First post-communist Czechoslovak foreign minister Jiří Dienstbier dies
Czech Senator Jiří Dienstbier, a leading figure of the Czech dissident movement and the country’s first post-communist foreign minister died over the weekend at the age of 73. A former dissident and journalist, Mr. Dienstbier served on many committees and worked as a UN rapporteur on human rights in the former Yugoslavia, but in people’s minds he will always be remembered as the man who stood next to the former West German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher and cut through the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain.
Sacked from the radio station, he took up menial work and continued to be actively engaged in the dissident movement forming around Václav Havel. He was imprisoned from 1979 to 1982 for his activities in Charter 77 and his part in spreading underground samizdat publications.
The Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in 1989 turned his life around. He stood next to Václav Havel as they formed the Civic Forum and that same year became the country’s first post-communist foreign minister. A snapshot of him and his West German counterpart Hans Dietrich Genscher cutting the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain made front pages around the world. It was his task to re-establish normal diplomatic relations with the free world and it was his privilege in 1991 to chair a meeting of former Soviet bloc leaders which officially dissolved the Warsaw Pact.
“I have lost a very dear friend with whom I experienced a great deal. Dienstbier was a man who made his mark in Czech journalism, politics and the dissident movement. Jiří Dienstbier, Václav Benda and myself spent many long months in prison together and even at the worst of times he would always cheer us up with his good mood and positive outlook.”
President Václav Klaus reacted to the news from his holiday on the ski-slopes:
“I think we always had a great deal of respect for one another. He will be sadly missed in Czech politics. He was one of the decent, old-school politicians.”
“He was an incredibly open and honest man, and also a very brave one.”
Jiří Dienstbier presented guest lectures at universities around the world and has published hundreds of articles and columns both at home and abroad. He received a state medal for merit and the Grand Cross of Malta. His son Jiří Dienstbier jr. a member of the opposition Social Democrats, continues in his father’s footsteps.