Tuesday, May 05, 2015 ... /////

The iconoclastic monarchs of Prague Castle

Politico.eu just published an essay by Benjamin Cunningham,

The monarchs of Prague Castle,
a text displaying the author's surprise that the colorless Czech nation never wants to find a boring president. First of all, the article makes the impression that the Czech nation is a bunch of relatively boring, average, opportunist people – while its leaders tend to be more colorful. I need to emphasize that this point is basically correct.

Klaus, Zeman, Havel a few years after the Velvet Revolution.

However, Cunningham vastly underestimates how far this expectation from the Czech leaders goes, why the Czechs ultimately find it natural to pick leaders who are not average men hiding beneath many other people's skirts, and why they are right. Let me discuss these points in some detail.

The subtitle of Cunningham's text says
Miloš Zeman broke ranks with the EU over Russia, but Czech presidents are known for their iconoclastic streak.
This is a scary formulation. What does it mean to "break ranks with the EU"? The European Union is mainly a label for a class of unelected bureaucrats whose goal is to control much of the European continent but who – fortunately – control just a percent or two of the European finances and activities (so far?). What's more important are the people of Europe. Half a billion of people in Europe have diverse opinions about and attitudes to Russia. Significant differences exist in each nation; but the distributions depend on the nation, too. Some nations are much closer to Russian than others, and so on.

They live in free countries where they don't have to "conform" to some only correct politically correct opinions. And indeed, about one-half of the Europeans want to have good relationships with Russia while the other half wouldn't say such a thing. Czechia has elected a president whose opinions on Russia don't differ much from the opinions of millions of Czechs – and from the opinions of his predecessor.

I find Cunningham's suggestion that the nation states' presidents should conform to the opinions of the EU bureaucrats, or the prevailing opinions among the politicians from other EU countries, insane. It's almost isomorphic to the kind of intimidation that we would be exposed to during communism. Did our leaders break ranks with the Soviet bloc during the 1968 Prague Spring? Maybe but ours was surely the better subspecies of communism. In the very same way, Czechs' typical opinions about Russia are wiser than those in many other nations.

In the era of freedom, when we are supposed to be a sovereign country without adjectives (a different status than we de facto had during the communist times), it must be about equally likely for a leader to break ranks with the EU as to conform to the EU and Cunningham's suggestion to the contrary is shocking. It is Cunningham, and not our presidents, who is suggesting something extremely sick, dangerous, and contradicting some basic and holy pillars of our societies and who should be waterboarded in Guantanamo Bay. I am sure that most civilized citizens in the West agree with me, pretty much by definition of the civilized citizens.

The first paragraph says:
PRAGUE – Placid and stolid, the Czech Republic revels in its reputation as the level-headed heart of central Europe, a sort of Bohemian version of Switzerland. So why can’t the country place a boring and uncontroversial president in the hulking Prague Castle?
"Placid" and "stolid" – I admit that there's something right about these adjectives. But those descriptions do sound like if we (and Switzerland) were a nation of impotent men of a sort. It's more acceptable when I say it than when a foreigner says it. ;-)

OK, why can't Czechia pick a boring leader? Because despite our being a nation of average men – and perhaps even because of it – we have an extremely long tradition of promoting genuinely independent intellectuals to the role of the national leaders.

I could probably go much deeper to our history but I choose to start with the 15th century priest Mister John Huss. He was an early reformer of the Catholic Church who criticized its officials for lots of wrongdoing and hypocrisy. A church reformer who did this stuff a century before the well-known church reformers and founders of protestantism. One could have agreed or disagreed with him but he was a nontrivially honest and intelligent man – who also introduced our diacritical signs (like in Luboš Motl) – and he was burned at stake for that very reason in 1415 (no, I don't mean for the diacritical signs). His ideas led to a period of Hussite wars and his moral credentials have filled many Czechs with pride – even those Czechs who basically disagree with most of his teaching and values of his full-fledged followers.

There have been several important man but let me jump to the 19th century – because many of the older ones weren't "real mavericks". But Karel Havlíček Borovský [Carrell Havlee-Czech Boroff-skee] was a politician, poet, writer, and critic who became the father of the Czech journalism, too. His real name was "Karel Havlíček" (Charles Little-Havel) while the adjective "Borovský" was added by him. It meant "born in the village of Borová" near the town of German Ford (now: "Havlíček's Ford").

He died when he was just 34 but before he did, he has achieved impressive things. At some moment, he was a Russophile and a pan-Slav. But he became disillusioned with the state of the Russian society which weakened his pan-Slavic sentiments. Folks in Moscow would surely prefer an even more enthusiastic approach by the Czechs but Borovský's "mixed, somewhat positive" views on Russia are rather typical for many similar Czech leaders and people since the 19th century. It's been always considered natural to believe that our old Slavic cousins could help us in various ways, there is a natural relationship, and unlike the Poles etc., Czechs have never been trying to "invent" and "create" new hatred out of thin air, for no good reasons. We have never had any bloody war against Russia – I am sure that the Russian readers will agree to ignore a few hundred irrelevant Bolshevik scumbags who were hanged by the heroic Czechoslovak Legions when they occupied 1/3 of Siberia. ;-)

Borovský's patriotic activities have convinced the Austrian authorities to send him to exile in Brixen (now in Italy). You should understand that people like Borovský were the natural stones that the Czech nation had to build upon once it gained independence.

In 1918, Czechoslovakia was founded (primarily) by Thomas Garrigue Masaryk. To a large extent, he was a standardized pro-West politician who was able to establish the country as an ally of the Western power (U.S., France, U.K.). However, this professor – the first president who would enjoy the status of a de facto king for the first 20 years of Czechoslovakia – was a bold maverick, too, especially from the domestic perspective. For example, he opposed the nationalists who believed (or wanted to believe) that some extremely old Czech manuscripts (which would have made our literature exactly as old as the French or German one, and not a century or two younger, as it is otherwise) were real, and advocated the view that those were forgeries from the 19th century. Only in the 1960s, decades after Masaryk's death, chemical analyses irrevocably proved that he was right. The two manuscripts were forged, probably by the very scholars who "discovered" them. Also, Masaryk didn't hesitate to oppose the widespread nation's anti-Semitic witch hunts in the wake of a murder that was believed to be a Jewish ritual murder of a young woman (The Hilsner Trial).

Masaryk chose (or recommended) Edvard Beneš, a younger co-founder of Czechoslovakia, as his successor. Beneš was intrinsically a boring career diplomat lacking Masaryk's charisma. But he was placed in certain big enough shoes so he was expected to behave as a similarly important intellectual and leader, and to a large extent, he was one. Unfortunately, he had to supervise the defeats of democratic Czechoslovakia both by the Nazis and (a decade later) by the communists. Nevertheless, as the boss of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London, he masterminded the execution of Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the main creators of the Holocaust. Of course, Beneš was working in the relative safety of the U.K. but one could still see that even Beneš was much more courageous than the average Czechs.

The state president during the occupation who was tolerated by the Germans, Emil Hácha, symbolized the submissiveness of the Czech nation at that time (although this was partly just an "appearance" due to his short physique and his poor health). He was actually a sensible man (a lawyer who translated Three Men in a Boat to Czech) but I think that he doesn't quite fit into my story about the independent intellectuals leading the Czech nation. Even though I find Hácha respectable, he is unlikely to ever get rid of his image of a loser and a coward – and he is one of the tragic figures of the history who deter and who encourage other Czech leaders to be more courageous than they would otherwise be.

Fine. The totalitarian communism began in 1948. The first "working class president" was a primitive bumpkin named Klement Gottwald, the boss of the communist party, who was followed by semi-intellectuals Antonín Zápotocký and Antonín Novotný. Those men don't fit into my story, either. But in 1968, the communist party picked Alexander Dubček, a communist with a human face, as its first secretary. The Prague Spring began and lasted for half a year or so.

Dubček and similar guys who were in charge of Czechoslovakia could have also been classified as independently thinking intellectuals of a sort, especially due to the obviously threatening brute force of Moscow. When the Prague Spring was defeated by the Warsaw Pact tanks, we spent 25 years in the state of "normalization" (the official name for re-Stalinization, de-democratization, and stagnation of late communism) under boring communist officials who don't fit into my story.

But the regime collapsed in 1989 and in December, Václav Havel – who was inprisoned just months earlier – was unanimously elected the president (despite the tons of communist lawmakers who hadn't been replaced in the Parliament yet). He was a staunchly pro-West (and also anti-Russia) mysterious dreamer of a sort. But he still had the indisputable credentials of an independent intellectual who wasn't ready to surrender to power – especially thanks to his life during communism.

BTW Havel used to be short and his health was poor – like Hácha's – but it's almost universally accepted that height and health are not the main qualities by which we are choosing leaders. Presidents work in a different job than ice-hockey players (who lost to Canada last night, anyway, despite another good game by Jágr, who is now 43) and most Czechs really aren't superficial enough to turn presidential elections into beauty-and-strength contests. On the other hand, Zeman is the world's tallest president right now. Those things didn't play a big role.

Václav Klaus, Havel's successor and Zeman's predecessor, was and is a much more right-wing, pro-market, pragmatic man who have always supported standard democratic parties and opposed various third-way and NGO and apolitical and PC constructs of the postmodern era. He was not counted as a canonical dissident during communism but as the TRF readers know very well, he has exhibited both brilliance and courage that was arguably greater than what Havel has done.

Our nation isn't full of men of Havel's of Klaus' caliber so we had to accept somewhat a bit less impressive ;-) and Miloš Zeman – the third most important post-Velvet-Revolution politician – made it as the third president of the post-Velvet-Divorce Czech Republic. He is a self-described leftist, but a very moderate one, and a self-described supporter of the EU who is actually igniting a comparable amount of shock in Brussels as Prof Klaus. By his opposition to Russophobia. By his disdain for the Islamic Anticilization, as he calls it (this leftist feels much more strongly about these matters than Klaus did), and by other things.

Klaus and Zeman have been different – and are still very different – when it comes to many issues. Taxation and redistribution (Zeman surely wants more of it). Whether we should join the eurozone (Zeman still defends the "Yes" answer). And so on. However, they also agree on many questions – their opposition to Russophobia, to various aspects of the political correctness, to the artificial weakening of our currency, and other things. These themes are not the typical "left-wing / right-wing" questions. But I probably agree with Klaus on Zeman on all the big enough political questions in which they agree with each other.

Even though they are building on very different intellectual bases, there exists a certain fuzzily defined kind of a "mindless ideology held by most mediocre officials" if not by the "self-described middle class" that Zeman and Klaus (and your humble correspondent) despise. And it looks like it's sort of "inevitable" for a Czech person who thinks really independently to disagree with most of these "majority" views, too.

The combination of Czechia's medium size coupled with its well-definedness may also explain a part of the leaders' "required" independence. Unlike the Poles, perhaps, and many others, Czechs don't think of themselves as of a power that is going to realistically defeat all nearby powers. When it comes to geopolitical games and security, someone else is probably going to be in charge of the big things, anyway. But we are not small enough to be completely defeated and we are sufficiently different from the bigger blocs where we belong which is another reason to demand that our leaders will at least be able to remain in charge of the smaller things, like their opinions.

We've had lots of unspectacular, boring (likable or not so likable) leaders in the past as well – the list above contains some names. But the probability that the Czech system or the Czech nation elects someone who is not just a boring copy of thousands of other average officials is likely to remain high – perhaps comparable to 50 percent. Cunningham suggests the Slovak billionaire Andrej Babiš – our current finance minister and the boss of the currently strongest (a)political party, ANO – as the next Czech president. This is, of course, an idea that many people talk about, thanks to Babiš' meteoric rise in politics.

Babiš is rich and somewhat charismatic but I would personally count him among the intellectually content-free, uninspiring politicians. He is a lousy speaker and an even lousier thinker. His views on political questions are extremely narrow-minded. He can only think about the issues as a manager of those stinky cowsheds that he manages in his Agrofert corporation. He is a farmer who was in the right place at the right time (including the communist secret agency before communism fell). He has no intellectual depth and breadth. As a thinker, he is a loser and I am sort of disgusted by the Czechs who are ready to view him as a guru, as a peer of Klaus, if not something better.

Cunningham described the presidents of modern Czechia as iconoclasts. I suppose that he could have used the word "heretics", too. That's what Mister John Huss officially was. Well, there is nothing wrong about being an iconoclast, especially not in Czechia. The word "iconoclast" literally denotes someone who is destroying religious icons. Well, Czechs – the most atheist nation in the world – hasn't had much trouble with the destruction of religious icons for quite some time.

To a large extent, Czechs are lukewarm if not cynical about the old religions and the new ones, too. I think that most Czech people can recognize a global warming believer or a fanatic supporter of the rosy future in the integrated European Union – and perhaps even enthusiastic feminists or reverse racists or people backing many such kitschy PC fads – as just additional modern types of unhinged religious bigots.

You may think that the boring Czechs like to pick provoking leaders in order to compensate their own boredom. This may be a part of the explanation, too. However, I ultimately think that it's right for every nation – a boring one as well as lively, colorful one – to pick leaders who are smart enough, courageous, independently thinking men who would be totally ashamed if they were afraid of "breaking ranks with the EU" just for a minute.

Just like it was wrong for a Czechoslovak leader to have the plan to "conform to the Soviet bloc" during communism, it's wrong for the modern Czech leader – and any other national leader – to systematically behave in ways that "conform to the EU". The EU is just a bunch of low-key apparatchiks and wet rags, not an organization of infallible men – it is not even an organization of men who are "mostly" right. So it's pretty much necessary for a politician who is more than a pile of šit to frequently "break ranks with them".

If Mr Cunningham has a problem with that, I insist that he should be kept and waterboarded in Guantanamo Bay.

And that's the memo.