Petr Pithart

* 1941  

  • “I listened to Voice of America, and they were reporting about some arrests in Brno. There were names like Šabata, Uhl, and so on. They were arresting them for distributing leaflets before the elections. And they read out the text of the leaflet, and I froze because it had been authored by me. The text had been written in Prague, in this one shack in Lukáš Dobrovský’s garden. I was there with Jiří Dienstbier, Milan Hýbl, Rudolf Slánský. We had met to come up with a text before the elections. The text didn’t tell people to vote against the Communists, we merely explained to them - and we used the phrasing of the Election Act - that it was a right, not an obligation, and that it was possible to not participate in the elections without sanction. And that nothing could happen to them. It was quite an innocent article, but at the time, that could have been 1972, 1973, when we had the first elections in an occupied country.”

  • “We don’t know how Čalfa did it and we’ll never find that out. I guess he simply searched out the people who had some kind of authority there, and he persuaded, cajoled, or intimidated them. I think he told them something like this: ‘I don’t know what will happen after the elections, but you’ll be here until then. And no one will do anything to you.’ He might have intimidated some by hinting that he perhaps knew something about them. So he arranged it all. All of it. But Havel wouldn’t have met with Čalfa if I hadn’t persuaded him to do so. I told Václav that he didn’t have to negotiate with him. That he could just hear him out and tell us about it. But Václav returned completely flabbergasted. We were all flabbergasted because we suddenly saw the technologies of power in action, at the highest level. Čalfa had a really high level of refinement, and he was very adroit. And yet he was quite amiable. He always had a bit of a smile on his face. It was strange. We came to like him in the end. I know that everyone holds it against us. But he made a clean switch. He switched sides, like our boys in the First World War. He simply switched sides.”

  • “When Dad returned in 1957 or 1958, I could finally leave the boarding house. The boarding house was such a miserable place - I guess they didn’t have enough money, so they had inferior supervisors, we slept five, ten to a room for almost four years. I started attending grammar school later on, there were three of us from the boarding house at grammar school. Otherwise they were all youngsters up to Year One. I attended an eleven-year school, today it’s the renowned Kepler Grammar School, but it wasn’t so famous back then. I had fours [a ‘sufficient’ mark, equivalent to D or E in other grading scales - trans.] from maths and Russian, but I managed it in the end. You couldn’t study at all at the boarding house, it was terrible there. I don’t remember ever reading a book there. I guess I must have read some, but with no lasting impression. In that formative age when you soak everything up and the world opens before you. I know that the better sort of bunch of boys used to go to the Savoy, which was across the street. We had one older student there, who’d read a lot and was interested in philosophy. They’d go for a beer, not to get drunk but to discuss serious matters. And I couldn’t do that. We had to go straight home, to the boarding house. How did it affect me - I’m sure it stopped me, impeded me somehow.”

  • “And it was the same case there. I always said: ‘Yes, I was expelled from the CPP,’ and they said: ‘In that case, goodbye, it can’t be helped.’ But that same evening, late at night, I was surprised by the cadre specialist, who suddenly turned up at our house. She rang, I recognised her because I had spoken with her that morning. I said: ‘My goodness, what’s going on, come in!’ She said: ‘No, no, doctor, why do you make it harder for yourself than it already is?’ I told her I knew I was in a hard situation. But she claimed it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t understand what she meant. I was expelled from the CPP, so they couldn’t hire me anywhere. But she started explaining that I wasn’t expelled from the CPP. She said: ‘You left the Party so early that there were still people inside who must have been on your side, and back then those who left were marked membership CANCELLED.’ That was an institution in use for old comrades from local branches who couldn’t even walk to the meetings any more for health reasons but who were still loyal comrades. So to avoid making it seem like punishment, they gave them a cancelled membership.”

  • “Well, and then Marián Čalfa came along. He sent the messenger, and I convinced Václav Havel to go there. If he hadn’t gone there and Čalfa had found out that we didn’t want to cooperate with him, to play the game to the end... What he told Havel: ‘Mr Havel, the fun’s over, you’re a political person now. You have to start acting like a politician. You’re not Václav Havel the dissident any more, and this is my proposal,’ and he enumerated the exact steps according to parliamentary procedures: ‘This and this deputy in Slovakia will resign, Dubček will stand as his replacement, he’ll be co-opted to his seat, that will be on the twenty-eighth, and then the Chairman of the Federal Assembly will be elected, and on the twenty-night, Mr Havel, you will be elected President of the Republic.’ - ‘And how can you achieve that?’ we asked. ‘Leave that to me,’ was the retort. Then he told Havel, which encouraged trust in him: ‘And you, Mr Havel, will then give the New Year’s speech on 1 January, as the President of the Republic.’”

  • “My parents sent me to school at a terribly early age, and I started studying law when I was sixteen years old. I was the youngest in my year. Then I moved into a flat, and that started a completely new phase of my life. But I had to discover everything myself. I found that I could buy whatever books I wanted to, but I didn’t know which to choose. I remember my first selection, it was a complete mix. I took to poetry, poems, terribly quickly. To such an extent that in about three years I had read the whole of Czech poetry. I had my favourites, that changed variously, and I knew them thoroughly and I began to write. There were three of us like that in my class, my year. We pinned up our texts on noticeboards, there were poetry contents, and that was my whole world. I didn’t care about anything else. But I cared about that a lot, and I was really taken by it.”

  • “The scale was: expelled, struck off - that was 95 per cent of the cases. Being struck off was a bit better. That was a comrade who had also failed, disappointed. But he hadn’t been that active and he had merely allowed himself to be confused by those counter-revolutionaries, whom he had succumbed to. So he had to penalised, but not in the highest possible way. So those were called ‘struck-offers’. It meant that at some kind of level, not quite just in the dirt and dregs, he could stay. He certainly wouldn’t be a department head, but he might still manage some sub-section. Those were the struck-offers. And I had ‘membership cancelled’.”

  • “I was still completely untouched by politics, virgin soil, I knew nothing, I occasionally heard what was going on in the Soviet Union. Some of my classmates were excited by it, of course, but I wasn’t for a long time. It seems almost incredible, but I was awakened and came to my senses through poetry and the lives of poets. Later I knew a lot about what they had gone through, their conflicts with the regime’s power. I came into politics in the broadest sense of the word, to history, through poetry and through the poets. When I read Halas’s collection A co? (And What?), which is the cry of a person who find that everything was wrong, and I understood it, and that awoke in me an appreciation of history, of politics, and I took a sudden and intense interest in it.”

  • “And that’s how it began with that slip of paper in my hand in the arcade, and I immediately discovered that I had a talent for conspiracy. Even that first meeting was perfect, I knew three days in a row when he could arrive, always at eight o’clock, but if not at eight than also at nine or ten, he could get lost somewhere, etc. I always had a backup plan. He had some kind of a sign on him, perhaps he was holding something, a newspaper or a postcard, he asked me something, but it was some utter nonsense, and I replied with more nonsense, and so we knew that we’d made contact. Then we walked off somewhere further and further yet, to be sure that no one was following us, and then he handed me whatever it was. Then he came in a car and there was more of it, then he came in a special car and there was even more of it, and finally there were 16 bags of the stuff. I knew I had a talent for it, but later on I found I didn’t have the strength any more, that I had been doing it for too long. And whenever the date came close, I got terribly nervous.”

  • Full recordings
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    Praha Eye Direct, 14.06.2016

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    Praha, 14.02.2017

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    Praha, 04.04.2017

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My political awakening came through poetry

Petr Pithart 2017
Petr Pithart 2017
photo: Post Bellum

Petr Pithart was born on 2 January 1941 in Kladno into the family of the lawyer and Communist Vilém Pithart. In 1954 his father was appointed Czechoslovak ambassador in Belgrade. Fourteen-year-old Petr Pithart was already attending grammar school at the time and had to stay in Czechoslovakia - he lodged in a boarding house run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the age of 16, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law of Charles University; he started to take an interest in politics and gradually came to see things differently. As a student he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPP). In the years 1962-1971 he worked as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Charles University in Prague, and from the mid-1960s he wrote for Literární noviny (Literary News). In 1967 Zdeněk Jičínský offered him a place in the team of Zdeněk Mlynář at the Academy of Sciences, which was to reform the political system. In early August 1968 he travelled to Israel with his wife and journalists to support the renewal of diplomatic ties; in the autumn he joined his students’ occupation protest and turned in his CPP membership card. In 1969 he moved with his family to Oxford, where he received a scholarship; however, he heeded the call of the Communist regime and returned to Czechoslovakia in autumn 1969, before the borders closed. In 1971 he was fired from Charles University, in 1971-1973 he worked for Water Sources in South Bohemia, living in a trailer - while there he wrote his first large treatise, Obrana politiky (The Defence of Politics), which was distributed in samizdat. In the years 1973-1977, when he was employed as a company lawyer in Prague, he co-organised the bilateral smuggling of samizdat and exile literature with Jan Kavan, who lived abroad. In 1977, after signing Charter 77, he passed this work on to Jiřina Šiklová. He was fired from his job for signing the Charter, and so he then earned a living as a night watchman, a packaging officer, and a librarian. After the 1989 revolution he was elected as a parliamentary deputy for the Civic Forum. In the years 1990-1992 he served as Prime Minister of the Czech Government within the Czechoslovak Republic, in later years he chaired the country’s Senate and led the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Faculty of Law of Charles University.