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Vilem Precan: Eyes Wide Open

Czech historian Vilem Precan, who turned 70 this year, used to be an idealistic man of the left before he cast a critical eye on the history of what was once Czechoslovakia.

He began with the 1944 Slovak National Uprising, an important event in the official version of communist anti-Nazi resistance. He moved on to the 1968 Soviet invasion, which interrupted the political reforms known as the Prague Spring. Interest in the latter cost him his professional livelihood. He worked at menial jobs for several years before choosing a life of exile and settling in Germany, where he set up an important center for samizdat literature.

“More than anything else, I wanted to be an academic historian—the kind who sits in an archive and then publishes books. But life took another course,” Precan recalls in a profile in the Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnes (April 25). If in the beginning his eyes were clouded by communist propaganda, everyday life and research in archives set him on the right path.

Upon graduation from Prague’s Charles University, he served as a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism at Comenius University in Bratislava, now in the independent Slovak Republic. There he met his wife and acquainted himself with the history of the Slovak uprising. He went on to compile two volumes of documents on the subject.

Precan was a researcher at the Historical Institute in Prague when he and other colleagues were given the fateful task of documenting the 1968 Soviet invasion. Originally planned as a small brochure, the history grew to a thick book. Its publication—by chance in a black cover—infuriated the Soviets and led to Precan’s fall from grace.

In 2001, the Slovak Academy of Sciences honored Precan for his two volumes on the Slovak uprising. The Bratislava daily Sme, in reporting on the occasion, noted that Precan’s Black Book “is also legendary, containing reactions of the population to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops in 1968 during the first seven days of occupation. Soon afterward, the regime made [Precan] a stoker, and his works came out in samizdat.”

In Germany, Precan established the Czechoslovak Documentation Center, which collected the works of dissident authors and exiles. He returned home after the Velvet Revolution, founding the Institute for Contemporary History. In 1998, recognizing his struggle for civic and human rights, then-Czech President Vaclav Havel awarded him the Order of  T.G. Masaryk.

“I’m a happy person because I found the right life path before it was too late,” Precan says. “And I’ve lived to see the miracle of freedom returned to my native land and I’ve managed to return to it and work as a free man.”

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