Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 16. September 8th 1971
Czechoslovakia: Cultural Assassination
Czechoslovakia: Cultural Assassination
Delegates to the XIV Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party held last May in Prague were told that "Normalisation" had been satisfactorily completed. Gustav Husak, the first secretary, became secretary-general, and the congress went on record as showing its satisfaction at the Kremlin's "fraternal aid" in 1968.
In the eyes of most Czechoslovak intellectuals, however, this much-vaunted "normalisation" is tantamount to the "assassination of a culture." In this document - which a Prague dissident has preferred not to sign for obvious reasons - he explains how intellectual curiosity is being stifled and all discussion rigorously restricted to areas approved by the party.
When we in Czechoslovakia read the Western press - to the irregular extent this is possible for us at the present time - whether it is Communist or non-Communist, Left, Centre or Right, we are shaken by a horrible doubt as to whether anyone is still interested in this country, so much talked about only a little while ago.
And if by chance people are interested in it, can they really have an idea of what is going on here after two years of normalization? What do people abroad know about the barefaced fascism creeping into the day-to-day life of this country?
Consider the cultural field for example. Czechoslovaks were most impressed by the protest against the dismissal of the producer Otomar Krejca (he founded the Za Branu Theatre in 1966). Never before, it seems, had so many signatures been collected to protest against a measure taken against someone in the world of theatre. We noticed that, for once. Communists a few Communists had signed with the others. It was rare and heartwarming. Everyone was aware, of course that the issue did not only involve Krejca alone; he had become a symbol.
One statement in the text of the protest deserved to be mentioned. Krejca was punished we read, despite the fact that he had always wanted to remain in Prague with his actors. He was in fact punished precisely because he wanted to remain in the capital with them.
If he had agreed not to emigrate but to turn into an "itinerant showpiece of socialits culture" - forbidden at home, but exhibited abroad to fill the state's coffers with foreign exchange then a solution to his case might well have been worked out. But Krejca's own firm attitude, his stubbornly reiterated intention of staying put in Prague led to the authorities' repressive decision.
For Krejca was setting a very bad example The Czechoslovak leadership's present policy to humiliate people and to force then to go back on what they have said or signed so as to deprive them of all moral authority in the future.
One comes to understand how the absence of a cause to defend weakens morale and resistance within the country. In this respect the situation was better during the years of the German "protectorate" between 1939 and 1945 for all wars have an end. Physical terror indeed was more savagely inflicted but there was far less destruction of people's ethical and cultural values.
In the eyes of the Czechoslovak leaders, the danger of Krejca's attitude lay in the fact that if it had gone unpunished it would have encouraged other men to remain honest and true to themselves. So they punished him so as to scotch any dangerous ideas of the sort. And his was not the only case.
One of the country's best film makers, Vojtech Jasny, winner of two awards at the Cannes film festival for his films One Day, One Cat and Moravian Chronicle, and honoured yet again this year at the Festival Palace, has been to all intents and purposes expelled from Czechoslovakia. The authorities began by withdrawing his films from the regular circuits. Then Jasny was given to understand that he should abandon the idea of going on with a film he had been, planning to make for years. Finally, the new head of the Barrandov film studios, who had always been an uncritical supporter of the Soviet Union, spoke to him.
After the meeting, Jasny took the first available opportunity to leave the country. Because of his popularity and his spotless reputation, the authorities then tried to undo what they had done.
But Jasny would not budge. He explained his stand in one of his farewell letters. "If I could have gone my way in the cinema, I would have stayed. If all I wanted to do was film Czechoslovak fairy tales, I would have gone back. But I could not accept the prostitution into which everyone will soon be forced And I am not going to collaborate with what is going on in our country today."
A thing has happened to Czechoslovak theatre. Most theatre producers have been replaced by men whose lack of talent is, for the authorities, the best guarantee of absolute devotion. Preliminary censorship, a hollow hoax has been abolished and the producer made responsible for any undesirable public reactions in the course of a performance. All controversial plays have been gradually withdrawn from the theatres' regular repertories.
As if this were not enough, Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage suffered twenty-five important cuts because the audience attending the dress rehearsal - and it was a carefully selected audience - turned the show into a veritable political demonstration. But Brecht, once regarded as subversive in the United States, was not the only victim.
In Prague, the National Theatre's performance of Don Juan, Molier's subversive libertine, underwent extensive cuts; the dress rehearsal for Shakespeare's Henry IV unexpectedly aroused such a demonstration that government representatives attending the performance left the theatre when the curtain fell for the interval. The play was not performed again.
Russian classics have fared no better. Cuts massacred Gorky, Ostrovsky and Chekhov. Perhaps the crowning blow came when Alexander Griboyedov's play Gore ot Uma (Wit Works Woe) had to be banned two weeks before the ceremonial first night scheduled for the anniversary of the October Revolution.
Play on Commune banned.
There is a certain method in the way which plays are censored in Czechoslovakia. In the current phase, all allusions to fascism are verboten. The "normalized" head of one of the nation's theatres explained recently, not without a certain ingenuousness; "Contemporary Western plays? Out of the question. Either they are pessimistic or else they are antifascist. So they are not for us. Those people take things too seriously..."
The television is currently breaking all records for silliness. A play dealing with the Paris Commune was banned at the last moment before it was due to go on the air, and replaced with an arrangement of poems which was afterwards severely criticised A few minutes before another programme, a well-known actor was expelled from the show. He made the mistake of turning up wearing a roll-neck pullover which was reminiscent of the style of dress of a very popular television commentator in 1968 and who is currently serving a three-year prison term. And last January, at the time the Brussels Congress of Jews was discussing the lot of Soviet Jews, a programme was abruptly cancelled at the last minute, when it was discovered that the four actors who were to take part in it were all of Jewish origin.
Radio listeners have recognized the present director of political programmes - noted for his attacks on Zionism - as the onetime editor of the fascist broadsheet The Aryan Combat published in 1938 and 1939 A number of variety programmes, dating back to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia have been dug out of the archives to fill in radio time, since they can hardly be politically damaging.
Nonetheless creative people are still working and writing Those in the know say that never in the course of the past twenty-five years has there been such a glut of excellent manuscripts as today, although their authors have no hope of having them published now.
Nearing the end of this letter, or rather, this cry, I wonder whether anyone is still really interested in all this. Can people be aware that this "Biafra of the spirit" to which Aragon has referred is a condition typical of all fields of endeavour, and that a culture which all of Europe admired during the past ten years has been assassinated, without anyone lifting a finger to defend it? The Right may have a point when it says; "They wanted their socialism, now they can see what it's like.." Yes, we did want socialism and we still want socialism, not this fascism imposed through a foreign occupation.
So much for the Right. But what of the Left? Does the international unity of the Left stop at the Elbe, merely because Czechoslovakia's problems are not the same as those with which the Left in the West is concerned? Let us hope that it is not so, for it would be too stupid, and even too dangerous, if it were.