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Vol 2, No 20
22 May 2000
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EU flagLittle Czechs,
Big Europe

Jiří Brodský

The following is an edited version of a dissertation presented in Spring 1999 at the School of Humanities, Anglo-American College, Prague, Czech Republic. It will be published in full in the forthcoming Faculty and Student Journal of the Anglo-American College.

Everybody here is almost neurotically dissatisfied with everything. (I sometimes suspect that this characteristic of ours is pretence; I wonder if it does not mask the fact that people are in fact content but do not want to admit it lest someone should envy them. Maybe our people would be missing something in life if they did not envy and grumble. This masking of the real state of affairs is also our second nature, conditioned by a disconsolate history.) And moreover, dissatisfaction also suggests that we are people of great wants and not easily satisfied with just anything. Dissatisfaction is part of our national bon ton and apparently also the origin of the Czech critical attitude, which undoubtedly has its intellectual advantages. It usefully dissolves anything stagnant and laughs at it satirically; however, it mostly manages to dissolve even itself and probably contributes to the fact that our development is always bumpy, full of discord and quarrels. (Ladislav Holý) [1]

Wrong side of the stream

The river Morava, which traverses the eastern part of the Czech Republic, is sometimes considered to represent the border between Eastern emotionality and Western rationality. This would place the Czechs in the second paradigm and would imply that the character of the Czech nation is closer to the Western European nations, the majority of which are members of the European Union. But is it possible to generalize about a nation in such a way? Do the Czechs feel ties with Western rationality, in terms of culture, politics, and history? If we can speak of the identity of a nation, what are the main features of Czech national identity, and how have they developed? In other words, what will the Czechs "take with them" into European structures? What is "transforming" (European) identity and how adaptable is the Czech identity (and political culture) to the European Union?

In 1989, Czechoslovakia, together with other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, ended a period dominated by the Communist regime and started looking for a way toward democracy, civic society, a market economy and the new economic and socio-political arrangement of Europe. Despite the collapse of bipolar Europe, the differences in values and attitudes in Western Europe remain distinct from those in its Eastern part. West European states are dealing with the process of integration, which has resulted from the historical and geopolitical climate of the last 50 years, whereas in Central and Eastern Europe we see the reemergence of national identity and sovereignty of nation states.

The events of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) marked not only the failure of Communism but also the failure of the state. George Schöpflin has pointed out that a post-Communist state is a low capacity state with a low capacity society, which is a very difficult equation to start with; dismantling one political and social system is far easier than constructing another.[2] Democracy (in CEE after 1989) was not understood as a political system, or a political and social arrangement or process, or as a political culture. Rather the concept was employed rhetorically, its definition gaining meaning only in relation to what is perceived as its opposite, or negation, that is, totalitarianism.

In order to abolish the Communist state, nations of Central and Eastern Europe had to "find themselves" and redefine themselves historically. The way to democracy, civic society, a market economy, and prosperity has proved to be uncertain and thorny, not least because the histories of Central and East European nations disclosed ethnic rather than democratic attributes. In most of the countries of the region, post-Communism has been accompanied by ethnic nationalism, which defines nationhood in terms of lineage, of belonging to a particular ethnic group on the basis of shared history, language, religious background, etc, and builds on cultural ties. Ethnic nationalism in the region is the ideological underpinning of the struggle against externally imposed rule [3], but it is a questionable way toward democracy, civic society and European integration.

Thus, in most of the countries of the CEE region, the gap between the state and the individual is being filled by a newly recovered nationalism, a belief that the world is naturally (and only) divided into nations. Many political scientists describe the situation as one collectivist ideology (nationalism) replacing the other (Communism). Nationalism, in this part of Europe, tends toward disintegration, which is most blatant in the brutality of the nationalist conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and unveiled itself through the independence of the Baltic states, the fall of the Soviet Union and the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993. These events have resulted from processes that seem to be contradictory to those of European integration and do not resemble any kind of "return to Europe."

It was clear from the very beginning that economic, political and national transition in CEE would proceed at three different speeds. Claus Offe has observed that, even though the aspects of economic and political transitions usually support each other, many aspects of national transition obstruct the other two. Democratic institutions are already established in most of the countries of CEE, but their functioning is still burdened by a Communist past, which did not freeze nationalism. "Nationalism is neither 'returning,' 'rising' nor 'reappearing.' It never left Eastern Europe."[4]

Nationhood and identity are often expressed in concepts that are defined negatively, that is, in opposition to something. After all, nationalism is about "we-ness" versus "other-ness," supporting the argument of discourse analysts that words take on meaning only in conflicting discourses.[5] Since 1993, newly emerged Czech nationhood has defined itself as opposed to "other nations," based on Czech historical experience and reflected in Czech political culture. But before examining "Czechness" and its construction, it is worthwhile to define political culture and identity and distinguish these concepts from each other.

  • Political Culture: "Culture" forms a central organizing concept, and "political culture" refers to the larger historical, cultural and economic ethos. It refers to the various beliefs, attitudes, habits and behavioral patterns that characterize a particular political community. A nation's political culture is influenced by its memory, history, language, religion, geography and economy. If we compare a political system to a house being built from bricks, then political culture is the cement that holds the bricks together.
  • National and Social Identity: The word "identity" originates from the Latin identitas, from idem or "the same." Identitas carries two basic meanings. The first refers to absolute sameness, while the second refers to a distinctiveness that continues or is consistent over time. The notion of identity therefore establishes two possible ways to compare or relate persons and things: on the basis of similarity, on the one hand, and difference, on the other. However, the verb "to identify" implies something active; "Identity is not 'just there'; it must always be established."[6] In the political context, "to identify" means to classify a group of things or people and to associate oneself with something or someone. Identity is therefore part of political culture, since the self-perceptions that constitute identity play a crucial role in a community's attitudes and the way it behaves politically.

National identity usually defines itself in terms of difference, in terms of distinctiveness of one nation from another. National identity is defined on the grounds of a nation's history and heritage. The prerequisite for a strong national identity is a sense of loyalty to a particular nation. Karl Jaspers wrote that so-called "common sense" commands that it is necessary to look at each human being individually, that there is no such thing as "these Germans," "those Englishmen" or "the Jews." Yet national identity implies the opposite, since it generalizes about a particular community and judges individuals as a collective. The result, as George Schöpflin has argued, is that "nationalism legitimated a political entity called nation."[7]

Top-down, ego up

Ladislav Holý claims that "Czech national traditions are not generalizations of actual events in Czech history but formulations of ideals."[8] After 1989, the Czech nation and leading Czech politicians appealed to and expressed the will to continue in the democratic tradition of the First Czechoslovak Republic. However, the political culture of the First Republic was based on the notion of centralized power and top-down (imposed) political change. The future President TG Masaryk and a group of politicians and intellectuals working in exile artificially created Czechoslovakia in 1918, with the formal approval of the Western powers. This change was neither bottom-up nor internal. Masaryk represented a messianic figure, materializing the old dream of the Czech lands to administrate their own affairs and "liberating" Czechs from what had been seen as the 400 year oppression of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But it is necessary to emphasize that the defeat of the Central powers was the most important condition for putting Masaryk's conception into practice.

After "Masaryk's republic" came into existence, Parliament did not play a decisive role in political decision-making. It was the Pětka (five), a coordinating body consisting of five leaders from the main political parties, established by Masaryk in 1920, which was the main decision-making "institution" in the state for six years. It is clear that Czechoslovak democracy had a number of defects and negative attributes. "It is paradoxical that people (Czechoslovaks) were taught democracy almost single-handedly by Masaryk, the philosopher-president."[9]

The manner in which Czechoslovakia was split in 1993 is very similar to the manner in which it was founded in that the split was decided entirely at the level of the political elites. "Without Klaus, Mečiar and other elite members close to them, 'the separation could not have taken place.'"[10] Yet it is worth pointing out that this split was historically the second one [11] and was caused by various political, social and economic factors, rather than war. Nonetheless, the political decision was a continuation of the tradition of political change imposed from above. An apparent exception to this is the dismantling of Communism in Czechoslovakia, which occurred by open revolt of the population; although as the journalist and former dissident Jan Urban has argued: "We did not win. They ran away and left us to take power."[12]

One distinctive feature of the top-down aspect of Czech political culture is messianism, which is usually accentuated at moments of political, social and/or economic change. In this respect, President Václav Havel's position, and the way he was perceived by the Czechs, is analogous to that of President Masaryk. The Communist system was generally perceived as foreign oppression - not a new phenomenon in the history of the Czech lands - and its overthrow took the form of national liberation. Václav Havel was seen as a messianic figure, "bearing the cross of the oppressed nation," as Holý puts it; even though he was almost unknown to the majority of Czechs and Slovaks at the end of 1989, many hopes of the revolution were vested in him and his new presidential role.[13].

Although later perceived as a foreign occupation, especially after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Communism was originally accepted in a "messianic" way in Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. It is necessary to stress that the Communist Party won the elections of 1948 in a democratic, albeit irregular [14], manner, and therefore Communism was seen as having been installed legitimately, in contrast to other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The two primary reasons for the acceptance of Communism after the Second World War were that the Czech nation felt betrayed by its Western allies [15] and that Europe in general was shying away from the right side of the political spectrum. Many in Central Europe saw the Second World War not only as an event but also as the failure of democracy.

After the war, the Czechs found themselves, again, trying to "find themselves" and redefine their identity, because democracy in Czechoslovakia, during the first 20 years of its existence, seemed to have failed. Democracy was set on scales, and the fact that most of the Czechoslovak area was freed by the Soviet troops tipped these scales. Communism was accepted as a messianic solution, as a hope for change, as a guarantee that the Czechoslovak nation would remain sovereign.

Democracy was accepted in a similar way in 1989 - as an "easy solution," as something new, something that promised prosperity. It was not defined in terms of responsibilities, duties and "freedoms for" but rather "freedoms from," and this definition had some anarchic connotations. As noted above, democracy was defined as the opposite of totalitarianism, and therefore it was accepted, in messianic fashion, much as Communism had been accepted as the opposite of Fascism.

Many legacies of Communism still shape Czech political culture and will continue to influence it for decades to come. They are impossible to remove in the short term, because, in Ralph Dahrendorf's words, "the procedural aspects of democracy can be implemented very quickly: constitutional reform can be accomplished in as little as six months and genuine economic reform in at least six years. But a viable civic society that will 'transform the constitution and the economy from fair-weather into all-weather institutions' will take over 60 years to be established."[16] Communism left societies in Central and Eastern Europe tremendously atomized, with almost no horizontal social relationships. Under Communism, people trusted only close relatives and friends, because anyone not known to them could have been an informer for the secret police. Therefore "they were not able to build up areas of communal activity,"[17] which are the vital "content" of democracy.

In order for a pluralistic society to operate, non-governmental organizations must play a mediating role between the individual and the state. The intermediary institutions that are the foundations of a civic society began to emerge in embryonic forms after 1989, but the formation of a participatory political culture, whereby people play an active role in politics, know how the political system functions and trust in it, remains the Czech Republic's greatest challenge. The transition from "subject" (totalitarian) to "participatory" (democratic) political culture requires not only the formation of numerous active voluntary associations (the third sector) but, above all, a change in the political behavior and attitudes of both political elites and the electorate.


When speaking of Czechness, people usually mention three criteria: to be born in the Czech lands, to speak Czech and to be born of Czech parents. Most Czechs think that to speak Czech and to be born in the Czech lands is not enough to be Czech. Holý has noticed that "many people spoke of Czech Gypsies or Czech Jews, but particularly as far as gypsies were concerned they vehemently denied the possibility that they could become Czechs."[18] Some Czechs Holý spoke with argued that national identity was "in one's blood," but most of them suggested that Gypsies or Jews could never become Czechs because they had different customs and traditions.

Every nation is constructed through historical experience, which equips it with certain characteristics, and it is only on the basis of this experience that it is possible to imagine it as an entity which moves through time and acquires its own traditions. "It is the image of a supraindividual entity moving through time that creates that imaginary collective subject - a transhistorical national identity going by the name 'we.'"[19] In other words, we are what (or where) we are, because this or that happened in our past. Although the history of a nation encompasses a multiplicity of historical events, in the nation's consciousness it is constructed by a selection of some of them as significant.[20] Hence Benedict Anderson's definition of nation as an "imagined political community," since "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."[21]

The concept of the Czech nation, as a community sharing the same language and culture, crystallized during the national revival in the 19th century, but Czechs consider this community to be a natural entity which has existed since the dawn of history. This belief stems partly from the folk legend (originating in mythological time) of Forefather Czech who stopped, during his peregrination, on Říp Mountain in central Bohemia, looked down on the Czech basin, found the land to be flowing with milk and honey, and settled there.

It is hard to find one word to describe the history of a nation as a whole, but it might just be possible in the case of the Czech nation: discontinuity is the most characteristic feature in the history of the Czech lands, which basically dates from the rise of the Great Moravian Empire. Of course, the present time has never been considered as "another discontinuity" in Czech history, as it is only the present that evaluates certain historical events or periods as discontinuities. Thus the history of the nation is being constantly rewritten; Holý claims that "what is presented as the 'true' historical narrative at any given time is the construction of the ruling elites and, in particular, of professional historians."[22]

It is interesting that discontinuities in the history of the Czech lands "ripen" after a certain time and that every discontinuity has been much longer than any period of "continuity." The discontinuities have a negative connotation and tend to be seen as failures, which are not caused by the Czech nation itself but are the result of foreign betrayal or oppression. The period of the Hapsburg reign in the Czech lands is one such example, even though the first Hapsburg - Ferdinand - was elected to the Czech throne by the Czech nobles (1526). "They did not realize that [by electing him] they had ensured Hapsburg rule over the Central European territory for 400 years."[23] The 300 years of "darkness" that followed the Battle of White Mountain in 1620,[24] the German occupation during the Second World War and the Communist rule of 1948 to 1989 marked other such historical breaks.

Czechoslovak identity was a political construction. The Constitution of 1918 declared Czechoslovak the official language of the Republic, but in reality, there were two, separate Czech and Slovak languages (plus the German language, since 25 percent of the population used it as their first language). State sovereignty was granted to the "Czechoslovak nation," but a nation cannot exist without its language, and from the linguistic point of view, the word 'Czechoslovak' has always been a compound of two words.

Nevertheless, the majority of Czechs felt themselves to be Czechoslovak, and the creation of two independent states (in 1993) in place of the Czechoslovak federation was something they had never wanted.[25] The main reason was because Czechs perceived Czechoslovakia as "their" state. The Czechoslovak Republic was seen as the revival of Czech historical statehood, that is, the continuation of the Bohemian kingdom, and was created artificially, on the basis of pragmatic
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considerations of that particular time. From this point of view, the creation of two independent states in 1993 was very similar: artificial and decided exclusively at the level of the political elite. Yet, according to the political rhetoric, it was interpreted as a result of spontaneous historical developments, as something natural and inevitable. Czechoslovak identity had always been more Czech than Slovak, as "the Czechoslovak nation was made up of Czechs and Slovaks, who were said to have a common founding figure in the legendary Father Czech."[26]

Another reason for the domination of Czech features in Czechoslovak identity was the historical fact that it had survived the Second World War on Czech territory, because Czechoslovakia was split in 1938 by the Nazi invasion of Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia's role during the war was similar to that of Vichy France: it collaborated with Nazi Germany. Since the beginning of its existence, Czechoslovakia had defined itself against German identity, which was, in terms of ethnic composition, also present in Czechoslovakia until 1945, when the majority of the German population was forcibly repatriated from Czechoslovakia.

What happened in 1993 was thus the birth of two "new" identities, Czech and Slovak. Whereas Slovak identity was, historically, truly new (Slovaks did not have an experience of their own statehood as Czechs had had), it was not problematic for the majority of Czechs to define their identity, which had been synonymous with the Czechoslovak one for 67 years. Czechs, in this case, did not underline their history, as they had under every discontinuity (and especially under Communism); this time, the Czech identity only redefined itself as opposed to the Slovak one. In the Czech consciousness, Slovakia belongs politically, economically and even geographically to Eastern Europe. The newly established Czech Republic kept the former Czechoslovak flag and even the attribute of being "the heart of Europe."


The word "homeland" has a very strong national undertone for Czechs, not least because vlast (homeland) is related to vlastní (own), as opposed to cizina (abroad), derived from cizí (foreign). Speaking as a Czech, Ladislav Holý expressed it as follows: "A homeland is an environment in which everything is familiar to me and I do not have to learn new ways of doing things, in which I can live without fear of the unknown, in which I know what is proper and improper to say and do."[27]

Historically, the Czechs are construed as a numerically small nation in Central Europe, "itself seen as a traditional cross-roads of the political, religious and cultural movements of the Continent."[28] The Czech lands lie between the East and the West, between Eastern emotionality and Western rationality, between Germanic and Slavonic culture. The concept of "betweenness" casts the Czech identity in the role of mediator between the two different European cultures and can eventually synthesize them. For a long time, Central Europe had been a cordon sanitaire, a belt of countries, the importance of which lay in dividing Germany from Russia. In the 13th century, Central European rulers invited Germans to settle in the region, which helped to establish better living standards, since the German population came with new technological skills. German culture has been present in the Czech lands ever since; although the majority of the German population was repatriated in 1945, Czech culture and Czech identity have stronger bonds with German culture than the majority of Czechs are willing to accept.

The region perceives itself as incoherent; it has suffered from continuous incompleteness, lack of finality.[29]

Bohemia has always been geographically little, but it has always had clearly defined, stable borders. This concept of "littleness" is interestingly reflected in Czech politics : one speaks of the littleness (malost) of Czech politics, and littleness is also the fundamental feature of Czech identity. Littleness implies the acceptance of any changes in messianic fashion, passive obedience to something with which one is strongly dissatisfied, a certain carelessness and cowardliness and a preference for the definite over the uncertain. The post-Communist aspects of littleness include the inability to compromise, denial that a price must be paid for everything, blaming others for one's own faults and expecting something from others - such as the state - but not from oneself.

Miroslav Macek has identified another phenomenon of Czech politics, which, it can be argued, is another expression of its littleness: "Should-be-ism,"[30] which means planning something, saying that something should be done, criticizing something, but not putting words into practice, not doing anything to change the thing one criticizes. Czech littleness is a kind of immaturity, caused mainly by numerous historical discontinuities and by the fact that Czechs have not had enough historical space to "grow up" politically; rather, it has usually been somebody else deciding about them and/or instead of them.

Every nation has its heroes and celebrates its victories, but the heroes of the Czech nation are its martyrs (St Wenceslas, Jan Hus), and, according to Holý, Czechs tend to celebrate their suffering, as a nation.

The strength of the nation is not in its moral victories, but in its ability to survive 300 years of Hapsburg oppression, six years of German occupation, and 43 years of Communism through pretended loyalty and tacit or explicit collaboration. This accounts for the popularity of the Good Soldier Schweik (the literary character created by Jaroslav Hašek), a survivor par excellence.[31]

Brittle and smart, Schweik personifies Czech littleness and is an epitome of the little Czech man (malý; český; člověk), an individual member of the Czech nation. He survives thanks to his littleness, that is, he, as an individual, cannot change anything, thus merely floats through time. He does what he is told, yet laughs satirically at the most serious situations. This is the source of another characteristic of the Czech nation: its sense of humor, which has been cultivated by the historical discontinuities mentioned above. In times when the Czech nation was not able to administer its own affairs, it lived on thanks to "Schweiking," absolute indifference and the ability to laugh at everything but itself.

Schweiking is a way of resisting power that exceeds me eminently. It is a way of preserving one's dignity. You have three possibilities, either to obey authority, to protest against it or, as Schweik does, to make fun of it - and then it loses power over your soul.[32]


As Benjamin Kuras (Lidové Noviny, 15 April 1999) has pointed out, the term "little Czech" covers all the negative traits a Czech sees in other Czechs but not in himself: cowardliness, servility, lack of self-respect, etc [33]

Individual Czechs or even most Czechs may be autocratic and intolerant of the opinions of others, but Czechs as a nation are inherently democratic; many Czechs may have no more than the compulsory education and not even a modicum of manners, but the Czech nation is well educated and highly cultured.[34]

With respect to other Czechs, as opposed to foreign powers, the most often mentioned characteristic of the Czech nation - one, incidentally, that Schweik seems to lack - is envy. This feature of Czechness escalated with the fall of Communism, when some people were in a position to benefit from the situation, and hence a new set of 'nouveaux riches' emerged. In contrast, "those who had 'worked honestly' under socialism saw themselves as discriminated against because they had never been able to accumulate the capital which would have enabled them to become entrepreneurs."[35]

The "little Czech" is envious to a great extent and, at the same time, expects everybody else to envy him. When a Czech buys a new Škoda car, he does not drive it to work, because he is suspicious that his co-workers might envy him, and his boss might take notice that it is a better car than he has. Today's "little Czech man" cannot park his car in front of a shop where he wants to buy something, because the shop assistants might see him getting out of his car and thus might cheat him.

"Us" vs "them"

The Czech identity is based on many dichotomies - discontinuity vs continuity, resistance vs collaboration, heroism vs cowardice - but none is as important for the construction of the Czech identity as "us" vs "them." "They" are politicians, the state, foreigners, employers, Communists, or simply other Czechs (emigrants, for example); while "us" is embodied in citizens, nation, Czechs, employees, non-Communists, the individual, or simply Czechs in "our" town or region.

This dichotomy is reflected in another Czech characteristic: pointing the finger, laying blame on others, which has its historical warrant.

Czechs manage, unproblematically, to preserve their belief in a democratic tradition as characteristic of their nation, because all the past collapses of the democratic form of government can be seen as catastrophes imposed on it by others: by the Nazis in 1939, in a coup d'état inspired by Moscow in 1948 and by the Soviets in 1968.[36]
Holý has pointed out that the image of those in authority as blithering idiots was pervasive and an unceasing source of popular jokes under Communism, but this has been the case throughout Czech history, every time the Czechs have been under foreign domination. Even nowadays, we can talk about some post-Communist inertia in this sense, as those in authority are usually seen in a similar light and are generally believed to be involved in politics only for the money. Many Czechs think that the government is the cause of most of their day-to-day problems. As one observer put it:

Soon after the Velvet Revolution, people started to swear at Havel, because he did not change everything like a wizard. We are exactly the same as Karel Čapek described it: 'Damned government, my stove is not burning again.'[37]

Unfortunately for Czech political culture, the Czech political elite also has a tendency to point the finger. The following is a recent example. The Czech Republic has recently been accepted as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At the beginning of April 1999, the representatives of the Czech government went to the first important summit of all member states, at which the decision about NATO's intervention in the Kosovo crisis was being made. The Czech representatives agreed to the intervention, but as soon as they returned to Prague, Prime Minister Miloš Zeman tried to give the impression that it was not so, claiming that the decision about the intervention had been made even before the Czech Republic's entry into the Alliance. Zeman perhaps did not realize that it is no longer about "us" vs "them, now that "we" are NATO too. His attitude has made it clear that not only Czech citizens but also the Czech political elite have problems with the definition of responsibility.

The return to Europe?

Czechs have always detested being classified as Eastern Europeans, having always claimed that they are part of Central Europe and emphasized their ties with Western rationality, even though the recent historical experience of Communism homogenized the regions of Central and Eastern Europe. The figurative slogan "a return to Europe" has come to mean "a return to the normal order of things" for the Czechs. It is a return to a Europe to which they have always felt they belonged and with which they have always claimed to have strong cultural and historical ties. Yet the Europe to which they would like to return has changed since 1945. It is an integrated Europe that has reconciled its once fighting peoples, a Europe with its own rules and standards: a single market; monetary union; equal responsibilities for all its members; common foreign, security, environmental and agricultural policies; and its own citizenship.

It is necessary to emphasize that over the centuries, it has always been easier for Europe to unite against rather than for something, and it was the terrible experience of two world wars that led Western Europe to closer integration. Throughout the 20th century, Western Europe has defined itself in opposition to something, such as fascism or Communism. The European Coal and Steel Community was founded in 1951 as the basis of an end to long-lasting Franco-German hostilities. It was a way of averting future European conflict, with France, Germany and the four other countries that agreed to pool production of these essential commodities. Hence, the origins of European unification were strategic and precautionary and soon resulted in economic integration (European Economic Community, Euratom, Single European Act, European Monetary Union). The former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Pierre Werner, once stated that "the whole Europe is about breaking up the eternal conflict between the Germanic and Roman worlds."[38]

It is necessary to emphasize that the last decade of the 20th century was characterized by changes not only in the central and eastern part of Europe but also in its western part. With the fall of the "iron curtain," the European Community accelerated its integration and has finally unified itself "for" rather than "against" something. The Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, established the European Union, EU citizenship and the goal of Economic and Monetary Union; added two "pillars," foreign security policy (CSFP) and cooperation in justice and home affairs (JHA); and introduced the common subsidiarity principle. The Treaty of Amsterdam, signed in 1997, which began negotiations on the entry of six other countries, and the introduction of the single currency, the euro, the following year, were two more turning points in the history of integrated Europe. All these events have continued directly or indirectly to transform the concept of identity centered on the nation state.

European identity: fact or fiction?

The term "European identity" can have various connotations; some political scientists deny its existence, while others talk about it as if it were something natural. It does exist in terms of the feeling of belonging to Europe as a continent. If Poles, Serbs or Latvians, for example, visit another continent, then they usually employ the concept of "we-ness" in broader terms and speak about themselves as "we, in Europe." Thus, this "Europeanness" can be realized outside of Europe.

The concept of European identity, however, means more to members of the European Union. For them, it is defined in terms of belonging to a united Europe. Since 1992, the French, Spanish or Irish have defined Europeanness increasingly on the basis of EU citizenship, introduced by the Maastricht Treaty. For them, European identity is a component of Western identity. European identity, from a West European perspective, is not holistic but is based on the growing acceptance of multiple identities. European identity is thus a transforming identity; "it cannot be defined on the grounds of a particular heritage and history, and even less can it be used as the basis for European domestic and foreign policies, because economic and political integration between European nation-states has not yet progressed to such an extent that it is possible to speak of common interests."[39] Yet, it can be defined, on a similar basis, as national identity and in this sense acquires its own features and importance, as it experiences history and its role in it.

The definition of European identity is problematic, because it is supranational and the question remains to what extent national identities will be able to assimilate into - or at least compromise with - a European one. At present, European identity is defined on the basis of a common future of the nations that are currently members of the EU. At one extreme, the fact that the European Union has its own flag and anthem ("Ode to Joy") indicates an effort to transform the European Union into a state; as Ingmar Karlsson has pointed out, the EU can be seen as attempting to create a European identity from above.[40] The majority of today's European citizens, however, still identify themselves with their nation first [41] and can imagine European integration only if national identity is to be retained.

Even though it is not to become a replacement for national identities and aims to preserve diversity in Europe, European identity should exist at least "to create support and strength for political institutions that are neither national nor the framework of a European superstate."[42] Europeanness compromises with national identities on a day-to-day basis and still defines itself as opposed to something (for example, to America or Asia). The greatest obstacle for this definition is linguistic diversity, as Karlsson illustrates:

The question of language is basically one of democracy. Over 40 per cent of the EU administrative budget is already spent on language services (and this is a very small amount of money compared to any national government). 11 languages make 132 combinations possible in the translator booths and the addition of another ten Central and Eastern European languages brings this figure to 420.[43]

This aspect is very problematic, since language has always constituted an intrinsic part of the definition of a nation in Central and Eastern Europe.

Enemy territory

Ethnic (cultural) nationalism also makes the entry of the Central and Eastern European countries very problematic, because the nationalism which prevails in the European Union is a civic one, defined in terms of political participation and citizenship. For West Europeans, the concept of nationality is not separated from that of citizenship. Civic nationalism is centered on the ideal of the nation defined in terms of state, whereas when Czechs speak of themselves as "we," they may be referring either to the Czech state or to the Czech nation. However, because the Czech state is not a historical given, the concept of nation plays a much more crucial role for Czechs. The Czech nation preceded the Czech state, and while some Czechs might feel anxious about giving up "their" state in favor of European integration, they will certainly not concede to the dissolution of the concept of nation.

Yet, according to research conducted by the European Union,[44] Czechs are not overly optimistic about the EU, and only roughly 40 per cent of them think that the Czech Republic's future lies within it. The Czechs are distrustful towards the future, because they are not used to believing that the same rules that apply today will apply tomorrow, that someone who is successful will be praised, that promises will to be kept.

For many Czechs, the future is not just uncharted territory but out and out enemy territory; we do not believe in the future, because, for a long time, it did not belong to us. Many of us see the future as an untrustworthy - if not treacherous - thing, which someone has somehow prepared for us.[45]

Many Czechs would prefer to enter the European Union but "to be themselves," as former Prime Minister Václav Klaus expressed it.[46]

A further complication is that, for many Czechs, especially in western and southern Bohemia, entry into the European Union is synonymous with joining Germany, particularly from an economic point of view.

Many ordinary Czechs today view with distaste the penetration of German capital into Czech industry, the proliferation of German firms and the growing quantity of German goods on the Czech market. They express their fear that, having failed to subjugate the Czech nation militarily, the Germans will succeed in subjugating it economically.[47]

The Germans and the Czechs lived in one common state for a long period, with some historical breaks, until 1948, and "therefore both of the nationalities are very similar to each other, they have similar habits, a similar way of life."[48] Czech membership in the EU will bring the two nations closer again, and, in terms of the new partnership, both nations will have to look to the future rather than to the past. In other words, Germany will have to be perceived not as a threat but as a partner. As Jiří Pešek, Director of the Institute of International Studies at the Charles University in Prague, points out, although a common paradigm has been that the Czechs have been partially Germanized and that is why they were able to resist the Germans, it is one that will clearly not serve the Czech Republic's future membership in the European Union.[49]

In this context, Czechs sometimes ask themselves, "What do we have to offer the EU?" Václav Klaus claims that this question is meaningless:

We ask ourselves this question with a certain complex; it is an expression of Czech littleness, persisting for centuries. It is a mystification. I have never heard anybody from Finland or Ireland pose the question: 'What do we offer Europe?'[50]

The more important question is how Czechs will contribute to the future discussion about Europe and whether they will offer Europe their historical experience with socialism and other kinds of forced integration. History has forced Czechs to defend, and fight for, their freedom very often, and thus they seem to be cautious about losing it. Sociologist Jiří Musil has pointed out that within Central Europe cautiousness is the most developed among Czechs, which can be healthy, if it does not simply mean dragging one's feet.[51]

What's in it for us?

If a Czech is asked, "How are you?" he usually lists all of his recent illnesses, problems in his personal life and at work and sums up all of the hardships which he will have to undergo in the next few days. He laments the government, his boss, the weather, his neighbor, his partner, children, mother-in-law and "the other Czechs" - on the roads, in the shops, in the government offices. He does not realize that what he is actually saying is that he is powerless, unable to take responsibility for his problems, lazy and quarrelsome.

Another Czech trait was described by Prime Minister Miloš Zeman:

One of my American colleagues told me that the reaction to a partner's point of view in his country is 'I see,' but when he comes to the Czech Republic, Czechs say, 'I agree' [although they do not].[52]

Czechs accept entry into the European Union in the same manner as they accepted democracy ten years ago: messianically, because of freedoms, opportunities and hope for a better standard of living. It can be argued that many Czechs understand entry into the European Union as a mariage de convenance. The question "What will we get out of it?" is more frequent than "What will we have to do for it?" In other words, European enlargement is not widely understood in terms of responsibilities, freedoms and civic duties.

The most problematic aspect of the Czech Republic's entry into the EU is lack of democratic experience, combined with what George Schöpflin called "the perception of political power as an alien process," and the personalization of politics. Schöpflin characterizes these features as the wrong cultural capital for joining the EU.[53]

The perception of political power as an alien process, labeling the political elite as "them" and the political community as "us" is very problematic with respect to the Czech Republic's entry into the EU. If the Czechs perceive those in power as different, as self-interested bureaucrats doing it only for the money, this belief fosters passivity and, in turn, a belief that it is not worthwhile to change things, to participate in politics, because those in authority will do what they wish anyway. As Klaus expressed it:

It seems to me that it is a pure mistake to create an all-European political entity... [This] is the interest of a group of European bureaucrats, people who have breakfast in Venice, lunch in Paris and supper in Copenhagen. They need the single currency to be able to do that. They need over-bureaucratized institutions for this kind of European integration. What stands against this is the interest of almost 300 million Europeans who are unable to organize themselves.[54]

Immediately after 1989, there was a period of euphoria in the political, economic and social spheres of life that was anything but passive and was characterized by tremendous expectations. But a crisis of expectations and disillusion arrived soon after 1993. This crisis was caused by democratic inexperience, by the fact that the "little Czech" expected something from the new political elite but not himself, by the fact that many promises were not kept, and by the perception that it is not worthwhile to be active (in any sense of the word), because the rich and powerful Czechs achieved their success by crooked means.

The European Union is not a foreign state or a state centered around any one nation. The Czech Republic's entry into this supranational entity cannot be understood only in terms of the benefits of structural funds and legal reforms, as Miloš Zeman has described it.[55] It is not only a matter of changes in the legal system but changes in the behavior of the Czech political elite and, most of all, changes in the Czech nature. The individual members of the Czech nation appear to lack a very important characteristic for joining the EU: self-confidence.

The Czech nation emphasizes its cultural unity; since it lacked political power for a long period, it legitimated its cultural power and created cultural history. This cultural capital is very difficult to change; it can be changed only through new historical experiences and appropriation of democratic methods, which are inevitably intergenerational. Czechs must start being interested in matters beyond their country cottages, their cars and themselves in order to become European by citizenship. Yet, it is necessary to emphasize that this does not mean being hesitant about joining the European Union; on the contrary, the experience of EU membership could rejuvenate the Czech democratic tradition and speed up the adoption of substantive democracy, including its civic aspects.

Czechs construct their identity on the basis of traditions and characteristics that are intrinsically linked with universal European values, but these values "are currently re-created through comparisons with the Slovaks, whom Czechs see as lacking any of these values. The ostensibly European values which the Czechs attribute to themselves are thus constructed in the context of an overt nationalism."[56] Political scientist Milan Znoj has argued that "Czechs have always lived in multinational states; whether under a monarchy or a republic, there was always someone else living with them."[57] However, their experience of political power and statehood has not been consensual.

Yet Czechs have one tremendous asset to counter the experience of historical discontinuities: the ability to assimilate culturally, to adopt the characteristics and influences of the nations between which their country stands geographically. "Our mentality is on the borderline between two completely different environments and we have the ability to open both of them for us."[58] The adaptability of Czech identity and Czech political culture - although countered by Czech "littleness," envy, skepticism, cautiousness, finger-pointing and constant dissatisfaction - and the ability to open up to different cultural environments form a good deposit for the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union.

Benjamin Kuras has identified the most serious negative feature of Czech identity as "the unique Czech ability to screw everything up, when it is something really important."[59] And Karel Schwarzenberg seconds this idea: "We have our greatest enemy - ourselves. We always spoil things. Every time, when we have been doing all right, we have spoiled it ourselves."[60] One hopes history will not repeat itself this time.

Jiří Brodský, revised on 5 May 2000

Jiří Brodský graduated from Anglo-American College in spring 1999 and is currently Assistant to the Vice-Rector for International Relations at the University of Economics in Prague.

Moving on:

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  1. Holý, Ladislav, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p 74 (quoting Bedřich Smetana).
  2. Schöpflin, George, "Discontinuity in the Central and Eastern Europe," Lecture: Anglo-American College, Prague, 19 Feb 1999.
  3. Offe, Claus, "Ethnic Politics in East European Transitions," Grappling with Democracy, Ed Matynia, SLON, Prague, 1996, p 224.
  4. Ibid, 232-34.
  5. Holý, Ladislav, The Little Czech, p 53.
  6. Jenkins, Richard, Social Identity, Routledge, USA, 1996, p 4.
  7. Schöpflin, George, "Nationalism and Political Identity," Lecture: Anglo-American College, Prague, 5 Feb 1997.
  8. Holý, The Little Czech, p 163.
  9. Ibid, p 167.
  10. Steiner, Jürg, European Democracies, Longman, USA, 1997, p 292.
  11. Czechoslovakia split for the first time in 1938, under the attack of Hitler and fascist Germany; the position of Slovakia during the Second World War was similar to that of Vichy, France.
  12. Crawford, Keith, East Central European Politics Today, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1996, p 54 (quoting Urban).
  13. In 1990, Václav Havel wanted his presidential role to be very similar to that of Masaryk, in terms of constitutional powers (strengthening the institution of presidency), but he also wanted to continue in Masaryk's role of a president who fosters the morality of the Czechoslovak nation.
  14. The elections that took place on 30 May 1948 were formally democratic (not regular), because the National Front introduced a single party list, "anti-Communist election canvassing was suppressed by police and punished, and the results of the elections were falsified in some constituencies to increase the result to 89.2%." Bělina, Pavel, et al., Dějiny Zemí Koruny České II (Paseka, Prague, 1998 p 268). The elections were preceded by governmental crisis, because the Communists were not willing to compromise and when the Communist Interior Minister refused to respect the decision of the government, the other ministers threatened resignation. They hoped for President Beneš' support. Gottwald (the leader of the Communists) mobilized all Communist forces (calling up massive demonstrations), and his pressure on Beneš to accept the government's resignation and place Communists in the remaining twelve ministries was successful. The event is referred to as the "February Coup."
  15. The agreement signed in Munich between the representatives of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom on 29 September 1938 decided on German expansion into, and occupation of, Czechoslovakia, in direct conflict with the treaties which had bound the Allies, and especially France, to defend Czechoslovakia in case of any military aggression.
  16. Crawford, East Central European Politics Today, p 108 (quoting Ralph Dahrendorf).
  17. Ibid, 110.
  18. Holy, The Little Czech, 64.
  19. Ibid, 116
  20. Holý discusses two contrasting images of the Czech past; in this section, I discuss only the one that emphasizes nationalist ideology and is more valid for the contemporary construction of Czech identity. Ibid, 43 (Table 1).
  21. Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, Verso, London, 1991, p 6.
  22. Holý, The Little Czech, 117.
  23. Vaniček, Čornej, Čornejová, Dějiny Zemí Koruny České I, Paseka, Prague, 1993, p 216.
  24. The Battle of the White Mountain represents the beginning of discontinuity in Czech history. It refers to the defeat of the uprising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility against the absolutist rule of the Catholic Hapsburgs, which effectively meant the end of the sovereignty of the Czech state and is considered to be a national tragedy. Since then, the Czechs have expected the event to be undone (odčiněn).
  25. Holý, The Little Czech, 192.
  26. Znoj, Milan, "The Great Czechoslovak Nation and the Roots of Czech Resentment," The New Presence, April 1998, p 10.
  27. Holý, The Little Czech, 186.
  28. Ibid, p 129.
  29. Schöpflin, George, "Discontinuity in the Central and Eastern Europe," Lecture: Anglo-American College, Prague, 19 Feb. 1999.
  30. Miroslav Macek, currently a Deputy Leader of Civic Democratic Party (ODS), coined this term (mělobysismus) in the television debate 7, čili sedm dní, 21 March 1999.
  31. Holý, The Little Czech, 130.
  32. Valach, Milan, Televised discussion on "Czech Authority." Sněží, 5 May 1999.
  33. Kuras, Benjamin, "Ta jedinečná česká schopnost všechno zbabrat," Lidové Noviny, 15 April 1999.
  34. Holý, The Little Czech 114.
  35. Ibid, 163.
  36. Ibid, 46.
  37. Rulf, Jací jsme, Votobia, Prague, 1997, p 13.
  38. Dlouhý, Vladimír, and Václav Klaus. Debate on European Integration. Pro a Proti, 12 January 1999.
  39. Karlsson, Ingmar, "European Identity and the Enlargement of the EU." The New Presence, December 1998.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Survey No. 44.1, Standard Eurobarometer 44.
  42. Karlsson, "European Identity."
  43. Ibid.
  44. Text Figure 1, Central and Eastern European Eurobarometer 8.
  45. Pithart, Petr, "A Trip Through an Unknown Past." The New Presence, April 1998: 6.
  46. Klaus' statements have sometimes been damaging for the Czech Republic's acceptance into the European Union. When the European Commission's Report was published in November 1998, outlining the problems related to the Czech preparation stage for the entry into EU, caused by turbulent political development, Klaus quoted two sentences from the report and said: "The EU does not have the right to interfere with this, and if we continue like this, I do not know where we will get to... and when I read the second sentence of that report, I have to say that it is not the EU's business." Televised discussion, 7, čili sedm dní, 8 November 1998. During a debate at the 1998 World Economic Forum, when Hans van den Broek said that Central and Eastern European candidates should adapt their agricultural sector to EU standards, "Klaus replied that if anything needed to be changed, it was the agricultural policies of the EU and not those of the Czech Republic. Van den Broek retorted that 'it is not the EU who wants to get into the Czech Republic.' " Černý, Adam, "Prague's Reality Check." Transitions, April 1998.
  47. Holý, The Little Czech, p 92. Some people from this region (by the Czech and German border) interestingly sometimes refer to "bad" things or weather as "German" things or "German" weather.
  48. Seibt, Ferdinand, interview, Týden, 13 October 1997.
  49. Pešek, Jiří, personal interview.
  50. Klaus, Václav, debate on European Integration, Pro a Proti, 12 January 1999.
  51. Musil, Jiří, "What Are We Really Like." The New Presence, April 1998.
  52. Zeman, Miloš, Naše posttotalitní krize a její možná východiska , Nakl. Alternativy, Prague, 1992.
  53. Schöpflin, George, "Nationalism and Political Identity."
  54. Klaus, Václav, interview. Lidové Noviny, 3 June 1999.
  55. Zeman, Miloš, Televised discussion. 7, čili sedm dní 6 June 1999.
  56. Holý, The Little Czech, 203.
  57. Znoj, Milan, "The Great Czchoslovak Nation."
  58. Pešek, Jiří. Personal interview.
  59. Kuras, Benjamin, "Ta jedinečná schopnost všechno zbabrat." Lidové Noviny, 15 April 1999.
  60. Schwarzenberg, Karel, televised discussion. Sněží, 5 May 1999.

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