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Czechoslovakia: suppression in Central Europe

It was hardly a surprise that the most famous of all Czech writers was rarely published in his homeland. After all, Franz Kafka wrote of nightmarish bureaucracies and of being tried for crimes never committed. In 1988, Bibi Vodickova gave me this folder from Odeon Publishers, which was about to publish a book of his short stories, and we took it to the new Jewish cemetery and to Kafka’s grave, where I took this picture. November, 1988.

Lenin said that for Communism to succeed, a country would need an educated workforce and an industrial base to build on. Czechoslovakia gave that to Stalin in 1948, but it took little time to turn a powerful economy into a basket case. It was never as bad as other socialist states, but its economic star dimmed quickly.

Czechoslovakia went through Stalinist show trials in 1952. Fourteen officials were tried, eleven were hung and, of those, eight were Jews. The country then suffered a Soviet-led invasion in 1968 when it tried to soften Communist rule.

By the 1980s, its few dissidents were better known in the West than at home, and the hardline government seemed out of touch and surreal. I sought out intellectuals in Bratislava and Prague and photographed them when I could.

Czechoslovakia: change came quickly

Students were allowed to hold a march on 17 November to commemorate the killing of a student by the Germans in 1939. The marchers turned toward the center—they were told not to—and the police beat them with clubs.

Those students went home with blood streaming from their heads. Czech mothers and fathers said, “Not with my child, you don’t!” And the parents started protesting with their children. More and more families joined in, as they did in Brno and Bratislava and elsewhere.

With breathtaking speed, the Communists were run out of power and jokes about them abounded, like “Milos Jakes [General Secretary of the Communist Party] would fail a lie detector test if he began a sentence with ‘I think.’”

By the end of the year, Vaclav Havel, who had spent nearly five years in prison, had become president.

Scenes on the street, Prague, December, 1989.

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