Restoring scholarship and academic freedom in the Czech and Slovak nations

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Emeritus Fellow Alan Montefiore (Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Balliol 19611994) and Paul Flather (Balliol 1973) were awarded the Czech Ambassador’s Honorary Jan Masaryk Silver Medal for ‘special contributions’ supporting the development of the Czech and Slovak nations. Here they each reflect on their experiences. 

Alan Montefiore

Alan Montefiore

Alan Montefiore was a founder member of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, founded in 1980 after leading Oxford philosophers, among others, were expelled for venturing into Czechoslovakia (then under Communist rule) to give ‘underground’ lectures. He received the medal for his various contributions through the foundation, his lectures and further academic work.

It was at the end of a meeting of the then Sub-Faculty of Philosophy at the end of January 1979 that a message from the Czech philosopher Julius Tomin was read out, saying that since he himself was prevented from all normal forms of exchange with colleagues abroad, he was inviting them to come to Prague and to take part in the seminars that he was running there for similarly excluded students in his own private apartment. Those still present at the meeting voted a modest sum of support for the travel expenses of anyone willing to take up this invitation. I happened to be among them and, never having been to Prague, I was struck by this opportunity to do something both worthwhile and potentially very interesting; so I offered to be one of those ready to accept this unusual and unexpected invitation. 

In the event, the whole experience was not only ‘interesting’ but so altogether extraordinary (and so unsettling) that I came back convinced of the need for a proper framework for ongoing support of this kind. And so, along with a number of others, we got together to create the very appropriately named Jan Hus Educational Foundation with the aim of providing such support as we could manage to our ‘dissident’ Czechoslovak colleagues and their students in their efforts to continue their philosophical studies. At the same time — or very shortly afterwards — my wife, Catherine Audard, a French political philosopher, who had accompanied me on this, our first visit to Prague, embarked on the organisation of its French opposite number, the Association Jan Hus. 

The stories of both these organisations (including aspects of our own ongoing involvements in them) is very well told in Barbara Day’s book The Velvet Philosophers (1999) and I will not attempt to repeat them here. My own most general memory of all our visits to Prague (and indeed to Brno and to Bratislava as well) during those years is one of the persisting tension of not knowing whether we were being watched by the security services or not, and if so how; I still have a quite vivid memory of the relief one experienced from that tension on passing through the final border controls on one’s way back home again. 

I have too a very particular memory of that first occasion at the Tomin’s flat, when I found myself talking to a group of generally student-age participants, who were for the most part employed in low-grade jobs, such as tending to the boilers in hospital basements, at which they were expected to start quite early in the morning. The given subject of that talk was my understanding of what was at stake in the moral philosophy of Dick Hare, and I still remember the intensity with which they persisted in discussion with me (and each other) until about two or three in the morning, at which point Julius insisted that they go home for at least an hour or two’s sleep. I remember very well also how, when we arrived on one occasion at Prague Airport, the Immigration Officer insisted on confiscating the copy of Aristotle’s Politics that I had brought with me to give to one of our Czech colleagues, on the grounds that it was forbidden to bring in political propaganda. Political philosophy, however ancient, may still have a very real political relevance right up to the present day and beyond!

In general, however, and although we were certainly kept under watch, Catherine and I were not ourselves actively troubled by the security services, in the ways in which several other philosophical visitors were — including, most notably, a number of my Balliol friends and colleagues — and most famously, of course, Jacques Derrida, who was briefly imprisoned after the security services had tried to frame him as a drug smuggler. So we could in the end count ourselves lucky to have had the opportunity of meeting so many extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people intent on maintaining their own intellectual and moral integrity in the ongoing context of the crude and oppressive régime under which they found themselves having to live, and to have been able to bring them some small support in their struggles.

Paul Flather

Paul Flather (left) receiving his award from the Czech Ambassador

Paul Flather joined the Jan Hus Education Foundation in 1981, becoming its Honorary Treasurer, supporting the extension of its work and making numerous underground visits to Prague, until he was expelled in 1985. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he became founding Secretary-General of the Central European University being set up in Prague and other cities by George Soros. In 1994, he became Oxford University’s Director of External and International Relations, with responsibility for the Europaeum network of leading European universities, led by Oxford. As its founding Secretary-General from 2001, he helped Charles University in Prague join, and developed a wide range of international links with the university, where he was a visiting professor in 2018.

I first became ‘involved’ in Central Europe, as it was termed then, when I was asked, as a young journalist with the BBC and the Times group, to report on the expulsions of some of my former distinguished PPE tutors in 19801981. There followed an invitation to join the newly set up Jan Hus association and support its work during those critical 1980s. I was one of those able to provide moral and perhaps intellectual support to the intellectual dissident community, smuggling in messages and books, bringing out samizdat, sharing ideas through discussions, lectures and teaching, and providing cash stipends to many leading dissidents (who were denied proper work in a Communist régime where de jure there was ‘no’ unemployment).

These meetings included some who went on to hold the highest offices after the 1989 revolutions, including Václav Havel (first President of the Czech Republic 19932003). Having heard of my Indian heritage he invited me to give an underground lecture on the work and ideas of Gandhi, especially satyagraha and non-violent resistance – a key influence in his thinking, perhaps best outlined in his famous essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978). Gandhi’s name was to echo around Wenceslas Square the night the Communist régime fell.

There was always a knot of nausea as one went off to one clandestine meeting after another. One of my first, set up by the late Kathy Wilkes, Fellow at St Hilda’s, then secretary of the Philosophy Faculty, who had herself been expelled, was to meet a young woman in a particular bookshop who would be wearing something red. We connected. After 1989 she would become an ambassador. I met Petr Pithart, later to become Prime Minister, by ‘the sixth Saint’s statue’ on the famous Charles Bridge on a drizzly morning, I remember. Once I helped smuggle in a fax machine. Another time I had to bring Kissinger’s memoirs for Jiri Dienstbier, who later became Foreign Secretary. On one visit my luggage was lost. I was mortified: it was full of requested theological and philosophical books. My heart sank further when I was told, ‘It has been sent to Moscow’ – apparently by mistake! My luck was in when it turned up two days later, as the customs officials were distracted. They flicked through a couple of dense books, perhaps by Heidegger and Aquinas, and satisfied that there were no drugs or pornography, they waved me on.

I was arrested a couple of times. One arrest turned out to be for administrative reasons. But in 1986 I was pulled off the train to Vienna, questioned — some might say interrogated — overnight, and then expelled. Often one seemed to be followed, but then nothing further happened; on other occasions, however, there were severe consequences, as this time. Eventually, with all my papers and books having been confiscated, I was ordered to leave — which meant walking along the railway line to cross the border into Austria by myself at dawn — and then banned.

I only returned after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when I met many ‘old friends’, now leading luminaries with high office. We still used to huddle in corners to chat, as if someone might come out of the shadows to break up the meeting. At the end of 1990 George Soros hired me to turn his dream of a new free Central European University (CEU) into a reality, working, as its first CEO/Secretary-General, closely with Bill Newton-Smith (Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy 19702005), another superb tutor, who served as an active Chair of the CEU Senate. Within four years the CEU was a $20 million operation with hundreds of graduates, an embryonic tutorial system, many PPE threads, and a distinguished international and local faculty, bedding the seeds of Western university thinking and modes.

The story of those four peripatetic years in Prague and around the region is for another time, but as Professor Ernest Gellner (Balliol 1942), whom I helped to bring back to his homeland as our Professor of Philosophy, put it, we were trying to recreate the academic spirit of Magic Prague of the 1930s. Many other acorns were planted, supporting library reform, independent research, volunteer lecturing, and the influential Soros Oxford Hospitality scheme, which supports East/Central European students who wish to study at Oxford — including the current Hungarian President, Viktor Orbán. 

I was privileged to be able to continue to work over 25 years to develop scholarship and international academic links with the 700-year-old Charles University, first back in Oxford as the University’s Director of External and International Relations 19942000, and then as the founding Secretary-General of the Europaeum association of leading European universities 20012017. With Charles to a full member of our Europaeum club from 2004, we have hosted many exciting joint international events in Prague, in a range of subject areas including philosophy, politics, economics, international relations, theology and classics, drawing in many colleagues I first met in those dissident days. 

As Charles University revive its academic confidence and prestige after a 40-year deep freeze, which saw meritocracy crushed and free thinking stifled, it is gratifying to see it moving to restore its European pre-eminence.