Jiri Dienstbier Sr.’s work was central to how Czechs, as citizens of a nascent democracy, would come to define their responsibilities to other countries still ruled by autocratic regimes. The extent of those responsibilities and how to uphold them is still a subject of debate in Czech society today.
Dienstbier was born in the Central Bohemian town of Kladno in 1937, and is described by contemporaries as a “faithful communist,” but one who believed the party could be reformed from within. He lost that faith, however, after the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was carried out in retaliation for efforts by Dienstbier and other reformers to build “Socialism with a human face. "
His talent as a journalist and deep knowledge of foreign affairs, coupled with his party affiliation, had allowed him to report as a foreign correspondent for state-run Czechoslovak Radio from Western Europe, the Far East, and even the United States, but he was promptly fired and expelled from the Union of Journalists after denouncing the invasion on the air.
Called back to Czechoslovakia and forced to take menial jobs as punishment for his public dissent, Dienstbier authored many samizdat articles on the poor state of human rights in Czechoslovakia that were circulated underground. He was among the first signatories of Charter 77, a document criticizing the Czechoslovak government for failing to implement human rights protections in accordance with international treaties. Charter 77 would help galvanize the movement that later overturned the regime.
In 1979, he was imprisoned for three years for “subversion of the republic.”
Jefim Fistejn, former director of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, who worked as a translator in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and also risked prison for signing Charter 77, remembers Dienstbier as a gregarious conversationalist and a humble politician.
“I visited his home a few times in the Charter 77 days. It was the typical apartment of an intellectual, with books strewn all over the floor, and of course some hard alcohol on the table, usually domestic rum,” said Fistejn.
WATCH: Jiri Dienstbier's son, current Czech Human Rights Minister Jiri Dienstbier Jr., speaks about his father's legacy.