In memoriam: Philosopher and underground lecturer Ladislav Hejdánek who helped shape Charter 77

Ladislav Hejdánek, photo: Přemysl Fialka, CC BY-SA 4.0

Czech philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek died on Monday at the age of 92. He is primarily remembered as one of the first spokespeople of the Charter 77 initiative – and for his role as a lecturer at underground seminars during the 1980s.

Ladislav Hejdánek,  photo: Přemysl Fialka,  CC BY-SA 4.0
Born into Masaryk’s First Republic in 1927, Ladislav Hejdánek was one of those increasingly fewer people to have experienced all forms of the modern Czech state. However, most of his working life was affected by communism.

During the first 20 years of Communist rule, Hejdánek was forced to work in manual professions, but maintained his activity in philosophy.

First through his involvement in the Evangelical reformist movement New Orientation, which formed critical attitudes towards the social conditions in Communist Czechoslovakia. And later as a contributor to magazine Tvář.

In 1968, he was finally given a position at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences on the recommendation of one of the most influential philosophers of 20th century Czechoslovakia, his teacher Jan Patočka.

His work there would be short-lived. As a new wave of post-Prague Spring repressions kicked in, Hejdánek found himself in prison for six months and was later employed as a night porter, heater and storekeeper.

However, the philosopher did not give up. Conforming to the totalitarian system did not square at all with his concept of philosophy, which he explained after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Alexandr Vondra,  photo: Jana Přinosilová / Czech Radio
“A philosopher cannot live in a society that is not at all interested in philosophy. If he is forced to live in such a system, he degenerates. This is why a philosopher tends to look for a way to shout, to say something powerful. Therefore he must provoke. A philosopher who says something that the people expect of him is useless. Anyone can do that.”

Hejdánek would go on to play an important role in setting up underground seminars during the 1980s, which provided education to many important figures on the Czech political scene following the Velvet Revolution.

One of his students during those years was former defence minister and current MEP for the Civic Democrats, Alexandr Vondra.

“[The seminars] had tremendous quality. These were really systematic lectures and exercises. I appreciated that he did it really well. Secondly, he was a philosopher. His concept of philosophy was not as a science. His concept of truth was not about the way someone can process truth, but the systematic challenge from above and our duty to respond. It had a very practical meaning for all of us who were living in a totalitarian regime.”

The classes were organised in cooperation with Western universities and often featured foreign lecturers, visiting clandestinely. Barbara Day was involved in the coordination of underground contacts between the two sides and recalls Hejdánek as, above all, a very kind man.

Barbara Day,  photo: archive of The English College in Prague
“What struck me most about him was how much he wanted to be helpful and how he could not have done enough for me in the contacts I needed to make.”

Hejdánek also acted as spokesman for Charter 77. His role among the chartists was fundamental, says Mr Vondra, because of his work on its theoretical concept together with Jan Patočka. It was they, he says, who anchored Charter 77 as a minimalist initiative rather than a political movement.

After the revolution, Hejdánek became a professor at Charles University and received many awards, among them the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in 1995. However, those who knew him say he was a more left-leaning man and was not entirely happy with the way the Czech Republic had developed since it regained democracy in 1989.