A chequered history
From The Economist print edition
Czechoslovakia was born out of trickery and died in failure. Only up to a point
Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed. By Mary Heimann. Yale University Press; 406 pages; $45 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
OUTSIDERS tend to have a soft spot for Czechoslovakia. Poignant music by Leos Janacek, Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana recalls the struggle for nationhood that culminated in the creation in 1918 of a commendably decent country. Western perfidy at Munich brought its dismemberment at Nazi hands. Stories of courage and anguish leap out from the pages of novels by Milan Kundera (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), Josef Skvorecky (“The Engineer of Human Souls”) and Ivan Klima (“Judge on Trial”). Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned philosopher-president, exemplifies the magical triumph of the Velvet Revolution, 20 years ago this week.
Hooks for outside affection abound. Czechoslovaks were strongly Atlanticist. The country owed its existence to President Woodrow Wilson, and Tomas Masaryk, its first president, had an American wife. The combination of high culture and glorious architecture reminded Westerners that it was communist captivity that made “Eastern Europe” backward and miserable. Guilt chipped in too. The West betrayed Czechoslovakia in 1938. It stood by as the Soviet-backed Communists seized power in 1948, and again when Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in 1968. And Czech and Slovak dissidents were far more agreeable than their weird and prickly counterparts elsewhere.
Mary Heimann’s scalpel shreds this uplifting version of history. Inter-war Czechoslovakia was essentially a fraud, she argues, both in its composition and its reputation for liberalism. The wily duo of Masaryk and Eduard Benes (the dominant politicians of the years that followed) duped the victorious Western allies into agreeing to the creation of a new country. Named after only two of its ethnic groups, it ignored the interests of all the others: chiefly Germans, who outnumbered the Slovaks, and Hungarians. Its unjust treatment of the Sudeten Germans, stranded by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ultimately caused the first Czechoslovak republic’s downfall.
After pointing out the intolerance, censorship and semi-authoritarianism of pre-war Czechoslovakia, Ms Heimann, an American-born historian at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, then highlights the anti-Semitism and autocracy that followed the Munich agreement. Sympathetic observers have tended to blame that on Czechoslovak disappointment with the West; she suggests that it was a culmination of existing tendencies. The Nazi occupation that came next met minimal resistance. Her vinegary attention then turns to the diplomatic manoeuvring of exiled Czechoslovak leaders such as Benes and Jan Masaryk, son of Tomas. History normally portrays them as exiled patriots engaged in a gallant struggle. Ms Heimann, however, sees a story of Czech guile and Western gullibility. How was it, exactly, that a bunch of failed émigré politicians were able to gain the status of a legitimate government-in-exile, she asks?
The three post-war years before the communist seizure of power in 1948 come across not as a blessed breathing space between two totalitarian regimes, but as a horrible period of racial revenge: rape, robbery and deportation inflicted on guilty and blameless Germans alike. The Communists then created what she rightly calls a “Stalinist hell”—but with the support of quite a large chunk of the population.
Nor is Ms Heimann fooled by the Prague Spring: not an exuberant experiment in creating “socialism with a human face” but the by-product of a factional fight in the Communist Party. Even the 1989 revolution, she argues, only accelerated the changes already being planned. Soon after, the invented country of Czechoslovakia fell to pieces; the reader can almost hear her applauding.
Myth-busting is fun but it can easily become tiresome.
Ms Heimann ably highlights the holes and contradictions in Czechoslovak history. Her archival research and attention to detail is exemplary. But she spoils her case by sounding spiteful. The story of the revival of the Czech language in the 19th century deserves more than mockery. Although she pays fleeting tribute to Mr Havel she cannot resist qualifying it by saying that he “appears to have had” moral courage in addition to “an idiosyncratic brand of ambition”; that, she argues, fooled the West into seeing post-communist Czechoslovakia more favourably. This approach shamefully underplays the gritty determination of the Communist-era dissidents and of their friends in the West, who often felt they were fighting a hopeless battle.
Ms Heimann is right to highlight the messy opportunism that surrounded the break-up of the Habsburg empire. Czechoslovakia was an artificial creation. But so, in the end, are all countries. Inter-war Czechoslovakia treated Germans badly. But it was still a far more attractive country in terms of civil rights (for example in the treatment of Jews) than any of its neighbours, especially Hitler’s Germany. The post-war punishment of the Germans was indeed deplorable—but the aftermath of wars is often horribly messy. Czechoslovak communists may have been exceptionally revolting; but the democrats were often magnificent. Clear-eyed historical reminders are always welcome. Like everyone, Czechs and Slovaks have plenty to be ashamed of. But they have plenty to be proud of too.