My account here of photographing and reporting the fall of communism in what was Czechoslovakia back in the winter of 1989 is based on a chapter in my book, ‘…and then the Prime Minister hit me…’ http://impress-publishing.com/and-then-the-prime-minister-hit-me.html
News reports from Czechoslovakia only a few hundred kilometres to the south of Berlin indicated rumblings of discontent following the great rush of events in the north which I had been covering for the previous couple of weeks.
I managed to secure an entry visa from the Czech Embassy in East Berlin and hot footed to Schonefeld Airport en route to Prague.
I arrived in the early evening as one of the first mass protests in Wenceslas Square was just finishing. There was a carnival like atmosphere with happy Czechs milling around and students from the university using birch brooms to sweep the square of rubbish after the demonstration.
There didn’t appear to be any threat or menace.
The following day the demonstrators started to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. The crowd grew in size and the protesters became more confident and vociferous. The protesters started to ask the controlling Russian backed government to go. The last time this had happened was in 1968 and the Russians responded by putting 7000 tanks and 300,000 troops on the streets. Alexander Dubcek who served as the First Secretary of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) from January 1968 to April 1969 was deposed and was sent into exile to work as a labourer for the Czech forestry commission after attempting to reform the communist government during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968.
As the rhetorical temperature rose so did the worry that ‘something’ would happen to stop this new popular uprising.
Rumours started to spread.
A small group of photographers including myself had heard that Russian troops on manoeuvre in the countryside around Prague had been called upon to show the flag or maybe the sickle. We were told that they would send troop carriers or light tanks along the road that runs alongside the Vistula River before turning into the old town centre.
We decided to investigate.
November in central Europe is cold. A November night while crawling across the world famous Charles Bridge above the freezing Vistula with your nose pressed down hard onto the pavement is even colder. I seem to remember there were half a dozen of us brave foolhardy souls crawling very slowly forwards and keeping our backsides well down. We could all see ’something’ moving in the shadows under the trees on the opposite river bank. Were the shadows troops or tanks ? Who would be brave enough to crawl over and take a closer look ? We had an editorial conference in the dark on the middle of the bridge and all decided that we would come back in daylight the next day, we may have been foolhardy but none of us was stupid.
We retired to the splendid art deco bar of the Hotel Adria just off Wenceslas Square and enjoyed coffee, slivovich and hot apple struddle with lashings of cream. The Adria became a popular hang out as it was one of the few places in town where you could get a phone call back to London or elsewhere in the west. The reception staff would take your requested phone number and page you when the call had been put through to a private phone booth. There were many slightly drunken calls made as sometimes it would take over an hour to get though, more than enough time to consume several glasses of the rather excellent slivovich on offer.
We never did find out if the ‘Russians’ were about to reprise the repression of the ‘Prague Spring of ’68’, but having been brought up on the spy novels of John LeCarre and Graham Green I believed anything was possible.
The protesting crowds grew in size as they assembled in Wenceslas Square night after night until more than 500,000 men women and children met and called for an end to the existing regime.
Butterflies are free
A day of action was declared and workers across the country were encouraged to go on strike for one hour at midday. I travelled with Ed Lucas, an Independent news reporter who specialised in covering eastern Europe, to the industrial area at Usti nad Labem to the north of Prague up near the border with eastern Germany.
The day of action was sub zero cold. The landscape was monochrome and the sky hung low, even the falling snow looked sad. This is the bit of Europe that time had forgotten, pure Stalinist dystopia.
To add to the chill I noticed a sign to a small town off our main route.
Just reading the word on a road sign was an emotive trigger that reminded me of the horrors that had visited this area only a few short years before I was born.
We drove slowly and with respect through the town and past the barrack blocks that were the camp.
Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt was a Nazi Concentration Camp. The camp was presented as a ‘model Jewish settlement’ to the Red Cross and therefore to the rest of the world by the Nazis in the second world war in an attempt to disguise the evil that was happening within.
More than 80,000 Czech Jews died at Terezin, many being sent to the gas chambers and ovens at Auschwitz across the nearby Polish border.
The camp was intended to house the intellectual Jewish elite from Austria as well as the Czech lands and as a consequence a disproportionate number of artists, poets, musicians and writers perished here. It was also from here that the Danish King managed to rescue over 400 Danish Jews and from where SS Chief Heinrich Himmler allowed over twelve hundred mainly Dutch Jews to be transported to Switzerland for $1.25 million in a deal struck with a pro-Nazi former Swiss President in February 1945.
As so often in warfare it was the children that left their lasting indelible mark on history and that mark can be seen to this day even though only 93 according to some sources of the 15,000 children in the camp survived the war.
Viennese artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandels a prisoner in the camp started art classes for the children which resulted in over 4,000 children’s drawings being made. They were hidden from the Nazis in two suitcases when she in turn was murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The cases and the drawings were discovered in 1955 and are now housed in the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Some days after driving past Terezin I visited the Jewish Museum with photographer colleague Mike Abrahams.
Mike and I had the rare privilege of being shown the original drawings many depicting butterflies. A collection of the children’s writings and drawings was later published as ‘ I Never Saw Another Butterfly’.
A sobering experience.
Vasclav Havel takes the lead and Alexander Dubcek returns
Vasclav Havel the eminent playwright and author was seen to be leading the intellectual argument against the communist authorities from the Green Lantern Theatre.
Within a week the deposed former leader of Czechoslovakia Alexander Dubcek appeared with Havel embracing his people from a balcony above Wenceslas Square after spending 18 years in exile in Slovakia.
Dubcek was immediately elected as Chairman of the Federal Assembly and received the Sakharov Peace Prize for his book, ’The Soviet Invasion’. This was based on his experiences during the Prague Spring of 1968 followed by ‘Hope Dies Last’ (1992) where I would like to quote this rather telling paragraph of how it all could have been….
‘The main door flew open again and in walked some higher officers of the KGB, including a highly decorated, very short colonel and a Soviet interpreter I had met before somewhere; I think he had been in Prague a few weeks earlier with Marshal Yakubovsky. The little colonel quickly reeled off a list of all Czechoslovak Communist Party officials present and told us that he was taking us “under his protection.” Indeed we were protected, sitting around that table – each of us had a tommy gun pointed at the back of his head.
Alexander Dubcek died in a car accident in 1992. Conspiracy theories abound.
Jubilant Czechs cheer speakers and wave their national flag as they drive around Wenceslas Square in Prague.
I was probably just a little too young to fully understand the implications of what happened in ’68, just how close Europe and the World was to yet another war as the USSR flexed it’s muscles by offering ‘help’ to protect Czechoslovakia from invasion by the west from West Germany into Sudetenland. Warsaw Pact Armies invaded in August 1968 and stayed until November 1989.
During the Prague Spring of 1968 many brave unattributed photographers made profound and deeply moving images. The photograph of flowers being given to the Russian soldiers and pushed down their rifle barrels, the anger in the face of the bare chested young man defying the barrel of a Russian tank are but two, but probably the most profound of all the photographs taken in that period of suppression in August 1968 was made by the Czechoslovakian photographer Josef Kouldelka, one of the greatest photographers of our generation…
The ‘Authorities’ had demanded that there be a mass meeting in Wenceslas Square at midday to show their support for the hard line communist regime.
To show their disdain the ‘people’ refused to show up, the empty square their ‘voice’.
Koudelka photographed the empty square with his watch on his wrist in the foreground indicating the midday time, a powerful and eloquent image that said more than any words could. I can’t show you this image as it is behind a Magnum exclusion wall, but i’m sure you can google Koudelka, Prague and watch to find the image.
My homage to Josef Koudelka and the people of Czechoslovakia, ‘that faraway country of whom we know little…’ (according to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) was to replicate his image without the watch but with more than half a million of his fellow countrymen protesting as King Wenceslas looked out upon them as if he had come to life in their hour of need to raise his army of sleeping knights from the Blanik Hill.
The Independent ran my picture across the front page and to this day is one of the pictures that I am most proud of.