Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

A Singer in a Minefield

Tomas Pecina

Several months ago, an American friend of mine who has been living in Prague for several years, complained about some bad experience or other. In response, I gave her this piece of advice: "This country is nothing but a big theme park; behave like a visitor, not like an exhibit." Indeed, the so-called social life of the Czech community includes elements that defy serious analysis and can only be marveled at and (possibly) enjoyed.

When Karel Gott, a popular Czech singer, turned 60 last month, the nation split into two groups of approximately equal size. One group were Gott-lovers, emphasizing the singer's artistic brilliance and splendid international career, spanning over several decades, while Gott-haters, though admitting some merit of his bel canto singing, vociferously criticized Gott's alleged immoral behavior - which concerned his collaboration with the Communist regime.

While under Communism, few Czechs would even think of demanding courageous moral and political stances from their hairdressers, bakers or surgeons, the case is completely different with singers, as well as actors, entertainers, writers, painters and sculptors. This is a country where artists are expected to act as the paragons of civic virtue.

The roots of this phenomenon probably reach back to the Czech National Revival, beginning in the first half of the 19th century. However, this particular role of Czech artists, formerly only incipient and gradually vanishing during the period of the independent Czechoslovak Republic (1918 to 1938), reappeared in full strength under the two successive oppressive regimes.

A most characteristic development took place under the Nazi occupation (1939 to 1945) and immediately afterwards. A significant part of the population adapted fairly easily to the Protectorate government of Hitler's Germany and generally enjoyed relatively high living standards - unimaginable elsewhere in occupied Europe. Since every act of cowardice requires a ritual purification and a sacrifice in order to be washed away, a series of witch-hunts ensued after 1945, primarily aimed at Czech actors and singers who had performed "for the Germans." They were branded as "collaborators and traitors" and sent before national tribunals. There were no witnesses to small daily acts of cowardice carried out by the gray public; but, movies and theater performances were public, therefore those onstage or on the silver screen made the easiest targets.

The period of Soviet rule (1948 to 1989), although longer and in its post-1968 Normalization phase effectively more pervasive and in the end more stupefying to Czech society, included many of the same elements of the Nazi occupation and therefore carried similar ramifications.

The myth of the artist-as-national-leader was reborn and firmly entrenched in the national consciousness. The reason for this was rather prosaic: Communists were terrified by the idea of free speech. They were the absolute masters over the life and death of their subjects. Official censorship involved everything from Rude Pravo - the Party newspaper - to high-school bulletins and the fine print on bus tickets. However, words spoken in public could not be so closely censored, as they were irrevocable.

Therefore, every public performance brought with it the same hope and anticipation for audiences: will the performer dare speak out? Will he say what he really thinks of the regime? Usually, perhaps in 99.9 percent of the cases, nothing happened, because the artists knew that such an escapade would cost them their careers, or at least the license to perform in public. And so audiences had to make do with straining to hear hidden messages, real or presumed. In the 1980s, this situation of mutually balanced cowardice grew to such an extent that actors actually began to complain that no one listened to the texts of the plays anymore: all they wanted to hear were overt jabs against the regime - a subtext which often simply did not exist.

This resulted in a highly schizophrenic situation. The performers balanced on a narrow ledge between two precipices: one step in one direction and their career would be in tatters, one step in the other and they would be castigated by their audiences as privileged "pro-regime" artists. Additionally, the dividing line was frequently in the eye of the beholder; the same actor could simultaneously be a Communist stooge for one theatergoer and a dissident for another.

The period of Normalization was a minefield littered with victims.

However does that mean that public performances like Gott's were devoid of any element of moral choice? That they were amoral - rather than necessarily either moral or immoral? The answer is simply - yes and no.

Every oligarchy (oligarchical regime), no matter how modern or sophisticated, needs to give its subjects panem et circensis - bread and games.

When Karel Gott remained abroad for more than a year in the early 1970s, Gustav Husak, the Czechoslovak Communist Party leader, wrote him a personal letter stating: "Come back, Karel. We need you. You'll help us, and we'll help you." Karel subsequently obliged, and the General Secretary did not fail to deliver on his promise.

There is film footage taken in Prague's National Theater shortly after the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhardt Heydrich, which shows a line of prominent Czech actors, all stretching their right arms in the Nazi salute - their eyes, shining with ardor and commitment. It constitutes one of the most haunting images ever to be shown on Czech screens.

More footage was shot in the same place in 1977. Czech artists - this time including writers, musicians and journalists - were summoned in order to condemn the authors of the Charter 77 initiative. It is obvious from the film that the people in the aisles were embarrassed, ashamed and deeply hurt by what they were doing to their personal integrity. However, when it came to signing the petition, not a single signature was missing. As it later turned out, some artists had actually asked the Communist authorities for permission to take part in the meeting.

In both these documented cases, Czech artists initially appeared to have little choice, but in the final analysis, they went beyond what the regimes expected or demanded of them...

Here comes this week's word of wisdom for you, dear Western reader: if you witness a display of ostentatious civic bravery by a Czech artist on the screen or in a newspaper, don't take it too seriously. It is almost certain that the actor, singer or musician is just one of the perpetual warriors on the safe side of the barricade, and your illusions could be frustrated if you saw the same dauntless man or woman applaud or praise a different demagogue a couple of years down the road. Do not get taken in by Czech nationalist propaganda enthusing over the bravery and martyrdom of nation's artists, falling just short of picturing them with halos; regard artists as what they are - simply artists.

Tomas Pecina, 5 August 1999




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