Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Prague Update

Janos Gereben
September 19, 1969

Fellowship Year

1969 Lerchengasse
28/43, 1080 Wien

PRAGUE – Walking in this city a month after the August anniversary, one is at loss trying to understand what all the shouting is about.

Prague is normal.

Kids are back in school, people are shopping along the wide avenues, strolling in the narrow streets of the old city, boating on the Vltava under Hradcany Castle, mobbing street cars, ducking speeding autos on Wenceslas Square.

Prague is normal.

The Czechs have entered the Hungarians’ post-1956 period. There is acceptance, attention is turned to matters other than politics, there is the business of everyday life. Even the atmosphere of depression, reported here two months ago, has lifted, and there is no other word to describe what Prague is like these days than “normal.”

How little newspaper accounts of politics have to do with the way people live!

Under the “Prague” dateline, the news of the day in the U.S. and in Western Europe is still about “conservatives and liberals,” “passive resistance,” “repercussions,” and the like. And in Czech papers, a lot of stuff about “errors,” “discipline,” what not. But if you look around in the city, the only sign of what all the papers, East and West, are talking about is the two-soldier teams on patrol, an officer with a revolver and a billy club (!) and an enlisted man with a submachine gun. Otherwise, all is normal, looking just like any other “peaceful” capital In East Europe.

Surely there are, there must be, many cases of personal hardship and heartbreak, tragedy and drama as a result of what had taken place here during the past two years. But it is hidden and remote—as far-off as the refugee camps in Austria, as hidden as the message of Smetana.

The program for a performance (the 2,000th) of Bedrioh Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” in Prague’s National Theater includes this passage, rather startling in September, 1969:

“When things go badly with us, we go to see Marenka, Jenik, and Kecal. Yes, people may even smile when they hear that the Bartered Bride has been a spiritual rallying point for our people in times of political oppression. However, we do not go to see the Bartered Bride for its innocent characters alone, dear as they may be to us, not for the simple plot, nor even for the music, but we go first and foremost for the complete pleasure we receive and we leave the theater in a different frame of mind—happier and more determined.”

So, forewarned by this message, the listener disregards the familiar music and concentrates on trying to find that “spiritual rallying point.”

If it in there at all, it must be in the figure of Jenik, a “poor, homeless fellow,” who prevails over the rich and stupid Vasek to gain Marenka’s hand.

That victory of Jenik’s, however, is of little value, politically or spiritually.

Jenik is clever enough, all right, in the traditional Czech manner, but the happy ending depends on a deus ex machina, the device of Greek playwrites, by which they extricated their hopelessly entangled characters from their predicament.

(Jenik turns out to be the lost son of a rich couple, Marenka forgives him for bartering her for 300 gold pieces, the parents give their blessing, Vasek joins a circus in the capacity of a bear, and everybody lives happily ever after.)

This then is the message: The innocent must only hang on and with some luck everything will work out in the end.

Some rallying point!


It is here, in Prague, that the significance of another “innocent,” Dubcek, becomes clear. For one thing, his value as a rallying point cannot match even Vasek’s.

For another, what happens to Alexander Dubcek is not really important at this point.

The daily guessing game in the American press about when and how he will be “punished” for becoming the reluctant symbol of a long-defeated revolution is a preposterous sign of a Western “personality cult.”

This mistaken identification of a person with a historical process (the latter temporarily arrested on Aug. 21, 1968, and still quite dormant a year later as it may be for years to come) is even hurting the person, personally.

If less attention was paid by the West to what is happening to Dubcek, his importance, and therefore punishment, would be smaller, perhaps nil. For Dubcek has no importance here and has not had any since that day last August.

What may be important about the personal fate of Dubcek is that he is still alive.

Just 11 years ago, another reluctant and by then inoffensive symbol of Soviet enslavement, Imre Nagy, prime minister of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, was executed.

Writing about that senseless act which took place almost two full years after the revolution was put down by Moscow, Albert Camus said then that all that can be hoped for is “some imperceptible advance in the real history of mankind.”

The fact that Dubcek is alive could be regarded as such “imperceptible advance” against Nagy’s fate were it not for the fact that Nagy was executed just two years after Khrushchev denounced Stalinist purges in sickening detail.

There are two important developments on the periphery of the Dubcek story.

One is the attitude of China. The incredible comment from Peking’s Jen Mih Jih Pao on Nagy’s execution in 1958 was that “the passing of the death sentence on the chief culprits of the counter-revolution in Hungary is welcome news. Nagy and other revisionists raised some provocative slogans such as the so called ‘national independence,’ ‘equality between Hungary and the Soviet Union,’ and ‘Hungary’s special path.’ These slogans deliberately inflamed the feeling of narrow nationalism in order to negate the principle of proletarian internationalism.”

China’s support for Dubcek today, a logical consequence of Peking’s own acceptance of those “provocative slogans such as national independence,” is important considering the ideological headstand of the most dogmatic and conservative Communist nation finding itself in sympathy with the most liberal attempt for “Communism with a human face.”

The other significant factor which will long survive Dubcek was seen at Sparta Stadium at that soccer game between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Dubcek was cheered all right, but another mini-demonstration went almost unnoticed.

The Hungarian team was booed—before the game started, clearly indicating that the feelings expressed there had nothing to do with the game itself.

The Dubcek incident was duly reported, the other wasn’t. Ditto for the Brno bicycle championships where Czech jeers for the Russian team received large headlines in the West, but the almost equally-loud jeers for the Hungarians, East Germans, and Poles went unnoticed.

The resentment of the Czechs against their neighbors who participated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 is very important indeed. And it goes far beyond the Brno incident, as can be ascertained from reports of street brawls between Czech tourists and Hungarians in Budapest, from comments by Czechs here in Prague.

Moscow is succeeding with its “divide and conquer” policy, turning the nations of Bast Europe against each other—and that tragic development, exploiting hundreds of years of mutual resentment, is a factor to reckon with for years to come.

And so is the new concern about “legality” within Czechoslovakia.

It is a remarkable fact that instead of going back to the procedures of trial-by-secret-police, the Soviet-Czech leadership deemed it necessary to pass two laws suspending certain civil rights until Dec. 31, 1969.

The heavy jail sentences threatened in the new measures are not as significant as the very fact that they are presented in the form of “law” instead of just putting them into effect.

One ironic measure is raising the period of detention before formal charging from 48 hours to three weeks. Gustav Husek, who was detained under the Stalinists for two and a half years without being charged, will now have to enforce this new period of legal detention by police—the longest in Europe.

Photos by Janos Gereben


Received in New York on September 19, 1969.


Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.