On His Seventieth Birthday
It is my good fortune not to be sufficiently qualified to write about Skilling’s work. I don’t at all envy the people who do write about it. Apart from a few of his essays, I owned, for a while, only one of his books, the famous one about ’68, Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution. This book always filled me with a kind of sacred respect. As long as it was in my library, till it was confiscated by the secret police, it was, among other things, also part of a parlour game. I used to submit some of my visitors to a test of their historical importance. At the right moment I took Skilling’s book in hand: ‘Let’s look and see what you did for your country.’ In the index I looked for the name of my visitor and then, heads together, we read what was written about him or her on the pages of Skilling’s book. And at that moment half-forgotten events, ideas, and the whole atmosphere of ’68 re-emerged. ‘Ah, yes’, the visitors would say, ‘I wrote that back in year such and such. It so happened that …’. Visitors who did not find themselves in the book were as sad as if something had happened that could never be rectified and history had simply passed them by. Strange, when one considers that this book about the most recent history of Czechoslovakia was written by a Canadian in Canada.
This strange function of Skilling’s book fascinated me so much that I was unable to read it critically. Consequently, I don’t even known whether it contains any mistakes or gaps. It always simply astounded me.
I asked Skilling what motivated his interest in Czechoslovak history. I assumed he had some Slav grandfather or grandmother, as is often the case. But no. Skilling is an Anglo-Saxon. Before the war he studied in Prague and chose Czechoslovakia the way other historians choose Egypt or Mesopotamia. And then he just carried out the lifelong mission of a historian. But, moreover, as perhaps happens to zealous historians, it also happened that he adopted a kind of second citizenship, that of his subject matter. This would explain why on his visits here he was present not as a guest from overseas but as someone who, together with Czechoslovakia, had personally experienced the history of the past decades. When he sat with us and listened to our discussions, we easily forgot he was a Torontonian and yet he didn’t to have anything explained. Those who could speak some English exchanged a word with him in that language, but everyone knew he understood Czech and Slovak and he caught everything, including all the allusions and the emotions behind the words. He seemed to fit in here, in Czechoslovakia, so organically, as if he had been a professor at Charles University till 1969, when he was thrown out of his job, but continued to write about history while working in a warehouse or as a watchman. He acted as if he were part of the Czechoslovak intellectual ghetto. When he managed to get an appointment with people from official circles, he came back puzzled, incredulously shaking his head. And then he again eagerly entered deep into the maze of parallel scholarship and the arts. And I was made only a little nervous beside him imagining his return to Toronto and his later appearing in Moscow or London or Belgrade.
But Skilling also brought another dimension to the way of looking at our problems. In a country such as ours is today, the sad fate of the nation makes one easy prey to a feeling of depression. We are introverted and perhaps also a bit jealous of the opportunities of those who live in more advantageous geographical locations. There is an abundance of the sense of having been hurt, of having been stunned by the lessons of history that one has endured. Skilling knew it, but as a polite guest he did not talk about it much. Or rather as an historian it was not hard for him to find an historical explanation for the general national apathy, for the fear of losing the little securities that are guaranteed by keeping a low profile. He undoubtedly knows about our selfishness, the cultivated sense of our being worse off than anyone else, and that we cannot do anything about it on our own. He knows how little upset we become about the disasters of the world, about whole nations suffering from famine, the danger of a super-power confrontation, and the destruction of civilization. All of that takes place in some other world; we live here and our opportunities extend only as far as the fence of our own garden. It is hard to persuade us that we as nations [of Czechs and Slovaks] are responsible together with the others for the state of the world. Who other than Skilling, however, should know that this general awareness does not stem from a national mentality, but is a consequence of being sealed off ideologically for a long time, of a false interpretation of the world and our position in it, and of defeatist conclusions drawn from historical experience.
Simply by his coming from the world outside, Skilling used to bring another standard to our discussions. He perceived the Czechoslovak situation as part of the problems which other nations were also struggling with. Czechoslovakia was part of his own planet. Nor was he lavish with reports that are so pleasant to listen to, reports about how our lost battles still inflame the world outside. On the contrary, really. Though he helped us where he could, he did not disseminate illusions. His optimism was very moderate, as befits an historian who knows that the steps of history can, from the perspective of one generation, appear to be the shuffling of feet which mimes use to suggest walking.
Here Skilling always seemed to me also to be a living reproach to the historical ignorance into which we had fallen. State-sanctioned historiography turned national history into a sort of Reader’s Digest, an aid for officials responsible for political education, who on anniversaries harped on about glorious victories, embarrassed because they knew no one was listening. I go out and meet people, so I know how profound the forgetting is that has covered up the real history of the Czechs and Slovaks. And those who have gone through institutions of higher learning remember ten or twenty names from the stripped and crooked skeleton of national history. But that’s all. The people then tell their own history. It is the history of families, the history of communities, the history of events which they were witness to. And that is a completely different history from the official one. Sometimes it seems to me as if the people were avenging themselves on the historians for the opportunistic violence the latter have committed against history. The people do not want to hear anything about history; they assume that everything they read and hear about the past is a lie. Real historiography is alive only in parallel organizations and in exile. But in its principal function as a teacher it is mute, because one is forbidden to listen to it. Skilling seemed to me to be a reproach, because he used to say aloud the very names of the people and not-so-distant events which sounded even to me as if they were from far away. I appreciate it, but at the same time I regret it. Why is awareness of this history deposited as if in some data banks in Toronto and elsewhere but not in the living memory of the nation?
I have been talking about meeting Skilling and I myself feel it is a nostalgic story. It sounds as if I did not believe they will again let him in to see us sometime. But I do believe. What happened to Skilling had to happen. Skilling became tainted with dissidence and played his own game with the secret police. Like us, he too thought that with cleverness it was possible to trick that enormous apparat equipped with all kinds of technology. He shared our illusions. I remember how at our first meeting he proudly showed me the title page and table of contents of his book skilfully pasted into the inner pages of Rudé právo [the Communist daily]. He made no telephone calls. He took trains. And he stayed in private homes. He suddenly appeared at the door as if it were only two bus stops from Toronto. He had been a bit frightened by the carelessness of Václav Havel, who, in his company in the middle of the night flagged down a police car instead of a taxi. But he also got a bit of pleasure from that kind of swaggering. He didn’t want to miss anything. He wanted, for example, to take part in the funeral of the proscribed Slovak historian Edo Friš. I tried to dissuade him, because in Czechoslovakia funerals like that are a welcome opportunity for the secret police to take an inventory of everyone who is not afraid to pay his or her last respects to the troublesome dead. And that’s also how it was. The place was swarming with young men with hidden walkie-talkies and on the steps leading to the crematorium they filmed all the brave people. Skilling was there of course. His white head conspicuously shone amongst the mourners. I have no doubt they knew of his every step on Czechoslovak territory, because when one has those kinds of means at one’s disposal ignorance is a result of carelessness, low qualifications, or dereliction of duty. I was therefore not surprised when I learnt that they had taken him off the bus on his way to Vienna [at the Czechoslovak-Austrian border]. They took him back to the border only that evening. I don’t know what they talked about all day long, but I know what secret police officers think about historiography. It is a means of making a living like any other. Everyone should do what he or she is paid to do, and not stir up trouble. If one is a professor in Canada, one should worry about Canadian history and not ours. Don’t tell me about the truth. Everyone has his own truth. Our job is to maintain law and order. No one today is interested in what things were like back then; sometimes it’s like this, sometimes like that. Not even in Canada do they allow everyone to say and write whatever one wants. That would be a fine kettle of fish! How much do you earn at that university anyway? Well there you have it! You can travel wherever you like, so why come to Czechoslovakia? And don’t worry about our professors; we’ll deal with them ourselves. We aren’t concerned about the truth; that’s for the experts. We are concerned about law and order.
I don’t think Skilling regrets the day spent in the building of the secret police. For an historian it is an invaluable experience. I think that all educated people in the West who are interested in Socialism and Communism should politely request a few interrogations in our country. It is quite possible that in view of today’s shortage of hard currency the Ministry of the Interior would, for a modest fee, not turn down such a request.
Skilling could have quite easily studied the history of our country in the peace and quiet of his Toronto office. But Skilling isn’t that kind of historian. Skilling has let himself be captivated by what he is interested in and he shares our fears, anxieties, and hopes for a dignified way out of our economic, political, and moral failure. And I sometimes have the feeling that he is willing to sacrifice much more for that hope than many apathetic and sceptical Czechs and Slovaks who have relatively more reason to do something only a little bit dangerous and only a little bit brave for a truer, more dignified existence.
I once somehow felt sorry that Skilling had not yet received any order from the Czechoslovak Republic. And so I summoned the courage and decided to thank Skilling publicly and indicate to him that even without such an order many people are aware of the human uniqueness that is in his works and in his relationship to our nations. I did that as a self-appointed spokesman because no one entrusted me with the task. It was at a wooden table on a hill. Five of us in all represented the whole public. But that doesn’t matter. After all, we both know how things go in history.
Listy, 12–1 (February 1982), pp. 41–42.
Translated from the Czech by Derek & Marzia Paton