Brief history of the ČSDS (1986–2007)

The Czecho-Slovak Documentation Centre for Independent Literature was founded in March 1986 in Hannover by a group of Czech exiles as a facility of the association of the same name in the Federal Republic of Germany, with the working title Dokumentationszentrum zur Förderung der unabhängigen tschechoslowakischen Literatur, e. V. The association had eleven founding members: Jiří Gruša, František Janouch, Josef Jelínek, Ivo Kunstýř, Ivan Medek, Jiří Pelikán, Vilém Prečan, Karel Jan Schwarzenberg, Pavel Tigrid, Jan Vladislav and Ľubomír Ďurovič. The origin of the Documentation Centre was to continue the activity until then carried out privately by the historian Vilém Prečan. The writer Jan Vladislav was the association’s chairman from the beginning until January 1994, and the custodian and head of the centre Vilém Prečan. In January 1994 Vilém Prečan became chairman of the association and Karel Schwarzenberg voted deputy chairman. The chairman of the academic board of the ČSDS, which included leading foreign scholars, was the Canadian historian and political scientist Professor H. Gordon Skilling.

ČSDS in 1986–1989

From November 1986 the offices of the centre were in Castle Schwarzenberg in Scheinfeld (halfway between Würzburg and Nuremberg, 380 km from Prague, see map), where around 300 square metres of space were used for work and study and another 100 square metres for storage.

Zámek Schwarzenberg


Budova na zámku Schwarzenbergu, kde bylo od listopadu 1986 sídlo ČSDS

Up to the beginning of the 1990s, the Documentation Centre enjoyed financial support from the NED (National Endowment for Democracy – an American foundation with government funding), the Central and East European Publishing Project in Oxford, and other private foundations including George Soros’s Open Society Fund and Charta 77 Foundation in Stockholm. The premises for the Centre were converted by the owner of the castle Karel Schwarzenberg at his expense. The relevant tax offices recognised the ČSDS as a public benefit society (Gemeinnützigkeit). Based on recognition by the Directorate General of the Bavarian Archives, the association obtained the status of an academic institution. In October 1993 the Documentation Centre received a high honour in the form of the Friedrich Bauer Award, given by the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts; the diploma says that the ČSDS archive is unique in the history of European exile. See also the speech of thanks on the occasion of receiving the award (in Czech only).

Průhled dvou místností střediska; vlevo průhled do „samizdatovny“ (kde byly sbírky samizdatových knih); vpravo jeden z regálů příruční knihovny (česká a slovenská „domácí“ literatura)

Z pracovny kustoda a vedoucího střediska 1987–1989

From the beginning, the Documentation Centre functioned as a literary archive, a specialised library and a facility for research, study, information and publication. During the period without freedom it helped to maintain the connection between independent activities in Czechoslovakia and in exile. It formed a link between the western world and Czech and Slovak independent intellectuals and civic initiatives, one of the sparks of spiritual defiance against Communist totalitarianism, and was part of Czechoslovak cultural and political exile. A priority among the Centre’s activities was the effort to provide all-round effective assistance for dissident and civic initiatives in Czechoslovakia.

Kopie samizdatové literatury připravené k expedici pro knihovny a další klienty střediska

The Documentary Centre specialised in the following fields of activity:

  1. The systematic collection of testimonies about independent thought and work in Czechoslovakia after 1948; likewise independent cultural, political and religious activities, with the primary aim of creating a collection of Czech and Slovak samizdat literature.
  2. The distribution of photocopied samizdat texts and periodicals to major libraries, research centres (especially at universities), editors of exile journals, radio stations and individual scholars. Until 1993 this meant 140–150 thousand pages of photocopying in A4 format annually. Scholars from many countries used the collections as a reference library. The Centre thus helped works of independent Czech and Slovak literature, evidence of the spiritual and intellectual resistance in Communist Czechoslovakia, information and findings about dissent at home, to be fluently absorbed into the information system of the free world.
  3. The organisation and/or support of research work on works of a documentary, textbook and bibliographic nature; the preparation and publication of its own publications, including the quarterly Acta, which was published in Czech/Slovak and English versions. The Documentation Centre shared in the preparation and organisation of exhibitions of independent literature and gave rise to a number of discussions about independent literature and sciences. The preparations for the publication of the complete works of Jan Patočka began with support from the ČSDS.
  4. Other activities by the Documentation Centre were not publicly announced. It supplied the intellectual community, civic initiatives and opposition groups in Czechoslovakia with books and journals published abroad. It helped to transport technical equipment for publishing samizdat literature. It facilitated contacts and correspondence for independent workers at home and civic initiatives with their partners – publishing houses, research institutes and other institutions in what was then the free world.

Pohled na část sbírek samizdatových periodik

The ČSDS after November 1989

From December 1989 the Documentation Centre shared in the creation of a free culture at home in Czechoslovakia, without ceasing to fulfil its tasks in the fields of research and information abroad. It contributed in a major way to Czechoslovak dissent, samizdat and exile being fully appreciated at home and abroad, and to the foundations of their professional examination being laid. Efforts to improve understanding and relationships between Czechs and Slovaks and between Czech and Germans were also a part of the activities of the ČSDS in recent years.

For the year following November 1989, the ČSDS was a Mecca for scholars young and old; it operated as a facility to which researchers from both home and abroad could turn as a last hope when they could not find what they needed for their work in other libraries and information centres abroad or in the Czech and Slovak Republics.

As early as December 1989, and in the first months of 1990, the ČSDS put at the disposal of its homeland a large number of books, journals and other documentation, serving as a bank of reliable information. In the first six months of 1990 the Documentation Centre published in Czechoslovakia three books in mass editions: Naděje a zklamání [Hope and disappointment] about 1968, a collection of texts by Václav Havel from 1983–1989 Do různých stran and the documentation Horký leden 1989 v Československu [The Hot January of 1989 in Czechoslovakia]. Thanks to the collections and technology of ČSDS, a publication of more than 500 pages of documentation about Charter 77 could be published in a mass edition as early as in mid-March 1990. By making its materials available, the ČSDS facilitated the first modest exhibition of exile literature in Prague in March 1990, repeated in Pilsen and in Banská Bystrica.

On the initiative of the Documentation Centre and under its expert oversight, the first representative exhibition of samizdat and exile literature for 1948–1989 was prepared and realised in the Museum of Czech Literature in Prague and seen by at least 15,000 visitors between January and June 1992. Several important informative publications were published in connection with the exhibition and several professional discussions realised. (These were recorded on videocassette by Petr Kotyek and are lodged in the Literary Archive of the Museum of Czech Literature in Prague.)

A number of diploma works by German students and a large number of foreign language publications were written in cooperation with the Documentation Centre or based on its collections or publications; the ČSDS shared in a major exhibition about censorship in Europe during the last three centuries and the methods used in the struggle against it: “Der Zensur zum Trotz“ in Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony (May-October 1991); see example from the catalogue of the exhibition. In 1992–1999 the Documentation Centre organised seven specialist conferences (each one with 60-120 participants) with support from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation) under the title: Schwarzenberg Meetings.

With the support of an American foundation, the Documentation Centre and the National Library jointly prepared a bibliography of books of Czech and Slovak samizdat of the 1970s and 1980s in Czechoslovakia.

Obálka publikace Edice českého samizdatu

On the instigation of the Documentation Centre, a complete bibliography of books of Czech and Slovak authors in exile in the period 1948–1990 was put together.

The ČSDS substantially expanded its collection of samizdat books and periodicals after 1989, acquiring many it had not previously owned, as well as some valuable collections of documentary material 1989–1995. The ČSDS library expanded with the acquisition of inter alia “liberated” publications (books printed in Czechoslovakia after November 1989, which could previously appear only in samizdat or in exile, i.e., formerly forbidden titles or books by formerly forbidden authors). The collections likewise expanded with the acquisition of daily and other periodicals and journals published from 1990 onwards in Czechoslovakia and in the Czech and Slovak Republics.

The ČSDS made a substantial contribution to the completion or expansion of collections of copies of samizdat literature in several large international libraries – British Library, Harvard College Library, University of Toronto Library, library of the Herder Institute in Marburg, of the Forschungsstelle Osteuropa in Bremen and especially the Library of Congress in Washington, for which it put together a large order in 1992–1993.

The library and documentation collections of the ČSDS together with the technology at its disposal significantly assisted in the building of the Prague Institute for Contemporary History and in the work on some of its publications.

Thoughts about the future of the Centre (1990–1994)

From the first months of our country’s return to freedom, the question of what to do with the Centre in the new conditions and where it should operate occupied not only members of the association but also the part of the Czech and Slovak intellectual community that had been fundamentally connected with the ČSDS at home and abroad for years. The question was exhaustively discussed at the first Schwarzenberg Meeting in April 1992, in which 70 Czech and Slovak writers, journalists, historians and politicians from home and abroad took part. The unanimous vote of the conference was then summarised in the Scheinfeld Statement of May 1992: to try to maintain the ČSDS as a Czechoslovak cultural institution abroad in the place where it had operated up to then. This intention turned out to be impossible to realise, given the current situation and the lack of financial means. So after preliminary negotiations with the Ministry of Culture in autumn 1993 the association’s general assembly, held in Prague on 29 January 1994, decided to strive for the ČSDS collections to be transferred to the Czech Republic, so that a new programme of work as a non-governmental research institution with the statute of a not-for-profit organisation could be realised. See the letter of the Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic Pavel Tigrid (in Czech only).

Czecho-Slovak Documentation Centre Foundation in Prague (1995–1998)

In Germany meanwhile, the Documentation Centre could continue to exist and be active in a limited context thanks to support it received from private sources in Germany and Canada. In February 1995 the leadership of the Prague foundation Patriae turned to the Documentation Centre with an offer to help solve the essential condition for the transfer of the ČSDS to the Czech Republic – the need for a suitable headquarters. In spring 1995, in cooperation with the Patriae Foundation, the new Czechoslovak Documentation Centre Foundation was set up with its seat in Prague. At its head stood the representatives of the original German association, Vilém Prečan and Karel Schwarzenberg, and the representatives of the Patriae Foundation Jiří Oberfalzer and Václav Kasík.

A project planned and prepared by the Patriae Foundation to reconstruct buildings in Krušovice, turned out to be impossible. Meanwhile, however, from 1.7.1997 the Patriae Foundation rented space in the building of the regional archive for Prague-West in Dobřichovice u Prahy for the needs of the ČSDS.

The Documentation Centre’s new programme of work focused on the one hand on the history of the intellectual resistance, opposition movements and civic initiatives at home, and on the other on the history of the Czech and Slovak democratic exile. It was about the support and realisation of interdisciplinary research in the field of the humanities and social sciences, aimed at understanding how dissent at home and exile activity, in close cooperation with the democratic forces in the rest of the world, contributed to the return of freedom in our country after forty years of Communist totalitarianism. The Documentation Centre intended to provide incentives to address the issue in the pan-European context and to work closely with and academic institutions at home and abroad in the implementation of its programme of work. The Documentation Centre had something to offer. The advantage of its collections lay especially in the fact that concentrated in one place were resources enabling the history of the intellectual defiance against Communist totalitarianism of one central European country to be studied in its complexity, in various aspects in the broad international context, and according to the interest of specialists in many fields.

In 1997–1998, with the support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the foundation organised three seminars: The Past of Charter 77 and its Legacy (April 1997), The Work of Jan Vladislav in the Context of Post-War Czech Poetry (January 1998) and The Year 1968 in the Historical Memory of Czech Society (November 1998).

Public Benefit Society (1999–2008)

An eventual solution was found by transforming the foundation into a public benefit society, which took place on 15 December 1998. (See Founding Agreement.) 

In 1998 the committee of the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic decided to award the ČSDS Foundation a three-year grant for the research project Czechoslovak Political and Cultural Exile 1948─1989, realised in 1999–2001 in cooperation with the Centre for Exile Studies of the Palacký University in Olomouc and the Prague-based Institute for Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (AV ČR).

In 1998–1999 the ČSDS took part in the international project Openness in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, supported by the National Security Archive, a research institute in Washington. The Czecho-Slovak part of the project ended with a successful international academic conference, The Democratic Revolution in Czechoslovakia: Its Preconditions, Course and Immediate Repercussions, 1987-1989, held in Prague 14–16 October 1999. A series of seven notebooks of study materials and studies was published in cooperation with the Institute for Contemporary History of the AV ČR as part of the project. An anthology of 119 documents was prepared in English for participants in the conference.

From Spring 2000, the collections of the exile centre began to be packed to send to Prague, and in September 2000 were transferred from Scheinfeld to Dobřichovice.

Kamion vyjíždí 3. září 2000 na cestu do Prahy, veze náklad o váze 24 tun


Otevírání transportu v Dobřichovicích 4. září 2000

The initiative of the Minister of Culture Pavel Dostál decided the future of the collections. In 2003 the ČSDS concluded a donation contract with the National Museum Prague, whereby it donated its collection to the National Museum, and a separate contract on permanent cooperation with the National Museum. The public benefit society ČSDS cooperates with the National Museum in making accessible and processing the collections, as well as realising its own projects, and publishing yearbooks under the imprint Documentation of the Czechoslovak exile 1948–1989.

Dokumentationszentrum zur Förderung der unabhängigen tschechoslowakischen Literatur, e. V.

The German association with its seat in Scheinfeld still exists, although reduced to four members. The chairman is Vilém Prečan, the vice-chairman Karel Schwarzenberg. Its main activity is to help the Prague public benefit society by mediating research and publication grants and donations from sponsors abroad.