Sunday, January 15, 2006

Leaders of mature nations

Martin Luther King was alright. Still, I feel that the modern nations and ethnic groups in 2006 need slightly different leaders.

Because many people who disagree with my politics often try to remind me of the discrimination against the Czech nation - which is a complete non-issue for me, of course - let me tell you a story about the Czech national revival.

Let us start with some pre-history.

The Slavic culture started to influence the Czech lands sometime in the 8th century or so. In the 9th century, the territory was organized as a wealthy and cultural empire of Great Moravia - an ancient prototype of Czechoslovakia. Actually many of the Czechs could have been Alpine Celts, but that's a different issue. Constantin and Method were invited to Great Moravia in 863 and brought an alphabet and Eastern Christianity. However, the influence from Germany became more important very soon and the Czech lands became a standard part of Western & Catholic civilization.




The Czech kingdom was established around the 10th century. The royal dynasty was officially and permanently accepted by the Roman Empire in 1212 (through the Golden bull of Sicily). Many nice things happened in between - for example, the Czech king (and German Emperor) Charles IV founded the Charles University and many other things in 1348. In the early 15th century, 100 years prior to Martin Luther, Jan Hus started to reform the Church. Unfortunately he was burned at stake in 1415. His disciples named Hussites, an organized group of primordial communist rebels who shared everything and whose methods of fight were pretty sophisticated, has made successful attacks against the catholic countries around. It is always a difficult issue whether the Czechs should be proud about them - were they heroes or communists combined with terrorists? - but I am pretty sure that most of the Czechs are proud after all. ;-)

But I want to get to the "dark ages". After many minor victorious battles, the Czech reformers etc. had lost several key battles (1434 and 1620 were the most important ones) and three or four centuries of German dominance started. The Czech language essentially became a language of peasants. All intellectuals had to learn German if they wanted to make any difference. The Austrians and Germans skillfully used the argument about the German cultural superiority. There were serious doubts whether the Czech nation and the Czech language would survive at all.

These doubts were stopped in the late 18th century when the national revival began, much like in several other countries of Europe. A group of intelligent patriots started to write a lot of books, fill in the missing words in scientific terminology, compose symphonies with national themes, establish new theaters, and so forth. They were pretty good even though I still feel that the American founding fathers were more sophisticated still. Nevertheless, it became clear in the early 19th century that the Czech nation was not going to die after all. However, the argument about the German cultural superiority was still there. How did the people deal with it'? Most of them simply accepted it because it seemed to be true.

However, there were people who did not want to accept it. Shockingly, in 1816, a 27-year-old poet Mr. Josef Linda discovered a manuscript of the Vyšehradská song, a poem in archaic Czech language that was soon afterwards classified as a work from the 13th century. One year later, a 26-year-long-old poet Mr. Václav Hanka discovered the Královedvorský manuscript, apparently also from the 13th century. Another miracle followed one more year later: an anonymous package sent to the Czech Royal Museum in Prague contained Zelenohorský manuscript, seemingly from the 9th or 10th century. (All these manuscripts are named after the places where they were discovered.)

All of these works are magnificent and be sure that when you look at them, you won't see anything wrong about them. The cultural gap between the Czechs and Germans had been erased since the Czech manuscripts were as old and as good as the German ones. Or was it?

This question has divided the Czech patriots into two groups. Most of them believed that the manuscripts were genuine. Or at least they claimed so. Prof. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk who became the founder of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and the country's first president had a different opinion. He - and other "realists" - had various reasons to be convinced that the documents could not have been genuine. He had incredibly reasonable opinions about a whole sort of questions which allowed him to be a leader of the only Western-style democracy in the totalitarian sea of Central Europe (the description of Europe is as of the 1930s).

Modern day tests in the 1960s based on methods including X-rays and fluorescence have proved that all the manuscripts were fabricated. Masaryk was right; the majority was wrong. In some sense, I admire Hanka and Linda - or whoever else created them. It can't be too easy to doctor manuscripts that are supposed to be 600-900 years old. But I don't share their moral attitude. The manuscripts are still nice - but they are pieces from the early 19th century, not from 9th-13th centuries.

What is the punch line of this story? The punch line is, of course, that different nations and other groups don't necessarily have the same glorious history of their old literature and other things. The first plays and books written in Czech are a tad younger than the comparable German, English, or French ones. Still, a realist academician or politician - such as Prof. Masaryk - is able to accept this observation. And by accepting the truth, he may make it easier to inspire some progress. By the 1930s, there was again little doubt that Czechoslovakia was one of 10 most advanced modern countries in the world - a fact that was unfortunately modified by the subsequent developments.

Of course that the Czechs today have no problems to admit that the Germans may be or may have been "better" in various respects. This fact partly reflects the Czech national "submissiveness" - but even those Czechs who are far from being submissive are able to admit that the weakness can be on our side (except for those who dream about the old good times of communism, because they always blame someone else, but that's a different issue). Every mature enough nation must be able to accept reality - and the reality is full of differences of all possible types. Only by acquiring the principles that the "superior" side is using, one can get at their level (or above it).

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