St Wenceslas, Drive Out the Fascists!

St. Wenceslas. Photo: Irena Brožová

It is a peculiar national holiday: even though the parliament had to work very hard to institute it, most people see it just as an opportunity to turn on the lawnmowers at their weekend cottages; and yet, over the past few years, Václav Klaus has been as happy to use it as a pretext for nationalistic sermonizing as he is to exploit rallies by DOST [an ultra-rightwing political initiative -tr.] or to have the skull of the saint, whose worship had until recently been limited to the most nostalgic admirers of pre-modern Catholic culture, ceremonially driven to Stará Boleslav [where St. Wenceslas is said to have been slain – tr.] in his presidential limousine. The holiday is an opportunity to examine the conservative-national-religious turn that has occurred in a certain segment of Czech society in recent years. And since this is a holiday in honour of a historic personality, it ought to be examined in its historical context – in terms of recent, rather than ancient, history.

Nationalism as Counter-Culture?

The current tide of religiously tinged nationalism is, essentially, a backlash against the social, cultural and religious state of Europe and the Czech Lands in the 1990s. This was a time of general optimism, fostering dreams of a multicultural civilisation or, indeed, in Fukuyama’’s words, “‘the end of history”’. “‘Return to Europe”’ was the mantra of Czech foreign policy. Patriotism and nationalism were not considered part of “respectable”’ social discourse. In those days Václav Klaus regarded himself a libertarian and talked only of money. Nationalist right-wing extremism did exist but all it could manage to produce was the odious figure of Miroslav Sládek and all he, in turn, managed to muster was a little over five per cent of the support of the electorate.

Although Czech Christian churches emerged somewhat battered from communism, they were also enriched by the experience of persecution, dissent and exile. Public spokesmen for Catholicism in those days – the priests Václav Malý, Tomáš Halík and the Jesuit Petr Kolář, the journalists Petr Příhoda and Jiří Zajíc – were people who, based on this experience, strove to turn Catholicism into a positive force and a sensible (and sensibly critical) voice in moulding a new society. The politicians of that period – whether they, like KDU (the Christian Democratic Union) flaunted their Christianity, or whether, like ODA (the Civic Democratic Alliance), they regarded their Christian understanding of the world as a “‘private”’ matter – mostly operated likewise. And those nurturing nostalgic dreams of old Austria, monarchy and aristocracy usually did so in the context of the motto of “‘Central Europe”’, and thus in an explicitly anti-nationalist spirit.

Furthermore, the prevailing fashion in culture was postmodernism, which proclaimed the absence of any binding rules and claimed that the role of contemporary creative artists and thinkers was limited to “‘deconstructive”’ juggling with subjects of old images and narratives. This was also reflected in the religious discourse of the day. After all, Václav Havel was not only the symbolic epitome of the expectations of the day, he was also the highest representative of a “‘non-ecclesiastical spirituality”’, equally open to Christian traditions and westernized forms of Buddhism as well as all varieties of New Age orientations, i.e. spiritual postmodernism.

This was the state of affairs in the early 1990s. Twenty years later nationalism has become a contemporary trend, with an ultraconservative version of Catholicism providing its ideological underpinnings. There has emerged a broad front – incoherent only at first blush – comprising DOST as a political movement and intellectual guardian of the nationalists; Jana Bobošíková and her crudely populist Sovereignty Party; Daniel Landa with his mystical-national-holy-grail style propagandistic musicals; “‘traditional”’ skinhead Nazis from northern Bohemia; a network of ultraconservative religious organisations (St. Joseph’’s Institute, The Pro-Life Movement, etc.) and active bloggers linked to all of the above (this, in fact, is also the result of the “‘democratic”’ potential of new technologies: a hotel receptionist in České Budějovice, a man without any formal education but with sufficient time and energy on his hands, has founded an Internet “‘Cathopedia”’ as a counterweight to the “‘relativist” Wikipedia, and his snitching has turned him into the scourge of many Catholic priests); cultural societies and associations cultivating “‘friendship with Slavonic nations, particularly Russia”’; their willing lackeys in high politics, such as the former Education Minister Dobeš; some of President Klaus’’s closest advisers and, last but not least, right at the top, Klaus himself.

Although they may seem like a rather disparate community of individuals and clubs, they all subscribe to a coherent ideological system: anti-Europeanism as a fight against “foreign” foes; homophobia as a fight against “‘moral”’ foes; anti-Roma racism as a fight against “social”’ foes; Catholicalism, i.e. an evangelical version of Catholicism as a fight against “‘spiritual”’ foes, that is, “‘relativists”’; in rare cases also open anti-Semitism as a fight against “‘universal”’ foes, since for the majority anti-Semitism still remains too controversial a concept (that is why some DOST bloggers cunningly campaign against the “‘tabuisation of the Jewish question”’) and equally rarely also open anti-Islamism (since that might expose its propagators to real, not just virtual, danger). All of these cultivate a sense of fighting an evil world devoid of values, a sense of belonging to an elect phalanx of fighters and to a “‘just”’ counter- culture.…

The notion of “‘counter-culture”’ is key here. It was introduced in the 1960s by the sociologist Theodore Roszak as a cover term for what was then a new “‘alternative”’ youth movement. However, in his book The Making of a Counter Culture (1968) he himself repeatedly invoked a parallel with early Christianity, which, before gaining equal status in early 4th century, had formed a “‘counter culture”’ to the official, exhausted, “‘aging”’ culture of the late Greco-Roman world. In this way Roszak laid the ground for his term to be applied also to other formations throughout history which have set themselves in conscious opposition to the ruling culture, creating alternative and often deliberately provocative systems of views, values and ways of life – hoping all the while that this radical posture would help make their system more attractive and enable it one day to become dominant.

Therefore, even though the system of views professed by the new Czech nationalists is the exact antithesis of a “‘model”’ counter-culture as described by Roszak, it is this “‘counter-cultural ethos”’ that is one of the main sources of its attractiveness. In this new context especially those who are frustrated on a social or personal level find it very easy and tempting to declare themselves “‘religious conservatives”’, “‘real patriots”’, “‘politically incorrect”’ and “‘champions of traditional family values”’. In an open democratic society (and with the help of new technologies) such a stance does not entail any risk for the individual while allowing him or her to enjoy the moral privilege that implicitly goes with the status of belonging to a “‘counter-culture”’ (thanks to the tradition of counter-cultures that were radically different!).

This is not to say that the mere trendiness and psychological attractiveness of a counter-cultural attitude is the only reason why this national-Catholic formation has been able to flourish in the liberal and rather unecclesiastically religious Czech Lands. There are also some “‘objective”’ historical reasons for this: the disillusionment with the dream of an all-resolving united Europe not coming true; the frustration over the ideological void and ruthless pragmatism typical of democratic political parties; the tiredness of the tepid and diffident workings of official church structures; the horror at the gravity of the economic crisis and the equally grave social issue of Roma unemployment, which politicians have so far failed to resolve; and, in the sphere of culture, also the ultimate disgust over the rhetorical cynicism and buffoonery of late postmodernism in the arts and in thought. And again, Václav Havel’’s life might be understood as an epitome of all these foundered hopes since, in his final years, while still taking note of negative developments in society and culture, he was no longer capable of a more systemic intellectual analysis, let alone political action, preferring instead to withdraw into glass palaces of his show-business projects in the spirit of a grotesque, stale post-modernism. And while Havel had repeatedly defined himself in opposition to nationalism, and his 1990s political plans had insisted on building a civic and pluralist, rather than (solely) national society, it is no wonder that the word ‘nation’, after having almost fallen into oblivion in the early 1990s, has become the main slogan of this new “‘counter culture”’ and a wished for old/new universal remedy for all contemporary ailments.

Fascism, a European tradition

Just as the Czech hopes of the early 1990s related to pan-European hopes of that era, so the Czech frustration and national-Catholic “‘counter-culture”’ of the early 2010s is also related to European events. The economic crisis as well as the increasingly empty and technical nature of the European project originated in Europe. Issues such as the internal rift within, and the scorched state of, the traditional churches, and the increasingly acute issue of immigrant minorities are also much more pronounced in Europe than in the Czech Lands. That is why the national and religious reaction has also affected Europe in a more forceful manner. Suffice it to take a look at Europe’’s parliaments, with Austria’’s Freedom Party, Hungary’’s Jobbik, Greece’’s Golden Dawn, Poland’’s Law and Justice Party, as well as the extreme nationalist Right in countries such as the Netherlands and Finland. The French National Front has become quite well established on the political scene, though France has learned to keep it under control. However, the fact that neo-Nazis have been able to gain seats in regional parliaments even in Germany – a country that, driven by guilt, has made such a painstaking effort to raise the young generation in a democratic, indeed anti-nationalist spirit – signals that things are getting serious on a European scale. Our “‘very own”’ patriots have not yet made inroads into parliament and might seem relatively marginal compared with the rest of Europe.

The historical perspective reveals yet another, deeper context for the pan-European surge of extreme right-wing movements. For nearly all these new movements have older historical roots. Le Pen’’s National Front is a direct successor of Action française that emerged as a “counter cultural”’ movement of nationalists, royalists and Ultramontanist Catholics as early as in the early 20th century (Polish historian Jacek Bartyzel gives a detailed account of their emergence in his book Umierać, ale powoli! O monarchistycznej i katolickiej kontrrewolucji v krajach romańskich / To Die But Slowly! On the monarchist and Catholic counter-revolution in the Romance lands). The Hungarian Jobbik claims allegiance not only to Horthy’’s ideological tradition of interwar Hungary but also to the ultra-right wing opposition to Horthy, the Arrow Cross movement. The Austrian Freedom Party quietly draws from the well of un-purged Austrian Nazism that Thomas Bernhard and other Austrian authors have railed against.

Indeed, this entire “nationalist international” represents the return of the network of authoritarian and national movements, a phenomenon that in the 1920s and 1930s gradually gained the upper hand in one European country after another: Horthy’’s Hungary, Mussolini’s Italy, Salazar’’s Portugal, Dolfuss’’s Austria, Franco’s Spain, and finally, under the Nazi baton, but also the Czechoslovak “Second Republic”’, Tiso’’s “‘Slovak state”’ and Pétain’’s “‘French state”’. All these regimes shared key features, in spite of displaying national characteristics, varying degrees of brutality or relative peace, and the degree of totalitarianism or “‘limited”’ democracy.

Firstly, all of them were born of the frustration bred by the economic crisis and the incompetence of the conventional political parties. Second, in all of them a nationalist rhetoric was wedded to a religious one, although they treated Christianity as a tribal idol rather than a universal religion. Third, all of them invoked “‘traditional values”’ at the same time as directing an aggressive rhetoric at “the Other”’: national and religious minorities, democrats and left-wingers and, of course, the Jews. Fourth, these regimes claimed to represent a “‘fourth way”’: neither democracy nor capitalism, nor German “pagan”’ Nazism – and, of course, not communism either, but rather something “‘in between”’, a more or less moderate authoritarian approach tempered with a strong cultural and national traditionalism. By the end of the 1930s, however, this “‘fourth way”’ proved illusory as Nazism ultimately steamrolled everything in its path. The anti-German rhetoric these movements had cultivated earlier as part of their particular brand of nationalism turned out to be of no use. Willy-nilly they all eventually became spare wheels and cogs in the machinery of Hitler’’s “‘new order”’.

Durych’’s culpability

The interwar “nationalist international” also included authoritarian movements in Bohemia and Moravia. Although no strong and unified movement ever emerged in these parts, the country teemed with a jumble of feuding groups (see the encyclopaedic account in Ivo Pejčoch’’s book Fašismus v českých zemích 1922-1945 / Fascism in the Czech Lands 1922-1945). However, the Czech nationalists shared the views and intentions of their European fellow believers, from anti-Semitism to anti-Germanism. In light of the present-day nationalist revival and the role religious ultra-conservatism plays within it, we need to examine its religious component as well.

For already in those days the Czech Lands had seen examples of a seemingly shocking alliance between certain elements of the cultural and intellectual elite with crude storm troopers, as well as between Ultramontanist Catholicism and militant nationalism. The journalist Jan Scheinost – one of the spiritual fathers of the National Fascist Community – was also one of the first disciples of the leading light of “‘high”’ Catholic journalism, writer Jaroslav Durych. Contributors to the pre-war journal Vlajka (Banner) included the young student Karel Schwarzenberg, who had met the “‘bannerists” in classes taught by the national conservative historian Josef Pekař. And even after Karel Schwarzenberg broke off his relations with the Banner as he soon realized that it bore no relation to his utopian ideals, indeed even after the Banner was drawn into collaborating with the Nazis, a top Catholic dignitary, the Pilsen Archdeacon Antonín Havelka, happily continued to contribute to the journal. Conservative yet democratic patriots and many resistance fighters, as well as the most disreputable Nazi collaborators, resorted to using the national tradition and national saints, St Wenceslas in particular, as a shield against the humiliation of the Second Republic and the Protectorate.

In this context it is necessary to reopen the issue we might refer to as “‘Durych’’s culpability”’. Jaroslav Durych never became an active Fascist, remaining “‘just”’ a critical journalist. However, his 1920s students had embraced Fascism, while his students from the 1930s became the ideologues of the Second Republic and the early Protectorate. The second most famous protagonist of Czech Catholic culture, Jakub Deml, was politically far more naïve. While the fact that in 1940 (!) he wrote in his “‘one-man-review” Šlépěje XXV / Footsteps XXV things such as – Whenever I recall this statement by Otokar Březina, it seems to me as if Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler had heard these sentences spoken by Březina and had arranged his actions against the Jews, the mortal disease of the German and every other nation, accordingly. Or Should anyone tell you the Jew is also a human being, don’t hesitate and knock out four of his teeth – might in other circumstances have been interpreted as the ravings of a feeble-minded old man, in the given social context they are inexcusable. That is what makes the enthusiastic reception in 2010 of Jaroslav Med’’s Literární život ve stínu Mnichova / Literary Life in the Shadow of Munich in 2010 so surprising since it is a book that, while providing a serious literary historical account, ultimately trivializes the Catholic writers’ guilt, claiming that the Czech literature of that period “came through with honour”’. Perhaps this kind of reception is another sign of the changing atmosphere in Czech society?

Another kind of Christian counter-culture

After 1945 it seemed that authoritarian Catholicizing nationalism became moot, having thoroughly discredited itself. Yet at the beginning of the 21st century it is alive and kicking again, sometimes even directly building on and attempting to rehabilitate its predecessors, complete with the invocation of God, St Wenceslas and ancient national traditions. To describe this phenomenon Václav Bělohradský has coined a resonant and, in many respects, quite apposite term: “‘clerical nationalism”’. However, his term has two disadvantages: first, it is too reminiscent of the term “‘clerical Fascism”’, which referred to the specific circumstances of Slovakia and was overused and discredited by the communists. Second, it ascribes too much importance to the clergy. While individual members of the Catholic clergy may well sympathize with these tendencies, the clergy as a whole do not play a leading role in this movement, choosing (fortunately) to keep out of the way. The Church regards the present-day movement as one of “‘Catholic laymen”’. From a historical perspective this movement is much better served by the name it had used itself – Fascism. Our nationalists are Fascists in the original, true sense of the word, not in the figurative sense that is really a reference to Nazism. They are Fascists, i.e. people trying to create an authoritarian society with a “‘limited” degree of democracy, fiercely nationalist and exploiting conservative religious rhetoric for its purposes. We have reached the threshold of a new Fascist era. It’s up to us to draw the conclusions.

The main question is, what conclusions ought to be drawn by those who profess to be Christians or even Catholics, and who regard themselves as Czech patriots – yet who, at the same time, support the notion of an open, democratic and pluralist society and who do not wish to have anything to do with the new Fascists. Should they perhaps stop talking about their faith and patriotism?

Quite the contrary. The time has come for a new reflection of what Christian faith and patriotism mean to us; of what it is that leads their advocates astray; and how we can find within them sources of behaviour that is opposed to this trend. Surely Christianity does not represent just a tradition of “orthodox empires”’ and “‘solid social orders”’, a tradition of religious fundamentalism and nationalist flaunting of religious symbols. It is also a tradition of prophets, social critics, church reformers and fighters against totalitarianism of every ilk. Twentieth century Christianity consists not just of catholicizing Fascists past and present, not just of the official Catholic (and, in the case of Germany, protestant) church structures that failed to resist this trend more vigorously and now strive primarily to preserve their own power and social status quo. It also includes Jacques Maritain, a leader of French Catholicism who stood up for Jews and democracy. It includes the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who joined the anti-Nazi resistance and raised agonizing questions about the historic guilt of the church in his letters from prison. It includes the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, leader of the non-violent movement of American blacks. It includes Czech Christians of various confessions who signed Charter 77. And these days, it includes, among others, the Pussy Riot women, crazy provocateurs and fighters against the Orthodox version of a new authoritarian order. We have enough to build on. There is a stand that we can take. A genuine Christian counter-culture does exist. And today we can and must declare: St Wenceslas, don’’t let us perish! St Wenceslas, drive out the Fascists!

The article appeared in the supplement Orientace of the Czech daily Lidové noviny.
Translated by Julia Sherwood