Czech president -- from Prague Spring to Willard Straight takeover -- was witness to history

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Joe Schwartz

In spring 1969, Václav Klaus, the Czech Republic's president, spent a semester at Cornell during a brief window of freedom to travel outside Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, one year after the reforms of the "Prague Spring." Upon his return home, Klaus and his fellow Czechs struggled under the Soviet thumb for two decades.

Klaus, who was elected president of the Czech Republic in 2003 and re-elected in 2008, recalled his time at Cornell Sept. 24 to a full house at Statler Auditorium.

He had come to Ithaca in 1969 at the invitation of Czech-born Cornell economics professor George Staller, for whom Klaus served as a teaching assistant, but he said he spent most of his time here looking around "to better understand this great and -- for us especially at that time -- uncritically admired country."

The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 because of Moscow's (well-founded, according to Klaus) fear that Czechoslovakia "wanted to get rid of communism."

Following the invasion, "we lost another 20 years, [for] many of us the best years of our lives," Klaus said. "This act and its consequences led to a feeling of deep frustration which lasted, in my country, until the ultimate fall of communism in 1989."

Klaus left Czechoslovakia in late January 1969, one day after the funeral of Jan Palach, a student who had set himself on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square in protest of the Soviet occupation. "To leave Prague at that moment was fascinating, a sort of relief," he said. "I hoped I had come to a quiet campus with an ivory tower atmosphere ... where students were supposed to study and professors to teach -- something we were deprived of during those years."

Instead, Klaus arrived at the most tumultuous moment in Cornell's history, an era, he said, of "the [Students for a Democratic Society], a country of 'Hair' and Aquarius, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, of flower children and People's Park protests. A short time after my arrival, the black students here at Cornell occupied Willard Straight Hall, for the first time at a university campus with rifles.

"I must confess, I had a feeling it was not much more quiet here than in Prague at the time," said Klaus. "And I must say that some of the views and arguments used by the radical students here sounded quite familiar and quite alarming and dangerous. In spite of being from a communist country, I was here at that moment of history ideologically firmly on the right."

A "fundamental dispute" was also roiling in Klaus' discipline. He left Cornell as a "devoted monetarist. After years of living in an oppressive and inefficient communist society and economy, people like me had a built-in mistrust" of governments' ability to run the economy -- a position he still holds regarding the European Union in the current economic crisis.

"That's why I am more afraid of the consequences of the measures used to mitigate the crisis than of the crisis itself," Klaus said, noting that he would expand on this theme the next day at the United Nations' general assembly.

By the time he returned home in June 1969, the communist regime, buttressed by Soviet soldiers, had "succeeded to tighten its overwhelming control over our personal lives." Klaus was dismissed from the Czech economics academy and labeled a leading non-Marxist economist." It was "a nice and flattering title" that complicated his life.

Klaus would not return to this country until the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, when his country started a "radical dismantling" of communist institutions.

Klaus spoke as part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies' Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker series.

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