“In my view, fear is a very flexible tool. I can see it at present when they try to scare us off by invoking refugees. When people are scared, they look up to power as something that will protect them, they close ranks and do whatever that power expects and wants them to do. This is the flock effect. If incited or reinforced by fear, it presents a grave danger.”
“At that time they used to say that the Czech dog goes to Poland to bark and the Polish one to Bohemia to eat. Back then, there was basically no poverty here. Poverty is capable of mobilizing masses. Here, the populace was always in some way corrupt because as long as one behaved as they were expected to, basically no harm was done to them. Indeed, to this day the people here don’t know what they need freedom for.”
“My opinion is clearly disapproving. I even think that it may have been a plan – preparing the ground for the manipulation of the general public through the elimination of minorities. Each and every minority signifies a certain complication, certain plurality. It is easier to handle, manipulate and govern a monolithic society. From the human perspective there is no doubt that I was strongly affected by it as a child. Mostly in relation to the civilians I considered it an injustice. My father, for instance, saved one man who had been marked as a German even though he never fell for that war ideology. He prevented him from committing suicide. Some victimized people were drawn to such measures because of the generalization of responsibility.”
“It had its purpose as a declaration of a certain standpoint, determination, worked-out opinion, revival of ethical principles and the idea of citizenship resurrected from the ashes of the normalization. I think that it was crucial. We never had illusions about making it a mass movement but we wanted the things that Charter 77 expressed to be heard and repeated.”
“Jircháře, where the ecumenical seminary was located, were of utmost importance. The Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren was relatively open-minded and it also had a different structure and support or – better to say – was confronted with less political defiance. Eliminating all Christians probably did not seem all too politically practical. Back then, professor Hromádka sponsored a discussion seminar at the Evangelical Theological Faculty where Christians and later even Marxists could lead a genuine dialogue. It was interreligious and also involved other philosophical doctrines. Plenty of really interesting people participated, starting with the rather reluctant professor Habáň all the way to such radical as Jirka Němec. This is where the nuclei of future activities emerged – various translations including biblical ones or things related to 1968 which were then published in the Vyšehrad publishing house or elsewhere. This is where the things which bore fruit later in 1968 were formed. The crystallization of the ability to discuss, the ability to defend one’s opinion, the ability to admit being wrong, the ability to listen to the other – all of those were rooted there. Of course, it was a small circle but a small circle with a large radiation and later – when the time was right – with a certain impact.”
“It is true that it was a certain mobilization of a certain group of people. It was a mobilization of defence on the cultural front. But it was obvious that the trial was actually aimed against Charter 77, you could see it in the court building in Karmelitská Street, where the hallways were full of people whose composition was somewhat incomprehensible to the State Police: there were those long-haired, jeans-clad types, but also those who had been labeled as political opponents a long time ago, like Doctor Kriegel and his wife, and there were also other representatives of the opposition, which could already be regarded as political opposition. During those two or three days, when the court was in session, we were waiting in the hallways and talking, we had interesting discussions.”
“I have to say that I also changed my tactics at that time. During the trial with VONS I thought that injustice was being done to us, but that the protocols would remain and one day when the case would be reconsidered, it would become evident what was happening. I did make a confession. I even confessed positively, for them to know…When they said: you were meeting in Benda’s flat, I said, yes, that’s right, we were meeting in Benda’s place. But we were meeting in our flat as well, because both of these flats are located in the city centre and are easily accessible to everyone. But I insisted that all we were doing was legal.”
“The impulse not to keep quiet and to defend ourselves came in the form of all those repressions. To me the initiating experience was Rudolfov where young people who wanted to listen to music performance by unofficial bands gathered. It resulted in an intervention by the police corps. A few weeks or a month later they summoned me before an investigation commission in Rudolfov, making it loud and clear that this was a political matter, same as when they made the Charter 77 a political matter. They said: ‘Don’t give us the story about spontaneous interest in some sort of music. We see that you bring together young people from throughout the country. You are a secret organization.’ And there it was. At each and every private concert which had followed – because the public scene was closed for bands such as Plastic People of the Universe and DG 307 – we would get at least vetted. They could see that it were always the same people there and that the real undergrounders would get mixed with young workers and intellectuals (psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers and so on). This for them was a warning sign of the presence of a certain resistance movement which had to be crushed.
“What about Charter 77? Do you regard it as being directly linked to the trial with the Plastics band, or how do you remember it?” “Basically it was so. At the time when the people were engaged in discussions and they began realizing that this trial against them was constructed on the basis of political motivation, of a political need to crush this group of people, then the question of legality arose as the fundamental theme. At that time, several treaties on human and economic rights were also adopted in our country, and this way it all came together. The people who had greater insight into political thinking came up with this key idea of Charter 77, on which we later all agreed: this key principle was that we as citizens felt responsible for what was happening in this country, and that we would monitor these instances of breaching these treaties and we would also inform the public about it, be it at home or abroad.”
“My children will live in this society, they are part of it. And I want to live in truth before them. We have never lied to our children, they never felt they would have to keep something secret from us, and neither did we. My kids were my best partners, I was really doing it all for them, so that they wouldn’t have to be ashamed of me, and so that they might be able to live in better times, and to know that they have some dignity and something to stand for.”
“I myself was personally traumatized by the trials of the 1950s which took place when I was young. And now when they intervened so severely in the case of these musicians, and they were about to make a huge trial out of it, and then they were stepping back, and eventually they sentenced only four persons to relatively short sentences, I thought, we have to do something, we must not let them do whatever they please. Because if we let them do this, today they would curb one group of people, then go against another… In the 1950s I was troubled by this helplessness, and since I had children now, who were growing up, I did not want them to remember me for my personal indifference towards what was happening in the society.”
“The burning of Jan Palach was an important event. I have immense respect for him, as well as Jan Zajíc and others whose names had not been published, and their families. This was real sacrifice. I remember Palach’s funeral. Back then we all – including Jakub in a baby carriage – stood in the long cue in front of the Klementinum to pay tribute to Jan Palach’s corpse. I think that this made a crucial and deep impression on my children – except the one in the carriage. In 1989 when I was bringing three narcissi towards St. Wenceslas’ statue it all ended up with mine, my son’s and the painter Pepa Žáček’s (who forced himself into the police car to testify that we had done nothing) arrest.”
“I think that our becoming close was quite logical, it happened also because we were all somehow persistent in our convictions, in all tolerance to the others. We regarded their attitudes, which spoke of personal integrity and authenticity of what these people were doing, as being enriching to us. This was what brought us together.”
“I have to say that people in our house showed great solidarity with us. When the StB rang my door bell, and we had some forbidden materials inside, I managed to lower a bag with the stuff from the balcony, which was in the kitchen, and not visible from the door, to the floor below us. Or when they came and wanted to search my basement, I told them I did not have the key from the common basement area. They told me I should go to the neighbours and borrow it. To which I replied that they were the ones in need of the key, so you go and ask for it yourselves. And these two men went, pulling me behind them, and all our neighbours told them they did not have the key either. There was nothing important in the basement, anyway, but I greatly appreciated the idea of it, that people were being so patient with us. It was no pleasant sight to have these gentlemen standing daily at your door, in front of the house.. But I have to say my neighbours bore it bravely. None of the neighbours ever said a bad word against us. Even when we had more people in our flat, and we were noisy, they would always forgive us.”
“My children were very comfortable with growing up in a broad community. It had completely wiped off generational differences because my friends were at the same time their friends. We have pretty much enjoyed all of it. A certain level of hilarity and a large level of cohesion truly helped us overcome all problems well, rather than badly.”
I felt responsibility to my children. I did not want them to ask me one day: Mom, why did you let them do all this to you?
Dana Němcová (née Valtrová) was born in the north-Bohemian town of Most. In 1953 she went to Prague to study psychology at Charles University. While there, she met Jiří Němec, the future psychologist, philosopher and well-known Catholic intellectual. They married on July 2, 1955 and raised seven children. After a short period of relative liberty during the second half of the ‘60s, Czechoslovakia was occupied by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. In the summer of 1968, Dana and Jiří Němec loaded their children into a friend‘s Trabant and drove off to Austria to wait and see what would happen, whether “socially dangerous elements” would be arrested or not. As this was not the case, they soon returned home. The normalization period began - and Dana Němcová recollects: “In those times we looked for people who held similar views to ours. We wished to have someone to join up with, and we came upon the underground music culture. They were young, long-haired musicians who had given up on a professional career. The age difference was, surprisingly, of no matter. In those days, people were grouped more according to their opinions than their ages.” When the Communist regime started criminalizing members of The Plastic People of the Universe and other underground musicians, and when they brought them to trial in 1976, Dana and Jiří Němec were among those garnering support for the accused from notable anti-regime figures of the Czech scientific community and of Czech culture. Support for the PPU de facto caused the founding of Charter 77, of which Jiří and Dana Němec were among the initiators and first signatories. This act had immediate consequences. State Security (Státní bezpečnost - StB) called Dana Němcová to her first questioning on her birthday, January 14, 1977. She refused to comply, and so the StB came to her house: “They tried to be persuasive, asked me to talk, seeing as I had children... I don‘t know what happened to me, because usually I try my best to get on with people, but I just couldn‘t take that silently. I shouted at them that I had signed the Charter precisely because I had children, and I banged the door so strongly that the plaster fell away.” She subsequently lost her job (the same applied to Jiří Němec, who worked as a night-watchman from 1977 onwards) and was subject to house searches, repeated summons for interrogation and constant harassment. Nonetheless, one year after Charter 77, Dana Němcová, together with other Charter signatories, founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (Výbor na obranu nespravedlivě stíhaných - VONS), which documented cases of persecution and sent reports of them outside the country. In 1979, she was arrested and spent half a year in custody. In October, she was convicted of subversion of the state and placed on probation. Jiří Němec spent several months in prison in 1980; a few years later he went into exile. In January 1989, at the beginning of “Palach Week”, Dana Němcová was arrested on her way to the St. Wenceslas Monument to lay flowers as the speaker of Charter 77. After the November revolution, she was for a short time a member of the Federal Parliament. She went on to head the Committee of Good Will (Výbor dobré vůle) of Olga Havlová and to work for the Counselling Centre for Refugees (Poradna pro uprchlíky). In 1990 she received the international Pax Christi Peace Award; eight years later she was given the presidential Medal of Merit (Za zásluhy), and in the year 2000 she received the Austrian Central European Prize (Mitteleuropapreis). Dana Němcová passed away on April, the 11th, 2023.