Author: Sebastian Fasthuber
Published: REPORT.Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, August 2006

“Report” author Sebastian Fasthuber also works as a free-lance music and literature critic for “now!”, “Falter”, “Der Standard” and “Spex”, among other publications.

Svatopluk Karasek (Wikipedia)

“Say No to the Devil”

In an interview with Svatopluk Karasek

Mr Karasek, your party, the Freedom Union (US-DEU), founded in 1998 by a number of ODS members of parliament, is faced with collapse. Are you disappointed by politics?
You're right; we're in a real crisis. But I'm not disappointed, as I like my job. In earlier times I was always among my own kind of people - whether in the church or in the Underground movement. In politics I have to deal with people who are completely different which is a beneficial experience for me.

You mentioned the Underground. Let's go back a couple of decades. In the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s Underground meant something far more radical than in the West. Longhaired people and rockers were persecuted by the police and could only live the way they wanted in secret. How do you look back on this period?
Perhaps I should explain Underground in contrast to the present. Present day life creates lifeless situations. Today you can have everything and don't even have to leave your house to get it. Everything works better but somehow or other life seems flat. Something alive, something authentic occurs only rarely. With the Underground things were different. Young people sensed the oppression of Communism and looked for something that would allow them to live fully. Underground was art without fees, just for pure joy. Everybody did something or other and we performed after each other on small stages, in the great outdoors or in barns. Professors who were no longer allowed to teach gave lectures from forbidden books. It was a time that was intensely alive.

That all sounds very idyllic. But you were constantly on the run and in 1976 you were even imprisoned for a few months.
Yes I was locked up for eight months. What made it bearable was the solidarity. In the 1950s people were also regularly imprisoned. But at that time nobody showed any interest in them. In our case people defended themselves for the first time. Václav Havel played an important role, other artists and the Church also helped. Ultimately it was the involvement of these people that led to me and a number of other detainees being released from remand in 1976. Charta 77 developed out of this solidarity in January 1977. I was one of the first to sign it. The disadvantage of the Charta was that afterwards we were paid constant visits by the secret police. I was imprisoned on remand eleven further times. I was persecuted for three years and my family suffered intensely.

Finally, you emigrated to Switzerland in 1980 via Austria.

I was repeatedly told during questioning that I should leave the country as long as I still had the opportunity. Eventually I gave in, as the situation had become intolerable. Bruno Kreisky allowed political refugees from Czechoslovakia to come to Austria and so we went there and afterwards to Switzerland where I worked for many years as a Protestant pastor.

You always also proclaimed your faith in song.
Indeed, and I still sing in a blues rock band, whenever I have time. All my songs are sung sermons. I started making music originally because in the 1970s I was forbidden to preach in Czechoslovakia. I then started to preach with music. At times there was hard, dirty language in the texts, that is the way it was back then. My best-known song “Say No to the Devil” is still a kind of motto for me. The sentiment always remains appropriate.

Underground rocker and pastor, that seems like something of a contradiction. But religiousness was a kind of protest in Czechoslovakia at that time, wasn't it?
Exactly. The communist regime wanted to exterminate the Church and religious belief. We were an opposition movement. I studied theology and took it very seriously, as I am deeply religious. But on the other hand I never lost contact with those of my friends who do not share my faith. I remain in the world, full in the world, full in faith.

How did you get on in Switzerland, was it not something of a cultural shock?
I was in a very conservative parish but they welcomed me in a truly heartfelt and touching way. I had long hair, I had no teeth and could not speak German properly. But the community supported me. The Swiss are very complete, very finished, suddenly they were confronted with something incomplete, alive, a little smelly. Perhaps that was why they liked it. The church was always full.

After the collapse of Communism you went straight back to your native country?
I had to, even though it was hard for my family. We Underground people had believed that this system was installed for all time. That it would end sometime was inconceivable to us. Suddenly we had the chance to build up something new.

What has remained of this feeling of building up something new?
I think that in the Czech Republic today we have a completely normal development. We should reflect more often on the freedoms we enjoy. Many people take them far too much for granted. I still rejoice when I can sing and preach. However, it must be said that in earlier times most people did not feel their lack of freedom. Perhaps a few hundred people were actively involved in the Underground. But you see what can develop and how much can be changed when you commit yourself completely to something.