Defending SED Party line: Günther Rücker’s Der Nachbar des Herrn Pansa (1969)
Günther Rücker’s adaptation of Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, Der Nachbar des Herrn Pansa (Mister Panza’s Neighbor), is a SED party-line interpretation of the historic events during the Prague Spring in 1968, portraying the leader of the Czech reform movement, Alexander Dubček , as a quixotic dreamer whose actions would threaten the existence of the socialist system by supporting the class enemy. Contrary to most of German reworking of Don Quixote that has touches of romanticism, Rücker follows the hard approach – parodying Don Quixote as an eloquent fool. According to Rücker, Quixote’s sentimental humanitarianism leads him to treason, which represents a serious threat to the revolution. This example of re-interpreting Cervantes’s main protagonist clearly demonstrates that not only GDR literature was written with the fantasy that it had a direct social utility, but also that classic works of world literature were adapted for that purpose.
As Laura Bradley states, many of the GDR’s citizens followed the Prague Spring closely through Western television, investing “their own hopes in the events in Prague” (75). Among them were many theater practitioners who after the massive military invasion of Czechoslovakia by the tanks and soldiers of the Warsaw Pact States on August 21, 1968 tried to express their outrage about this invasion on stage. As Bradley notes, “The autumn after the Prague Spring was felt not only in Czechoslovakia, but in the theaters of East Berlin” (110). To outline the context in which Rücker rewrote Don Quixote of La Mancha, two examples should be pointed out. The first is the controversial staging of Goethe’s Faust I at the Deutsches Theater, which had its premiere on September 30, 1968. Although with its fixed text it did not refer directly to the invasion that happened a few weeks earlier, “its theatrical rebellion and topical cabaret betrayed a complete disrespect for authority” (Bradley 110). Its iconoclasm and the allusions to censorship sparked a scandal. A second critical reaction to the invasion of Prague was the adaptation of Aeschylus’s play Sieben gegen Theben / (Seven against Thebes), performed at the Berliner Ensemble in 1969. As Bradley shows, it provocatively alludes to the crushing of the democratic reforms in the neighboring country, as, for instance, in the following lines: “keiner will / Zum Herrscher den, der eignes Volk / anfällt mit fremdem Heer” / (“no one wants / as their ruler a man who attacks / his own people with a foreign army”) (Bradley 109). As the critic wisely states, “these lines included a coded reference to Dubček’s Soviet-backed successor, Gustáv Husák”[2 ](109).
As Bradley demonstrates in great detail, the Party responded to these critical performances with different actions of censorship. However, as will be shown in this study, it also responded more creatively by having staged a play that condemns the Prague Spring as a counter-revolution and preaches to maintain the traditional hard-line approach of the Party. Camouflaged as an “innocent” new adaptation of a classic work of literature, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote of La Mancha, Rücker’s play Der Nachbar des Herrn Pansa cleverly justifies the military invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of the democratic reform movement.
Anatoly Lunacharsky’s  play Der befreite Don Quichotte / (The Freed Don Quixote) (1922) serves as a stepping-stone from Cervantes’s novel to Rücker’s play. As Elisabeth Frenzel noted, both the Russian writer and Rücker “erprobte[n] den Humanitätsglauben des spanischen Ritters an einer Klassenkampfsituation” / (“tested the Spanish knight’s belief in humanitarianism in a situation of class struggle”) (177). In fact, some of Rücker’s main protagonists depend so strongly on Lunacharsky’s characters that one feels reminded of Miguel de Unamuno’s observation that over the centuries Don Quixote is not only Cervantes’s creation any more but also “lo que puso libremente el espíritu de los lectores” / (“what the spirit of the readers freely added”) (see Varela Iglesias 44). As Unamuno states, “cada generación […] ha ido añadiendo algo a este Don Quijote” / (“every generation […] has added something to this Don Quixote”) (379). He does and says things in those texts that he did not do and say in Cervantes’s novel. As a result, something is formed over time that Unamuno calls “la figura de Don Quijote fuera del Quijote” / “the figure of Don Quixote outside the Quixote”) (379). He strongly encourages us to “recoger las distintas maneras como han extendido la figura del hidalgo manchego los distintos escritores que sobre él han escrito” / (“gather the different ways how the different writers who wrote about him have extended the figure of the hidalgo from La Mancha”) (379).
In the case of Der Nachbar des Herrn Pansa, we must include the examination of extensions and changes that communists such as Lunacharsky, for instance, have made to Don Quixote during the twentieth century – Quixote being a revisionist who must be restrained before he can do more damage to the historical progress. This does not mean that Lunatcharsky and Rücker would portray Don Quixote unsympathetically as a malicious traitor; as in Cervantes’s text, he is a passionate idealist – his actions are driven by his belief in mercy and love; he always means well in whatever he does.
However, given the situation of class struggle after a revolution, both Lunacharsky and Rücker maintain in their adaptations that Don Quixote’s idealism leads him to political naiveté that will result in treason and prove disastrous for the revolution. Since Rücker’s play is much shorter than Lunacharsky’s (the number of characters is reduced and their dialogues are less complex), Don Quixote’s image seems that of a caricature. Also, as a critic of Rücker’s play noted correctly, “die Gefährlichkeit seiner [Don Quixote’s] neuen Aktivitäten” / (“the dangerousness of his [Don Quixote’s] new activities”) (Linzer 30) is increased in Rücker’s play compared to Lunacharsky’s. Consequently, Don Quixote’s portrait looks more like a sketch with the feature of lunacy grotesquely exaggerated.
Rücker’s play Der Nachbar des Herrn Pansa begins with Don Quixote setting out into the world to generate more justice with the motto “Barmherzigkeit” / (“mercifulness” or “lovingness”) (Rücker 49). As in Cervantes’s novel, Sancho accompanies him; on horse and donkey they move through the plains of Castile. Their most outstanding adventure is that they free prisoners who, as it turns out later, are revolutionaries. Like in Cervantes’s novel, the freed prisoners steal Sancho’s donkey. Count Murzio’s brutal police force arrests Don Quixote and Sancho for having freed the prisoners and puts them behind bars. There, they meet a prisoner with revolutionary sympathies. Murzio’s executioner beheaded his father, and the prisoner is dreaming of a revolutionary overthrow of this brutal society. The prisoners, whom Don Quixote and Sancho had freed at the beginning of the play, overthrow Murzio’s regime and conquer the castle. They set the prisoners, including Don Quixote and Sancho, free and give Sancho his beloved donkey back (the freed prisoners do not give it back in Cervantes’s text). Count Murzio is arrested, put in front of a revolutionary court, and sentenced to death by execution; the sentence is supposed to be carried out the following morning.
At this point, Rücker’s Don Quixote tries to mediate the conflict. He says to his former neighbor and present squire who, as in Cervantes’s text, represents common sense: “Ich bin glücklich, dass wir hier sind, Sancho. Mit mir wohnt der Ausgleich hier, der alles in einen versöhnlichen Ausgang leiten und lenken kann, zum Erstaunen und Glück der Parteien. Wen sollte ich hassen?” / (“I am happy that we are here, Sancho. With me there is compromise here that can lead things to a conciliatory resolution to the surprise and happiness of the parties. Whom should I hate?”) (47) Afterwards, Don Quixote asks Vermillon, the leader of the revolution, to pardon Count Murzio. Vermillon reminds him of the crimes that Murzio has committed against the peasants and others; but Quixote goes on to beg for Murzio’s life.
In this struggle between Quixote and the revolutionaries about the question of pardoning Murzio or not, in historical disguise, some of the most important arguments between the two types of communists, the hardliners and the reformists, or, to use the protagonists’ names from Stefan Heym’s famous novel Collin (1979), the Uracks and the Havelkas, are presented. However, there is one important difference: while Heym’s novel takes sides with Havelka, who represents the open, liberal ‘third-way’ approach (Zachau, 41-56), Rücker’s play argues for the Uracks, the hardliners. The audience of Rücker’s play Der Nachbar des Herrn Pansa is supposed to learn, once and for all, that the traditional hard-line approach is the only correct one and that there could be no alternative to the present totalitarian form of socialism, a form of state that is characterized by the imposition of decisions instead of more consensual policy making.
That the political backdrop of Rücker’s play is the late 1960s is obvious from its contemporary ideological jargon. As a critic noted, “Das geht bei Rücker bis an die Grenze, wo ein häufig direkt aus heutigen Diskussionen entlehntes Vokabular […] in einen anachronistischen Widerspruch zum überlieferten Habitus der Gestalt gerät” / (“That goes in Rücker’s play to the point where a vocabulary that is borrowed directly from the present discussion […] gets into an anachronistic contradiction to the handed-down characteristics of the figure”) (Linzer 3).
There are also many direct examples indicating that Rücker’s figure of Don Quixote is intended to personify Alexander Dubček. For instance, with persuasive eloquence Quixote points to the similarity of the new communist regime to the old capitalist and fascist regimes in the sense that both are undemocratic and violate human rights:
Wie schnell ihr euren Feinden ähnlich geworden seid. Seid in ihre Kleider geschlüpft und ihre Rechtfertigungen, schlaft in ihren Betten, sitzt auf ihren Thronen, sprecht Recht und Tod, als hätte man euch selbst nie zum Tode verurteilt, fragt nach nichts als dem Nutzen, prüft die Mittel am Zweck, nicht am Gewissen, eure Stimme, die, mit ehernen Notwendigkeiten sich entschuldigend, Freiheiten einschnüren und Menschen vernichten kann, spricht leise, man muß auf sie hören, eure Kommandos unterscheiden sich in nichts von den Kommandos eurer Feinde, eure Generale wie alle andern Generale, eure Regimenter, ihre Regimenter, Schlachtordnung wie Schlachtordnung. Wie schnell seid ihr euren Feinden ähnlich geworden. / (How fast you have come to resemble your enemies. You have put on their clothes and use their justifications, sleep in their beds, sit on their thrones, judge about law and death as if you never had been sentenced to death yourself, ask for nothing but the benefit, check the means against the ends, not against the conscience; your voice, using the excuse of iron necessities, can constrict civic liberties and destroy people; it speaks softly, one has to listen; your commands do not differ from those of your enemies; your generals are like their generals; your regiments are like theirs; the battle formations are the same. How fast have you come to be like your enemies.) (50)
And the expression of “using the excuse of iron necessities” is a reference to orthodox Marxist philosophy, against which Czechoslovak Reform Marxists were protesting during the Prague Spring — with Dubček strongly supporting their proposed changes.
In the end of Rücker’s play, the revolutionaries do not pardon Murzio; however, they give in to Don Quixote’s request to be at least allowed to talk to Count Murzio; he wants to urge him to change, to become more human and just. During this conversation, Murzio, as can be expected from Rücker’s black-and-white dichotomy, manipulates the naïve knight. The defeated Count tells Quixote that he plans to take a potion that seems to be poison, but is not; instead, it makes the person who has taken the potion be seemingly dead for three days. After this time, Quixote and Sancho should open the coffin and let Murzio free.
Interestingly, although it is hinted that the potion has been produced in Peru, the miracle drug is called “die amerikanischen Säfte” / (“the American juices”) (57) instead of the “Peruvian” or at least the “South American” potion. This wording hints at Rücker’s likely intention to interpret the Prague reform movement as having been infiltrated by the United States.
Moreover, the expression “American juices” maliciously hints at the fact that Dubček’s father had moved from Chicago to Czechoslovakia after World War I with the result that “Dubček was conceived in Chicago, but born after the family relocated to Czechoslovakia” (“Alexander Dubček” 1). In 1989, in an interview with Andras Sugar that was broadcasted on Hungarian television, Dubček describes how much it had hurt him that the Rude Pravo (the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia), after his political downfall, maliciously commented on his having been conceived in the United States. Bitterly, Dubček states, “I have my own opinion of these ideologists who claim that they are Marxists, Leninists, and who knows what. In my opinion, they are rather base people, they are not civilized…” (Dubček 23). Commenting on the tacit assumption that the place where he was conceived was a cause for the Prague Spring movement in Czechoslovakia, Dubček goes on to say: “In the next such article, perhaps they will say the following: ‘So here you are, his roots, the roots of his opportunism, his revisionism go back to the United States of America’” (23-4). No doubt, the example demonstrates that the media of the new socialist regime had become as unethical as the old capitalist media was.
In returning to Rücker’s plot, we find that the potion works as promised. Three days after Murzio’s funeral, Quixote and Sancho open the coffin and let the count free. One of his reasons for saving Murzio is Quixote’s belief that people, regardless of what social class they belong to, have the ability to change for the better: “Weißt du, ob er nicht, angerührt durch alles, was geschehen ist, und zuletzt durch deine Milde ein neuer Murzio werden kann?” / (“Don’t you know that he could become a new Murzio touched by everything that has happened and by your clemency?”) (53) Don Quixote’s other justification for helping Murzio is that it also would help the revolutionaries by preventing them from committing a crime of political terror:
Unsere Freunde sind blind geworden gegen alles, was nicht von ihnen kommt. Wenn diese Leute an die Macht gekommen sind, verengt sich ihr Blick und ihre Fantasie verliert sich. Wir müssen ihnen helfen. Die Revolution ist gegen die Unterdrückung. Wenn die Revolutionäre an der Macht sind, und die Unterdrückung hört nicht auf, schadet das der Revolution; dann ist es die Pflicht der Leute, die das wissen, selbstständig zu handeln. Und der Tag ist vielleicht nicht mehr fern, an dem man sagen wird: Die wirkliche Revolution, die wahre Revolution begann heute und hier auf diesem Friedhof. Und das wird in Büchern zu lesen sein. / (Our friends have become blind against everything that doesn’t come from them. When these people have taken power, their vision is narrowing and their imagination is getting lost. We must help them. The revolution is against oppression. When the revolutionaries are in power and oppression does not stop, it damages the revolution; then, it is the duty of the people who are aware of it to act independently. And perhaps, the day is not too far away when they will say: the real revolution, the true revolution started today and here at this cemetery. And this you will be able to read in books.) (77)
The last sentence insinuates that Don Quixote’s humanitarianism would be mixed with vanity and a craving for recognition; what the history books will say about him seems to be more important for him (Dubček) than the well being of his fellow citizens. However, ironically, it turned out that Rücker’s Quixote was right. What we read in the history books today is much more positive about Dubček’s attempt to give socialism a human face during the Prague Spring than about his hard-line communist adversaries who crushed his attempt and knocked him out with the words: ”you are a traitor” (Dubček 99).
Murzio, after having been set free by Don Quixote and Sancho, does not spend his time to reinvent himself as a better person, but crushes the revolution with the help of a foreign king who was approaching with his troops. In other words, in Rücker’s eyes, a compromise is not possible between class enemies; the author clearly calls for preserving the friend-enemy dichotomy of Stalinism. That means that, according to Rücker, the revolutionaries in the play / the hardliners in the party had been right all along; Quixote / Dubček should have listened to them.
What Dubček concretely meant with his call for political liberalization is expressed in the following statement in Andras Sugar’s interview with the Czech reform politician:
I would say that if somebody is a Marxist, he has to understand that other phenomena, which are non-communist, or which do not comply with the policy of the Party and the state, must also exist. This has to be. This is not accidental; it is a rule of natural law. They have to exist. So if somebody demands that they should not exist, it means that you have to grab a whip. But I cannot agree to that. (67)
The metaphor of the whip for using totalitarian measures in a socialist society had been used by Ilya Ehrenburg satirically in his famous novel Julio Jurenito, which was forbidden in the Soviet Union after its first publication in 1922. In this text, a powerful communist in the Kremlin says to the protagonist: “We are leading humanity towards a better future. Some people, who find this not to their advantage, are hindering us in every way […]. We must eliminate them, killing one man to save a thousand.” (252) Cynically, he adds:
Others resist us because they cannot understand that their own happiness lies ahead, because they’re afraid of the heavy march, because they cling to the pitiful shadow of last night’s shelter. We are driving them forward, driving them to paradise with iron whips. (252)
From 1922 (when Ehrenburg’s satire was published) to 1968, forty-six years had passed; it is obvious that Dubček and his fellow reform communists had learned the hard way that the time for “grabbing a whip” was over, once and for all; it had to be over if one wanted socialism to survive. In his interview with Sugar, Dubček answers the question if during the Prague Spring he had already positively proclaimed “the principle of glasnost.” Of course he had. He goes on to state: “This was precisely why the military intervention happened. Here, within the country, not only were there no counter-revolutionary forces, there were no forces at all that could have endangered socialism” (67). Dubček explains:
If something was endangering socialism – we know very well – it was the dogmatism of Brezhnev! This endangered socialism, weakened the position of the Party, weakened the parties of the international communist movement, social democracy, the left-wing socialist parties. And why? In order to serve a kind of policy which was out of step with the interests of democracy, socialism and the people. (67-8)
In other words, Brezhnev, not Dubček, was out of touch with reality during the late 1960’s; Brezhnev was the Quixote.
In the last scene of Rücker’s play, there are horrible fires everywhere. While Sancho tells Don Quixote that the soldiers of Count Murzio have set the peasants’ houses, stables, and gardens on fire as a revenge for their uprising against him, Don Quixote sees “Freudenfeuer” / (“bonefires”) (80) instead. In his blindness to reality, he thinks they have been lit to celebrate the reconciliation between Murzio and the revolutionaries:
Sancho: Sie stoßen die Bauern ins Feuer!
Quijote: Nein, nein, Sancho! Man springt über die Feuer, das ist ein alter Brauch bei Freudenfesten.
(Sancho: They ’re pushing the peasants into the fire!
Quixote: No, no, Sancho! They ’re jumping over the fires; that’s an old custom during celebrations.) (80)
Sancho will have the last word in Rücker’s play: “Es brennt doch wirklich, Nachbar!” / (“There are really fires, neighbor!”) (80); in Friedo Solter’s staging of the work in the Deutsches Theater, Sancho, played by Horst Hiemer, even knocks down Don Quixote, played by Jürgen Hentsch (Linzer 31).
Since Sancho Panza represents the people, this ending suggests that the Czechoslovakian people in the majority would have condemned Dubček as being blind to reality, which is on fire so to speak in 1968. However, as statistics suggest, the opposite was true; Dubček was enormously popular during the Prague Spring. The “Publisher’s Preface” to Andras Sugar’s interview with Alexander Dubček says:
In spite of the fact that he represented a discredited communist party, public opinion polls in that year showed that almost 90 per cent of Czechoslovakian citizens backed Dubček. They supported his program of building democratic socialism, and only 5 per cent wanted a return to capitalism. (8)
Rücker’s play was performed in the Deutsches Theater in 1969, that is, after the troops of the Warsaw Pact-States had crushed the “process of renewal” (Dubček 58) of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party and the nation as a whole. The Prague Spring was over; Dubček was in the process of being expelled from the Party together with almost half a million other Czech and Slovak party members. A large wave of emigration was sweeping the country, and there were suicides by self-immolation. In the GDR at this time, party members were obliged to take a public stand and make declarations of loyalty to the East German state that claimed it had supported the military intervention. Those who voiced their opposition were silenced. Robert Havemann, the most renown of the protesters, was punished with an occupational ban and put under house arrest. Exactly under these circumstances, not during the Prague Spring, but after the other members of the Warsaw Pact crushed it, was Rücker’s play “Der Nachbar des Herrn Panza” staged! A play that vindictively presented Alexander Dubček on stage as a dangerous fool and sent the dogmatic message that in the situation of class struggle between socialism and capitalism, easing the regime’s strict rules and changing Party-doctrine would be treason.
Rücker’s play strongly refers to the adaptation of Don Quixote by Lunacharsky, who had re-written Cervantes’s story from the point of view of class struggle before Rücker; the plot and main protagonists are similar. The fact that Rücker’s character of Don Quixote compared to Lunacharsky’s seems to be so simplified that it resembles a caricature, results from two major changes: the motivation for Don Quixote’s liberation of Murzio and the restructured epilogue. Lunacharsky’s Quixote is – as was Cervantes’s – a knight who thinks highly of courtly love and cannot resist the urge to help a “zartes Wesen” / (“a tender being”) (Lunacharsky 94). Consequently, Quixote’s main reason for letting Murzio out of his coffin in Lunacharsky’s text is to help the pretty lady Maria Stella, who is in love with the count. In Rücker’s adaptation, Maria Stella’s role is reduced; the Don helps Murzio for other, mainly political, reasons; this change has Quixote look much less sympathetic and his lunacy seems more dangerous. Furthermore, in Lunacharsky’s epilogue, Don Quixote regrets that he freed Murzio and wakes up from his delusion that a brutal count like Murzio could become a more just man and ruler. Disillusioned, he says to Sancho: “Dieses letzte Abenteuer hat mich völlig gebrochen. Ich fühle eine tödliche Wunde in der Brust meiner Seele” / (“This last adventure broke me completely; I feel a deadly wound in my soul”) (104). This ending resembles that of Don Quixote in Cervantes’s novel according to which Quixote faces reality and renounces the illusions of knight-errantry. When the victorious revolutionary Don Balthasar (who has defeated in the meantime the counter-revolution led by Murzio) says in Lunacharsky’s play, “[Wir] werden die Macht des Menschen über das Schicksal erringen, Siegen oder sterben – die endgültigen sind wir” / (“[We] will gain the power of man over destiny; to be victorious or to die – we will have the last word”) (103), Quixote wishes him all the best: “Stolze Worte. Gott gebe es.” / (“Proud words. God help you!”) (104). In Rücker’s version, to the contrary, such lines are missing. Don Quixote does not wake up from his madness. His fantasy that the peasants would have lit bonfires to celebrate the peace under the improved rule of a changed count Murzio shows that he is still as blind to reality as he was in the beginning.
The reason for the East German Rücker’s choice of a much coarser brush with which to paint Quixote might have to do with the fact that the Russian writer wrote the play immediately after the October Revolution, Rücker forty-four years later. By 1968, the system that had developed in Eastern Europe had become so oppressive that most people saw Dubček who wanted to reform this system as a revolutionary. This makes sense because he argued that human beings must be free to act as revolutionaries; Breshnev and the leaders of the other Warsaw Pact states appear from this perspective as the reactionaries. Since the myth of Don Quixote is that of a man who remains caught in the past while the new time is stepping over him, Lunarcharsky’s interpretation of Don Quixote as a counter-revolutionary makes sense; Rücker’s does not at all. His attempt to teach us with a raised index finger that Dubček was the reactionary and his Soviet adversaries were revolutionaries was absurd and hard to swallow for the majority of theatergoers who still sympathized with Dubček in 1969.
Also East German critics interpreted Rücker’s play and its performance in the Deutsches Theater as a condemnation of Dubček’s reform movement. One example was Martin Linzer’s review “Der dritte Weg des Don Quijote” / (“The Third Way of Don Quixote”) published in the prestigious Theater der Zeit. “Der dritte Weg” / (“The Third Way”) was an expression used at the time for denouncing any attempt to reform existing socialism as an endeavor to find a third way between capitalism and socialism. Linzer compares the play with Lunacharsky’s that was staged at the theater in Magdeburg in 1969 and notes some shortcomings in Rücker’s work. Nevertheless, he praises the play overall and its performance in the Deutsches Theater and thereby, between the lines, approving of the military invasion of Czechoslovakia and condemning any liberalization trends in GDR society. The theme of the play, according to Linzer, is the conflict of the “abstrakten und realen Humanismus in den Kämpfen der Klassen” / (“abstract and real humanism in the struggle of social classes”) (31), thus euphemistically calling the aggressive hard-line policy of Breshnev and his comrades “realer Humanismus” / (“real humanism”).
Let us have a closer look at one more of Don Quixote’s statements in Rücker’s play that strongly resonate with Dubček’s point of view:
Aber müssen nicht im Gang der Zeiten welche kommen, die zum erstenmale die Macht, die ihnen gegeben wird, brüderlich verwenden? Nach blutigem Fall in finsteren Zeiten Freiheiten schenken allen? Die so rein sind, daß sich der Schmutzige seines Schmutzes schämt, der Listige seiner List, der Unentdeckte seiner heimlichen Schuld? / (But, over time, shouldn’t there be some people who for the first time use the power that is given to them in a brotherly way? Who after a bloody fall in dark times give liberty to all? Who are so pure that the dirty one is ashamed of his dirt? The deceitful one of his deceit? The one who has not yet been discovered of his secret guilt?) (54)
Quixote’s vision “to use power in a brotherly way” clearly resonates with Dubček’s dream to give socialism a human face. To trace the background of the fact that Dubček in 1968 decided that it was the right time to turn his dream into reality, Williams describes the power struggle that erupted in Prague in late 1967 and its relation to the country’s social condition. This struggle “resulted from the decision of an important faction of party and state officials to trust the population” (4). According to this faction, the Party had learned over the years that it had to accept that it could “not know or understand everything, and had to allow experts to make decisions” (4). According to the sociologists among those experts, changes were necessary “that would acknowledge and facilitate the shift that was already happening towards a differentiated, sophisticated yet fair and open, industrial society” (Williams 10). As Williams points out, given the fact that the urban and rural middle classes had been demolished during the years since the communist seizure of power “there was no reason to fear that an anti-communist outlook might find a social basis for political mobilization” (5). Furthermore, the intelligentsia that was starting to challenge the existing order was, by and large, “a new one, consisting largely of people of working-class origin who had moved up in the world thanks to class war, education, and the patronage of party god-fathers” (5). In other words, Dubček was not a quixotic dreamer but an experienced politician who knew that the majority of the population was in favor of a democratization of society and that there was no reason to fear a counter-revolution. Rücker distorts this situation to make it fit his purpose of defamation.
Assuming that Dubček would have started a counter-revolution during the Prague Spring of 1968 was part of the vicious “demagoguery” (Dubček 98) of the other party leaders of the Warsaw Pact States after their armed aggression against Czechoslovakia had been successful. It seems to have hurt Dubček the most that some of his Czechoslovakian associates in the reform movement, under pressure, participated in this demagoguery. He states bitterly:
They agreed to abolish the Action Program; they adopted the description of the Party leadership as opportunist and revisionist; they adopted all those statements that there had been a counter-revolution, and that “there would have been a civil war if the troops had not marched in” […] and so on and so forth. All this demagoguery, all this stupidity which they dared to say to the face of this cultured and adult nation is much worse than if somebody spits in your face! (98)
The question must be asked: Is there another possibility to interpret AlexanderDubček as a quixotic figure without denouncing his reform-efforts from a Rückerian / Stalinist point of view as a form of counter-revolution? The answer is yes. Andras Sugar in his interview with Dubček asked him if he did not expect a military invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries. He answered: “I did not believe it would happen, for I considered it to be such an extreme solution that it would be a catastrophe not only for us but for the whole socialism” (57). This remark indicates that Dubček in 1968 was a loyal Marxist who meant well and attempted to help socialism to survive with his plan for democratic reforms in his country. This is not quixotic. However, being blind to the monster of Stalinism that was lurking around the corner up to no good is indeed quixotic. As Dubček said in the interview, he felt that the leaders of Poland and Hungary, who were also members of the Warsaw Pact would not participate in the invasion; and therefore it could not take place. His reasoning was that “Czechoslovakia is [also] a member of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact cannot pass any resolution; it cannot launch a campaign against a socialist country without that country’s approval” (58). In other words, Dubček still trusted the other communist leaders completely, at least those from Poland and Hungary, to play a fair game according to the rules of the Warsaw Pact. From today’s view, this trust was naïve to the extreme. It was naïve for a man who had known the communist power machine for so many years. In fact, Dubček’s belief that at least the leaders of Poland and Hungary would play according to the “rules” of the Warsaw Pact and not participate in the illegal invasion of Czechoslovakia corresponds to Don Quixote’s ability to think completely logically within the system of his illusions, but never to question this system. The other players, Quixote is convinced, would think like him and play according to the system’s rules. Instead of Quixote’s system of knight-errantry, in Dubček’s case, the system was that of what is known today as real existing socialism. That he takes these rules (the rules of the Warsaw Pact) at their word and moves straight towards his goal of giving socialism a human face is indeed quixotic. Dubček behaved in summer 1968 as if there were no Breshnez, Ulbricht, Gomulka, and the others with their powerful military machine waiting at the borders to crush Czechoslovakia!
In retrospect, this element of quixotism in Dubček’s personality and behavior has us looking at him even more sympathetically. In the interview with Sugar, he says, when “I am moving towards a goal, then I follow my own line” (92). The obstinacy with which Dubček followed it is, if we follow the romantic approach of Don Quixote that sees Cervantes’s main protagonist more as a hero than a fool, very idealistic. After Dubček had been silenced in 1969, he worked as a forestry worker in Slovakia. However, in 1989, more or less twenty years after the Prague Spring had been smashed, he set out for Prague again. As Don Quixote would set out on his horse for a new adventure, Dubček set out to participate in a student demonstration held to mark the 50th anniversary of a similar student demonstration against the Nazi forces. “The peaceful event was brutally suppressed by the police and Dubček himself was detained briefly” (“Publisher’s Preface” 2). After the regime that had humiliated him so much was swept away, Dubček standing on a balcony alongside Vaclav Havel on November 24, 1989, said: “Praguers, I hope you’re glad to see me back….” As a response, “he was given an enthusiastic and emotional reception by an enormous crowd” (“Publisher’s Preface” 2). Before reading the end of the “Publisher’s Preface” to Sugar’s interview with Dubček, one should think about Don Quixote, not only about his tall and skinny looks, but also how one would imagine the knight had he won the battle with the Knight of the Moon in the end of Cervantes’s novel after he had not expected it anymore to succeed: “This tall, frail figure turning 68 had been overtaken by the events of November 1989, but remained a symbol of popular democracy for Czechoslovakia” (2-3).
To summarize, Rücker’s play Der Nachbar des Herrn Pansa responded to the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 not by condemning the invasion of that country by the military of the Warsaw Pact States as other East German theater practitioners did, but rather by justifying it. For his theatrical defense of the party line, Rücker portrays Alexander Dubček negatively as a Don Quixote – a humanist fool whose actions would support the counter-revolution.
1 Alexander Dubček (1921-1992), First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, 5 January 1968-17 April 1969.
2 Gustáv Husák (1913-1991), President of Czechoslovakia 1975-1989. “Supported by Moscow, he was appointed leader of the Communist Party of Slovakia in as early as August 1968, and he succeeded Dubček as first secretary […] of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in April 1969 (“Gustáv Husák” 2). He presided over widespread purges of communists who had supported Dubček’s reform plans and reversed policies for the democratization of society instituted by Dubček.
3 Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) was a Russian revolutionary and writer who became the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment responsible for culture and education in the first Soviet government.
4 An example for the adoration that many East Germans felt for the Czechoslovakian leader, is Brigitte Struzyk’s protagonist Ulla Wasser in the novel Drachen über der Leninallee / (Dragons over the Lenin Alley) (2012) who in September 1969 spontaneously wrote “mit weißer Lackfarbe” / (“with white lacquer”) (104) the name Dubček on the asphalt of her street in East Berlin. Struzyk goes on to state: “Ihr Herz hatte bis zum Hals geschlagen. […] Nämlich hätte sie einer der Nachbarn beobachtet, wäre sie schon damals in den Knast gekommen, aber keiner sah ihr zu” / (“Her heart was in her throat. […] Because, if some of the neighbors’ had watched her, she would have already been jailed then, but no one was watching her”) (104).
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