February 28, 1989 Milan Šimečka
Future historians will be looking for milestones in current history in order to make it comprehensible for children in the school year 2000/2001 during their history lessons. I would already like to suggest to them now, that they consider January and February of 1989 as the end of normalization. Historians know that periodization of history should not be based on the political terms of state dignitaries, but rather on the uneasily described culmination of the nation’s consciousness. That culmination actually took place in January and February, and it ended an era of immobility which had lasted too long already.
Historians will have video recordings of the January demonstrations available to them, and they will be able to read the expressions on the faces of those who were beaten, as well as those who were doing the beating. Surely there will be those who will not find these scenes sufficiently conclusive in order to make them a historical milestone. Very well then, let them study the major newspapers during those months, focusing on the propaganda campaign against the independence movement. A deeper analysis will show them that they were the voices of an outgoing world. And if this is not enough, let them take notice of the awakened consciousness that manifested itself in the protests against the arrests of Václav Havel and his colleagues. I will add a testimonial to this about someone’s inner experiences from these months.
During the 20 years of normalization, I was so bruised by bad experiences that I almost stopped acknowledging my fellow citizens who were living a normal life in those structures as relevant elements in our nation’s fate. I was not angry or disdainful. This attitude came about inadvertently. I knew by heart all the reactions people had within the structures; I understood them and I did not denounce them. But I felt in my subconscious that only those who were on an island of independence were living an honest life. It was only on such an island that I felt at home; there I understood everything, and there I knew almost everyone. Over those long years, this included only a few hundred people. It was an island of emotional safety, an island of relationships and friends that I did had not known before. Here was the true reality, and outside a false one.
Naturally, as a person who is constantly describing social reality, I knew that my other citizenship, my other hometown, only confirmed the national disease, and that society would leave apathy behind only when these two worlds were dissolved and replaced with normal social cooperation of the kind prevalent in traditional Europe. That was actually the ultimate goal of the independent thinkers who associated together. Unfortunately, 20 years is a long time, and many people have grown accustomed to the island, and from this custom comes an unspoken conviction that life outside the island is unclean, that there is nothing worthwhile out there, and that for the fulfillment of the human soul’s inner needs there are incomparably better opportunities in the independent villages than there are in the hypocritical structures. Although work on the final fusion continued, the possibility of the island’s demise was not accepted without worries.
When I heard the first news on the radio about various people joining in solidarity with Václav Havel and the protest against the campaign of humiliation, I was deeply moved, and at that moment I realized that the fulfillment of the goal for which the independent movements had united had begun. I wanted to celebrate but at the same time I felt some kind of regret. A strange state of mind.
However, it had all begun in 1988 already, when various groups were being established, united around peculiar interests, but continuing in the tradition of the Charter, just using different methods. Even the official demagogy could not come up with anything better than a suspicion that the Charter had artificially grown these seeds and was now planting them, so they would sprout. Essentially, it was almost like that, but different. The new generation simply continued with an established tradition, but it was in no way manipulated; therefore, it has a full right to feel offended by this interpretation. Until recently I was able to recognize every name in the independent villages and I could often put a face to it. This is no longer true, which is yet another sign that society—and mainly the young generation—has awakened. It is very pleasant to be aware of the fact that the motivation for the new activities is still the same: like a shiny dragonfly, the promise of life in truth is always flickering above the various declarations and presentations.
All of this came as a big surprise to power itself. Until then, it had been comfortably laid out across the empire of apathy and private safety; it never believed that esoteric challenges by independent groups could reach a wider audience; it was betrayed by its own materialism: as long as there was enough bread, we were safe. I can imagine how unpleasant it must have been to be facing the yearning for truth now, something that had been ridiculed for years. And it must have been even worse to be facing the declining fear and dread, and the direct questions from young minds about the moral sense of the past, which—according to false presumptions—should not have been of interest to the young generation. I was present at a discussion with some students when an official was confronted with such questions. Although it was unfitting, I actually felt something like compassion with a person who, when placed in direct fire of awakened courage and curiosity, had to walk through the corridor of ridicule in order to respect the binding structures.
I do not want to suggest that the fundamental change in the social climate was a result of the immanent victorious movement of truth. Many other causes had been accumulating and incited the turn of events at the beginning of this year. Over the past year I have kept a journal of these events, following their ripening and various detours. Most of these events had been intensifying mainly in our geographic area. The main cause of the turning point on a domestic level was the erosion of power itself. The carelessness which had governed its actions since the 1970s was gone. Power knew more about the depth of the political and economical crisis than the ordinary citizen, and it also knew that the methods used to confront its symptoms had completely failed. It appears that even without the Soviet stimulus, it would need to resort to some form of restructuring. In all of Eastern Europe, no other governing party was in such dire straits as ours. What on earth was it to do? Implement reforms whose demise it had rejoiced over in 1968 and against which it had always stood firmly? All these people knew, maybe with a few exceptions, that there was no alternative to reforms, but it is a terrifying thought that shortly after the beginning of such reforms, they would be convicted of crimes against national life during the past 20 years, and their futility would become evident. Being aware of this did not add to anyone’s self-confidence. We are now living in a phase of reduced self-confidence which manifests itself through helplessness, unpredictability, and the alternation of a hard and softer line.
The future, in this matter, has already been decided. After what has happened in the first weeks of this year, Czechoslovakia is now a different country than it has been for the past 20 years. It is not really important that regarding the life of the state, nothing has changed, that we are not trembling from the dramatic quakes and that we are not getting excited over the spectacular personnel changes. It is also possible that a majority of the population does not even know that we are a different country already. It is not easy to cross to this perspective. I know from experience that when I try to convince people of this, they look at me with astonishment, simply because in their surroundings nothing has really changed yet. Two hundred years ago Louis XVI could not bring himself to forbid his wife’s extravagant celebrations. Then it was too late. Our country is now preparing for the expensive Spartakiáda (an extravagant mass gymnastics event), and it is also too late. Certainly, it is very rare in history that apparent events and hidden trends join in such a synoptic pattern as has happened over the last year here and in the rest of Easter Europe. I truly regret that I succumbed to the magic of the number eight and that I did not postpone writing this journal to this year. It could have been so much more interesting!
Milan Šimečka, “28.2.1989,” Konec nehybnosti, Lidové noviny, Prague 1990.