“I didn’t feel that we lived in times of untruth”
Egon Gál (1940) is a Slovak philosopher. A chemistry graduate, he switched to philosophy after 1989 and has taught in various departments of Bratislava’s Comenius University. He was interviewed by Tereza Reichelova.
Reichelova: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Gál: I was born in central Slovakia, Partizánska Ľupča. I was born in 1940, in August, to Jewish parents and when I was four in 1944, they deported me and my mother to Terezín. Me, my mother and brother returned to Ľupča. My father died during a death march. Before the war we were landowners, rich – and in 1948 they collectivised all the property, so we moved to Bratislava.
Reichelova: When did you start to become aware of your Jewish identity? Do you remember that as a child?
Gál: It wasn’t a topic for me as we were the only Jewish family in Ľupča after we came back from Terezín. Others didn’t return. I’ll tell you how I was confronted with the issue of my identity. It was when I was fifty. In 1989 I worked in a research centre for cables. We had a board next to the elevator It was at the beginning of the year 1990, when the research centre had to dismiss some people. They dismissed twenty workers and one of them was a person whom I knew very well. I went to work one day, I think it was in February 1990, and there was a poster with an inscription “These Jews are responsible for my dismissal”. There were six or seven names but none of them was a Jew. So, I came to him and I say: “Colleague, none of these people is a Jew! I am a Jew!” That was the first time I realised that this identity means something.
Reichelova: How was moving to Bratislava? Your mother with two little children.
Gál: It was dramatic. We couldn’t take a lot of things. I have lived all of my life in tower blocks, so I drag it from one tower block to another.
Reichelova: Did you talk about the communists’ rise to power?
Gál: It wasn’t a topic. The rise of communists to power affected us as they took our property. But still, we went through that without analysing it. We took it as a hand of fate. The invisible hand of fate.
Reichelova: What was primary education like in Bratislava when you went to school in the fifties?
Gál: I started to go to a Catholic school, Notre Dame, where nuns used to teach. The first year, in 1948, nuns were there. But the next year they had disappeared, and comrade teachers took their place. I came in Year 3 and that year we prayed and then the next year we sang songs at the beginning of the lesson.
Reichelova: Was your passion for chemistry and natural sciences already developed in school?
Gál: No! In primary school, nothing has been set in stone. But a very nice man used to live in our building who was a professor at a chemical engineering technical school, so I decided to study chemistry. I applied for chemistry and I passed the entrance exams. It wasn’t particularly what I wanted. But in the end, I made my living with it until I was 50.
The sixties were the decade of thinking about the future.
Gál: You know, it was really a coincidence in the seventies and eighties when things were sort of relaxed. Even when I worked in research, I studied privately and read philosophical books. And then, me and a group of friends started to meet regularly at a friend’s place, we read and lectured there. These meetings were attended by a great mix of people. There were people like me, technicians, natural scientists, there were students of pedagogy, some from the Maths Faculty, there were religious people and atheists, there were drivers too. Quite colourful.
Reichelova: Some books were obviously prohibited. But was it possible to get hold of philosophical classics?
Gál: No, the classics were not prohibited. Everything was published before the war in the first place, and moreover, they used to publish an edition in Slovakia called Philosophical Questions. It was published by Pravda (Truth) publishing house. They published not only the classics, they also had a series called Contemporary Bourgeois Philosophy where people like Wittgenstein, Foucault, Max Weber were published. The only catch was that there had to be an appropriate foreword, a necessary tax.
Reichelova: Did you experience the year 1968 in the context of ‘normalisation’? As an event that changed everyone’s lives?
Gál: At that time, I even had dreams about switching to philosophy and completing it smoothly. I wasn’t thirty yet, so the dream was to finish my studies and make my living by what I had a passion for. But not only that, the sixties were the decade of thinking about the future. We started to have a feeling of freedom for the first time in our lives. 1968 ended it. Then we created groups of alternative life where we self-actualised. Some of my friends made art, they organised exhibitions. We didn’t fight against the regime, but we led our lives in such a way as to minimise the impact of the political situation on ourselves.
The first time I started to think about a political context was after the Charter 77 case when I read Havel. Then I realised two things. First of all, I felt a bit ashamed because I walked past and ignored the slogans and all the socialist context. But the second thing was that I felt offended reading him. Because I didn’t live in untruth. You know, we really lived – and I had the feeling at that time, too – a meaningful life. Yes, I ignored the slogans, but we were educating ourselves, we worked.
Reichelova: In 1989 the Western borders opened and four years later the Czech Republic and Slovakia were torn apart. Borders were moving and opening. How did you see it?
Gál: This beginning of the 1990s was a dream for us. We thought we had become a part of the West. But the West we imagined was different from the West we became a part of.
Reichelova: In what sense?
Gál: It wasn’t easy. There was identity politics on the one hand and on the other hand, huge inequalities, neoliberalism and loads of things, which we hadn’t seen before but mechanically copied from the West. We got drunk on freedom. But the social life – inequalities, emergence of nationalism. What depressed me the most was that suddenly you could see homeless people in the streets, suddenly all those poor regions emerged around Slovakia. The other thing is nationalism. Ethnically defined parties were established, religiously defined parties were established. I was shocked. And I was worried.
At first it awakened my childhood experience where I was ‘the other’, I didn’t belong. I was at home, and yet I wasn’t. You probably don’t know the experience of living in a diaspora. You feel the difference no matter if you can express it explicitly or not.
Reichelova: In the nineties in the Czech Republic, the main motive was to get into the European Union. I suppose it was the same in Slovakia, right?
Gál: It was the same in Slovakia. But we had bad luck, Mečiar was elected the PM and an order call Mečiarism was established. They did politics in a rough, poaching way and our chances to join the EU were diminished. Europe didn’t really care about Slovakia. But then came Dzurinda and integration proceeded very fast. Now we have the Euro, you don’t. I think that in Slovakia pro-European public opinion is very strong. Of course, there is an extremely strong nationalist party who have around 15 percent, but sociologists argue that that is a normal invariable, that there are always 15 percent of people who are extremists of sorts in every society.
Reichelova: Are you afraid of another violent conflict in Europe to come?
Gál: You know, it is still an open question in Europe. Disintegration or integration? Nationalists and xenophobes prevail, or the integration of pro-European politics prevails? A year or two ago, I would have said the danger is enormous. But it seems like it’s weakening.
Reichelova: How will the world of the future look?
Gál: Considering Europe overall the last 200 years, Europe is a success story. All measurable aspects and quantities are ameliorating, people live longer, they are healthier, more educated, there is less violence, we are richer, more literate and despite all this we live with a feeling of permanent crisis, that’s peculiar. There is an endeavour to understand, that is what the feeling of permanent crisis is all about.
Look at contemporary Europe, there are growing inequalities, on the one hand. The second thing is human nature. Human nature is tribalistic. The first tribes, the communities where morality originated used to have around 150 members, in these communities. We internalised this morality in our brains and our emotions. And human history as such is a history of enlarging this circle. The question of the cause of enlarging this circle is a key question, I think. The first factor is religion. Religious narratives. The core around which human morality is built, is emotions.
The Europe of the past 200 years is a success story.