Pavel Tigrid

Prophet and agent of the Velvet Revolution
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Pavel Schönfeld (Pavel Tigrid), writer, publisher and politician: born Prague 27 October 1917; head of the Czech service, Radio Free Europe 1951-53; adviser to the Czech President 1990-92, 1997-98; Minister of Culture 1994-96; Co-chairman, Co-ordinating Council of Czech-German Discussion Forum 1998-2000; married 1947 Ivana Myskova (one son, two daughters); died Héricy, France 31 August 2003.

Pavel Tigrid's mission as an émigré journalist and publisher devoted to the cause of keeping alive the spirit of free thinking among Czech and Slovak intellectuals during the decades of Communist rule was accomplished with the Velvet Revolution of November 1989. With democracy restored in Czechoslovakia, Tigrid, by then 72 years old, appeared to be ready for a well-earned retirement. Instead, he embarked on a fresh career as a senior - though not party-political - official in the new administration.

First Tigrid worked as an adviser to his friend Vaclav Havel, the former dissident playwright, when Havel became post-Communist Czechoslovakia's first president. Later on, following the break-up of the Czechoslovak federation, he was appointed the Czech Republic's Minister of Culture. It was a controversial appointment, not least because at the end of his term in office - by then he was nearly 80 - Tigrid regretted that he had not been able to abolish his own post, and the entire ministry with it.

Even then Tigrid was not interested in retiring from public life. He returned to serve President Havel with a specific brief to help improve Czech-German relations. And, when the thaw between the two countries led to the establishment of a Czech-German Discussion Forum, Tigrid became one of its co-chairmen.

Tigrid was awarded the Federal Great Cross with Star, Germany's highest distinction, for his contribution to bringing about reconciliation between the two countries. In giving thanks for the decoration, Tigrid made it clear in his characteristic way that, even though his mother had been among those who were transported in a cattle wagon to the Auschwitz extermination camp during the Second World War, he could never agree with the manner in which Czechoslovakia forcibly expelled - often in the same cattle wagons - its own Sudeten German population after the war.

He was born Pavel Schönfeld into a Jewish family in Prague. He fled to Britain when Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and throughout the war worked for the BBC's Czech service. It was when he started his career with the BBC that he adopted the pen-name Tigrid - apparently in a fit of absent-mindedness because while he was thinking of the river Tigris he made a mistake with the spelling.

Like many other Czech émigrés, Tigrid returned to his country of birth at the end of the war, but when the Communist coup d'état of 1948 overthrew the democratic regime, he chose exile for a second time. He worked in Munich for the Czechoslovak section of the then newly established US-financed Radio Free Europe, and became the head of the unit in the early 1950s.

Tigrid's key contribution came with the founding in 1956 of the influential Czechoslovak exile magazine Svedectvi ("Testimony"). For over three decades that cultural-political periodical served as a forum for writers, artists and intellectuals of all kinds to publish works that could not appear in the state-controlled media in Czechoslovakia. Although Tigrid's own political views were largely conservative, one of the main virtues of Svedectvi was the broad range of opinions that were given access to the public through its columns. Firm anti-Communists and representatives of reform Communist movement shared its pages.

The contents, quality and longevity of Svedectvi turned Tigrid - by then based in Paris - into a publishing legend among Czechs and Slovaks. But it enraged the hardline Communist authorities in Prague who deprived Tigrid of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1959, and then eight years later sentenced him in absentia to 14 years' imprisonment for espionage and activities that were deemed to be hostile to the republic.

Tigrid's trial came on the eve of the Prague Spring - the short-lived attempt in 1968 by Alexander Dubcek and other Communist reformers to build "socialism with a human face". That experiment, brought to an end by the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968, was documented in two of Tigrid's best-known works, Le Printemps de Prague (1968), and Le Chute irresistible d'Alexandre Dubcek (1969).

During the two decades of the harsh political winter that followed the Prague Spring, Tigrid continued his writing and publishing activities. The shrewdness of his analysis was impressive. Months before the Velvet Revolution, he could see not only that the Communist regime was on the brink of collapse but also that Havel's moral standing should secure him the presidency. Tigrid coined the slogan "Havel for President" well before the crowds in Prague took it up as their chant.

He returned to Prague in 1990 - after 42 years' exile - to become one of President Havel's advisers. Their friendship had started in Paris during the heady days of 1968 when Tigrid played host to the young playwright.

Tigrid was closely associated with the liberal-minded Havel. His appointment in 1994 as Minister of Culture in Vaclav Klaus's centre-right administration was an indication of the widespread respect that he enjoyed across the political spectrum in the Czech Republic. In any case, he had no party-political affiliations; and he was keen to emphasise that, as he was already in his late seventies, he had no political ambitions.

What Tigrid did have was a radical vision to redirect arts funding, away from the tradition of almost complete reliance on the state which he wanted replaced, to a great extent, by sponsorship from private and corporate donors. It was not a popular programme among many beneficiaries of state funding in the arts community.

However, Tigrid was not against the government's making a financial contribution to culture. Rather he espoused the view that such funding should be channelled indirectly - through a non-political arts council - and not handed out by the Ministry of Culture. His priority was to spend more of his ministry's budget on the upkeep and restoration of monuments, historic buildings and museums while encouraging the performing arts to seek sponsorship elsewhere.

After he stepped down from the government, Tigrid's main aspiration was to promote Czech-German reconciliation. Indeed, one of the hopes for 2003 he voiced at the beginning of year was that Czechs, and their government, would express sincere regret for the post-war expropriation and expulsion of the Sudeten Germans - an act that he viewed as a form of ethnic cleansing which was based on hate-filled revenge for the Nazis' wartime atrocities. Few Czechs could ever bring themselves to this level of self-criticism.

With his many years' experience of exile in the West, Tigrid continued to act as a voice of common sense. When many Czechs expressed disappointment over the repeated failure of their MPs to elect a successor to Havel in the early months of 2003, it was Tigrid who reminded them that haggling among politicians was part and parcel of the way parliaments in the democratic world worked. For many Czechs Tigrid, in old age, had become a wise and understanding father-figure.

Gabriel Partos