THE BLOG

Trial Upon Trial

The story starts out simply enough: "Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." What follows, in Franz Kafka's The Trial, is absurd, a comedy of errors, except that it is not funny and the ending can't be more tragic. Joseph K. is subjected to a semi-legal nightmare -- accusation, interrogation, endless trial, unseen judges, and a sentence executed in the evening on a stone in a quarry.

Kafka worked in an insurance company in the city of his birth, Prague. Although he does not mention any specific locale for The Trial, which adds to its universal quality, the novel reflects the time and place of its creation. Kafka studied law in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spent his days, miserably, among files and figures. He was a German-speaking Jew in a multi-ethnic society. He felt oppressed not by a specific set of individuals or even by his own government, but by a much larger system of social and political codes that he only dimly understood. The German critic Willy Haas once wrote of Kafka, "I cannot imagine how any man can understand him at all who was not born in Prague in the period 1880 to 1890."

I would amend that comment. Anyone born in Prague later in the 20th century would also understand Kafka and The Trial all too well. Consider, for instance, the Slansky show trial that took place in Prague in 1952. There were 14 defendants, all of them arrested "one fine morning" and "without having done anything wrong." They were all top-ranking Communist officials, arrested by the Communist government for alleged espionage and treason. Rudolf Slansky was the general secretary of the Communist Party. Another one of the 14 was a Kafka scholar. Eleven of them were Jews. Except for three who were given life sentences, all of them were executed after being forced to sign confessions.

One of the three given a life sentence was Pavel Kavan, an official in the foreign ministry. "I was five years old when the Secret Service people burst into our flat in the very early morning and searched it and arrested my father," remembers his son Jan Kavan. "From the time I started to attend school, I was branded as the son of a traitor and an imperialist mother, and I somehow had to come to terms with that, to understand it."

In part because of this experience, Jan Kavan became a political activist in the 1960s. "My main preoccupation was to find out the truth about the political trials of the 1950s: why they happened, who was responsible for these judicial murders, what in the system enabled them to take place, and why such injustice met with a deafening silence from a majority of the population," he explains. "I wanted to help to create a system that would forever make such cruel injustice impossible."

He became one of the leaders of the student movement in 1968 and then, in exile in the United Kingdom, a key organizer in dissident circles not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout the Soviet bloc. In November 1989, he was the first dissident émigré to return to Prague.

And that's when history began to repeat itself. His father had returned to Prague from England after World War II only to find himself eventually accused of treason and put on trial. Although his son had an impeccable record as a dissident, he too had to suffer through charges of spying and collaboration. Kafka's account is tame in comparison.

"The court proceedings took five years," Jan Kavan recalls. "But very little happened during those five years. A court would be convened and then immediately adjourned. Or there would be only one session during the whole year. The court asked the ministry of interior, the other side, to produce its witnesses, but none were ever submitted. On the other hand, I gave the court quite a long list of witnesses I wished to call. However, the court decided to call only some of them. A number of well known witnesses, for example President Havel, the court rejected on the grounds that they knew me much better from mid-1970s onwards but not so well in the years in question, 1969-1970. All the witnesses who testified fully confirmed my own recollections of the events. From my point of view, it must have been obvious to the judges from the very beginning that the whole case was politically motivated and not based on any fact."

After those five years, Jan Kavan was cleared of all charges. He went on to become Czech foreign minister and the president of the UN General Assembly.

We sat down in mid-February in the parliamentary dining room in the administrative building located in the Malostranska district below the Prague Castle. Kavan described the ordeal of his father and his own subsequent political trials. He also talked about key moments in his political career, from negotiating an agreement with Austria to ease the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union to going up against the George W. Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq.

The Interview

Your decision to engage in dissident activities -- was it a decision or more a function of circumstances, as a result of 1968, for instance?

My answer usually is that it wasn't a decision. I was born into politics. I was born into a family that was highly political and in highly political times. My mother, an English teacher and supporter of the Labor Party, married during World War II. My father was an officer in the Czech army that was fighting alongside the British. He escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague in March 1939 just when the Gestapo came to arrest him. After the war, he became a charge d'affaires in the embassy in London, and he joined the Communist Party. In 1950, he was recalled from the embassy back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague. By that time, many of his friends, almost all of them associated with activities in the West, had been imprisoned or had been under the shadow of suspicion. After six or seven months in Prague, he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for being an alleged traitor, a sentence that was quickly commuted to 25 years in prison. He was one of the forced so-called witnesses at the trial of the "Conspiratorial Centre" led by Rudolf Slansky, the former general secretary of the Communist Party. A few months later, he became one of the defendants in the trial of Slansky´s alleged allies in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with one of his best friends, Prof. Eduard Goldstücker, our first ambassador to Israel.

I was five years old when the Secret Service people burst into our flat in the very early morning and searched it and arrested my father. From the time I started to attend school, I was branded as the son of a traitor and an imperialist mother, and I somehow had to come to terms with that, to understand it. My mother, along with the other wives of the prisoners or of the executed, had to make the difficult decision about what to tell their children. My mother decided it was best to tell me and my brother the truth. "Your father is in prison for something he hasn't done," she told us.. "He's totally innocent. He'll be cleared and will come home one day, but we don't know when it will happen."

At the same time, she tried hard to convince me not to become bitter against everything and everyone in society because they'd imprisoned my innocent father. She suggested that there were some nasty people at the top, who were guilty of this mistake, but that I have to believe that truth and justice will prevail one day. I am convinced that this was a very wise decision on the part of my mother. Her best friend Heda Margolius, whose husband Rudolf the Deputy Minister of Trade had been executed changed the surname of her son Ivan in order to protect him and told him that his father went abroad and died of malaria. Heda, herself a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, decided that she would tell him the truth when he was 18 and mature enough to come to terms with the enormity of this crime. By sheer coincidence, rummaging through some old papers, Ivan discovered the truth in his teens and became very angry and bitter. He emigrated in the 1960s to the UK and remained understandably bitter until today. It's not for me to judge what would have been the best decision. All I can say is the way our mother explained this to me and my brother enabled us to avoid a possible later shock and to form our own standpoint towards these terrible events already as children.

When my father was eventually released, I didn't recognize him. Unlike my brother, throughout his imprisonment, I was not able to see him. We were allowed to visit him for only one hour a year, and each time this permission was granted, I was ill in some hospital. So I never went to the prison, never saw him. So when he came out, it took me some time to recognize him as my father.

How old were you when he was released?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.