T.S. Eliot notwithstanding, April is almost certainly not the crudest month. For the tens of millions of urban dwellers along the Eastern Seaboard who had to sweat it out this summer in conditions of infernal heat, as for the millions of others who watched despairingly as their wheat stems and cornstalks wilted across the parched plains of the Middle West, a more fitting candidate for the prize would surely be August—the torrid month which, already 2,000 years ago, was reducing Horace and his fellow Romans to a state of unairconditioned limpness as they mopped their brows and cursed that baleful Dog-Star season—atrox hora caniculae—from which we Anglo-Saxons and Latins have inherited the word “canicular,” and the Russians their word for holiday vacations, kanikuli.
There are, however, many other, less sun-blistered souls who have special reasons today for cursing the dogstarred month. I am thinking of the Czechs who, 20 years ago, watched with a numbed mixture of rage and disbelief as Soviet tanks rumbled into their capital, wiping the timid smile from that “socialism with a human face” on which they had set their hopes, and who more recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of those grim August (1968) days by gathering by the thousands in Prague’s Vaclavske Namesti—the long, rectangular square that bears the name of Bohemia’s first Christian monarch (Yes, the Good King Wenceslaus of our Christmas carols)—chanting, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! . . . Russians, go home! . . . You have the dogs, we have the truth! . . . ” and most insistently of all, “Dubcek! Dubcek! Dubcek!”
It is probably difficult for Americans who limit their excursions abroad to Acapulco, the Caribbean, and the standard London-Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris-Rome circuit to get worked up over the continuing plight of the Czechs. Vienna—with its Prater, Ringstrasse, and pastry shops; Budapest—with its gypsy restaurants and surface veneer of prosperity; these have long been more tempting tourist attractions than Prague. Yet no one, I think, with the slightest ethnic sensibility can forget that first glimpse of the Mala Strana (literally, the “Small Side,” because hemmed in between hill and river), rising up almost magically above Emperor Charles IV’s towered bridge to the castle-crowned summit, from which, like an upraised sword, rises the single spire of Saint Vitus’ Cathedral. It is a sight as unforgettable as that of the minarets and domes of the Sulimaniye and of Sultan Ahmed’s “Blue” Mosque rising softly from the waters of the Sea of Marmora as one approaches Istanbul by ship.
Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378), who made Prague the capital of the Holy Roman Empire long before the Habsburgs of Austria annexed that imperial title for themselves, was a partly Czech, French-educated polyglot, as well as the scion of a Germanic family from Luxembourg, and his ascendancy offers further proof of the extent to which Prague was and has always been a Central rather than an Eastern European city. The Germans, precisely because they belong to this particular middle ground, long ago coined a word for it: Mitteleuropa—the European equivalent of our Middle West.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera, in a memorable interview given to the Paris newspaper Le Monde, once took us all to task for talking so loosely about Eastern and Western Europe, as though they represented definite geographic entities. The continent, as we know well, is presently split down the middle from the Baltic to the mountains of Yugoslavia by an Iron Curtain erected by the Soviets; but, Kundera pointed out, precisely because we go on referring to the countries lying east of this curtain as part of Eastern Europe, we have unconsciously absorbed the Soviets’ geopolitical viewpoint—which is that all lands lying east of the Elbe and the mountains of the Sudetenland belong “irreversibly” to the Soviet empire. In so doing we relegate those unhappy peoples to a kind of alien “yonderland” or limbo, ruled over by the Kremlin. We make ourselves the unwitting victims of a verbal pollution, of a linguistic fait accompli, thereby helping to legitimize the partition of the continent and the continuing existence of the bristling, minestrewn barrier which presently scars the face of Europe.
Milan Kundera was right. And in urging us to be more circumspect in our ways of thinking, he was offering us the same sort of friendly admonition as the Russian historian Mikhail Heller did when, at a conference on “disinformation” held four years ago in Paris, he remarked on the paradoxical anomaly of our contemporary world in which (because of blue jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers) “the universal mode of dress is American, while the universal mode of speech is Sovietese.” (That invaluable diplomatic fig-leaf, “detente,” is one example, like the now universally accepted cliche, “the superpowers”—which so conveniently places the USA on the same level of moral opprobrium as the USSR.)
Prague—like Berlin, Dresden, Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, and Zagreb, if not Belgrade—belongs historically and geographically to Central, not to Eastern Europe. One striking proof of it is what happened to Bohemia (the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia) in the immediate aftermath of World War II. With the sole exception of Saxony and Thuringia, parts of which were briefly occupied in May and June of 1945 by units of General Patton’s Third Army, western Bohemia was the only region of what are now called the “satellite” countries to have been occupied by the US Army as a result of the war against Hitler’s Reich. Probably not one American in a thousand realizes it, but we then had a zone of occupation which ran from near the northwestern Sudeten bordertown of Cheb past Marienbad and slightly east of Pilsen, all the way south to the Austrian border. Compared to what the Red Army had occupied—nine-tenths of Czechoslovakia—it was not much, but at least it was something, a symbol of our presence in and responsibility for this part of Central Europe. The question of Czechoslovakia’s independence having barely been discussed at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences—where the burning issues were the future of a defeated Germany and of a “liberated” Poland—General Eisenhower had to make a quick trip to Prague in October 1945 to consult with President Eduard Benes; and it was thanks to a joint agreement then reached that in December of that year the US Army’s Twenty-Second Corps and the Soviets’ Fifth Guards Army simultaneously evacuated their respective zones of occupation.
In August 1968, when the USSR’s military forces reinvaded Czechoslovakia, the United States could have pointed out that the Soviets were violating a solemn US-Soviet-Czechoslovakian agreement made back in 1945. We could even have declared that we had every international right to reoccupy our own former zone of occupation in western Bohemia, including the major industrial city of Pilsen (home of the giant Skoda arms factory). Needless to say, we did nothing of the sort. His prestige already sadly battered by the war in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was gradually relinquishing power to his troubled Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, while Americans were once again in the paralyzing throes of a presidential election campaign. A historic opportunity for taking the diplomatic offensive was thus missed, with the result that US policy in Central Europe—if one can speak of anything as clear-cut and definite as a “policy”—became one of tacit acceptance of the new Brezhnev-dictated “status quo.”
What the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia achieved was not simply Soviet occupation of regions of western Bohemia the Red Army had never overrun in 1945; it in effect shattered the genuine detente which had begun to emerge in 1967 and which had made such progress that it had acquired a special name—that of “polycentrism.” What this meant was that the two “superpowers”—to lapse again into Sovietese—were gradually losing their grip over their respective “client states” and “satellites.” As a result, a kind of continental spectrum of regimes was beginning to appear with all sorts of political and social gradations—extending from the infrared neo-Maoism of Albania, the standpat communism of the Brezhnev-Suslov crowd, to the more flexible and humane “socialism” of the Dubcek-Smrkovsky team, and on across the map of Western Europe, with its different social-democratic and conservative governments, to the extreme right and ultraviolet “fascism with a human face” (an expression coined by the Czech chess player Ludek Pachman) of Francisco Franco and Antonio Salazar. This truly meaningful development of sociopolitical coexistence would inevitably have eroded the Iron Curtain and put a gradual end to the unnatural division of the continent into two hostile blocs. But August 1968 put an abrupt end to that auspicious evolution. The lid was clamped down on Central and Eastern Europe, the fissures in the Iron Curtain were once again sealed. And it was all done so swiftly and successfully that overnight “polycentric” vanished from the vocabulary of our pundits. How many of them, I wonder, even recall its heyday? Very few. Proof of how right Jean-François Revel is when he says, “Our greatest enemy is amnesia.”
For, lo and behold! emerging from the ashes of that genuine, polycentric “reduction of tensions” rose its phoenix-like successor, the much publicized “detente” of the early 1970’s. This bogus apparition was founded on the outspoken proposition that one “socialist” state has the right, and even the obligation, to “assist” (i.e., invade) another “socialist” state in the name of proletarian fraternity (what came to be known as the “Brezhnev Doctrine”), and on the unspoken admission by the West that the USSR, by virtue of its military achievements during World War II and because of “the legitimate security interests of the Soviet Union”—one of the fateful phrases uttered by Jack Kennedy during the tense months preceding the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961—had every right to prolong its “temporary” occupation of Czechoslovakia indefinitely. It was this utterly phony detente which that grand master of diplomatic sleight-of-hand, Henry Kissinger, managed to get an initially skeptical Richard Nixon to swallow, hook, line, and sinker.
The crowning achievement of this inherently deceptive “detente” was the Helsinki Final Act, duly endorsed by the heads of state or the representatives of 33 European and two North American states in late July and early August (once again that fateful month!) of 1975. Overlooked in the mindfuddling euphoria induced by that “historic” conclave was the crude fact that at the very moment of signing, the Soviet Union was violating no less than six of the ten general Principles enunciated in the preamble as properly “guiding Relations between Participating States.” (Article III—Inviolability of Frontiers; Article IV—Territorial Integrity of States; Article V—Peaceful Settlement of Disputes; Article VI—Nonintervention in the internal affairs of others, etc.)
There was, however, one observer in the West who did not lose his head in the midst of the triumphant clamor. In a blistering critique written for the Figaro in Paris, Raymond Aron roundly declared that “if there were still a real statesman, in the United States or in one of the main countries of the West, this comedy would not have taken place.” I don’t know if Henry Kissinger read that article; but if he did, he must have blanched at finding himself so casually relegated by his onetime geopolitical rival and later friend to the trash-heap of second-rate politicians.
Since then 13 years have passed, and everything Raymond Aron feared and foresaw has come to pass. Red Army soldiers continue to occupy Bohemia, which Bismarck once called the heartland of Europe and the strategic key to the control of the continent. When, last July, some incorrigible optimists reported that the Kremlin was going to make a goodwill gesture by beginning to withdraw its army of occupation, this fanciful canard was gruffly shot down by the Soviet premier, Nikolai Ryzhkov, during a visit to Prague—although he did generously hold out the hope that Soviet troops might be withdrawn “before the end of the century”!
Today, the Brezhnevite Gustav Husak has been replaced by the neo-Brezhnevian Milos Jakes, an apparatchik of the same ilk who is pursuing the by now classic cat-and-mouse game with dissidents, occasionally jailing them for a few weeks, depriving them of university and other posts, and forcing them to take menial jobs as lumberjacks, street sweepers, boilerstokers, or janitors as a punishment for daring to suggest that their country honor the “free movement of persons and ideas” promised by the Helsinki accords. In Prague, if not in Moscow, Communist “orthodoxy” still reigns supreme—so much so that Mrs. Eva Fojtikova, wife of Jan Fojtik, the regime’s No. 1 ideologist, saw fit to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of her country by writing an article in Kmen (the weekly organ of the Union of Czechoslovakian Writers), praising Joseph Stalin!
As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” But the crucial question remains, one that the next administration should be required to answer, no matter who wins the presidential election: how much longer must we wait before one of our “stars” in Washington has the courage to suggest that the present Soviet leadership provide concrete proof of its disarmament intentions by pulling its five divisions out of Czechoslovakia? Or must we, like the well-conditioned circus dogs we have become, go on meekly cringing and cowering, numbed by the thought that merely to raise such a question would be an intolerable “provocation” for the Kremlin—one certain to raise Soviet hackles and to make our State Department diplomats quake in their Foggy- Bottom slippers?