Ján Čarnogurský (1944)

Photo: Ján Čarnogurský



“We have to keep in mind that the Communist Party really ceased to exist. It wasn’t prohibited; its existence came to an end by democratic means, just because our society didn’t want it here.”


Ján Čarnogurský was born on January 1, 1944, in Bratislava into a catholic family. He finished the primary education in 1958 in Bratislava; however, because of the parliamentary function of his father he wasn’t recommended for further study. After his father had been arrested, the family moved to a village Malá Franková, because his father was after the communist power takeover imprisoned many times just for doing his parliamentary function in the Slovak Assembly. At last, he was accepted to study at the secondary school in Kežmarok, then, a year later, he moved to Bratislava, where, after various complications, he managed to pass the leaving examination. Ján completed the first year of study at the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Bratislava, where he met his future wife, Marta. Then he moved to Bratislava to study law and in 1969 he graduated at the Faculty of Law at the university in Prague. Later, he spent a year doing his compulsory military service. After passing the bar examination and acquisition of Juris Doctor Degree, he worked as an advocate. He was dismissed from advocacy as he advocated a Moravian dissident woman. After being disbarred, he worked as a driver in Doprastav Company, later as a company’s lawyer and finally, in 1987 he became unemployed since he was still more and more engaged in the dissident activities of the Charter 77 movement. At the beginning of 1988, he participated in preparations for the Candle Manifestation and subsequently he started publishing the samizdat magazine called Bratislavské listy (Bratislava Letters). The State Security members needed the “specific reason” for his arrest, and therefore he was under the constant surveillance. On August 14, 1989, he was imprisoned along with Miroslav Kusý and accused of three main misdemeanours: publishing the magazine of Bratislavské listy, preparations for laying wreaths and flowers to the victims of Soviet occupation in 1968, and presenting the request for free elections in June 1989 at the gathering in Predmier near Žilina. In November 1989 the trial was held, based on which Ján was acquitted. However, he was released only after being granted an amnesty from President Gustáv Husák. From November 19, 1989, he was an active member of the Public against Violence movement (VPN). In December 1989 he became the first deputy prime minister in federal government and after the elections in 1998 he worked as a minister of justice. When he resigned on his post of the chairman of KDH (Christian Democratic Movement), which was established in February 1990, he started his own law company, and up to now he has had a successful law practice. In recent years he has been given many honours and awards for his miscellaneous democratic activities.


The Presence at the Charter 77 Gatherings and Dismissal from Work


The Presence at the Charter 77 Gatherings and Dismissal from Work (data format Flash Video)


“Since the mid 1980s, the Charter 77 used to organise meetings of various opposition groups - the Greens and the Czech Children, or what their real name was, and, of course, some people from Slovakia, not just the Charter members as there were only a few, but mainly the Christian opposition [was present at the meetings]. So I used to go there from Bratislava and then, of course, I informed all the others. However, the State Security caught us a few times and even detained us at the police station. Well, it was going on this way for some time, when the State Security ran of their patience. They followed me to housewares and searched my house, so then, in 1985, I was actually forced to leave the housewares. Later, I worked for some time in an affiliated plant of Joint Agricultural Cooperative (JRD), but I was forced to leave it as well and from January 1, 1987, I became unemployed.”


Cooperation with Anton Hlinka


Cooperation with Anton Hlinka (data format Flash Video)


“Coincidentally, I was satisfied with it, because at that time I had already got in touch with Anton Hlinka from the Voice of America and from the Radio Free Europe. He sent his Munich phone number to Fero Mikloško and to me and asked us to call him immediately, when something interesting would happen mainly in the field of dissident activities, especially Christian ones, in Slovakia. And we really phoned him. At first we used my home phone as I had one for some time, but then, my phone was disconnected, and we used the phone boxes on the street. Later, he broadcasted it. He compiled the information into a radio programme and aired it in his broadcasts, which were very popular with people. This way the information about what happened in one town or at some court and the like, spread throughout the whole republic.”


“They Needed the Specific Reason for My Arrest…”


“They Needed the Specific Reason for My Arrest…” (data format Flash Video)


I have to admit that a bit later, general Lorinc told me that I was imprisoned mainly because one of my conversations was listened in. Then, in spring of 1989, I talked to Fero Mikloško, Václav Malý, who is at present a bishop in Prague, and Václav Benda. We spoke about the process of beatification of saint Agnes or beatified Agnes, which was decided in advance, what actually meant that she was going to be canonized and, of course, the church ceremony was going to be organized. And as it wasn’t supposed, as nobody would came upon an idea that the regime would allow any trips to Vatican on this occasion, we presumed that it would be held in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Then, I should have said that I and Fero would bring at least ten thousand Slovaks there, you know, we felt like heroes, and that we would do a jumble there in Hradčany in Prague. We heard that it really frightened the members of the State Security, because it happened shortly after the Candle Manifestation and there were two places in Prague, which were taken as taboo, the neighbourhood of the building, where the Central Committee of the Communist Party had a seat, and Hradčany as the president’s residence. Right there, in Hradčany, we wanted to do something like that, and, I think, that especially after the Candle Manifestation and petition from the Catholics, the State Security wasn’t able to identify believers. They didn’t know who they were, what they were capable of doing, or what their way of thinking was. That’s why they were frightened. And that’s also why they arrested me; they simply wanted to prevent the above mentioned events.”


The End of Communism - Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia


The End of Communism - Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (data format Flash Video)


“I want to say something about November 1989. I learnt about it a couple of days later. It is necessary to say that I was arrested on August 15, 1989; however, it was about August 20, or August 25, 1989, when the non-communist government lead by Mazowiecki was established in Poland. A few days later, eastern Germans were released from Hungary to escape through Hungary to Austria, so this way Hungary opened the frontiers to the West. Moreover, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall between Eastern and Western Germany fell. Only some time before that, busses crowded with Eastern Germans were still being driven to prison, and these people often attempted to escape to Hungary or to Austria through Czechoslovakia. Those who were caught at frontiers were quickly sent back to the GDR; however, usually they went from prison to prison, they also were in Bratislava, where I was imprisoned, and usually spent a night there. It all showed that the system was about to collapse. Later, on about November 19 or 20, the demonstrations on SNP Square in Bratislava started and when we opened the window in our cell, we could hear people chanting there. My advocate usually told me what was going on there. Well, thus I knew that something had happened. My trial was held on November 23, when I was acquitted, but as the prosecutor lodged an appeal against my release from custody, I had to stay in prison. However, two days later, on November 25, I was granted an amnesty from President Husák and I was released from prison.”


Relaxed Atmosphere, More Tolerable Ways of Investigation, Unstableness of the State Security


Relaxed Atmosphere, More Tolerable Ways of Investigation, Unstableness of the State Security (data format Flash Video)


“I experienced this around the year 1988, when the police caught us at one of the meetings of the opposition staff in Prague. We were isolated from each other and taken to various police stations in Prague, and then, I was put into a car and told that they would drive me to Bratislava. However, they drove me about thirty miles from Prague and then turned off the road. They stopped in a grove and ordered me to get out of the car. I thought it could end up really badly for me, but fortunately nothing happened. They got out of the car, waited silently for a while and then got back into the car and went away. They simply left me there. This was what I experienced then. When I was in prison, I already felt their respect or uncertainty at least, for example, I refused to cooperate with investigators, I mean I refused to give evidence and the like. When they wanted to take my fingerprints, I clenched my fists and said I wouldn’t open them, because I wouldn’t cooperate and they didn’t dare to open my fists by violence, what they actually could have done, if they had wanted.”


“Free Elections” on Every House


“Free Elections” on Every House (data format Flash Video)


“Well, when I was released from prison, it was approximately at six or seven o’clock in the evening, it already got dark and the money I had was just enough for a tram ticket, so I got on and went home to Dúbravka. At that time the houses were already covered with various inscriptions such as: ‘We call for free elections’. When they had arrested me three months before, the demand for free elections had been one of my accusations and then, when I was released, the demand for free elections was sprayed almost on every second house. It reflected the course of events, how fast that parabola bended. I came home, but, coincidentally, my wife was in Prague. She watched the events then, the fall of regime, and as I was still in prison, she went to Prague to ask the leaders of the Charter 77 and the leaders of demonstrations to request my release, as I was still supposed to be in prison. At least our children were at home and when I came, the TV was on and I watched a talk show, discussion in a studio. One of the participants was Miroslav Kusý, who was arrested along with me in August. It was another sign that times were changing. My wife came home early in the morning. I was released on Saturday and on Sunday I was having a speech on the SNP Square, where demonstrations took place every day.”


Deputy Prime Minister Appointed by Husák


Deputy Prime Minister Appointed by Husák (data format Flash Video)


“On December 10, we came to Hradčany. Gustáv Husák appointed us to our posts and it was what journalists asked me about many times, actually, when it was my turn, he appointed me and immediately I said an oath of office, I can’t recall all the details, but Gustáv Husák told me: ‘I didn’t let you arrest.’ You know, I was all right about it. It was all right that he told it to me like to a friend. It is a kind of tradition that older lawyers take the younger ones as their friends, so there was nothing wrong about it; I took it as our professional custom, an unwritten law. Then, we touched glasses and went out on the balcony, which was on the third courtyard of the Prague castle. There were hundreds of people under the balcony, who greeted us and the like. Only later I realized and observed that the moment when we appeared on the balcony and greeted people of Prague was the high point of pre-November events.”


Communists Kept Active Even after 1989


Communists Kept Active Even after 1989 (data format Flash Video)


“At first it is necessary to say that the Communist Party really ceased to exist. It wasn’t prohibited; its existence came to an end by democratic means, what meant that our society didn’t want it here. We shouldn’t forget about it. Well, when it was over, the communists spread out, they became active in other political parties, except for the Christian Democratic Movement, as they knew that it was the end of communism. That’s the way things are in history, and the result was that the further development wasn’t very sharp. In these terms I don’t talk just about economy, but mainly about domestic policy, culture and the like, it wasn’t as sharp as I had imagined or wished. However, we couldn’t have expected that former communists, as there were about 400,000 of them in Slovakia, would be in sackcloth and ashes telling us, ‘All right, we won’t be socially engaged anymore.’ We really couldn’t expect it. And they joined other parties, they adjusted to market terms. They were often very apt people, because it is a fact that many people joined the party just because they wanted to develop their potential in the communist era. That’s how things are.”


Coping with the Communist Regime


Coping with the Communist Regime (data format Flash Video)


“Coping with communism, let’s say, in the field of justice, which I know the best, of course, the judges remained the same, and we couldn’t replace them. If there had been new judges, if we had said that we wanted to replace all the old judges with the new ones, then those new judges would have been even worse than the previous, because they would have been worse lawyers. And, in the field of justice, 90 % of activities belong to the sphere of law, to knowledge of law and the remaining 10 % is politically or ideologically motivated. Later, when I was the minister of justice, I had meetings with young judges or judges to be, it was about the year 2000, actually ten years after the Velvet Revolution, and those people had nothing to do with communism. They were young people who graduated at faculties of law in the mid 1990s. However, the discussion with them was only about whether they would get a flat and when, what their salaries would be, whether they could work at court they had chosen or not and the like. I have to admit I was really disappointed. So having certain illusions about radical coping with communism, I really doubt there could be some sweeping changes.”


The story and videoclips of this witness were put together and published thanks to the financial support of EU within the programme Europe for Citizens – Active European Remembrance.

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