Dana Huňátová: Madeleine Albright was first person I saw who lived for work

Dana Huňátová

When Dana Huňátová joined Czechoslovakia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in late 1989 she literally came across a red telephone to Moscow. As head of office of new minister Jiří Dienstbier she was closely involved in the deep overhaul of the ministry required after four decades of communism.

Huňátová subsequently served as Czech ambassador to a number of countries. The now retired diplomat has written two autobiographical books in recent years and has just published a biography of aristocrat Diana Phipps Sternbergová.

You joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 11, 1989, so less than four weeks after the start of the Velvet Revolution, and the day after Jiří Dienstbier became the minister of foreign affairs. Why did he invite you to become his head of office?

“We had known each other for some time.

“I had known his name since ’68 certainly, but we met in probably the middle of the ‘80s and since then we had been friends.

“Maybe you know that my husband [Čestmír Huňát] was very active in [music organisation harassed by the Communist authorities] Jazz Section, and Jazz Section and Charter 77 were close friends.

“We used to meet at different places, different occasions.

“During the Communist regime we were following all the instructions from Moscow, so we can’t say at all there was any foreign policy.”

“I was first working as a teacher at the School of Economics and then I worked as an economist at the Jan Hus Faculty of Theology in Prague.

“And probably Dienstbier thought that I’m a kind of disciplined bureaucrat, let’s say [laughs], which probably was not common in this broader group of people.”

What was the situation like at the Foreign Ministry? There had been 40 years of communism and then you enter this obviously very important institution.

“Yes, it was very interesting, from different points of view.

“First of all, the personnel at the ministry was probably more shocked from the changes than ourselves [laughs].

“I could maybe say that there were some who believed it wouldn’t last long and that everything would go back to the old order.

“There are few who were afraid – they knew why they should be.

“And there were probably a few who welcomed the change and welcomed the new leadership of the Foreign Ministry.

“That’s the practical part of it.

“But on the other hand it was also very important having Dienstbier as the head of Czechoslovak diplomacy then, because there was no foreign policy in the past.

Jiří Dienstbier | Photo: Jan Fišera,  Czech Radio

“During the Communist regime we were just following all the instructions from Moscow, through the Communist Party Bureau for International Affairs, so we can’t say at all there was any foreign policy.

“So entering the Foreign Ministry there were several major tasks.

“First of all, to create foreign policy as such.

“To establish a sovereign state, because we were not sovereign since the beginning of the war.

“And to establish personnel who would work on it.”

You went on something like 80 foreign trips with Minister Dienstbier in a short period of time. How do you look today back on that period?

“It was fantastic, because I was never allowed to travel and all of a sudden I had a fantastic chance to travel all around.

“I loved it. It was very hectic. It was, I would say, rather demanding, but I think the first years were so full of energy and enthusiasm.

“And probably a little bit of adrenalin played its role, because we were able to work 16 hours and travel long trips, like from South America, and upon our arrival we just went back to the office [laughs].

“We we were able to travel long trips, like from South America, and upon our arrival we just went back to the office.”

“Yes, I enjoyed it, every second.”

Who was actually formulating foreign policy? Was it Dienstbier himself largely, or solely? Or was Havel also having an input into Czech foreign policy?

“Basically it was Dienstbier. He was very well prepared for this kind of job – not that he was thinking he would get it.

“But he was always involved in foreign policy and he studied a lot and had lots of contacts from the time when he worked as an international correspondent.

“So he was well prepared and he knew exactly from the very first minute what needs to be done and how to achieve the goal.

“And they were very good friends with President Havel.

“There were a few cases when they hadn’t talked to each other and they acted exactly the same way.

“So it was certainly helpful, because Dienstbier had a lot of support, not only from the president himself but also the members of parliament, which looking back at this time… I just took it for granted [laughs], but looking back it was a very unique situation.

“And without so much consensus among politicians, and also the public, we couldn’t have been able to do as much as we managed to do.”

You say that Madeleine Albright had a major influence on your career. How did she influence you?

Madeleine Albright | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio

“Yes, she was fantastic.

“I was very impressed from the first minute.

“I remember she arrived in January 1990 and the way she behaved, the way she talked.

“She was very serious about everything she was doing.

“I just hadn’t seen anyone like that before, because as you may know in the past, in the Communist regime, there was a law that everybody has to work.

“So everybody had a job, but nobody could make a choice what kind of job.

“So we were working but we were not [laughs] let’s say fully invested in doing this kind of work.

“And this was completely different in the case of Madeleine – she lived in her job.

“This was the first time I saw somebody so involved in and enjoying doing their job.

“And this had an impact on me.

“I had a very privileged good luck, or how to call it, because she invited me to stay at her house for six weeks in February and March 1990, so I could really closely follow and watch how she was working, what was she doing and I was very impressed.

“Because she woke up every morning very early, read all of the papers and at about 6:30 or 7 o’clock she was off to her work.

“Madeleine was very serious about everything she was doing.”

“She was teaching at Georgetown University at that time.

“Then she came back home late in the evening and was working again; I never saw her watching movies or anything.

“She was just working but she loved it, and that was the point.”

You had several postings [as a diplomat], to Finland, Egypt, Malaysia and Chicago. Which of those did you enjoy the most?

“That’s a very difficult question, because these countries were so different, or are so much different, from each other – each on a different continent.

“In Finland I loved their working system – everything was working smoothly and the political situation was stable.

“There is no corruption and there is the highest quality of education system, a very high standard of healthcare system.

“Just the state works for its people and I loved that.

“In Egypt it’s a beautiful country, very nice people.

“But it’s completely opposite – the state is full of corrupt persons and they don’t care for the poor people, though the people were really nice and hospitable.

“Asia is beautiful visually from the first sight – you see everything is blossoming, beautiful smells from all the flowers and fruits and everything.

'Meeting with Diana Phipps Sternbergová' | Photo: Kniha Zlín

“So it’s rich in nature. The people are very nice, and I loved Malaysia too.

“And Chicago, of course the United States – country of dreams come true [laughs].”

I wanted to ask you about Chicago. Was it different from the other places where you were posted? Because I guess there was a Czech community in Chicago, which you wouldn’t have found in the other places.

“Yes, it was different. Because with the other posts I just happened to be the chief of the mission; I worked there in the capacity of the capacity of ambassador, but in Chicago it was a general consulate so I was consul general there, which itself is a different kind of job.

“We have a very small Czech community in all of the countries: Finland, Egypt, Malaysia.

“In Malaysia we don’t have even one Czech person living there.

“So this was different, but also the Czechs living in Chicago or the Midwest are very much different, from each other.

“There are certain groups, according to the time when they were coming to the United States.”

So the people who left in 1948 are different from the ones who left in 1968, for example?

“Yes. And there is a large group of Czechs who arrived in the early 1990s, maybe as tourists or students.

“So it’s really different and each group has different views and different needs, let’s say, and a different kind of cooperation with the consulate.”

You have a new book out: Meeting with Diana Phipps Sternbergová. Who is she, for people who don’t know her name?

“Diana Phipps Sternbergová has made a circle from Častolovice back to Častolovice.”

“She is a very interesting person.

“She is the Countess of Sternberg, she’s the head of the Častolovice branch of the family Sternberg.

“She left the country, with her parents obviously, in ’48, after the Communists took all their property; they confiscated it.

“They had to leave and they went to France for a short time and went from there to the United States, and then they settled in Jamaica.

“Then Diana herself, after she got married, moved in the early ‘60s to London, and from London she came back.

“So it’s a kind of a circle that she has made from Častolovice back to Častolovice.

“And she herself is very interesting. She had her own career as an interior designer in London and published a very successful book.”

Now she is in her mid 80s. Is she at all bitter about having to leave the country as a child? On one hand she missed out on living in her home country for decades, but on the other she had a great career in the West – and she managed to avoid living under communism.

“Yes, exactly.

“She was 11 when they were leaving and she said she was not unhappy about it.

“She just looked at it through her child’s eyes and took it as an adventure.

“She was looking forward to being in Paris, she was looking forward to going by ship to America.

“So she didn’t think about losing property or the political situation, what they were doing with their castle now.

“And she said that even her parents never mentioned what was in the past.

“They never complained about their situation, even though it was rather difficult.”

Your son Marek is better known as Mardoša and he’s one of the main members of a very popular Czech band, Tatabojs. Have you paid much attention to his career? Or have you been too busy doing your own thing?

Tata Bojs  (Mardoša on the left) | Photo: Hana Máslová,  Picasa Web Albums,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“Well I hope I followed his career.

“As a matter of fact, there was a big concert last night and sure I went there.

“It took place at O2 Universum and I loved it.

“I think they really did a great job and people loved it too.

“So I’m happy about his career and whenever I was in Prague I tried to see their concerts.

“We supported him since he was a little kid, when he started learning to play guitar – he was maybe seven years old.”

Also he’s a great DJ. I’ve been to events where he was the DJ and he really gets the party started, as they say.

“I hope that they [Mardoša and his sister] could also see that as I saw in Madeleine that she took her job seriously, I tried to be serious in my job [laughs].

“So maybe this could be how they saw me, I hope.

“I would wish they saw this [laughs].”