Jan Macháček


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Czech Business Weekly

Charter 77: Memories should be rekindled

05. 02. 2007
Throughout 2007, this country will commemorate the 30th anniversary of Charter 77. No, sorry, let me stop right there and correct myself. Throughout 2007, this country should commemorate the 30th anniversary of Charter 77.

It’s difficult to comprehend, but looking across the entire country one fails to find a single conference dedicated to the nation’s most celebrated human rights civic initiative. Yes, there’ve been media articles and short public television documentaries, but in general Charter 77 is largely ignored.

There’s a chasm between this country and Poland. Whenever the Poles commemorate the life and times of immensely important movements — for instance, their 30th anniversary dedication to Komitet Obrony Robotników (KOR, or the Workers’ Defense Committee), the closest Polish equivalent to Charter 77 — they hold many conferences with distinguished speakers, writers and historians, including international stars.

People might puzzle over why we Czechs demonstrate such huge disrespect toward our own history. Many deep and historically ingrained reasons can be given. Certainly as far as Charter 77 is concerned, we can start by saying the signatories themselves should not be the ones organizing memorial events. They’d only be blamed for celebrating themselves and for demonstrating moral superiority over the “general population” that, in bad conscience, was either silent or actively supported the communist regime.

Many former Czech dissidents hate preaching to their compatriots. They’re instead involved in new era challenges, perhaps helping NGOs, refugees or the Romas. But what excuses our open society’s universities, institutes, Senate and think tanks? There was no attempt to organize anything whatsoever. Was everyone relying on everyone else to do something, or perhaps waiting on Václav Havel, who’s not even in the country much these days?

The Charter, originally published as a manifesto in a West German newspaper, only gained 1,800 signatures by 1989’s revolution. Across the centuries, the Czechs have become anti-elitist, not given to celebrating heroes or moral role models. In recent history, elites and moral leaders – the noble and artistic as well as ordinary folk – were repeatedly liquidated. The Nazis even massacred Boy Scout leaders — but how many of today’s generations remember those who dared hit back, such as with the heroic assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich, the Reich’s governor of Bohemia and Moravia?

And of those people alive during the communist purges, how many want to be reminded of citizens who behaved better than they did during the murder, exiling and forced immigration of thousands?

But back to Charter 77 and a few unique things to dwell upon:

  • The movement helped create an extraordinary parallel community. Former communists and people from all walks of life joined together in voluntary dissent.
  • Without its activities, petitions and political trials, we’d have no history between 1970–89. Or do you regard the numerous five-year economic plans and steel production achievements as important historical events?
  • Almost all the dissidents are long gone from Czech politics. Only Alexandr Vondra (deputy PM) and Petr Pithart (deputy Senate chief) remain. How ironic that former charter signatory and ex-minister Vladimir Mlynář is being sent to jail by a “democratic” court.
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