People fade, ideas remain

Published: 11. 4. 2022
Author: Lubor Winter
Photo: Photo Shutterstock.com and CT documentary "Charter 77 - Beginnings"
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The words Charter 77 no longer mean much to the younger generations. In spite of that – or perhaps because of that – we must keep reminding people that the free, democratic, and prosperous Czechia we know today exists also thanks to this initiative and the people who mustered the courage to show their support for it publicly.

This January marked 45 years since its inception, and the same amount of time has passed in March since the death of one of its leading members – Jan Patočka. On January 6 and 7, 1977, the text of Charter 77 was published in four prominent newspapers around the world: Le Monde in France, The Times in Great Britain, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany, and The New York Times in the United States. The Charter was the appeal of a group of citizens addressed to the Czechoslovak Government asking it to uphold human and civil rights as per Czechoslovakia's promise to do so when signing the Final Act at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe on August 1, 1975, in Helsinki. Despite the authors' wishes to stay anonymous, we now know that the majority of the text was compiled by writers Václav Havel and Pavel Kohout. The Charter was to be an appeal of a general character that transcends class and state. Things ended up being very different, however.

Shadow of repression

Even though the initial signatories numbered just a few dozen, the Chartists believed that the appeal would spread throughout the country and become public knowledge. This idea soon hit the brick wall that was the communist regime and its normalization measures, which made sure that it would never happen – they methodically destroyed the lives of the signatories of Charter 77 and anyone associated with them. “Anti-state elements” were repeatedly interrogated for hours upon hours, Chartists and their families would lose jobs, be forced to leave the country, have to face threats, blackmail, confiscation of property... And it was effective. The communist regime eliminated its opposition from the shadows, with great diligence. During the 70s and 80s, the regime managed to pretty much wipe out the Charter 77 initiative from the minds of the people, very few knew about it. Historians have found that by the mid-80s, it was only signed by a total of 1200 people.

Charter 77 was intended to be a classless initiative, but despite being open to all social and professional groups, it remained a platform mostly supported by intellectuals and artists. That was also mainly due to the persecution of the signatories and their families and friends. Ideas presented in the Charter could hardly spread among the different groups in society when any attempt to do so was uncovered and “neutralized” by the State Security right away. Certain opponents of the regime also had issues with some of the Chartists being reformed communists, so, many people were rather reserved towards the initiative. Cardinal František Tomášek was one of the well-known anti-communist movement proponents who distrusted Charter 77 for a very long time.

And third – the initiative had ambitions of addressing both the Czech and Slovak public, meaning it was intended to be a transnational appeal. That also never happened. Not only did it garner minimal attention and support in Slovakia, but its ideas were slow to permeate even through the Czech lands where it originated. Ultimately, Charter 77 remained a thing of Prague and, to a minor degree, of other large Czech and Moravian cities, but it never reached the entire nation.

Defeats and victories

One could say that Charter 77 lost its battle with the communists on the three aforementioned points. Up until the fall of the regime in 1989, it remained the activity of loosely connected pockets of leftist intellectuals and artists that was no match for ones such as the Polish opposition movement  Solidarność, which garnered mass support of the Polish people over the years and ended up being the driving force behind the restoration of democracy in Poland.

The influence and legacy of Charter 77 should certainly not be downplayed, though. First – it will forever be known as the most important opposition initiative against the communist regime in the era of normalization and a platform that at the time clearly articulated the demands that individual human rights be upheld. Second – its major importance to the modern history of our nation came to light during the days, weeks, and months after November 1989 when the new Czechoslovak political body was being born. There were a number of Chartists who ended up entering democratic political life, such as Pavel Rychetský, František Bublan, Jiří Dienstbier, Jaroslav Šabata, Václav Benda, Milan Uhde, Alexandr Vondra, and last but not least, Václav Havel.

Jan Patočka

Jan Patočka

A number of stellar personalities of former Czechoslovakia signed Charter 77. Among them was eminent 20th-century philosopher, Jan Patočka, who also became one of its very first spokespeople. With the help of his writing, Charter 77 and its ideas became more defined but also gained civil and moral character. Philosopher Daniel Kroupa said the following on the matter on the Czech Television Historie.cs show: “When I found out that Patočka was to speak for Charter 77, I was horrified. He seemed to me like an apolitical person with little knowledge of practical politics. I was afraid he might let himself be taken advantage of. What shocked all of us the most was that this aging gentleman managed to use the two remaining months of his life to keep the communist regime in check. Through ceaseless work. He wrote, met with people..., he did everything the regime wished he would not.” Starting in January 1977, Jan Patočka was subjected to several exhausting interrogations. The final time that State Security came for him was on March 3, after his meeting with the Dutch minister of foreign affairs. They interrogated him for several hours, and the interrogation was more than strenuous – shortly after his return home, Professor Patočka was transferred to a hospital because of a suspected heart attack. He died of a stroke on the night of March 10.

Famous “anti-charter” article from the Rudé Právo newspaper.


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