It was a week of email agitation. You can’t pick your family, they say, and they’re right. Mine is a mix of those who stayed, and those who left. Czechoslovakia, that is, after not one, but two, totalitarian blights disfigured it. My father belonged to the latter group choosing to fight the four decades of Communist rule as a refugee at his typewriter in Melbourne. His articles for a Czech language newspaper exposed the lies that were told as a matter of routine, by the vandals in charge of the country he had left behind. In the end, victory went to the typewriter and all those, who, whether by word or deed, in the West or in Czechoslovakia, preferred truth to lies. A few weeks ago, it became apparent to me that the cleansing which took place over a quarter of a century earlier with the Velvet Revolution, had not entirely cured the malaise of the lying years.
My email inbox spills forth a daily summary of Czech news. On 22 October the headline ‘Dalai Lama’s visit to Prague surrounded by controversy’ caught my attention. The bare facts were familiar even to a resident of Australia. The lightning rod that is the jolly Tibetan holy man had again caused politicians in terror of displeasing the Chinese, to rush the exits. Further details of the affair, however, turned out to be not only familiar but familial. The controversy which ‘exploded like a bombshell on the Czech political scene’ surrounded the culture minister, Daniel Herman, who, on a matter of principle, had decided to meet with the Dalai Lama. The minister is a member of a Christian-Democratic minority party in coalition with the majority Social Democrats. Herman is a one-time chief of the Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and a former Catholic priest. He is also my second cousin.
Two days later, the email news came bearing a potentially self-imploding revelation from Herman. Before the minister’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, disclosed Herman, Czech President Miloš Zeman had issued Herman with an ultimatum. If the politician met with the Tibetan, one of the state’s highest honours, scheduled to be bestowed by the president on an 88-year old Auschwitz survivor, would be withdrawn.
I ask Speccie readers to be patient. The survivor in question, whose sister and parents perished in the Holocaust, was Canadian resident George Brady. He happens to be Herman’s uncle and my father’s first cousin. Recognised internationally, Brady has spent much of his life talking to young people about what happens when hate corrodes our capacity to see others as human. The Czech award was to have been handed over at a grand annual Independence Day ceremony in Prague Castle on 28 October. The Czech president has zealously driven strong, if domestically controversial, economic ties with China. Brady’s name evidently disappeared from the list of nominees after Herman met the Dalai Lama.
Another morning news drop, this time landing with a presidential retort: Zeman denied making any threat to cancel Brady’s award while conceding, in the memorable words of a senior minister dispatched to tell the world, that ‘he had asked Mr Herman not to meet Mr Dalai Lama’. Two other government ministers, nearby during the disputed conversation, reported a temporary loss of hearing when it came to the subject of Mr Dalai Lama. In a style reminiscent of the dog days of the Cold War, the president’s spokesman Jiří Ovčáček even suggested the award had never been intended for Brady at all, and blackguarded Herman for tarnishing Czechs’ independence celebrations.
Fresh hell came midweek: a popular TV talk show invited the octogenarian and Herman to discuss the raging political storm surrounding them. In TV terms, it was a ‘must-watch’. However, what viewers saw when they tuned in was not an interview with the advertised guests, but a repeat of an old programme. For many Czechs, a familiar stench was in the air. The television station defended itself against accusations of censorship with a charge that the recording had not been delivered on time. The independent program makers swore there had been no delay. Anyway, the show quickly surfaced in its entirety on YouTube. I never thought I’d thank the Almighty for YouTube.
Chauncey Gardiner would have been proud of the way the President tended his garden. Prompted by the predictable Chinese rebuke for associating with a Tibetan engaged in ‘separatist activities’, Zeman joined with the country’s most senior politicians to reassure the Chinese that there would be no diminution in the warmth of Sino-Czech relations. Uproar. The word ‘servile’ was heard across the land.
‘Political Scene in Shock over Award Scandal’ was the not-so-unexpected inbox screamer. The new news was that many invitees to the Castle’s official ceremony had declined to attend. Around the country, institutions offered Brady their own recognition. ‘I’m ashamed of what’s going on regarding the award for Mr Brady’, said Prague mayor Adriana Krnáčová who gave the 88-year-old the key to the city. ‘He must know that his native country respects him.’ Tibetan flags appeared over some of the country’s universities. At one public gathering in support of the Holocaust survivor, people carried small Tibetan bells. A call for an alternative event in Prague’s medieval Old Town Square drew thousands on the evening of the official ceremony.
At the end of the week, I watched the unofficial event online, the crowded square filled with faces turned up towards a brightly-lit stage. From the speakers came both surprise, and gratitude for the demonstration of what some feared had departed from Czech life: the will to fight for what you believe in. In these mealy-mouthed times, when milksop equivocation shields so many from the perils of plain speech, a clear statement of principle can hit with the force of an earthquake.
No happy endings here. A week on, and the president restates his denial, and calls on Daniel Herman to step down for damaging the national interest. The Czech motto, by the way, is ‘Truth prevails’.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10