Professor Igor Lukeš teaches at Boston University and has written extensively on modern Czech history, the Cold War and contemporary developments in Central and Eastern Europe. When we spoke recently the conversation took in everything from his increasingly sympathetic view of Neville Chamberlain to his own arrival in New York in the late 1970s. But I first asked the renowned historian about his early life in communist Czechoslovakia.
“The first memory I have – I was just reflecting on it this morning – is of the day Stalin died. That’s 1953. It’s only a fleeting trace.
“Then the next one is the death of Zápotocký. I must have been six or something like that. Or a little older.
“So I grew up in the city. I didn’t have any particular grand vision of the world.
“It was really in only in 1968 that one became a political animal. I was in Britain until August 20, 1968.
“I returned in the afternoon and a few hours later somebody called, that the Russians were taking over.
“Which in a way was nonsense, because the Russians had taken over in 1945 [laughs], but somehow we didn’t know; we were able to miss that.
“I walked out with a friend, it was two or three in the morning, and I saw a dead person. I thought my childhood was over.
“It’s not that anybody shot at me. I wasn’t at all heroic. I wasn’t one of those incredibly brave 16-year-old kids, mostly working class, who would jump on Russian tanks and set them on fire with just matches and a crowbar.
“I was an observer at best. But just seeing that kind of violence and so on made it very clear that one was no longer a child [laughs].”
Many of the subjects that you later wrote about, such as Beneš, Munich and the Slánský trial, are related to the decades just before you were born or to your very early years. Was there a lot of talk in your household about those subjects?
“Well, yes. There probably wasn’t a Czech household that wouldn’t have discussed Munich in some form or fashion.
“Whether we understood it, I don’t know. In fact, my own views about Munich have been changing, evolving quite a lot. I’m now much more sympathetic to Chamberlain than I used to be [laughs].
“But Slánský and so on is obviously an entirely different can of worms.
“I think my grandmother probably didn’t tell her own daughter what she had experienced in prison, because she probably considered it too dangerous. But she was willing to talk to me.”
“My grandmother was in prison as an alleged American spy, which she definitely was not – she was just a very simple woman who let somebody stay overnight once or twice.
“For that she received a very serious prison penalty.
“I spent a lot of time with her and she shared with me many stories about her prison time. In part because she needed to talk to someone, and in part because she just thought I was too little and too dumb to remember.
“So she wasn’t running any risks in confessing to me.”
But you were soaking it all up?
“I was soaking it all up just beyond any imagination. Exactly.
“And I think she probably didn’t tell her own daughter what she had experienced in prison, because she probably considered it too dangerous.
“But she was willing to talk to me. So I think I had a fairly solid education, in that sense.”
You said you have become more sympathetic towards Chamberlain. Why is that?
“As I get older I obviously understand the limitations that exist in the real world on one’s freedom of action.
“When I was much younger I considered him a coward and most likely a vacuous person.
“Now I think of him more as somebody who was seriously horrified by the prospect of another war.
“When I was much younger I considered Chamberlain a coward and most likely a vacuous person. Now I think of him more as somebody who was seriously horrified by the prospect of another war.”
“Britain had experienced one two decades before and there was every reason not to leave a stone unturned in searching for ways of avoiding a repetition of that madness in which generations were lost.
“So when he finally travelled to Munich and smiled at Hitler and shook his hand it was obviously wrong. In part because it didn’t work, right?
“But was the attempt to avoid war in itself immoral? I’m no longer as certain as I would have been when I was younger.”
You have described life in communist Czechoslovakia as a “velvet prison”. Could you explain that idea?
“I went through high school without any sort of awareness of the limitations that the Communists had imposed upon our intellectual horizons.
“I could go to any movie theatre and see Bergman or Fellini. Any good American movie, I probably had seen it.
“When I finally arrived at the end of the 1970s, I think many Americans, because I spoke relatively good English, probably took me as one who simply belonged.
“Because I completely understood references to Midnight Cowboy or things like that. Or I knew all the pop music and so on.
“So I think it was relatively easy to live in communism and yet to partake of all the riches of Western culture. Certainly in the Czech communism.
“But it was still possible to live in this sort of illusion that you were free, because you could read Western novels, you could see Western movies and even Westerners could visit you, which they often did.”
I think even for somebody from Western Europe moving to the States in the 1970s would have been a culture shock. Coming from Eastern Europe, what did you find hardest to adjust to in America?
“This is a question I obviously posed to myself, many times, many years ago.
“And I have an answer. The only thing that shocked me about America at the end of the 1970s was how normal it was.
“I wasn’t prepared for it. I was prepared for truly insane society.
“I already mentioned Midnight Cowboy, and I imagined I would end up sleeping under the bridges of New York. And that it would be raining and I would eat biscuits from some café mixed with ketchup, or something like this.
“And yet it turned out that Americans were completely normal.
“When my mother visited me for the first time in America, some time in the 1980s, she noted that the Americans she met reminded her of the Czechs she had known during the so-called First Republic, that is during the interwar period.”
What was the similarity?
“Well, that they were somehow normal.
“I think there are certainly similarities between Trump and Mussolini. On the other hand, Mussolini was an intellectual.”
“Nazism and communism twisted people’s characters. People never established eye contact. They never looked you in the eye.”
They still don’t.
“They still don’t! This is true [laughs]. Exactly.
“My wife often notes that when we had these two beautiful daughters and we would come to some store with these two angels, the sales person would look and frown.
“Whereas every other mammal on this planet would say, Oh, what a beautiful girl! You’re quite right.
“So I think what my mother meant was that people’s characters had not been twisted. That’s really the best I can tell you.”
You’ve written quite a lot about the Cold War. I wanted to ask you as a historian – do you think the Cold War has been returning in recent years? Or did it never really end in the first place?
“I certainly don’t think the Cold War has come back. I’m not a great believer in that.
“I think the Cold War was premised on the existence of the Soviet Union, which was not just a state. It was not just a superpower with nuclear missiles.
“It was also a state based on an ideological assumption that a long-term coexistence of communism and so-called capitalism – I don’t believe that capitalism exists either, but that’s a different issue – was impossible, and that sooner or later one or the other would have to give.
“And that is I think what caused the Cold War to be a cold war – that the West at some point started taking seriously the threat that the other side wanted to… as Khrushchev put it, We’ll bury you!
“Whereas I think Russia, for all its dangerous moves since Putin came to power, does not have this ideological drive, this ideological engine.
“So I think, therefore, that we are in a completely different environment from the one that governed international relations until the end of the 1980s.”
You’re obviously based in the US so you have observed the rise of Trump at relatively close quarters. Can he usefully be compared to any historical figure? Some people have drawn at least vague parallels between him and Hitler.
“I think we should all be very hesitant to compare anybody to Hitler. I think people would say Hitler has a unique position in the scale of grand evil, so I definitely would not have compared him to Hitler.
“But I think there are certainly similarities with Mussolini.
“On the other hand, Mussolini was an intellectual. I hope I’m not offending anybody, but in his youth Mussolini was a student of theology, for instance. He wrote a very decent book about Jan Hus – a hero of Prague.
“But I can assure you that Mr. Trump has never heard of Jan Hus [laughs].
“I think that even here the parallel is not very accurate, because Trump is an ignoramus.
“He is a master of deception. But I don’t think there is much substance to him.”
I’d like to end on a personal question. I’ve heard you speaking in the past about the problem of exile – that you never really feel at home in either place. But given that you’ve been coming forward and back between here and the States for so many years, does it get easier with age, or over the years?
“It really gets harder. Exile was very easy during the Cold War.
“The moment I and my friends landed in New York, we knew exactly who we were.
“We had nothing to do with Husák’s Czechoslovakia and its pseudo values and we totally embraced New York and the United States of America, and we became very proud American citizens.
“But once the Cold War ended and Havel became president it became much more complicated.”
That Havel guy!
“[Laughs] That Havel guy – yes, exactly. And now there is the Trump guy, and it gets harder and harder to decide where one belongs.
“Every time I come here, I spend several days being angry at those Czechs who fail to establish eye contact and who seem so rude and wear those funny clothes with pseudo-English signs on them and so on.
“It takes me some time to get used it, but once I leave I’m already plotting how to get back.
“So in that sense I think exile gets harder and harder.”