Catholic resistance: three lessons from Czechoslovakia


There is nothing new or unusual in Catholics finding themselves in opposition to a power that is hostile to them. We have had plenty of situations of this kind over the past 2000 years. Applying the lessons of past experience to our present-day situation, however, could be more difficult than a superficial observes might expect. There are no historical examples that can be used as a blueprint because every period, every situation is different. What we can do, though, is to take inspiration and constructive ideas from past events and learn from past mistakes. One such situation that could serve as inspiration to today’s resistance fighters is the Catholic resistance in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (ČSSR) during the years between 1948 and 1990.

Historical background

Czechoslovakia only existed as a state during the period between 1918 and 1992, with a brief hiatus during World War II. Before 1918, Czechs and Slovaks were part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and in 1993, they separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both of which still exist today. Both areas were occupied by the Red Army at the end of World War II. The communists took power and after the February revolution of 1948, Czechoslovakia was rebuilt, this time as a communist state and part of the Eastern Bloc.

The church was immediately declared an enemy. In June 1948, the Communist Party issued the slogan: “Turn away from Rome, towards a national Church”. In April 1949, the first communist president, Klement Gottwald, said: “We must see the Church as an enemy. We must not lose our nerve now, we will fight the fight in such a way that the tactics will be determined by ourselves, not by them”.

This battle was fought in two ways: on the one hand, attempts were made to win over as many Catholics as possible to Communism by way of a pro-communist movement under the misleading name of “Catholic Action”. The Vatican excommunicated the members of this new movement in the very year of its inception (1949).

Oppression of the Church

On the other hand, the Church was persecuted along the lines of the Stalinist model: the “Anti-monastery campaign” kicked off in 1950. In three steps, all monasteries in the country were closed and almost all bishops, priests, monks and nuns were arrested, tried in show trials and interned. 8,264 members of religious orders were sentenced to a total of 42,736 years in prison or internment camps. Three clergymen received the death penalty.

In addition, the Church was expropriated, Catholic publications were banned, Catholic schools closed, the papal nuncio expelled from Prague, the existing official Church offices were monitored by the state, and the priests working there considered as employees of the state without any decision-making authority of their own. Several hundred priests are said to have worked as agents or informants for the “StB” (secret police).

The Vatican responded by supporting the establishment of an “underground Church” and granted authority to carry out episcopal ordinations in secret. In the early 1960s, a number of members of the underground Church were persecuted and arrested, but until 1990, the communists never succeeded in completely eradicating it or preventing its activities. In the meantime, many priests had been released from prison as part of an amnesty, but they were banned from returning to their parishes and exercising their vocation publicly.

After the military crackdown on the “Prague Spring” in 1968 by the USSR, the Church came under renewed pressure: there were more trials against members of religious orders, and in 1971, another priestly association was founded by the communists with the aim of taking over the Church. This time, the Vatican did not react until 1982, when it banned membership in this association.

Despite all these efforts, the spirit of resistance was out of the bottle: in 1977 numerous writers, politicians and artists published Charter 77, a protest note against the communist government. Despite the harsh reactions from the communists, the charter was an encouragement to dissidents.

Living in truth

One of the initiators and speakers of Charter 77 was the writer – later the first President of the Czech Republic – Václav Havel. In 1978, Havel published his ground-breaking work “On Trying to Live in Truth”. The book was secretly distributed as a samizdat in several Eastern Bloc countries. Havel was exposed as the author and went to prison for four and a half years in 1979.

In his work, Havel explores the question of what the individual can and must do under totalitarianism. His answer is that the individual must try to live in truth. In other words, he or she must oppose the lie of totalitarianism. Havel writes, “If the main pillar of the system is living in lies, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to the system is living in truth.”

In the book, Havel explains this point by sketching the fictional situation of a greengrocer who hangs a sign in his shop window with the communist slogan “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” This greengrocer does not believe in this slogan, but he purports to adhere to it – out of fear, out of social pressure, out of indifference, whatever the reason. He lives with the lie and thereby strengthens it, he lets it become the truth, so to speak. But what if one day he decides to stop living with and in lies? What will happen if he takes the sign out of the shop window? His thoughts and actions will gradually change, and so will the thoughts and actions of those who make up his personal environment.

Anti-political politics“

Life in truth does not, therefore, initially imply political activity, but rather “anti-political politics”, as Havel calls it, that is to say, a life that refuses to be influenced by politics in all its aspects. It is a hallmark of totalitarianism to politicise every aspect of public and private life. A refusal to support this will, of course, be politicised by the representatives of totalitarianism and those who do refuse will be exposed to repression or persecution.

But it is precisely by withstanding this pressure and rejecting the politicisation of one’s own actions or inactions that one also rejects the totalitarian grip on one’s own life. While this involves sacrifice, it may have a major impact on others. Such behaviour will eventually provide a role model and will be imitated.

This means that resistance against totalitarianism will not necessarily begin with political activity, but with the resolution of an individual to lead a good life in the proper meaning of the word. Such a good life is reflected in the individual’s dealings with his or her neighbours, in the way one acts as a participant in the economy and as a consumer, in how one fulfils one’s religious obligations, in how one participates in society and supports others. This pre-political actions of the individual may ultimately lead to political changes.

However, such attempts by individuals to live in truth can only ever represent a first step. Finding like-minded allies and comrades-in-arms is important. One of the hallmarks of totalitarian systems is the promotion of isolation. Atomised individuals form a diffuse, unstructured mass that is easy to control – through state repression, media manipulation or consumer offers from large corporations.

To avoid falling victim to totalitarianism, individuals must overcome their isolation and restore the natural structures that have been destroyed by modern life. The last and smallest of these structures is the family, which is also under attack today. This means that reconstruction must begin with the family.

A nest of resistance against totalitarianism

Czechoslovak oppositionists used to say that in Slovakia, Catholic resistance consisted of the underground church, while in the Czech Republic, it consisted of the Benda family. In fact, the family of writer Vaclav Benda was a beacon of hope for all dissidents. Benda lived with his wife Kamila and their six children in an apartment in Prague, not far from the headquarters of the secret police, the StB. Benda was unable to pursue the academic career he had hoped for because he had refused to join the Communist Party. Like Havel, Benda was imprisoned from 1979 to 1983.

According to Benda, the family is not only the nucleus of society in normal times, but it is also the nucleus of resistance in totalitarian systems. He and his family lived up to this high standard. They regularly welcomed other dissidents at their apartment before or after their interrogation by the nearby secret police.

At the Bendas’ apartment, dissidents were prepared, strengthened and encouraged. Up to 20 people per day are said to have visited the apartment. The Bendas also opened their home many times for meetings of members of the underground. Lectures were given, books were read and discussions took place there.

The example given by the Benda family

In his book “Live Not By Lies”, Rod Dreher describes a visit to Vaclav Benda‘s widow, Kamila and her six children. At the dinner table, the family defined five aspects of their family life that had shaped their joint resistance:

  1. The parents gave an example of bravery to the children: the father, Vaclav, would explain to the children that there are things in life that are more to be feared than a loss of personal freedom. The children were not brought up in ignorance or indifference, but in the awareness of a higher goal to fight for.
  2. The children were brought up to live a moral life: their mother, Kamila, explained how important it was to teach the children – from the beginning and in a child-friendly way – the difference between good and bad and how to choose and fight for what is good.
  3. Family member were encouraged not to be afraid to be different. From an early age, the children were taught not to be followers, to see and do certain things differently than, for example, their classmates. According to their mother, if the parents had not prepared their children for this, they would likely have found such situations too stressful and would have fallen victim to the propaganda.
  4. The children were prepared to sacrifice themselves for good: while Vaclav Benda was in prison, he received a tempting offer from the state to be released if he and his whole family would emigrate to the West. He mentioned this in a letter to his wife, who immediately wrote back to him saying it would be better for him to stay in prison if this meant that he could pursue his fight for good in his home country. This sacrifice showed the children that there are greater things in life than your own personal well-being and benefit.
  5. The children were raised to see themselves as taking part in a larger movement. As their mother Kamila says: “We involved our children in our struggles. They felt that we were all members of a group with a common goal. They were brought up to know that they were fighting for a good cause, for justice.”

This model of the Catholic Benda family is highly topical right now. Having a Christian family should not mean a retreat into the private sphere, but must be a sign of resistance and hope. Families who succeed in doing this will provide a shining example to others.

The parallel polis

The seminal work of the family had a ripple effect outward in ever larger circles and provided a basis for the growth of social structures to ward off totalitarianism and rebuild Christianity at the same time. Vaclav Benda described this reconstruction in his 1977 essay “The Parallel Polis”, in which he criticised the widespread illusion that a totalitarian system can simply be collapsed with the help of a few petitions or demonstrations.

Aside from the fact that such a collapse does not automatically offer a positive counter-proposal, it would be naïve to believe that totalitarianism is only expressed in structures, institutions or people. Today’s “soft totalitarianism” in particular is a mental and psychological phenomenon that can only be overcome through a long-term and continuous infiltration and spread of alternative ideas, visions, images and narratives.

In order to achieve this, Benda proposes the creation of parallel structures – if the official structures and institutions are permeated by totalitarian ideas and may not be amenable to change at all, alternative structures and institutions must be created. These must be initiated locally and permitted to grow organically. It is important for everyone to be close to their environment and the people who live there to understand what their needs are, so that they in turn can be persuaded to participate in these alternative structures despite the threat of repression.

Such parallel structures should not be seen as “safe spaces” in which participants are simply left alone, but as a means of rebuilding Christian society. According to Benda, if the “Parallel Polis” evaded its responsibility for the common good, it would only be “a more refined way of ‘living in lies’”. Benda suggests starting with parallel structures for education and training, such as those in which he himself participated: underground seminars, study and reading groups, lecture events.

The work of the underground Church

The Czechoslovak underground Church was one such parallel structure: near the end of World War II, a Jesuit priest, P. Tomislav Kolakovic, foresaw that after the war, Slovakia would fall under Soviet occupation. To prepare for this, he started gathering young Catholics and founding local prayer and study groups with them as early as 1944. The movement that arose from these activities was called “Rodina” (“The Family”) and within a year could be found in almost all schools in the major cities of the country. Its members were briefed and prepared for underground work and interrogations.

In 1946 P. Kolakovic was arrested; two years later, Czechoslovakia came under communist rule and most of the members of “Rodina” were imprisoned. However, after most of them were released in the early 1960s, they resumed their work – with considerable success.

By the mid-1970s, their cells had spread all across Slovakia. Their mostly clandestine activities included small gatherings in private homes, pilgrimages, the creation and maintenance of information and business networks, and secret printing and distribution of publications.

Out of hiding and into the public eye

The candle demonstration in Pressburg on 25 March 1988 was the crucial point at which resistance to the communist government became public and directly political. This demonstration was followed by many more throughout the year until this “Velvet Revolution” led to the collapse of the ČSSR.

This did, of course, happen at a time when external circumstances favourable; the entire Eastern bloc was, after all, on the verge of collapse. However, this first candle demonstration in March 1988 could never have taken place if Catholics had not worked for decades to set up local parallel structures.

Although the end of Czechoslovakia did not lead to the founding of a Catholic state, the example of the Catholic resistance in Czechoslovakia provides constructive impulses on how individuals, families and communities can resist today’s “soft totalitarianism”. Havel, Benda, Kolakovic and many others provide examples of what can be done even under brutal repression.

Trust in God

Above all, the Catholic resistance in Czechoslovakia provides an example of the minimum requirements for resistance that should always and everywhere be aimed for. Once this necessary basis has been created, further measures can be taken depending on the circumstances. The early establishment of such a basis will therefore provide security and preparation, so that people can be armed and ready, and will be able to look forward to an uncertain future with some measure of hope and confidence.

Ultimately, the success of all such endeavours will depend on God: Silvester Krcmery, a student of P. Kolakovic and co-organiser of the “Rodina”, describes his 13-year prison term in these words: “In my case, it really meant plunging into physical and mental uncertainty, into an abyss where only belief in God could guarantee safety. The material things that we rely on for certainty were impermanent and illusory, while faith, which the world regarded as impermanent, was the strongest and most reliable foundation. The more I relied on my faith, the stronger I became.”

by Moritz Scholtysik