February 03, 2005

The Spirit of Prague

North Sea Diaries thanks the Czechs for their opposition to tyranny, and adds,

One of the contributions the new member states of the EU offer to the jaded, cynical policy-makers in Brussels is an awareness of tyranny. Four years of Nazism and forty years of Communism does that to people.

This reminded me of an interesting bit from Ivan Klima, a writer whose fictions I quite enjoyed some years ago, but none of which made enough of an impression upon me to recall now. But some of his essays did stick with me -- Klima notes that in Prague in 1948, there was a great deal of popular support for the communists and very little for the democrats. The scars of Munich cut too deep for liberal democracy -- which failed the Czechs and Slovaks (and Jews and the rest of the world) there -- to command much affection from the people. Klima adds,

The demise of totalitarian regimes of the left and of the right over the past few decades might lead us to the erroneous and optimistic conclusion that these regimes were somehow alien to the very essence of human behavior and thinking, that they came into being merely through some oversight of history. In reality, many people unconsciously long for the kind of order and firm-handed government they promised. I have recalled the enthusiasm with which the totalitarian system was established in my country forty years ago, and I still remember the wild excitement that greeted Hitler's accession to power in Germany. The first half of our century demonstrated that totalitarian systems attracted whole societies, entire nations. They achieved their popularity through a combination of utopian visions and demagogic promises, and also by appealing to the ideas the average citizens had about order and a just organization of society. To people trapped in the greyness of everyday life, they offered a great ideal, as well as a charismatic leader who relieved them of the burden of having to decide for themselves, of responsibility and risk, and, moreover, led them towards a goal that gave their lives a meaning. Many aspects of a totalitarian system in its early stages are impressive: its decisiveness, the clarity of its programme, and the energy with which it deals with problems that a democracy, by its very nature, cannot solve in that way. It bans what upsets the average citizen and takes measures that impress him. The regime metes out a portion of what it confiscated or stole during its rise to power; it frightens, locks up or kills those who disagree with it and thus it creates the appearance of unity. At first it seems magically effective, and it reinforces this impact with magnificent and ostentatious celebrations, demonstrations and parades. In its early days, the totalitarian regime seems strong precisely because of the mass support it enjoys and the unity, at least on the surface, that it demonstrates.

Klima, of course, was no totalitarian -- he goes on to note that the totalitarians begin by killing or jailing those who oppose them and end by killing or jailing those who are insufficiently enthusiastic about having the boot on their face. The passage has stuck with me (although obviously not verbatim -- it's from The Spirit of Prague; my copy is a UK galley that's seen better days), and I've thought about it off and on over the last few years whenever I've encountered one of those awkward moments when someone who otherwise seemed little different than I could give voice to a monstrous assertion as if it were perfectly reasonable. Perhaps we have all had those moments, when someone we know socially and have every reason to believe is a perfectly fine fellow suggests that Sept. 11 was after all a justified response to U.S. aggression, or that Jews really do run the U.S. government, or other assorted nonsense. I recall one acquaintance hopefully speculating that the majority of African Americans would identify with Islamists and rise up against their mutual oppressors. There is no point arguing with someone so far gone, but I responded by citing Sayyid Qutb's hostility toward African American culture:

The American is primitive in his artistic tastes, whether in his judgment of art or his own artistic works. Jazz music is his music of choice. It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires, and their desire for noise on the one hand, and the abundance of animal noises on the other. The American's enjoyment of jazz does not full begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming. And the louder the noise of the voices and instruments, until it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree, the greater the appreciation of the listeners. The voices of appreciation are raised, and palms are raised in continuous clapping that could deafen ears.

This seemed to him to be a minor point; as I said, there is little point in arguing with such people.

We all flatter ourselves, perhaps, when looking back on the past, that had we been alive at this or that moment, we would invariably have been on the right side of history. How could the Germans--any German?--have been so stupid as to support Hitler? Yet when evil confronts us in the present -- when the question is whether you side with a dictator like Stalin or the Democrats who once failed you, whether you side with a cheap gangster like Castro or the dissidents he tortures, many of us -- many of the most educated and privileged among us -- cannot distinguish between good and evil. Or enthusiastically support the wrong side.

Posted by Ideofact at February 3, 2005 11:57 PM

Klima's words are darkly chilling.

I have read in many places about the darkness of modern totalitarian government, but never about the appeal such systems of government hold for the average citizen.

Clarity, energy, decisiveness--the strong hand to guide the nation out of darkness and indecision. The strong hand with a grip of iron, directed by a ruthless will that destroys any who oppose it.

It is only too late when the people discover the monster that had assumed the guise of savior and leader.

Posted by: steve h at February 4, 2005 10:12 AM

Reminds me of a young Nazi supporter quoted by Eric Fromm:

"We Germans are so happy. We are free of freedom."

Posted by: David Foster at February 7, 2005 05:44 PM

Crude screaming - animal noises - hey, he's got the Rolling Stones down, all right. And Nirvana! But I always thought Wagnerian opera was too noisy as well. The greyness of everyday life is an individual problem, never solved by collective "fun".

Posted by: Robert Speirs at February 7, 2005 11:44 PM

Incidentally, this story offers an example of the opaque way in which EU decision-making goes on. The decision not to invite Cuban dissidents to diplomatic cocktail parties has been reversed, but only as an interim measure.

I think this explains the lack of fanfare over the Czech veto, but we can hope that when the policy comes under review (June, I think), the EU will understand what it means to people. Although its previous record leaves some doubt.

And now you've reminded me of Klima, who I haven't read in ten years. I didn't grasp what he was about at the time, but perhaps a re-read will be more rewarding now. Thanks.


Posted by: DaveVH at February 11, 2005 08:30 AM


First, let me thank you for your wonderful blog. I read (or at least skim) the Washington Post and the New York Times every day, and try to check out the Financial Times at work, but I always find that you've picked the story of the day from Europe, and done a fine job of putting it into context.

Regarding Klima (it's more fun to talk about literature than politics), I was probably a little harsh on him. While the plot of "Judge on Trial" escapes me, I do recall quite well the wonderful tales of "My Merry Mornings" (I think that's the title of the U.K. collection), a bunch of short stories about a fictional, dissident author (let's call him Ivan K., no wait -- I. Klima) who is persecuted by the state, and, unable to earn his living with his brain, has to earn it with his hands, his back, his knees...

It's a charming book. Klima being Klima, he of course finds opportunities for drinking, for laughter, for goofing off, for philosophical speculation, for romance, eroticism, sex and death -- the book is a joyous affirmation of what it means to be human, and the mornings (and days that follow them) are merry indeed.

Highly recommended, as they say...

Posted by: Bill at February 11, 2005 11:15 PM