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

The following is condensed from remarks made on 27 November, at an event sponsored by Tel Aviv University and the embassy of the Czech Republic 

This place in the panel might have been much better filled were it not for the untimely death of my dear and esteemed colleague Tatiana Hoffman 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. For us, Tatiana personified the drama that stretched from then to the velvet revolution and after. 

Many of us felt that it paralleled Israel’s own experience as an arena of the Cold War. 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 connected the oppression of liberty there with the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jews. 

In the heady autumn of 1989, Tatiana and I were co-editors of Kol Israel’s then-weekly world news program. Her lasting friendship with the leaders of the Prague Spring, who now led the velvet revolution, granted us a unique advantage. During our studio time on a Thursday night, we learned that Vaclav Havel had just been released from prison. 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, and 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 at the peak of his glory as president. From his address at the Hebrew University, one passage has stuck in my memory as a constant reminder and warning. Evoking Franz Kafka, Havel confessed: “I would not be in in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my presidency, I were to be led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal.  Or 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. Every step of the way I feel what a great advantage it is to know that I can be removed at any moment.” I took this then as another indication that Havel’s humility had not been diminished by victory and honor. But how apt this premonition now seems for the broader condition of society and politics. 

What the Czechs and Slovaks won in 1989 after 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 — especially if too much satisfaction and confidence is taken, as it was, that the happy end of history has been achieved for good. 

When invited for this event I did not know that only the Czech Republic would be co-sponsoring it, without the Slovak half of the velvet revolution. I can only hope that this 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 1989. I was glad to see the apparent repulse of this retrograde trend in Slovakia. But my 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 has affected the Czech Republic too to some degree. The anniversary that we are celebrating tonight was marked in Prague by mass protests, led by surviving leaders of the velvet revolution, against the present regime, which they see as corrupt. In its defense, it is charged that the protesters are trying to overthrow a duly elected government — an argument that sounds familiar to Israeli ears. 

Let me borrow a phrase from another great heir to the Czech tradition of the ironic absurd – 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 destructive than monstrous ideologues.  

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 threatens to destroy what we never doubted was indestructible. A once more autocratic Moscow is working to re-establish its sphere by weakening its rivals and breaking up their alliances. In areas like Syria, this Russian purpose is still being pursued by armed force – as I’m now monitoring at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. Elsewhere the subversion is more subtle: instead of sending in the tanks as in Prague, 1968, it manipulates the supposed apotheosis of free expression – the media and Internet. But the results are just as pernicious.

Much of the fault is in ourselves. Speaking for my fellow baby-boomers, we indulged ourselves to take for granted – as the human norm, rather than a fragile evolutionary breakthrough – those hard-fought achievements of our parents, the “greatest generation.” We allowed our children to grow up on the facile delusion that democracy means only the mere shell of elected government and majority rule. This led too many to accept demonization of any restraint by constitutional institutions, any protection of minority rights or individual freedoms, as – gewalt! – elitist and undemocratic. 

To this was added the ingredient of economic mismanagement – the crisis of unfettered capitalism that within less than 20 years followed the collapse of corrupted socialism; 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. So one needed only to channel their resentment with populist and chauvinist slogans, often backed up by big money, in order to fan a racial, religious and xenophobic backlash. 

We’re here to discuss Czechoslovakia, not Israel. But the past year has climaxed a similar process here too. Our nation’s own revolution — of which we mark a major anniversary in two days: the UN Partition Resolution — also 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 to face our own tribunal.

About the Author
Gideon Remez is an associate fellow of the Truman Institute, Hebrew University.
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