Monday, October 28, 2019

Why Czechs "still" celebrate Czechoslovakia after 101 years

Czechia celebrates the most important national holiday today and Barefoot Backpacker posted a question that surely looks silly to Czechs but I have seen it many times, especially when asked by Americans:


Why the hell do Czechs celebrate the birth of Czechoslovakia if that country, albeit peacefully, ceased to exist at the end of 1992? You know, after 10 years in the U.S., I sort of acquired some empathy for the "completely different way of thinking about nations" that is mainstream in the U.S. although I surely haven't acquired the different thinking itself.



Prof Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's president-founder

So I understand that given some kind of education and discourse about the meaning of the words "nation", "country", and "state", it's a damn good question why we frantically celebrate the anniversary of a country that's been gone since 1993! ;-)



Incidentally, one surprising difference is that the Czechs are more likely to celebrate something spontaneously as individuals – while the celebrations in the Anglo-Saxon world "must be" sponsored by an institution that currently exists. That's one big reason why the Britons and Yankees may be shocked that Czechoslovakia is being celebrated! The driver to celebrate here is really coming from people's feelings, not from the duties of the institutions.

And you know, the individual Czechs find it appropriate to celebrate because "Czechs really gained independence" in 1918 – and nothing substantial has changed about that in 1993. Czechia is a different country than Czechoslovakia was; at some level, however, it's basically the same country, too. It has the same flag, the same capital (Prague), the anthem starts with the same 1-minute segment, and so on.



Czechoslovakia was primarily a country ruled by Czechs. It doesn't describe precisely what Czechoslovakia was but it describes it damn well. At least in the 1980s, Czechs and Slovaks used to use the adjectives "Czech" and "Slovak" to talk about "their nations". So far, so good. It looks symmetric, right? Except that it wasn't. They meant a different thing. While the Slovak word for "Slovak" denoted their smaller nations, the Czech word "Czech" was really just a slang or shortcut for "Czechoslovak"!

Well, Czechoslovakia was our primary country. But the name was still long and cumbersome. The speakers at the Olympic Games have the job to pronounce the long word but Czechs don't have this duty. Why shouldn't they use a shorter synonym such as "Czech"? The difference between "Czechoslovak" and "Czech" is so small, after all. Needless to say, the difference is mathematically precisely equal to "Slovakia" ;-) so if you are Slovak, you may feel a little bit nervous about most of the citizens of Czechoslovakia who neglect "Slovakia" as a rounding error! And no doubt about it, this small detail did make many Slovaks nervous and it did contribute to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. This linguistic silliness could have been the most harmful sin that Czechs have every done against their Slovak brothers, however!



The Czech anthem as recently remade by the Slovak rock band Metalinda.

So Czechoslovakia was primarily "our country", the country of the Czechs, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the country of the Slovaks, too. Then it was a country of minorities – which included 3 million Germans, a higher number than the number of Slovaks in 1918 but bad luck, it wasn't Czechogermanoslovakia! ;-) It wasn't because the official majority nation was called the Czechoslovak nation and spoke one language, the Czechoslovak language, which had two dialects codified as full-blown languages, Czech and Slovak. An interpretation that was made with some kind of astroturf engineering but it's worked well for 20 years.

You know, Czechs and Slovaks – before they really labeled themselves in this way – lived together in Great Moravia, mostly the 9th century. A nice and rather cultural empire that started to read and write in 863 AD. Between 900 and 910 AD, Great Moravia collapsed due to internal skirmishes – and because of the Hungarian attack on the Slovak part of it. Hungarians took Slovakia and they kept it up to 1918! Slovaks have never had any autonomy within the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Czech part continued in a different way. It became a duchy and then kingdom – which was recognized at several points because Czechs behaved almost entirely nicely to the Germans in the West – and usually joined the winning side of the German (and Holy Roman Imperial) political struggles. So Czechs were rewarded by being the only allowed autonomous and non-German-speaking kingdom within HRE etc.

In 1526, the Austrian House of Habsburg got the Czech crown – the ownership of the land and assorted stuff that stands on the land (e.g. cattle and the people) – and this non-political, economic ownership increasingly dictated the character of the land. Around 1620, the thriving Czechia was overwhelmingly Protestant but the House of Habsburg began to re-Catholicize and Germanize the Czechs. Czech-speaking people's status dropped to that of peasants etc. The evaporation of the Czech language was stopped in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Czech National Revival, when the Austrian Empire already looked highly enlightened. So Czechs, stripped of the elite, turned into a flexible and loyal nation of Austria-Hungary (the name of the federal empire since 1867).

For decades before 1918, the fight for the Czech independence was a fringe cause. Everyone was just OK with our wonderful Austria! An important 19th century politician FrantiŇ°ek Palack√Ĺ, a historian, coined "Austroslavism", a happy life of Slavs within the Austrian Empire. "If there were no Austria, we would have to invent one – for the well-being of Europe and the world." And he was an ultimate respected representative of the Czech nation. You may see he wasn't a hardcore secessionist, was he?

Before 1918, there were several folks who did want the independence – and became ministers in the new Czechoslovakia in 1918. But it wasn't a mass movement. Things changed abruptly in 1918. Austria-Hungary was clearly going to lose the world war, everyone could safely criticize it, so people began to prepare the independence.

President-founder Prof Thomas Garrigue Masaryk did the key job – as an informal leader of the Czechoslovak Legion (a name retroactively given to the Czech and Slovak soldiers who betrayed the Austrian Army and fought with the victorious allies; the Legion became the foundation for the official army of Czechoslovakia in 1918). It was seen that Masaryk could basically command these skillful units – which were capable of conquering a third of Siberia, among other things – so he had to be taken seriously.

He (and his collaborators in exile, Dr Edvard BeneŇ° and Dr Milan Rastislav ҆tef√°nik, a young Slovak pilot and astronomer who tragically died soon) persuaded Western politicians, especially Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president, that Europe could be better if reorganized into nation states such as Czechoslovakia. Woodrow Wilson – partly under the influence of the rallies of Slovak American and Czech American voters, especially in Chicago where their concentration was very high at that time – agreed. Czechoslovakia became the ultimate template of the new map of Europe in which the multi-ethnic empires were replaced by nation states. It was 1918, welcome to the 20th century, finally.

Nation states are better for democracy and Masaryk had a plan to establish a full-blown parliamentary democracy which just worked great for 20 years. Slovaks were invited as full-blown Czechoslovaks, they were sort of satisfied, but they still wanted more independence – a dream of some Slovak patriots since the 1840s. There was a time bomb. More seriously, there were the 3 million Germans – members of a defeated ethnic nation in the First World War – who had the best rights of a minority but they still couldn't swallow the very fact that after many centuries, they became a minority somewhere. Up to 1918, they were just German speakers in Austria-Hungary, much like the elite in the capital of Vienna. These appreciated, 1st class "Austrians in Bohemia and Moravia", were gradually turned to a rogue community of "Sudetenland Germans in Czechoslovakia", with all the consequences that basically created the Second World War.

But it's clear that for Czechs, the transition from Austria-Hungary to Czechoslovakia was the real #1 important event to gain independence. In Austria-Hungary, the 1st class citizens were German speakers. If a Czech learned German, he usually had accent – and that already hurts the status much like when people speak the Hispanic American or Ebonics in the U.S. Suddenly, proper Czech was a sign identifying the first class citizen of a country.

Did Slovaks' status improve in 1918? You bet. Instead of learning an extraterrestrial language, you may just speak Slovak which is recognized as an officially codified dialect of Czechoslovak. Well, most of the important folks in Czechoslovakia still speak a different dialect, Czech, but it's progress, isn't it?

In 1992, after some 2 years of anxious whining and arguments about hyphens and similar stupidities, Czechs became impatient and – lacking any imperial ambitions – they just switched from "we should preserve Czechoslovakia" to "let them go". Needless to say, the Czech National Character – that of a nation where "no one gives a fudge" – was important for this transition. It wouldn't be possible at many other places. There was no deep reason not to allow the independence of Slovakia. We didn't think that we were milking Slovakia or benefiting from it. The official numbers indicated that we were subsidizing Slovakia although the flows of the wealth depend on the methodology and given all kinds of deformed prices, it's actually hard to determine "who subsidized whom" in practice.

It was Slovakia that primarily drove the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, of course. Once they got it, the Slovak political elite couldn't deny itself. Of course they didn't celebrate the year 1918 much. They just succeeded in ending Czechoslovakia so it would be a self-contradiction to celebrate the same Czechoslovakia's birth too much. However, as we get further, it's clear that a mature Slovak nation simply must realize that October 1918 was the key month in which their dreams about the independence moved forward. The dissolution in January 1993 was just a minor formality. Czechs didn't really give a damn in 1993 so only a "small obstacle" was overcome at that time.

(Today, the Slovak PC president and blonde babe Ms Zuzana ńĆaputov√° suggested October 28th as the Slovak National Holiday in the near future. It was such a nice and progressive country with women's suffrage, she admitted, and without Czechoslovakia, maybe Slovakia wouldn't be independent know, she proposed an idea that is considered common sense in Czechia. PM Pellegrini made similar comments.)

To make it tangible, in the last minute of 1992, the federal public TV channel F1 played an optimistic version of the Czechoslovak anthem, see you, good bye, and seconds afterwards, the frequencies were just taken by the Czech and Slovak channels, respectively. It was a minor and straightforward change...

Last year, Slovakia declared October 30th – the date when Slovakia officially joined Czechoslovakia in 1918 – as their Memorial Day. I think that people didn't work at that time. This year, there's no national holiday, everyone in Slovakia must work again. But the female president and others obviously do issue statements that the birth of Czechoslovakia was "important for Slovakia as well". This asymmetry is slightly going away but it will never go away completely.

Meanwhile, in Czechia, we don't consider some ideas about the Slovak independence too important. 1918 was clearly the year of our independence. We didn't really dream about losing Slovakia in 1993 so we don't celebrate January 1993 much. On the other hand, we weren't terribly harmed in 1993, either, so we won't commemorate it as a tragedy, either.

Woodrow Wilson was the Democratic Party president that made the new map of Europe possible. That's why he has so many streets, train stations, and bridges named after him in Czechia. He's hated – along with FDR – by the 21st century Republicans who associate him with the most unstoppable growth of the U.S. government. I understand it. But you should understand that he has done some other things, too. Allowing sufficiently uniform nation states was his way to make Europe much more democratic. Democracy may only work when the population thinks as a sufficiently uniform "demos", the people, which isn't geographically split all the time.

It would be extremely hard to introduce democracy at the level of Europe or the EU because there are huge correlations between the nationalities and the political opinions about almost everything. So in such a democracy, almost every question would be dividing the continent into hostile geographic regions. That's why it's better when such a continental consensus isn't even being looked for.

You may understand what I am talking about even in the U.S. It's increasingly clear that despite the single nation, there is an increasing polarization between the red states and the blue states. If you have to look for joint answers with citizens of states who disagree with you and your state-mates in almost everything, it's pretty annoying, isn't it? All these disagreements are more intense in Europe. Nation states are the foundation of (and a necessary condition for) democracy in the 20th and 21st century sense. Maybe accidentally, but Wilson has made Europe a better, more democratic, more accountable, and more peaceful place.

Czechoslovakia – despite the newly created cumbersome name – became the most abruptly recognized new country in the world history and the template or role model for the birth of other nation states, starting with Yugoslavia a day later. It has given many inventions and other things to the world, contact lenses (Otto Wichterle would have celebrated 106th birthday yesterday), Semtex, BaŇ•a prices, Czechoslovak wolfdog, string bag, Remoska, polarography, most effective drug against AIDS, decipherment of the Hittite language, lots of science-fiction and other movies, and more.

These Czech posts aren't read by too many people so I don't plan to proofread it.

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