The man who stood up to Brezhnev… But was a Communist

The Czechs and Slovaks recently commemorated the Warsaw Pact armies’ invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. One controversy emerged. It was centered on one of the key figures of the Prague Spring, František Kriegel. The Czechs would like to make him a hero, but there is one “minor” flaw in his life. He was a communist and never ceased to be.

Photo: Národní archiv Praha


In August 2014, Michal Uhl, a Green Party candidate who was elected as a member of the municipal council, proposed that Kriegel, a former resident of the district, should be awarded honorary citizenship as an expression of gratitude for his refusal to sign the Moscow Protocol on 26th August 1968. In the end, Uhl’s proposal was rejected during the vote, but the case proved useful to review the current state of the debate on anticommunism and the perception of our communist past. The never-ending disputes about Kriegel’s act and life revolve around these questions: can a communist be a true national hero? Or are they condemned forever by their membership or participation in the regime’s activities? And consequently, must they constantly ask for redemption for their sins? It is a bit disturbing, yet rather telling that an identical question on Kriegel, although in a different context, was posed by Václav Havel already in 1988: ‘Today young people in Czechoslovakia do not know that there used to be politicians – and even communist ones – who despite their tragic destiny were honest and brave people. It is very difficult to even imagine something like this.’

Kriegel’s life is very complex and ambiguous which is not uncommon for those born in Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the turbulent 20th century. His curriculum vitae serves as one of the most remarkable Czech stories of this “short” century. He was born to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Stanisawów/Stanislau (now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine). As a gifted young man he wanted to enroll at the university, but he faced the reality of everyday anti-Semitism that was so prevalent at the time. Due to the inglorious and widely applicable numerus clausus in Poland, which aimed at limiting the “overrepresentation” of Jewish students, he moved to Prague to finish his education in the 1920s. He became a physician after graduating in 1934 and by this time was already a devoted member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. His various identities – being a Jew by origin, a Czech by choice, a Communist by belief and a physician by profession and mission – merged and shaped his worldview.

When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, he joined the International Brigades as a volunteer-doctor and became the head of the healthcare service of the 45th International Division. However after General Francisco Franco triumphed over the Republicans in 1939, he was forced to flee Spain. With no hope of returning home, due to Czechoslovakia’s Nazi occupation, Kriegel moved to China where he first served as a military physician in the Chinese Red Army and then in the US Army, switching one war for another.

In the autumn of 1945, after almost ten years spent abroad, Kriegel finally returned to the liberated Czechoslovakia, where he continued working as a physician. Because of his accredited international and military career, he also served as a secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Committee in Prague and became a member of the Steering Committee of the People’s Militias, illegal armed squads that helped the CCP overthrow the existing parliamentary regime and seize power during February´s coup d’état in 1948.

As a trusted and experienced communist at the time, he was appointed as the Deputy to the Minister of Health, but he was soon sacked as a result of intra-party purges and struggles. Once again, he experienced bitter anti-Semitic attacks that were stirred up by media campaigns during the 1952 trial of Rudolf Slánský. He returned to his profession and was soon rehabilitated politically. Because of his extended experience abroad, Kriegel had become fluent in number of languages including Spanish, so the Czechoslovak government sent him to Cuba in 1960, where for three years he served as a consultant assisting with the Cuban healthcare system construction.

He became one of the leading and most visible (and the most detested by the Kremlin) political figures of the Prague Spring – he was elected to the Central Committee, Politburo and the Czechoslovak Parliament. When the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, he was arrested with the General Secretary of the CCP Alexander Dubček, Prime Minister Oldřich Černík and other top Czechoslovak politicians and then taken to Moscow. Kremlin leaders didn’t think Kriegel “good enough” to be placed on the Czechoslovak team that was forced to “negotiate” the Czechoslovak-Soviet protocol, which legalized the violent abduction of the Czechoslovak representatives to the USSR, acknowledged the presence of the Soviet occupational forces on the Czechoslovak territory and turned down the reform policy of the Prague Spring. However, the Soviet leaders led by Leonid Brezhnev needed him to sign the protocol. And Kriegel was the only one who refused to do it.

Although he feared being arrested and sentenced to life, exiled to Siberia or possibly executed, he was allowed to return to Czechoslovakia thanks to Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda’s insistence. But the Soviets did not forget and were absolutely resolute about Kriegel´s future political career – he was immediately sacked from the top political bodies and erased from political life. For a while he did remain a Member of Parliament where he again showed courage. Together with three other brave members, he voted against the ratification of the Treaty on the Temporary Stay of the Soviet Army on the territory of Czechoslovakia on 18th October 1968.

Kriegel was soon expelled from the CCP and stripped of his mandate as a Member of Parliament. As a pensioner, he soon joined the dissident movement. Following the Helsinki negotiations in 1975, he, along with František Vodsloň and Gertruda Sekaninová, sent a petition to the Czechoslovak Parliament demanding the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Czechoslovakia and the restoration of its sovereignty. Kriegel then signed the Charter 77 (Charta 77) petition, while enduring constant police surveillance, administrative bullying and exposure to slanderous media campaigns, all with anti-Semitic undertones as his “Czechness” was questioned. His secret police (StB) file, which accumulated numerous daily reports is said to have been one of the largest personal files stored in the archive of the secret police in Prague.

František Kriegel died in 1979. Ten years later, the Charter 77 Foundation launched the František Kriegel´s Prize, awarded to those with ‘extraordinary merits in their fight for human rights and freedom, national independence, sovereignty and democracy’.

A hero, but a communist

In a speech defending his proposal, Uhl saw Kriegel as one of the most important political people in 20th century Czechoslovakia. He described Kriegel as someone who valued his moral principles more than his own life, and said that he had saved the honor and pride of Czechoslovakia. Kriegel, Uhl insisted, should be viewed as a role model for modern day politicians who are faced with important decisions. Uhl sees Kriegel´s ‘no‘ as a natural continuation of his life’s attitudes. He quoted renowned Czech philosopher Karel Kosík’s comparison of Kriegel’s refusal to another famous stand made by Jan Hus, a Czech priest, who was in 1415 condemned as a heretic due to his criticism of the Catholic Church and then burned at the stake by the Church Council in Konstanz.

Uhl’s opponents criticize his advocacy of Kriegel as blind and missing or softening the darker instances of Kriegel’s political career, particularly his participation in the February 1948 coup d’état. Uhl maintains that Kriegel did not do anything ethically problematic, even in 1948, arguing that the post-WWII generation was looking for ways to prevent the poverty and injustice that they saw as the main sources of the devastating conflict. Thus, he argues, it was only natural for them to reject the political system of interwar Czechoslovakia and embrace the communist ideas and policies of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, directed from the USSR. Uhl’s critics point out that he uses only general terms like “communism” or “generation” in his argument to exonerate Kriegel from individual responsibility for his deeds. However, Uhl admits that Kriegel’s generation’s adherence to communism was ‘…a cruel mistake’, and he acknowledges that for some people the “1948 sins” cannot be redeemed or whitewashed by “1968 bravery”. But according to Uhl, Kriegel was one of the few communists who critically approached their role within the communist power structure and even apologized for it.

Reacting to Uhl’s proposal, the historian and journalist Petr Zídek noted that even in 1968 Kriegel was a communist, although a liberal and reformist one. As a member of the Politburo, he was against the legalization of the Social Democratic Party and the multi-party system. When he read the petition 2000 Words, the famous manifest of the Prague Spring, which called for more democracy, freedom and independence, he reacted: ‘The document is very dangerous. It contains suggestions for actions. It is not moral. It is necessary to adopt a strict standpoint at the Politburo of the CC CPC. It is a counterrevolutionary situation.’ Zídek also thought that the opinion that Kriegel was always faithful to ‘not only communist, but also democratic ideals’ was absurd. ‘A communist’ he said, ‘can be as little of a democrat as a Nazi. We have no evidence that Kriegel in 1968 or later favored democracy (free elections, legal state and liberal economic system)’. 1

Historian Michal Stehlík has also objected to what he sees as Uhl’s implicit aim to picture Kriegel as a genuine democrat and political freedom fighter. Kriegel never ceased to be a communist and was loyal to the ideals he attached himself to in the 1930s. He never denounced communism as an ideology, not even when he joined the dissident movement in the 70s as a purged and persecuted “68-er”. He was disillusioned with Stalinism and with his parodic recreation during the 20-year Husák’s era (1969 – 1989). Stehlík argues that we cannot picture Kriegel’scase only as a ‘struggle between democracy and communism, as we have been so prone to reduce it to. We must see the personal disillusionment of a communist believer caught in the trap of political reality.’

Want an award? Be an artist, not a politician

Stehlík concludes that the Kriegel case brings to the table one valuable perspective – it questions the black-and-white interpretation of our history. Should someone be judged for the value of one moment where they show extraordinary courage and refuse to conform, or for the whole life as the sins and good deeds are weighed? The mayor of the district, Jana Černochová from the right-wing ODS, asked herself honestly: ‘Which Kriegel should we award the honorary citizenship? The 1968 Kriegel? I feel a great dilemma – will I be able to discern how much good is enough to counterweigh a certain amount of evil? Those who recognized the communist evil and fought it from the very beginning were not many. On the other hand, there are many examples of “Kriegels” in our contemporary history – those people who let themselves be fooled by the communist egalitarian utopia, but then awoke and turned against communism.’ Černochová continued ‘If Kriegel and many others had not actively assisted Gottwald and legitimized the February coup d’état in 1948 and had not shown loyalty to the communist regime for a long period of time, would the Warsaw Pact armies have invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968? Maybe yes, maybe not.’ Another deputy, Jan Vaněk (ODS), had more conviction. He said that his grandfather was jailed in Jáchymov (a communist concentration camp in the 1950s) while Kriegel was ‘building socialism.’ He concluded: ‘We cannot close our eyes to what he did. People were stripped off their lives, homes and fortunes at this time. Before Kreigel’s one brave moment he was in the People’s Militias. Unfortunately I cannot weigh Kriegel’s one courageous act, as it was against the backdrop of the communism he had built for 20 years.’

The sources from the district confirmed that the debate over Kriegel was extraordinarily harsh and no other personality who had been awarded honorary citizenship, not only by Prague 2 but by other districts as well, had stirred up such an emotional debate. As a result, 7 deputies voted for the award, 14 voted against it (mostly from the right-wing ODS and TOP09), and 6 abstained. The democratic procedures were fair enough, but less can be said about the staunch right-wing anticommunist codex of non-acceptance. As journalist Jan Schneider pointed out, by rejecting Kriegel, the right-wing majority of the council allowed other candidates into the “hall of fame” whose life paths paralleled the “silent” and passive majority rather than the courageous minority of freedom fighters. Take violin virtuoso Václav Hudeček, who joined the Communist Party during the Husák’s era (ironically enough, at the same time Kriegel de iure had been expelled from the Communist Party and was considered a real dissident), or pianist and acclaimed jazz and pop music composer Rudolf Rokl, who in 1989 received the Meritorious Artist Prize, an award the communist regime handed over to loyal artists. So we, through the words and deeds of our representatives, reject active politicians who made mistakes and embrace passive and conformist artists? Those are the heroes our representatives want us to commemorate and pay respect to?

Just courage, compaňeros!

When commemorating the Prague Spring and the invasion, the Czechs and Slovaks can be really proud of the way they handled the invasion the first couple of days – in a style of non-violence, without collaborating with the Soviets. The invasion could have been a total failure for the Kremlin – they had occupied the whole country but the majority of the population did not want to collaborate with them and the minority did not dare. The Kremlin’s bet on a group of antireformist neo-Stalinists led by Vasil Biľak, who wanted to establish a parallel pro-Soviet government and de-legitimize Dubček’s leadership, failed from the first days of the invasion.

The people, experiencing the invasion and living with the tanks on the streets, put all their hopes for restoring national pride and sovereignty into two key figures of the Prague Spring – Alexander Dubček and Ludvík Svoboda. Unfortunately, both of them failed when facing Soviet pressure and later became only puppets in the Soviet game, unable to decide whom they should be loyal to – Czechoslovakia, or the Communist Party. Only Kriegel did something real for Czechoslovak independence. As one of his close friends and a passionate defender of Kriegel’s legacy, scientist František Janouch pointed out ‘it is one of the paradoxes of the Czech history that the nation’s honor was saved by a Jewish boy, Franz Kriegel from Stanislawow, who came to Prague to study medicine in the 1920.’ Political commentator Bohumil Doležal was right when he argued that at the time Kriegel was a genuine and really the only true representative of Czechoslovakia’s interests and independence. He did what people expected the politicians should do – represent them.

Kriegel’s resolute ‘no’ proved that despite all of Dubček’s, Svoboda’s or Černík’s good reasons and excuses for succumbing to Soviet pressure and signing the protocol, saying ‘no’ was a possibility. It always is. To put it simply, Kriegel, the man of conflicting identities, who fought in two bloody wars, had guts.

Notes:

  1.  Petr Zídek, Letní spor o Kriegela, Lidové noviny, 27.08.2014, str. 10.
Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.