Author: Barbara Tóth
REPORT.Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, May 2006

Jiří Gruša (born 1938) was the founder of the non-communist literary journal Tvár (1964). His involvement in the Prague Spring in 1968 caused him to be banned from his profession. Gru_a, one of the signatories of Charter 77, was expatriated and later became a German citizen. He worked as a freelance writer in West Germany until 1989, when he was appointed the ambassador of the ČSFR in Bonn following the fall of the communist system in the East. In 1993 he was appointed ambassador of the Czech Republic, in 1997 as Minister for Education, Youth and Sport, and in 1998 as the Czech ambassador to Austria. In 2003 he became the president of the International PEN club. He is also the director of the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna.

Barbara Tóth is the politics editor for the Viennese daily Der Standard. Recent publications include: Karl von Schwarzenberg. Die Biografie (Ueberreuter, Vienna 2005) and Reifeprüfung. Prag 1989 (Czernin, Vienna 2004).

The book mentioned in the interview:
Camille de Toledo, “Superhip Jolipunk: Coming of Age at the End of History”, Edition Calmann-Levy © 2003; Translation by Blake Ferris, Soft Skull Press 2006

“A 68er from former Czechoslovakia and a 68er from Germany are two completely different identities“

Mr Gruša, you were born in 1938, in 1968 you were thirty, in 1989 you were 49 years old. Do you feel like a member of the ’68 generation?
A “68er” from former Czechoslovakia and a “68er” from Germany are two completely different identities. I’ll tell you a story to illustrate this. As a young literary scholar, I was allowed in 1967 to travel to the West for the first time. I had been invited to the Czech University in West Berlin. Westerners of my generation did not understand what I meant by “freedom of the word”, in much the same way that the communists didn’t understand either. My standard answer was always: literature has the task that it sets itself. Literature is the extension of the space of freedom. For us from the East, freedom was first of all the power category of the individual, not of society. None of the Westerners understood that. On the contrary: I was attacked for saying it. Then I saw the people I had been talking to getting into their Volkswagens and driving wherever they wanted. I was totally flabbergasted. The people who had the freedom I longed for treated me exactly like my censors did. But 1968 became the cipher for a generation, in the East and in the West. I don’t consider the date 1968 as being a coincidence. There is a biological, generational logic to it. After half a generation, that is, after about 15 years, the experiences change: experience and expectations confront each other. A generation – that’s 30 years. So it is no coincidence that in 1968 those people who had had no direct experience with the totalitarian regimes before 1945 had to formulate their own questions. Today, we are also living in a similar time; around 15 years after 1989, the same thing is happening as back in 1968.

Why, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the former East, are members of the ’68 generation treated a bit like dusty figures of the past, honourable, but without great significance?
In a way you are right. The ’89 generation has a certain mentality that drives them to use a sort of delayed Marxism the other way round.

You’ll have to explain that to me!

They define the world in much the same way as we did back then. But they still practise the negative sides of capitalism publicly and positively, without inhibitions. They have another approach to reality. This generation did not have to wait for decades to finally be allowed to travel to the West for just one day – they have travelled the whole world. Our “moralisation” of the world – although it was less a moralisation than a personal ethos – is alien to them. They confuse liberality with freedom. Freedom does not mean that one is allowed to do everything. What one is not allowed to do is determined by one’s own ethos. And they don’t have an ethos any more.

You judge the ’89 generation very severely.
I’m sometimes surprised myself.

Let’s go back to your generation. Why is it that the 68ers were not able to survive in the former Eastern Bloc countries following the collapse of the political system there, while their fellows in the West made careers for themselves?
Which 68ers do you mean? The reform communists in Czechoslovakia found out in 1968 that something without form cannot be reformed, for example. But the 68ers also included the future Charter 77 activist who went into the underground and had no more illusions about being able to reform things. Some people from this group, including Václav Havel and me, began our march through the institutions after 1989 – even though mostly only for a very short time. That is because we had other talents. The power of the powerless and the power of the powerful are two different things, as Havel has written.

Were the 68ers in the East too naive?
There are different sorts of naiveté. Perhaps the word is not bad. You mustn’t forget that all regimes since 1938 have carried out a negative selection of the elites. Between 1938 and 1968, five million people have disappeared – all because of ideological or racist dogmas, or dogmas based on the class theory. For a country with 15 million inhabitants, that is a terrible burden. After Leonid Brezhnev put down the Prague Spring in 1968, it became clear that we were naïve. Every 68er in the East and the West knew by then at the very latest that communism could not be reformed. But at the same time every 68er in the East and the West knew that the communist party was no longer what it had at first been seen as. In this regard, we did a lot for Europe. We destroyed the credibility of the party. But the price for doing so was fairly high. The signatories of Charter 77, who came later, were an intellectual elite of the selected few who had never been involved in communism, internationalism or socialism. That was what was missing after 1989. We were not clever in a pol-itical way. Havel was never capable of founding a party, of building vertical structures. In other countries, there was help from the better apparatchiks.

Is that why Havel said of himself that he was “an error of history”?
History consists of mishaps, things that should never happen. In this sense, he was a historical personality.

Let us return to the relationship between the ’89 generation and the ‘68 generation. The French author, Camille de Toledo, in his book “SuperHip JoliPunk: Coming of Age at the End of History”, accuses the 68ers of being the “protesters who were converted by the reformism of the market.
That’s really nice! What is market? If he gives himself a pseudonym like that, he has already chosen a market name. So his thought conforms to the market. We 68ers had to take two decisions: whether we conform to power or to the market. I published my first book in 1962. The response was so strong that even the head of the Czechoslovakian state criticised me. A publisher in the West would have immediately raised my fee and asked me for another book. But I received my first criminal prosecution and a publishing ban. I thought many times about whether my life would have been the same in the West if there had been the same reaction to my book. I don’t think so. I would probably have become a successful man, puffed-up. It is much easier not to conform to power than it is not to conform to the market. The temptation in the West is worse – but good. I don’t want to moralise. But Camille de Toledo – whom I do not know; this is a spontaneous judgement – has already conformed to the market, he doesn’t risk anything at all.

Another quote from Toledo: “They should die at last, damn it all, and take all their miserable egos, their memories, their state, their sexual liberation, their failed revolutions, their disillusionment, their parties, parliaments and all their corpses with them. We do not need the history they wrote any more. From now on, we will write our own!
But of course! Every generation writes its own history!

The key experience of this generation – the generation of the 30- to 35-year-olds – is inarguably the year 1989. But does it have the same effects in the East as in the West?
In the East, it was definitely a key experience; the Westerners didn’t know that it is their destiny as well. Now they do know. It depends on what we do now, after this 15-year break, in the next five years. At the moment, we are doing everything in a very traditional European way: with the ideas of nationalism, socialism and sometimes racism.

Is this because the people providing the ideas in the important positions are simply too old?
Yes, it is a generation issue. But it is also a question of the continuity within the generations. Camille de Toledo, for example, seems to me to conform to the market in the same way as his ancestors: a typical Westerner. I was convicted because there were erotic scenes in my book. Today, you have to laugh. What was slander back then is history today. We know now that Franz Joseph I was not a genius, that Hitler was not a humanist, that Goethe was not a bad writer. History is created only at a distance.

Will we know in 15 years’ time that in 2006 we were living in a time of crisis that also marked a generation conflict?
We still have time to solve the problems. If we don’t, these will be recorded as years of crisis. What is decisive is that freedom involves risk. But Westerners don’t want to take the slightest risk. They only know three reactions to it: passing on the problem in a deep-frozen state. Or: reducing its complexity. That is negative politics. Or: integrating the complexity.
We still have this chance. We have already had Europe, after all: if we were sitting here in my office in the Diplomatic Academy a century ago, perhaps even on this sofa, we would have a common currency, a mixture of languages. It was no problem travelling from Prague to Istria. If someone had ever claimed that this area would not be expanded and deepened, but treated in a reductionistic fashion, no one would have believed it.

Have the “new Europeans”, as the 89ers are called in the East, any advantage compared with the West?
An Angela Merkel or a Matthias Platzeck certainly won’t snuggle up to Vladimir Putin. For us Easterners, Putin’s personality is fairly easy to decipher. In Germany, we are now experiencing the “takeover from the East”. This is perhaps the chance for definitive German unity. It is no coincidence that two Easterners are needed to bring it about. And that they have shrewder policies with regard to the East than the 68ers.

“Takeover from the East” – is that a model for Europe?
If you look at the situation in Germany, you could conclude that it perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if politicians from the East were stronger. But history – as I have already said – is a mishap that constantly repeats itself and cannot be predicted.