Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 10, 30 August 1999

Andrew Stroehlein T H E   I S S U E   (#10):
Three Vaclavs

Andrew Stroehlein

The Czech Republic is a young country. Some Czechs will speak of their nation's centuries-long history, and most Czech intellectuals conceive of the country as having been founded in 1918, obviously trying to emphasise its connection with the First Czechoslovak Republic. In fact, the country first appeared on 1 January 1993.

This may seem like a trivial point, but it is critically important to keep the Czech Republic's youth in mind when analysing its society, politics, economics and culture. As with any young country formed in the hectic aftermath of revolution, norms have not yet been established, society is in flux, issues of identity and citizenship are paramount, and the political situation is unstable due to the lack of precedents.

It is this unsettled condition that makes the country such an interesting topic of study. One can watch the rules of the game being formed before one's very eyes. Of course, there is competition to define the rules of the game, and different intellectual trends are evident in this uneasy situation.

Any systematisation of these trends will necessarily be an oversimplification of the myriad opinions and concepts that do battle on a daily basis in the Czech public debate. Being, as yet, only loosely formed, Czech society since 1993 cannot be defined too precisely.

Still, three trends do come rather readily to mind, and if the reader will allow for a bit of necessary simplification, they can be described as a competition between three Vaclavs. Traditional political concepts of left, right and centre are not nearly as important as the public struggle between these three trains of political thought, symbolically represented by three Czech Vaclavs: Vaclav Havel, Vaclav Klaus and ancient Prince Vaclav. These are the three competing definitions of Czech society, all currently vying for the attentions of the wider Czech audience.

Vaclav Havel

One trend currently visible in contemporary Czech society and politics can be represented by Vaclav Havel, the country's playwright, former dissident President. It is an intellectual trend, emphasising morality and humanism. It is a movement which tends to think of society as a whole and makes calls for improvements in the common good.

This last point makes this trend intimately tied to the promotion of "civil society," the cause celebre of independent Czech intellectuals for at least a decade.(1) Civil society is thought of as the public space between the state and the family: it can be a stamp-collecting society, the volunteer fire brigade, a sports club, a non-profit charitable organisation or a political party. Developing these sectors of the community was seen as the universal cure to society's Communist-era atomisation. A healthy civil society was believed to be the key to a healthy democracy, and it became the topic of key speeches by its champion, Vaclav Havel.(2)

But Czech intellectuals have tended to shy away from political parties per se, being deeply suspicious of anything labelled "party" due to their experiences under a system where party meant The Party. The word "lobby" also has negative connotations in the Czech context, as it suggests an non-unified society.(3)

The trend in Czech society represented by Vaclav Havel was originally captivated by the idea of "non-political politics." Born of a gut mistrust of parties, the concept of "non-political politics" implied a broad-church approach to solving society's problems. This direction was seen in the opponents to Vaclav Klaus back in late 1990 and 1991, during the split of Civic Forum, the semi-anarchic organisation which toppled the Communists in the streets in 1989 and at the polls in 1990. Perhaps expecting revolutionary euphoria to last a bit longer than it did, many in Civic Forum, including a number of close acquaintances of Havel, wanted to keep Civic Forum as a broadly-defined social movement. Others, led by Klaus, wanted to clearly define what the movement stood for, especially in economic terms. With the split of Civic Forum (made definitive in March 1991) and the eventual victory of Klaus's new party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), in the 1992 general elections, the idealists had lost a major battle.(4)

On the one hand, the social and intellectual trend represented by Vaclav Havel can be viewed as noble, moral and refined. But on the other hand, these aims have met with little support among the wider public, who have tended to see the former dissidents as impractical, overly intellectual and out-of-touch.

The idealist camp did not disappear with its election defeat of 1992. The intellectuals who have supported the optimistic trend of Havel are largely marginalised and dispersed throughout the state apparatus, the diplomatic service and the media, but they still exist here and there in the influential shadows. In fact, this strain of thinking is attempting a bit of a revival in the "Impuls 99" movement. (5) Clearly, however, this approach continues to be seen as out-of-touch by the majority of the population, and this inability to connect and lead the people has brought about the political and conceptual vacuum so quickly filled by the second major trend in Czech society.

Vaclav Klaus

As the fortunes of that social movement represented by Vaclav Havel have waned since 1992, those of a rival Vaclav, Vaclav Klaus, have become dominant. This is the strain of thought in the Czech Republic that is infinitely pragmatic.

This trend is one which was not afraid to grasp the label "party" and adopt a system of political parties, which was, in Klaus's words, a normal "centuries-old practice everywhere in the developed world."(6) It saw "non-political politics" as ill-defined, even a bit flighty. Klaus has labelled the first group "dreamers."(7)

Although this trend of thought contains people of all political persuasions and members of all political parties, it is represented by Vaclav Klaus, because Klaus has so clearly defined - one might even say invented - the party system in the Czech Republic. Indeed, Klaus has defined much of the public debate in the country since 1991, and even now, in 1999, when his party is supposedly in opposition, Klaus maintains a defining power over the political sphere through the "Opposition Agreement" with the ruling Social Democrats, which is a precursor to a two-party system and keeps Klaus's ODS in the power game as a "silent coalition" partner.(8)

Pragmatic, straightforward and with a strong emphasis on market-oriented rhetoric, this social trend has always pushed individualism, sometimes to the radical extent of Margaret Thatcher, famous for her quote: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."(9)

No recourse to "civil society" is evident here; in fact, this trend is openly hostile toward the concept. Klaus himself has clearly rejected civil society, calling it "aberrant." He has consistently refused to accept the idea that non-profit organisations could help the country as much as profit-making ones.(10)

Similarly, Klaus and the intellectual movement he represents directly oppose projects based on any sort of social cohesion or untested plans. Stick to what has been shown to work in the West, has been the rhetoric that wins votes. One of Klaus's party's primary slogans in the 1998 elections was "Just say no to socialist experiments," not because other parties were proposing meglomaniacal, Communist-style schemes, but because the slogan captures well what many in society want to hear: no big projects "for the social good" and nothing smacking of social engineering. Despite its growing popularity among the chattering classes of Britain and America, the "Third Way" - presumably something between socialism and capitalism - was only "the quickest way to the Third World," in Klaus's books.(11)

In Czech society, money-making defeated morals hands down in the 1990s, as those with connections scrambled to get the rich pickings offered by privatisation. The era was well-summarised by the infamous statements of Klaus - "There is no dirty money" - and Tomas Jezek, one-time driving force of privatisation as the director of the National Property Fund, who said that privatisation was a race between economists and lawyers, in which the economists must be one step ahead. Though both would later deny they ever made such statements, the phrases have gone down in national folklore as the symbols of the age.(12)

Openly rejecting the pie-in-the-sky ideals of the Havel's political philosophy, the majority of Czech society opted for the Klaus line of thought. A clear political party system was established, and the country plunged headlong into a free-market that was - clearly with hindsight - more unregulated than anything in the West.

Actually, Klaus re-enforced the idea that the Czech Republic would be a model free-market democracy, not only better than its Central and East European neighbours (13), but better than the West.(14) This Wester-than-West attitude, an attitude that "Czechs know best," has been the tip of the nationalist iceberg that floats menacingly in the waters of Czech society.

Prince Vaclav

"Good King Wenceslas" or Prince Vaclav (c 907-935), the patron saint of Bohemia, can be said to represent the third major trend in Czech society and politics: that trend which stresses "the Great Czech nation" and is inherently nationalistic. This is in no way meant to imply that Saint Vaclav was some kind of nationalist; indeed, that would be anachronistic rubbish.

Saint Vaclav is presented here as a symbol for those thoughts and modern social trends which justify their actions in ethno-nationalistic terms. Such arguments and such a social trend emphasise the "national character" and use - some might say abuse - historiography to prove a point in the public debate or gain political advantage.

Certainly, Prince Vaclav is not the only, or even the primary, Czech hero of old to be called upon or referred to in today's public debate. Depending upon which "national trait" the author or speaker wishes to emphasise, a whole pantheon of heroes is available.

Some stress Frantisek Palacky, the 19th-century historian and leader of the Czech National Revival, as well as T G Masaryk, the First Czechoslovak President, to emphasise the democratic tradition and "inherent democratic nature" of the Czech nation.(15)

Of course, the reverse side of this coin is that Masaryk adopted Palacky's notion of an eternal Czech–German struggle as a cornerstone of the new, post-World War I state, and this concept of inevitable ethnic conflict forms a strong current in wider Czech society in the 1990s. Some of today's Czech intellectuals - clearly in line with the Havel-trend of Czech society - have recently been criticising both Palacky and Masaryk, but this was only part of an unsuccessful intellectual effort to foster Czech-German reconciliation among a reluctant public.(16)

Other authors and politicians stress other national heroes such as Karel Havlicek Borovsky, the 19th-century journalist and national revivalist; Jan Amos Komensky (known in the West as Comenius), the 17th-century educator; Jan Hus, the 15th-century religious reformer; or the Hussites, the 15th-century religious rebels who took their name and inspiration from Hus and his martyrdom. The historical figure reflected upon depends on which "national characteristic" the speaker wishes to emphasise, but the very process of reflection re-enforces the concept that the Czech nation exists and that its members demonstrate certain specific characteristics.(17) That is, such talk re-enforces the idea that emotions and thoughts in Czech society today have primal, ethnic explanations.

The neo-fascist language of the Czech Republican Party is clearly the most openly nationalistic part of the public debate. Their regular call to the nation and even talk of preserving its ethnic purity are common in their newspaper Republika (18). But the Republicans are only the darkest end of a shadowy, nationalist spectrum that spans Czech society. All political parties play the nationalist card from time to time, and the political use of national myths has been evident even in the new Czech liberalism.(19)

Perhaps more importantly, in the entire Czech public debate, discourse centres on the ethnic "we." Headlines such as "We Are Exporting X to..." or "EU Tells Us..." might be considered normal in every European nation state, at least in the tabloid press. But both serious and tabloid newspapers in the Czech Republic (if such a distinction can be made in the Czech media) regularly use phrases such as "our Roma" and "our Germans," clearly demonstrating that the Czech "we" is the ethnic "we" meaning "we Czechs." Such language is used by illiterate street thug and scholar alike, and the exclusivity it imposes on the public debate has serious implications for minority issues in the country.

The battle to define society

Like any description of a complex society, this three-part description of the Czech world is a simplification, and like any talk of "left, right and centre," this discussion of "Vaclav, Vaclav and Vaclav" has its limitations. But much more critical to Czech politics than the traditional political spectrum, the three symbolic Vaclavs are indeed at the heart of political debate and public life the Czech Republic today. They are not personalities and they are not just single ideas: they are whole conceptions, whole systems, whole ways of viewing society.

Outlining three trends of thought in the modern-day Czech Republic is not meant to imply that every Czech citizen falls into one or another of these categories, this is more a three-part mental map and a cognitive landscape of today's Czech society. In fact, all three trends are visible in every political party, every politician and every private individual to one degree or another.

The Havelian viewpoint stresses the development of "civil society" - de-emphasising the role of corporate interests and stressing a humanistic, fraternal love for one's fellow man. The Klausian viewpoint, relying on hyper-individualism, denies society's very existence. Finally, the nationalist viewpoint lays emphasis on the visceral ethnic nation, the exclusive "we." All three elements are active in Czech society and compete for space in the public sphere.

The real debate underlying superficial public debates, then, is the battle to define society itself. "What is Czech society going to be like?" is the thread that runs through most political, cultural and social argument in this nascent, post-revolutionary republic. Will it be a society based on some conception of the common good, on the strengths of the individual or on the imagined historical legacy of an ethnic nation? Which Vaclav will emerge and dominate the Czech world in the coming decades? Havel? Klaus? Prince?

From the viewpoint of the summer of 1999, no one of these can be declared victor over the other two just yet. How the situation will settle over the next decade is the real question. Actually, maybe the situation will not settle with one conception clearly victorious over the other two. Perhaps the country's unstable economic, political and social situation will persist for some time, and the "Battle of the Vaclavs" will continue for some years to come.

Andrew Stroehlein, 30 August 1999

Parts of this text derive from the introduction to the forthcoming book Battle of the Vaclavs.



1 For an examination of intellectuals' over-reliance on the concept of "civil society," see Sean Hanley, "Civil Society: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone?", The Electronic New Presence, 15 February 1999.

2 See, for example, Havel's 1994 New Year's Day address in Vaclav Havel, Vaclav Havel '94 (Prague, 1992), pp. 8-17; and Carol Skalnik Leff, The Czech and Slovak Republics: Nation Versus State (Oxford, 1997), pp. 157-158.

3 See Andrew Stroehlein, "The Misunderstood Interest Group: Why is 'lobby' a four-letter word in Czech?", The Electronic New Presence, 23 November 1999.

4 This debate and the split of Civic Forum is described in greater detail in Skalnik Leff, The Czech and Slovak Republics, p. 101; Bernard Wheaton and Zdenek Kavan, The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1988-1991 (Oxford, 1992), pp. 164-68; Vladimira dvorakova and Jiri Kunc, "The Czech Party System and Its Dynamics" in Elzbita Matynia ed., Grappling with Democracy: Deliberations on Post-Communist Societies /1990-1995 (Prague, 1996), pp. 159-66; and Sharon L Wolchik, Czechoslovakia in Transition: Politics, economics and society (London, 1991), pp. 80-81, 317.

5 For an overview of the Impuls 99 movement, see Jan Culik, "No Pulse 99", Central Europe Review, 9 August 1999.

6 New Year's speech on the occasion of the birth of the Czech Republic. In Ekonomicke perspektivy Ceske republiky (Prague, Meridian, 1997), pp. 8-12.

7 Wheaton and Kavan, The Velvet Revolution, p. 167.

8 Michal Klima, "Political Potential: Parties in the Czech Republic," The New Presence, March 1999, pp. 10-12; and see Sean Hanley's article "The Right Stuff?", The New Presence, December 1998.

9 Originally in Woman's Own, 31 October 1987. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 1993), p. 329.

10 Skalnik Leff, The Czech and Slovak Republics, p. 157.

11 Andrew Stroehlein, "Here Comes the 'Third Way,'" Britske listy, 24 April 1998.

12 Milan Znoj, "By Their Deeds Ye Shall Know Them," The New Presence, January 1999.

13 See, for example, Klaus;s speech at The Economist conference in Barcelona on 11 March 1993 in Ekonomicke perspektivy Ceske republiky, pp. 22-26.

14 See Jeremy Druker and Chris Walker's article "Vaclav Klaus: The Myth-maker", The New Presence, April 1999.

15 Ladislav Holy, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation: National identity and the post-communist social transformation (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 81-2.

16 Andrew Stroehlein, Czechs and the Czech German Declaration: The Failure of a New Approach to History (Glasgow, 1998), The Glasgow Papers No. 1, 1998, p. 8. More complete online version HERE.

17 Holy, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, chapter 4, especially pp. 118-9.

18 See Jan Fabry, "Dealing with Hate, Racism and Violence: Should the Czech Republican Party be banned?", The New Presence, July 1997.

19 See the parties' approaches to the Czech-German issue in Stroehlein, Czechs and the Czech German Declaration, pp. 30-34. Kieran Williams, "National Myths in the New Czech Liberalism" in Geoffrey Hosking and George Schoepflin (eds.), Myths and Nationhood (London, 1997).




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