A Tale of Sadness and Forgetting

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera is accused of informing on an anti-communist as a student. Is there any truth in the charge?

Milan Kundera, arguably the most brilliant literary anatomist of communism in Eastern Europe, was accused last October in the liberal Czech magazine Respekt of having informed on one of his countrymen in 1950, leading to that man’s imprisonment for 14 years in a hard labour camp. Because Kundera’s stature rests largely upon his having been a voice of sanity and morality in the Cold War, there is no small measure of tragedy and irony here. The controversy has drawn angry disbelief from international literati and equally angry protests from journalists that even anti-Stalinist novelists are not above the scrutiny of history.

In 1948, a putsch in Czechoslovakia led to a communist takeover. As a result, the armed forces were purged, and since 40 per cent of the Czech Air Force were pilots who had flown with the RAF in the war, that branch was heavily reduced. Veteran airmen were demoted, tossed out or sent to labour camps due to their exposure to the West. But even students were subject to penalties. Two, Miroslav Dvoracek and Miroslav Juppa, were boyhood friends who had attended the same school in a small town in Eastern Bohemia and dreamed about becoming pilots. In a memorandum from January 1949, they were included on a list of expulsions from their class at the Air Force Academy because of their supposed “negative attitude to the democratic system of our state but also…their open opposition to the state and the party”. Ordered a month later to join an infantry unit, Dvoracek and Juppa went AWOL and, with the help of Juppa’s girlfriend Iva Militka and her relatives, fled to West Germany.

They arrived at the Leopold Barracks refugee camp in Munich, which then housed about 150,000 displaced persons. Given the presence of US and Soviet intelligence agents in Germany at the time, they were courted by both sides for espionage work. But, being pro-Western, they found themselves being trained as couriers by General Frantisek Moravec, the head of intelligence for the Czechoslovak Government in Exile, who had previously been responsible for keeping Prague’s best out of German hands in 1939. In exchange for clandestine work, Dvoracek and Juppa made Moravec promise to reinstate them in the air force upon the eventual demise of the Stalinist regime. The newly-minted spies’ first assignment came shortly after Christmas 1949. They stole back through the Bohemian Forest, and Dvoracek was instructed to contact a chemical engineer named Vaclavik, who was going to report to the Americans on the status of his industry. Sensing that he was being followed, Dvoracek panicked and returned to Germany.

Only in March 1950 did he again attempt his mission, this time in camouflage and accompanied by a secret guide. After holing up in a safe house on a farm owned by the anti-communist Tous family, Dvoracek travelled to Prague, again seeking Vaclavik. The person he found, however, was Militka, whom he hadn’t seen in over a year. She was by now enrolled at Charles University, living in the Kolonka residence hall, which doubled as a salon for budding socialist intellectuals. Though Militka wasn’t a party member herself, her current boyfriend, a student named Miroslav Dlask, was. The two had met at a student work camp where Dlask, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, impressed Militka with his prophesies of how social democracy would fuse seamlessly with communism and usher in a new age of humanism.

Someone who shared Dlask’s views, albeit with a greater degree of self-criticism, was an extraordinarily gifted film student named Milan Kundera, who was already known among the leftist intelligentsia in Prague as a café-haunting prodigy, ever questioning and heterodox in Marxism. He had joined the party in his youth, writing poems and songs about proletarian revolution that have justly been forgotten. But like his future character Sabina in The Unbearable Lightness of Being he loathed May Day parades. “He was a reserved sort of person and had no liking for stupid mass rallies,” his friend Milan Uhde told Adam Hradelik (the researcher whose sleuthing later uncovered the whole affair). “I tended to think of him as someone with courage who wasn’t afraid to express inconvenient opinions.” So when Dvoracek found Militka again, it’s safe to say she was keeping dangerous company. “I was immensely pleased to see him,” she recounted. “I didn’t give it much thought. I asked Miroslav how Juppa was and then he walked me back to the hall of residence. He asked me if he could leave his case there for a couple of hours. He told me he had some things to sort out in Prague and he’d come back for it in the afternoon.”

Dvoracek never found his chemical engineer. When he returned to Kolonka later in the evening to retrieve his briefcase – which, by the way, contained nothing incriminating – two armed policemen were waiting for him. He was arrested, interrogated and probably tortured. According to security archives, Dvoracek probably refused at first to give up the identities of his associates in Czechoslovakia, including the keepers of the safe house. He also protected Militka and her family. In September 1950, Dvoracek was convicted of desertion, espionage and high treason. He received a sentence of 22 years’ hard labour, a 10,000 crown fine, the forfeiture of all his property and the suspension of his civic rights for a decade. Meanwhile, whether because Dvoracek ultimately did confess, or because the secret police had obtained further evidence independently, the Touses were arrested. Josef Tous, the youngest, received 10 years’ imprisonment, others 20 years. One guide on the farm that had sheltered Dvoracek was executed. Between 1952 and 1963, Dvoracek was confined to a small, unheated concrete cell. He mined uranium, took part in a famous hunger strike and was several times penalised for violating camp regulations, such as “inciting” slogans, reading an English detective novel and studying the English language.

Miroslav Dvoracek, the spy who was imprisoned for 14 years after allegedly being betrayed to the Czechoslovak police (Getty)

How did the authorities know of Dvoracek’s presence and that he’d be coming to Kolonka? According to Iva Militka, on the day she ran into her old friend and offered to put him up for the night, she had lunch with her friend Dlask. She told him of her strange encounter (he was already aware that Dvoracek and Juppa had fled the country) and asked that he not come and visit her that evening. Dlask, she says, then told Kundera about the spy’s return.

The cause of the international furore, then, is the following piece of evidence, a local police report unearthed by Hradilek, a researcher at the Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, who uncovered it as part of his investigation of the Dvoracek case: “Today at around 1600 hours a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno, resident at the student hall of residence on George VI Avenue in Prague VII, presented himself at this department and reported that a student, Iva Militka, resident at that residence, had told a student by the name of Dlask, also of that residence, that she had met a certain acquaintance of hers, Miroslav Dvoracek, at Klarov in Prague the same day. The said Dvoracek apparently left one case in her care, saying he would come to fetch it in the afternoon…Dvoracek had apparently deserted from military service and since the spring of the previous year had possibly been in Germany, where he had gone illegally.”

It deserves emphasis that Hradilek happened upon this document accidentally, and not – as has been intimated among some of Kundera’s defenders – in the manner of a witch-hunter. Yet the personal cannot quite be divorced from the political. Hradilek is related to Militka, and he was contacted about her story by his cousin Matej because Hradilek had for years been collecting testimonies from ordinary Czechs about the communist era for the Post Bellum civic association. He assumed his present commission at the institute with “slight trepidation at the thought of the tragic destinies I would once again encounter”. For decades, Militka has lived with the guilt of feeling responsible for Dvoracek’s imprisonment. “I still feel guilty about talking about him,” she told Hradilek. “I was too naïve. I went to Kostelec to see my parents and told them I had caused Miroslav’s arrest. My father then paid a visit to his parents and told them. The feeling I had to live with afterwards was dreadful.” Dvoracek, who has lived in Sweden since the mid-1970s, always believed that it was Militka who informed on him. Dvoracek would not be interviewed by Hradilek. He has since suffered a stroke.

Dvoracek’s wife, Marketa, doubts the “so-called evidence” against Kundera. She told France 24 satellite TV channel, “I don’t know how reliable it is. I saw the document from the police. It remains to be proven [whether it is] real, but for Mike [the name Dvoracek goes by now] and for me it makes no difference…It really doesn’t [make] any difference whether the denouncer was a very famous person or someone not at all known.”

Without Kundera’s testimony, the only unobstructed patch in this muddled mosaic is a 58-year-old police document, which the Prague Institute has authenticated. Its resident historian, Ruldolf Vedova, told Jerome Dupuis of L’Express: “We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archives. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined – and the document was found to be authentic.” Yet one day after Hradilek’s article was published, another Czech historian, Zdenek Pesat, came forward with a complicating admission. In the spring of 1950, Pesat had been a third-year student at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University as well as a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party faculty committee. He is now bed-ridden and on oxygen, saying his poor health makes it impossible to give further interviews or address the matter any more elaborately then he does here. He wrote: “Dlask contacted me and told me that his girlfriend [and future wife] Iva met a former friend whom she knew had fled to the West and that he probably illegally returned. Dlask told me that he reported it to the police. He had the feeling that he also must inform about it to his mother organisation. And because we both were studying aesthetics and because he knew me best of all KSC faculty committee members, he told it to me. I supposed that Dlask wanted to protect his girlfriend from punishment that could follow if her contact with an emigrant or even an agent-provocateur from the secret police became known. I did not react in any way to his communication and I did not talk about it to anyone. I have not met Dlask since our student days and I have put it out of my head.”

If Dlask’s jealousy was the overriding emotion, then this story would appear the more plausible. But why does Dlask’s name appear nowhere in the local police files? Did he use Kundera’s identity to avoid his own paper trail? If so, how could that be done in an age where personal documents had to be proffered at every turn? It’s possible, as Anja Seeliger, co-founder of the German internet magazine Perlentaucher, points out, that Dlask might have gone to the secret police independently of Kundera’s going to the local police – which is not so far-fetched when one considers that a five-year prison sentence attached to anyone found guilty of failing to report suspicious behaviour in those days.

What makes the police document credible is the implausibility of it being a forgery. Who forged it? A Czech policeman in 1950, who had a mysterious grudge against a student intellectual and who somehow knew the details of Dvoracek’s clandestine return and how he was connected to Kundera? Or, if the secret police invented the report years later, using meticulous methods that have somehow hoodwinked forensic archivists, why was it never used against the writer as a way of justifying the regime’s crackdown on him after the Prague Spring in 1968, when the very privileges he enjoyed despite getting into trouble had at last been taken away? (By 1974, a year before he emigrated to Paris, Kundera had been expelled from his position at the Prague Film Academy, banned from travelling abroad, his books and plays had been pulled from libraries, and his foreign royalties limited to just ten per cent.)

Unfortunately, Kundera’s refusal to give any interviews or to offer a thorough refutation of Hradilek’s charges, and his threat to sue Respekt (which he has since withdrawn) if it fails to print an apology – he says that he “never knew the person involved; it is a lie”, and that the accusation amounts to the “assassination of an author” – are not helpful, but nor are they surprising. He has often compared the erasure of private life by prying journalists in democratic societies to state invigilation in totalitarian ones. “Secrecy” is a sacred right, without which, he has said, “nothing is possible – not love, not friendship”. By and large, Kundera’s friends have abided by his need for total opacity. “I’d happily talk to you about Milan,” the Czech actor Mojmir Heger told Hradilek, “but we have an agreement that I won’t while he is still alive.”

Still, Kundera has not lacked for vocal defenders. Gallimard, his French publisher, released a statement condemning the article and subsequent round of accusations. It was signed by a constellation of luminaries including Salman Rushdie (no doubt grateful for Kundera’s honorable intervention after the Iranian fatwah), Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Gabriel García Márquez and Nadine Gordimer. Yasmina Reza, in Le Monde, questioned the legitimacy of Hradilek’s publishing the file at all, a judgment seconded by the Czech Academy of Sciences, which said that Hradilek’s method “testifies to a lack of scientific thinking”. Rolf Schneider, in Die Welt, cautioned that, based on his personal experience travelling in the country and being shadowed, the Czech secret police “proceeded as sloppily as the East German state security” and thus their findings were unreliable-forgetting that the file in question belonged not to the archive of the secret police but to that of the local constabulary. Bernard Henri-Lévy, in Le Point, spent the majority of his piece railing against the schadenfreude felt by the “pack of dwarves” attempting to fell a giant of letters. Jiri Grusa, the Czech poet and Velvet Revolution icon, currently the president of PEN, went on German radio to announce, “The document is real. There’s no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera’s document. It is no denunciation, it’s a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, ‘I didn’t do it,’ then I have to believe him.” But as if unsure of what he had just said, he emphasised the penalty for not reporting suspicious behaviour in those days.

It’s rather apposite, then, that Kundera’s most careful defender is also his former sparring partner on the question of “Czech Destiny”. In a manner redolent of his extraordinary essay, The Power of the Powerless, which showed how the “post-totalitarian” society inculpates all of its inhabitants, from the thuggish state official to the lowly greengrocer, playwright and former Czech president Vaclav Havel responded in Respekt, first by putting himself under the microscope. How would he have acted in like circumstances half a century ago? Havel was sceptical of the charges, saying that the way the events at Kolonka unfolded struck him as “stupid”. But as if preparing a future defence of Kundera, he observed: “You did not have to be a committed, fanatical communist to act in this way in good faith that your actions would smooth the way to a better world. You simply may have wondered if, or may have been nearly sure, that someone had laid a trap for you or someone close to you. You simply may not have been a war hero and just thought to yourself: why should I spend ten years in a prison camp just for knowing and not telling? Prison camps are for heroes, not people like me.”

To this, Havel appended a warning to young historians who know nothing at first hand about underground meetings, samizdat publications or the transcendent nature of rock concerts. But this is being both generous and coy. For of the three motives Hradilek posited as to why Kundera might have informed on Dvoracek, the most convincing was that Kundera had indeed fallen into a trap just a year before. In 1949, he received a letter from his friend Jaroslav Dewetter, criticising a high-ranking communist official. Kundera replied to it in the same spirit. Both missives fell into the hands of the secret police, and Dewetter and Kundera were called in, along with a third person, Jan Trefulka, who had defended Dewetter, to face disciplinary proceedings. Dewetter and Tefulka were expelled from both the party and the university, but Kundera was only expelled from the party.

It should be apparent to anyone familiar with Kundera’s oeuvre that this episode in his life mirrors almost exactly the plot of his first novel, The Joke (1967). In that book, Ludvik sends Marketa, an earnest communist student he’s courting, a postcard that reads, “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” He is subsequently expelled from the party and the university, and drafted into a labour battalion of the Czech army, as was Dewetter. Although the novel is divided into separate narratives, all told from the perspectives of the major characters, Ludvik’s sections concern his ill-fated course of vengeance against Pavel Zemanek, a former comrade who, when the time came to attest to his integrity and defend him against the humourless pedants of the District Secretariat, chose instead to condemn him. The Joke is instructive for the way in which it shows how even independent-minded communists could, at the first sign of danger, succumb to a herd mentality. Kundera is second to none in adumbrating the thoughts of young believers – a talent that must owe something to personal experience. Although a victim of persecution, Ludvik is sharp-witted enough to place himself in the position of his persecutors, much as Rubashov does in Darkness at Noon: “I have never voted for anyone’s downfall, but I am perfectly aware that this is of questionable merit, since I was deprived of the right to raise my hand. It’s true that I’ve long tried to convince myself that if I had been in their position I wouldn’t have acted as they did, but I’m honest enough to laugh at myself: why would I have been the only one not to raise his hand? Am I the one just man?”

This isn’t the only fictional parallel to the Dvoracek affair. As Hradilek points out, the plot of Kundera’s play, The Owner of the Keys (1962), set during the Second World War, seems reminiscent of the events of 1950. The protagonist Ji?í is tasked with harbouring his ex-lover Vera, then in flight from the Gestapo, at the home of his parents-in-law, and thus putting them and his wife in jeopardy. When he’s discovered by the estate’s caretaker, who threatens to inform on the whole family, Ji?í kills the man.

Kundera’s difficult relationship with his homeland has not done him any public relations favours. He remains a paradox: an intensely private public writer who has dedicated himself in wondrously inventive ways to undoing the Big Lie. It is the atelier, not the agora, that he prefers: he has repeatedly renounced the role of “public figure”, and inveighed against the methods of literary biography, disclaiming any nexus between novel and novelist. A master of his own secrecy, Kundera now stands accused of harbouring one of the dirtiest secrets a member of his generation could conceal.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"