Escape from Eastern Europe? Czech Identity and Frames of Historical Memory

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Ondrej Slacálek, Institute of Political Science, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic


    The paper will build on the anthropological research of Ladislav Holý, who found, among other things, that Czech nationalism reveals itself in its own denial, and in its transfer of the label ‘nationalism’ – taken as a sign of ‘backwardness’ – to nations further east (Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, sometimes ‘the Balkans’). A further source will be Marina Todorova’s discursive analysis of ‘Balkanism’. The paper will analyse the Czech national identity as a perpetual attempt to escape from Eastern Europe and to be a full and privileged part of the West. These analyses of Holý and Todorova will be complemented by analyses of three key frameworks of memory, on the basis of which we shall demonstrate the exclusionary relationship of Czech identity towards Eastern Europe and the ambivalent relationship to the West. These three frameworks are Munich, socialism with a human face and Central Europe. Munich: The Munich Conference in 1938 is considered a key trauma in Czech history, the moment when the democratic Czechoslovakia was abandoned by allied France and England (despite verbal loyalty to the values of democracy and humanism) and left to the clutches of Hitler’s Germany. As Czech historian Jan Tesar shows, behind the ‘Munich myth’ there lies, in reality, a sense of giving up on one’s own defence and of the mentality of a ‘protectorate’ of the western powers. This gives the adoption of democratic and humanist values an element of geopolitical calculation, especially if we contemplate the selective use of the principle of ‘self-determination’ in the creation of Czechoslovakia. Feelings of blame for Munich and the ‘Munich experience’ then give rise, when subsequently used in political rhetoric, to superiority of claim and knowledge resulting from the previous desolation and feeling of betrayal. Socialism with a human face. The banner ‘Socialist Nation’ carried during the general strike in October 1918 reflected the strong position held by socialism in the heavily-industrialised Czech lands. The concept of socialism was connected with the idea of the nation as ‘advanced’ and ‘educated’. Unlike Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, Stalinism in the Czech lands cannot be considered a forced import; communist intellectuals (above all Zdeněk Nejedlý) managed to join communism with mainstream thinking about Czech identity. Indeed, the communists won the last free elections in 1946 with a programme of the ‘Czechoslovak path to socialism’. Stalinist terror and unification after 1948 shocked many communists, however. The attempt to reform socialism in 1968 was underpinned by a concept of the civilizational maturity of the Czech lands, which were considered to have the potential for a historically unique project: a joining of socialism and freedom that would be an inspiration for other countries. The invasion of the USSR and its allies was then often framed as an attack by ‘Asiatic hordes’ who put an end to this attempt. Central Europe. In the Czech concept of central Europe, most distinctively expressed in Kundera’s well-known essay, the countries of central Europe are a part of the West that was torn from the West by violence, but whose culture clearly shows that it belongs to the West, and with its experience, moreover, puts the West to shame, the West having exchanged depth of culture for superficiality and civilisational banality. All three frameworks show that Czech identity is perceived not as ‘eastern European’ but as an identity that tries to flee from being classified as part of eastern Europe. It tries to be classified as part of western Europe – partly by adopting Western values and partly through a rhetoric of accusations that the West itself does not adhere to these values sufficiently.