The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Silencing Dissent in Eastern Europe

 

In this, the final post in this year’s student showcase, Christian Parker considers the slow but steady growth in dissent and organised opposition in Eastern Europe in the decades following the Prague Spring. While the majority of citizens adopted an attitude of outward conformity, a small but vocal minority bravely continued to speak out against various aspects of communist rule, even in the face of sustained state repression and persecution. The state authorities adopted a range of coercive  means to contain and marginalise dissent and non-conformity in both the political and the cultural sphere, however ultimately they were unsuccessful in their attempts to quell opposition to communist rule.

 

Silencing Dissent in Eastern Europe.

By Christian Parker

 

The failure of Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to develop ‘socialism with a human face’ and the forcible crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was the catalyst for an ‘era of stagnation’ in Eastern Europe. In a speech made to the Polish Communist Party on 12th November 1968, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev justified the recent military intervention in Czechoslovakia and confirmed that any future attempts to deviate from the ‘common natural laws of socialist construction’ would be treated as a threat.[1] The message was clear: any significant reforms to the existing system would not be tolerated. As Tony Judt notes, this ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ set new limits on manoeuvrability and freedom within the Eastern bloc, each state ‘had only limited sovereignty and any lapse in the Party’s monopoly of power might trigger military intervention’.[2] As long as the Soviets were prepared to maintain communism in Eastern Europe by force, any attempt at challenging the status quo appeared futile so most people adopted a policy of outward conformity and passive acceptance towards communism. However, dissent and non-conformity continued to exist in Eastern Europe, and the authorities employed extensive repression against dissidents, developing a range of coercive tactics to ensure dissent and opposition remained on the fringes of socialist society.

 

Charter 77 and the Birth of Organised Opposition

 

Perhaps the most important dissident movement to emerge in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Prague Spring was the Charter 77 group. Charter 77 was initially formed in response to the arrest of a popular Czechoslovakian band ‘The Plastic People of the Universe’ for musical non-conformism and social subversion, after the band wrote to dissident playwright Vaclav Havel (previously famous for his 1975 Open Letter to Husak which protested the pervasive fear and ‘fraudulent social consciousness’ dominating life in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring), requesting his help to campaign for greater tolerance in both the political and cultural spheres.[3]

 

Charter 77 therefore sought to establish a ‘constructive dialogue’ with the communist party, aimed at securing a range of human rights and individual freedoms, including freedom from fear and freedom of expression which the movement demonstrated were ‘purely illusory’ in communist Czechoslovakia.[4] The movement gained further impetus from the fact that the Czechoslovakian government had recently signed the Helsinki Accords, promising to uphold ‘civil, political, economic, social, cultural…rights and freedoms’.[5]

 

Signatures for Charter 77 – calling on the Czechoslovakian communist party to uphold commitments to basic freedoms and human rights. Signatories were harrassed and persecuted in a variety of ways.

 

On its initial publication in January 1977, the Charter initially bore 243 signatures, including those of Vaclav Havel, Pavel Landovsky and Ludvik Vaculik. The state acted quickly in an attempt to prevent the campaign gaining momentum by arresting Havel, Landovsky and Vaculik whilst they were en route to the federal assembly, where they planned to deliver a copy of the Charter. The state’s retaliation to Charter 77 was wide and menacing; leading figures associated with the movement were arrested and imprisoned and signatories were targeted via a wide range of other means including arrest, intimidation, dismissal from work, denial of schooling for their children, suspension of driver’s licenses and the threat of forced exile and loss of citizenship – Geoffrey and Nigel Swain note that by the mid-1980s over 30 ‘Chartists’ had been deported, including Zdenek Mlynar, former secretary of the Czechoslovakian communist party.[6] Charter 77 backed the ‘Underground University’ (an informal institution that attempted to offer free, uncensored cultural education) but lecturers were frequently interrupted by policemen, and leading figures including philosopher Julius Tomin, were harassed and assaulted by ‘unknown thugs’. Attempts were also made to pressure workers into signing anti-Charter resolutions, though as the state representatives failed to give the workers a copy of the Charter so they could see what they were signing against, the majority refused.[7]

 

However, state attempts to ‘bury’ Charter 77 were largely unsuccessful. An ‘Anti-Charter Campaign’ publicised by state-run media actually helped to increase the document’s profile and despite sustained repression, by 1985 only 15 of the original signatories had removed their names. Jailing high profile Chartists proved counterproductive – John Lewis Gaddis even argues that, in the case of Vaclav Havel, it was his imprisonment 1979-1983 that gave him the ‘motive and the time to become the most influential chronicler of his generation’s disillusionment with communism’.[8] (For more on Vaclav Havel, see the previous blog post HERE). While Havel became a dominant figure, other Charter 77 dissidents also continued to undermine state authority, right up until the velvet revolution of 1989. In 1988, two leading Chartists, Rudolf Bereza and Tomas Hradilek, wrote to Soviet Premier Gorbachev demanding that anti-reformist central committee secretary Vasil Bilak be tried for high treason due to his role in the invasion of Prague in 1968. Bilak was subsequently forced into retirement from politics. Tony Judt has suggested that by ‘moralizing shamelessly in public’ Havel and the other chartists created ‘a virtual public space’ to replace the one removed by communism.[9]

 

Vaclav Havel, speaking at home in May 1978. A leading figure in the Czechoslovakian dissident movement, Havel was subjected to intense surveillance, restricted movments, frequent arrest, interrogation and imprisonment.

 

The Wider Impact of Charter 77

 

Charter 77 also gave impetus to dissidents elsewhere in Eastern Europe and by 1987 their manifesto supporting the establishment of human rights across Eastern Europe had gained 1,300 signatures. Immediately after the publication of Charter 77 Romanian writer Paul Goma wrote an open letter of support and solidarity which was broadcast on Radio Free Europe. Goma also wrote to Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, asking him to sign the letter! Goma’s publication gained just over 200 signatories for the Charter, however he faced a sustained campaign of repression and intimidation as a result. The street where he lived was cordoned-off, his apartment was repeatedly broken into and his phone line was cut. Several of his fellow signatories, including worker Vasile Paraschiv, were arrested by the Securitate and beaten when visiting Goma’s apartment. After Nicolae Ceausescu made a speech on February 17 denouncing ‘traitors of the country’, Goma sent him a second letter, describing the Securitate as the real ‘traitors and enemies of Romania’. Goma was expelled from the Romanian Writers Union and arrested – his release was secured following an international outcry but after continued harassment Goma immigrated to Paris on November 20, 1977. Even this didn’t stop Romanian attempts to silence Goma, and the Securitate made two attempts to silence him permanently while he was living in Paris – sending him a parcel bomb in February 1981 and attempting to assassinate him with a poisoned dart on January 13, 1982.[10]

 

Paul Goma’s case was not an isolated incident – while attempted assassinations abroad were rare, this tactic was occasionally used to silence particularly troublesome East European dissidents. For example, writer and broadcaster Georgi Markov’s defection to London from Bulgaria led to him being declared a persona non grata, and he was issued a six year prison sentence in absentia. He continued speaking about against the communist regime in Bulgaria on the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe, and on 7th September 1978 a Bulgarian Security Agent fired a poisoned ricin pellet into Markov’s leg while he was waiting at a bus stop in central London. He died a few days later (For more on the Georgi Markov assassination see the previous blog post HERE).

 

Dissent and Non-Conformity in the GDR

 

In many respects, dissent in the GDR was the result of unique conditions within the communist bloc:  it was arguably the only state which, even in the wake of the failed Prague Spring, could still boast an ‘informal and even intra-Party Marxist opposition’, a class of intellectuals who attacked the regime from the political ‘left’.[11] Thus, Wolfgang Harich desired a reunified Germany and wrote about a ‘third-way’ between Stalinism and Capitalism, another variant of ‘socialism with a human face’. Harich was particularly critical of the regime’s ‘bureaucratic deviation’ and ‘illusions of consumerism’ and similarly Robert Havemann and Wolf Biermann attacked the regime for supporting mass consumption and privately owned consumer goods. Rudolf Bahro, another leading East German dissident, is best known for his essay The Alternative, which Judt describes as ‘an explicitly Marxist critique of real existing socialism’.[12]

 

State leaders would not tolerate these revisionists, despite their Marxist leanings and the feared East German Stasi employed a range of methods to silence them. Mary Fulbrook notes that isolating dissident intellectuals was done ‘with relative ease by the regime’.[13] Thus Harich was imprisoned, Havemann was placed under house arrest and Bierman and Bahro were both forced into exile in the West. The case of Bahro provides a particularly disturbing insight into the lengths the Stasi were prepared go to. Bahro, dissident writer Jürgen Fuchs and outlawed Klaus Renft Combo band member Gerulf Pannach had all been held in Stasi prisons at a similar time and all later died from an unusual form of cancer. After the collapse of communism an investigation discovered that that Stasi had been using radiation to ‘tag’ dissidents. One of Bahro’s manuscripts was also discovered to have been irradiated so it could be tracked across to the west.[14]

 

The pervasive influence of the Stasi meant that any criticism of the East German regime, however mild, could have severe repercussions. Erwin Malinowski, who wrote a letter of protest about the treatment of his son, who was imprisoned after applying to move to West Germany in January 1983, was placed in a Stasi remand prison for seven months and then served two years further imprisonment for ‘anti-state agitation’. His son was eventually ‘bought free’ by the West Germans, one of the measures through which dissenters could escape the GDR. West German money also secured the release of Josef Kniefel who in March 1980 attempted to blow up the Soviet tank monument in Karl-Marx-Stadt in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. He had previously served a ten month prison sentence for attacking Stalin’s crimes against humanity and the role of the ruling parties of Eastern Europe.[15] For other dissidents, ‘repressive tolerance’ and limited publishing space proved effective measures by which the GDR could assert control. The GDR’s response to dissent was effective, however despite the relative success of the Stasi in isolating prominent dissident intellectuals, the regime never achieved total success in quelling dissent, discontent, or opposition.[16]

 

During the 1970s and 1989s, the peace movement, environmental movement and Protestant Church also provided citizens with outlets to vent their frustrations. Many who joined these organisations sought to improve the regime from within, disillusioned with the lack of respect for the environment and public health encouraged by growing industrialisation and the use of nuclear energy, something which was exacerbated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. To control environmental dissidents, the state banned the publication of data relating to the environmental situation in the GDR. Moreover, Stasi attempts to infiltrate and break up these groups met some success. For example, the main Church environmental movement Kirchliche Forschungsheim Wittenburg was infiltrated by the Stasi to the point where it lost its relevance in the wider environmental movement. However, the organisational networks, political strategies and the experience built up during the 1980s, set the stage for these groups to later serve as a vital part of the revolution of 1989. Such vociferous opposition thus taught East German dissidents the ‘complex arts of self-organization and political pressure group work under dictatorial conditions’[17]

 

The GDR not only took a hard line against intellectual dissent but also persecuted cultural non-conformity. For example, the Klaus Renft Combo, described by Funder as ‘the wildest and most popular rock band in the GDR’, agitated the state so much that at the bands attendance at the yearly performance licensing committee meeting in 1975 they were informed that ‘as a combo … [they] no longer existed’. Copies of their records disappeared from the shelves, and the radio stations were prohibited from playing their songs. Klaus Renft was exiled west, and several other band members were imprisoned. Despite this, the GDR failed to stop the band altogether, and they gained something of a cult following because of their repression by the state.[18]  Attempts by the GDR and other East European regimes to prevent their citizens’ exposure to ‘Western culture’ were ultimately unsuccessful however, with bootleg records and cassette tapes smuggled in and distributed on the black market and the increased availability of television sets and video recorders in the 1980s allowing citizens access to Hollywood films and TV series such as ‘Dallas’. (For more information about the impact of popular culture on communist Eastern Europe see the previous blog posts ‘Video May Have Killed the Radio Star, But Did Popular Culture Kill Communism?’ HERE and ‘Rocking the Wall’ HERE).

 

The Klaus Renft Combo – In 1975 the band were targeted due to their ‘subversive lyrics’ and were forcibly disbanded. Members were arrested and forced to leave the GDR for West Germany.

 

Conclusion

 

It is clear that the regimes of Eastern Europe possessed a vast array of techniques with which they attempted to silence those who attempted to oppose or criticise communism. These dissidents could not directly bring down the regimes they spoke out against; partly due to the success of state attempts to contain, control them and limit their influence, and partly because they lacked sufficient popular mandate amongst their populations. Certainly though, through their bravery and continued campaigns in the face of persecution and oppression they created hope, and in many ways they helped to set the precedent for the revolutionaries of 1989.

 

About the Author

 

Christian Parker has just completed his BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University. In his final year of study, Christian specialised in East European History. After taking the next year off to travel, Christian hopes to begin postgraduate study in 2013.

 

 
 

[1] The Brezhnev Doctrine (12 November 1968) available online @ http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1968brezhnev.asp

[2] Tony Judt, PostWar (Plimlico, 2007), 446

[3] Dear Dr. Husak (April 1975) – available online @ http://vaclavhavel.cz/showtrans.php?cat=eseje&val=1_aj_eseje.html&typ=HTML

[4] Declaration of Charter 77, published in January 1977, available online @ http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/czechoslovakia/cs_appnd.html

[5] Helsinki Accords (1 August 1975) – excerpt available online @ http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/245

[6] Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain, Eastern Europe Since 1945 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 185

[7] Sabrina Ramet, Social Currents in Eastern Europe, (Duke University Press, 1995), 126

[8] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, (Penguin 2007), 191

[9] Tony Judt, PostWar (Plimlico, 2007), 577

[10] Dennis Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate, Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-1989, (Hurst & Co., 1995), 235-242

[11] Tony Judt, Post War, (Plimlico, 2007), 573; Christian Joppke, ‘Intellectuals, Nationalism and the Exit From Communism: The Case of East Germany’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37, 2 (April 1975), 216.

[12] David Childs and Richard Popplewell, The Stasi, The East German Intelligence and Security Service, (Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996), 99; Tony Judt, Post War, (Plimlico, 2007), 573-574.

[13] Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, Inside the GDR, 1949-1989, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 176.

[14] Anna Funder, Stasiland, (Granta Books, 2004), 191

[15] David Childs and Richard Popplewell, The Stasi, The East German Intelligence and Security Service, (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996), 97-98

[16] Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, Inside the GDR, 1949-1989, (Oxford University Press, 1995) 201.

[17] Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, Inside the GDR, 1949-1989, (Oxford University Press, 1995)

[18] Anna Funder, Stasiland, (Granta Books, 2004), 185-191

June 29, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: