Political commentator Bohumil Doležal: the web is great compared to samizdat

19-08-2009

For many Czechs, politics is a world of its own, with its own rules and strange characters. Some back their candidates based on things that have little to do with their actual policies, or their record, and some get their ideas from the media. One of the country’s most respected, and wittiest, political commentators is Bohumil Doležal.

Bohumil Doležal is also the only Czech political commentator who keeps a daily blog where he sums up the events of the day, and publishes his comments and essays. But he first started covering a very different field. After graduating from Prague’s Charles University in German studies, he joined a literary magazine called Tvář, or The Face.

“The main reason was that we wanted to cover literature seriously. And covering literature was possible despite all the limitations, while covering politics was not – for one simple reason: there was preliminary censorship in place at the time. They would confiscate materials before they even went to print. On one hand, this was not that bad because the authors had an alibi, because later, under the Soviet occupation, censorship was subsequent: first you wrote something and then they fired you. So this was a little more humane. But on the other hand, if they confiscated serious material, it could lead to repression. So we wanted to cover literature seriously, but serious coverage of literature was at that time political.”

Despite its modest political aspirations, Tvář magazine was one of the first publications of the reformist 1960s that was banned by the communist authorities. That happened in 1967. By that time, the reform process had already gained momentum, and some communist party members were trying to fix the “errors and mistakes” committed in the previous decade. But Bohumil Doležal never gave in to the illusions of a new, and more just world order, which was so tempting after the atrocities of WWII.

Even before the Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring, Bohumil Doležal never fully trusted the reformists and their efforts to bring about “socialism with a human face”. When the troops eventually arrived in August 1968, Mr Doležal was in Austria, but came back to Prague soon after.

“My late friend, Emanuel Mandler, said one simple thing. If getting out of the Russian camp had been so easy, everyone would have done it. The most unpleasant thing for me was that it came at a time when I managed to travel to the West for the second time in my life. And for reasons that had little to do with politics – I had a wife and a small child back here – I decided to come back after some three days.”

“Look, the time was really weird. At the beginning, for example, I couldn’t imagine that the terrible nastiness could last for more than some five or six years. I thought people just wouldn’t have that. But no way, it of course lasted much longer. So from the start, we held on to any hope we had, any good news. Even my signing Charter 77 was motivated by my belief that things could not go on like this. But unfortunately, it turned out that things could. That was the major error of the whole concept of Charter 77 that I took part in, and I did not criticize it at the time when it was fashionable to do so.”

Being unable to work as a literary critic, Bohumil Doležal got a manual job to sustain his family. But he soon returned to literary work– he started analyzing the works of some of the most influential Czech political thinkers of the 19th and early 20th century – Karel Havlíček, František Palacký and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I thought that it would be good to get some preparation done. So I started to study the democratic traditions of Czech politics – that is mainly Karel Havlíček, František Palacký and Tomáš Masaryk. I made a sort of a reader, so that when my children and my friends read it, they could learn something. Everybody knows Havlíček’s poems, that are sometimes funny and sometimes dim-witted, but no one knows his great and crucial political articles and essays. Everybody knows a couple of phrases from Palacký, such as the one that says ‘We were around before Austria and will continue to be so even when it is gone’, and so on, but nobody is aware of his long term conceptual work in the 1860s and 70s, or of his political moderation and lack of radicalism. Also, few realize how Masaryk later employed these things. So I thought this was very important and this is what I did in the first half of the 1980s.”

Václav KlausVáclav Klaus Even before the fall of communism in November 1989, Bohumil Doležal co-founded a democratic political party, the Democratic Initiative. The party did not do very well, and so Mr Doležal became chief advisor to then prime minister Václav Klaus. Sixteen years on, how does he feel about President Klaus and some of his controversies?

“I have a very intense feeling that Václav Klaus has lost his grip on reality. But when you say it like this, it might seem that he first had a grip on reality and then he lost it. I was in touch with him back in the 1980s, when he participated on the second Tvář magazine in 1968 and 1969. And there was also something important about the concept he came up with after 1989. He didn’t want to invent any new, revolutionary ideas that would avoid the mistakes the West made, or establish a democracy the world had not seen before – which was something Václav Havel wanted to do – but rather follow in the European traditions based on the existence of political parties and their competition.”

“Mr Klaus somewhat overestimated the issue of free economy, but let me emphasize that without private property and a free economy, you cannot have democracy. That was one thing he was right about. And another thing he was right about was that Czechoslovakia must split. And I was glad to be able to assist him in the process.”

One of the topics Mr Doležal has covered extensively is the inability and refusal of Czech society to admit its past errors, particularly the expulsion of three million of Czechoslovakia’s ethnic Germans after the Second World War. Mr Doležal says that the Czechs’ refusal to see what really happened at that time has very serious political consequences even today.

“I think its effect on practical politics is remarkable, because the problem with the years 1945 – 1948 was not so topical after November 1989 as it is now. The problem is not communism but it’s Russia – that’s what’s in play here. Russia has come back. One can understand them – they lost a great part of their colonial empire, and they would like to restore their influence as least in some areas as much as they can. But understandable as it may be, for us it’s unacceptable. And it’s precisely the way we look at the period from 1945 to 1947 that makes us grossly underestimate this danger. We don’t see the substance of what happened here at that time.”

And Bohumil Doležal does what he can to explain and warn of these dangers. On the internet, he can reach many more people than back in his dissident days. So how many people go to his website today?

“Oh, I don’t think I know. According to the statistics, I get some 1,500 people a day, on a good day, that is. Now it’s the holidays, so it’s some hundred fewer than that. But I do think it’s a great thing, compared to how I did things in the 1980s. When I wrote something back then, I had to take great pains and typed it 20 times. Then I could lend it to 20 people. You have to acknowledge that 1,500 people goes well beyond that.”

19-08-2009