Ivan Hartl: A one-man international branch of the Czech underground

Ivan Hartl, photo: Ian Willoughby

Ivan Hartl has been living in the UK since the late 1960s. From there he helped run banned literature into his native Czechoslovakia with Palach Press, as well as promoting internationally the persecuted rock band The Plastic People of the Universe.

Ivan Hartl,  photo: Ian Willoughby
But there is way more to Ivan Hartl than that. He has also been a late 1960s student leader in Prague, a housing activist in London, a nuclear science graduate, a poet and an artist.

Now well into his 70s, he has extremely long dreadlocks and retains an independent lifestyle and outlook.

When we spoke near his home by London's South Bank, the conversation began with Hartl’s mother, who sounds like a remarkable person in her own right.

“She fought on the barricades in Prague and was wounded by SS troops. She was wounded in her right hand and that meant she had to give up her dreams of going to the conservatoire and pursuing a career in music, in piano.

“This really seriously cut her life chances. So she became a teacher.

“My grandmother was also a teacher, under the Austrians and in the First Republic.

“So my mother became was a teacher. Then in 1949 she was somehow protesting against problems coming from the Communist takeover, although she was leftist, socialist, which a lot of people were.

“She was protesting against the forcible removal of Western languages from the school curriculum and the replacement of them by Russian.

“The removal wasn’t complete, but they cut down French, English and German very badly and favoured Russian only.

“As a result, she was kicked out of the profession of teaching and she had to start working on the railways.

“So as a result of this I spent much of my early childhood on the railways.

“We used for example to travel all the way to the Tatras and back for a long weekend. It was fantastic.”

Hartl was born and grew up in Prague’s Holešovice district, although he was placed in a children’s home in East Bohemia for a few years following the breakdown of his family.

Troja Chateau,  photo: Klára Stejskalová
“I was very active with my school friends and kids in Letná, little gangs. It was an absolutely fantastic time.

“This whole wonderful place of Stromovka and Troja. There was no bridge at Troja then – there was a pontoon bridge.

“We used to go there on huge, massive boys’ expeditions, to Troja and the zoo gardens. We’d climb over the walls. And Troja Chateau I remember from those days.

“These memories helped me a great deal to survive my exile.

“When I became an exile I was stripped of citizenship and could never go back again.

“But all the deep memories of Prague, including these childhood ones, helped me a great deal to actually survive in a reasonably healthy way.

“Especially memories of when I was growing up in Prague after the children’s home.

“After the home I went straight to what was then the most prestigious school in the country, which was the high school of nuclear technology.”

Hartl managed to win a highly prized place at Czechoslovakia’s top secondary school after developing a major interest in physics at a young age.

“My mother sent me some book on physics at the children’s home, which was in a really nice castle, near Chrudim.

“From then on I got really excited about physics and when I reached the age of 15 and had to decide which high school I should go to, I put the school for nuclear physics and technology in first place.

“I was fully expecting I’d never get in. There was like a ratio of 200 to one to get in. And everybody wanted to go there – it was very fashionable in those days.

“But I got in and that changed my life completely. I studied nuclear technology and then nuclear physics at the faculty and then later on in Cambridge, when I couldn’t go back home, etcetera.

“So this was determined in that moment at the children’s home. I have to say that people were very, very good at the children’s home.

“We used to go on huge, massive boys’ expeditions to Troja and the zoo. We’d climb over the walls. These memories helped me a great deal to survive my exile.”

“Initially I was very unhappy about having to leave Prague.

“We were three brothers and all of us went to a different children’s home, because of problems with the family – it was not functioning very well.

“It was really sad. I was very angry initially, but I have to say that I’m really glad that I went through that experience.”

Jumping forward several years, a big part of Hartl’s university career was devoted to politics. It was a heady time in Czechoslovakia, as a slow political thaw paved the way for the Prague Spring reform movement.

“I was basically very active in the student movement already at my faculty, which was the Faculty of Nuclear Physics, in ’66 and ’67.

“We were attending majáleses [student May Day processions], which were very famous.

“I took over from nuclear physics student leaders before me, generation-wise.

“Our faculty was always famous for doing particularly striking happenings in majáleses.

“For example, we had this thing called katovna [executioner’s place], which was famous every year. We would hire a lorry and put on the back of it medieval torture instruments and then we would capture people from the crowd and torture them [laughs].

“I remember quite distinctly that I improvised massively during those days and got a great audience response, you might say.

“Because we used it as a sort of parody of the political system, basically.

“At that time intellectually I was very much a Klimaist, Nietzschean type of individualist.

“Then came the time in ’67 when… everybody who lived at the Strahov student dorms was frustrated repeatedly over the years by the lights going off.

Antonín Novotný,  photo: Free Domain
“We had really hard exams. That includes everybody but of course nuclear physics and mathematics students had really tough exams.

“So we were really seriously handicapped when the lights would go off. You couldn’t continue working for exams which were, you know, the next day or the day after.

“In the end this spontaneous demonstration occurred on November 8, 1967, when we spontaneously went out of our block and other people went out of other blocks and we just took our candles and marched down to the Castle.

“We didn’t realise that there was an important Party meeting happening at the Castle.

“The Party Central Committee and Novotný and others sent the police after us.

“It was very brutal and many people were beaten up, including Africans who were also part of us, so there was a racist element.

“Anyway, that was actually the first big student demonstration.”

However, prior to this event Hartl had been involved in another flashpoint incident, also involving the hardline Communist president Antonín Novotný. It was May Day, 1967 and he and his fellow students were not in the Party’s good books.

“They just didn’t like us very much. They didn’t like most Prague students, but we in particular had been irritating them.

“They were planning to split us into two, to place nuclear physics and engineering into strojárna [the Faculty of Engineering] and mathematics into Maths-Physics.

“Our professors were desperate about it and asked us to do something to show good will to the party.

“Anyway, we decided, OK, we would go to the May 1 demonstration, just to show that we mean well and should not be split up.

“So I was there leading my group of students and professors, a fairly small group really, maybe 50 max.

“We had no slogan so I remember consulting with my friends and then spontaneously writing on the back of our faculty designation banner: Všechno je jinak.

“That means Everything is otherwise, which in English would be something like Nothing is what it seems [laughs].

“It was completely incredible. People around loved it. We marched down from Wenceslas Square down to Na příkopě.

“We spontaneously went out of our block at Strahov and just marched down to the Castle. We didn’t realise that there was an important Party meeting happening there.”

“As we marched more people were laughing at our slogan. We were shouting anti-party slogans, improvising jokes and everything.

“The secret police were already monitoring us and photographing us. But we were surrounded by workers from Vysočany and other students and everybody just loved it.

“There was a fantastic atmosphere. It was like an island of joy in this official, May 1 demonstration of basically dreariness.

“It was an island of joy and we were the centre of it, making completely illegal jokes, shouting illegal slogans.

“And when I reached the tribune where Novotný was… my friends who were behind me said that first he was happy that he saw that our faculty was officially in the demonstration.

“But then when he saw the slogan Všechno je jinak he became very angry. And immediately, within a few minutes, I was being arrested by a whole troupe of police, secret and uniformed.

“They were trying to drag away me and our slogan.

“So it was quite a big event. After that there was the Strahov thing. Eventually I was elected the head of the faculty committee. And then later on in ’68 it just snowballed.”

1968 was of course one of the most exciting – and ultimately traumatic – periods in modern Czech history. And Ivan Hartl was deeply involved.

“The whole movement began to grow. The whole ’68 movement was extremely rich.

“Every single social structure began to reinvigorate itself.

“People were completely dissatisfied with the current Communist Party regime and they simply dismantled it, by calling spontaneous meetings in student halls, in factories, in offices, in academia, in enterprises, and simply electing new representatives who would be more democratically elected – directly elected, not just nominated by the Central Committee of the CP.

Warsaw Pact invasion in Prague,  August 1968,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“In this way the whole ’68 movement began to grow. Mega-potential.

“I was in the middle of it, being a member of the Prague Student Parliament and other student bodies, then organising various demonstrations and actions during ’68, as a result of it; either initiating them or organising them or cooperating with other students.

“We did some really huge demonstrations. For example, one of the biggest demonstrations we ever organised – again this was us and people from high schools, people we deliberately contacted, people from factories in Holešovice.

“This was one of the first worker-student-high school demonstrations in, I think, Czech history.

“A huge number of people were marching through Prague. We wanted an alternative candidate for the presidency.

“We chose [Čestmír] Císař. Our demonstration is known as Císař na Hrad – Emperor [císař in Czech] to the Castle. It was a kind of political joke.”

The Prague Spring was notoriously brought to an end by Warsaw Pact tanks in an invasion that saw over 100 Czechoslovaks killed and began a 20-year Soviet occupation of the country.

The crushing of the reform movement in August 1968 was to spell the end of Ivan Hartl’s life in his native land. However, he hadn’t actually planned to emigrate.

“I went for holidays, thinking that things would calm down.

“I have to say that in 1969 I organised quite a big conference, following all the stuff which was happening in the Prague student movement: the student strike in the autumn of ’68, then the terrible thing with Palach and Zajíc, and all these terrible events.

“During all this time, everybody was doing what they could.

“Even if, of course, many people in the nation were very depressed. That was the reason why Palach and Zajíc and 20 others tried to protest against the creeping giving up of the nation.

“When Novotný saw our slogan he became very angry. Immediately I was being arrested by a whole troupe of police, secret and uniformed.”

“But everybody who could do something – writers, intellectuals, workers, who set up illegal workers’ committees – did so, also in 1969. And the students of course, like us.

“We organised at Strahov a very underground conference for student leaders and intellectuals from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Third World that lasted for a week.

“The conference was very intellectually powerful and discussed various issues: the potential future for Eastern Europe and how to get rid of the problem of the Soviet occupation and how to generate help from others, internationally as well as internally.

“It was quite an event, actually. The government was very concerned about it and so were the Soviets. They tried to stop it and of course we didn’t stop it.

“Afterwards I left for London, thinking that I’d be returning after my holiday.

“I expected that things would calm down, in my case, especially, and that after the holidays I would come back and pick up what I had left there.

“But unfortunately during that time things got worse. The secret police got much heavier, on our faculty particularly.

“That included myself. My colleagues were harassed and arrested and it eventually resulted in I think the first trial of the student movement.

“And I simply left, because people from my faculty, the dean and my professors, wrote to me saying, Don’t come back, man, they’ve got so much stuff on you that you will simply go to jail.

“I reluctantly stayed here in Britain and simply continued my work for the opposition in every possible way I could. And continued my studies in Cambridge.”

Though cut off from his the country of his birth and stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship, Hartl carried on doing what he could for his friends and countrymen behind the Iron Curtain. Specifically, he helped set up the exile publishers Palach Press.

Jan Kavan | Photo: Zdeněk Vališ,  Czech Radio
“The moment I was here I immediately started sending lots and lots of books into Czechoslovakia, into Prague.

“Then another guy who came here later on from the Faculty of Journalism in Prague, Jan Kavan, began soon afterwards to do the same.

“We both were working in parallel. There were a few others as well, but not that many, frankly.

“We were working as hard as possible to try to smuggle out of Czechoslovakia stuff like manuscripts and samizdat stuff and to smuggle in books which were either exile or émigré publications, like Svědectví, Listy and Informační materiály, or books which were simply on the index, which were really high-quality books that were forbidden, on science, sociology, art books.

“Palach Press grew out of this.

“I got instructions from the Prague underground. I can’t tell you who from, but these were people in the underground who later on became famous and known, in government and so on, and I won’t talk about them now.

“I was communicating with them and they gave me instructions that it was stupid to split our efforts and that we should work together. Which was very reasonable.

“That is how the idea of the Palach Press was actually born.”

Later, however, the London-based publishing organisation began to change its focus and methods.

“I realised that this was quite a wasteful effort, because basically we would be always condemned to supply information to established, very good, very friendly, very nice people: Richard Davy, William Shawcross, Neal Ascherson, from major newspapers, Le Monde and so on.

“We would be always dependent on them to condense the materials and use them in their articles.

“Which was OK. We were happy, because we still achieved our aim, which was to publicise constantly and as widely as possible the situation in Czechoslovakia and the oppression of human rights: arrests, prosecutions, confiscations of manuscripts, all that stuff.

“But then I thought, If we actually got a little more control over it, we could actually publish more stuff.

“So that’s how Palach Press was born as a press agency.

“Then it came to the question of the name. There were five or six people who actually founded it: Jiří Pelikán, Jan Kavan, myself and two other friends.

“I expected that things would calm down and that after the holidays I would come back. But unfortunately things got worse.”

“I personally was very much against the name Palach Press, because I felt we should not cheapen the name of Jan Palach with this basically commercial activity of pure newsgathering, which is not at such a high level as the huge ethical moral imperative that Jan Palach implied.

“But then I was persuaded by English collaborators of ours. They said very reasonably, Like it or not, the fact is that Palach is the one factor that is well-known everywhere – anything less than that would simply not cut the mustard.

“Calling it Freedom Press, which I wanted to do, wouldn’t be good enough.

“Basically I gave up. The majority was against me and were all for Palach Press.

“After that it began functioning as a press agency, which meant that it had more power to dictate terms. And also potentially to earn some more money from the printed materials from the big papers to send to the opposition.

“It continued and then eventually we simply split with Jan Kavan, for various reasons.

“I began to work again on my own and so did he. And I began to concentrate more on the Czech musical underground.”

By this time Hartl had given up on doing a doctorate in nuclear physics and was getting by via a series of odd jobs.

But he had a new passion: highlighting the plight and promoting the music of The Plastic People of the Universe.

The imprisonment of members and associates of the underground group by the Communist authorities was a turning point for the Czech dissent, sparking the Charter 77 protest movement.

“I simply loved them. I loved their music and the whole ethos was very much near to my heart.

“I was also an artist and a poet and underground in my own way.

“I remember being distinctly frustrated by the simple fact that nobody knew about them abroad.

“Because the Prague intellectuals didn’t favour them at all. You can’t blame them, this was simply a fact.

“Many of them didn’t like the music, didn’t like the style, the long hair and the sometimes druggy whatever.

Photo: EMI Czech Republic
“They had a bad reputation that the regime managed to foster all over Czechoslovakia, giving them a really bad press, especially when they arrested them – that they were drug dealers, they were this, that and the other, they were not serious, they were horrible, not artists, etc.

“So this really pained me very deeply.

“For this reason I began to concentrate particularly on them, because I wanted to make sure that people got to know them in the West, which before was not very possible.

“When they actually arrested them I happened to have most of their material. Photographic material, tapes, everything.

“So I immediately started publicising their arrest all over the world, in every possible country. In 17 or 18 languages and big newspapers everywhere. What had happened to them.

“This was to help them, because I knew from previous experience that when you had done similar work for other dissidents, whoever they were: [Rudolf] Battěk, [Milan] Hübl, whoever – it always did help.

“Pressure from Western newspapers always helped.

“And I was determined that something like that must be established for them: Once they became more well-known internationally, the regime would be more careful with them.”

Hartl also put huge energy into trying to get the Plastic People’s music to international audiences.

He spent the best part of a year doing the rounds of London record labels trying to drum up interest in a release of the band’s material.

Virgin label boss Richard Branson, for instance, said he liked the music but that it wouldn’t sell. In the end a French connection saved the day.

“Suddenly I got a phone call from Paris, the Libération newspaper. They said, Look, we really like it, so come down and we will do what we can do.

“Around the same time or soon after, Paul Wilson was kicked out of the country [Czechoslovakia] and I gave him all the contacts I had around the world, which I had in London.

“Then we started working on it together and he brought more up-to-date information.

“So we produced this kind of album. And I deliberately use the word album, because it was quite a deliberate decision on my part.

“I personally was very much against the name Palach Press, because I felt we should not cheapen the name of Jan Palach.”

“The Plastic People themselves would have been quite happy to have an LP, which would be great.

“But once we got a chance to produce something serious I designed this kind of album which was an LP on one side and a whole booklet, the same size as an LP, in the other pocket of the LP cover as you open it up.

“It was all very carefully designed and was 60 pages of designs, interventions and graphic work which would simply cover all the possible aspects of the whole movement.

“The movement was bigger than just the Plastic People, so there were mentions of other single other band. We put there Ivan Jirous’s, Magor’s, wonderful essay on the second musical underground.

“Every page was illustrated very nicely graphically. I organised most of it and did many of the collages and our friends in Libération did the rest.

“It was really hard work and really a labour of love.

“So we produced this album which was called The Plastic People of the Universe: Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. The ‘banned’ was my joke.

“And then there was the great book which was called Merry Ghetto, Le Ghetto Joyeux, in the second pocket.

“It was great graphic work. To this day it’s very much appreciated and is a kind of collector’s item now in the US and everywhere.”

Despite his deep love of Prague, Ivan Hartl didn’t move back to his native city following the fall of the Communist regime at the end of 1989. In fact, he didn’t even visit for a very long time.

“The Prague intellectuals didn’t favour the Plastic People at all. You can’t blame them, this was simply a fact.”

“I was incredibly happy. And then many of my friends started coming over here, in various functions: minister of foreign affairs, minister of this, minister of culture, ambassador of this.

“And they told me, Please, come back, we’re going to need you.

“I was very eager to go back. But then something happened which I can’t really explain. I don’t completely understand it.

“But I had been in the middle of my work here with the homeless. It was a big project and I was quite successful in it, working with the homeless, housing them. And also I had my art work.

“I just thought, you know, I’ll come later.

“The last thing I wanted to do was join the bandwagon and make a kind of profit out of my activities in the past. I didn’t want to do that, that’s for sure.

“And I other things to do that were very important.

“So I said, Maybe I’ll come later, in a few months time, but you boys do it yourself – you don’t really need me.

“I never actually went back for a very long time.

“Because London is a very funny place. It kind of holds you, and I got stuck here, basically.

“A week became a month and a month became a year and I barely noticed.

“Then suddenly my brother died and I had to go back. So now I’ve been back four times, for a week every single time.

“First of all for my brother’s funeral, which I had to organise and which was really terrible.

“But also people welcomed me so nicely. I was really shocked. I thought everybody had forgotten me, but they were really nice to me.

“They published my poetry, later on, and they asked me to do readings in cafés.

“The second time I was invited for a physics conference, which I loved, because I still follow that very closely.

“Then my daughter [who sings with a rock band] was doing a huge European tour last year, so I went for that.

“We produced this album The Plastic People of the Universe: Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. The ‘banned’ was my joke. And there was the great book Merry Ghetto, Le Ghetto Joyeux, in the second pocket.”

“Now I was invited again for a student leaders’ conference on the Strahov occasion and everything was done very quickly, in a short while.

“The most important thing is that I love Prague so much that it has a very, very interesting effect on me, in terms of my memory and the activation of my physical feelings about it, which I slightly forgot but not completely.

“I just love it so much. And every single time was different. The last time I was there for two or three conferences in a row.

“Prague became very kind of physical. I began to really feel it as more than just kind of imaginary, which I was living within my dreams.”