Obituary: Vclav Benda

VACLAV BENDA, whether in his days as an anti-Communist Catholic activist and dissident or as a post-Velvet Revolution Czech politician, was always opinionated, forthright and uncompromising. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, he believed the world was black and white, a view that marked profoundly his attitude to politics, philosophy and religion.

He was a prominent activist and thinker in the Charter 77 movement - a group whose wide spectrum of opinions was often obscured by the solidarity of anti-Communism - and his central Prague flat became a centre of alternative intellectual life during the grey years of the 1970s and 1980s.

As the clubby, tight-knit dissident world broke up after 1989, Benda helped found the right-wing Christian Democratic Party (of which he was chairman for four years), turning his back on many of his fellow dissidents who joined more left-leaning parties. He was elected to the newly democratic Czechoslovak Federal Assembly in June 1990, remaining in the Czech parliament after the country split in two in January 1993.

He was elected to the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, in November 1996. That same year the Christian Democratic Party merged with the Civic Democratic Party of Vclav Klaus.

Benda's political activity began in the heady days of the Prague Spring in 1968 when he was a student in the philosophy faculty of Charles University in Prague. He became the head of the first independent students' association and was active in a Catholic youth group. By the time he graduated in 1969 the post-invasion "normalisation" was under way, crushing the remnants of public independent activity. Benda and his wife Kamila had decided during the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 not to flee the country.

He remained at Charles University, completing his doctorate in theoretical cybernetics in 1975, and published works on philosophy and mathematics. He then worked as a computer programmer. This official activity ceased in 1977, the year that saw the launch of Charter 77, the dissidents' manifesto Benda was so closely involved in.

Benda was one of the first signatories and - like many others - suffered immediate official retribution. He was sacked from his job and was forced to become a stoker (what would become a traditional occupation for dissidents).

He published numerous writings as typewritten texts in samizdat, ranging from philosophy to politics to literary criticism to poetry and even a novel, Cern Dvka ("The Black Girl", 1978). Benda's theoretical works were instrumental in developing the opposition's ideas. His 1978 essay Paraleln Polis ("The Parallel Polis") articulated the aim of creating an independent, civil society outside the confines of state ideology which became a cornerstone of Charter thinking.

He was merciless in his criticism of the roots of state power. "By proclamation the system has elevated the stick and carrot from being a mere means of government to an ideological principle and this guarantees the state authorities and their doctrine a secure power base," he wrote in the 1970s. "However, this system faces one mortal danger - it is based on the assumption that everybody must recognise the stick and carrot as an argument. The cry that the emperor is naked can lead to quite uncontrollable and unexpected consequences."

As the dissident movement crystallised, Benda went on to help found in May 1978 a Charter offshoot, the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted, which documented in meticulous detail the cases of those suffering repression for their political, human rights or religious activity.

In January 1979 he became one of Charter 77's three official spokesmen and in March he and his wife were charged with subversion, though not arrested. Benda was detained in May and sentenced the following October to four years' imprisonment.

Although he found prison hard, he resolutely refused the secret police's constant offers to sign a statement admitting that he had broken the law in return for release and passage out of the country. The deal foundered not only on Benda's obstinate refusal to compromise, but on the secret police's inability to find a law that he might have broken.

Prison did not dent his commitment to fight the regime and he renewed his activities immediately on release. In 1984 he again became a Charter 77 spokesman. Harassment was constant: his flat was repeatedly ransacked by the secret police and in total he was subjected to 13 spells of house arrest in 11 years.

For eight years he was denied a phone and secret police watched his door. His children were barred from studies of their choice and at least one was threatened with "disappearance".

As Communist rule crumbled across Eastern Europe in 1989, Benda played a key role in the meetings at the Magic Lantern Theatre in Prague which formed Civic Forum, the movement that took over the government as the Communist regime gave up.

Benda was determined to purge Czechoslovakia - and after the split, the Czech Republic - of lingering Communist influence. In January 1991 he proposed that all members of parliament and senior government officials be screened to root out collaborators with the secret police (a proposal rejected only by the Communists). Thanks to his anti-Communist credentials, Benda was put in charge of the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism on its creation in 1991, a job he held until January 1998.

Benda created an international uproar last year by suggesting that Helmut Zilk, a former mayor of Vienna, collaborated with the Czechoslovak secret police in the 1960s. The claim led the Czech President Vclav Havel to withdraw the highest state honour just days before it was to be given to Zilk. A subsequent investigation found that Benda's allegations were unfounded and Havel publicly apologised to Zilk. In April of this year, the Senate refused to strip Benda of his parliamentary immunity, thereby preventing him from being prosecuted in connection with his allegations.

The final straw for many came with his vocal support for the embattled former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whom he had once invited to lunch during a visit to Prague. After Pinochet's arrest during his visit to Britain for medical treatment and threatened extradition to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity, Benda signed a letter to the British press calling for his release. Critics complained that Benda failed to see that Pinochet's repressions were far more vicious than those of the Czechoslovak regime of the 1970s and 1980s.

Bearded, portly and a heavy smoker, Benda was immediately recognisable at any gathering. He was also adept at finding humour in his numerous encounters with the sometimes less than intelligent secret police. He was a devoted family man, and the long-suffering Kamila had to bear a heavy burden for her marriage to such a single- minded and tenacious man.

"The conflict with the state into which I have entered will be long, exhausting and, by all human standards, hopeless," he wrote of his life in the 1970s. "In this country this means that my whole family down to the third generation will also be brought into the conflict, together with all my friends who were not quick enough to disown me publicly."

But Vclav Benda went on to describe how police raids had become a "welcome adventure" for his children, who loved to play the games "Belonging to the Charter" and "Being Unemployed". Three of these children have taken up politics.

Vclav Benda, mathematician, philosopher and politician: born Prague 8 August 1946; married 1967 Kamila Neubauerov (four sons, two daughters); died Prague 1 June 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower