The Czechoslovak Miracle

Ten years ago Adam Michnik wrote a piece entitled “The Czechoslovak Miracle”. In it he identified two kinds of miracle: on the one hand, the films, music, theatre, and literature created in Czechoslovakia; on the other, the ethos of a state founded by a philosopher. But what miracle, one might ask – after all, Czechoslovakia fell apart for good after existing for seventy years, having survived a mere three years of post-communist freedom. If there is something to celebrate today, it is certainly not its statehood, since that would only be worth celebrating if the state still existed.

What we are celebrating is more than a state. But what is it?

If there is such a thing as the essence of Czechoslovakia, it can consist in one thing alone and that is a political nation. A political nation does not mean a nation that exists in political terms but a community united by common public, i.e. political, values, rather than by a ruling dynasty, ties of blood or religious affiliation. That is why it can comprise a single ethnic nation as well as several nations. However, these nations cannot be ones that have been subjugated but must have entered this union of their own free will and thus be at liberty to leave it again if they so wish. A hundred years ago this was a unique and quite radical notion in Europe. One of those won over by Masaryk’s idea of Czechoslovakia was the US President Woodrow Wilson, and this was one, if not the main, reason why his vision could come to fruition.

While a political nation is more a concept than a natural entity, in the seventy years of Czechoslovakia’s history a nation of this kind actually came alive several times. Otherwise Czechoslovakia would not have left such an indelible mark in our memory.

What we are really celebrating is a narrative. Czechoslovakia was born at a completely unsuitable time in a completely unsuitable place, a small state wedged between totalitarian powers both geographically and ideologically. It was a framework that could not be altered: a (mostly) mortally frightened David living side by side with an eternally vigilant Goliath, in constant oscillation between heroism and disgrace, solidarity and humiliation, endless dilemmas of dignified life versus dignified survival. And while resistance took a boundless array of forms, all forms of conformity resembled one another.

Czechoslovakia, stripped to the bare bone, represents great moments of amazing unity juxtaposed with an unending orgy of more or less petty squabbles. Accusations of disloyalty, accusations of disrespect. Not many nation-pairs have a shared memory of a divorced couple. We are like a couple who remember situations that have and always will belong to no one else. Their physical shape survives in fragments of memories, family stories, film dialogues, song lyrics, tunes, photographs, anecdotes. Traces of self-irony – a specific form of national pride – remain, as does a specific code of communication and symbolism, some of which has been passed on to the children who were born after Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. No one on the outside can share this intimacy of common experience; it is something exclusively Czechoslovak.

So are the celebrations of the anniversary of Czechoslovakia driven by nostalgia? Yes, of course. However, what is more important is talking about something that has a longer lifespan than nostalgia alone, namely the historical experience of a political nation, a community that shares the values of freedom and democracy. As we have seen, these values have been stronger, rising above ideology and religious or ethnic affiliation. This experience has been sporadic, rather than continuous, manifesting itself as a cascade of powerful flashes of lightning, both tragic and euphoric: 1918 – 1938 – 1948 – 1968. And 1989. In Slovakia these flashes of lightning continued when Mečiar was expunged in 1998 and, most recently, in the spring of 2018, with the protests for a decent Slovakia. And each time we were again transformed, at least for a while, into a political nation. What can we learn from this experience?

Democracy equals discussion, as Masaryk stated a hundred years ago. What we must discuss today is what was and what remains the essence of Czechoslovakia: we must seek the continuity in a discontinuous experience. This is crucial.

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Photo: Peter Župník