Vilém Prečan

* 1933

  • “The search for the right path, my personal freedom, liberating myself from the yoke of Communist ideology, that - one could say - belief in a righteous world, was powered by two factors. The study of history. The deeper understanding I gained of how things really were - and that they were different from what we learnt about them, what they told us at lectures, what tradition claimed, and what was the official line in the History of the CPC and in school books. Secondly, my personal experience with society and politics. That is, the way I saw people living, the way things really were, what the Party organs were like, the political profiling policy, who was actually in power, and what the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat was in reality. And at the same time all those political struggles, both overt and covert. The de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union, first and second stage.”

  • “Of course, there were still concerns regarding what the Soviets would say. I remember that on 17 August we invited several experts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to our department of most recent history - people we knew in person, whom we could speak openly to - to discuss what was the probability of a Soviet military intervention. The expert listed six reasons why it would be absolutely disadvantageous for the Soviets to do something like that. Well. That was on 17 August, and we had them here come nightfall on the twentieth.”

  • “As grammar school students, for example, we lived politics from our childhood. The elections were in May 1946. I was thirteen years old at the time, my classmates were getting on toward fourteen. We organised our own elections in the class - sometime at the beginning of May - who would vote for whom. So of course, I voted for the Communists, and my classmate, who sat next to me, was an avowed National Socialist, who carved something into my desk just to spite me. So that’s how we lived, we debated about politics. [Q: Did you know any details about the Soviet Union, the Soviet regime?] We didn’t know a thing. How would we find something out? Even those who spent the whole war there didn’t tell the truth.”

  • “I was always glad that circumstances had led me to stay in the country until ’76, that I didn’t emigrate in ’68. Because when looking from a distance, I’d never have believed that the turbid torrent, that whole normalisation process, could not be stopped. I would have thought - if we had stayed and done something, organised something, things wouldn’t have been so bad. For instance, as late as spring 1969 I was convinced - and I spoke about it at a conference in Oxford - that people will not let themselves be robbed of the freedom of media and the freedom of press. That they’d defend their journalists, editors. I thought that they’d enter a general strike or something of the sort. That’s how deluded I was. Bit by bit I found out how powerless one is. How we, opponents of normalisation, were atomised. Everyone had to earn a living somehow. They were very clever to fire us, so that we all had to start doing various manual jobs for measly wages, to feed our families, and so on.”

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We were employees of the Orwellian Ministry of Truth

As a member of the Communist Party, 23 years old
As a member of the Communist Party, 23 years old

Vilém Prečan was born on 9 January 1933 in Olomouc to a single mother. He grew up in rural Moravia; in 1945 he and his mother and her second husband moved to Brno. During the war his parents were active in the Communist resistance, and Vilém was an avid Communist in the post-war years. He became the regional youth union leader at grammar school, and in 1951 he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. After graduating he went on to study history and political sciences in Prague. After receiving his degree in 1956 he obtained a job placement in Bratislava. There he met his future wife Helena; he also made the acquaintance of Milan Šimečka. The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the resulting process of de-Stalinisation came as a great shock to him. From 1957 to 1970 he worked at the Institute of History of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, where he devoted himself to the matter of the Slovak National Uprising. In the early 1960s the option of travelling abroad helped him adopt a critical view of official historiography. In spring 1968 he actively participated in the open public debate. After the invasion of Warsaw Pact armies he co-initiated the publication of the so-called Black Book, which mapped the events of the key days of the occupation. He was prosecuted for this during normalisation, and in 1970 he was fired from his job. He then worked as an unskilled labourer at Motol Hospital and as a cloakroom attendant at a bar. In 1976 he and his family decided to emigrate to Germany. While in exile he worked with the likes of Karel Schwarzenberg, Pavel Tigrid, Jiří Pelikán, or Ivan Medek, and he also promoted Charter 77 and samizdat literature. After 1989 he founded and directed the Institute for Contemporary History. He is a member of the science advisory board of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.