The Czech Republic – From a Prague Point-of-View

The “Europa XL” series carries on, and now it’s getting to the real interesting countries among the fresh member-states which joined the European Union only as of last May 1. But this time it’s not really “Europa XL” – it’s rather “Zelfportret Europa,” that is, the version of this series as carried by the Dutch newspaper Trouw. As I’ve written, I do prefer to deal with this series in its Danish form, in the webpages of the Copenhagen-based newspaper Politiken, but Politiken is showing disturbing signs of neglecting “Europa XL.” In the first place, that newspaper’s master page for “Europa XL” is what you could call “hidden,” i.e. it’s not accessible from the main homepage – i.e. the frontpage – that any visitor to the Politiken website would naturally visit first to see the customary summary presentation of the day’s news. Of course, you can get there easily via the links that I give you, but its being “hidden” does mean that it is probably impossible to run across for any visitor to Politiken who does not already know about it.

What’s more alarming (since I naturally know the “open sesame” URL to the “Europa XL” site) is Politiken’s seeming neglect in promptly posting new country-portraits when they become available. I know they’re slow and even sloppy on this up-take because 1) Countries appear on Trouw’s site, so that should mean that they’re also available for Politiken, but they’re not there; and 2) At least one country appeared on Politiken and then disappeared again! I refer here to the portrait of Slovakia, which I will surely review soon whether I have to do that from the Danish or the Dutch.

But today it’s the Czech Republic, and the “Zelfportret Europa” editors have truly chosen an outstanding Czech literary figure to pick the painting, photo, person, etc. that typify his country. This is Ivan Klima, a very active and renowned novelist in the post-Velvet Revolution Czech Republic. But that’s not all: he was also a well-known writer in pre-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia, at least to those plugged into the network of underground, or samizdat, publications, as he was forbidden to publish after the Soviet invasion in 1968 which re-installed a Stalinist-type regime in the country. Before that, as a young Jew he managed to survive incarceration at the Nazi concentration camp in the country (the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”) at Theresienstadt. So he’s paid some uniquely Czech dues; let’s examine his choices to represent his country.

(By the way, the format with which Trouw presents “Zelfportret Europa” articles is slightly different from that Politiken uses, in that the entire article is given on one webpage, while Politiken splits it up into a separate page for each category, including the author him/herself. So this here is the entire page for Trouw’s Czech Republic portrait.)

  • Painting: Panorama of Prague, by Václav Hollar (1650). I have to make an exception here to what I usually do and not reproduce the painting in question – actually an etching – because this one is really oversized, it’s quite long. (As usual, you can see any of the pictures associated with these “Zelfportret Europa” entries by clicking on the master link to go to Trouw’s entire Czech Republic entry.) But it’s very nice, a view towards the river (that’s the Vltava) from the Malá strana – actually, I would judge from just about where the American embassy is to be found today (on Trzište street – say that one three times fast!). That Prague panorama is as inspiring as it is obvious, and I myself possess a watercolor painting of it – but of modern Prague, of course – made by a local artist (for sale to tourists of course, but oh well). Klima comments on his choice: “Maybe I’m a little prejudiced because I like old etchings so much and even collect them.” OK, but you’re also clearly prejudiced in favor of Prague, Mr. Klima, a point to which we will return.
  • Photograph: This is rather interesting: It’s a photo taken from above of the long line snaking about Prague’s Old Town Square to pay respect to the coffin of Jan Palach. Palach died in January, 1969; he set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to express his despair over the Soviet invasion of the previous August that had put an end to the famous “Prague Spring” period of liberalization. It’s clear, then, that this is a photo that the authorities of that time would have preferred did not exist – Klima mentions in his caption that it was published in Prague in 1995, by which he surely means that it was only published in Prague in 1995, i.e. never earlier. It’s also clear, by the way, that it was taken from the tower of the old Town Hall that abuts the square; there was no way the (female) photographer who took it, Dagmar Hochová, could ever have been authorized the airplane or helicopter for otherwise taking this shot from the air.

    This is again an excellent choice, for the story of Jan Palach (and of another Prague university student who did the same thing to himself shortly afterwards) does truly give an illuminating insight into the Czech mentality. As Klima puts it: “The Czechs have always had a preference for non-violent resistance and have a history of honoring martyrs.” In other words, a history of martyrs – as opposed to a history of resisters, something that you’ll find more readily in the chronicles of the Polish nation’s past, and the Hungarian. Maybe it’s because the last real Czech violent resistance to being abused by outsiders didn’t turn out so well. That was against the Hapsburg Catholic forces at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, and that ended up quite tragically in massacre at the Battle of White Mountain (1620), with Catholicism imposed on Bohemia forever, the native Czech language suppressed in favor of German for hundreds of years, and the native nobility subsequently wiped out. I expect we’ll be able to get into the comparative Polish and Hungarian records when we take up those countries’ cultural portraits, which we surely will. (Assuming that Trouw and/or Politiken ever put them on-line – well, Hungary is already there on Trouw. By the way, at least for the Poles their various instances of resistance through history also never turned out so well, but that didn’t stop them.)

  • Person: Václav Havel. Klima: Havel is “a man who embodies a humanistic active opponent of dictatorship, and who is at the same time a politician. This combination is rare.”

    Václav Havel is perhaps the obvious choice for the figure personifying the Czech nation (other than St. Wenceslas). On the other hand, if you think about it a little bit, he is not – Václav Havel is way better than the Czech nation. For the vast majority of the Czech people, you see, concluded that the Communist dictatorship was going to last forever and so made the necessary compromises in their lives, in their honesty, to try to accommodate to that as best they could. For a long, long time – in fact, up to the Velvet Revolution itself, when the people suddenly were willing to cheer him on the balcony from the square below – Václav Havel was simply a trouble-maker, a crank and eccentric who couldn’t just accept the obvious, leave well enough alone, and simply behave himself in the way that the authorities demanded that everyone behave. No more than a comparative handful of people truly resisted the Czechoslovak Communists; using one suitable measure of those in this “resistance,” namely the signers of the Charter 77 document, these never numbered more than 1,200 in a country of around 14 million people. And I have known people myself who sincerely believe that Havel was simply the paid figurehead of a CIA plot against Russian hegemony over Czechoslovakia.

    Then, while he was president of first Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, Havel was never really popular among Czechs – he preached at them too much about their shortcomings (business corruption, etc.). Václav Havel managed to hit Czechs in their consciences both before and after the overthrow of Communist rule, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that he never has been as popular among his own people as he has been in the West (although, of course, his own people know him much better than Westerners). Here, Ivan Klima gives Havel his due – but only if you’re willing to accept a softening here of the concept of “representative” person.

  • Object: The book. Klima cites the observation from a Pope of the long-lost past that Czech women knew their Bibles better than do the priests, and claims that all Czech society, from youths on up, looks up to writers as spiritual and even political leaders. (Cue Václav Havel here again, who was an accomplished playwright.) I’ll have to take Klima’s word that books are still as important in modern Czech society; but as for Czech women knowing their Bibles, the Czech Republic is one of the world’s most atheist countries.
  • Text: From The Testament of a Dying Mother of the Brethren, by Jan Amos Komensky (1650), this is the entire text: “I put my trust in God, that after the wrath of the storm has passed by, the storm that we have brought over our heads through our sins, control over your own affairs shall return to you, oh Czech people!” It’s a famous sentence, found in Czech schoolbooks, according to Klima. And it has obvious relevance to the course of Czech history.
  • Song: The cello concerto in b-minor by Antonin Dvorak. Not a song at all, but we can allow Klima his minor bending of the rules here.
  • Poem: Máj, by Karel Hynek Mácha. The title means “May,” as in the month; an English translation is here. In his caption Klima provides a tip that I didn’t know: the poem is not about love, as is commonly thought, but is rather about the last night of a prisoner condemned to execution.
  • Food-dish: Pastries filled with marmalade or fresh cheese. Klima admits that maybe he should have gone here for pork with dumplings and sauerkraut instead, but such pastries are more a part of daily life – and as President, Václav Havel wanted to make them the offical food for celebrating the National Day (October 28).
  • Place: We’re back here to Prague’s Old Town Square, and specifically in the picture before the town hall’s ornate medieval astronomical clock. (As crowds gather on the hour on days with nice weather to see the clock go through its display, watch out – it’s a prime pick-pocketing spot!) “The history of the Czechs has been played out on Old Town Square in an almost symbolic way for centuries,” claims Klima. Well, it’s true that this was where twenty-seven of the leading rebellious Protestant nobles were beheaded after the Battle of White Mountain. It’s also on this square in late February, 1948, that the Communist leader Clement Gottwald proclaimed the country’s new Communist-dominated government, which soon would show no inclination to ever leave.
  • Event: Jubilation in Prague in April, 1969, following the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team’s victory over the Soviets at the world ice-hockey championships. This choice is really rather poor. What happened to that Battle of White Mountain, or the Soviet invasion to end the “Prague Spring” in August, 1968, or even the betrayal to Hitler at Munich in 1938 at the hands of the British and French? Or the declaration of the Czechoslovak state on October 28, 1918? We’ve seen this before in the portraits of other countries, namely the choice as “prototypical event” of what really seems to be a rather inconsequential happening in that country’s history compared with all the other episodes that could have been chosen instead. (Recall, for example, the choice of Anna Lindh’s murder in September, 2003, for Sweden). It’s hard for me to try to fit myself into the perspective of someone making a choice like this, who otherwise is supposed to be the designated expert.

On the whole, Ivan Klima is a good expert for depicting the Czech mentality and Czech history through these choices of objects, etc. A major objection, though, is that everything is Prague, Prague, Prague. (Václav Havel is also a Prague phenomenon, since he was born there and has lived there most of his life – occasionally in various city prisons, it must be said). But the Czech Republic is not just Prague by any stretch of the imagination, even with the entire separate nation and culture of the Slovaks stripped away as of the “Velvet Divorce” at the beginning of 1993. The Czech Republic is not even just Bohemia, also known as the “Czech lands”; almost half of it is taken up by Moravia, and it even occupies a small part of what historically has been Silesia (now mostly in Poland). There is a Moravian separatist party, and Brno (the Czech Republic’s second city, and capital of Moravia) and Olomouc, Zlin, and other Moravian cities also contribute to this country and culture, so even just one gesture towards them or Moravia in general would really have been appropriate.

But that’s the nature of each of these “Europa XL/Zelfportret Europa” portraits: the assigned writer is the dictator when it comes to what to choose. We saw a similar East German bias from the East German-raised writer Monika Maron for Germany’s portrait, after all. And I think it would be hard for anyone remotely knowing Ivan Klima to hold any sort of grudge, anyway. I have had the chance to attend his lectures, and he’s always smiling – quite remarkable, when you consider what he has gone through in his more-than-seventy-years of life. Plus, he always looks considerably younger than those 70+ years; maybe there’s a causal relationship between that and all that smiling.

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