Monday, August 10, 2015

At the Prague Castle

The Junge Kirche published my article on Marxist-Christian Dialogue in its issue of March 10, 1965, from which I quote: ‘A genuine dialogue requires openness and readiness to give up all that is antiquated, ossified, and dogmatic both in Marxism and in Christianity.’ After publishing it, Heinz Kloppenburg, the editor of the Junge Kirche, invited me to West Germany. He was an important Member of the Christian Peace Conference, an international organization established in Prague; his invitation could not be brushed aside by the authorities. And so I was invited to the Department for Religion Affairs. The name of the Head of the Department was eponymous: Hrůza (‘Horror’, ‘Terror’). He said I would be given the passport: ‘You must write a detailed report concerning everybody you will talk to’. I replied: ‘I shall do so, telling everybody I shall talk to that I am bound to write a report about our talk, promising them a copy of my report’. And so I never met Heinz Kloppenburg. I nevertheless used the opportunity to sharply criticize the church policy of the Department: ‘If you really care for socialism, you must be interested in the full development of every member of our society. It is the highest time that you release the incarcerated Catholic Priests from prison and allow them to return to their churches so that people can benefit from the moral strength they derived from their Christian faith during their imprisonment.’ I shall never forget the nervous jumping up and down of his legs during our interview. The year 1965, Hrůza still had the power to prevent me from visiting West Germany, but even that power of his soon ended.

My articles in the Junge Kirche had a prelude. In 1964 I wrote an article in which I contrasted the positive evaluation of the progressive developments in Christianity in the West by Marxist theoreticians with the negative attitude of the Communist officials to Christians in our country. ‘Negative attitudes towards Christians have become unfortunately a rule in relation to progressively thinking Christians in our society,’ I wrote. I argued that it was in the interest of the socialist society that Christians should cease to be only grudgingly allowed to make their contribution to the society, in spite of their being Christians. I insisted that they should be invited to do so as Christians, so that they could openly draw on the best that their faith offered them, and on that basis enrich the society as a whole. I sent the article to the Literární noviny, a cultural haven of the Czech intelligentsia and the main engine of the liberal thinking in the country. But the Czech intellectuals were for the most part as averse to religion as they were anti-dogmatic, and so the Editorial Board hesitated, unsure whether to publish my article or no. In the end they decided to publish it in summer, during the silly season. But the Department for the Control of the Press stopped the publishing, summoning the Chief Editor and me to the Central Committee. We were ushered into a room with a long table around which were sitting some twenty Communist Party officials; we were to be rolled over and chastised for our attempted trespass against the Communist Party Policy. But I turned the table against them, sharply criticising the official policy concerning Christians. [The man who chaired the meeting later complained to Milan Machovec: ‘When we were young, we would never dare to talk to our elders as Tomin talked to us.’] In the end, they decided that I must rewrite the article. And so I consulted Milan Machovec, whom I was assisting in organizing Marxist-Christian Dialogue in his Seminar at the Faculty of Philosophy. He told me: ‘Rewrite it so as to make it even stronger.’ And so I rewrote it and gave it a new title: ‘Úskalí atheismu’, ('Pitfalls of Atheism', ‘Klippen des Atheismus’). In the article I argued that in Marxism there was no place for atheistic proselytizing: ‘A genuine Marxist is interested in the optimal development of every man and woman, and would attempt to convert a Christian to atheism only if he or she had grounds to believe that the Christian they approached would become a better man by virtue of becoming an atheist.’

The article was published on August 15, 1964. The Literární noviny were always selling well, but the issue with my article was selling noticeably more quickly than normally. On October 3, 1964 the LN devoted the central double page to ‘TOMIN IN DIALOGUE WITH CHURCH’.

In 1966 I was invited to give a lecture on Marxist-Christian Dialogue at the University of Heidelberg, then at the University of Göttingen. What was I talking about? I spoke without any notes. In giving my talk, I had in front of my eyes all I knew about Christianity as well as all my experiences of living in a socialist country, steeped as I was in the writings of Marx and Kant, Marx’ idea of Communism as the realm of freedom chiming in my mind with Kant’s idea of freedom actualized here and now in the realm of ends, im Reiche der Zwecke.

The last time I had an opportunity to talk to German students was in June 1979. Barbara Day has preserved the time-context within which I gave the talk: ‘On Tuesday 5th June Wilkes came to Luke’s rooms in Balliol College to brief Taylor [who was to be the next Oxford visitor in my seminar, J.T.] … On the same June evening as Wilkes, Lukes and Taylor were sitting in Balliol discussing the Prague seminar, Zdena Tominová [my wife, J. T.] was … attacked by a masked man [on entering our house in Keramická street, J. T.]. Passers-by rescued her … An ambulance was called and she was hospitalized with concussion. The news reached Tomin, on night duty at the zoo, who visited her at the Na Františku hospital. Returning to work … he neglected his rounds to write a letter to President Husák; he was convinced there had been an attempt to murder Zdena and that he was to have been accused of the murder … On Wednesday June 6th the regular seminar took place; on Thursday, Julius gave a talk on Charter 77 to a visiting group of West German ‘tourists’ at a rendez-vous in the Vikárka restaurant in the Castle, under the nose of President Gustáv Husák.’ (The Velvet Philosophers, The Claridge Press, 1999, pp. 39-40).

I described the event on my blog in ‘A Reminiscence’, the post of 2nd October 2014, from which I quote: ‘Charles Taylor visited my seminar the day my wife returned from hospital bruised all over her face – the consequences of an assault. Zdena Tomin was at that time the only spokesperson of the Human Rights movement Charter 77 left at large; the other two spokespersons were imprisoned. I worked as a night watchman in Prague Zoo and I was at work when our neighbour phoned me that a masked man attacked my wife. Before my wife was taken to the hospital Na Františku, she asked the neighbour to phone me that I should visit her as soon as possible. So I left the Zoo immediately. In the hospital, Zdena told me that she was returning from a meeting of Charter 77 followed by a secret police car as usual; the car drove away before she reached our street, which was unusual. At the corner of our little street stood a car with its headlights on, which looked ominous. On entering our house, a masked man hit her on the head with a truncheon. At that moment a group of people returning from the cinema were passing by and the attacker fled. A neighbour called an ambulance. Before getting into the ambulance, Zdena hid her handbag in a bush in front of our house; it was full of Charter 77 materials.

Instructed by my wife, I retrieved the bag, returned to the Zoo, and spent the night writing a letter to the President of the Republic: ‘Was it to be a murder? Coming home from night-watch I would have been the first to find her dead. Was I to be accused of her murder?’ I typed the letter with as many carbon copies as the typewriter could take, left the Zoo at dawn – it was in June, the nights were short – and distributed the copies putting them into the letterboxes of Charter 77 signatories I trusted. With every copy delivered I began to breathe with greater ease; our chances of surviving the incident were growing. (The letter was promptly published in the German newspaper Die Welt.)

Later in the day I revisited the hospital. The chief nurse refused to let me see my wife; she said that she was in a coma and that the doctor forbade any visits. I told her that I visited my wife in the hospital during the night: ‘I go now to the Central Committee [of the Communist Party] to inform them about the incident. When I come back, I shall insist on seeing my wife.’ When I returned to the hospital after visiting the Central Committee I was allowed to see my wife; she had a severe headache but wanted to go home as soon as possible.

The next day I learnt that my wife was not to be murdered in our house; both she and I were to be abducted. I was summoned to the local police station; the interrogator wanted to know where I had been in the night, why I did not go for the usual night-round through the Zoo. When I then went in the evening to do my night-watch duty, the men in the porter’s Lodge looked at me aghast. They had been told that I had been kidnapped the previous night. The deputy director of the Zoo came to see me, completely drunk: ‘The other night I was told that you were kidnapped and that I should call the police, which I did.’ So I spent the night writing a letter about the incident on the basis of this information, this time addressed to the Minister of Internal Affairs. After returning from the night shift and posting the letter I began to translate it into English. I was in the middle of that work when I was visited by some German students. I had completely forgotten that I had promised them a talk on Erich Fromm’s To Have or to Be? Several months previously I had been given a copy of the book for that purpose. The students invited me for lunch in Vikárka, a famous restaurant at the Prague Castle. Only some of the group were then supposed to return with me to my flat for the talk, for the flat was too small for the whole group. The students reserved a big hall in the restaurant, just for the group. After the meal, we were about to leave when a torrential rain started to pour down. The Germans paid well; we were welcome to stay. I devoted my talk to the Charter 77 and the events of the last few days; our struggle for Human Rights well exemplified Fromm’s emphasis on ‘to Be’ instead of ‘to Have’.

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