The Samizdat Fortress

Society|Foreign Affairs
Guest Writer | 22.08.2011

Around a hundred miles west of the Czech border, deep inside Germany, lies a castle that played a crucial role in the dissident-led movement seeking an end to totalitarian rule inside the former Czechoslovakia.

Schloß Schwarzenberg, which has existed in its current form since the 16th century (its origins hark back to the 12th century) is in the possession of the aristocrat Prince Karel of Schwarzenberg– more commonly known as Karel Schwarzenberg, the current Czech foreign minister and leader of the center-right Top 09 political party.

This autumn will mark 25 years since Schwarzenberg enabled the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre (ČSDS) to be situated at the castle.

Founded beyond Czechoslovakia’s borders in the wake of the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring, the initial aim of the ČSDS was to serve as an unvarnished archive of Czechoslovakian history, which was being re-written at home by the communists during the era of normalization, threatening the creation of an Orwellian “black hole.”

Vilém Prečan went into exile when it became impossible to do his work from Czechoslovakia

The man at the center of this organization was the historian Vilém Prečan, now 78, who went into exile in Germany in 1976 after realizing that he could no longer carry out his work back home.

“While working as a historian between 1955 and 1970, I came to realize that things were different from what we were being taught at school by the party and by the [communist leader] Klement Gottwald,” he told Czech Position. “I was used to saying what I thought and wasn’t willing to conform. By the age of thirty, I understood what the correct path was for the country.”

In 1970, Prečan was fired from the history department of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences for his participation in the authoring of the notorious “Seven Prague Days 21-27 August 1968 (or “The Czech Black Book”), a chronicle of ordinary Czechs’ reactions to the Warsaw Pact’s brutal suppression of reformist and democratic voices in the country. The book was never intended for the public, but nonetheless created a firestorm among the powers-that-be.

“The Soviets formally protested the publication of the book and by 1971 the authorities were labeling participants as criminal subversives. I ultimately ended up working as a boiler-room operator as a result.”

By 1975, Prečan, now working as a cloakroom attendant, realized that he would have to leave the country if he was to have any kind of professional future. The historian-turned-dissident left for Germany, where he had nurtured numerous contacts, with the communist regime glad to be rid of this potential trouble-maker.

The former Czechoslovak Documentation Centre in Scheinfeld

“I never wanted to emigrate, either in 1968 or later, as I always used to say to myself ‘We’ve started something here and someone has to stay on to defend it.’ But all those initial sentiments proved to be illusory.”

The academic and future German politician Helmut Lippelt offered Prečan and his family a home in the small village of Edemissen-Edesse, and the historian sought out a quiet future of studies concomitant with his profession. All that changed a year later, however, with the rise of the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, in which dissidents, including future president Václav Havel, openly challenged the ruling regime on matters of human rights and freedom.

“I went into exile to continue my work as a historian. But on the other hand, I was strongly affected by the era which I had witnessed. … From the moment I went into exile, I had been in contact with various people about creating some kind of institute to support Czech culture for those that had been thrown out of the country. My associates let me know that they had already tried unsuccessfully to create something of that nature and looked at me as if I was from Mars! So I stopped talking about it for a while.”

In 1977, the historian contacted Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser to US President Jimmy Carter, pleading that an entire generation of Czech intellectuals could rot away unless they were provided some assistance. No reply was forthcoming. But Prečan was not to be discouraged so easily and with the aid of the Toronto-based historian Gordon Skilling, came up with a framework to seek formal funding for his brainchild.

A coded letter

“Our requests initially failed as we had made them in as apolitical manner as possible. It turned out that the opposite was sought. ... So we admitted our true colors and that we really wanted to aid democratic forces, support the Charter 77 movement and the samizdat movement and argued that abroad we could do what our compatriots were unable to do at home.”

Initial funding was eventually secured via the German Social Democrat politician Willy Brandt. Prečan moved to an apartment in Hanover and set to work building a network to both provide Czechs at home with information and to archive underground Czechoslovakian publications abroad. In 1983, Václav Havel was released from prison, again providing hope for Prečan that the dissident cause was not a futile one. The pair would remain in close contact over the ensuing years.

In 1986, Prečan learned that a $50,000 grant from the Reagan-era National Endowment for Democracy had been approved. Later, funds were also provided by George Soros’ Open Society Fund (OSF). The dream of the ČSDS would finally become a fully-fledged reality.

“I had been in frequent touch with Karel Schwarzenberg [living in Vienna at the time since going into exile as a boy in 1948] about my efforts and I said to him ‘I was thinking: wouldn’t it be beautiful if the center was located at Schwarzenberg Castle? It’s near the borders for one thing – but then I dismissed the idea.’ And he said ‘Why? It would be in accordance with the traditions of my family – the largest Czech archive was once the Schwarzenberg archive in Český Krumlov. There’s plenty of space at the castle.’”

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