Milan Uhde

* 1936

  • "I had a terrible conflict with my father. Because in the forty-fifth year there was an immediate order to put up Soviet flags. And there were no Soviet flags. So red flags. It doesn't matter that the hammer and sickle won't be there - a red flag. So, dad got the red flag. Because we had a red flag with a white circle inside and there was a swastika, there was a hooked cross. That's what we had - as proper citizens of the Protectorate. So, dad... mom couldn't sew, but daddy was skilled in housework, in repairing, he knew everything. He sat down at the sewing machine, cut out a round wheel with the swastika on it, and sewed a part of old red shorts in it, nicely, perfect stitches, so that at a distance - we had a flagpole, and when it went up the flagpole, you had to have binoculars to see that there were some stitches. He did it perfectly. And he stitched and I, who was no longer a fanatic for the German army 'defending' us here, but I loved the Red Army - because it saved us. So, I made this remark: 'Well, we don’t understand it at all if we put up this redesigned hooked cross here.' A nine-year-old young man, already very sharply feeling politically! Dad was sewing, and he made a remark: 'One army has gone, the other has come.' That was a terrible remark for a nine-year-old enthusiast. So, the nine-year-old enthusiast said: 'You sound like a collaborator.' I already knew from Jirka Hanzálek who a collaborator was. And I knew it from others, of course - it's the forty-fifth year. And dad got terribly angry. Dad never hit me, but here it looked like I was going to get one. So, I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in there."

  • "The situation was complicated by the fact that my mother filed the lawsuit in a paternity matter - immediately - so she never wore the Jewish yellow star. Because she had filed the lawsuit first and then the court granted it. So, she even had an official document about it. Although the prosecutor objected to it, but it never made it to the appellate court… the appellate court never sat. So, my mother had a non-final but positive opinion... or a positive decision of the court that she was not Jewish. So, she didn't wear a yellow star. And yet, one day... I remember I went with my mother to buy meat, and we were thrown out of the shop. A lady - I can still see her in front of me - she had this fancy brown hat and a tall feather in it. She was a very mondaine lady who - in Czech, though - addressed my mother and gave her a speech that I didn't understand at all. But the point of the speech was that after all, my mother knows when she can shop and what she is. And that she shouldn’t put everybody here, especially the butcher and her husband, the owner of the shop... don't put them in a difficult situation, acknowledge the situation and so on. And so my mother decided that we would go away. We went away, and of course I asked what had happened. And my mother said: 'I was wrong. I was in a hurry, I wanted to get ahead of the queue, you know, and that's not supposed to happen, I admit it, that's not supposed to happen.' I felt that answer was untrue."

  • "So, I tried to make sure that the privatisation process went well. I supported the fact that Klaus wanted the privatisation not to have the right of so-called judicial review - because he knew that if there was a judicial review, the privatisation would take ten years and would never be completed. Everybody will fight back. Resourceful lawyers will find such ways, such other ways. The legislation is imperfect, the courts will say, the case law is not clear here, we have to do this or that. They said: this is a revolutionary process. Privatisation. We need to privatise, because Western companies said: 'State Steelworks Ostrava, it is not a partner for us. Is it Franta or Tonda who owns it?' It has to be done, otherwise there’s no way! So, against the Social Democrats and all those who said: judicial review is necessary - all the lawyers of that kind said that without judicial review (it can't be done) - so I supported it everywhere and I begged all the MPs... We managed to pass it - the law that there is no appeal against the decision of the privatisation commission. This is immediately implemented. And Klaus said: 'Speed, speed! Tomáš Ježek failed...' I said: 'How did he fail? They had half an hour for one privatisation project!' 'Well, that's just too much,' Klaus said, 'I would have given them two minutes.' I said: 'And what would they have examined on the project?' He said: 'The quality of the paper on which the project is written' - I'm reproducing verbatim - 'the quality of the paper on which the project is written. Milan, it doesn't matter! The market will find... The State Privatization Commission will choose Franta, Franta turns out to be bad, goes bankrupt, Tonda takes over, bad, Jirka takes over, and it turns out Jirka is great. The market will find him.' I said: 'Well, what about the employees who will be without a salary, who will be in insecurity?' 'Well, that's impossible... they will be poorer,' Klaus said, 'someone has to be the poorest. There’s no other way.' You know, of course, the cynicism was already there, I wasn't deaf and blind. But I saw that the demand for rapid privatisation was reasonable."

  • "He opened the summit on Monday morning. 'Who read the editorial in the Financial Times?' Nobody. 'Well, that's unbelievable. That's a major editorial. You didn't... Well, I'm out. I'm not going to start it, there's no point. Anyone who comes to this summit and doesn't know the editorial in the Financial Times has no business being here. I'm going away, I've got other work to do.' And now Zielenec is in - the only one who was on first-name terms with him. In his Czech Polish he said: 'Come on, Vašek, start it.' - 'Pepík, I won't. Really, come on... I'll ask once again. Who subscribes to the Financial Times?' One striver, who wanted to gain favour, put his hand up. He didn't gain favour. He said to him: 'Well, that's even worse. He's subscribing to it and he's not... That's even worse than not subscribing to it. No, I'm not going to start it.' - 'Come on, Vašek, look, we're all here, so start it.' - 'Okay, one last try, Pepík. Who read the last Mladá fronta Dnes, Právo and Lidové noviny?' No one raised their hands because, first of all, no one read it - it was 8.30 in the morning on Monday, after Sunday. Nobody read it. And they knew that to lie and say: 'I read Lidovky' - this Klaus would test him, he would say: 'So what's the editorial there?' or 'What's the main study on the second page?' So, nobody. And he said: 'So you see, Pepík, you see? I can't start it. No one reads here. Why do you come here? Why are you here?' Now we were all guilty - and now he started. 'Okay, I'll start it.' Klaus says to you: 'Kalvoda betrayed us, the People's Party is betraying us. There's a betrayal, Havel's a betrayer, here’s a betrayal, there’s betrayal...' We were all happy that he had already started to scold someone else. So, we didn't say... I would have said: 'Mr. Chairman, and aren’t you exaggerating, after all the ideas of that Tomáš Ježek' - who was in the ODA at the time - 'those are reasonable.' He said: 'We're doing banking socialism.' You have to think about that... I couldn't do it. I thought so, but I was nodding: yes, they are terrible, all against us. That was an atmosphere of absolute opposition to any kind of cooperation."

  • "And now I'll switch to the Charter. I told Jiří Müller, who visited me the day after Saint Stephen [on 27th December – trans.], 'I have to think about it. Can you leave the text here?' Jiří said: 'Yes, but only until tomorrow. I will come tomorrow to hear your decision. I said: 'Yes, in any case I will be ready to tell you what I have decided.' I consulted with my wife. She knew me. She had that five-year experience with me and she said: 'I don't think you should sign. You're not going to stand it. You'll not handle the pressure. And it's gonna be on me, and I'm gonna have to get you back on your feet. And I can't do it anymore. Please don't do this. Don't do it, it is enough you are hanging on as a banned author.' I've already sent the new radio play to Erik Spiess in the way that I'm going to describe to you as well - 'Don't do it.' But I was... not so much because of the text, but because of the feeling that someone is standing on my neck so that I can't breathe, and that here I have the opportunity to shout: 'They're killing me here, they're destroying me as an author! Look at this, all of you who are going to find out about this!' That was the pathos of the Charter for me - I must confess to it - rather narrow. I didn't much like the idea of dialogue with the Communist Party. The Communist Party never had any dialogue with me as a non-party member."

  • “The lectures and discussion were very interesting and they were attended by people, about whom I knew that they were so strongly opposed to Bolsheviks. This Šabata (note: Jaroslav Šabata, a Communist Party official until 1989, a dissident in the normalization period, spokesman of Charter 77, political prisoner) was making it apparent by some sixth sense that he was not an informer and that he would not go somewhere and say: ‘I have this person in my seminar, and his opinions are like this, and therefore, comrades, you should keep an eye on him.’ Comrades from Lenin Street, secret policemen. In October or November 1956 I received a personal invitation from him, which many students had received before and they already knew what it was. They said: ‘He will offer you a membership in the Party.’ I thus went there and his first question was: ‘How do you view the political situation, comrade Uhde?’ I said: ‘Well, undoubtedly, what is happening is an atrocity. The intervention of the Red Army in Hungary… This is a breaking away from socialism. I hope that you are intending to leave the Party.’ In this way, the offer was dealt with… It was already absolutely clear. And I had not known it beforehand, I just simply and spontaneously asked him whether he intended to cancel his Party membership. And he replied that no way, because the movement was now turning to the right path and because the objective of this movement was to bring back liberty to the society... I replied to him: ‘But this will be no liberty. I read Sartre and he says that an objective is a summary of means which we had exerted for its attainment. This is the objective. If you sow grain, something will grow. And if you murder people and occupy other countries, etc., then you will not attain any socialism at all. You will turn into a strict dictatorship. This is where your movement is heading now.’ We thus agreed that we would not be able to agree upon this, but that we would watch the issue and keep seeing each other and exchange our opinions.”

  • “It was the limit of the 1960s. The people there were lying, they were claiming that they stood for socialism. But even those who were not for socialism were saying it. Everybody pretended that it was a reform, but only some people wanted to reform. And there were restrictions, that it true. The Union of Writers could not even offer a candidacy to Václav Černý. He would not have accepted it anyway, obviously, because he was a writer. Some people were simply out of question. Josef Kostohryz, Václav Renč... Catholic writers, but they were undoubtedly writers who belonged there. It was unthinkable and nobody even suggested them, people were saying that it was not possible. That was the limit of the 1960s. And I simply think of it in a way that although I did publish my anti-Communist play (note: theatre play King Vávra), at the same time I was feeding on grass from graves… I later used this expression publicly in a samizdat, I wrote that we were grazing on grass from graves, that we had been buried there alive and that we were eating this grass from graves just like the goats of the priest from Havlíček’s well-known poem... Priest’s cows will graze on you every summer... Do not allow them to bury you in a cemetery, my boy. A great poem by Havlíček (note: journalist and poet Karel Havlíček Borovský, the poem ‘Grave’). We were grazing on grass from graves, although we were pretending to be warriors for freedom.”

  • “This loyalty pertained to politics as well, and that was why I felt with the German soldiers at Stalingrad who were defending us, right, and I felt with the communists. It was one of my lifelong ideas or dreams that I would be a loyal citizen, an honest citizen and an honest person. My young friend Jiří Šimsa, when he reviewed my book Rozpomínky - he knew me well, although he was two generations younger - he wrote that he felt how difficult it had been for me to take courage to sign Charter 77, because I always desired be in agreement. Rebelling or opposing something was not natural to me. And my second lifelong experience, which is perhaps no less intense, it is perhaps even greater, is a feeling of fear. I remember that this fear, although nobody instigated it in me - on the other hand, my parents tried to create an ideal of a family idyll as hard as they could - everything is all right, the sun is shining and people are smiling, singing, and playing the piano, dad playing the violin, and we are talking about nice natural positive things - and in all this I could still feel the artificiality and pretence of it. A child can sense it, even if it does not understand it and cannot interpret it nor define why it is.”

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I tried to confront everything with my conscience

Milan Uhde, 1963
Milan Uhde, 1963

Milan Uhde was born on 28 July 1936 in Brno. His father worked in the civil service, his mother ran a very successful private law firm. She was disbarred in 1938 because of her Jewish origin. During the war, she managed to obtain a false non-Jewish identity, thanks to which she avoided deportation. However, her parents died in 1942 in a concentration camp in Riga. After the war, Milan Uhde graduated from grammar school and later from the Faculty of Arts of today’s Masaryk University in Brno. Until 1956 he was a supporter of communism. He interpreted the horrors he perceived around him as the mistakes of individuals. It was only Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalinism and the events in Hungary that opened his eyes to the fact that he was “living in a gangster movie”. In the 1960s he worked in the editorial office of the literary monthly Host do domu (“A Guest in the House”), published, wrote radio and television plays. He came into the public awareness with his sharply satirical play Král Vávra. During the period of normalisation he was labelled an enemy person and in 1972 he became a completely banned author. He published under pseudonyms (e.g. the play Balada pro banditu), in samizdat and abroad. In 1976 he signed the Charter 77. He was monitored by the secret police and underwent several interrogations. Before the Velvet Revolution he was at the birth of the Atlantis publishing house, which he briefly managed after November 1989. After that, he worked in politics for several years, in 1990-92 as Minister of Culture, then as a deputy and until 1996 as the first chairman of the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Republic. His political career was linked to ODS (the Civic Democratic Party), but in 1997 he left it after criticism of Václav Klaus and subsequently withdrew from politics. He is still an active author. He lives in Brno.