In the 1970s the communist authorities tolerated popular music as long as it was insipid, colourless and unoriginal – everything that the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe most definitely was not. Their music was inspired by Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground, their lyrics anarchic, their behaviour unconventional and their hair long. In 1976 four members of the band were sentenced to prison terms for what was described as “organised disturbance of the peace”, and in December of the same year Czechoslovak Radio broadcast
Prague’s Antonín Dvořák Museum recently reopened after renovation with a new programme dedicated to the life and work of the famous composer. Entitled The journeys of Antonín Dvořák, it offers a new look at the composer’s stays abroad. It also features an exhibition on Dvořák’s Czech-American friend and collaborator, Josef Jan Kovařík, who worked with Dvořák during his stay in New York.
The 1960s had seen a thriving musical scene in Czechoslovakia, which had been broadly tolerated by the regime, especially during the 1968 Prague Spring. With the political clampdown of the early 70s, rock and pop music were also to suffer. But this was a gradual process, and, initially at least, the communist authorities were careful not to go too far to alienate young people.
In the course of 1969 and 1970 Czechoslovak Radio was transformed back into what it had been in the 1950s, a tool of hard line propaganda. In the process, over 700 radio staff were forced to leave their jobs. Those who stayed found their freedom of expression severely curtailed. To give an idea of the extent to which things had changed by August 1969 - the first anniversary of the Soviet led invasion – I will start with a short extract from Radio Prague’s broadcasts back in 1968, as the tanks rolled into the city. At the time the radio was playing
In last week’s From the Archives we followed the tragic last days of the student Jan Palach, who on January 16 1969 set himself alight in protest against growing apathy in the face of the Soviet invasion five months earlier. The whole country was in shock. Such a drastic and violent sacrifice had little precedent in modern Czech and Slovak history, and perhaps for just that reason Palach immediately became a symbol of the country’s lost liberty and a rallying cry for those who still hoped to save something of the reforms of 1968. Those in power
On the evening of January 16 1969, Czechoslovak Radio broadcast a disturbing item of news: “Today at around 3 pm, 21-year-old J.P., a student at the Philosophical Faculty suffered serious burns on Wenceslas Square. He poured an as yet unknown flammable liquid over himself and set his clothes alight resulting in severe burns.”
You might not recognise the name straight away, but Antonín Josef Čermák - a miner’s son from Kladno, Central Bohemia - is one of the most famous Czech-Americans to have ever lived. Anton (or Tony) Cermak became mayor of Chicago at the height of prohibition, overhauled Democratic Party politics in the city, and was then assassinated in the most mysterious of surroundings. All quite dramatic for someone who started his career selling firewood…
On the airwaves, 1968 ended very much as it had begun. For New Year’s Eve, Czechoslovak Radio chose the same format as the year before, with the light-hearted musical cabaret of the Semafor Theatre. But behind the scenes, the Soviet-led occupation in August had changed everything. The Soviets were only too pleased for the radio to give the impression of normality. A gradual, almost imperceptible drift back to hard-line communism was beginning. The process came to be known cynically as “normalization”, a word that was first used by Alexander Dubček himself
What would happen if the Czechs still had a monarch? Or if the country’s population was still one-third German? What would be different today if the 1948 communist coup had been defeated? These are some of the questions explored in a new Czech TV show entitled What If which looks at some of the turning points in modern Czech history. Rather than providing answers, however, the creators of the new programme say they wanted to provoke viewers to look at some of the historical milestones from a different perspective. In this edition of Czech History,