Frida Kahlo. Landscape. 1945.

One Hundred Years of Czech Provincialism

Dear readers, in conjunction with the 100 – year anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia we are pleased to present the following article by renowned historian Igor Lukeš. (Martin Jan Stránský, Publisher)

Despite years of Nazi and communist occupation, the Czech Republic is now a member of NATO and its relations with the United States and other allies in the West are strong. It was heartwarming to see General James Mattis observing the Czech Army’s pass-in-review on October 28th. Given the Czech Republic’s geographic location, this is not a small achievement, and it is good to celebrate it.

At the same time, we need to anticipate problems and prepare to face them before they become insurmountable. It is a truism but one worth repeating that friends not only support and sustain each another, they also tell each other the truth, even when it is uncomfortable, inconvenient, or outright painful. This is what I propose to do today. I will argue that the Czech Republic is on the verge of repeating the mistakes that drove its predecessor, interwar Czechoslovakia, toward the collapse in 1938-1939. These mistakes include lack of concern regarding neighbors and allies, submissiveness toward Russia, and unwillingness to help others in need.

Let me start with a few examples from the First Republic. When Czechoslovakia emerged, its supporters (e.g., R. W. Seton-Watson, Henry Wickham Steed, Arnold Toynbee) hoped it would bring to the international scene some of the humanitarian ideals promoted by Thomas Masaryk. The first occasion to test this expectation came at the Paris Peace Conference. Edvard Benes proved to be a tough negotiator. In Bohemia and Moravia he demanded “historical borders,” which included areas with more than 3 million German-speakers, but in Slovakia he insisted on “economically viable” borders, which allowed him to gain significant Hungarian territory. The Czech delegates in Paris were uncompromising when it came to the coal-rich region around Ostrava, which was claimed by both Czechs and Poles.

In the end Benes won nearly all his battles over the contested territory, but the German, Polish, and Hungarian minorities that came with it would retaliate twenty years later, and help Hitler collapse the state.

Another opportunity to test hopeful expectations offered itself shortly after World War I: Vienna experienced famine-like conditions, and there was reason to fear an outbreak of anarchy. The allies pleaded with the Prague government to supply Vienna with food on an emergency basis. Czech officials turned down all such requests. They had no empathy for the former imperial capital, even in desperate circumstances. Prague’s lack of generosity toward its neighbor disappointed the Europeans, and the incident would contribute to the country’s isolation in 1938.

A final example—In 1920 the Red Army invaded Poland and was approaching Warsaw. The French pleaded with Prague to allow military assistance for the Poles to traverse its territory. The Czechs turned down the request and denounced their neighbors as “reactionary feudals.” Once all Polish military resources had been concentrated around Warsaw, Prague used this occasion to seize the disputed territory in the Teschen region by armed force. It may have seemed like a clever tactic but proved to be a bad strategy. Poland would not fail to exact its pound of flesh in September 1938.

In 1935 Benes signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. When he returned from Moscow, he surprised Sir Joseph Addison, the British minister in Prague, by claiming that Stalin was “gracious, thoughtful, and accommodating.” He further insisted that stores in Moscow were brimming with goods and Soviet workers and farmers spent six weeks in Crimea every summer. Czechoslovakia became known as the “aircraft-carrier of Bolshevism” in Europe.

The nation admired Benes as a master of diplomacy. But in the fall of 1938, it turned out that his alliances had melted away. The country faced the Third Reich, Poland, Hungary, and an armed uprising of its German minority on its own. British diplomats, such as Sir Robert Vansittart, predicted already in 1936 that the Czechs’ selfishness and tolerance of corruption had made it impossible to save their country.  The Munich trauma at the end of September 1938 pushed Czechoslovakia into the open arms of Stalin’s Russia.

*     *     *

And what is the current situation? The political class has lost the idealism and presumption of moral decency it had inherited from Masaryk, Havel, and the Velvet Revolution. Faced with the challenging migration crisis, Prague reacted much as its predecessors had done during the food shortages in Vienna or the Russo-Polish War: it kowtowed to the most selfish instincts of the electorate. Prime Minister Andrej Babis has even turned down pleas for help by his EU partners to accommodate just fifty Syrian war orphans. “We have our own orphans,” announced the billionaire, and many applauded him, forgetting that a failure to display solidarity with others in need will contribute to isolation in the future.

Vaclav Klaus, a former president, has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the European Union. He claims that the EU is a worse dictator than the Kremlin in the days of communism. It is, he claims, an appalling colossus depriving Czechs of their national existence. He speaks with hatred about Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron. Regarding Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Mr. Klaus repeats arguments borrowed from the playbook of the Kremlin. The whole crisis, he falsely asserts, was brought about by the United States, and the Putin regime was entirely innocent. He praises the fascist Alternative for Germany and is on friendly terms with Marine Le Pen, whose anti-Semitic and EU-hating party has received funds from the Kremlin.

Throughout the Yevgenii Nikulin affair, president Milos Zeman demanded that the GRU hacker should have been released to Moscow and not extradited to the United States. He and Klaus endorsed the Kremlin’s lies about Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and the flight MH17 shot down by Russia. Regarding the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, they embraced the disinformation that the perpetrator was someone connected to British Intelligence. Zeman joyfully debated with Putin whether journalists should be merely “reduced” in numbers or outright “liquidated”.

Before the communists seized power in Prague in February 1948, they won the war over the realm of values. The present situation does not look any more promising. Influential Czech politicians, including Zeman and Klaus, claim that Russia poses no threat to anyone and oppose the EU sanctions. Quite a few see Russia as the ramparts against western decadence, especially against “homosexualism,” “humanrightism,” and “environmentalism”, to borrow Klaus’s language.

*     *     *

Karel Capek’s War with the Newts, published in 1936, presented an allegory of fascism, which warned against the tendency to appease evil and shone a critical light on the Czech character. The hero, Mr. Povondra, knows full well that the newts have already taken over Egypt, India, China, France, Russia, Prussia, and are now in Dresden. But he is certain that this has nothing to do with his life. The newts, he believes, invade only countries with a shoreline. He changes his mind when his son shows him a newt under a Prague bridge. When Mr. Povondra realizes that the newts have reached his city, he takes to his bed. Capek knew his Czechs: their premature acceptance of the “inevitable” led to their defeats in 1938, 1948, and 1968.

Following the American model, Masaryk had hoped to build a state grounded in the complex social relations that make up civil society, bound together by shared values and ideals. He spoke approvingly about the Swiss cantons because prewar Czechoslovakia was too big to be a Czech national state. His plans were defeated. The First Republic embraced Czech nationalism defined by ius sanguinis. It briefly flourished, only to run out of breath in 1938.

The present political elite in Prague is repeating this mistake. It pushes the concept of the nation as an ethnic clan that does not tolerate any outsiders unrelated by blood. It is immoral, especially in the face of emergencies, and it is self-defeating, as it deprives the country of brilliant outsiders. It also drives a wedge between the Czech Republic and its multicultural EU allies. Chancellor Merkel and president Macron have both warned that one cannot indefinitely receive the advantages of EU membership without accepting the corresponding duties. The Czechs replied that they are a sovereign people and will do as they see fit. That is what Benes told the British and Americans who had warned him against his second trip to Moscow in December 1943, which proved to be the beginning of the path leading to February 1948.

I worry that a good percentage of Czech voters would happily exchange their present existence for a return to a world without responsibilities for others and without migrants. Klaus and other Prague politicians favor the Czech Republic’s exit from the EU, Zeman and his team hope to get away with exploiting the system by keeping the benefits but ignoring the duties. In the end, the positions taken by Klaus and Zeman lead to the same outcome: the Czech Republic’s retreat from its natural western allies.

History teaches that there can be no gray zone in Central Europe. Therefore, the Czech Republic’s withdrawal from the EU would automatically push the country back into the Russian realm. That is what the Kremlin desires. A useful litmus test of future developments will be the Temelin project. If it goes to Rosatom, the Czech Republic will have provided Putin with a useful cover and base for operations against NATO, and it should set the red warning lights blinking.

Igor Lukes, University Professor. Professor of History & International Affairs, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University

9 11 2018

Frida Kahlo. Landscape. 1945.

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