First post-communist Czechoslovak foreign minister Jiří Dienstbier dies

Jiří Dienstbier, foto: ČTK

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.

Hans Dietrich Genscher,  Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: CTK
Born on April 20, 1937 in the town of Kladno near Prague, Jiří Diestbier sought a career in journalism and after graduating from Charles University worked for Czechoslovak Radio, serving as foreign correspondent in Asia, Europe and the United States. Although he briefly joined the communist party at the start of his career, he took an active part in the Prague Spring and organized anti-Soviet broadcasts at Czechoslovak Radio during the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

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.

Václav Havel
Between 1998 and 2001he served as UN rapporteur on human rights in the former Yugoslavia and from 2008 has served as senator - elected as an independent on a Social Democratic Party ticket. Not many people knew of his fight with cancer and his death in office came as a shock. One of the first reactions came from his long-term friend from the dissident days, former Czech president Václav Havel who gave the press a written statement:

“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.”

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: CTK
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whom Mr. Dienstbier, as head of the Senate’s foreign affairs committee, accompanied on a visit to the Czech mission in Afghanistan last year, had this to say:

“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.