The Ballad of a country called Czechoslovakia

Nothing lasts forever and countries are no exception. They emerge and vanish. These days they vanish by separating into their previously delineated territorial parts, they vanish by splitting. What this indicates is that the international community does not want to accept the creation of entirely new borders.

Czechoslovakia, or Czecho-Slovakia as it was called in its last incarnation, no longer exists as a state, its two constituent parts having gone their separate ways. It continues to live, however, as a locus of memory and as such it deserves our attention. It inspires us to ponder the destinies of Central European linguistic nationalisms and prompts us to think about the pitfalls of building a democratic state in a complex multinational as well as uni-national context.

Czechoslovakia was a composite state whose dominant elite wanted to homogenize something that was heterogeneous. Like the other immediate successor states of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy it replicated its nationalities policies without settling its relations with neighbouring countries. It was the country with the greatest potential for innovation in the region but at the same time it had the bad luck, to which it may have intentionally contributed, in that its leading elites could not rely on the spiritual kinship of partner elites among their neighbours. T.G. Masaryk respected Oszkár Jászi, the Hungarian sociologist and minister in the Károlyi Government but Jászi never became the Hungarian Masaryk. For the new central Europe to emerge the changes needed to be absorbed in emotional and intellectual terms, and peace had to be forged and bridges among nations built but there was not enough time left for the latter as the region’’s geo-political vulnerability and its susceptibility to negative influences from the world’s powers became apparent very early on. Thus the victors did not have enough time to show that they were skilled in the art of keeping peace and the vanquished were not able to bear the bitter burden of the sudden defeat and turn it into a victory over themselves.

Even before the official declaration at home the new state was recognized by the victorious powers abroad. In fact, it was founded, negotiated and won abroad and this fact was reflected in its entire history. The Czechoslovak state’s security was precarious and basically dependent on the political constellation of the great powers. This dependence is the red thread running through the country’’s whole existence, influencing its geographic shape and political regime which, through most of its history, was far from free. That is why it was under Masaryk that Czechoslovakia experienced its greatest glory .

František Palacký was the first with the foresight to recognize how exposed and vulnerable was the territory occupied by Czechoslovakia, squeezed as it was between a strong Germany and a strong Russia, and to claim that if Austria did not exist it would have to be invented. What he had in mind was a transformed Austria, one that would strive for equality and democracy, a superpower that providing protection to smaller nations.

Ironically, a hundred years later, the superpower that had participated in decisions about the future of Europe after Napoleon’’s defeat in 1815, was a collapsing pile divided up by the victorious powers. To put it simply, the monarchy did not succeed in transforming itself into a democratic superpower even though, unlike Hungary, stagnating politically as its elite dreamt a futile dream of national homogenization, the Austrain part had managed to take the first hesitant and shaky steps towards reform. The introduction of universal franchise in 1908 was, so to speak, the last expression of policies that did not shun modernity.

The Central European 19th century success story was remarkable in its modernity, ushering in a social, economic, cultural and political development of Czech society which, as, Jan Patočka pointed out in his notable essay What are the Czechs , was built from the bottom up. Compared with its neigbours, it was a popular society not dominated by the aristocracy and it was this strength and potential that enabled the Czech politicians in exile to pursue the highest goal of small-minded nationalism – a one-nation state that would later develop into the Czechoslovak project. It was Czechoslovakia that gave Slovakia its shape and a mighty push towards its own political development although, in terms of the prevailing power relations, it was a predominantly Czech project. The great material and intellectual potential of early 20th century Czech society enabled its elites to seize the moment to start actively shaping its own history. Hungary wasted its greatest opportunity to assert its historical individuality in 1867 because of its internal, assimilationist and imperialist policies. At that time, the Czech Lands were not given such a chance but their opportunity came with the onset of World War I. The longer the war went on the greater the opportunity became, eventually coming to fruition when the Czechoslovak state was created, with a territory extending from Aš (on the German border) in the west to Uzhgorod (in today’’s Western Ukraine) in the east.

This act of creation required wisdom and courage but even more wisdom and courage was needed to stabilize the newly created state. The key challenge of the day was to win the peace. Masaryk knew that the newly-created state was not finished, he knew it had been founded abroad, largely thanks to the assistance of the victorious powers. He realized that the new state needed a strong citizenry and that it had to rid itself of the serf mentality. He diagnosed the same requirement for the national minorities, not just for the Czechs and Slovaks, since they had all been shaped by the institutions of an authoritarian state. That is why one of the priorities the first President set himself was to establish a tradition of citizenry in a Central European context. Interestingly Masaryk, a nonconformist by disposition and one who always had the courage to swim against the main tide of public opinion, was himself turned into an icon. It is ironic that his contemporaries may not even have understood him. In his essay Jan Patočka states that Emanuel Rádl may have been the only one of his disciples with the courage to develop his ideas in a creative way.

The foundation of Czechoslovakia was a triumph of a particular kind of linguistic or ethnic nationalism. Its constitution was adopted by a national assembly that consisted of appointed, but not elected, Czech and Slovak representatives. In the interest of forming a long-lasting and strong democratic union of Czechoslovakia’’s citizens and creating a trans-ethnic, universally oriented citizenry as well as the republic’s symbols, the assembly had to include representatives of the ethnic minorities. Of course, the term trans-ethnic citizenry is not meant to deny any existing ethnicity but rather to raise its creative development to a level that is not nationally protective in the classical, national revivalist, sense. The point is to overcome narrow boundaries that are concerned only with asserting national identity. All of this, however, would have required a creative interpretation of the Czech-Slovak relations.

To Masaryk, the project of building the Czechoslovak state was akin to a long-distance race. To him the state’’s foundation was not the goal but rather the beginning of something new. In Patočka’’s words, to achieve something new would have demanded a new vision of Czech linguistic nationalism and an orientation towards creating a Central European democratic statehood. This required statemanship and virtuoso governance, skills that the Czech political elites had not yet acquired. Patočka considered Beneš a capable secretary and politician but not a statesman, a leader who could motivate people.

The main direction of Czechoslovak historiography in history textbooks, in terms of activities of the state, its symbols and holidays, owed more to ideas of National Revival than to the concept of an inclusive democratic citizenry. After all, even the idea of an ethnic Czechoslovak nation, however useful in legitimising the new state, later became a harmful fiction that impeded development, just like the state’’s unification and centralisation which, among other things, failed to give Slovakia the space to consolidate its own traditional territorial administration system, as pointed out by Emil Stodola in his memoirs Breakthrough. Stodola was a journalist with an apparently good understanding of the need to build an inclusive union of Czechoslovakia’’s citizens. I am in favour of seeking ways of co-operation with fellow citizens who speak other languages, one that will strengthen our state and Slovakia in particular. The unifying bureaucratic style, disrespectful of historical developments and tactless in dealing with sensitive issues, was reminiscent of Enlightenment policies under Joseph II. This became particularly obvious in relations with Slovakia which, at the time of the Republic’s foundation, was an entity still on the way to becoming a whole.

Czechoslovakia’’s history went through several stages. The first one is the most famous. It came to an end when the balance of power changed resulting in the collapse of the security system Czechoslovakia relied on. It was a crucial moment. And according to Patočka, in this crucial moment Beneš failed.

We will never yield to anyone, Masaryk said after founding the Republic. He was a humanist thinker but never a pacifist. He believed in the necessity of armed defence and possessed the moral strength necessary to take responsibility for difficult decisions of the kind a true statesman cannot avoid taking in certain situations. Czechoslovakia’s population was ready to fight, the army command was in favour of going to war, the army was well equipped and even though defeat was likely, a defensive war would have endowed the state with the greatness, importance and prestige to reassert the ideas underlying its foundation.

Reflecting on the fate of the first Czechoslovak Republic we should appreciate the role of the European Union as a stabilizing and modernizing force which demonstrates that nations and their elites are able, after all, to learn from past difficulties, and that they are able to take remedial action. To paraphrase Palacký, if the EU did not exist we would have to invent it. The question is whether we, the small nations of Central Europe, would be up to it. Luckily, we were spared this effort and proof of our maturity. We have joined a ready-made union that had been thought through, and had only to reflect and show the will to adapt and learn. The European Union was born of the wisdom of the vanquished, of historical enmities overcome, and we are the beneficiaries of this wisdom.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

We are grateful to Tibor Pichler for the permission to publish this text in English.