Red tape: Rosamund Johnston digs into Czechoslovak Radio under communism

Rosamund Johnston

The new book Red Tape: Radio and Politics in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1969 takes a fresh look at radio broadcasting in, and to, the country between the end of the war and the immediate aftermath of the Soviet-led invasion. How “Communist” were staff at Czechoslovak Radio? How did reporters respond to the new freedoms that came with the Prague Spring? And what happened after that relatively liberal period was brutally curtailed? I discussed those questions and more with author Rosamund Johnston, a Vienna-based historian who is also a former colleague at Radio Prague International.

What state was Czechoslovak Radio right after the war, let’s say in the summer of 1945?

Rosamund Johnston,  Red Tape,  Radio and Politics in Czechoslovakia,  1945-1969 | Photo: Stanford Studies on Central and Eastern Europe

“I would say it was in a maybe surprisingly good state, given a lot of continental Europe and given a lot of the infrastructure in continental Europe at that time.

“On the other hand, there had just been a big fight for, among other things, Czechoslovak Radio, and it bore some of the scars, as well as had some of the prestige, of that.

“My book opens with an American visiting Prague just after the war and saying, Goodness, look at the radio masts in Prague; there were still radio masts standing, and standing proudly above the city.

0“Definitely Czechoslovak Radio – it was again Czechoslovak Radio, after having been Czech Radio during the war – had a big listenership. Many people had radio sets, largely thanks to the war, actually.

“There was a collective apology read out, I think either in May or certainly in June 1945 at the latest.”

“Yes, I would say it had a kind of concerted listenership, it was able to broadcast, but on the other hand of course it had suffered war damage, which is something we shouldn’t underestimate in those early post-war months in 1945.”

You write that the staff, or the reporters, apologised after the end of the war for what the station had done under the Nazis.

“Yes. You can hear that to this day in the radio archive, just downstairs.

Franta Kocourek reports on military parade of German troops | Photo: APF Czech Radio

“There was a collective apology read out, I think either in May or certainly in June at the latest, where some of the voices that people would know from throughout the war said, We’re sorry for what we did during the war.

“Czechoslovak Radio broadcast pretty much uninterrupted throughout the war, in a mixture of Czech and German. It broadcast news, it broadcast some anti-Semitic cabarets.

“There was an actor, Burian I believe, who was taken to court after the war for some of the things he said on the radio during the war.

“The most extreme examples were court cases, but there were just many people who weren’t sacked immediately after the war, and there were good reasons to sack them, and they went on the radio to kind of explain what they had done.”

Czech Radio played an exceptional role in the May Uprising of 1945. Radio broadcasts helped organise the uprising and cooperation of the insurgents. | Photo: APF Czech Radio

In the three years between 1945 and 1948, when the Communists took over, a lot of people turned Communist, or joined the Communist Party, in this country. Was something similar happening at Czechoslovak Radio?

“For sure. I would say that Czechoslovak Radio already came out of the war a fairly Communist institution. Though it’s hard to say, because of course Communists were persecuted under Nazism and a lot of individuals who would have been broadcasting here would not have been card-carrying members.

“I would say Czechoslovak Radio already came out of the war a fairly Communist institution.”

“But a lot of the opinions of famous reporters like, for example, Josef Cincibus, after the war, or Miroslav Disman would be another one… their sympathies definitely shifted leftwards and they definitely became card-carrying members way before 1948 and the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.

“And one could I think convincingly argue that they were part of the events that led up to the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.

“Czechoslovak Radio was a fairly Communist institution in terms of the political sympathies of those who worked here, and then in terms of political purges taking place both inside and outside the radio.

After the war,  a  monitoring service was established under Czechoslovak Radio | Photo: APF Czech Radio

“If you wanted to be a journalist anywhere in Czechoslovakia after the end of war, you had to be a member of the union. And if you had had collaborationist – in scare quotes – right-wing sympathies then you were not able to be a member of that union.

“So that kind of sorted out who could in the first place. But then at the radio there was also a kind of committee judging people’s wartime behaviour that saw people who looked like they’d collaborated too vigorously expelled from the radio.”

Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

In your book, which has the brilliant title of Red Tape, you also write about the notorious show trials of the early 1950s were broadcast live on Czechoslovak Radio. How much did those broadcasts set the tone for what followed on Czechoslovak Radio?

“The show trials during the Communist period were not live. They were pre-recorded, and they were among the first pre-recorded things really that were on Czechoslovak Radio in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

František Gel | Photo: APF Czech Radio

“The live trials that I write about in connection with the show trials are the Nuremberg Trials. So they were a very important sort of radio smash of the Third Republic, which is the ’45 to ’48 period.

“They took place in Nuremberg, so they were also quite technically difficult, involving setting up a live link to Nuremberg.

“It was one of the radio’s first foreign correspondents, František Gel, who became a legendary figure in post-war radio, who was dispatched there to undertake this complicated broadcasting.

“Then there was in Czechoslovakia after the war some trials of prominent Nazis, such as Karl Hermann Frank.

“These try to deliberately echo some of the sound of those Nuremberg Trials; for example, František Gel is also the voice who’s talking you through what’s going on. They are live, and they’re quite a feat of radio broadcasting.

“The show trials are definitely trying to link into an earlier sound of trials on the radio that listeners would know.”

“The show trials, again, employ František Gel at the beginning and are definitely trying to link into an earlier sound of trials on the radio that listeners would know.

“And I would argue that it is deliberately by using some of the expertise that the radio already has to broadcast trials, and to talk about trials, that politicians at that time want to achieve acceptance of the content of those trials amongst listeners.”

If we jump ahead to the second half of the ‘60s, Czechoslovak Radio had some very famous journalists who are still remembered today. But given the political situation, was it possible, even in the second half of the ‘60s, to work as a journalist at Czechoslovak Radio and have integrity?

“I think we have to not be ahistorical about how we pose this question. What does integrity look like in the ‘60s? I don’t think it looks the same as now.

“That may sound like prevarication, but it’s not. What I want to say is, Yes, of course, if you were working in Czechoslovak Radio in the ‘60s, especially in an in front of the microphone job, especially a job where you’re travelling a lot, you’re a member of the Communist Party.

Photo: APF Czech Radio

“These often were individuals who were very articulate about why they wanted to be members of the Communist Party and were able to make a very good argument for communism.

“I would not say that that is lacking integrity. Very often these were convinced Communists and often, towards the end of the ‘60s, convinced reformists who wanted communism to change but wanted communism to change in order to save it and have years more of communism.”

Were some of them, like a lot of people, Stalinist intellectuals in the ‘50s who then became disappointed and disillusioned by the ‘60s?

“That’s definitely an argument that I’ve heard. I don’t know if it’s necessarily always about disappointment.

The Soviet occupation destroyed any hope for a revivalist process in Czechoslovakia and for Czechoslovak Radio’s ability to broadcast freely. The establishment of a government Office for Press and Information meant the revival of censorship.  | Photo: APF Czech Radio

“I focused on foreign correspondents. It could often be that they would be travelling places and thinking, OK, this is an interesting idea from here, this is an interesting idea from there.

“It’s not necessarily about disappointment. It’s about, I suppose, thinking that there’s room for improvement.

“By the mid ’60s there was a really interesting and, I think, excellent journalist, Milan Weiner, who becomes head of the foreign section.

“He was somebody who was Jewish, he joined the Communist Party during the war in a concentration camp, and then had a really hard time during the show trials – he was not allowed to write or be a journalist or certainly be on the radio in the ‘50s.

Milan Weiner | Photo: archive of Czech Radio

“And he becomes the head of the foreign section in the ‘60s and he starts to do a lot of radio commentaries where he says, We mucked up – this sort of political violence, the deaths, this was shocking.

“But I don’t know that everyone has this kind of narrative of repentance.

“I’m looking at one generation, largely, who would often say, We were very young at the beginning, we were not a part of the violence necessarily of the late ‘40s, early ‘50s.”

I guess maybe the most significant moment during the Prague Spring period was when censorship was ended. How did the radio journalists respond to that? You suggest that they were kind of cautious and didn’t act as if they have great freedom.

“When we talk about the Prague Spring we often talk about the euphoria of it. What we talk about less is that there was a cautiousness and a fear.”

“Yes. Again maybe from our current perspective it might look like they were dying to write something and they just couldn’t and then freedom comes and they can.

“But I would say that these are individuals who for the last 20 years have been honing how to kind of write what they want, through censorship. So I don’t they were necessarily feeling so curtailed all the time.

“I also think that when we talk about the Prague Spring now we often talk about the euphoria of it. But what we talk about less is that there was a cautiousness and a fear.

In front of the Czechoslovak Radio building,  August 1968 | Photo: APF Czech Radio

“I really try to stress in this book that I don’t think that either reporters or Czechoslovak citizens were idiots. They were always kind of thinking about where they were internationally, what they could and couldn’t do and what the limits of what they could do and say were.

“So yes, I think people were certainly cautious. But I don’t think they were cautious because they thought, Oh, the Soviets might come; I think they also wanted to – what should I say – again, they wanted to shore up socialism. They just wanted to do it a bit better and talk about things that had not been…

“Again, Weiner says this: People had been talking about certain things, perhaps like show trials, but they hadn’t been talking about them on the radio.

In front of the Czechoslovak Radio building,  August 1968 | Photo: APF Czech Radio

“So it was about bringing that in, in a sensitive and thoughtful way. Which still created massive shock.

“I personally think that the revocation of censorship, and the way that Warsaw Pact countries reacted to that, was one of the reasons for the invasion in August ’68.”

What happened after August ’68, when the Soviets rolled in, to the staff at the radio?

Speech by President Ludvík Svoboda after the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in 1968 | Photo: APF Czech Radio

“This is an important point. I don’t think that the caution that people had shown in terms of saying what they thought was because they were trying to hedge their bets. I don’t.

“These individuals were very often, though not always, voices who had become massively linked to reform communism and massively linked to the Prague Spring.

“People were offered the chance to recant for their actions, and none of these individuals did. They truly stood by what they had said in those months.”

And then they were kicked out?

Jiří Dienstbier | Photo: Jarmila Johnová,  Czech Academy of Sciences

“Exactly. But generally this happened in a kind of gradual way.

“I’m not an expert on the normalisation period, but my understanding is that also, in general, politicians kind of had to figure out what to do in the second half of ’68 and ’69; they didn’t know quite yet.

“So a lot of these individuals were kept on. Jiří Dienstbier even becomes America correspondent but he’s not allowed to voice his own reports – his voice can’t be on the radio, because it’s his voice that’s dangerous, not actually something he might write.

“A lot of these individuals are kept on, but shunted to behind the scenes roles, which is something you saw in the ‘50s, too – that often happened to people.

Věra Šťovíčková - Heroldová | Photo: Katarína Brezovská,  Radio Prague International

“Then ultimately, round about 1969, they were often kicked out. And then their situation gets progressively worse. Then they’re not able to work in museums, then they’re not able to work in any sort of white collar job.

“And in the case of the kind of heroine of this book, Věra Šťovíčková, she ends up getting a job, through fellow dissident Petr Pithart, in the municipal light warehouse.”

Another aspect of your book is international broadcasts entering Czechoslovakia from abroad, including the American stations Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, which the Communists here regularly jammed. You seem to question whether listening to those American stations and their Czech-language broadcasts was an act of resistance, as it is often portrayed as.

“Yes. I think I want to say, This was not a criminal offence, which does not mean that it didn’t have consequences.

“But it is I think something that people routinely undertook, it’s something that people did do. And it is nice now to think that that had tremendous political significance; I’m not sure that it’s always clear at the time that that was what people felt.

“I spent a lot of time coming into this building sitting in that high-ceilinged room on the ground floor, listening.”

“And I would say that we have good scholarship about World War II, where we find that people did generally listen to the BBC, and at that time that did have consequences: people got killed for that in the Protectorate.

“But afterwards that was, what should I say, trumpeted perhaps more than it was at the time, because that suited narratives that people were trying to make about themselves being dissidents all along.”

Finally Rosie, you’ve been around this place for decades. You used to work at Radio Prague International, that’s how we know each other. I presume you spent a lot of time in the archives here, in the basement – how was that experience?

“[Laughs] I have very fond memories of those months in the archive. I would say that by the time of the pandemic then I was able to access most radio stuff, like you, from home.

Archive of Czech Radio | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“But yes, I spent a lot of time coming into this building sitting in that high-ceilinged room on the ground floor, listening.

“I tried to do it so that I would frontload the political speeches – they were never my favourite sort of radio to listen to – and then I’d leave myself for the afternoon or Friday something like Mikrofórum or one of these shows that would be on during the same years as these long, boring political speeches but they would have more music in or they would have celebrities in.

“So I have very fond memories of it, but yes, I’ve waded through all kinds of stuff down there.”

Rosamund Johnston’s Red Tape: Radio and Politics in Czechoslovakia, 1945–1969 is published by Standford University Press on March 26.