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Unlucky Eight for the Czechs?

Coming to terms with so many conflicting anniversaries in 2018 is even harder when national narratives and knowledge of history are lacking.

by Martin Ehl 29 August 2018

A year of important anniversaries has kept the bells of history ringing in the Czech Republic, but the more the bells toll, the louder and stronger becomes the conviction that our 20th century was a harsh one, and this is a historical legacy we are dealing with badly.


To those not familiar with Czech history, I should note that the number eight is a recurring note: 1918 saw the foundation of Czechoslovakia; 1938 saw the Munich agreement, which ended an era of democracy in Central Europe; 1948 saw a Communist putsch; and 1968 has just been commemorated, for the crushing of the Prague Spring and the start of Soviet military occupation.


When I look back over the 20th century, there are other Central European nations – like Latvia or Estonia – which had a much harder century. However, the Czech Republic is now experiencing a level of divisiveness and uncertainty on a level equal to the crisis of regime change in 1989 – but all against the background of the best economic conditions ever, at least in macroeconomic terms.


I admire the example of the Baltic nations, where, despite decades of Soviet disruption, there are still vivid memories of the past, told mostly as personal stories within each family. This forms a big part of the narrative that makes those societies and countries feel they belong to the family of Western liberal democracies, however costly that membership might be.


Remember the last financial crisis, 10 years ago, when Latvia and Estonia refused to devalue their respective currencies, because they considered joining the eurozone another important milestone on their journey to the West? Citizens did suffer, but in the geopolitical changes after 2014 – when Russia annexed Crimea – all three Baltic countries were already safely tied to their European allies by EU membership, the eurozone, NATO membership, and other bonds.


Czechs are different. The national tragedies of the 20th century – especially the 1938 betrayal by Western allies France and the United Kingdom, and the 1968 betrayal by the USSR – have made this Central European nation skeptical about international alliances. This history is also the source of Czech euroskepticism, which is among the highest of EU member states, according to Eurostat polling.


In today's contentious public discourse, which affects not only the Czech Republic but almost all Western liberal democracies, we see a very shallow knowledge of modern history, which can be misused or manipulated. There is a lack of consensus that certain experiences were truly negative and must be avoided in the future.


Today the Czech government depends on the votes of the unreformed Communist Party in parliament, and in the recent public discussions of 1968, we witnessed open attempts to rewrite history, to revive the explanation that the occupation was not an occupation but “brotherly help" – just as it was framed by the Soviets half a century ago.


This autumn will be full of celebrations of the 100th anniversary of a state that no longer exists, but that is now considered a role model. Czechoslovakia between the wars was a multiethnic state, full of party politics, in both the good and bad senses. By contrast, the Czech Republic today is ethnically homogenous, with traditional parties in disarray, and with public space and discourse opened up to populism of all kinds.


Being Czech means being pragmatic and cynical, emphasizing all the bad things that have happened, and forgetting achievements we might be proud of, be they democratic institutions after 1918 or 1989, a strong economy then and now, or EU and NATO membership now.


It is hard to come to terms with so many conflicting anniversaries in 2018, and even harder when some people are not even aware of all of the history. A recent poll by the Median agency, for Czech public TV, showed that one third of Czechs aged 18-34 did not know that Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Yes, that's right – aged 18-34.


Eight is definitely not a lucky number for the Czechs!

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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