Ivan Chvatík: They even interrogated Patočka in the hospital

Ivan Chvatík

Ivan Chvatík worked closely with Jan Patočka, helping organise underground seminars for the great Czech philosopher, and since his death has done more than anybody to keep his legacy alive. Chvatík himself came to philosophy after studying nuclear physics and was also involved in the advent of computing in communist Czechoslovakia. Today an active 81-year-old, the head of the Jan Patočka Archive shared some stories from his fascinating life during a recent interview at our studios.

What was your family background? What kind of things did your parents to?

“Well, my parents died in 1947. First my father was found shot, killed, at the toilet at his office.

“My parents died in 1947. First my father was found shot, killed.”

“He was a newly installed director of a new subsidiary of Agrární banka [Agrarian Bank] in Žatec. Originally we were from Olomouc.

“He was a member of the National Party; it was conservative, right-wing.

“Apparently in November 1947, Russian… what did they call them?”


“‘Advisors’, yes – they had already started to make the Western border secure.

“I even guess, I read it somewhere, that the coup d’etat which occurred in February was meant to be in that November.

Ivan Chvatík | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Český rozhlas

“So that was a tragedy.

“Mother, my mother, brought him to the village near Olomouc, to my grandfather.

“And she died about two days later from taking too many sleeping pills.

“She was still alive in the morning, but they didn’t succeed to save her.”

That’s really shocking. What happened with you after they died?

“After that I was one and a half years at my mother’s house and then the sister of my mother took me to her family in Prague.

“So since 1949 I am in Prague [laughs].”

That’s such a shocking story, though. How did it affect you as a kid?

“That’s hard to say. I think it made me, in a way, able to care for the details and think about such existential problems.

“So perhaps it, in a way, determined me to end with philosophy [laughs]. I don’t know.”

Before you got to philosophy, in the late 1950s you began studying nuclear physics in Prague. The sciences I guess were relatively politically neutral and the Communists, as far as I understand it, left them alone more or less. Did the same apply to nuclear physics, given the Cold War atmosphere?

“It was exactly as you say. There were no political troubles.

“It was even a little bit funny that, when I was applying, in the first round I was not accepted.

“Then we made a sort of appeal and the reason that was written there was that I had no parents.

“And it was successful – I got it [laughs]. So they didn’t study my background.”

You were working then, in the mid-1960s, in computing, which I suppose was in its relative infancy. Was there a lot of excitement about the possibilities of computing in communist Czechoslovakia?

“Well, excitement – it’s hard to say.

Professor Antonín Svoboda  (right) | Photo: ČT24

“The reason why I was there was in fact that I wanted to… or actually I was accepted to study for a doctorate with Professor [Antonín] Svoboda – he was the greatest specialist in computer science in Czechoslovakia at that time.

“But after my military service – half a year in ’64 – when I came back in summer I saw that he had left the republic and never returned.

“At that time it was necessary for such a student as I was to get a job within six weeks, or something like that – otherwise you were prosecuted.”

You were a “parasite”.

“Yes, exactly. So I got a job at Aritma, where computers started to be made.

“In ’67 we went to Sweden for three months to get the basic training, and then we were going there quite often, until ’72 or something.”

“I worked on a very small computer, which Svoboda had designed; it was a small computer governed by punch cards [laughs].

“After two or three years, I don’t know, my boss got an offer to work first buying and then for looking after the Swedish computer Datasaab – and he took me with him.

“It was a great offer, because in ’67 we went to Sweden for three months to get the basic training, and then we were going there quite often, until ’72 or something, when it stopped [laughs].”

It must have been very unusual for anybody in this country to be going to the West so often?

“Sure, that’s what I say, that it was a very, very exciting offer.

This is a photo of the D-21 computer at Tekniska museet in Stockholm where it was exhibitied in running condition for several years | Photo: Tekniska museet,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

“In the same time this computer, Datasaab, was the top of world computer machinery. At that time it was better than IBM and others.

“So it was quite good, yes.”

In the late 1960s your life changed when you got to know Jan Patočka, the great Czech philosopher. How did you first encounter Patočka?

“I think it was in spring ’68, when he started to have lectures for the open public.

“So I think I saw him at these lectures, somewhere.

“But I knew about him before. Not very long before, but I tried to read some of his papers published in a philosophic journal – and there I realised that although I don’t understand it much [laughs], I felt that this was the wisdom I was interested in [laughs].”

Also you ran underground seminars for Patočka when he was kicked out of the university. When he reached the age of 65, they made him leave, in 1972. If I understand it correctly, you were never caught by the secret police, the StB, organising these apartment seminars. How did you manage to always get away with it?

“You never know [laughs], but we tried to be very careful.

“Perhaps our circles were not so much infected by people who are informing the secret police.”

“We never organised the meetings by telephone, so there was no chance for the police to follow us through the telephone.

“On the other hand, perhaps our circles were not so much infected by people who are informing the secret police.

“But you never know – perhaps they knew it and they thought it was not so dangerous [laughs].”

I wanted to ask this – why would they care if somebody was teaching this difficult philosophy unofficially in an apartment?

“Yes, that’s also possible.

“But on the other hand, it started to be worse after Charter 77, not before.”

But before ’77, before Charter 77, when Patočka was giving these seminars you and your colleagues were transcribing his lectures and somehow turning them into articles – is that correct?

“No, we started to transcribe, or to record by hand – not by recorder – his lectures already at the Philosophical Faculty, starting in ’68, in the autumn.

Jan Patočka | Photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes

“We already knew that his lectures were something extraordinary and that it was worth recording them word by word.

“But in the meantime I was bringing small tape recorders – Phillips they were – so we had about five or six of them and we were able to record everything that he said on tape [laughs].

“Then we transcribed and so on.”

What were you doing at the same time as you were helping to organise these seminars? Were you still working with computers?

“Yes, I was still working there.

“It was in a way very good to work there because I was head of the technical department and the computer had to run 24 hours a day, without interruption, all the time.

“So me and my two colleagues were very valuable for them [laughs].

“And because they didn’t have much money to buy new versions of the computer, we knew the one which we had already by heart and it was no problem for us to keep it running.

“So I had a lot of time to devote to these philosophic activities.”

Patočka of course was one of the originators of Charter 77 and died in March 1977 after being interrogated for a long by the StB. You then went to Patočka’s home and grabbed and saved a lot of his writings and took them away for safe-keeping, before the StB could come and take them. But again why would the StB have been interested in the philosophical papers of a man like Patočka?

“Perhaps they wouldn’t be interested in the philosophic papers.

“But he started to become very dangerous for them with becoming one of the first three spokesmen of Charter.

“And especially by meeting [Dutch foreign minister] Max van der Stoel on March 1, ’77, when he was here on an official visit from the Netherlands.

Ivan Chvatík in the archive of Jan Patočka | Photo: Paměť národa

“It was a big scandal. The Communist Party was upset very much, so there were no meetings with the minister.

“The president, Husák, refused to meet with him and so on.

“And several days later there was an official opening of the new permanent building for the German Embassy.

“They are still there until the present day. But before that they didn’t have any building – they just had the private residence of the ambassador.

“So the police were afraid very much that Patočka would go there and make another scandal [laughs].

“Because at the same time Václav Havel was in prison and Jiří Hájek was in prison at home.

“So Patočka was the only spokesman of Charter 77 at that time.

“The police of course could suppose they could find something in his home, which of course was not true [laughs].

“But they couldn’t know.”

I spoke a few years ago with [Patočka’s son-in-law, philosopher] Jan Sokol. He said very firmly that the StB did not kill Patočka, that he was seriously ill anyway, and that he didn’t blame the StB directly for the death of Patočka. What do you think about that?

“In fact it is true.

“But on the other hand, they were troubling him just on the day when the German Embassy was opened, in the evening.

“They took very early in the morning, at 5 or 6 o’clock, from his home and they were carrying him by car all the time and interrogated him in a funny way.

“They all the time asked him the same things and he tried to explain the same things to them.

“They brought him home at around 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening.

“And for this man who was not very healthy it was very big exhaustion.

“He collapsed about midnight and had to be taken to hospital – and there he was a week or 10 days, and then he died.

“They interrogated him even in the hospital, a little.

“So it was a combination.”

Jan Patočka | Photo: Markéta Kachlíková,  Radio Prague International

You published Jan Patočka in samizdat a lot in the 1980s. You seem to have been very active in samizdat. How did it work, all this underground publishing, even in terms in the technology that you had?

“That was also very funny.

“In fact this technological side started in ’76.

“I was on military service for about two weeks – regular service – and there I met a guy from the Ministry of Finance, where he was the head of the Xerox department, will all these copying machines.

“He looked quite fine and he became my friend in a way.

“So after Charter 77 started and it was apparent that we would need something like this technology, I started to ask him first for some small amounts of something – and not so dangerous as Patočka’s philosophic writings.

“He was quite able and open to this business, because in fact I paid some small money for one page.

“So it developed very well and we were making, in this big and most modern office at the Ministry of Finance [laughs], an incredible number of copies.

“I went twice a week there with some originals and came back with two big bags full of made copies.

“And I think if the police knew it, they wouldn’t believe it could be done by somebody who has no car [laughs].”

In those years did you have much interaction with the StB. Did they question you?

“Yes, but not very much. Until now I don’t know if they knew about this copying adventure, because they never asked about it, and they never asked the guy who was the head of the department.

The funeral of Jan Patočka under the supervision of StB | Photo: Paměť národa

“But first they summoned me [laughs] just after Patočka’s funeral.

“Because they had pictures of all the people there, made by helicopter, and video recordings.

“About a week after it was the turn of me and my friends.

“Then it was quite hard, but it had no results.

“In fact it could have had the result that my director would kick me out of my job.

“But the director of my department was so good that he said, He’s the only one who has the original big training for the computer – if you kick him out nobody can be sure that the computer will work 24 hours a day [laughs].

“It was of course not true, because my two colleagues were quite good and they surely would be able to do it without me.

“But it worked [laughs].”

After the revolution you went to look for your StB file, but it was already destroyed. What was your response to that? Would you have liked to have read it?

“I would be very happy to read it, not to know who was informing the police about me but because of knowing what they knew.

“Because it was unbelievable – it would be extremely interesting for me to know what they knew about this technology of copying [laughs].”

What was your revolution like? How did you experience the Velvet Revolution?

“For us it was a busy time already in the autumn before the revolution, because in fact we were preparing Patočka’s selected works for a foreign Czech edition, organised by people in exile, like Vilém Prečan, František Janouch and supported by, for example, Timothy Garton Ash and Roger Scruton.

“For January 1, 1990 my friend Pavel Kouba and I set up the Jan Patočka Archives.”

“So when this big change happened I was first told by Radim Palouš, who was then made rector of Charles University, that we have to announce to the world that we are opening a new philosophic department that we are calling the Jan Patočka Philosophic Institute.

“But there was an existing philosophic institute at the academy and I told him it was necessary to reorganise that [laughs] – it is perhaps more important.

“In fact we made it so that for January 1, 1990 my friend Pavel Kouba and I set up the Jan Patočka Archives at the philosophic institute – and started to help with the reorganisation there.”

You also became, in spring 1990, the government commissioner for the Central European University, which is now in Budapest but was founded in Prague in those days, with funding from George Soros. What are your memories of interacting with the Central European University?

“Yes, it was also a very adventurous thing, because first it was necessary to convince George Soros that the main seat has to be in Prague.

“It was necessary to convince George Soros that the main seat of the Central European University has to be in Prague.”

“Because there was a sort of competition between us, the Poles, the Slovaks and Viennese and Hungarians, especially the Hungarians.

“It was necessary to present a short project and such things.

“We did it with my colleague Petr Pajas and in Vienna, at a meeting with George and these representatives from the other states, we won.”

Was he welcomed by the new Czechoslovak political elite?

“On one hand he was welcomed, but on the other hand there was opposition against it, especially from Václav Klaus.

“That was in fact the main reason why, after six years, George decided to move it to Budapest.”

You’re also a translator. You translated, for example, Heidegger’s Being and Time, which I remember from university as being quite difficult. What are the particular challenges of translating philosophy?

“Of course it’s necessary to understand the contents of the sentences [laughs].

“On the other hand, from the German language it is not so terribly difficult, because the structure of the language is, in a way, similar.

Ivan Chvatík | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Český rozhlas

“And in fact we had good training with Patočka before he died, because we visited him after he was kicked out from the university in ’72.

“We had a permanent seminar in his home, first once a week and then twice a week, from 7 o’clock until midnight.

“And we were reading this Being and Time. So after he died I felt that it was necessary to pay back the debts [laughs] and to do it.

“So it was a long, long work.”

You have also been co-director of the Centre for Theoretical Study, which was founded by Ivan Havel. To me the name of the institution seems so abstract – what does it actually do?

“Well, we learned that for an English native speaker it is a little bit funny, but Ivan Havel and his colleagues perhaps didn’t know that when they started.

“They wanted to say that by means of that that the institute is transdisciplinary.

“The idea was to put together experts from different disciplines, to let them study the common problem for all these disciplines – and to bridge the gaps between the disciplines.”

Do you still teach, or did you stop teaching?

“No, I was no teacher. I taught something – I had a long-term seminar on Being and Time in the ‘90s.

“But most of my time I am preparing the Complete Works of Patočka, while having a seminar for translating Heidegger.”

Do you ever think about retiring, or are you somebody who always wants to work?

“Retiring, what does it mean? I would do the same as I am doing anyway.”

“Well retiring, what does it mean? I would do the same as I am doing anyway.

“Part of my wage I gave to a young colleague, who we needed for the department, but I’m still working there.

“I also gave my directorship to a young colleague, who was a schoolmate of my daughter [laughs].