Viewed from Poland, Czechoslovakia has always been a kind of miracle.Between the two world wars it was the only democratic country in our part of Europe. I am familiar with the critical views on the part of Polish historians and writers as well as with some of the works by Slovak and Czech historians. The Poles were upset that arms shipments were not allowed to pass through Czechoslovak territory during the Polish-Russian war and that the Zaolsze/Zaolší border region was annexed by Czechoslovakia. The Slovaks complained of Prague’s centralism and discrimination against their nation by the Czechoslovak government, as did the Sudeten Germans.
Yet with hindsight none of these factors play a major role. What has always distinguished the early Czechoslovakia is the towering figure of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk. He was the one to endow this state with a democratic and tolerant character. And it was on his legacy that Václav Havel built many years later, turning his small country into a serious actor on the world stage.
Prague was a multinational city, the city of Kafka and Hašek. At that time, Bratislava was also multicultural and multilingual. It was in this atmosphere that the greatest achievements of Czech and Slovak culture were created. All of them are imbued with two characteristics that I value most highly: a free spirit and self-irony, the most powerful weapons against totalitarian repression. I envy the Czechs and Slovaks this self-irony which is so lacking in my fellow-countrymen.
At this point I cannot avoid mention of two names: Karel Čapek and Jan Patočka. Čapek’s essay A Place for Jonathan is one of the most interesting analyses of the situation of the intellectual confronted by the threat of totalitarianism. And Patočka’s Heretical Essays are, to my mind, a key book on the human condition in the 20th century. It was in this atmosphere that the specific Czech and Slovak intellectual world was born, a culture that is so attractive to us all. It was in this atmosphere and in our own lifetime that people like Havel and Kundera, Tatarka and Šimečka, Forman and Menzel, Jakubisko and Šulík created their works of art that we admire so much. And without them Central Europe would be spiritually so much the poorer.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
We are grateful to Adam Michnik for the permission to publish this text in English.