An Interpretation of History
On 21 August 1968, troops of the Warsaw Pact invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. This was as a result of the Prague Spring, a nine-month struggle for political liberation. The Soviet Union violently ended the aim for socialism and reforms. Students however protested, taking to the streets, chanting, publishing newspapers and surrounding tanks.
1968 was a year of global change, where one event affected another. In Germany, both the East and West, students were influenced by Chinese Mao Communism, which had outward effects on neighbouring countries (Slobodian 2012, pp. 194-199). Internationally, the end to the Prague Spring was a significant event, revealing the contradiction of the GDR’s humanitarian claims and reality of repression (Brown 2009, p. 84). It is a display of transnationalism of 1968.
Boleslav Kvapil was a painter, who fled Czechoslovakia in 1969 due to his open protests and disagreement with the invasion. The Open Letter is based on true events from his life, taken from a personal account of his second wife, Sabine.
Kvapil died last year in 2017. An exhibition currently being held in Switzerland, called Freiheit, die ich meine (Rosenegg, 2018), displays paintings from his take on the Prague Spring, addressing repression and a totalitarian regime.
Museum Rosenegg (2018) Freiheit, Die Ich Meine, Available at: http://www.museumrosenegg.ch/Rosenegg_13.11.11/Sonderausstellung.html (Accessed: 11th April 2018).
Quinn Slobodian (2012) ‘The Cultural Revolution in West Germany’, in Quinn Slobodian (ed.) Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany. Durham, USA: Duke University Press, pp. 170-199.
Timothy S. Brown (2009) ”1968′ East and West: Divided Germany as a Case Study in Transnational History’, The American Historical Review, 114(1), pp. 69-96 [Online]. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/30223644 (Accessed: 4th April 2018).
An Open Letter
It started with a knock on our front door. It was late already, maybe half nine. My wife, Eva and I had sat down to eat perhaps ten minutes earlier. We usually ate this late- I’m not too sure why. Probably because we were both always caught up in something we were doing, and only realised we hadn’t eaten by the inevitable loud groans of our bellies.
Anyway, Eva gets up to go and answer the door- not without a few mumbles from both of us, one saying ‘who’s bothering us this late’, the other adding ‘surely this can wait until the morning’.
Of course, we found out it couldn’t. It turns out, it was a friend who had come to warn us, we had to pack our stuff and make a plan to flee the country.
Three days after we left, the Stasi came knocking on our door, ready to collect us.
In case you’re interested, the reason we had to go was my fault. Not that I feel particularly guilty. We were lucky, my wife, my sons and I, because we escaped in one piece, all of us unharmed. Why was it my fault? You see, I worked in the mines for twelve years. I would have died down there, had it not been for Eva. Spending your days and nights in darkness takes its toll on even the toughest men. But Eva was married to a military type before me, you see, so through him she had connections with other, high ranking officers, who finally got me a job in the cultural office.
And like my fellow students, I wanted to make a difference, help spread reformist ideas, help the struggle for liberation. We believed in what Dubcek stood for – communism with a human face – a just society for all. So, I wrote articles for the newspapers and even founded one of my own; I published leaflets encouraging freedom of expression, drew political cartoons making fun of the prominent politicians when we felt they were doing the wrong thing or weren’t doing enough.
Looking back, sometimes I feel like I didn’t do enough: Our newspaper wasn’t serious enough’, or we didn’t fight hard enough for our ‘Czech Society for Human Rights’ group. Of course, I wasn’t striving to do something as extreme as the two students, Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc (who burnt themselves alive for the cause) but surely, I shouldn’t have just fled.
These thoughts cross my mind occasionally, but I manage to comfort myself by remembering that my wife and children are safe and healthy. After all, Jan and Jan didn’t have the biggest impact either.
After the invasion in August 1968, everything the students had been working towards was lost. The progress we were making as a nation seem to be halted. Worse than that, there was a threat of the nation regressing.
The cultural revolution, which was happening throughout Europe, came to an abrupt end for us.
I remember the day so clearly. I remember feeling utterly defeated. For a moment, it was as though every ounce of strength had left my body. I felt like I was back in the mines; physically and emotionally pushed deep down. Soon after that I grew bitter, and spent the next year attacking the Soviet Union through any newspaper, drawing cartoons, theatres, flyers- any form of media, that would listen to me.
But there was no way I was going to get away with this. So, back to where the story started, following the knock on the door, I fled Prague in September 1969.
Our escape was masked as a holiday. I look back now and wonder how we didn’t get caught. It’s almost comical, we were so clearly dissidents. I was carrying letters with me that our Society for Human Rights had written to the United Nations, so a single search would have immediately given me away. We fled across the Yugoslav border into Austria. Eva handed the guard some student ID cards, which distracted him briefly. She gives us a sign to go, and all at once, we run, quite literally, for our lives. The border guard did nothing. I think he must have been caught up in the confusion of it all because we all made it through unharmed.
Sometimes, I like to think that the guard knew full well what was going on and let us go out of good nature. That thought helps me on the days when the world is hit with bad news.
We stayed in Austria for a year, before ending up in Germany. I’m not sure whether subconsciously it had always been my plan to end up here. I always felt like Germany was responsible for spreading interconnectivity amongst many countries. It surely inspired demands for reforms and revolutions in many countries in Europe. I feel at home here and have met invaluable people. Walter Fröhlich is one of them.
Before I go on, I should say I spend most of my time now painting. I’ve always loved painting, but never dedicated my life to it until I came to Germany. Walter helped me with this, I think. Where we live now in Germany, near Lake Constance, Walter is famous for writing dialect poetry. He expressed ideas and views through his writing, and it inspired me to do the same. I don’t think I could ever return to writing, that’s been tainted for me. But perhaps that’s why I turned to painting. I’m able to express my thoughts and emotions in this way. What Walter does with words, I am able now to do with a paintbrush. I’ve painted a lot about the year of the reforms. The Prague Spring has two associations for me. It has the aspect of hope; the struggle of the people towards socialism and reform. But I also have the association of the violent defeat by the troops of the Warsaw Pact. I can’t think of one without remembering the other, and it’s a curse and a blessing.
My name is Boleslav Kvapil and I’m a painter. I live in a small town in Germany and this is my story. I’m from Czechoslovakia, I was part of the 1968 revolutions, and I’m proud I can say that about myself.