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An Interview with Gellner

The following is a segment taken from a 1991 interview with Gellner conducted by John Davis of Oxford University for Current Anthropology (Vol 32, No. I, Feb. 1991 pp.63-65).
This particular section deals with Gellner's early childhood in Prague, his university education taken at Balliol College, Oxford, and the interuption of his studies to fight for the Czech Brigade against the Germans in World War II. In the coming months the rest of the interview will appear.

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John Davis: You have described yourself as a small boy, 11 years old or so, refusing to take a loyalty oath.

Ernest A. Gellner: There's a slight distortion in what you say. The fact of the case is I did regularly go to summer camp, and the ritual of raising the flag was accompanied by an oath of loyalty to the Czechoslovak republic, and I always used to miss out one word. Not because I have any intention of committing high treason against the republic - quite the contrary: the family had basically loyal gratitude for Masarykian liberalism. But I didn't wish to bind myself. It seemed to me slightly premature, and I hadn't figured it all out. So I used to miss out one word of the oat at random. A sentence which has no sense does not commit you to anything. I would not articulate some parts of the sentence in such a way that the whole sentence made no sense as an oath and consequently didn't bind me.

JD: Your family was urban?

EAG: My family lived in Prague, and we were deeply urban, yes.

JD: Was Prague particularly anti-Semitic?

EAG: Yes. Very openly so in the working class, nauncÚ elsewhere. This was Kafka's Prague: tricultural, with two universities, a Czech and a German. The German university was very, very distinguished and had at one time Carnap and Einstein and so on, and of course benefited from Hitler by the influx of scholars. Two universities and three cultures and ethnic tension was certainly very emphatically part of it. I mean: if you are asking me whether this was a crucial part of my environment in Prague, then the answer is yes.

It's a stunningly beautiful town, and during the first period of my exile, which was during the war, I constantly used to dream about it, in the literal sense: it was a strong longing. We came to England in 1939 after the German occupation of Prague. I was 13, and I ended up in a marginal, at that time not-quite-a-grammar school, founded in the '30s in St. Albans, from which I got a scholarship to Oxford - partly because it was that kind of school: at that time Lindsay was in charge of Balliol, and Lindsay practiced Portuguese colonial policy, that is, keep the natives peaceful by getting able ones from below into Balliol. Balliol he wanted to be one-third upper-class, one-third grammar-school, one-third Scotsman and foreigners. In his view the upper-class were to teach the others manners, and he used the grammar-school to introduced some brains into the upper-class. He put it as brutally as that. So there were the scholarship candidates from schools no one in Oxford had ever heard of. Lindsay would say also: the more they needed the scholarships the less they were going to get them, because the more the schools were anxious for them, the more they would drill them, and the candidates would come out with these hackneyed answers. So as a result of Lindsay's Portuguese policy, at 17 I got a scholarship to Balliol.

JD: And then you fought in the war.

EAG: Well, I was in the Czech Armoured Brigade, which was a very inefficient military unit. First of all, it had a double hierarchy: the official hierarchy of rank, which was what people actually had on their shoulders, and the unofficial hierarchy of the communists, who had a private network of their own. There was a man who was a private who had enormous influence, and people used to come from other units to consult him and so on. He had been an officer in the International Brigade in Spain and reached the Czech Brigade via French concentration camps. Of course, the other communists continued to recognise his rank, and when he finally crossed back to Czechoslovakia after the war he suddenly became lieutenant because the new communist authorities recognized his rank from the International Brigade. Anyway, it was very heterogeneous. Jewish refugees like myself were one element. People from the International Brigade, from the Spanish civil war were another component; then Czechs from the Foreign Legion -Benes made a deal with De Gaulle that the Czechoslovak members of the Foreign Legion would be transferred to this unit - and then a lot of Silesian, Czech Silesians. Silesia became part of the Reich, so they were conscripted to the German army, and if it was their good fortune to be taken prisoner in North Africa, Italy, or, indeed, Normandy, they were be transferred to this unit. So some of them traveled from Normandy to England as German prisoners of war and a few weeks later made the return journey in our uniform. It was very heterogeneous, hence very ineffectual. And presumably for that reason it was used to besiege Dunkirk, one of the placed on the West Coast of Europe where the Germans held out to the end of the war. The siege had this achievement to its credit: the number of Germans inside was greater than the number of besieging troops around it. But the Germans inside had no petrol, no tanks, no anything. The troops surrounding them had everything.

JD: And you moved from Dunkirk to Prague.

EAG: From Dunkirk when the war ended and the Germans surrendered. Later I asked R.H.S. Crossmann, whom I came to know and who had been at Allied headquarters, why this unit wasn't sent on the attack towards Bohemia with Patton as it would have preferred, and he said that Montgomery and Patton hated each other so much that under no circumstances would Montgomery give any troops to Patton. Anyway, when the war ended we moved on to Bohemia, where the situation was already complicated by the emerging East-West conflict. We were just about allowed a victory parade in Prague, and them, the moment the victory parade was over, we were speeded back to the small American sector in the south of Bohemia, because they did not want us in the other sector where the Red Army was.

JD: So you were demobilized, and you went back to England?

EAG: Technically I wasn't even demobilised: I was released on indefinite leave to complete my education. And when my education was completed, technically I should have reported back; but nobody ever bothered to remind me, and I somehow forgot to do so. Technically I'm still on indefinite leave from No. I Company, Motorised Infantry Battalion, Ist Armoured Brigade, so as to complete my education. I spent about half a term at Prague University, and then I acquired the required papers and went back to England and Oxford.

One of my main recollections of Prague in '45 was a communist poster saying "everyone with a clean shield into the Party," that is, everyone whose record was good during the Occupation. It meant in reality exactly the opposite: "If your shield is absolutely filthy we'll scrub it for you; you are safe with us; we like you the better because the filthier your record the more we have a hold on you." So all the bastards, all the distinctive authoritarian personalities, rapidly went into the Party, and it rapidly acquired this kind of character. So what was coming was totally clear to me, and it cured me of the emotional hold which Prague had previously had over me. I could foresee that a Staliniod dictatorship was due: it came in '48. The precise date I couldn't foresee, but that it was due to come was absolutely obvious for various reasons. Above all, in '45 the Czechs expelled 3,000,000 Germans with considerable brutality. I think the estimate of the number of killed in the process was 200,000 thought I don't know how reliable that is. And at the same time everyone was scared stiff of the Germans and remembered Munich, so they handed themselves bound and helpless to Stalin as the only protection against the German revanchism which they confidently expected at the time. They don't expect it now, interestingly enough; but they did then. All this occurred in conjunction with the quite skilful communist exploitation of the situation. And I wanted no part of it and got out as quickly as I could and forgot about it.

What I did not foresee was the strong countercurrent towards liberalism which emerged in the '60s and reawakened my interest. Between about '45 and some point in the late '60s, when the Prague Spring started moving, I just wrote it off and thought no more about it. The mistake I had made was in thinking that Stalinism was due to stay for another 300 years, like the darkness imposed on Bohemia by the Counter-Reformation - which I knew about, of course, because the dominant theme in one's education in school was the disaster of the Thirty Years' War and the Counter-Reformation imposing its orthodoxy on the culture and sending it to sleep until the revival came in the 19th century. This I was aware of, and I thought that the communist counter-reformation would do the same. What I did not foresee was that in the modern world, committed to economic growth, you can't do it. The communists have not managed to repeat the performance of the Jesuits.