A passionate controversy on the ‘68 Praguian events between two masters of Czech history

“It was a life that truly resembled to a work of art”. This is the posthumous eulogy dedicated by Milan Kundera to the only Czech who reached the same heights and overcame him by international fame: the dramatist, the resilient, and the first president, Václav Havel, passed away in 2011. Due courtesy or true admiration for this heroic character of the Velvet Revolution? One thing is for sure: only a few like Havel and Kundera have bounded their names in such a different way to the contemporary history of their country. They are the Czechs known by all, and for good reasons: Milan Kundera, the great emigrant novelist, the French, “the one of the Unbearable Lightness of Being” and Nobel Prize writer. Then Havel, the dissident intellectual, the one who stayed in the country to become initially the first president of Czechoslovakia liberated from communism, then of Czech Republic. A great politician, without doubt, but also a writer, dramatist and essayist. A duo out of the ordinary: Kundera, born in a middle class Moravian family, Havel, in a rich Bohemian family. As a young man, Kundera was a loyal communist while Havel always kept himself in a distance from the party. Kundera, the pessimistic glance on human nature, Havel, author of essays that exult optimist; Kundera who leaves the country in 1975 and succeeds in a brilliant career as a writer in France, Havel who stayed during the difficult years of normalization, lived and withstood as a dissident, endured prison, getting to the head of the country after the Velvet Revolution.

Two distant destinies, different, but connected to what remains in a different way a shared national history. And it is precisely in the historical sense of a great Czechoslovakian experience, the Prague Spring, that fifty years ago the two of them have engaged in a long distance dispute, a debate on the Czech Destiny – Český úděl. This is the title of the article published in the Listy magazine, in the Christmas issue, and signed Milan Kundera. Among other things, it is a historical and political reflection on the ‘68 Praguian events. Thoughts that rose Havel’s reaction. The reply arrived a few weeks later with the article Czech Destiny? – Český úděl? – published in February 1969. A three-act debate: Kundera replied again, harshly, radically, and put an end to the debate with the article Radicalism and exhibitionism. Three decisive writings: that rose debates, reactions, and will be discussed by the greatest Czech intellectuals. A fascinating debate, which is a historical and philosophical discussion of a unique event like the Prague Spring. However, there is more: the testimony of the failure of a certain type of political communism and the affirmation of a new and unique social perspective, inaugurated in Prague and an example for the entire world.

Let us take one thing at a time. Kundera’s first article was published when Prague Spring was just blooming, after August 21, 1968, the entry of the Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, for Kundera, autumn had not lost its strength. “Something unexpected has happened: the new politics managed to resist this terrible conflict. It is true that it went backwards at certain stages but it did not dissolve or collapse. It did not restore the police regime; it did not consent the dogmatic confinement of the spiritual life, it did not disown itself or betrayed its own principles, it did not abandon its own people, and not only had it the ongoing support of the community but exactly at the critical moment it managed to gather around itself the entire nation, proving itself to be stronger than the period that preceded August ‘68”. An article similar to a cry (for joy): to say that not everything had been lost. At the beginning, it was truly so, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, the attempt to build a socialism with a human face left room for a resistance of ideals: the reforms had not yet been all torn apart; something deep had been moved and renewed.

In retrospect, we know that the history of the normalization years was different, but a judgment of this type is unjust. Rather, it is useful to place Kundera’s reflection in its context and re-read it in its proud and conscious, perhaps utopian, but determined to state the importance of a socialism without doubt hors-norme. Even looking back, nobody can deny that the awakening of Prague Spring was something incomparable, which offered a reason of pride to the small Czech nation. A trace in History that allowed giving a new impulse to a system, the communist one, torn apart by its abuses, by the Soviet horrors and the ubiquitously characteristic dictatorial ways.

Among the different key ideas of Kundera’s first article there is also the struggle of the small nation to find a justification for its existence, and in the same time is the guarantor of a difference that stands up to the uniformity imposed by the more powerful countries. Thus, in his view, Czechoslovakia is the real possibility of a third way that denies both Stalinism and capitalism. The story was written in Prague. However, for Havel, who replied in 1969, Kundera’s arguments were nothing but shortsighted constructs, a blind rambling, a sterile patriotic impulse that uses a past and “closed” time to justify, glorify an already faded and gray present-time. Moreover, even that past, that experience, that breath of freedom that was the Prague Spring, had nothing extraordinary, on the contrary it was a simple (almost common) parenthesis of normality, a brief and fleeting passage of conditions based on freedom, the “norm” of democratic countries.

For Havel, there was nothing extraordinary on the Czech front, therefore, at least in his sixty-eight years old manifestation. For the future president, a return to the past would be justified only by an awareness of the society in the face of a brutal military intervention that came to crash inalienable values, an awareness useful to resist. For Havel, the Czechs are responsible of their destiny and now that the dictatorship has returned their mission is to assume it and change it. Kundera’s reply arrived a few weeks later. It was a judgment designed to be without appeal against the adversary. For the Brnonian writer, Havel, with his speech overflowing with lack of confidence in the present and in the Praguian Spring experience, would have presumably isolated himself in an ivory tower of moral justice, without dirtying his hands with the present, the struggle and popular pride useful to stay attached to something experienced and extraordinary. This is how the Havel-Kundera debate ended: even though history has answered certain questions, the interpretation of the ‘68 Czechoslovakian events remains an open debate.

A winner and a defeated? It is difficult and maybe pointless to issue judgments, but it is certain that Kundera had chosen the exile, Havel the country, the fight and writing first-hand the national history: if there is a Czech destiny, then it is surely his own.

by Edoardo Malvenuti