1918-2018: Czechoslovakia, Between East & West

By Maeva Chargros

How odd coincidences are, sometimes! On Friday [26.10.18], the French President, Emmanuel Macron, declared that “there is no division between East and West in Europe”. I had just written the draft of this article dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the First Czechoslovak Republic – stating the complete opposite and calling for more efforts from the Western part of our continent.
Therefore, allow me to seize this opportunity to turn this article into an answer to a declaration I know is wrong.

Czechoslovakia” might not exist anymore, but the ideals of this state, as well as its struggles, are still very much alive. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic was born in the Slovak part, when it was still called “Czechoslovakia”. Born in Bratislava; Prime Minister in Prague. Usually at this point, for the amusement of the readers, the writer tends to add a comparison that turns out to be a joke. However, there is no comparison to make here, even less as a joke: the Czech and Slovak common history was not made only of laughter and joy – it was also made of betrayal, loneliness, and struggle for the right to exist together, or separately. There happens to be only very few similar cases – please name a case of two different nations uniting under one flag, one state, one President, just to have the right to exist and try their luck at this. And when it fails the first time, they try again a second, a third, and a fourth time. Only after the fourth attempt, they agree on a peaceful separation, though not tearless.
If you’re from Western Europe, I might have lost you already at “Czechoslovakia”, at the very beginning of this paragraph: “where is it by the way?”. If you’re Czech or Slovak, I might have lost you with the “four times” – and you’re probably arguing about this number. See the division now, Mr Macron? Here it is.
To clear this point quickly with Czechs and Slovaks (and especially those born as Czechoslovaks): I include in the “attempts” not only the usual 1918, 1945 and 1990, but also the additional attempt with a more federal system during the Communist period. You may disagree, I’m not even sure I agree with myself here. Let’s not lose the focus of this article, though – the division, between East and West.

It takes only one question to discover the extent of this rift: pick anyone in any location in France and ask them “What do you know about Czechoslovakia?”. You can repeat this question swapping “Czechoslovakia” with “Czech Republic” or “Slovakia” if you wish – you will get the exact same result. They barely know that the capitals are Prague and Bratislava, that the cost of a weekend or a week-long holiday there is very low so obviously interesting, and if you’re lucky, you will get “1968, Printemps de Prague”. Perhaps even a mention of Vaclav Havel, pronounced as if the first name was written Vaklav. Here is your rift, your division that you choose not to acknowledge, Mr President.

Where does this division come from? How come French people can barely answer the question “who founded Czechoslovakia in 1918”, whereas French diplomacy was extremely present and crucial to this event of October 28th, 1918?

Unfortunately for the already bored readers, the answer is not surprising, and I will even make it personal. I’m French. I never learned anything about the Czech Republic, nor Slovakia during my primary and high school years. All I learned was “Prague Spring”, “1968”, “Vaclav Havel”, and “by the way, Napoléon went over there at some point, he was victorious, be proud of your heritage”. I was two years old when the separation of 1993 happened. I was thirteen years old when both countries joined the European Union. I was twenty-six years old when I decided to move there, where I finally learned some basic facts about the Czech Republic: its capital is Prague, it was created in 1993, its previous version called “Czechoslovakia” was founded by Masaryk and Štefánik in 1918, with the constant support of Beneš, and it was betrayed in a very selfish way by my country – among others – in 1938, for the sake of nothing.

The division that seems to be taboo in 2018 originates from the near non-existence of Central, Eastern and Baltic Europe in Western Europe’s educational programme. Nordic history is barely holding on – no, Columbus was not the first European to set foot on the American continent, breaking news.
And don’t blame the teachers again, for I had amazing history teachers.
The European Union is based on trade and economy, originally. However, education quickly became a priority through the Erasmus programme, for instance.

Here is my proposition to all Education Ministries in all 28 Member States (yes, United Kingdom, you’re still in for a few months!): let’s allow all Western European children to learn about their neighbours, from now on. Tell them, for instance, what it means to be from the same country as Freud, Kundera, Smetana, Palacký, Neruda, Mucha, Dvořák, Miloš Forman, Madeleine Albright, Jan Hus, and many, many others… and to still be considered as “less” than Western Europe. Despite this amazing pedigree, Czechs are still left on the “periphery” of Europe; they do learn French, though – how surprised I am each time a Czech says a few words in French with almost no accent! They do learn French history, they do read French literature. And yet, we Frenchies, we don’t learn much (if anything) about them and their culture, their history.

Let’s teach Western Europeans that the reaction to the recent crises in Central Europe might be explained not only by populist influence and Russian interference, but also by history: most of these countries had a very short experience of both nation-state and “sovereign” democracy, for instance! It took us (Western Europeans) several centuries of wars to come up with the model we’re bragging about.
Couldn’t we, for once, stop teaching lessons and listen to what others have to say? I know, Hungary and Poland are “bad”. I know, Czechia might be drifting somewhere spooky. I know, a journalist has been murdered in Slovakia while investigating corruption and mafia issues. In the meantime, the French President officially closed the press conference room at the Elysée and is unable to see the huge massive rift dividing European citizens, between East and West. One of our politicians in France thinks it is perfectly fine to deny the existence of the Holocaust and another one – his daughter – just got a rather big fine for misusing funds of the European Parliament. We lost journalists and cartoonists in 2015 and yet, our politicians keep on attacking the media for holding them accountable and reporting the truth. We’re not perfect. None of us are, whether we come from the East, the Centre, the North, the South, or the West.

Let’s address this rift instead of denying its existence. Let’s change it. Not by getting drunk in Prague or Budapest because life is so cheap there for Western European standards, if possible.

Let’s make this rift disappear by including another perspective in our Western European minds: the one of those who were left on the other side of the Iron Curtain, with authoritarian regimes, very little (if any) freedom, and lack of absolutely everything except oppression. Those we betrayed twice, for their existence was not relevant to our own interests.

This would be a wonderful gift to the entire other half of the continent on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Czechoslovakia.
To finally include them in history books and lectures, instead of spending hours trying to teach us to be proud of our own national history. It won’t diminish our own achievements to recognise that others, in the “East”, could also have great ideas and contributions to make to our common project. At least, we’d be talking and listening, instead of lecturing.

Happy Birthday, Czechoslovakia.
And thank you for adding to our common heritage the lessons of the very progressive humanist you have as “father”, Tomáš Guarrigue Masaryk.

If only the Prague Castle could be humanist, free and independent once again.
Perhaps then, Masaryk would stop crying

Featured picture credit: Maeva Chargros.

This article is an opinion editorial; as such, it does not represent the views of the Euroculturer Magazine, but of the article’s author only.

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