In explaining the fall of Communism, most analysts talk about pressure from the inside (dissidents) coupled with pressure from the outside (Gorbachev, Reagan). But equally important were the inside-outsiders. These were people from the region who found themselves in other countries as a result of war, uprising, or other dislocations. The Hungarian-born financier George Soros helped opposition movements with the tools they needed – like copy machines – to organize more effectively. The Polish-born Pope in particular provided inspiration to the Solidarity trade union movement.
And people like Milan Horacek, who escaped Czechoslovakia in 1968, played a key role both in the country he left and the country that became his new home.
In West Germany, Horacek was a co-founder of one of the historic parties of the Cold War era: the Greens. He also set an important precedent by becoming a Bundestag member who was obviously not originally from Germany. At the same time, he was supporting imprisoned activists like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik in Poland.
As importantly, perhaps, Horacek brought these two worlds together. He established linkages between the independent left in West Germany and the dissident culture further to the east. The formed what might be called an “Ostpolitik from below” that worked in parallel with the official “East Policy” of the West German government designed to promote détente with the Communist governments to the east.
“Our political exiles, but also a big part of the independent Left, kept in mind the experience of what the Soviets did during the Spanish War and what Stalin did before and after the Second World War, for instance killing Trotsky,” Horacek told me one evening in Prague. “They knew that he was not a democratic politician, that he killed people, and so there was no trust in him. But the idea of reducing armaments was suitable to both sides. We were still kind of skeptical because we did not know what concessions would be necessary on behalf of the West towards the Soviet Union. We remembered 1953 in East Berlin, 1956 in Budapest, 1968 in Prague, and other steps the USSR took in order to maintain its power. But still we could see how Bahr’s motto of ‘change through rapprochement’ bore some fruit up until the 1975 conference in Helsinki.”
I first met Horacek at Klub Konicek, which is located in the Lucerna, a building that was once owned by the Havel family. It was returned to the family after 1989 and is now owned by Ivan Havel, the brother of Vaclav Havel. It is a large building with many shops and restaurants. Hanging from the ceiling at the very center is King Wenceslas riding a dead horse (a sculpture by David Cerny that mocks the official statue in Wenceslas Square). Klub Konicek is a private room in the basement where Charter 77 signers, Velvet Revolutionaries, and other dissidents, along with a few younger personalities and a sprinkling of foreigners, gather once a week to talk and drink.
It is a great place to meet the founders of the Velvet Revolution and listen to their thoughts about current Czech politics. You can find there not only the spirit of free-thinking but also the solidarity politics that brought people together across national boundaries to fight for a certain moral politics. Central to this solidarity were the inside outsiders like Horacek. These veterans of 1989 imagined a Europe without borders. Today, they continue to push for a greener and more just region.
Where you were and what were you doing when you heard about the fall of Berlin Wall?
I was in the office of the German Bundestag with another deputy, and we saw on a German TV that people from East Berlin were marching towards West Berlin because they understood from a press conference by one of the high East German functionaries that the border controls had been lifted. At that point I said that we needed to rush back to the plenary session hall of the Parliament. This was in the evening, and the plenary session was still going on. But all of a sudden, people from all the offices started to gather there. They saw this news as a breakthrough, and they began singing the Anthem.
After some brief speeches, they all went back to their TVs and telephones. There were no cell phones at that time. It was a very strange situation.
We decided that all the Green movement fractions should immediately fly to Berlin, which we did. The second night was even more powerful when thousands of people were in the streets. We saw all of this from the East side. We didn’t go to bed until morning. So these were the moments that I could witness straight from Berlin.
Did you have the chance to be part of what was going on in Prague soon after these events?
We had a meeting of the German Greens scheduled for November 17, but I was following the situation in Czechoslovakia. I had several phone numbers, for both Havel brothers, for my brother, and other expats. So we were trying to gather together all the information. Soon, all the different discussions (in the theaters) and the demonstrations (on Wenceslas Square and at Letná) started.
I decided to fly to Prague even though I did not have any visa. By the end of November I finally got here. They picked me up at the airport and brought me to the headquarters of the new movement — at that time there were things that were officially illegal but you could still do quite freely — where they stamped my visa. And that is on one of the photos from the Civic Forum.
How did you end up leaving Czechoslovakia in 1968?
I was considered a politically unreliable person. In 1965 I was drafted, not to join the normal military services but to join the “road units.” This was something similar to what was in East Germany: technical work support, without weapons. We helped out on construction jobs.
At the same time, my friend with whom I studied to be an electrical fitter, was chosen to join the units at the Austrian border. There he found out that what I’d been telling him was true – that we were all living in one big prison. All the barricades were facing inward towards those who would like to escape, not towards the “imperialists” on the other side. He volunteered to learn how the guards tracked escapees by their footprints in order to be able to cross the border. In 1968 he offered to help me get to the other side of the border. Then he decided to come with me. One September night, around two weeks after the occupation, we escaped together.
Had you always planned to go to West Germany?
No, it was a reaction to the Occupation.
Coming from an anti-communist family, did you get into any conflicts with local “leftists” in West Germany?
Yes. I got into conflict with part of the socialist groups that inclined towards either Moscow or Beijing. These groups were not “leftist” but radical, some of them even “Stalinist.”
Did they have any misconceptions about communism in Eastern Europe that you were able to educate them about?
There were definitely some misconceptions. Back in the 1970s, the German Left could be defined on a very broad scale. On one side it included social democracy with Willy Brandt as a leader (he then became chancellor when I started living in Germany). But later on, when Helmut Schmidt took over the chancellor’s office, the situation started to become significantly more conservative. The non-orthodox/more liberal left was neither a typical social-democratic party nor did it incline towards Trotsky. It didn’t lean toward Moscow in general, nor did it support Maoism (Beijing). Personalities such as Rudi Dutschke, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Joschka Fisher represented this “liberal” left. You could also find a “middle” left with the artist Joseph Beuys and the writer Heinrich Böll.
What was the process of your becoming involved with the Green party?
Right at the beginning of the 1970s, I used to work on issues related to exiles. For example in Frankfurt we published a magazine called Frankfurt Messenger. I was also a representative of the Road ‘68 Association. That’s how I got in contact with the German middle-left but also with Christian people who were in some way interested in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe. Then I started collaborating with a group around Jiří Pelikán – Listy (Letters) – and served on the editorial board. Around 1974 we started to publish a German version.
Since I was in close touch with the Czechoslovak political opposition, the middle-left part of it, I could also cooperate with the German middle-left party and thus communicate with the personalities I mentioned before (Böll, Beuys, Cohn-Bendit, Dutschke). I was invited to all the discussions concerning Eastern Europe, or I would organize them because people were interested not only in Czechoslovakia but also in what was going on in Poland and Hungary. As an example, we did an event of solidarity for student leader Jiri Muller together with Jiri Dienstbier and Jaroslav Šabata in the middle of the 1970s. .
As I already mentioned, in 1974 when Helmut Schmidt became chancellor a discussion started between people who were discontented social democrats and those who were neither social democrats nor orthodox communists. They wanted to start a party that would be to the left of social democracy but to the right of extreme communism. Rudi Dutschke’s motto was: “Better than standing with one foot in Moscow and one foot in Beijing, it’s better to stand with both feet in Germany.” During these discussions of 1974-76, other socialist movements arose covering all different areas: anti-nuclear, feminist, peace, and of course an environmental movement, which was quickly becoming very popular in society. Some of the “hot” topics were the high mortality of forests due to acid rain, or river pollution causing the extinction of all fish. While living in Frankfurt at that time, I witnessed how the chemical waste from the factories was being released straight into the river.
The people who took part in these movements — environmental, feminist, anti-atomic bombs and anti-atomic power — started discussions about a new political party. I stayed in touch with all of them because I worked with all the young socialists in order to support our political prisoners. For example, Rudi Dutschke and I went to Rome in 1976 where we met with Lucio Lombardo-Radice and other members of the new socialist party to support the East European political prisoners. Adam Michnik came from Paris where he was at that time visiting Jean-Paul Sartre. He also spoke at the big solidary meeting in Frankfurt at the beginning of 1977, which was held to show support for Charter 77. After that he went back to Poland where he was imprisoned. So, that’s why we then organized an event of solidarity for Adam Michnik.
From this collaboration with all different socialists, “green, alternative, or colorful lists” started to appear in 1977-78 across all of Germany. They were not specifically parties, but more like groups of people who were against the system. For the first common European elections in 1979 we got even closer together when Petra Kelly, Herbert Gruhl, Joseph Beuys, and I ran together. In the state of Hesse, in Frankfurt where I lived, there was the Green list of Hesse, on which we ran for local state parliament in 1978 but were not successful (we were elected four years later). In 1981, I became one of the six town representatives in Frankfurt parliament. That’s where we came in dressed in white and wearing gasmasks. I also got elected with the first fraction of the Green to the Bundestag in 1983 as the first “foreigner,” someone who was obviously and audibly not a native (I had German citizenship but spoke still with a Slavic accent).
There were a lot of connections between you and the Greens in West Germany and the dissidents in this part of the world – Adam Michnik, Charter 77, and others. At the same time, there was the official Ospolitik of the West German government toward the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and East Germany at the government-to-government level. How did you evaluate Ostpolitik then and how do you evaluate it now?
The official German policy had its roots back in the 1960s. At the time of the big coalition when the German chancellor was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, the minister of foreign affairs was Willy Brandt. He and his closest co-worker Egon Bahr were stressing the importance of maintaining good diplomatic relationships with other countries. Having embassies and seeking recognition from the countries of the Soviet Bloc seemed to be crucial. The borders would stay the same as after the Second World War, and discussions would be held about disarmament and potential conflicts (for example, the Fulda Gap at the border between West and East Germany, which featured a standoff between armored divisions and atomic arsenals).
Our political exiles, but also a big part of the independent Left, kept in mind the experience of what the Soviets did during the Spanish War and what Stalin did before and after the Second World War, for instance killing Trotsky. They knew that he was not a democratic politician, that he killed people, and so there was no trust in him. But the idea of reducing armaments was suitable to both sides. We were still kind of skeptical because we did not know what concessions would be necessary on behalf of the West towards the Soviet Union. We remembered 1953 in East Berlin, 1956 in Budapest, 1968 in Prague, and other steps the USSR took in order to maintain its power. But still we could see how Bahr’s motto of “change through rapprochement” bore some fruit up until the 1975 conference in Helsinki. There, all countries (the Eastern ones included) signed international accords on human rights, which were then used by movements such as Charter 77 to support their arguments. Dissidents were not being murdered at that point, but were still being persecuted. They were being imprisoned, suppressed, followed. However, we could notice certain progress.
What do you think were the biggest mistakes and biggest successes made in the Czech Republic after 1989?
The biggest problem was that the transition from before and after 1989 was not entirely open in the sense of a fair and equal redistribution of the regime’s heritage. The fact that Havel, as one of the dissidents, was elected president on December 29, 1989 by mostly Communist deputies and that Civic Forum gained the majority during the first elections obscured the reality of the influence groups (especially economic ones). Power stayed mainly in the same hands, which was not always a bad thing. The government was new but only a couple of people at the top of the hierarchy were replaced. For example, the new minister of foreign affairs Jiří Dienstbier symbolically replaced just a couple of the ambassadors, while the majority stayed the same. And this is what happened in other fields as well. Those people had an influence on the political approach, which also stayed the same as the old regime. Due to that, the transformation from the old socialist-Communist system to the new democratic-capitalist one was very mild and convenient for those who understood what was happening.
A large part of the true dissidents did not occupy any influential positions. There, the old Communist elites had an advantage – they knew the economic landscape. They occupied thousands of positions at various places and levels of importance. The former directors of factories, institutions, agricultural companies, and so on were the first to take part in privatization. One friend of mine pointed out to me that in the famous villa neighborhood of Hanspaulka in Prague, where the big officials always resided (even prior to the War rich Germans and Jews lived there), the cars people parked on the streets before privatization were modest — Volha, Tatra 603 – compared to three years after 1989 when you could see BMWs and Mercedes. The smarter Communists “changed their coats” and joined the newly starting parties, such as the Social Democrats and the Civic Democratic Party. Only some of them stayed in the old Communist party. Even up until not long time ago, an ex-Communist Vlastimil Tlustý was still the chair of a fraction in Topolanek’s government. A lot of ministers were originally Communists – not just people like Milos Zeman who left the Party in 1970 but people like Jan Fischer, one of the recent defeated presidential candidates, who stayed in the Party until 1989. We do not have clear criteria to see which of the politically active people were also active Communists. But we have a saying that “the oil stains on the soup always float on the surface.”
There is a paradox in how the Czech Republic is perceived by other countries. I could see this when I joined Václav Havel for his visit to the European Parliament in 2009 and helped him write his speech on the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Even politically educated people viewed the Czech Republic through Havel, which is not the reality. In reality, the political democracy is much worse here than, for example, in Germany. Of course Germany is much better in comparison to France or Italy because the governments of the Federal States are at a higher level. Also since it is a federal republic containing at the moment 16 states, and some of them are big — Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg have populations over 10 million, North Rhine-Westphalia has over 17 million — those states do not let Berlin dictate everything. Often the prime minister of the state does not agree with what the chancellor says. That ensures an equal distribution of power.
Here, on the other hand, when Václav Klaus was the prime minister he kept everything centralized with Prague in the middle and everything else a province. That was the reason for the creation of a strong hierarchy and the country’s aversion to Prague (we could see this well during the presidential elections: Prague voted 66% for Schwarzenberg, but the rest of the country voted differently). I could feel this when I came back, that Prague is first, then nothing for a while, then Bohemia, and after that Moravia. This has a big influence on the development of the society. If you go outside of Prague, you notice that everything is still quite post-Communist and that people even think in a Communist way.
In Havel’s case, everything that came from the East, from Moscow, was negative – that was okay. But on the other hand, he was too obsessed with everything Western. One good example concerns the radar in Brdy a few years ago. I asked him why we should bring some old radar here from the Marshall Islands when the technology is already much further advanced. He said that this radar system is maybe not so beneficial any more but it was crucial for us to support the United States. I said that there were many different ways to anchor the United States here other than allowing this old military hardware in our country.
Some of Havel’s views came from his own socialization (he came from a family that owned Lucerna, a big block of houses used for cultural events, which was given back to them after the fall of Communism). And some people though of him as a leftist. Klaus, for instance, mentioned this to some Polish newspaper. And it was true to a certain extent that Havel had social thinking — he was an intelligent and educated man — which in Klaus’s eyes was proof that he was a leftist. But this just proved that Klaus was a limited person without any social intelligence. In fact, Havel was not a leftist. He was just being democratic.
Conflicts arose already in 1992 during the separation of Czechoslovakia when Prime Ministers Klaus and Mečiar (Czech and Slovak) arranged everything together. This had much bigger importance for Slovaks than for Czechs. The reasons for this separation were several. One was the economic aspect: Slovakia was behind. Another was the fact that Slovakia was for a long time governed by someone else, first by Hungarians, intermittently Germans, and now Czechs. So finally they wanted to have an independent country in free Europe, which is fine – that’s not an issue. A more important aspect of the same story was Mečiar, a very authoritative figure that people elected as prime minister and “rescuer.” Klaus also found supporters of a similar sort. That showed the problem that the country was stuck with the old-fashioned thinking from the Austro-Hungarian era.
This was well described in the famous Czech book by Hašek called Dobrý voják Švejk (Good Soldier Švejk). A good example is when Švejk, the servant of a lieutenant, writes an anonymous letter to a factory owner about his wife, who is seeing his lieutenant, and thus gets rid of a woman he also had to serve. That is not a gentleman’s behavior. It is simply a means to an end. But that’s exactly what has happened here since the Austro-Hungarian Empire: people always find a way, often by cheating, to get around the rules.
This is a long answer to the question. But we have not truly reflected on what was happening in 1989 and 1990, or what happened before, starting with the German occupation in 1938 and 1939, the time between 1945 and 1948 with the unfair expulsion of Germans, then the Soviet Communist occupation, the judicial assassinations in the 1950s. All of these things added up. The society here was not ready for democracy. A lot of people just put on a different costume and suddenly shouted “hooray” and became the biggest capitalists. This was the negative side.
On the positive side, the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia had internationally famous exiles like director Miloš Forman, tennis player Martina Navrátilová, and shoe-maker Tomáš Bata. Czechs had good representation in all fields such as culture, art, science (at American universities, in Switzerland and other European countries, in Australia), and these people were coming back to the Czech Republic after 1989 and bringing their colleagues with them, organizing conferences and important meetings. During the first couple of years, Havel was attracting the whole world to Prague. We had an advantage over Bratislava and even Warsaw (which also had lots of famous people around the world) or Budapest (where there was not much happening).
Another good thing was that the political debates became relatively open, even though there were still major differences in quality between the four biggest Czech newspapers (Mladá Fronta Dnes, Právo, Hospodářské noviny, Lidové noviny) and the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Die Welt. Overall, the 1990s brought a lot of openness, freedom, new possibilities, and euphoria, which all helped the situation. But when we now look at all the political and economic scandals, how did it happen that during a couple of decades, people who had nothing are now millionaires?
After I accompanied Václav Havel on the first trip to East Berlin and Munich on February 2, 1990, he formed an advisory board of consultants lead by Karel Schwarzenberg including well-known people from all different fields. I was invited to spread around some “Green thinking.” There were already people with this sort of attitude who were trying to implement the ecological approach into their agenda (for example Josef Vavroušek and Ivan Dejmal, both of whom became ministers). There was just one aspect that was hard to explain to them and that was not to build the Temelín nuclear power plant – they even had offers from Austria to make it a gas power station. But this was still the belief in America and American advice and hence in technological promises of that type.
If you look back at 1989/1990 have you had any major rethinking of your political positions, assumptions, or worldview?
From my current position, certainly. Prior to 1968, I lived for 22 years in northern Moravia. I was an electro-mechanical technician, and then I left for exile. Then I lived in Germany for the next 22 years, though I had been travelling a lot. That’s where I went to university, became politically active, helped found the Green Party, and became a member of parliament. After that I came back here to be one of Havel’s consultants. I also started the Czech branch of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which was raising public awareness. We organized conferences and seminars, built the solar eco-pavilion where we had a permanent exhibition about saving energy and water. I was for one period also a representative to the European Parliament for the German Greens.
But if I had known then all that I know now, I would have been much more straightforward with Havel, telling him that he was too soft and kind and not radical enough. The political parties were discussing banalities like how to maintain power and how to make as much money as possible in a short period of time. The quality of the political elite is at a very low level. The political personnel are just not very good here. Havel did make this point a couple of times, for example once during his speech at the Rudolfinum where he criticized Klaus’s government and his attitude.
However, in a simplified way, every society has the government it deserves. Havel did not do enough to encourage people to become more involved in politics. The main idea in this country is still to take as much as possible for oneself and not to pay attention to others. So there is a group of people who are very wealthy and know how to get around things, but then there are a big number of people who are struggling. A lot of former dissidents told me that before they were working all their lives at good positions. But now they are getting only 10,000 Czech crowns as a pension. And that’s just not enough to get by.
Prague, February 28, 2013
Interpreter: Kristyna Cermakova