Letter from Prague
December 10 is International Human Rights Day. Twelve years ago, in 1988, Czechoslovakia's communist authorities bowed to international pressure and allowed dissidents to hold a public rally in Prague. Vaclav Havel was one of the main speakers.
The communist secret police secretly videotaped the meeting in one of Prague's rather more obscure squares and used the footage for anti-dissident purposes on state-run television. Many people in Vaclav Havel's entourage, people without whom it would have been impossible to stage Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution one year later, have since then fallen into oblivion, and, some of them, from grace. Their views are considered too leftist, some people who took over as national leaders after the fact say today. Today, few people remember what happened 12 years ago.
One year later, on December 10, 1989, Czechoslovakia's last communist president, Gustav Husak, resigned under the popular pressure of the Velvet Revolution; a lonely old dictator with gout who suffered from the old man's shuffle like all of his Stalinist tutors in the Kremlin. Significantly, he was forced to step down on International Human Rights Day. That served him right. Only, the old man was publicly mocked at a huge open-air rally staged by the nation's new-born anticommunists in Prague. I still think that the old crone, who had seen his era of proletarian internationalism, Warsaw Pact occupation and ensuing normalisation vanish in a single puff of history, shouldn't have been mocked by people who could have been his grandchildren. But then again, few people remember this 11-year-old episode today.
In 1960, Prague erected a Byzantine sculpted tribute to arguably one of the most ruthless criminals ever to disgrace the planet earth by his presence. In what Prague was quick to dub "the meat queue" in reaction to acute market shortages at that time, Joseph Stalin stood almost 50 feet high, overlooking this beautiful city from a mighty granite pedestal on Letna Hill, and leading a procession of other improbable characters, chiselled in stone: A Red Army soldier in full combat gear, a shock-worker wielding a hammer to constantly meet and beat production quotas, a plump collective farm beauty brandishing her sickle as proudly as if she had just delivered all the grain of the Ukraine to the Kremlin's door, and miscellaneous other characters who live only in your wildest dreams.
A few months later, the proletarian-extravaganza-cut-in-marble was demolished on orders from the Communist Party, which had only just realised that the mood in Moscow had long changed and Uncle Joe had fallen from grace. The sculpture was blasted to pieces with dynamite. Word spread quickly in those days. Rumour had it that the architect who designed the Meat Queue committed suicide. Later, potatoes were stored in the abandoned pedestal.
We Czechs are rather overzealous in erecting monuments and then tearing them down at short notice. Last month, the town of Kladno just west of Prague finally took back the keys, or freedom, of the city, from several notables of the past era. Chief among them was Klement Gottwald, this country's bargain-basement Stalin who happened to be the first communist president after the war. Like Stalin, Gottwald had blood on his hands, for it was under his tenure that most of Czechoslovakia's political trials took place and most people were condemned to hang or languish in jail.
Great, I said to myself, at long last, somebody in Kladno has come to his senses. But then I continued to read further. Jan Sverma was a hero of Czech anti-Nazi resistance in World War II. So, how come his widow was stripped of her honorary citizenship of Kladno during the same session of the city council? Was it because her husband was a communist? What did her induction into the Kladno Hall of Fame 50 years ago have to do with her husband's communist past? And further on along the line, Dolores Ibarruri, La Passionaria, the heroine of the Republican opposition against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, a woman recognised for her achievements throughout the civilised world, was also posthumously stripped of her keys to Kladno.
December 10 was Human Rights Day. We Czechs cannot rid ourselves of the tendency to pour out the baby with the bath water. We have lost track of what came first, and what followed. Maybe someday, when our fragile democracy grows stronger and stands on its feet, we will be able to tell one hero's wife from another, and one internationally acclaimed heroine from another. Even though she was an icon of the world communist movement as advertised by Comrade Joe Stalin. But, then again, few people will remember today.
Other communities in this country were even more extravagant than Kladno 50 years ago. Znojmo, at the heart of the southern Moravian wine-growing--and wine-drinking--area, once gave the freedom of the city to a failed artist and housepainter. His name was Adolf Hitler...