A series of events have been held in Prague and elsewhere in the Czech Republic observing the first anniversary of the death of Václav Havel, who led the country to democracy in 1989’s Velvet Revolution. The commemorations have included the unveiling of a new plaque to the late president at a statue of Woodrow Wilson in the capital.
Among those closest to Václav Havel was Michael Žantovský. The two were among the founders of the opposition Civic Forum in the whirlwind period of the Velvet Revolution, which toppled Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime after four long decades. Soon after Mr. Havel was elected president on December 29 1989, he made Mr. Žantovský his press spokesperson – and part of a team at Prague Castle that had to learn double-quick how to run a country.
Josef Svoboda is a professor, Arctic ecologist and author. Born in 1929 in Prague, Mr. Svoboda studied science and philosophy at Masaryk and Charles universities. He was imprisoned for nine years by the communist regime in 1949 for alleged treason and espionage and then emigrated to Canada in 1968, where he has lived ever since. I began by asking Svoboda about his earliest memories of growing up in pre-war Czechoslovakia.
A unique new museum is due to open in the Czech Republic next autumn – rather ten museums in one, spread out in ten towns and cities across the country. Called ’10 Stars’, the museum will be housed in synagogues and will tell the story of local Jewish communities which all but vanished in the Holocaust.
Communist state prosecutor Karel Vaš, a key player in some of Czechoslovakia’s notorious show trials of the 1950s, died at a Prague nursing home at the weekend. He was 96. Vaš, who remained unrepentant to the last, escaped punishment for his crimes in the post-1989 period – a source of regret to some historians and former political prisoners.
Efforts to commemorate ethnic Germans murdered by Czechs during a wave of post-war expulsions have frequently led to heated debate in this country. One such controversy is the subject of Jan Gebert’s debut documentary Stone Games, which follows a vocal campaign by a group of locals to remove a monument to eight Sudeten Germans killed in the north Bohemian town of Nový Bor in 1945. The protesters are led by an eccentric would-be politician – and their cause attracts the attention of national figures, including now presidential candidate Miloš
While the name Auxiliary Technical Battalions sounds innocuous, in reality such battalions were a division of the Czechoslovak Army that used conscripts as virtual slave labour, and thousands of men who the Communists deemed “politically unreliable” were in effect interned in them in the 1950s. Now, those still alive look set to be placed in the same official category as former political prisoners – and to receive a little compensation.
British journalist Charles Laurence first came to Prague as a child in the 1950s. His father, a diplomat, served at the UK embassy here, and brought his family with him. In the spy-ridden communist country at the height of the Cold War, he was soon targeted by the secret police. Fifty years later, Charles Laurence revisited Prague in search of what really happened. In his book The Social Agent: A True Intrigue of Sex, Lies, and Heartbreak Behind the Iron Curtain, he exposes Czech writer, and family friend Jiří Mucha as a man who spied on his father,
Leaders of Jewish organizations, government officials and experts from a number of countries came to Prague this week to review the restitution of Jewish property taken during the Holocaust. The conference, which focused specifically on the area of immovable property, was held three years since the adoption of the Terezín Declaration, a document that sought to ease the process. The conference found that although some progress has been achieved, the declaration seems to have failed to accelerate the restitution of Holocaust-era assets.
Spotlight this week comes from Uherské Hradiště, a charming picturesque town in south-east Moravia. Like so many places in this part of the world, Uherské Hradiště has a rich and complex history. As tour guide Lenka Kornelová explains, the town was established nearly eight centuries ago in reaction to the turbulent events of that time and the city actually gets its name - meaning "Hungarian Fortress" - from this period.