Saturday, October 28, 2017

Czechoslovakia: 99 years

Ninety-nine years ago, on October 28th, 1918, Czechoslovakia was created on the ruins of Austria-Hungary. This cartoon for kids explains the basics:

Charles I, grand-nephew of the long-lived emperor Francis Joseph I, came to the throne in 1916. He wanted a huge amount of autonomy for the nations of Austria-Hungary, he wanted to be crowned the Czech king (and he spoke Czech) but it was too late. In the late Summer 1918, the fate of Austria and Germany in the war deteriorated dramatically. The empires surrendered and accepted the conditions of the victors, including the U.S.

On October 28th, lots of happy people in elegant hats were on the streets. Czechoslovaks were capable of pushing the Austrian forces away from the centers of power. Things went smoothly.

U.S. president Woodrow Wilson had assumed the division of Austria-Hungary to smaller countries at least from early 1918. Prof Thomas Garrigue Masaryk became the first "daddy" president of Czechoslovakia because he did most of the hard diplomatic work to convince the West that it's an optimal new country for our region. Czechoslovakia immediately became a modern democracy with the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government, with the new Czechoslovak currency – which was the Europe's hardest currency by the late 1920s.

Masaryk's talks weren't always trivial. This documentary has shown a fascinating dialogue of Masaryk with David Lloyd George, the British finance minister, who was basically against the dissolution of Austria-Hungary. "Do you know why the tea is great? Because Great Britain is great! Do you know why we're looking forward to the evening even though we read sour news every morning? Because our empire is great." And (fishy) arguments like that. Also the argument that is typical for America these days: "We always had one man in Central Europe, the Austrian Emperor, to talk to us. Do you want us to talk to ten men instead?" Masaryk answered: "When they're representatives of ten free nations, it's better".

But D.L. George also made quite a precious analysis of Masaryk: "I know why you went abroad, Prof Masaryk. Because not Austrians but your own Czechs would beat you. You escaped from them. Please never show them how much different from them you are, otherwise it will be a big mess." I actually agree with that entirely. Masaryk was substantially different from the average Czech – whether or not Masaryk was an illegitimate son of the emperor LOL.

Surprisingly, however, the dim prophesies by D.L. George turned out to be wrong in the actual history. Masaryk remained beloved as the "daddy of the nation" until his death in 1937 (he resigned two years earlier) – and the democratic Czechoslovakia born in 1918 died soon after him.

As the cartoon at the top shows, Czechs and Slovaks invented the new meme that they were really one nation. That new convention, "Czechoslovakism", made the Czechoslovak nation dominant on the territory while the other groups – Germans, Hungarians, Rusyns, Jews – were downgraded to mere minorities and, when it comes to their influence on the "existential" decisions of the country, second class citizens (well, up to 1938 when Sudeten Germans became a higher race again). This optical suppression of the other minorities could have been good in 1918 but it also placed a time bomb under Czechoslovakia – and similar time bombs were placed beneath all of Europe around 1918, after all.

Bohemia was the most industrialized region of Austria-Hungary and the 1920s in particular were a wonderful period for my country, bringing it to the top of Europe. Even when it was weakened by the Great Depression in the 1930s, it remained a prosperous realm of culture and happiness within the increasingly fascist sea of Central Europe. The Munich Betrayal of 1938 ended those happy times.

Czechoslovak anthem sung in German

In comparison to Catalonia, Czechoslovakia had favorable conditions to be born. Austria-Hungary was just being defeated in the world war so it didn't have much energy left to fight additional, internal wars. The creation of Czechoslovakia – and other countries – was basically approved in Vienna. However, some special sources of pressure made it easier for Czechoslovakia. Even before Czechoslovakia was created, it already had its own impressive army, the Czechoslovak Legion, one that has also won the Battle of Zborov. That battle had no long-term consequences by itself but it must have improved the image of the viable modern Czechoslovak warriors.

1918 was a different world than 2017 but Czechoslovakia was obviously no toothless lion building on P.R. games, electronic governments, and non-violent resistance. It had the right mixture of the brute force, modern democratic and industrial arrangements, good luck, and favorable international situation so that it could be created as a union that hadn't existed before.

I was born in communist Czechoslovakia. Although the idea of one Czechoslovak nation was no longer "officially supported" when I was born, I became keen on it and when it's purely up to myself, I still consider Czechoslovaks to be one nation. You know, it doesn't mean that I am unable to interact with the generic people who find it "obvious" that there are two different nations. But I am just playing a game to some extent when I unambiguously approve of the separate existence of Czechs and Slovaks. The separate existence is just another random, suboptimal convention from my viewpoint.

In this 1929 "20th Century Fox" video, President-Founder Masaryk speaks in Czenglish and praises the new American technologies. He proposes a Wi-Fi signal to cover all of Africa with the Internet, so that everyone can listen to the sound of the jungle. Mark Zuckerberg recently stole this meme from Prof Masaryk.

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