Julius Fucík Remembered

Jan Jelínek
Chairman of the Julius Fucík Society

After the change of regime in November 1989, certain Czech anti-communists tried to cast doubt on the credibility of Fucík’s remarkable book Notes from the Gallows and its author’s patriotism. An investigation of the circumstances in which it came to be written was undertaken by a group of Czech scholars led by the historian František Janácek. Their extensive report fully exonerated Fucík - as an author, as a fighter against fascism and as a person. The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda once wrote: ‘We writers of today have a great responsibility, which I want to stress: We live in a period which will tomorrow be referred to as the Fucík period in literature, a time of simple heroism. There is perhaps no greater and simpler work (than Notes from the Gallows), and none written in such dreadful circumstances.’

I don’t know whether this period in literature will be known as the ‘Fucík period’, but I have no doubt that ‘simple heroism’ will rise on the pedestal of these days. It is also true that the ‘dreadful circumstances’ in which Fucík’s book was written ‘from the gallows’, since it was there that the 40-year-old Fucík’s life ended in Berlin on 8 September 1943. Three months before his death, his appeal ‘People, be on your guard!’ (later to become famous throughout the world) was smuggled out of the Gestapo prison at Pankrác in Prague.

Two brave people named by Fucík in his book smuggled page after page of the manuscript out of the prison (167 of them in all), and other patriots looked after them until the Liberation. Fucík undoubtedly took a terrible risk when he mentioned the names of his protectors in prison, who wore German uniforms. The Gestapo would certainly have exacted a cruel revenge on them. But Fucík took the risk because he believed in human honesty and courage. These were substantial enough moral qualities possessed by a great many anti-fascist fighters all over Europe.

The book is also about these qualities. Possible mainly so.

Unfortunately, after the war about two per cent of the original Fucík text was cut, and only recently reinstated - after half a century. Of course, in the rancour of the postwar period, the publishers were greatly worried about various facts which fucík mentioned openly and which it was not yet the time to reveal. In this respect, there is a certain parallel with the famous Diary of Anne Frank, which was also originally published with a number of cuts. The subjectively-motivated reasons for this have lost their meaning with the passage of time, and this was true of Fucík’s manuscript as well.

The Julius Fucík Society, which was founded in Prague earlier this decade by journalists, historians, literary critics and contemporaries of Fucík, found a document which showed that, before publication of the first edition, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC), Rudolf Slánský, instructed Fucík’s widow Gusta, editor of the manuscript, to omit certain paragraphs. We can only speculate about why.

Unfortunately, the main cut was made in the last part of Fucík’s book, written very hurriedly after he had been condemned to death and while he was awaiting transfer to Berlin for trial and execution. In compressed style, he explained that, after weeks of stubborn silence, he had decided to ‘talk’ to the Gestapo - to ‘play a game’ with them, as he noted in brackets. This was because he had found out that a great many of his friends from the world of Czech culture who were still at liberty were in danger.

Fucík mentioned their names. They included Jaroslav Seifert, later awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The ‘game’ Fucík played with the Gestapo was unquestionably risky: One of the main organisers of the Czech intelligentsia’s anti-fascist movement, he gave the Gestapo a fictitious version of his illegal activities. He knew he could not escape the hangman’s noose, but his concern was for the lives of others. So he diverted the attention of the Nazis away from those who were still working for freedom. He ‘talked’ not to betray, but to confuse the Gestapo.

This happened in the middle of the war, when the wehrmacht were still advancing on Stalingrad. At home, mass executions were taking place after the assassination of General Heydrich, Hitler’s ruthless adjutant. And it was at this very moment that Fucík’s masterly ruse succeeded. It completely fooled the Gestapo: none of the Czech patriots named in the cut passage, whose fate hung by a hair, were arrested, and all of them lived to see the liberation.

By his intelligent ‘secret’ war with fascism, conducted from behind bars, Fucík won a resounding victory.

‘Postmark Prague’, October 1999.

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