My Crazy Century: Ivan Klíma reflects on his journey to communism and back

When Ivan Klíma was a little boy, he knew he wanted to be a writer. Today, he is one of the most respected figures of Czech literature. Ivan Klíma’s life journey included years in a Nazi concentration camp, membership in the communist party, and later a life on the fringe of the society, after he was expelled from the party and joined Czechoslovakia’s opposition movement. In his latest book, My Crazy Century, Ivan Klíma explains what happened that he found himself in the ranks of the communist party, a totalitarian and criminal organization that ruled his country for four decades.

My Crazy Century is part memoirs, part a collection of essays on topics related to social history, political thinking, communism, and freedom. When I first read the book, there were many words that came to mind to describe what the author went through. When, on a stormy evening, I sat down with Ivan Klíma in his house in Prague, I wondered why he chose to call it crazy.

“Because it was crazy! There were so many wars, killings and murders, and so many stupid dictatorships. And it was the whole century – it started in 1914, with this crazy war, the First World War; then it continued in Germany, Italy, and then in the Soviet Union of course. The communist era lasted nearly till the end of the 1980s. And in between, there were so many killings in Africa, in Cambodia, and in China of course. So it was really in some ways the cruellest and craziest century in history.”

Ivan Klíma was born in Prague in the middle of the Great Depression into a middle class family. His father was an engineer and a member of the Communist Party while his uncle was a communist Senator. Ivan Klíma says that the economic crisis was though, and communist propaganda sounded so attractive.

“In our country, it was really a very difficult time for so many people. For example my father, he worked in a big factory, so he didn’t lose his job because he was a specialist. But he was on very friendly terms with many workers, and most of them did lose their jobs. So he was probably influenced by this crisis, and by those ideas of a better life, more freedom and more justice; that is, by communist propaganda.”

Ivan’s parents were Jewish. He himself heard the word “Jew” during the dark times at the end of the 1930s. But his parents were very much aware of the danger. After the Munich Agreement of autumn 1938, they were planning to leave the country for the UK. Here is a passage from My Crazy Century.

* * *

My father was disappointed with the English but my parents told me we were going to move to England. And I got this very cute English textbook with pictures that was called Laugh and learn, and my mum started to learn with me.

I wanted to know why we should move to a country where people speak a language I don’t understand, where words like sponge and wash basin are read differently than they are written, why we should move from our new apartment that we all liked.

My dad said I wouldn’t understand, but that he had been offered a good job, whereas here, anything could happen, especially if the country was occupied by the Germans, who were ruled by some upholsterer and a nasty piece of work called Hitler. One snowy day, the Germans did indeed invade the country. My mum was crying aging and lamented that had Masaryk been still alive, he wouldn’t have let the Germans in.

* * *

In the years to come, there was little laughing and learning for Ivan Klíma and his family. In 1941, they were deported to Terezín, a concentration camp for European Jews. The family spent three and a half years there before the ghetto was liberated by the Red Army. This experience was crucial for his future decision to join the Communist party some six years later.

“I tried to explain how it could happen that after this horrible experience in the camp, so many people joined the party. So I tried to explained that I was very young, that I was partly influenced by my parents and some of my relatives, but it was mainly an expectation that it would improve the life of everybody. For my and many of my friends – a part of my generation, we were liberated by the Soviet Army. So we linked the Soviets with freedom, which was of course nonsense, and we found this out very soon.”

Ivan Klíma joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1951. A year before, the democratic politician Milada Horáková was sentenced to death in a show case trial, and executed. Here is another sample from My Crazy Century.

* * *

Among all the oral and written exams, my history teacher called me into the teachers’ lounge and told me that the party group at our school decided to offer me membership in the Communist Party. ‘We all believe,’ she said with friendly sternness, ‘that the party will help you in your efforts for a higher civic mindedness and that your work will be an asset to the party.’

I said thank you. At home I carefully filled in the application. My class background was not very good, I was not aware of any worker among my ancestors, but I did have two uncles who had been executed who, with the same poor class background, were pre-war party functionaries and national heroes.

[…] At home I showed off my new party book but to my surprise, there was no praise. My dad just said, ‘It was your decision!’ My mother looked sceptical: ‘Couldn’t you wait for a bit longer?’ And my thirteen-year-old brother noted that in his class, they had a name for people like me: newborn redskins.

* * *

Ivan Klíma
Three years after Ivan became a party member, his father was sentenced to jail by the new, class justice, for crimes he never committed. Ivan Klíma says that what his father’s experience was one of the fist signs that something had gone terribly wrong.

“I found out that it was really a criminal organization, with criminal aims. I found this out some time in the early 1950s. We found out about the horrible lies, and how many people were murdered, and how many people were sentenced to concentration camps. My own experience with my father, who was also a party member – he was also put in the prison and sentenced for entirely invented crimes. When he came back from the prison, he told us about the details, about how secret police behaved, and so on.”

But it was, typically, a book, that fully opened Ivan Klíma’s eyes. In 1958, Ivan Klíma got hold of “The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1879 – 1921 by the Polish-born Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher. The book described the atrocities of the Soviet regime in the 1920s and 30s, and shocked the young writer. In the mid 1960s during his trip to England, Ivan Klíma in fact met with Isaac Deutscher – but the encounter turned out to be a disappointment.

“Back in London, Janet proudly announced that she had found the address of Isaac Deutcher and arranged for me to meet him at four PM the next day.

So the following day I bought an extremely expensive (for me, at least) bouquet of flowers and arrived at the address, which I have long since forgotten.”

Ivan Klíma
“Mr Deutscher, a small, bald sixty-year-old with a live look and a goatee just like Leon Trotsky whom he liked so much, and checked me thoroughly right at the door, looking perhaps for an ice pick hidden under my coat. […]”

“I think he was interested in what I had to say. He said he followed particularly the developments in Poland as well as in other countries of the Soviet bloc. He understood our disappointment from the post-revolutionary development in our country but he believed that the Stalinist bureaucratic deformation of socialism could not survive for much longer. What had to survive, what we had to guard, was the idea of socialism and its unquestionable advantages over capitalism.”

Mr Deutscher simply refused to acknowledge that the system as such was completely wrong.

“No, he listened to me, but he tried to find the right way for me, that is, to criticize bureaucracy, but to be faithful to the ideas of Marx, Engels and Trosky.”

In 1960s Czechoslovakia the ideas of Marx and Engels came under through scrutiny. Many people, and a number of leading intellectuals among them, saw that that the regime was not going to bring a more just society; instead, it was never going to let go of the power it grabbed after the war. In 1967 at a conference of Czechoslovak writers, several authors had the courage to describe things as they really were. One of them was Ivan Klíma who was expelled from the Communist Party because of his speech.

Ludvík Vaculík,  Milan Kundera,  Ivan Klíma  (left to right) at the conference of Czechoslovak writers,  photo: CTK
“The party leadership decided to launch disciplinary action against those of us who were labelled the principal authors of the writers’ mutiny and were at the same time members of the Communist Party; that is against Kohout, Liehm, Vaculík and me.”

“We never talked about this embarrassing moment in our lives but I am sure that my friends were, just like I was, accused of revisionism aimed against not only the principles of the party but also against the communist state. They also asked me if I thought that my views were compatible with party membership. I told them they were hardly compatible with the party they had in mind.”

This is the first part of “My Crazy Century” ends. After the occupation, the Soviets and their home grown serves launched a period renewed oppression, and for twenty years the works of Ivan Klíma could only be published in the west. Looking back, Ivan Klíma says that for those who stood up against the regime, life became much tougher, but also more honest.

But we’ll have to wait for the second part of My Crazy Century to come out to learn more about Ivan Klíma’s life in the 1970s and 80s.

“What I describe is my experience with secret police, all those home searches, and so on. Also, I talk about everyday life, our children, and about how we had our clandestine meetings, and what we discussed, and about the spies… It may be a little more readable because it’s like a crime story. I’m exaggerating, of course. And there will be some essays again – one is about emigration, another about secret police, and the last is about Perestroika.”