Delhi, Oxford, Prague – the three homes of Paul Flather

Paul Flather

On the occasion of its 660th anniversary, Charles University recently hosted an annual meeting of Europaeum, an association of ten leading European universities, including Oxford. Europaeum also organized a workshop on European migration at the Institute of Economics, drawing young scholars from Leiden, Geneva, Prague, Oxford and Krakow. At the end of the week I met with Europaeum’s secretary general Paul Flather and asked him to tell me more about its history:

Paul Flather
“Yes, it’s now 15 years old and we established it to spread ideas throughout Europe. We felt that as European intellectuals get together they must have some kind of structure to meet and discuss and we are particularly keen that we involved new emergent countries. We were delighted to involve universities from Poland and of course Charles University from Prague and we have spread our net quite widely. We do all kinds of collaborative activities. One of our big focuses is young scholars. We want them to meet each other, develop networks and set the tone for future European work.”

Europaeum was established in early 1990s but as far as I know you first came to this country much earlier. When was that?

“That’s right. I think I came first in 1980. There was this famous letter from Julius Tomín, who was the Charter 77 spokesman, and he appealed to academics in the West to come and teach in Prague even though the authorities were not welcoming us. Somehow this letter reached the philosophy department of Oxford.

“Some of the philosophers came and gave underground lectures and they were thrown out. And it happened that the philosophers who were thrown out were my tutors at Oxford, I was at Balliol College, and they decided not to give up even though it was obviously going to be a difficult assignment. They fell in love with the whole dissident movement and they very kindly invited me to join the group so at a quite young age I got involved and started to come to Prague.

Was it your first visit of the Eastern block?

Photo: European Commission
“Yes I think it was. For a chap who came from India aged eight to England which was a big journey and then to make another journey from Britain to Eastern Europe these were quite big jumps. I was incredibly shocked at many things but in the end what matters are people. I think we were all of us impressed by the courage and determination of these people that we met to seek freedom. For a young person it was very impressionable.”

Apart from giving lectures did you work as a mediator? Did you bring things from England to Prague?

“We always tried to give a talk a lecture or a seminar. But out other job was to bring money for people who had either been thrown out of work or were somehow not able to get the money, which allowed them to do scholarship and translations. And we also used to bring books.

“I remember once I brought quite a lot of books and my suitcase didn’t arrive at the airport. And I got very nervous. So I went to the check desk and they said the suitcase had been sent to Moscow so I got very, very worried. But I think it was only an accident because eventually it came back and I got my books. And then one day I was followed and then I was taken to questioning, it was 1986, and then they discovered some papers and I was banned and I couldn’t come for three years until after the revolution.”

The organization was called the Jan Hus foundation. We haven’t mentioned that.

“That’s right. It was set up in 1980/81 by these philosophers in Oxford and it was called the Jan Hus Foundation. It worked throughout the 1980s with quite an important network including people from Charter 77 and other groups and also with groups in Brno and one or two other places and also in other countries like Poland and Romania.”

What happened with the foundation after the fall of communism? Did it cease to exist?

“After 1989 we were all very excited. We all came to Prague and we saw some of the people we met very informally had suddenly became ministers and prime ministers, foreign ministers and of course presidents. Really I cannot describe how fantastic it felt for us as well as obviously for the Czech people. We thought our job was done but when we sat down and met our Czech friends they said ‘No, your job is only half done. Now you must hep us complete the transformation.’

Photo: European Commission
“So strangely we found ourselves even busier in the 1990s, making academic links, showing new textbooks, new ideas and new opportunities. But gradually we passed the control and organization to our Czech colleagues and I think by the middle of the 1990s we were very much the junior partner and by the end of the 1990s we were very pleased that the job was taken on.”

So what was your role here in the 1990s? As far as I know you helped to set up another organization here in Prague.

“That’s right. What happened was that I got an extraordinary phone-call one evening from philanthropist George Soros and he said: look I have a plan to set up a new university and I am looking for someone to run it and your name was mentioned. Could you come and have breakfast with me? So I went the next morning rather excited and before I knew it I was working for him.

For me it was wonderful because it meant coming back to Prague very often maybe two weeks every month I spent in Prague and we set up the Central European University and negotiated with your president and many, many people. Even professor Jan Švejnar was one of the early people we gave offices to and for the next four years I had this wonderful opportunity to set up the university. I think it went very well but as everybody knows there was a little trouble and then eventually, unfortunately, the main university was moved to Budapest.”

But now you are coming to Prague regularly thanks to Europaeum and you have been in touch with students and academics for years. Have you noticed any changes in their attitudes over these past three decades?

“It’s strange how life works. I came from India, Delhi and arrived in London, stayed most of my life in Oxford and now I think that my third home is Prague. I must say that over the last two decades the changes have been enormous. It’s been very exciting to witness them.

“I suppose like everybody one sometimes worries about the commercialisation of the beautiful city of Prague. But it’s still beautiful and we can’t stop other tourist enjoying it and in fact it is our duty to share it with them. Let’s just hope that we hang on to the wonderful spirit that took Czech people through so much trouble for fifty years and let’s not lose it for money and commercial values.”