A Protest Song

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., may ultimately be remembered as the most significant figures of our century. Hitler is fading from our collective memory to the point that neo-Nazis can claim that the Holocaust never happened and not be met with public outrage; disillusioned Russians are beginning to remember Stalin as the man who maintained law and order, not as the tyrant who was responsible for more deaths than Hitler; and only history buffs remember anything significant about Mussolini, Wilhelm II, and Nicholas II.

Gandhi and King held no political office, founded no parties, slew no opponents, and erected no monuments to their own greatness. They weren't saints by any means, but there was something well above the ordinary in their ability to persuade others to confront evil with goodness, intimidation with quiet and determined resistance, and not to be tempted into confronting policeman and soldiers with their own weapons--such an effort, they argued, was doomed to a double failure, in that in the short run those advocating a more just society would be defeated and that in the long run it would harden the forces of tyranny in their determination to hold onto power by any means necessary.

In 1989 the Czech Republic was a test of the theory of non-violence. In a certain sense, the Soviets prepared the ground for this test by giving lavish public approval to the ideals and methods of Martin Luther King, Jr, and in showing the movie Gandhi throughout their empire. They clearly never imagined that their subjects would take the lessons to heart--the captive peoples were only supposed to learn how to defeat capitalism, a system now so weak and sentimental that even its least powerful workers and peasants could challenge it successfully.

One can understand that the communist leaders failed to see the dangers facing them--how could one compare the situation of Czech workers and farmers to those of Asian Indians and American Blacks? The danger, however, was not that Czech students would assemble and sing "We shall overcome," though they did from time to time launch into that well-known protest song. The danger was from the traditional desire for freedom, which in November of 1989 was expressed in a Czech folk song which parents used to sing to their children, "Ach Synku, synku, domali jsi?"

The first verse goes, "Oh, my little son, are you home? Papa's asking, did you plow the field?" Now, that is hardly the stuff of which revolutions are made. The second verse ("I plowed a little, but the little wheel broke") gets more serious. Everyone could understand this indictment of communist mismanagement. The third and final verse ("When it's broken, have it fixed. Learn, little son, how to get things done properly") became a demand for a new government.

The power of this children's verse came partly from the memory of the man who wrote its most popular arrangement. He was Jan Masaryk, son of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, who was the foremost spokesman of that small band of nationalists who had created this nation almost without violence in the closing days of the First World War when the Austro-Hungarian empire was falling apart. In his youth Jan was a multi-talented playboy, but he became a university professor, musician, and philosopher. During the Second World War his radio broadcasts from Britain made him the eloquent voice of free Czechoslovakia, and by universal acclaim he became foreign minister in the post-war government; his murder (or suicide) in early 1948 was the most significant event in the communist takeover which deprived his homeland of its independence and began the Cold War. Czech students who gathered in the Narodni Trida (the street leading downtown from the National Theater) in November of 1989, singing this simple melody, were conveying something that every soldier in the opposing ranks understood, that the communist bosses were beginning to glimpse: that the little wheel was broken, it was time to grow up, things had to be managed better, and that the spirit of the Masaryks was still alive, demanding the rights of free individuals in an independent national state.

Jan Masaryk had rejected armed resistance to the Soviets in 1948. That would have been a wasteful gesture. In 1968 the Czechs again gave in reluctantly to overwhelming force. But by 1989 something had changed. Although the Czech security police severely beat the students who tried to march to Wenceslaus Square that night of the first rally, they didn't know what to do with the tens and hundreds of thousands of people who gathered there in the following days. Clearly, the Soviet Politburo and just barely over half of the Czech communist leaders no longer had any enthusiasm for shooting down crowds. The oppressors, seemingly tired of their unappreciated efforts on behalf of the working class and somehow unable to make the reforms that Glasnost and Perestroika demanded, reluctantly gave way, abandoning both their ageing ideals and their envied privileges. Men and women they had persecuted and imprisoned replaced them in the halls of authority and power, and life went on. No bloodbath, few recriminations. An eternity away from Rwanda and Cambodia.

The Czech "Velvet Revolution" resulted in a playwright becoming president. Vaclav Havel was not that good a writer, but he had the courage to stand up early against censorship and stupidity, to organize resistance in a "Civic Forum," and he had a way of arguing that ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they are determined to base their actions on the basis of morality--not just acting on what is right (which tends to justify fanatics' imposing their values on everyone else), but with the intention that the outcome will be good as well.

The communists could relinquish power, reasonably certain that their lives and property were safe from reprisals. There would be no show trials, no exiles, no retribution. Not everyone liked this, but they understood its necessity. Had this been a Christian revolution, rather than a humanist one, the Civic Forum could easily have found Biblical citations advocating forbearance and forgiveness.

Clearly, non-violence is not a cure-all for every situation. The Czechs would have done a favor to the world by standing up to Hitler in 1938. At that time, behind their well-prepared border defenses, the Czechs could have repelled the still ill-equipped German armies for weeks or months, until France and Britain were shamed into coming to the rescue or until Hitler's generals overthrew him. It was a quite different situation in 1968 and even in 1989, when the Soviet army may have been the most powerful in the world. Non-violence's place is in the civilized world, dealing with powers that at least make a pretense to humane values, confronting authorities which rely on basically decent people to make their unjust system operate. Like everything else in politics, it does not work instantly, or every time; certainly, it is not well suited for dealing with insane leaders, religious fanatics, and asocial thugs. But when it is used as a mass tactic against more or less ordinary men and women who would prefer to avoid a bloodbath, who possess some ability to reflect about the possible outcomes of their situation, and who do believe that all governments receive their legitimacy from its citizens, it offers the hope of a reconciled post-revolution society. The Czechs have not made a perfect transition from communism to national independence, but they have done a far better job than Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, or Romania.

There are more heroes of non-violent resistance than Gandhi and King. Jan Masaryk and Vaclav Havel may not be world-figures today, but that does not mean that they are not worth noting and honoring. It only means that non-Czechs can hardly be expected to understand how a children's verse became a protest song.