Ambassador Jan Winkler was one of a kind. In my first interview with him, he revealed that his preferred mode of transport was rollerblading – a far cry from the luxury sedan normally associated with ambassadors, or the Czech Railways where he worked as a lawyer during the communist era.
“Well, we pretended to work, and they pretended to pay us!” he chuckled giving me a foretaste of his wry humour that I would come to enjoy so much over the next four years.
Jan Winkler was a gift to journalists – frank, yet defending his arguments with clarity. I was one of the last to interview him on the Czech EU Presidency and he was in top form, offering insights into EU politics, global affairs and Czech politics.
Taking over the helm soon after the Czech Republic entered the EU, it was his task to manage a new wave of Czechs to the UK. But change management was Winkler’s particular talent: as registrar of Charles University following the collapse of communism, he restructured the institution into a world-class university. He joined the foreign service shortly after the Velvet Divorce, where he streamlined the ministry and established a diplomatic academy. After a stint as a management consultant he returned to the Foreign Ministry as Deputy Foreign Minister for Security in 2003.
This varied experience gave him bold ideas about how his embassy could capture the imagination of the British public. He was always pushing the boundaries. An aficionado of antique maps, he collaborated with the British Library on an exhibition of Vaclav Hollar, the Bohemian engraver responsible for the most famous views of London before the Great Fire. He linked up with Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard and The Orange Tree Theatre, which performed Vaclav Havel’s plays and championed Czech freedom in the dark days of the communist era. He even hosted a penalty shootout at the Embassy with Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. Most recently, he joined forces with the Barbican for a sublime concert of Czech composers.
Most memorably (for me at least), was his hosting of a rock concert for indie band, British Sea Power, inside the embassy. The title tune of the band’s new album, Waving Flags, urged young Brits to welcome the wave of young Central European immigrants to the UK.
It was a stroke of genius that got wide media coverage and endeared the Czech Republic to a generation of young Brits.
In paying tribute to Ambassador Winkler, it is his warmth and humanity that most of his colleagues remember him for. As his Slovak neighbour, Ambassador Zervan wrote in a moving tribute: “Czechs and Slovaks have weathered all sorts of situations. In good or bad, we keep an eye on each other. We celebrate each other’s successes, make friendly remarks at small hiccups, but with open sorrow we share our losses, as if they were our own.
“All those who met with Jan Winkler in person, or through his work, can recollect his calm, sparkling Czech wit, ability to listen but at the same time defend his views with full ferocity of his arguments. Jan Winkler as an Ambassador, former Deputy Foreign Minister, policy planner, consultant, but mostly as a person has won much praise over the years.
“It is hard to imagine that we will not see our colleague, friend and neighbour any more, but Jan Winkler did not leave behind an empty seat. Determination to complete tasks bestowed upon him and his sense for perfection is a legacy, which we shall see at the Czech Embassy for a long time.”
Many European ambassadors paid tribute – German Ambassador Georg Boomgaarden writes: “His dedication, knowledge and wisdom made him a most valued partner for all his colleagues, especially in this important period of the Czech EU Presidency. His warmth, kindness and humanity endeared him to us all, and I am proud, even in the short time I have known him, to have counted him as a friend.”
But the Ambassador’s network extended far beyond Europe. The Ambassador of Israel, Ron Prosor, was a close friend. Speaking to Embassy, Ambassador Prosor said: “He was somebody I considered a close confidant. He had a great passion for life and it is incomprehensible that a man with such energy and intellect has been taken from us so suddenly.”
The Colombian Ambassador Noemi Sanin remembered him “as a very warm and intelligent person” while the Canadian High Commissioner paid tribute to “a kind and generous man, and an accomplished and much respected diplomat. ”
Finally, the Dean, Ambassador Al Duwaisan, who knew him from his arrival in London, speaks for us all with these words: “He was a real gentleman, of great integrity and wisdom, who worked successfully and profoundly for the promotion of his own People and Country. He will be enormously missed.”
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