Jan Sokol – Part 1: It would be an exaggeration to say the StB killed Jan Patočka

Jan Sokol, photo: Ian Willoughby

Philosopher Jan Sokol was an MP in the early 1990s, served as Czech education minister and lost in the final round of voting for president in 2003. Barred from studying under the Communists, Professor Sokol came to philosophy via his father-in-law Jan Patočka, an early signatory of Charter 77. In the first part of a two-part interview, he discusses Patočka’s death, the achievements of Charter 77 – which he also signed – and the Velvet Revolution. But our conversation began with Jan Sokol’s family background and his own beginnings.

Jan Sokol,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Both of my parents studied art history. Father was an architect. He was a professor at the architecture school here in Prague.

“I have a younger brother. We are a Catholic family.

“After elementary school I was not allowed to study further, so I learned a craft, first goldsmith and then mechanic.

“And sometime in the ‘60s, when I married, I had the opportunity to start working with computers.

“I was a programmer and developer of operating systems for 25 years. I am a veteran of computers [laughs].”

To go back a little bit, what did the Communist takeover in February 1948 mean for the Sokol family?

“My parents observed with sorrow the developments before ’48, after the war.

“It was evident that a harsh time was coming.

“Some of our close relatives were imprisoned.

“For me and for my brother, it meant that we were not allowed to study – we were not allowed to even go to high school.

“So my brother was employed in various functions and he became a graphic artist, and I learned a craft.

“And my time as a craftsman was in fact rather a good opportunity to learn something [laughs].

“As was usual here, work started at 6 am [laughs], so at 2 pm one was free.

“As a craftsman one leaves one’s work on the table and goes home – no concerns [laughs].

“My time as a craftsman was in fact rather a good opportunity to learn something. Work started at 6 am so at 2 pm one was free.”

“So I was learning languages. I had plenty of hobbies.”

You studied philosophy even though you weren’t allowed to study philosophy. Were you basically self-taught?

“My first hobby was botany. Then another was physics and later I studied mathematics on evening courses.

“I came to philosophy only later, sometime in the ‘60s.

“I never studied philosophy but my father-in-law was a rather well-known Czech philosopher: Jan Patočka.

“And he was my tutor [laughs].”

So that’s how you got into philosophy, through Jan Patočka?

“Yes, I much admired him, but I never did the sort of philosophy he was doing.

“We had a good relationship and I learned very much from him.”

He’s regarded as one of the greatest of Czech philosophers. What was he like at the personal level?

“Patočka was an extremely gifted man. He was a good musician. He had an excellent talent for theatre.

“He was brilliant at foreign languages, and so on, so he was an imposing person – not to be overlooked anywhere [laughs].

“But he was in a way rather shy, very modest and, on the other hand, very serious about philosophy.

Jan Patočka | Photo: Jindřich Přibík,  archive of Jan Patočka,  CC BY 3.0
“This was for me a big lesson – how seriously he took philosophy.

“We often had long talks at home.

“As he was forbidden to teach, he missed teaching and students – so I played the role of a surrogate student [laughs].”

Jan Patočka was one of the first signatories of Charter 77 and paid ultimately a terrible price for that. It’s very well-known that he died after the StB interrogated him at great length, repeatedly. Do you think the StB wanted to bring about his death, or they just didn’t care either way?

“I think that the aim of the StB was not to kill him. And it would be an exaggeration to say that they killed him.

“He was a little bit ill in ’77 and the long interrogations only maybe accelerated his death.

“I think that the StB, or at least the Communist leadership, was not happy that Patočka died.”

Because it was bad publicity for them, internationally?

“Exactly, yes.

“As a consequence, we were somehow protected in the following years.

“So I was never imprisoned. Yes, I had normal interrogations and so on, but there was never any terrorist behaviour from the side of the StB.”

“As Jan Patočka was forbidden to teach, he missed teaching and students – so I played the role of a surrogate student.”

I’m sure his death had a terrible impact on your family. What affect did it have on the dissident community here in Prague?

“Yes, it was a blow for the Charter, undoubtedly.

“Patočka was not among the authors of the Charter, but when it started he made it what it was.

“He developed a line of, let’s say, civic morality which was, I think, very important for the profile of the Charter.”

How much do you think Charter ultimately achieved? Sometimes you come across people today questioning how much dissidents in general did for this country.

“Yes, this is a big question.

“Signing the Charter then, we knew that it would bring us difficulties.

“And I had no illusions about the possible outcome.

“But it was important to do something, to say something aloud.

“People sometimes imagine that the Charter was a sort of society, or something.

“Here the achievement I think only came in ’89, when the Charter was something that had a certain legitimacy among the public.”

“But Chartists never met together [laughs]. It was impossible to make some gathering.

“I think that the achievement of the Charter was first a great international retentissement [stir].

“And of course it was one of the important steps in the process of the decay of communism as a political system.

“Here, in the country, the achievement I think only came in ’89, when the Charter was something that had a certain legitimacy among the general public.

“So it was evident that if anybody has the right to speak in the name of the non-Communist majority of the country, it was the Charter.”

How was your Velvet Revolution?

“As I said, I was very lucky because I was then in computer development, research.

“The Communists were convinced that they needed us and I was rather successful, so I even didn’t lose my job, which was exceptional.

“In ’89, after the long years, I was very sceptical about the future.

“No-one could have imagined at all that communism could crumble.

“People sometimes imagine the Charter was a sort of society. But Chartists never met together. That was impossible.”

“We had the experience of ’68, of the enormous military machine, so it seemed that it was something which could not be destroyed.

“So I was very sceptical.

“We were not so numerous even on October 28 in ’89, on the state holiday – there were maybe 30,000 of us [demonstrating] on Wenceslas Square and we said to ourselves, That’s too few [laughs], it’s not enough.

“So I was very surprised.

“I was not at the demonstration on November 17 because I had an American TV team here.

“I said, This is a manifestation like any other.

“There were maybe half a dozen every year, so it was rather sort of routine [laughs].”

Which, of course, it turned out not to be that time. In 1990 you became a parliamentary deputy. Later, in the late ‘90s, you were minister of education for around six months. Did you enjoy being in politics?

“Well, it was my colleagues who pushed me into politics.

“In 1990 colleagues at the institute said to me, You have to stand – because on the [Civic Forum] list there are too many former Communists.

“I enjoyed the two years in parliament as an excellent experience.

“First parliament was something different from what it is today.

“It was a gathering of rather idealistic people – not the professionalised politics that we have today.

“Politics brought me to a completely different conception of philosophy. From then on I started to think and study about what Plato calls ‘political skill’.”

“But the opportunity to see the higher levels of state authority from the inside was extremely useful for me.

“It brought me to a completely different conception of philosophy.

“From then on I started to think and study about what Plato calls ‘political skill’ [laughs]: the art of doing politics and of keeping peace in a big society.

“This is a fantastic thing, so my philosophy from then on was always oriented in this direction.”

In the second part of this interview, out next week, Jan Sokol discusses whether the Communist Party should have been banned after 1989, the wisdom of introducing a public vote for president and the motivations of President Miloš Zeman, his acquaintance of over three decades.