Karel Kovanda

* 1944

  • "The important thing is that at school and among my family, I heard the same thing. My parents were communists, so I didn't suffer from what is known in psychology as cognitive dissonance when you have a discrepancy between what you hear here and what you hear there, and how to come to terms with that. I didn't suffer from that. Until the moment I came to visit Prague from Říčany when I was about 14 years old, and I was walking along Wenceslas Square, and I saw an old man selling pencils. And I pondered over it, and then I realized that he was begging, basically. And that was one moment of epiphany - that perhaps communism wasn't so good after all. That was a 'Heureka!'. It was simply an explosion in my mind, which probably didn't convert me, but it raised this essential doubt, which later grew and manifested itself in various ways."

  • "Strahov at that time - maybe even today, I don't know - was a place where many students lived in the dormitories. Those dormitories constantly had some infrastructural problems, and one of those infrastructural problems was that the electricity would go out, the lights would go out. Students couldn't study and ausgerechnet during the exam period. So one day, people got angry and somehow - I think spontaneously, at least I never heard of it having been planned in any way - spontaneously, the students gathered on the Strahov plaza and started a march. They headed towards the city. Along Neruda Street, I believe. And they marched towards the city with slogans such as 'We want light' and so on. And right then, the Communist Party was sitting in the Castle, and they considered it a huge provocation. The cops went on a rampage and beat up a lot of people there very badly. 'We know well what kind of light you want' and so on. It was in 1967. So these were Strahov events. And we [the student representatives] wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and requested and requested. And I made one good speech at the time saying that Benno Ohnesorg, who was a person who lost his life in the Berlin student events, that it was just a coincidence that we didn't have our own Benno Ohnesorg, that nobody had been beaten to death in our country. And that this is not acceptable and that we can't allow it to happen, blah blah blah and all that. So it was a pretty good speech."

  • "The UN Security Council was like a headless chicken. And it became clearer and clearer to me that this was no humanitarian catastrophe, as someone called it during the discussions, that this was no ordinary tragedy but genocide. I wrote to Prague, for example, that to ask the Tutsi and the Hutu to come to a ceasefire would only help the Hutu to keep killing because the ceasefire was a matter of the civil war but there was a twofold conflict going on - one was the civil war between soldiers of both sides and the other conflict was the killing. Well, asking the Tutsi and the Hutu to make some sort of truce is like asking Hitler and the Jews to make a truce, isn't it? What are we talking about here? That's what I wrote home - we're talking about genocide. I said, 'Look at how many Tutsis have already been slaughtered and reflect that in your nation's statistics. And immediately, you see that it can be nothing but genocide. But it took a month before I said on one occasion in a public meeting of the Security Council that, in our judgment, this is nothing less than genocide. And that was the first time the word genocide was used publicly in the Security Council. Before that, we tried as much as possible to mobilise the Security Council, to get it to do something. With the help, in particular, of my incredibly smart New Zealand colleague and perhaps some others. Afterwards, President Kagame appreciated it and gave us a medal, but truthfully, we didn't achieve much within the Security Council."

  • "Well, I got out thanks to the fact that I was born in England and had a British passport, which I got a year or two before." - "You had that secretly?" - "I left the British passport at my friend's place in Austria. My brother-in-law from Denmark, my sister's husband, was visiting us at the time. I gave him instructions, which he wrote down in his notebook in Danish. In the belief that if the Czechs found it, they wouldn't understand it. And so that way, it would be clear to him what to do. And what was he supposed to do? To write to my friend in Vienna, telling her what to do with my passport. In the meantime, I went to the American embassy, where they knew about my American friend, and therefore, they also knew what I wanted. I applied for an American visa and told them I would pick it up in Vienna when it was ready. And to let me know. They sent a telegram to the United States and charged 144 crowns for it. I then booked a flight to Budapest, which was easy because I didn't have to have an exit clause. Then, when I received word that my visa was waiting for me, my Vienna friend followed the instructions she had received from Denmark. She arranged a Hungarian visa for someone who looked a bit like me at the Hungarian embassy. For example, he had a beard. And he went to the Hungarian embassy and got a Hungarian visa. When everything was ready, I invited her to Prague. She came with her new boyfriend and brought me my British passport with the Hungarian visa. I got on the plane and showed my Czech passport at the passport control, saying I was going to Hungary. Upon arrival in Hungary, I showed my British passport with the entry visa. I got on the train and went to Vienna."

  • "We came up with the student strike, and I was indeed there when it happened, about two weeks before 17 November 1968. With a few friends, and there weren't very many of us, we were sitting in the student café, which was in Vltava, which is now, I think, an airline office, at the end of Revolutionary Avenue. And we met some guys from Nitra, from the agricultural or forestry college, who told us they were planning to do something on 17 November. 17 November is, as you know, an old Czech student holiday, an occasion to commemorate Jan Opletal and the 1939 massacre of Czech students by the Germans. We were intrigued and started organizing something similar in Prague. And indeed, on 17 November, this student strike broke out, and it consisted of, first of all, an action committee at each faculty. In Prague, there was a national Prague action committee. I happened to be its chairman, and those action committees were responsible for ensuring that students at their schools had something to do continuously. But that was a secondary thing. The main thing was that we agreed on a ten-point programme that we announced. And I think it was announced already on the 17th at the journalists' meeting in Prague's Lucerna. The ten points included obvious things like 'we want freedom of press' and 'we want freedom of assembly'. And then there were less obvious things - especially from today's point of view. For example, 'We don't want cabinet politics,' which meant that we didn't want state affairs and personnel decisions to be made somewhere behind the scenes in the party backrooms. We also said, 'We want continued economic reform.' I don't remember all the ten points off the top of my head, but every article about the student strike quotes them. Here, I would like to mention Jaroslav Pažout, for example, who is an activist from northern Bohemia who wrote an important book about the student movement, mainly about the student movement in Western Europe, in France, and about our Trotskyists. But there is also a lot about what we, the Prague radicals, did. So this is what the student strike was like. The main political and, I would say, cultural and social aspect was that we occupied the universities. The public didn't necessarily understand why it was called an occupational [strike], which was still associated with Hitler. And so we also explained that we were occupying universities and living in them. Meanwhile, the social life was remarkable. Artists and writers and philosophers and university teachers came to the universities and gave lectures, entertained us, argued with us, and so on. If you watch the film Olga Sommerová made about the Prague radicals, for example, there's a scene where Smrkovský is speaking at the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Dejvice, and our people are trying to manage it. So that's what it looked like. We slept there. Sometimes we slept in couples, of course, it was our age, and so on."

  • Celé nahrávky
  • 1

    Praha, 12.03.2023

    délka: 02:04:23
    nahrávka pořízena v rámci projektu Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 2

    Praha, 13.03.2023

    délka: 01:55:23
    nahrávka pořízena v rámci projektu Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 3

    Praha, 23.03.2023

    délka: 01:49:18
    nahrávka pořízena v rámci projektu Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 4

    Praha, 16.05.2023

    délka: 49:24
    nahrávka pořízena v rámci projektu Stories of the 20th Century TV
Celé nahrávky jsou k dispozici pouze pro přihlášené uživatele.

To rely on your inner compass

Karel Kovanda, 1968
Karel Kovanda, 1968
zdroj: witness archive

Karel Kovanda was born on 5 October 1944 in Gilsland, UK, as the eldest of Oldřich Kovanda and Iva, née Norman‘s, four children. His father was of Jewish descent, and his mother came from a family of farm workers. His parents met while serving in the British Army during World War II and moved to Czechoslovakia in 1946. Both parents were Communists by belief, although the father was briefly imprisoned in 1950 and later persecuted. They only resigned from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) after the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. Karel Kovanda grew up in Říčany, where his family moved in 1953. From childhood, he was interested in foreign languages and foreign policy. After graduating from grammar school (1962), he began his studies at the University of Agriculture, to which he later added a distance learning course in English Studies and History at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University (FFUK). From the mid-1960s, he was an active participant in the student movement, editor of university magazines, and a member of the University District Committee of the Czechoslovak Youth Union (ČSM). He also took part in a Jewish youth group. After the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops, he led the student strike in November 1968. In the spring of 1969, he was elected chairman of the Union of University Students of Bohemia and Moravia, which was, however, soon banned because they did not join the National Front. In the spring of 1970, he left for the United States, and the initially intended six-week stay eventually became 20 years long. He studied Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later earned an MBA. From 1977 to 1979, he worked in China for a foreign broadcast of Chinese Radio to Czechoslovakia, and in the 1980s, he worked in the management of American companies. In August 1990, he returned to Czechoslovakia and from 1991, worked as Head of Administration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 1993 to 1997, he was the Czech Ambassador to the United Nations, and from 1994 to 1995, he represented the Czech Republic in the UN Security Council. He significantly influenced the UN‘s position on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for which he was awarded the Umurinzi Medal - Campaign Against Genocide by Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2010. As Deputy Foreign Minister between 1997 and 1998, he led negotiations for the Czech Republic‘s accession to NATO, and between 1998 and 2005, he served as the Czech Ambassador to NATO. In April 2005, he was appointed Deputy Director General for External Relations at the European Commission. He is currently (2023) an independent consultant and occasional election observer.