In 1979, when I was teaching philosophy at the University of London, I responded to an invitation to discuss a private seminar in Prague. I traveled from Poland, frozen inwardly by the terrifying cold of Communism – and Communist Prague did nothing to warm me up.
I walked to the address I had received through deserted streets. The stairs of the apartment complex were also abandoned. Everywhere there is the same waiting silence in the air, such as when an air strike is announced and the city is hiding from the upcoming destruction.
Outside the apartment I met two police officers, who grabbed me when I rang the bell and demanded my papers. My host came out and an argument followed, throwing me down the stairs. But the argument went on and I could dive past the guard and the apartment.
I found a room full of people and the same waiting silence. I realized that there would really be an air attack and that, so to speak, the air attack was mine.
In that room was a battered remnant of the intelligentsia of Prague – old professors in shabby vests; long-haired poets; students with a new face who have access to the university for political & # 39; crimes & # 39; was denied of their parents; priests in normal clothing; novelists, theologians, a so-called rabbi and even a psychoanalyst.
And with all of them I saw the same traces of suffering and the same desire for the sign that someone cared enough about them.
They all belonged to a profession: that of stoker. Some fired boilers in hospitals; others in apartment buildings; one stopped at a railway station, another at a school. Some were fired where there were no boilers to burn, and these imaginary boilers became a fitting symbol of the communist economy for me.
Roger receives the Czech medal of merit from President Václav Havel
This was my first introduction to & # 39; dissidents & # 39; and I immediately felt an affinity. Nothing was as important to them as the continued existence of their national culture.
They were deprived of material and professional progress and were not allowed to publish or travel. The authorities had kept their existence hidden from the world and decided to remove their traces from the history book.
How did this situation arise, I asked, and I was stunned by the answer. These people, including some of the most prominent teachers of their generation, had been sentenced to unreliable jobs, either because they had signed Charter 77, calling on their government to respect the rights of citizens, or because they had refused a colleague to the denounce. to do the same. (The founders of Charter 77 were Vaclav Havel, who would later become president when Czechoslovakia was freed from Soviet control.)
Some of the young people were removed from the university because of the organization of reading groups. Others were punished as members of the & # 39; imperialist Zionist conspiracy & # 39; (a code name for the Western alliance but with a nice hint of anti-Semitism along the way) and were thus removed from their posts after a campaign of malignancy in the national press.
In short, I spoke to a room of criminals whose & # 39; crimes & # 39; consisted of uttering the wrong word, reading the wrong book, belonging to the wrong network, and generally relying on the free life of the mind. Does this sound familiar? Then read on …
Other freethinking academics had experiences such as mine in Prague and – now safely back in London – we came together to set up a charity dedicated to the cause of free education in Czechoslovakia and supported seminars where Western scientists, artists and intellectuals their knowledge and expertise.
For me this was the most exciting of the adventures, although one that caused a lot of alarm when one of our contacts was arrested.
Things made a big step forward when I met Jiri Muller in Brno, a city in what is now the south-eastern corner of the Czech Republic.
Few people knew about Jiri. A foreman in a fire extinguisher factory who had spent five years in prison for undermining the republic, worked closely and secretly for the liberation of his country and the restoration of a democratic constitutional state.
It was through a secret network of contacts, with Jiri at the center, that official academics could consult and advise their underground colleagues, that official ecologists could exchange research with their excluded counterparts and that judges could advise victims of The Party. .
Through Jiri, artists, writers and musicians were able to establish links with the West and experts to offer their knowledge to the anti-communist cause.
Yet Jiri himself was always hidden. Few of those he brought together would meet him and fewer people still knew the extent of what he was doing. For good reasons, he hardly trusted anyone.
I could only meet him because he had been sent a message from someone he trusted and told him at a certain time on a certain corner of the street in Brno.
We were warned against Brno – even the trees in the park, they said, were bugged and the police had complete control.
I walked over to the man I assumed was Jiri, who looked at me silently for a long time before he beckoned and walked away.
I followed, aware of the trees that listened to us.
Only when we stood in his kitchen together did he turn to me and agree on a list of necessities: tapes to capture the true story of Czech literature from a dissident professor, who could then be distributed through the schools. He wanted to attract visitors to the Brno theater. He needed help for an important dissident sculptor, Bibles for a Lutheran church, caps and other sacred objects for a secret synagogue …
We had to accompany him in the task of maintaining Czech society and culture in spite of the secret police. It was a beautiful vision – and who would not surrender to it wholeheartedly if he was told that there would be no reward besides the danger?
I still lived in London and have now traveled to Czechoslovakia for a few days to help manage the network. We have simulated Jiri's methods as well as possible and the result was, in my opinion, a creditable attempt at an underground university, with samizdat (or underground) publications, smuggling of books, structured courses on important topics and even exams leading to a degree from the Divinity School of the University of Cambridge.
For coverage we depended on one or two high-profile & # 39; high-profile & # 39; seminars led by people who were brave enough and well-known to operate under the nose of the secret police.
From time to time these seminars would be raided and sometimes our visitors would also be arrested and even detained for a night or two. But the fuss of these seminars allowed us to set up really secret courses in Prague, Brno and Bratislava. Our goal was the goal that Jiri had taught us: to pass on the knowledge and culture that the official universities had suppressed.
We have offered the students books and materials and have informed our visitors of each topic where it was left. We offered courses in philosophy, Hebrew, history, musicology, classical architecture, visual arts, theater and everything else that was asked. We supported a circle of composers in Brno as well as artists and sculptors who had lost the right to exhibit their work. Everywhere we were met by grateful people who were willing to take the risk of meeting us purely for the sake of knowledge.
Initially, as a marginalized, I was surprised by the support we had from colleagues in Great Britain and France. Not only were they willing to take the risk of being arrested, deported or worse, all political differences were pushed aside in the desire to work together in the pursuit of knowledge. Whether it was Left, Right or Center, our colleagues only wanted to learn what they knew from people who wanted to learn from them.
I had known that I would be arrested for the look that the girl at the embassy gave me when I applied for my visa in London and so, on what would turn out to be my last mission, I took a cumbersome route to Czechoslovakia, via Vienna .
It bought me enough time to meet Jiri. And on a summer day in 1985, when we were staring at one of those listening trees in the park in Brno, the tree turned into the slick young secret police officer who was hidden behind it.
White-helmet Czechoslovak riot police patrols Wenceslas Square in the center of Prague on 28 October 1988 during a major anti-government and anti-communist demonstration on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the then Czechoslovakia
His attempts to arrest me were bravely opposed by Jiri, who claimed that we first had to return to his house to collect my things.
After a hectic chase in Jiri & # 39; s farmers Trabant, chased by a fleet of Mercedes, we crashed through the door of his little house and into the bathroom, where Jiri swallowed the pieces of paper I had swallowed him from England one by one.
By the time I was delivered to the authorities, there was no trace of the messages I had delivered. I was interrogated and searched for a few hours, but I left the circumstances slightly.
That night I ended up in a border village in Austria and looked back with nostalgia at the Jewish cemetery in Mikulov, where Jiri and I were allowed to exchange a few final words before I was deported.
After this, our collaboration took a new shape. I never thought I'd see my friends again. Even less did I imagine that one day I would witness the occupation of the highest political offices in their country. But I was determined to continue our work and thus communicate with Jiri through letters, packages and computer disks taken by Messenger. I learned to read the language and became familiar with the beautiful cultural heritage of Bohemia and Moravia.
I became a Czech patriot the moment I became an official enemy of the Czechoslovak state.
I waited anxiously for the news of my adopted brothers and sisters and succeeded in sleepless nights when I heard that one of them had been arrested. This strange situation has changed my character – I hope for good.
In any case, this has led me to think for a long time about Europe and its destiny, about communism and about the human soul, which seems to live on in secret even when its existence has been denied as it was by communism was denied. In the Czech countries I felt the presence all around me of a dark, impersonal force, a controlling and all-observing eye whose purpose was to plant suspicion and fear in the heart of every human relationship.
You could trace this power to no specific person, to any office or authority. It was just there, an invisible wall between everyone trying to escape.
I had no name for this dark force, other than & # 39; It & # 39; – a kind of denial of humanity. From behind the first excitement of friendship or love, it was lurking to reduce the flame to ashes. Whenever I boarded the plane home, I felt I escaped the grip of this alien force and returned to a place where fear, suspicion, and condemnation had no power over ordinary human decency.
Later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were proud of the alumni of our university, including the Czech and Slovak prime ministers of the day.
Compared to the dark cloud of imprisonment that was the only thing that the impersonal machine of communism could produce through a university, we had created a pool of light in which we could converse freely. This was also a sign of the virtue of my country: without the British sense of fair play and free research, we would never have pursued such a stupid cause as possible.
But how different are these days. There are now wanderers of disapproval in our universities who accuse one scholar after another of the wrong word, the wrong associations, the wrong & # 39; ism & # 39; or & # 39; phobia & # 39; from the list of favorite thinking crimes, as is the case with professor John Finnis in Oxford, accused of homophobia, or Noah Carl at St. Edmund's College Cambridge, smeared like a racist.
Their cases creepily take into account the official documents that our Czech colleagues had to sign and that sued this or that innocent person for his part in the international Zionist conspiracy.
The hysteria on witch hunt has returned with vengeance, not in Eastern Europe, but here, where open investigation and the presumption of innocence have been the foundation of the moral order and the guarantee of the citizen's peace until now.
Even the Divinity School in Cambridge, which once bravely helped us offer diplomas to our students, has joined the witch hunt and has withdrawn a camaraderie offered to the conservative thinker Jordan Peterson in response to a petition littered with the signatures of ignorant snowflakes.
And when a few months ago I was simply removed as the (unpaid) head of a government quango – better building, beautiful building – for things I had neither thought nor said, my Czech colleague & # 39; s: & # 39; Yes, it starts again. "And by & # 39; it & # 39; they really meant it.
Now, in Britain, like back then in Czechoslovakia, the true intellectual is a dissident, and if our national memory exists to survive, it will be because we have succeeded here, just as we built there, an underground university that focuses on knowledge.
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