Philosopher Jan Patočka, co-founder of Charter 77, remembered

Jan Patočka, photo: Jindřich Přibík, archive of Jan Patočka, CC 3.0

March 13th marked 40 years since the death of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, one of the founding members and first spokesmen for the Charter 77 human rights movement. Patočka, who suffered from ill health, was interrogated for 10 hours by Czechoslovakia’s secret police, the StB. His health rapidly worsened and he later died. His funeral itself became an expression of opposition to the regime.

Jan Patočka, photo: Jindřich Přibík, archive of Jan Patočka, CC 3.0
Repression against original signatories of the Charter 77 was swift and unforgiving and in the case of one of the movement’s first spokespeople, Jan Patočka, it cost him his life. Not long after a secret meeting in March 1977 with Dutch politician Max van der Stoel, Mr Patočka was interrogated at length by the StB, once for ten hours – interrogations which led to him suffering a collapse and later, death. Historians such as Petr Blažek at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes say that the secret police were well aware of Mr Patočka’s health problems; it didn’t stop them in their methods.

“Patočka suffered from angina pectoris and the StB knew all about his health from his doctor who provided them with information… After Patočka’s meeting with van de Stoel, the StB appeared at his home on March 1 and 2. On March 3, he was interrogated for 10 hours, during which he collapsed. Later that night he fell ill and the emergency services were called.”

In hospital, Patočka was stabilized and Petr Blažek says made enough of a recovery that he continued writing. But not long after his condition worsened again: a stroke or heart attack and partial paralysis. He died on March 13 at the age of 69. The regime, not surprisingly, was not to content to back off even then: instead, the philosopher’s funeral in Břevnov was targeted. The regime, fearful the occasion could be used to spur opposition, opted for measures to try and change the day, and once it went ahead, to mar the ceremony in any way possible. Petr Blažek again:

“Members of the secret police wanted to speed up the date of the funeral from the 17th to the 16th, and managed to do with the help of the priest: he had been an StB agent since 1948. Moving it ahead, meant that many of Patočka’s friends from abroad couldn’t attend. Others were turned back or detained on the way.

“In addition, a recently-bought Soviet Mi2 helicopter flew above the cemetery to drown out speeches, which in the end, ironically, was only that of the priest. Not far off, the revving of engines by the Red Star speedway club added to the noise.”

Despite the regime’s best efforts to disrupt the funeral and scare supporters away, Petr Blažek says some 900 people, many of them young and part of the artistic underground movement, did manage attend. The funeral was photographed by Ondřej Němec and that series is now on display at the National Gallery’s Salmovský Palác. You can also see the images at the website of Czech TV.