accounts that have not been replenished for some time. This is alarming, for even good people are losing touch completely with the source of their own virtue. They don’t know where it came from. 

FT: I read in Barbara Day’s book The Velvet Philosophers about your discoveries of Hayek and Voegelin. How and where did you discover those thinkers?

Pavel Bratinka: Hayek, I came across in a used book shop with lots of English books like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and then up popped The Road to Serfdom, which a friend brought to me. I was deeply attracted to the book because of a beautiful coincidence. 

When I read it I was employed at the Institute for Technical Development and Information. This was a bureaucratic organization established because the Ministry of Machinery was forbidden to hire new employees, and so it conjured up the Institute. This Institute was spread over Prague like a metastasized cancer. I found a job there after being kicked out of the Academy of Sciences. It was a great place to watch the impossible mix with the insane. Let me explain what I mean.

The Ministry decided that the solution to disorganization in the economy was that, at least for needs relating to technical development like a new model of tractor or car, there should be extensive paperwork called coordination plans. Such plans would include the features of the new model, when it would be developed, who would develop it, whose inputs would become outputs, and all the rest. Then the plans would have to be copied and sent around to various other ministries and enterprises. I watched this happening just as I read the part of The Road to Serfdom where Hayek states flatly that the coordination of production in socialist regimes was an impossibility. Of course, I could see that right before my very eyes. There I was in the midst of a futile attempt to realize the socialist dream of planning and coordinating of production while reading Hayek. When I began to translate Hayek into Czech, it only made the experience more vivid. The words practically leapt from the page and shouted, “Hey, wake up and look around, will you?” 

FT: How about Voegelin?

Pavel Bratinka: Voegelin I discovered at the library of the American Embassy, which I had been frequenting since 1965. It was there, too, that I saw the ineffectiveness of American diplomacy. 

FT: And what did that look like?

Pavel Bratinka: I had been visiting the Embassy for 24 years. Any intelligent observer could see that only three kinds of people visited it: spies, old men considered toothless even by the regime, and active friends of democracy and the West. One might have thought that someone from the Embassy staff would at least occasionally contact those friends of freedom, and maybe also the spies to play games with them. I never saw anyone do so. Only once, when I was complaining about some book not being available, was I invited for coffee by a diplomat. Instead I mostly got angry letters telling me that books I had borrowed were overdue. It never seemed to occur to them that I was translating and passing around these books, and that this took time. And of course no one ever asked. 

I could have been useful. I did not know where the missiles were—James Bond kinds of things—but I did know something about the mood of the country. There was no interest at all, and so the Western diplomats were quite surprised in 1989. And even then they were badly mistaken about what was going on. One American diplomat I met in 1989—Robert Norman was his name, I think—was quite pessimistic about prospects for abrupt change in Czechoslovakia as opposed to Poland.2 I told him that in Poland there are always many people willing to go into the first line of attack, even if chances for success were objectively slim. In Bohemia, not many are willing to go in the first line, but everybody is willing to go into the second line when the first line breaks through. The American and the British diplomats didn’t really understand our society, and they didn’t collect genuine human intelligence about what people value, what they despise, what they find funny, what they never laugh at—the set of values that shapes every child and which, in the long run, determines what the society does under various conditions. They weren’t interested in any of that.

FT: This reminds me of one of your essays, “The Strategic Importance of Remembrance”, where you write about the total lack of interest among Western intelligence services in discovering the nature of Communism and the causes of its demise. That’s also a failure of human intelligence, isn’t it? That essay was written about ten years ago. Are at least Czechs doing any better in this regard today?

Pavel Bratinka: Yes, there is an organization, called Memory of Nation (Pam?t’ Národa), which is collecting oral histories. 

FT: And the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (established by law in 2007) also has an oral history project.

Pavel Bratinka: Yes, this is similar, but this Institute is an official institution. A similar organization, called “Post Bellum”, also collects stories of people who were in any way touched by the war. These stories are broadcast on our main public radio station twice a week.

FT: What about the Office for the Investigation and Prosecution of the Crimes of Communism started by Václav Benda?3 Is that the only organization doing this sort of work?

Pavel Bratinka: Some of the work that was done by that organization is now part of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes—the security archives, in particular. The collection of archives was started in the early 1990s. The problem was that only after the breakup of Czechoslovakia was there a law that openly declared no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. Before that the courts and police refused to prosecute even the worst cases, saying that it was already beyond the statute of limitations. We refused to accept this because of the horrible message that such complacency would deliver to the future. In 1993, the law was passed in the Czech Republic concerning the illegitimacy of the regime, and then Benda was tasked with creating the Office for the Investigation and Prosecution of the Crimes of Communism. 

FT: It is my understanding that this work was met with some resistance for the obvious reason than many people did not want their suspect pasts to be revealed.

Pavel Bratinka: Yes, that’s right. But there was strong support for it in the ruling coalition, and so its creation was pushed through. This office was not created by law, but by a mere executive order—it was created as part of the Ministry of the Interior. But that is OK. 

FT: You founded the Civic Institute?

Pavel Bratinka: Yes. We needed an organization to promote the study of the ideas crucial to free societies so as not to revert back into totalitarian habits. The Institute has already published more than 200 policy papers dealing with a wide range of subjects from pension reform to security issues. 

FT: How has its work been received? Has it accomplished what you hoped it would? 

Pavel Bratinka: Well, we have educated many young people. One of them is in Afghanistan leading a civilian team we have there. Another is Roman Joch, who is an adviser to the Prime Minister on human rights. I had hoped we could do even more, but what never really materialized was support for the Institute from private enterprise. We didn’t want to accept government money, for obvious reasons. So now the Institute works on a very low budget supported by ordinary citizens and one industrialist. With a few exceptions the rich people here are blind. They think civic education thrives on thin air. We don’t have many enlightened rich people.

FT: One final question: When was it clear to you that you would live to see the end of Communism?

Pavel Bratinka: I was always sure I would live to see that end. But when Brezhnev died and the new man was Andropov, I became absolutely certain I would see the end while still in my prime. That the Soviet Politburo named a member of the secret police for that job told me all I needed to know. 

FT: Explain, please. 

Pavel Bratinka: Of the regime’s three pillars—the party, the army and the secret police—only the secret police could not afford to live in illusion or isolation and still do its job. So when Andropov was appointed, it was evident to me that the reality wing of the Soviet establishment had gotten the upper hand. Andropov started to talk about things that were hidden under the cloak of ideology and lies until then. He paved the way for Gorbachev right at the moment when Ronald Reagan’s truth talk about the Soviet evil empire penetrated the heart of the system with a metaphysical blow from which the system never recuperated. At long last, the Communists met an opposing force declaring determination to bring about the end of Communist empire. And Reagan did not merely talk—he upgraded and unleashed the U.S. armed forces that the Soviets were not able to match. It then dawned upon even the crustiest elements in the nomenklatura that something must be changed in the system. This made the opening for Gorbachev, who urged reform upon the unreformable. When many in the nomenklatura realized that the system was melting away fast and that a freeze borrowing a few more years of old times was preferable even at cost of the system’s ultimate demise, it was too late.

1This essay was originally written and published in English in The Salisbury Review in 1987. It was subsequently circulated in Czech in the samizdat journal PARAF, edited by Václav Benda.

2Editor’s note: Robert Norman served as U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, 1995–99. He was expelled from Prague by Czech authorities in 1989 for allegedly encouraging anti-government demonstrations.

3Benda (1946–99) was a Czech mathematician and philosopher. He was a founding member of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted and a spokesman for Charter 77. After the fall of Communism he served in the Czech Senate.

Flagg Taylor, assistant professor of government at Skidmore College and editor of The Great Lie (ISI Books, 2011), met with Pavel Bratinka in Prague on May 24, 2011, and corresponded with him in late December 2011, to discuss his service to the Czech Republic, the political legacy of Soviet totalitarianism in the country, and the late Vaclav Havel.

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