Tripping on the Czech Jewish Fantastic: From the Golem to Kafka to Daniel Kumermann

Daniel Kumermann

Daniel Kumermann

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

We met in 1990 at the oldest active Jewish synagogue in Europe, the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. Daniel Kumermann gave me a brief tour of the 13th-century structure, along with the adjacent cemetery. The synagogue is one of the few remaining structures of the old Jewish quarter, a place rich in tales of the fantastic, from the golem of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to the stories of Franz Kafka, who was born and raised in the area.

Kumermann fit right into this tradition of fantastic stories. He had been a teenager when he learned that his father was Jewish, and later he himself converted to Orthodox Judaism. He had written his master’s thesis on American comic books. As a signatory of Charter 77, he’d been forced to work as a window-washer, the same occupation as the protagonist in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He collected gum wrappers. He was about to be the subject of a New Yorker profile.

I wasn’t sure whether to believe all of this. It sounded like a tale designed to fool a gullible young American. Kumermann was working as a journalist in 1990, and perhaps he was enjoying the opportunity to turn the tables.

But it all turned out to be true, even the New Yorker profile, which appeared that November. The long article entitled “The Window Washer,” was by Janet Malcolm, whose Jewish family had fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 when she was very young. She spent considerably more time with Kumermann than I had and captured well his “air of quiet certitude that is not without a trace of truculence.” The article delved into his personal history, the challenge of embarking on a new journalism career at the relatively advanced age of 39, and his overwhelming desire to visit Israel.

Twenty-three years later, I met up with Kumermann again, this time in Prague’s Castle District at a restaurant near the foreign ministry where he works. In the intervening years, he had achieved his dreams. He’d risen through the ranks of journalism, specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. And he had made it to Israel. In fact, he had served for several years as the Czech ambassador to the country. He still collected gum wrappers, and his collection had grown. I’d even sent him some examples from Japan when I lived there.

The story of the window washer who became an ambassador sounds like another fantastic tale, but it certainly wasn’t unique for that time and place. Other Charter 77 signatories experienced similar reversals of fortune. In 1989, Vaclav Havel and gone from prison to presidency. Jiri Dienstbier had gone from stoker to foreign minister. Jirina Siklova worked as a cleaning woman at a hospital before reassuming an academic position and establishing the first gender studies program in the region.

These Cinderella stories captured the West’s fancy. But the storytelling went both ways, and some fairy tales about the West proved difficult to abandon. “We idealized the West,” Kumermann told me over coffee last February. “Then we saw that this basic concept of democracy was idealized. It doesn’t solve everything. It just puts in a different government every four years (or earlier if there are earlier elections). The people who are elected are very often corrupt and do it for their own interests and don’t care about democracy. It still doesn’t take the responsibility away from civic society. That you don’t solve everything by installing a democratic system — that was a great lesson.”

It was not just democracy that had been idealized. I asked him whether the economic reforms of the early 1990s could have gone any better. “We probably could have done much better,” he confessed. “They say that at least a whole year’s state budget was lost during privatization alone. There were other ways to do that. Instead we gave to the world economy ‘tunnels.’ You remember tunnels. There were also ‘juice’ and ‘sandwich’ — these were different ways of stealing money from the state. On the other hand if you look around, it is not that great either: For instance Hungary now has a strong semi-fascist party there. From this point of view, we’re not so bad off.”

We talked about the fall of Communism, how his unfamiliarity with a fax machine nearly wrecked the Velvet Revolution, his criticisms of Vaclav Klaus, and why the world should listen to Donald Rumsfeld and prepare for unknown unknowns.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Not really. What I was thinking I can remember, but not where I was. The first I heard it was probably on the radio and I was at home. Every day we listened to radio. We expected something because it was already after the East German exodus to Prague. Things were moving. They weren’t moving in our country, but they were moving all around us. When the Germans left Prague on those trains, I felt that this thing was crumbling. If the Communists couldn’t prevent this, then they were already at the end. I remember the excitement around the Berlin Wall falling because it was another death knell.

You didn’t think anything would happen immediately in Czechoslovakia.

I remember vividly a demonstration that took place on October 28, 1989. I was there, and I got hit by a water cannon. It was quite a cold day. I went home because it was unpleasant to be wet outside. My colleagues from work were in Munich that same day and they visited the offices of the Czech section of Radio Free Europe. They said that they felt despair there because the regimes were crumbling everywhere, but the demonstration in Prague, which had 30,000 people in the end, was easily pushed off the street. It took the authorities two or three hours and that was it. They said that even if Communism collapses everywhere else, the regime in Czechoslovakia would hold on for several more years. There was genuine despair. I couldn’t imagine that it would go on forever. But I thought it could last for a few more years.

And then a couple weeks later…

Yes, it was quite a surprise. At that time we didn’t know the details. We learned a year later that it was basically a putsch by part of the Communist Party and part of the secret police against the leadership in order to implement a perestroika-type change, and it just got out of their hands. It wasn’t like the people in the streets had done it.

The Communists screwed up.

Yes, that’s a good word.

But if there hadn’t been a lot of people on the street, they still might have hung on for a while longer.

Yes, that’s true. First of all, because this news about the student killed was a bit too much. Until then, people didn’t get killed. It was quite meticulously planned on their side. Also, it was very important that the actors and the theaters joined in. They could always talk away the students’ action. But when these famous actors who played in these popular serials turned against the regime, that was difficult to explain away. And when 100,000 people come out on the street and nothing happens to them, well, the next day a half a million people show up.

At that time, where were you working?

As a window cleaner.

Did you just leave your job?

No. At that time, I had quite a cozy working place. We worked in one high-rise in Prague. We weren’t paid really well for it. But most of the time we didn’t really work eight hours a day. It wasn’t really toil. Some people had much more unpleasant jobs. We were not really expected to work in those days. I spent whole days at Civic Forum and no one asked questions, and they paid me the same as before.

I stayed at that work until March 1990. The pre-holiday, pre-Christmas period is really busy in that line of work. Also, in the first weeks or month, I was involved in the revival of scouting. At the beginning of February or the beginning or March, I thought I should get a new job. That’s why I went to Lidove Noviny to ask if a position was available. I wrote a few pieces for the samizdat version of Lidove Noviny. But when I went there they were all full. That’s why I ended up at Lidova Demokracie. Also, the editor of Lidova Demokracie at the time was a chief Scout. He was someone who could vouch for me that the paper would not go really bad. But two or three days after he had hired me, he got himself fired by the leadership. So, things went bad. A year later, when I was really quite desperate about Lidova Demokracie, a lot of people from Lidove Noviny left for diplomatic posts and other positions and there were openings there.

I’d like to ask you first about your conversion or reconversion to Judaism.

I wasn’t born Jewish. My mother wasn’t Jewish. She was one-eighth Jewish.

How did you find out you were partially Jewish?

I really can’t recall a particular moment. When I was a kid, my father listened to the news all day — German, English, French — whenever there was news on the radio. He always divided the news into “good for Israel” and “bad for Israel,” but I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. I already was a good Zionist from this point of view. I knew that Israel was very important.

When I was 16 or 17, I had some problems with faith and I was looking around for something else. I don’t remember how I learned about Judaism. I was 19 when I learned that my father was Jewish and that he spent the war in Palestine and then came back. I looked around at the Jewish community and liked it from the very beginning. I became a member of the community. This was in the early 1970s. In 1984, I finished the orthodox conversion.

How big was the Jewish community here?

About 1,500 people at the time. Most people were just members and didn’t attend or give a damn. Some were pushed away by the regime. Any Charter 77 signer could ask to emigrate, and they would approve it sooner or later. Many friends of mine from the Jewish community just left. So, obviously, like with Charter signers, it was the policy to allow as many people out of the community as possible so the numbers would go down.

Was it generally an older community?

The younger people ended up avoiding it, and the older people stayed. From my generation, at least one third and up to one half emigrated in the early 1970s. We couldn’t do a geirus, the conversion process, because we didn’t have the beth din, the rabbinical court. The chief rabbi of Romania had to come. Even so, it wasn’t 100 percent kosher. When I was in Israel, I talked with the chief rabbi, and he said it was all right. I got it from the highest source.

Was there a kosher butcher here?

Yes, there was someone who did it. But it was difficult to get, and it wasn’t enough.

When did that change? Immediately after 1989?

After the fall of the Communist regime. And now you can get it from outside. There are several sources of kosher meat here.

A lot of people came out of hiding after November 1989. We also had a lot of converts. People had a general interest in anything Jewish because the Communist regime was always spewing hate at Israel and Jews in general. So people were conditioned to learn more about it. There was so much intermarriage and assimilation here before, so there are a lot of people here who are partly Jewish and converted back. There were also about 50,000 Americans in the country in the 1990s, and a number of them were Jews. So, there’s been a lot of new blood from outside.

Let’s talk about the other big decision in your life — to become a dissident. Was that a specific decision, or was it a more gradual process?

Actually, that’s a question I ask myself. I don’t think it was a kind of decision. I think it was a precondition. It was just a small step on a trajectory that was already set.

I had it easy. I grew up with the idea that the regime was evil. I looked at the Charter 77 signers, a few of whom I knew and considered friends, and I felt that I belonged to that circle. I discussed it at home with my wife. She agreed. But she wouldn’t sign because of the children. If they imprisoned every signer, then someone should stay at home with the children. This was the same problem faced by other couples. But I figured that sooner or later I was going to have trouble.

It also gave me a certain freedom. The fact that we can speak English together is partly a result of it. I majored in English. But when I came out of school, I couldn’t speak English. I could read Beowulf, but I couldn’t speak the living language. Some of my classmates have been teaching it for 40 years now, but still they don’t really speak it because they were not exposed to the living language. Once I settled the accounts with the regime, I was basically able to meet with whomever I wanted. I started to meet with a lot of foreigners. A lot of Americans came and stayed with us. Once somebody stayed with us, they would send their friends. We both spoke English quite actively at home.

You worked with Jan Kavan’s London operation, the East European Reporter and Palach Press.

I was pulled into it in spring 1982. There was a crisis because the police had broken into the smuggling network and severed one of the major supply lines. They caught this minivan with 200-300 kilos of material. Sometime that fall, in September, Anna Sabatova, the wife of Petr Uhl, called me and said she needed to talk to me. I visited her the next day, and we went down to the cellar. While I was helping her bring coal up to the ground floor, she told me that they were going to renew the network on a smaller scale and asked me if I wanted to participate. I would just be doing the technical side of it. The basis of a conspiracy is: those who do it don’t know anything about it, and those who know about it don’t do it. I agreed to participate.

Eventually in November the first messenger came. Quite early on it was clear that this system didn’t work. The messenger would come on Friday and leave on Sunday night. But this was the weekend, and people don’t usually stay in Prague over the weekend. If I got the material on Friday night and had to deliver it to people and get it back – there just wasn’t enough time and it didn’t work. So, against all the rules of conspiracy, I ended up doing it and knowing all the code names of everyone in the network.

Later, a friend of mine was interrogating the secret police. After November 1989, the official way of dealing with the secret police was to interview them and find them unable to work there. He interviewed the guy who was responsible for me. And this guy said that he knew that I’d been involved in something like this. Probably I was quite lucky. They might have found out sooner or later, and I would have ended up in prison for a few years.

You did that from 1982…

Until 1989 when Jan Kavan came back here in November 1989. Shortly before that, in November 1989, Petr Uhl got this fax machine and I was supposed to send a document to Jan. I put it into the machine and pushed the button and it went through. Then Jan called on the phone and said, “I didn’t get it.” I tried again. Time was running out. He needed to get it translated and out to the international media. I was getting desperate. Eventually, after 10 times, I asked him, “How do you put this thing in the machine?” And they told me, “Face down.” That’s how the whole thing almost ended — on that detail of putting a document in a fax machine correctly.

You wrote for samizdat publications. So in many ways it was a natural progression for you to become a journalist.

I wasn’t thinking about political journalism. Because I was doing comics and cartoons, the first things I published were reviews of cartoon books. Jiri Dienstbier, who later became foreign minister, wrote an article about the Middle East in Lidove Noviny in samizdat, and I was very upset. I complained to Jaroslav Jiru the “foreign editor” of the samizdat LN, who later also joined the ministry. And he said, “All right, if you think it’s wrong, write something yourself.” So I wrote something myself, and that was the summer of 1988. I didn’t sign my name, and Jiru thought up a pen name for me. It came out, and suddenly I had a taste of political journalism.

In March 1990, I was offered the post of the press and culture officer at the newly reopened embassy in Tel Aviv. I would have liked to go to Israel, but then I would have returned and been stuck at the ministry as a clerk. And I wanted to be a journalist more. That’s why I turned it down.

I wrote for nine years altogether as a journalist. Then in mid-1990s Lidove Noviny basically turned from Havel to Klaus, and I was very much in the other direction. I was the last of the samizdat generation to be kicked out. I was on the foreign desk. The guys cleaning it out started with domestic affairs and economy and reached the foreign desk the last. That’s why I survived six months longer than the others. Then I went to Prace for three months because there was that guy from Lidove Noviny had been exiled there. Then I went to Svobodne Slovo. And for the last two years I ended up at Pravo.

Rude Pravo!

By then it was just Pravo. At that time, the atmosphere there was not very cheery. But I had quite a lot of freedom. I met an old friend on a tram and he asked, “How can you work for something that wants to return the old times?” I told him, “The guy who owns Pravo, he was offered 1.2 billion crowns for it. Do you think this kind of guy wants the Communists to come back and take it away from him? He’s a committed capitalist!” It was kind of on the Left side, but it was a well done, privately owned newspaper. The owner set himself a goal to have as many Charter signers as possible, and he ended up having more than any other newspaper. There were five of us at one point.

When you were writing for Lidova Demokracie, you said that they didn’t censor you.

They didn’t censor me. But at that time I didn’t have very outrageous views. I was learning at that point. Journalism is 90 percent technical craft and 10 percent writing skill. I had to learn a lot. It wasn’t so easy at my age at the time. Only later on I started commenting on domestic politics, mostly for Prague Post where I wrote opinion pieces for about seven years. There I got more outrageous. If you write about the Middle East or South Africa or Southeast Asia, you can say some outrageous things, but it doesn’t touch people as much as home politics.

Tell me about the some of the more outrageous things you wrote.

When I came back from being ambassador to Israel, and I had ambassador rank, one of the reasons I couldn’t go out again as ambassador was because the then-president Vaclav Klaus wouldn’t approve me. Klaus used to be my favorite topic while in journalism. There was once this Sunday noon discussion on TV. Klaus was there and said something really stupid, I don’t remember exactly what. But I got a call from the newspaper. “Are you at home?” they asked. “Are you at the computer? Can you write a short comment on this?” If it concerned Klaus, they would call me.

And little did you know that it would shorten your ambassador career.

I couldn’t be ambassador, but I got out as consul general in Los Angeles. I’d rather be in LA than an ambassador in some backwater.

How did you end up going from journalism to the ministry of foreign affairs?

I got that offer to go to Israel back in 1990. Twice again after that I got offers: in 1991 and 1997. Then my predecessor as ambassador in Israel called me and said, “Don’t you want to take the position after me?” He’d ended his period there but couldn’t be recalled because there was no replacement. I went to see the deputy minister at the time, and he said why not. Later on Jan Kavan became minister of foreign affairs, and wanted me to be the spokesperson for the ministry. I said I was thinking about this ambassador position, so he approved it. Only years later I learned that other things might have been involved. After four-and-a-half years in Israel, I saw the whole field of international politics differently and felt that I couldn’t return to journalism. I wanted to stay in the ministry of foreign affairs. And I have been there since.

What was it like to be ambassador to Israel?

It was good that it was Israel. I would have had certain problems taking the job too seriously from the very start. There are those uptight ambassadors who keep the protocol strictly and all that. If I were in a country like that, I could have run into some problems because that’s not exactly my nature and it takes time to get used to it. I came to Israel with good training from the ministry. I was told that you don’t appear without a tie and jacket, for instance. Two or three days after I had arrived in Israel, I went to see the deputy director general responsible for Central Europe, Shimon Stein, for an official introduction visit. The guy was just wearing jeans and a checkered shirt. We had a good chat. And I realized that this was the right country for me. Nobody makes a fuss about rules. Also I know now that your knowledge doesn’t always count because politics is done not on the basis of reality but on the basis of other things, and you have to learn those other things before you can understand how the politics work.

Can you give an example of what you thought was the reality of Middle East politics and then what you discovered to be the case?

The whole thing about the peace process. Before, if you’re writing about it, you learn simple things like: the main problem is occupation and we have to lift the occupation. But the occupation came out of a war by the Arab states against Israel. So the natural logical thing is to sort out the problem that led to the aggressive war, and then you can lift the occupation. But everything goes the other way around — Israel should lift the occupation and make peace without solving the original trouble. When you write, you write from this point of view. If you do the realpolitik on the ground, no one cares about the original reasons.

Did you have any major conflicts with Prague?

No. Generally this country is pro-Israel for a number of historical reasons. So, I had no problem dealing with Prague. Actually, I had no problem relating critical messages to Israeli authorities when I was asked to. Even when a journalist, I would criticize Israel because I don’t think it shouldn’t be criticized — just as much as every other country but not more than any other country. Yes, they do some stupid things from time to time and should be criticized. We’re now a member of the EU so we must tread the EU line a little bit. It’s not always very rational, but I don’t think we want to go into that.

We talked about Havel’s moral foreign policy 23 years ago…

Even Havel saw through it later on. Like his position on NATO. Who wrote The End of History?

Fukuyama.

An American. When did he give up that argument? Three years later? So, this is it. We all lived through the excitement of the world changing. Then we suddenly realized that the world shifted but some things remained. Of course there should be some morality behind politics. The lifelong task of foreign policy is to find some equilibrium between serving morality and serving your own needs and interests.

Is there anything that remains as a legacy of that period in terms of Czech foreign policy?

Czech policy toward Israel. But this goes back to the history of Czech-Jewish relations. When I was in Israel, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of Tomas Masaryk’s visit. He was the only head of state who visited Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine prior to 1947]. Which means that there is something in the genes of this country that sets it closer to Israel than most of Europe.

We also talked about how maybe you and some friends would pull together a party that was left of center but embraced market economics.

I don’t know if I ever felt left of center. I think I was always a sworn centrist. On security issues, I would probably be described as a hawk. On social issues, I might be more to the left. So, it’s issue by issue. I did join a party: Civic Movement with Jiri Dienstbier, Petr Pithart, Jan Sokol. When they lost the election in 1992, I joined them and was a member for two years. Then it fizzled out. They were hopeless politically. They were old friends. I liked them and thought they should be in politics because of their moral profiles. But they were rather inept politically.

Your disagreements with Klaus were about his economic policies and his authoritarian tendencies?

I think that Klaus will ultimately be judged harshly by history. He’s ending now and hopefully for good. When November 1989 came, people were open to suggestions. There was Havel’s suggestion of finding a new moral standpoint. And Klaus’s suggestion was: catch as catch can and there is no dirty money. He persuaded the majority, which means that he was the one that established the current milieu of corruption in the country through his disdain for the rule of law (and let’s not even talk about moral rules).

I wrote in one commentary that Klaus’s party was caught red-handed at some corrupt practice. At the same time, the British Conservative Party was caught in a similar corruption affair. The British conservatives put ash on their foreheads and apologized. They said, “We’re dirty and bad and we’ll never do it again.” Of course they’ll do it again, but they followed the practice of admitting the mistake and apologizing for it. There was a reset of the rules. Klaus’s reaction was: “Did I break the rule? Is there any law that says this? There’s no law, so go to hell.” This is the difference. Of course immorality and corruption are everywhere. But somehow the good parties set the rules right again and then maybe do dirty business later on. But Klaus didn’t care if it was a dirty practice.

So, his attitude was that there’s no dirty money and no dirty politics either.

Basically that. He probably didn’t steal as others did. There were worst cases. But he was the rule setter. And he set them fundamentally wrong.

As you said, this might be the end of Klaus politically. What other legacy does he have other than corruption and non-transparency?

I think it will be all negative. Once, in 1995, at Lidove Noviny, someone said to me, because I was known as someone who was very much against Klaus, that I shouldn’t be so negative about him. “You should see the positive side,” he said And I said, “Name for me one positive thing that he did, one thing that didn’t come out bad in the end.” He thought hard about it and couldn’t come up with anything. Maybe when we split the money with the Slovaks, maybe that worked. But everything else went sour in the end: privatization, etc.

Someone told me about a poll here that 50 percent of people thought that they were better off before 1989.

Yes. It depends on the questions. But it was already in the late 1990s that such a poll came out. That was the first time it went the other way around. It wasn’t that the majority of people thought they were better off. But they said that they were not better off now. Many of them said it was basically the same. Before that, the majority said that they were better off after 1989. And there’s about 10 percent that’s undecided.

Is there a generation gap?

Partly. An American friend told me that he has an uncle here who voted Communist in the 1990s. I asked why. “He’s 85,” the friend said. “All he cares about is the price of the rolls and safety on the street.” Freedom of speech, freedom of travel? That’s not an issue for him. On his issues, it was better during Communism.

Rolls were cheap. The streets were safe if you weren’t protesting

Right. So it’s partly about age.

Realistically speaking, could the Czech Republic have done something differently economically in the 1990s?

Yes. I don’t know if I said this in the interview 23 years ago, but when the changes first happened in November, the first idea was that we would be in for some very bad years economically. But at last long we were free. What happened was, 5-10 years later, we were doing quite well economically, but democracy – the idea or feeling of democracy — wasn’t there. It had been corrupted.

We probably could have done much better. They say that at least a whole year’s state budget was lost during privatization alone. There were other ways to do that. Instead we gave to the world economy “tunnels.” You remember tunnels. There were also “juice” and “sandwich” — these were different ways of stealing money from the state. On the other hand if you look around, it is not that great either: For instance Hungary now has a strong semi-fascist party there. From this point of view, we’re not so bad off.

The unemployment rate is relatively low here.

Especially if you live in Prague.

Compared to Bulgaria. But Czechs don’t want to be compared to Bulgarians. They’d prefer to be compared, perhaps, to Poles.

Poland is now on the upswing. But they came from a much lower beginning than us. Poles now have a healthier political environment. Here the political environment is still not healthy. Our governments are still too ideological and weak.

Anything positive on the horizon?

Hopefully the new generation will have more influence. They are upset with corruption. There have been some demonstrations, which have led to the creation of some activist groups. There is corruption everywhere in Europe. But let’s at least get to that European standard.

The corruption standard of Spain or Italy?

Well, I guess there are better examples like the Nordic countries. But those now have problems with their minorities.

In terms of foreign policy, were there any major mistakes in the 1990s?

I wouldn’t say so. There were some misconceptions but no major mistakes. One misconception was our general attitude toward the EU. I know quite a lot about all the flaws that the EU has, but we can’t be outside of it. We can’t try to play our own game like the British. And yet we still had a government, under the influence of Klaus, that has tried to do that. We’re stuck with the EU, so let’s make the best of it. Some would question our policy toward Russia. But I don’t see any basic flaw. Given the size and position of country, our foreign policy is pretty set.

When you think back to that period, has your worldview changed in any major way? Have there been any changes in your philosophy or assumptions?

Everything! You were not the only one to ask me questions in 1990, probably because so few people at that time spoke English. We didn’t know anything because we lived in a completely artificial world. We had dreams about the West. I always tried to be critical, but I couldn’t really understand the way of life in the West. It was still more or less a dream. For 20 years we have been exposed to the world, and we suddenly see that it functions differently. You don’t have to rethink your dreams, but you have to rethink the reality when you see that it operates differently.

I read about foreign policy in those days and had some conception of it. But to really understand the system of interests, you have to be exposed to it. And that started only after November 1989. Even if it didn’t change always in reality, it changed at the level of understanding.

Can you give any examples about your initial understanding of the West and how it turned out to be different?

We idealized the West. Then we saw that this basic concept of democracy was idealized. It doesn’t solve everything. It just puts in a different government every four years (or earlier if there are earlier elections). The people who are elected are very often corrupt and do it for their own interests and don’t care about democracy. It still doesn’t take the responsibility away from civic society. That you don’t solve everything by installing a democratic system — that was a great lesson.

There are no quick fixes.

Yes, we came to understand that there are no fixes. We accepted the fact that humankind is corrupt by nature.

What do you think will happen in the elections here?

It is very difficult to say. The mainstream standard parties are weakened and new ad hoc unprofiled groups are moving in. Before the traditional parties reestablish themselves, the situation will be hard to read. We must hope that eventually we shall have a system of standard, normal, and tolerably corrupt parties on the Left and Right.

That’s what you are aiming for: tolerably corrupt.

Yes. One of the major changes after 1990 is now you realize that tolerably corrupt is about all you can hope for. Also, I am afraid that democracy as a system may not be sustainable. It might be again replaced by some authoritarian regime. There are many in Europe that speak about some kind of caliphate.

There aren’t even many people in the Muslim world that want the caliphate!

That’s true. Yet one example that I often use when speaking about dangers to democracy is that in the 1930s here in Prague, Czech Jews were mostly educated and upper middle class. When they heard Hitler talking in nearby Germany, they said, “This nonsensical clown cannot sway the cultured nation of Germany. It will pass over.” Fifteen years later, Germany was completely destroyed, and so were Czech Jews. We tend to underestimate dangers. That’s why I say that on security issues I’m on the right from your point of view. Perhaps I overestimate the danger. In this sense, I think democracy has an inherent weakness compared to the totalitarian mind.

Overestimating the dangers is a fundamental attribute of totalitarianism.

Are you one of those Americans that poke fun at Rumsfeld’s known unknowns and unknown unknowns? This is basic for every threat analysis. We know that there are terrorists. We know that they plan to take over planes. We don’t know when it will happen. At the same time there are also things that we don’t know of at all. Every security analysis has to leave space for these unknowns and has to overestimate rather than underestimate the dangers. It is then up to the politicians to decide how they will use this analysis.

Space for the dangerous clowns.

Yes. What is currently happening is that the radical Islamic discourse is more dynamic than the other discourses. Will it take over the Islamic world? I don’t know. I fear that it may. If they go on the move, we won’t be able to hold on forever. Will they kill us? No. Will they rule over us? Yes. Will it be pleasant? No. Will we survive? Probably most of us. But democracy will be gone.

Radical Islam, though, appeals to a relatively small number in the Muslim world.

But it’s growing. What matters is not the current number but the upswing. Somebody told me that it appeals to maybe 1 percent or 2 percent. If you have a billion Muslims, that’s a million people. That’s a lot of people.

But even the radicals don’t agree with one another.  

They agree on Israel. Sunni and Shia cooperate happily on that, and they would probably cooperate happily in fighting us if it came to it. Another problem: when Christianity was on the upswing and spreading by not always nice means, they killed with swords. Now, a similar dangerously minded group can get nuclear weapons. We are dealing with a very similar frame of mind but different technical means. Again I would be happy if I was completely wrong about all of this. But I cannot just leave it out and not consider it at all — if for no other reason than because if we in the mainstream do not take it seriously then all kinds of radicals will use it as a political tool against the democratic system.

Do you think that lustration was handled correctly?

I haven’t made up my mind really. Lustration at some level was necessary. It had to be done. But the problem was how. You see these old guys who were the officers of the StB. They are now happy entrepreneurs. And some stupid guy who was caught red-handed and signed up with them is being blackballed.

Jaroslav Basta was a Charter 77 signer, a friend of Jan Kavan’s, a Social Democrat who was also later our ambassador to Russia and Ukraine. He had this nice idea in the 1980s. Every member of the Communist Party, guilty or not guilty, should be sent to the woods to clean up nature — because the Communists had made such a mess of nature. After that, they’re clean and everything is forgotten.

This whole process of determining how guilty was this one and how guilty was that one — you never reach a conclusion anyway. The members of the Politburo were exonerated. We caught one and he spent two years in prison because he filled in some papers in such a way that he got more money. The guy was already rich in the terms of that period. He didn’t care whether he had a few thousand crowns more or less. Probably his secretary filled it out wrong, and he had to go to prison — not for being a schmuck who destroyed the country but because he filled in a form wrong. This is the injustice. The whole lustration process was used against people. And there were abuses, as in the Kavan case.

It’s an interesting idea to send out everyone to woods to clean nature as a way of cleaning society.

I reminded him of this a few years ago. But nobody brought it up in the early 1990s. Probably it would have been technically impossible.

My mother in law was a very nice person. She was a member of the Communist Party. She came from a very poor environment, and she was afraid of leaving the Party. She even toyed with the idea of signing Charter 77, but she didn’t because she had a son who was not involved politically and it could have been a problem for him.

There’s someone from my class in high school, an archaeologist. I met him when I was 15 and he was already a committed archaeologist. He worked for the National Museum. When he got to the university, he worked for the Academy of Sciences. He got his doctorate and immediately went into the Academy of Sciences in the medieval archaeology department and was there for a few years.

They eventually said to him, “The head of the department is leaving and the only person who can replace him is you. But to be the head of the department you have to join the Communist Party. And if we don’t have a head of the department, then the department has to be closed.”

So he became a member of the Party. I met him in the city and he explained the situation to me. And I said, “Look, if you have to you have to.”

He was a very diligent member of the Party. He didn’t care about politics, didn’t like Communists at all. He did what they asked him to do. He just wanted to get it out of the way so that he could do his archaeology. When November 1989 came, he came under attack and they wanted to kick him out because he’d been a diligent member of the Party. He survived only because he had such an international reputation as a top class archaeologist in the field.

Have you heard about this Rabbi Meyer? He became a rabbi in 1987. And he had to make some arrangement with the secret police. Everyone knew that he did. We didn’t care. We liked him. He never reported on us. He probably had to report meetings with foreigners and only as much as necessary. We wouldn’t tell him anything. When the regime fell, he didn’t really change. He was rather simple where politics was concerned. Someone wanted to get a rabbi for a new political party in 1992 and asked him to join. So he was on the election list. Everyone was of course lustrated, so they found out and that was splashed all over the newspapers. Okay, but we knew this! We didn’t care. We knew why he did it and knew that there was no other way. The campaign was so strong against him that he eventually left and went to Israel where he’s teaching in Haifa today. He became the object of a witch-hunt, even though he never really harmed anyone. Not only that: some of those who were after him most probably had major skeletons in their own cupboards.

Do the Charter 77 people ever get together for reunions?

There are events every now and then. Twice when there were these events, I was out of the country. It’s a meeting of friends you haven’t seen for a few years, and there’s some nostalgia because some of those people have completely different views from what I hold. It’s nostalgia for those simple times when we agreed on what was bad and what was good and we fought against the bad and tried to bring in the good. Now we no longer know what is bad and what is good.

How is your gum wrapper collection? You must have all the countries in this region of the world covered by now.

Yes, but it’s always changing. It’s an unending business. Japan produces an unimaginable number. They produce new types all the time. When I was away in the United States for four years, the Orbit design there changed four times. That’s dirty capitalism. It’s the same gum but a new wrapper for me to get, and at a higher price. So one can only wonder what is going on there while I am here.

The last three questions are quantitative. How would you evaluate all that has changed or not changed here in Czech Republic over the last 24 years, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 most satisfied?

6.

Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?

8.

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for the Czech Republic?

7. Some things I hope will improve. If you ask me about the Western world or Europe, the number would go down. But that’s a different story.

Prague, February 19, 2013

The Interview (1990)

Now a journalist at Lidova Democracie, the newspaper connected ot the People’s Party, Daniel Kumermann has led a rather typical life for a Czech intellectual. Finishing a Masters degree in English and philosophy (he wrote his thesis on American comic books), Kumermann worked for several years as a computer programmer in the 1970s. After deciding to sign Charter 77, he lost his job and, for the next 13 years, he worked as a window cleaner and a stock clerk. During this time, he also served as one of the chief liaisons between the dissident movement and Jan Kavan in London. Active during the revolution, Kumermann was offered a position on the new Czech consular staff in Israel. But he decided to stay in Czechoslovakia in order to witness the reform process as a journalist, working ironically for the newspaper of a party – the People’s Party – in the Christian Democratic coalition.

Why does he work for a newspaper considered right-of-center that is connected with a Christian Democratic party which once served with the Communists in a national coalition and whose top leaders (Sacher, Bartoncik) are widely thought to be compromised by their past associations? A strange job for a Jewish former dissident of liberal-left persuasion. First, Kumermann said, Lidova Democracie was the only paper that would hire someone without credentials and pay as well. If the editors censored him, he would quit – but that hasn’t happened. Furthermore, until the revolution, the newspaper was rather liberal, especially compared to Rude Pravo, the Party daily. But the bulk of the staff switched in May to Obcansky Dennik, the daily of the Civic Forum. That vacuum allowed a new group of journalists to come in. Presently Kumermann covers the Middle East and English-speaking countries. He might, however, in the coming months, rise to the head of the foreign affairs section precisely because of the dearth of interested journalists.

We had a somewhat disjointed discussion over beer and dumplings in an outdoor café, disjointed because another American journalist was present who was following a different line of questions. I’ll try to unify the various strands…

The Foreign Ministry, under Jiri Dienstbier, changes slowly. Dienstbier is apparently having difficulties removing the old cadres. Several of the major changes were begun in fact during the week-old transition government back in December when the then-Foreign Minister Johannes composed a list of 26 ambassadors that should be removed. Upon taking office, Dienstbier followed through with this and has also subsequently removed the top deputies. In general, Dienstbier especially of late has been careful with his pronouncements.

Although Czechoslovakia has re-established diplomatic relations with Israel, the Palestinians still maintain quasi-official presence in Prague. In April, Havel visited Israel. Two weeks previously, Arafat visited Czechoslovakia. The Palestinian delegation pressed Havel to meet Arafat at the airport according to diplomatic protocol. Apparently Havel was not terribly willing. Only when the Palestinians promised to help squeeze some money out of Iraq (payments on debts) did Havel agree. Of course, the Czechoslovak president’s official explanation was different. As international peacemaker, Havel promised to “take Arafat’s ideas to Israel.”

In terms of arms trade, the Czechoslovak government has promised to make semtex (the undetectable plastic explosive) detectable. Current military contracts – which could last for several years – are to be honored. No is quite sure whether the government will continue to provide arms to “established states.” Major outstanding debts are held by Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya. The topic of trade in general brought a commonly heard response: Czechslovak products are simply not competitive internationally. The machinery industry, which formed a good portion of trade with the Soviet Union, was not modernized in the 1970s because Eastern customers were not interested in technical improvements. Havel suggested (at his U.S. Congress speech, I think) that the West send $2 billion of aid to the Soviet Union simply for the Soviets to buy Eastern European products.

I asked about this much-heralded “moral foreign policy.” This, Kumermann, “was a strong reaction to the previous regime which was entirely immoral. Everyone who came from the opposition demanded morality.” How long will this adherence to moral stands last? “So far, the world claps its hands and it’s very nice. But a conflict will develop between morality and pragmatism and the Czechoslovak leaders will slowly bend their morality.” But, he noted, some of the moral moves of the past – inviting the Dalai Lama for instance – did not provoke the expected outcry. China did not, in other words, penalize Czechoslovakia in the trade sphere. Furthermore, events in foreign policy in the recent year have more often strengthened the hands of those who argue for a more moral foreign policy. Rather than the Czech leaders compromising their positions, the world may bend more toward the Czechs.

We then turned to domestic questions. Yes, Kumermann thought it likely that the KGB instigated the confrontation on November 17. The KGB expected that the Communist Party would meet in emergency session the following Saturday morning. Jakes would be quietly retired and a new, more reform-oriented leadership would be installed. “This was logical: everyone expected it.” But it didn’t happen. Instead, Jakes and his top advisors left for the weekend for the countryside. By Monday, 200,000 people were demonstrating in the street., the students were on strike, the actors had joined them, and the reform Communism option was no longer possible.

As for the Bartoncik affair, Kumermann thought that Sacher (the head of the Security ministry) knew that Bartoncik had been a collaborator with the secret police all along) some argue that Sacher too was an informer but there is no proof). But Sacher, in his new position, kept many ‘swine’ in their top positions and neglected to pass laws that would categorically prevent the destruction of police files. Theoretically, certain top-level informers could then access the archives and destroy any incriminating evidence. When an Austrian magazine published an article alleging Bartoncik’s connections a month before the elections, Sacher apparently assured key Civic forum people that he would look into the issue. Jan Ruml, a Civic Forum sympathizer also appointed to the Security Ministry, kept pressing Sacher. Finally, a meeting between Bartoncik and Havel was arranged, a secret discussion ensued and some deal struck ensuring Bartoncik’s removal from the race. Still, Bartoncik didn’t resign – ostensibly because if he did, everyone would know that he had in fact been an informer. Finally, Bartoncik entered the hospital. Ruml thought that this meant that Bartoncik was bowing out of the agreement (but Kumermann thinks that Bartoncik was preparing an adequate excuse to leave the race on health grounds). Ruml announced Bartoncik’s connections with the 48-hour propaganda-free period before the election.

Contrary to hat others have said, Kumermann does not think that Ruml’s announcement hurt the Christian Democratic coalition very much. He thinks that the pre-election polls giving Christian Democrats 20 or even 30 percent of the vote were exaggerated. If anything, he thinks that many people felt Ruml’s move to be underhanded and may have decided to vote against Civic Forum on the strength of it. More critical to the Christian Democrat’s falling popularity were the Christian laypeople who wrote in the press prior to the election that the Christian Democrats did not necessarily represent Christianity and that Civic Forum was more the repository of Christian values.

Then, some miscellaneous scuttlebutt about various politicians. Komarek, he felt, was let go because he was not a team player. His criticisms of the government plan were mere potshots and did not form a coherent plan. Jaroslav Koran, the new mayor Prague, is an aging hippie, a “Bohemian” who is not particularly well suited to his job. Klaus is the master facilitator, capable of calming people down through magical charisma. Havel is a wonderful articulator of ideas, mirroring his strength as an essayist and perhaps his weaknesses as a playwright. Milos Zeman is the witty, sharp, bold and outspoken ramrod of the Klaus group in the ministry.

Finally we discussed the possibility that a Left party might emerge from the ashes of Civil Forum disunity. Kumermann said that he and some others hoped to create a party modeled on the English liberal tradition but slightly to the Left: market-oriented but with a strong social security system. But he didn’t think that such a party would be ready for the local elections in the fall.