How would you describe the Czech mentality

Prague 1968

Martin Machovec

To person

Dr. phil., born 1956; Literary historian, critic, translator; Kolatorova 10/1622, Praha 6 - Brevnov 16900 / Czech Republic.
Email: M. [email protected]

1968 was an exceptional year in the Czechoslovakia, also because of its cultural freedom. At that time, activities emerged that could only be implemented "underground" during the period of "normalization".


Without a doubt, it would be possible to find numerous examples in cultural history in general and in literary history in particular for that surprising phenomenon of asynchronicity, which consists in the fact that the creative high of individual artists and writers does not coincide with the times when there was more than otherwise it would be possible to use political and creative freedom. Especially in the 20th century, when many countries were ravaged by long periods of dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, replaced only by short periods of relative freedom, numerous examples of such an algorithm can be identified. [1]

It would be a mistake to draw general conclusions from this finding. Certainly we could name many, perhaps most of the artists and poets who fell silent in times of terror, oppression and lack of freedom, for the plausible reason that they were used to working "on behalf", actors of the artistic or to be a literary "business" - and thus to earn a living through artistic or literary work more badly than right. Under changed framework conditions, such authors have no choice but to remain silent or - in the worst case - to fulfill a "social mandate" of a different kind and, against their own conscience and conviction, to start creating works that are acceptable for the ideological platform of such regimes to publish.

Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989 seems, on the surface, to be an example of a totalitarian regime of the Soviet type. It appears as a state in which basically everything is subject to the control of the state-party apparatus, where the hybrid quasi-left doctrine of so-called Marxism-Leninism is upgraded to the state-supporting doctrine, to a new quasi-religious strict faith. Apparently, in those four decades, Czechoslovakia met the basic requirements for describing the political and social system as "totalitarian". [2]

On closer inspection, the fact cannot be denied that within the framework of this "totalitarianism" there were sometimes more and sometimes less free phases and that there was even a short period (January 1968 to April 1969) during which the power mechanisms of the totalitarian regime in the Praxis did not work or were at least severely paralyzed, although de nomine they never ceased to exist. In addition to these most significant, less noticeable caesuras should also be taken into account, which were no less serious for cultural life, such as the death of Stalin in 1953, the XX. CPSU party congress in 1956, the release of the majority of political prisoners in Czechoslovakia in 1960/61, the founding of Charter '77 in late 1976 / early 1977 and Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in the USSR in 1985.

In which of these delimitable periods of time can artistic and literary "underground efforts" be identified, which in Czech, depending on their specific orientation, are characterized by podzemní or by the English term undergroundové, which was adopted into Czech at a certain time? [3] First, what must be explained this differentiation means in the Czech or Czechoslovakian cultural context.

With podzemí cultural underground endeavors are described that were unofficial, i.e. not officially permitted, and, although they were not necessarily "subversive", "anti-state" or "anti-social" activities, nonetheless eo ipso, that is, taking into account the self-image a totalitarian system that was de facto considered to be just that, that is, illegal. In literature, these activities have no other option than the spontaneous dissemination of texts without official permission, for which the Czech language has been using the Russian term "samizdat" since the early 1970s at the latest. [4]

A section of underground activities is characterized by underground, namely that of the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, the rock band The Plastic People of the Universe and the group that oriented itself around them during the 1970s became the symbol of underground cultural events in Czechoslovakia that were specified in this way. The name arose as a result of its focus on the American "underground scene" of the second half of the 1960s, i.e. on a certain part of the American "counterculture". It was characterized by anti-commercial, often experimental, ambitions in mass culture, especially rock music. The verbal utterances were mainly about socially critical, taboo-removing, ironic, literarily always relevant efforts (think of the influence of Frank Zappa with his band The Mothers of Invention, Lou Reed with The Velvet Underground, Jim Morrison with The Doors, to Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg with their band The Fugs). The underground movement in Czechoslovakia was probably the most radical compared to the other analogous contemporary underground activities, and thus actually only it is considered to be truly "underground", while other unofficial endeavors are qualified as "dissident", "parallel" or "alternative".