Obituary: Jir Pelikn

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The Independent Culture
JIRI PELIKAN had the rare skill of surviving - even at times prospering - in potentially risky situations. Holding a key position at the time of the Prague Spring as head of Czechoslovak television, he had already survived five months in a Gestapo jail during the Nazi occupation and the treacherous world of the Stalinist-era Czechoslovak Com-munist Party. As television chief from 1963 he had moved from upholding orthodoxy in a party-controlled dictatorship to presiding over a forum for vigorous political debate.

Even the crushing of the Prague Spring by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact in August 1968 did not end Pelikn's career, despite his removal as television chief. He was named cultural attache at the Czechoslovak embassy in Rome, a post he held throughout the "normalisation" (the reimposition of orthodox Communism).

It was only in September 1969, when he was recalled to Prague, that he declined to return to his native land, announcing his decision in The Times. He decided to remain in Italy, where he received political asylum. After being stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship he was naturalised as an Italian.

In exile he earned his living as a writer and commentator, and published a series of books on post-war Czechoslovak political history (in which he had played a part). In 1971 he founded a leftist emigre journal, Listy, billed as the "Journal of the Czechoslovak Socialist Opposition", which he continued to publish (from 1989 in Prague) until 1997. It was not long before he found his feet as an Italian politician, being elected to the European parliament in 1979 on an Italian Socialist Party ticket. He served two terms as an MEP.

Born in Moravia into a family of artists and intellectuals, he was the son of the sculptor Julis Pelikn. The late 1930s were eventful for his country and for him. In 1938, Moravia and Bohemia jointly became an autonomous unit within Czechoslovakia. The following year Nazi Germany seized control of Czechoslovakia and designated Bohemia and Moravia a German protectorate.

Pelikn joined the Czech Communist Party in 1939 and became active in the anti-German resistance movement and was soon jailed by the Gestapo. From 1941 until the end of the occupation he lived in hiding. His parents were arrested in reprisal and his mother perished in a Nazi concentration camp.

During studies in Prague after the war, Pelikn was active in Communist student groups both before and after the Communist coup of 1948. He became the head of a party youth commission which screened students for admission to universities and denied entry to thousands of non-Communists. Pelikn later called the episode the "greatest shame" of his life.

In the 1950s and 1960s he held numerous party posts (including ideological and propaganda posts, a parliamentary seat and an eight-year term as president of the Prague-based International Union of Students). His highest post came in August 1968, when he was elected to the party Central Committee at the "secret congress" in Vysocany that took place days after the invasion.

Following his refusal to return to Prague in 1969 and his support for the leftist opposition to the Communist government, the Czechoslovak regime vented its anger on him with the venom reserved for betrayal by one of its own. He was vilified in the state-run press. In 1972, the party newspaper, Rude Prvo, alleged that Pelikn had sent "written materials and instructions to Czechoslovakia inciting hostile individuals and groups to anti-state activities".

The secret police, the StB, was believed to have been behind a number of attacks, including a letter bomb mailed to him in 1975. He escaped injury when he noticed smoke coming out of the half-opened package and threw it into an adjoining room as it burst into flames. This did not deter him from political involvement in his homeland. In 1977 he made a clandestine return visit - a highly risky undertaking that nearly saw him kidnapped by the authorities.

The end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989 allowed him to return and the following year he joined the motley crew of advisers to the newly elected president, Vclav Havel. However, his dubious past as a Communist functionary and allegations that he had collaborated with the Gestapo soured his last years. When he received the Order of Merit from Havel last year these accusations were revived.

A warm, energetic man, Pelikn never lost his commitment to the "historic battle of the Czechoslovak socialist opposition", as he described it in the 1970s, however discredited that later became.

Showing only limited regret for his part in the Communist repressions, he remained a child of 1968. The aim of the Prague Spring had been, he wrote in 1970, "to rid socialism in Czechoslovakia of its inhumanity". He was saddened that the aim of the new revolution of 1989 turned out to be to rid Czechoslovakia of socialism.

Jir Pelikn, politician: born Olomouc, Czechoslovakia 7 February 1923; married Jitka Frantov; died Rome 26 June 1999.