An Open Letter to Václav Benda
I am writing to you because I was once a great admirer of yours. During those gloomy days of communist rule, you showed great courage in fighting against the system. Of course, I knew that you had different views than my own on religious and economic issues, but I did not think that this mattered, because I thought that we both had the same main goals: freedom and democracy. I assumed that the other issues were secondary. Now I know that the opposite is true: you were against the communist regime mostly because you disagreed with its economic and theological policies, not because you share my belief in the need for freedom and democracy.
You probably do not remember me. We met shortly once when I was once at your apartment in 1993 to interview your son Martin for my doctor's dissertation on the collapse of the communist regimes in East-Central Europe. I had the pleasure of meeting both of your sons to discuss the student movement in 1989. I was deeply moved when Martin recalled how a StB agent warned him that he would be easy for him to "disappear" in an "accident." Martin impressed me as being one of the most tolerant students whom I interviewed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he is the only male in your family not to enter politics?
The first signs that you do not share Martin's tolerance was when I read about your role in the committee investigating the Soviet invasion in 1968. You can imagine my disbelief when I received the news that you wanted to prosecute Zdençk MlynáÍ for treason. The same man who helped you cofound Charter 77; the same man who spent 20 years relentlessly attacking the repressive Husák-Jakeš regime. What was the reason for his alleged treason? It was that after he was kidnapped and taken to the Soviet Union and threatened with the installation of a brutal military regime, he relented and agreed to sign a protocol that eventually meant the end of the Prague Spring reforms, but at least prevented much bloodshed.
Of course, you have every reason to criticize his decision and claim that it was not the morally best one. Still, I dare say that you cannot be sure of how you would have acted in that situation if you were not in it yourself. Can you really know how you would have behaved if you knew that not signing the protocol would have probably meant your own execution and the installation of a Soviet military regime that might even been as brutal as Augusto Pinochet's? Could you really bare the moral responsibility of knowing that your decision meant that in typical Pinochet fashion, thousands or even tens of thousands of your countrymen would be brutally tortured and killed? Perhaps you could. Perhaps allowing a Czech or Soviet Pinochet to come to power would have been a morally superior choice than the decision to capitulate. Perhaps it was naive of MlynáÍ to believe that by giving in to some Soviet demands, it would still be possible to save some of the reforms. But could an action that probably saved the lives of thousands of people reasonably be considered treason?
I am aware of the terrible repression which took place under the period of "normalization." Thousands of people lost their jobs. The most stubborn critics of the regime even spent a few months or years in prison. Nevertheless, this treatment is relatively mild compared to what would have happened under a Pinochet type of regime. In Chile, the worst critics were not merely sentenced to a few months or years in prison. If they were lucky, they were executed. If they were unlucky they were brutally tortured before being executed. The less dangerous critics did not merely lose their jobs as under Husák's normalization. Instead they were imprisoned and severely tortured. If they were lucky, international organizations, such as Amnesty, could get them released from prison, so that they could take their nightmares with them to some third country that gave them political asylum. In Sweden there are many political exiles from both the Pinochet and Husák regimes. When one compares the stories which these people tell, communist Czechoslovakia almost seems like a paradise.
Here's just one example among many. In one of today's Swedish newspapers, an exiled Chilean woman recounts her arrest for the "crime" of having been a member in the Leftist organization MIR and trying to start a health clinic that caters to the poor. She was kidnaped together with her father and brought to a prison. They were both tied to a steel bed. Her father had to watch while she was brutally beaten, then raped, then raped again with the batons of her torturers. They pushed their batons all the way into her uterus. During her 10 days in Hell, they also put a plastic bag around her head and dropped her into water so that she could not breath. They also held mock executions. Almost immediately after returning home, she was again arrested-this time by the civilian police. She was taken to the infamous soccer field where thousands of Chileans had previously been massacred by Pinochet's henchmen. She spent several months in an isolation cell without a bed and with continued beatings. When she finally was released, she heard that the military had arrested her boyfriend, ripped open his stomach, tore out his intestines and-while he was still alive-threw him in the ocean.
Of course, I think it is terrible, Václav Benda, that because of your political stancesyour son Martin was only allowed to study at the electro-techno faculty during the communist regime rather than at the theological faculty, which was his first choice. But how does this form of oppression compare to Pinochet's inferno?
Now I think you know what I am getting at: your recent public support for that brutal, inhumane, former Chilean dictator. A dictator who overthrew a democratically elected government. The socialist President Allende made the tragic mistake of being a strong democratic who believed in the constitution and naively believed that the military would respect the constitution. He was so naive in his belief that everyone would respect democracy, that he did not take any steps to prevent the Right from organizing a military coup. He refused the calls of many Leftist organizations and unions to arm them, so that they could defend themselves against possible military action. Allende was as naive in his belief that the Chilean Right was democratic as Dubček was naive in his belief that Brezhnev would respect Czechoslovakia's national soverignty.
Now I read that you applaud the death of Chilean democracy. Why? Because Allende had different views than you on economic policy. He was a socialist and all socialists should be shot. That is basically what you are saying, even if you do say so directly. Thus, freedom and democracy are not important for you. What is important is that a government-democratic or authoritarian-pursues economic policies that you support.
You defend yourself by claiming that the man who destroyed Chilean democracy actually is a democrat. After viciously murdering all those who openly had different views than him on economic policy, Pinochet planned to return power to a new democratic state. Your evidence is that Pinochet actually give allow elections after losing the plebiscite. Have you forgotten that Pinochet did not really want to hold the plebiscite and that he did not really want to have elections afterwards? Have you forgotten that he only did so reluctantly after the other generals pressured him into doing so, since it was obvious that he was losing popular support? Have you forgotten that even today, nearly a decade after giving up the presidency, Chile is still not a democratic country?
Before agreement to give up power, Pinochet demanded that Chilean democracy be greatly restrained. First, the military would be granted complete amnesty. There were not to be any "truth commissions" as in South Africa, no committees such as the one that you headed which investigated crimes committed under the previous regime. The civilian government would not have control over the military and would not be able to fire those men with blood on their hands. Pinochet, himself, was to continue as chief commander of the armed forces. Furthermore, a certain number of seats in the senate were to be reserved for Pinochet's supporters, the central bank (whose head was chosen by Pinochet) was to be autonomous from political control and the government could not investigate the recent privatizations in which state firms were taken over by Pinochet's supporters.
If this makes Pinochet a democrat, then Jakeš and Štěpán deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace! These two men resigned without demanding any conditions. The Czechoslovak communists did not demand amnesty, so that Štěpán has spent time in prison and Jakeš has been constantly under criminal investigation. The communists did not demand control over the state bank, they did not demand that a certain number of seats be reserved for them in the Federal Assembly, they did not demand continued control over the military and police. They agreed to unconditionally free elections.
I am not going to praise them for these acts. I am not going to call them democrats for their decisions to resign. I would not invite them over for dinner as you did with Pinochet. I do not have to feel any great shame for betraying democratic ideals. However, you, Václav Benda should feel yourself covered with shame and guilt. You have betrayed the noble values of the Czech anti-communist opposition. As a leading figure of the former dissident circles, you still carry great moral authority. You are one of the reasons that much of the the Czech Right idolizes a mass murder. You are one of the reasons why some Czechs still accept Stalin's credo that "the means justify the end." You, with your strong Christian beliefs have gone against the teachings of Christ to love your enemy. Instead, you have followed the teachings of the inquisition, in which it is okey to murder people who do not share your beliefs.
I hope that you will reconsider your position and go back to the original values of the Charter 77, in which respect for human rights was the most important goal.