Jolyon Naegele – A voice of the West for many Czechs in the 1980s

Jolyon Naegele, photo: Šárka Ševčíková

The name Jolyon Naegele is familiar to many who lived through the final years of communism in Czechoslovakia and other countries in the then Soviet Bloc. At that time Naegele was a roving Eastern European correspondent for the U.S. radio station Voice of America. In a special interview, he discusses his first impressions of Czechoslovakia in 1978, being harassed by the StB, meeting Václav Havel, the Velvet Revolution, and developments since then.

Jolyon Naegele,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
In 1985 the New York-born journalist received permission to report from inside Czechoslovakia where, despite the close attentions of the secret police, he managed to interview Václav Havel and other significant figures.

Naegele reported from the streets of Prague during the Velvet Revolution before moving to the city permanently. Today the head of the political affairs office of the UN’s Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, he still returns to the Czech capital on a regular basis.

Jolyon Naegele first visited this part of the world in the summer of 1973, at the age of 18. When we met before a talk he gave at the Václav Havel Library, we first discussed his initial impressions of the Moravian capital Brno, which he reached on a train across the Iron Curtain from Vienna.

“It was rather rundown and empty. Relatively few cars. Of course it was August.

“What I noticed there and elsewhere in the country during that visit and subsequent visits was the large number of pre-war vehicles that were still on the road. It was very difficult to get a car in those days, so people kept driving pre-war vehicles.”

It sounds like Cuba.

“Yes, without the colour. And without the beaches. Without the salsa.

“On the other hand, there were wonderful people, who were only too happy to meet people from the West and talk. Not necessarily about politics but on the contrary about all sorts of other things. About life.

“I ran into a family on the bus on my way from Brno to Telč who were on their way to an actors’ camp in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands and they invited me to join them.

“This was a camp actually of a theatre and I met a number of very well-known actors – or they became well-known, not only to me, here – on that weekend.

“I got to know Czechs in their element, or at least a slice of Czech society, before I continued on to Prague.

Brno,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“It was love at first sight, though it was a very different, also dilapidated place, compared to what it is today. The Metro was under construction and many of the main squares and boulevards were ripped open for the Metro.

“There were buildings where the façades were behind wooden scaffolding – clearly there for years – where somebody had started to repair them but there clearly weren’t the funds, or else the scaffolding was put up to protect pedestrians from falling masonry.”

You yourself must have been quite exotic as a young American in Prague in those days.

“Oh, yes. In fact on a subsequent visit with my father in 1976 I wanted to show him around Brno and I took him to the House of Culture where friends from the theatre worked and where I hoped I would find them.

“No-one was around at the time, but we spoke to an employee who was working where you check in your coats and hats.

“When my friends stopped by later, they were told that two exotic gentlemen had been in. Yes, we did look exotic.

“We were Americans. Maybe not the kind of Americans that one would imagine. We weren’t cowboys, we weren’t millionaires, but we weren’t members of the workers’ paradise here.

“What was interesting about that visit in 1976 was I saw Brno through my father’s eyes.

“My father had never been to the country before but he was born and raised in Stuttgart and he was struck by the similarity of Brno to pre-war Stuttgart, before the Allied bombings of ’43 to ’45.

“So when my friends asked him what his impressions of Brno were, he said, it’s strikingly similar. Not only the architecture, where I have the feeling that it’s the same architects from the late 19th and early 20th century who built pre-war Stuttgart, but the smells, because they were still burning coal, and the behavior of the police.

“It was, after all, a totalitarian state, a police state, and the arrogant behaviour of the police towards the general public and towards foreigners was palpable. And it did bring back unpleasant memories of the 1930s to him.”

Prague,  photo: Filip Jandourek
To jump forward a few years, you came here as an accredited journalist with Voice of America. I’m curious why the communists allowed a Voice of America journalist, gave you any accreditation, given that the Voice of America was so clearly against the policies of the communist state here?

“Very easy to answer that one – it was a matter of reciprocity. Czechoslovak Radio, as it was then known, had a correspondent in New York.

“And the US government, the State Department, decided that if this correspondent was to continue writing about the United States and not just about the UN, then the Voice of America, as the counterpart to Czechoslovak Radio, had every right to have accreditation here.

“Until that point was made clear both the Foreign Ministry and the government, the prime minister’s office, had rejected the suggestion of a VoA having accreditation here – no-one was talking about actually being stationed here but regular visits, monthly or whatever.

“After the embassy made the point, the issue went to the Central Committee, International Department, and within days the response was, we have nothing to fear – why not?

“So I received my accreditation, if memory serves, on 15 March 1985. It was a snowy day. I walked out of the Foreign Ministry having been warned by the press department not to insult this country or its system.

“Without a fixed idea of who my first target for an interview was going to be I decided, in the middle of this blizzard, to drop by at the Archbishop’s Palace and try my luck.

“I went into the little room on the left of the entrance gate, rang the bell and was let in. I explained to the elderly gentleman behind the counter that I’d like to interview the archbishop, the cardinal, František Tomášek.

“At that point the gates opened and his car drove in and he said, well, you can ask him yourself. So I went straight up to him and started stuttering and he said, get to the point!

Cardinal František Tomášek,  photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry
“I said, I’m from the VoA and I want to do an interview. He said, fine, come back to tomorrow. So I did that interview. It was another year before I had an interview with Václav Havel. But Tomášek was the first interview I did as an accredited VoA correspondent.

“I also did later that day, or the next day, with the government’s spokesman, Kouřil. In those days I suspect government spokesmen were just media advisors to the prime minister rather than anything else.

“The guy was very jolly and laughed at everything I said, but I can’t say I got much of a straight answer. I recorded the whole interview and then was told that none of it could be used [laughs].”

You were accredited, but in practical terms did the StB or other security forces try to thwart you or threaten you, or anything like that?

“Oh, yes. First of all I was under surveillance, and in fact I had been under occasional surveillance, frequent surveillance since 1981, when the StB, the state security service, first opened what was called a signal file on me and then launched an investigation of me within three months on suspicion of espionage.

“It’s significant that – this was 1981 – in 1987 the head of counterintelligence sent a memo to the head of the StB, who forwarded it to the interior minister, which said, to wit, there was no evidence in seven years of investigation to prove that Mr. Naegele had committed espionage, certainly no evidence, as they put it, that could be shown in a public trial.

“In other words, they could have had a secret trial and made up whatever they wanted, but in a public trial that wasn’t going to work. Hence they were suggesting that the cost to the state was so great that it would be better simply to stop the surveillance and analysis.

“It was not acted on. The surveillance continued and my file remained active until October 1990, 11 months after the collapse of communist rule and several months after I called on the government spokesman at the time, Miroslav Pavel, to explain why I was being followed around, if the StB had supposedly been dissolved in February of 1990. This was now the end of June, so it took a while.

“Harassed? Most definitely. Air was let out of all four tyres. My car was sprayed with a white stripe. I was roughed up in the Metro by a plain clothes office accompanied by a uniformed officer.

StB Archive | Photo: Czech Television
“I was threatened at that point – this was International Human Rights Day, 1988 – with expulsion, that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the country, and what did I say to that? I told him it was an anonymous threat and I couldn’t take it seriously.

“And of course, as I found out subsequently, 20 years ago now, when I gained access to my StB file – at least that which was gathered domestically – it was clear that my privacy was violated at every possible opportunity. Phone calls tapped, hotel rooms visited.

“Not only did they make a list of the reading matter, they opened my attaché case and made wax copies of the house keys and car keys. And so on and so forth. And much of it incompetent.

“This is something I want to stress here. The StB – just like reporters, ha-ha – was not all-knowing. It didn’t have all the answers.

“Even if it was led by a cyberneticist, too many of the people working in it – whether they were the analysts or the goons who were following us reporters around – were really not particularly bright or well-educated.

“These were people who were simply faithful to a regime and eventually from the mid-80s as the regime disintegrated they saw this as an economic opportunity and not much else.”

When did you first interview Havel? And how did a foreign correspondent go about getting an interview with Havel in those days?

“The first time I interviewed him was not the first time I met him. I saw him a couple of times. Once was at a reception at the US ambassador’s residence, when he was sort of in a huddle with the ambassador for most of the evening, so I couldn’t really approach him.

“The next time was at the funeral of the Nobel laureate Jaroslav Seifert, where Havel was monitoring outside the Rudolfinum the size of the crowd.

“He was not allowed in to pay his respects at the ceremony. Nor was he allowed into the cemetery – he was barred by the StB at the cemetery gates. I was allowed in, but subsequently hustled out and stuffed into a car and taken away for questioning.

“As for when I interviewed him, that was in the spring of 1986. There was some degree of conspiracy to arrange the meeting.

“It took place on a Sunday morning in the home of another dissident who was a nearby neighbour and whom Havel frequently visited, who was something of a mentor to Havel, Zdeněk Urbánek, so the police would not be suspicious seeing him going over for a coffee on a Sunday morning. I was already there.

Václav Havel,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“The interview focused on Havel’s winning of the Erasmus of Rotterdam prize. He was not going to the Netherlands to fetch it because he feared that he would face the same fate as Pavel Kohout after he returned from a year with the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1979 [Kohout was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship and refused entry into the country].

“So he came over and he focused specifically on the significance of the prize and what all this means. He gave considerable, very careful thought to what he said in his interviews with the VoA. He certainly didn’t want to be accused of sedition.

“He phrased things very well, courageously, very much to the point. He wasn’t a lawyer, but he knew the significance of what he was saying and he knew the impact that the VoA had.”

Were he and other interviewees aware of you as listeners?

“At the beginning, no, because I only started with the VoA in 1984… Those I interviewed perhaps didn’t know me so much, but I did become a household name in the course of the second half of the ‘80s

“I was compared by some dissidents to [legendary Prague German-language journalist] Egon Erwin Kisch or whoever, sort of a phantomus, because I was moving around. I wasn’t just covering Czechoslovakia but Bulgaria and Romania, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia.

“I tried to make it to Czechoslovakia once a month for four or five days. And getting these reports from other countries, all seen through the same persons eyes…

“I was one of the few people then, one of the only people they were in contact with, certainly, who could compare and contrast developments in the various states of East-Central Europe.”

And you were broadcasting in Czech?

“Yes and no. I was working for the Central News division, writing in English. Where necessary I conducted interviews in Czech, or Slovak or Bulgarian or whatever.

“I then filed those interviews and depending on how rickety my Czech was either my voice was used or there was a voiceover.

“On occasion the Czechoslovak service interviewed me. But that was fairly late in the game. That was I think ’89 or so. They would interview me live from Prague or wherever.”

I understand you got here a couple of days after the revolution began. What are your strongest memories of that time?

November 1989,  Wenceslas Square,  photo: Gampe,  CC BY 3.0
“Well, as the receptionist at the Hotel Jalta said, všechno je jínak, everything is different. But he meant it in a different way – in the sense that it’s not what you think you’re seeing.

“But what I saw was that what was different from the previous demonstrations in August and October ’88 and January and August and October ’89…

“You could never get more than 10,000 people out into the street to protest against the regime and call for freedom and free elections, Havel and so on, but now it was a far larger group, basically that filled Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square and Národní, in excess of 100,000. This was on the Sunday evening, November 19.

“The secret police and the uniformed police really didn’t know how to react. The secret police, the StB, were waiting for orders that never came. They just stood there.

“People were climbing on top of phone booths for a better view and the secret police made no effort to pull anyone down. They simply had stood down.

“However, the riot police, the so-called Pohotovostní pluk Veřejné bezpečnosti, were bussed in. After the demonstrators on the Sunday evening crossed the river at the National Theatre, near where we’re sitting [on Ostrovní St.].

“After they got to the other side and were across the bridge they were suddenly encircled. Similarly to what happened on Národní at the beginning – they were encircled. And there was panic.

“I ran up the slope into Petřín park, to get a view and to be outside of the cordon. I had just arrived that day from East Berlin.

“Then there was a standoff where both sides acted responsibly. There were talks – they weren’t behind any closed doors, they were out there in the streets. Part of it was on the megaphone, but both sides made clear what they wanted.

“So the demonstrators were allowed to disperse without violence. The police backed off and it was made clear that the demonstrators could not venture into Malá Strana or up to the Castle. They could venture into Malá Strana, but it was suggested they go in the other direction.

“I made it as far as Malá Strana square, Malostranské náměstí, where there were a lot of riot police with dogs and one really couldn’t go any further. That was the limit. That was now the frontier of socialism, as it were.”

Václav Havel,  photo: Czech Television
Jumping forward a bit once again, Havel and the others had an extremely steep learning curve. How well do you think they adapted to being thrust into power?

“The question is, adaptation to what? To become standard, run-of-the-mill politicians? Or to do things differently?

“They weren’t standard, run-of-the-mill politicians. What you had here were bureaucrats who served a one-party police state.

“For any previous model to that, you had to go back to 1948 or even to before 1939, so it’s not something that’s in your genes, it’s something you have to learn. And there was a steep learning curve.

“But as we can see, anywhere where you bring in people from outside it brings a fresh wind.

“Eventually, of course, the people who might be working in a bureaucracy in a police state might well be working in a bureaucracy in a parliamentary democracy. They are bureaucrats. I’m not saying all, but a large portion of them are bureaucrats by nature and they find their place.

“But Havel and his people weren’t classic bureaucrats.”

My final question is, generally speaking, how do you view developments here since then?

“It’s obviously been 25 years and visually the transformation in the first 10, 15 years was staggering, in terms of the renovation of the city, which was much faster than, say Budapest.

“Politically, it’s been a rough road. That has its roots not in only in communism but I think Czech politics, even predating independence in 1918, has always had a rough road and has never had enough time to really settle.

“And we can look at any number of European states, not only former socialist states, and see similar problems, that it takes generations and generations to work out standards, to work out a constitution that works.

“Look how often the Belgian constitution has to be changed, look how often the Italian government has changed since the war. Every country has its specificities. Parliamentary democracy has its strong and weak points.

Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar,  photo: Czech Television
“The breakup of Czechoslovakia was a tragedy because ideals that served as a model for other countries in the region and beyond were simply thrown out due to egos of a couple of politicians [Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar] who didn’t even have the courage prior to the elections to say what their intentions really were.

“Hence both betrayed their own nations in the process, for selfish goals. That I think was the greatest tragedy of the last 25 years here.”