Introduction: Interviews with Czechoslovak Generals of the Cold War Era
In his work on the Czechoslovak Army in 1968 – 1970, Czech historian Jindřich Madry has written that any efforts to obtain comments from the key players at that time were meaningless, as the latter did not have any interest whatsoever in giving a true account of the events. Within the context of Czech Cold War research, interviews with former communist dignitaries have been an exception rather than the rule. There was a fairly high number of interviews with former communist officers and generals made early in the 1990s by the Governmental Commission for the Clarification of the 1967-1970 Events; however, most of them concerned only the year 1968 and have never been published.
The talks with top Polish generals, which were conducted by Polish historian Professor [Jerzy] Poksiński and other military historians in the late 1990s and which were published by the Parallel History Project of NATO and the Warsaw Pact in 2002, show that oral history methods and techniques offer as yet untapped opportunities to historians focusing on the evolution of Warsaw Pact armies. To what extent does the success of the Polish interviews reflect the specific social climate in Poland and to what extent is the Polish model transferable to what used to be Czechoslovakia? This was the question present throughout the duration of the project of interviews with generals of the former Czechoslovak People’s Army, an important segment of the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact.
Naturally, the key question was the selection of the narrators. In this respect, we attempted to have the broadest possible representation of all generations of Czechoslovak Cold War era generals. Early into the project, we prepared a list including all persons who had held important positions at the Ministry of Defense, General Staff of the Czechoslovak People’s Army and in the armed forces between 1948 and 1990 (Ministers of Defense, Chiefs of the General Staff, First Deputy Ministers of Defense, Chiefs of the Main Political Directorate, Chiefs of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff and its departments, Chiefs of the Organizational and Mobilization Directorate, Intelligence Directorate and Materiel Planning (later Central Planning) Directorate, Commanders of the Western and Eastern Military Districts, Commanders of the First and Fourth Armies and the Tenth Air Army, Czechoslovak representatives in the Unified Command and the Committee on Technology of the Warsaw Pact, Chiefs of the Military Economic Directorate of the State Planning Commission). In other words, we were trying to find those “in the know” among those who had been involved, and those “willing and able to talk” among those “in the know”.
However, it soon became obvious that the broad concept outlined above would be difficult to meet. Of course, there were some natural, or biological, limitations of the project; of all the Czechoslovak Ministers of Defense of the Cold War era, only the two last ones, Army Generals Milan Václavík and Miroslav Vacek, are still alive. The specific situation in Czechoslovakia is best demonstrated on a comparison with the interviews with Polish generals—a group of people representing a generation with similar destinies and attitudes. The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 divided the Czechoslovak officers’ and generals’ corps into two groups, each of which was to face quite a different future in the years to come. Those who were forced to leave the army in the years of normalization found themselves to be out of their profession for the next two decades, and only the political changes of 1989 provided a chance to return to some of them. Most of them had undergone a painful re-evaluation of their political opinions and value concepts. Most members of the second group identified themselves with the normalization policy of the Communist Party and Soviet interests; naturally, their attitude has been reflected in their past (or event current) opinions regarding the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc, Warsaw Pact and—last but not least—Czechoslovakia. Their world outlook is significantly different even from that of their Polish counterparts of the 1970s and 1980s, whose recollections often echo traditional Polish anti-Soviet and anti-Russian sentiments.
The Czech Republic, one of the two successor states of Czechoslovakia, has yet another specific feature: there still exists an influential and all but unreconstructed Communist party as a reminder of the normalization era. At the same time, the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes, a division of the Police of the Czech Republic, has been prosecuting former Communist dignitaries (e.g., Gen. Karel Rusov, ex-Chief of the General Staff). The project of interviews with Czechoslovak Cold War era generals has not pursued any political goals; however, it is not possible to ignore the context of the interviews—the political environment in which the project took place and in which the old-timers still live—the more so since the issues of recent history continue to be burdened with political and legal connotations and ramifications. Similarly, it is impossible to disregard various conscious and sub-conscious loyalties impeding the narrators’ openness. Not even the far-reaching political changes in post-Communist countries do necessarily mean that these old-timers are willing to share the secrets that they had been privileged to know and guarded so jealously in the past. In this regard, one of the essential requirements of a successful implementation of oral history techniques, namely a relationship of trust between the interviewer and the narrator, was not fully met.
The interviews have shown that one of the most important and obvious taboos is, for example, the issue of nuclear warheads on the Czechoslovak territory. The existence of “special munitions” depots—no matter how obvious it was in view of the needs and requirements of flexible military planning—was one of the most carefully guarded secrets of the Communist army. Although information on US nuclear munitions depots in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany has long been published, some of the narrators were vehemently denying the existence of similar facilities in Czechoslovakia, often without being asked the question. Undoubtedly, the reasons are multiple—the fact that only a narrow circle of people from the top echelons of the Ministry of Defense and Operations Directorate of the General Staff had had access to the information, or that the control of the facilities had been taken over by the Soviets in 1968, or that the issue was such a rigid taboo. The everyday double-think and almost maniacal obsession with information security, so typical for the communist rule, are best revealed in the most sensitive issues, such as the one referred to above.
Another difference between the Czechoslovak and Polish interviews has been the person of the interviewer. The interviews made in Poland by Professor Poksiński (whose only comparable Czechoslovak counterpart was the late military historian Tibor Hochsteiger) reflected efforts of individual narrators—including General Jaruzelski, whose Czechoslovak opposite number simply did not exist—to record their respective life stories and to adopt an attitude toward one’s own past. Thus, the Polish interviews were based not just on initiatives by military historians, but also on the willingness of the narrators themselves to tell their stories.
Most of the Czechoslovak old-timers whom we had approached with a request for an interview refused to oblige.  Some did so in their responses to our letters of request, others after reviewing the list of questions that was prepared individually for each of the interviewees on the basis of the available data on the command and staff positions the person in question had held during his career. Some of them excused themselves on the grounds of poor health or advanced age, others expressed doubts as to the project’s objectives, and still others explained that they believed their knowledge was not relevant to the project. Reactions of many of those whom we had addressed suggested a prejudice that their answers might be “misused”; there were even questions about whether the project was being financed by foreign intelligence services. Two or three [officers] made it clear that they did not wish to make any public appearance whatsoever. In addition, there were naturally many potential interviewees whom we did not contact at all, one of the reasons being that we could not track them down.
We paid a great deal of attention to the selection of questions. Of course, any selection is problematic and questionable, so we decided to concentrate on several broader topics. In view of the recent research focus of the Czechoslovak operational planning for war, our primary concerns included operational issues, including their broader consequences and ramifications, the Czechoslovak position within the Warsaw Pact, relations between the Czechoslovak army command and the Soviets, and the crucial year 1968. If an interviewee required so, he was given a prepared set of questions to get acquainted with them in advance. The set of questions also comprised some documents that the interviewee was asked to comment on.
Although some of the interviews resembled a biographical narration, their principal purpose was not to examine the narrator’s value system, his individual fate, personal motives, life strategy, or family background. The interviews were a sensitive enough affair for the interviewees even without our attempting to explore the “micro-histories” of their lives in addition to our main job, i.e., “macro-history”. As a rule, the interviewees were first asked to list, in chronological order, the positions they had held in the Czechoslovak Army. In the remaining part of the interview, the chronological order might be sacrificed for the sake of specific, topic-oriented questions.
Before the interviews proper, all interviewees were given an explanation of the project’s goals and methods, and asked for their consent to record the interview. More often than not, the interviews were preceded by a discussion on the purpose and meaning of the project, the prepared questions, the scope of the interviewee’s knowledge and the manner in which the recording would be used. Narrators often spontaneously answered questions during unrecorded discussion; in such cases, they were asked, subject to their consent with the interview being recorded, to answer some of the questions raised during the discussion once again or in a greater detail. The questions were by no means intended to be suggestive.
When interpreting or analyzing the interviews, it is particularly the specific character of oral communication that has to be taken into account. Typical features of oral communication include immediateness and emphasized individualization of experiences, but naturally at the expense of a risk of inaccuracies, poorly formulated thoughts, or tendencies to mythologize (especially if the interviewee is recalling events which occurred, for example, fifty years ago). Generally, it holds true that a narrated story can be perceived as a symbolical proof attesting to the narrator’s relationships, not as a source of accurate information on factual details. The narration is not only based on recollections, but it also reflects the process of “reliving”, including elements of suppression, interpretation and reinterpretation. Such a narration is thus bound to be a subjective reconstruction of the narrator’s subjective version of the past.
Every recording is a reduction of the interview’s contents and every transcript of a recording is another imperfect form of intermediation of the abridged interview. Consequently, we also tried to record, albeit briefly, non-verbal means of communication. Thus, for example, if Lt. Gen. František Šádek says, “Well, we did not conquer them at that time”, as he leans over a map showing the main thrust of the Czechoslovak Front, which ends somewhere in the middle of France, a “[laughing]“ insert denotes that this is an ironically rather than seriously meant comment.
As there is a substantial difference between standard written Czech and colloquial spoken Czech, transcripts of the interviews underwent some grammatical and stylistic modifications, particularly in converting colloquial idioms and phrases into the standard language, except where the narrator used them with an obvious intention. In any case, we observed the rule of retaining the original meaning of what the interviewee wanted to say. If the narrator wished so, he was given the interview transcript to authorize it, but he was only allowed to make stylistic changes or add details improving accuracy. The factual contents and pace of the interview have been retained.
Because of specific local conditions, the composition of the interviewees is rather heterogeneous; this also means that each narrator adopted a different approach to the interview. The purpose of the project was not to divide the interviewees into groups, some of which would be deemed “illegitimate”. Similarly, the interview was not perceived (at least not by the interviewer) as an opportunity for a discourse about the narrator’s political or ideological beliefs. The unwillingness of some of the interviewed generals to share their memories or to be confronted with new sources of information naturally limited the project; yet we believe that the project has been a success in many respects.
Oral history is generally regarded as an indispensable supplement of written sources in studies focusing on recent history; insofar as the communist regimes are concerned, its importance may be even higher, as official written documents only seldom reflect sensitive issues, which are often crucial, no matter how suppressed they may have been. An example of such an issue which, although not reflected very much in archival documents, kept buzzing in the minds of Czechoslovak commanders and burst to the surface during the Prague Spring, is the conflict between the Czechoslovak commitments to the Warsaw Pact and the Czechoslovak economic capabilities.
The greatest openness is manifested in interviews with the generation of the “68ers”—Czechoslovak officers ousted and persecuted for their attitudes during the Prague Spring and their rejection of the Soviet invasion in August 1968. Some of them returned to the army in the early 1990s, e.g., General of the Army Karel Pezl, who was the Chief of the General Staff of the Czechoslovak (and subsequently Czech) Army from 1991 to 1993, and who made an undisputedly significant contribution to preparing the Army of the Czech Republic for joining NATO. Regarding the generation of the Cold War era generals, who left the army during the purges in the wake of the Soviet invasion, it would seem rather unfortunate to label the present collection as “interviews with communist generals”. Actually, at the time they were members of the communist party, many of them were only colonels, [whereas later] they were expelled from the party, stripped of their rank, and eventually rehabilitated and promoted to generals only after some twenty years of persecution.
Much useful information can be found in interviews with a younger generation of commanders, from the 1970s and 1980s, who offered detailed comments on the consequences and ramifications of the Czechoslovak war plan of 1964 (its translation into Czech was attached as an annex to the questions sent to the interviewees). Discussions dealing with operational planning made use of a map containing data from the abovementioned “Plan of Actions of the Czechoslovak People’s Army for War Period” (published on the PHP web pages).
The interviews follow a more or less chronological order. The first group comprises interviews with World War II veterans who served in the Czechoslovak Army Corps in the Soviet Union and many of whom advanced to top military command slots after the war. One of them is Oldřich Kvapil (1918), the chief of the intelligence division of the 2nd Section of the General Staff (military intelligence) from 1948 to 1950 and the commander of the Sušice Division from 1955 to 1957, who was forced to leave the army in the 1970s because of his attitude to the Soviet occupation. The “Oranky Group” of war veterans also included Col. Gen. Miroslav Šmoldas (1917-2003), the founder of the Border and Interior Guards in the 1950s, later the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Czechoslovak representative in the Armaments Committee of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, and Inspector General of the Czechoslovak People’s Army. The talk with him was particularly helpful in shedding light on the importance of the Czechoslovak arms industry and arms exports.
Not very informative on issues of operational planning was the interview with another “frontline man”, Vlastislav Raichl (1920), who had been a counterintelligence officer for a short period of time after the war; having graduated from the Voroshilov Military Academy in the Soviet Union, he held the post of the Commander of the Frontal Air Defense Command from 1961 to 1967. Although he was the Czechoslovak representative on the Staff of the Unified Command (then being formed up) from 1967 till 1969 (i.e. also during the Soviet invasion), Lt. Gen. Raichl’s interview has not brought much new information in this respect.
Two Slovak generals were also World War II veterans. A former guerrilla fighter, František Šádek (1921) held the posts of the Commander of the 4th Army, Deputy Minister of Defense and Commander of the Western Military District in the 1960s. At the time of the “normalization”, he took over and for a long time commanded the Border Guards. The career of Jozef Činčár (1922) also peaked in the 1970s; at that time, he was the Deputy Minister of Defense responsible for aviation and national air defense. The value of the two interviews is diminished by the uncritical attitude of the narrators toward the Czechoslovak People’s Army and lack of credibility of some of their statements. It is true that Lt. Gen. Šádek did not deny the authenticity of the 1964 Czechoslovak Operations Plan when confronted with the document, but he said very little about the planning of operations in the 1960s. Lt. Gen. Činčár repeatedly stated that the Czechoslovak Air Force had not had the capability to deliver nuclear strikes. When authorizing the interview, he deleted the segments in question, replacing them by a brief statement to the effect that Czechoslovak pilots had also trained for nuclear strikes.
Much more in this respect is revealed in the interview with Václav Vitanovský (1916-1996); this is the only interview not conducted by the authors of the project, but by members of the Governmental Commission for the Clarification of 1968 Events in the early 1990s. In the key period of the 1960s, Lt. Gen. Vitanovský was the Chief of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff and then the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, responsible for command development. He was an unquestioned authority on issues of operational art and made an attempt to develop an independent Czechoslovak defense doctrine, which—combined with his disapproval of the Soviet invasion—was one of the reasons why he was forced to leave the army.
A similar fate was in store for Maj. Gen. Vladimír Picek (1927), Chief of the Operations Department of the Operations Directorate between 1967 and 1969, and Chief of the Operations Directorate from 1969 to 1970. He offers an insight into the minds of Czechoslovak operations officers during the 1960s, a period in which nuclear weapons played a hitherto most important role in Soviet military considerations. Czechoslovak attempts to extricate from (and loosen the grip of subordination resulting in) disproportionately tough demands that the Soviet General Staff was imposing upon the first-echelon Czechoslovak Front, as well as to achieve a more equal position within the Warsaw Pact are reflected in the interview with Karel Pezl (1927), Chief of the Operations Department of the 1st Army and then Chief of the Operation Preparations Department of the Operations Directorate in the 1960s. Among other things, he describes the mechanism of preparations of the Czechoslovak Operations Plan.
Lt. Gen. Stanislav Procházka (1922) held a number of top command posts in the Czechoslovak People’s Army before 1968. From 1964 to 1965, he was the Commander of the 1st Army, from 1965 to 1968 he commanded the Western Military District into which the 1st Army had been transformed. In addition to the operational considerations during that period, he spoke mainly about the Soviet invasion. Although a graduate of the Voroshilov Military Academy and personally acquainted with many of the Soviet commanders, he sided with those who rejected the August 1968 occupation by Warsaw Pact forces and was relieved of command a few months later.
The same applies to Jaroslav Vinkler (1924). Having graduated from the Voroshilov Military Academy, he became the Deputy Chief of the Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff. He, too, paid by forced retirement for his disapproval of the Soviet invasion, but he was rehabilitated in the early 1990s, and promoted from Colonel to Major General. He was talking mainly about the work of the military intelligence service in the second half of the 1960s, and recounting events of the August occupation, as a result of which he had become the Chief of the Intelligence Directorate for a short period of time (after the removal of Gen. Burda).
The last of the generation of “68ers” is Vojtěch Mencl (1923), a lecturer (in the 1950s and 1960s) and subsequently (in 1968) the rector of the Military Political Academy. During the Prague Spring, he was one of the most reform-minded officers in the army and a co-author of the so-called Memorandum of Staff Members of the Military Political Academy, a document calling for the definition of a Czechoslovak military doctrine.
Among the 1970s generals, most of whom generally refuse to talk, Maj. Gen. Ján Franko (1925), Chief of the Czechoslovak Chemical Warfare Troops from 1968 to 1981, is a significant exception. His extensive interview does not avoid even the most sensitive topics, such as the Czechoslovak role in chemical warfare. In the end of the interview, he describes his work as military attaché in Budapest from 1981 to 1987.
The last three interviews of the collection were provided by relatively younger generals, who held top command or staff posts during the 1980s. The first of them, Maj. Gen. Zdeněk Štorek (1938), was the Commander of the 10th Air Force in Hradec Králové from 1983 to 1986. At that time, the 10th Air Force comprised basically the entire peacetime Czechoslovak military aviation. In his interview, he emphasizes the non-nuclear nature of operational planning in the 1980s.
The contrast between the Czechoslovak War Plan of 1964 and the operational planning of the mid-1980s was stressed in the interview with Lt. Gen. Mojmír Zachariáš (1939), Commander of the 4th Army between 1983 and 1986 of the Western Military District from 1987 to 1990 (which means he would have been the Commander of the Czechoslovak Front in the event of an outbreak of hostilities). He also speaks very openly about relations with the Soviets, symptoms of partial technological lagging and nuclear weapons in the inventory of the Warsaw Pact. In the end of the interview, Gen. Zachariáš describes the depressed atmosphere that prevailed in the Staff of Unified Armed Forces of the Warsaw Pact in 1990.
The youngest of the interviewees is Lt. Gen, Anton Slimák (1941), a graduate of the Voroshilov Military Academy and the Chief of Staff of the 15th Division in České Budějovice in the 1970s. After several years spent at the Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, he became its Deputy Chief and Chief in 1986 and 1988, respectively. Following General Vacek’s appointment to the position of the Minister of Defense, he was the Chief of the General Staff of the Czechoslovak Army (1989-1991). When commenting on the 1964 operational plan, he claims it was not realistic and speaks about the reworking of operation plans in the mid-1985. He describes the structure and focus of the military intelligence, a reform of which he was attempting to carry out in the late 1980s. In the second part of his interview, he talks about changes after 1989, a growing discord in relations with Soviets, and the search for a new enemy at the end of the Cold War.
There were altogether 15 interviews, 11 with Czech generals and 4 with Slovak generals (residing in the territory of the Czech Republic). Two of the latter (Generals Činčár and Franko) responded in Czech, the other two (Generals Šádek and Slimák) in Slovak. For technical reasons, the two last-mentioned interviews were translated into Czech. The project did not contact any Slovak generals who currently reside in the territory of the Slovak Republic.
Special thanks are extended to Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dr. Pavel Minařík, until recently a staff member of the Central Military Archives, for much valuable data made available on the http://vojenstvi.cz website and directly to the persons working on the present project. The Office of Defense Standardization of the Ministry of Defense supported the project by providing the recently published Czech-English Dictionary of Military Terminology. The interview with Gen. Vitanovský appears courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, whose archives contain a transcript of the interview referred to above.
[Translated by Jiří Mareš, Prague]
KAREL SIEBER works in the news archive of Czech Television. His main academic interest is Czechoslovak foreign policy during the Cold War.
 However, the Center of Oral History of the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences represents a successful combination of the theory and practice of oral history. See the first volume on the new series, Voices of the Past: Miroslav Vaněk, Orální historie ve výzkumu soudobých dějin [Oral History in Research on Contemporary History]. (Prague: COH ICH CAS, 2004).
 For example, Generals Karel Rusov, Miloslav Blahník, Václav Horáček, Jaroslav Klícha, Jiří Nečas, Josef Vincenc, Rudolf Ducháček, Ladislav Stach, Miroslav Vampula, Zdeněk Jašek, Václav Dvořák, Viktor Šurka, Pavel Vrlík, Ferdinand Hanzal and others. The former Minister of National Defense, General of the Army Miroslav Vacek, also refused an interview, explaining that he was working on another book of his memoirs.
Ch. 6 of Miroslav Vacek, Generál studené války [Cold War General] (Prague: Erika, 2004) is reproduced on the PHP website. He provided a number of contacts to his former colleagues.