Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 11
6 September 1999

On Czechs, the Great Myth-Makers

Tomas Pecina

Few nations have created so many myths about themselves as the Czechs. As with other national mythologies, Czech myths mostly concern the history and self-perception of the ethnic group.

The most famous myth of the last century even took on literary form. There was much rejoicing among Czechs when, almost simultaneously, two seemingly medieval manuscripts were discovered in two different Bohemian towns, which not only emulated, but in some respects surpassed the famous German saga, the Nibelungenlied. However, their fame was short-lived. They were masterworks of sorts indeed, but not of an ancient minstrel; as it turned out, they were a sophisticated fake, concocted by two contemporary writers and linguists, Vaclav Hanka and Josef Linda.

I remember clearly the day back in the 80s when my high-school teacher of Czech language and literature explained this - understandably extremely sensitive - topic to his students. Puzzling? Humiliating? Not at all! Thanks to the excellent counterfeit, explicated the teacher while gesticulating expressively, Czech arts, sciences and politics underwent rapid development, and Czechs became more self-conscious and emancipated in relation to their German adversaries. It was a fraud, but a fraud for a good cause and, therefore, a fully excusable one.

With the declaration of Czechoslovakia in 1918, what was previously the nation's mythology became state ideology. The leader of the secessionist movement and the first President of the country, Tomas G Masaryk, was perceived by many as the ultimate idol, a god-like figure. Also the Czechoslovak legions fighting the Bolsheviks in Siberia soon became idolized and deified. Czechs, who had not won a single war for the previous five hundred years, started viewing themselves as a nation of invincible, Herculean warriors.

World War II and its aftermath, the forcible expulsion of a three-million community of Sudeten Germans from the country, was covered by a whole new layer of protective mythology. Books and movies from that time, overflowing with nationalistic pathos, have retained their popularity among Czechs to this day.

Protection and preservation of the nation's integrity were also the objectives of numerous post-war myths.

Czech Myth: Princess LibuseOne of them described Czechs as a better, "cultural" nation, an island of higher culture among Byzantine barbarians. Not a single nation was spared from Czech contempt, except, in part, Slovaks, who were depicted as rather primitive, though not so hopelessly backward as, say, Poles or Hungarians, or as shallow and dumb as Germans.

Another myth, one that survived the fall of Communism in 1989, is that of the exceptional qualities of Czech workers and technicians, compared to their foreign counterparts. The illusion of "zlate ceske ruce" (literally, "golden Czech hands") had its heyday in 1960s; everything seemed easy in the revolutionary Spring of 1968. With one notable exception of Antonin J Liehm, all Czechoslovak journalists of that time failed to perceive the difficulties lying ahead. Prague's economic experts were unanimous in their optimistic forecasts: give us five or ten years of democratic development, and Czechoslovakia will surely catch up with Austria, perhaps even with Germany. The invasion and normalization that followed made an abrupt end to any hope for the democratization of the country, so the myth of the Czech worker as a man of superior manual skills and ingenuity could live on.

The early 90s were a period of sobering up and deep disillusionment. The old myths offered no protection anymore. Not only were manual skills and craftsmanship regarded as inadequate and rather obsolete in the upcoming information age, but the actual gap between Czechoslovakia and Western Europe turned out to be much larger than both sides had ever thought. Czechoslovakia's Western neighbors were very successful, but Czechs, as well as Slovaks, were not allowed to partake in that success. They found the door to the European integration shut, and their country a woeful backyard of the continent for as long as two or three generations to come.

New myths coping with this predicament are still in the making. One of them is told by those who returned home from the West. According to their interpretation, Czechs are at least as capable as any Westerners. The problem is that they are too humble. Ask an American if he can do this or that, and he'll, no doubt, reply: Yes, of course! Czechs, on the other hand, are always honest, and this is why they are never given their fair share of opportunities.

This is true, though not the whole truth: most Czechs, due to their deficient, discipline-and-drill oriented system of education, lack assertiveness, communication skills (including, but not limited to, the command of foreign languages) and the ability to find and analyze information. Due to the Government's telecommunications policies, the Internet is still a luxury only the better-off can afford. Young people are allowed to travel abroad, but except for university students, they cannot work in the West in other than the least qualified jobs, often as au-pairs or seasonal agricultural workers.

The Czech Government is well aware of all these problems, but it is doing nothing about them. It is currently busy with other things, such as imposing tighter controls over the press with its new press law, or preparing a new bill on an electoral law which would make it even more difficult for new people and new parties to enter Czech politics, making a political career a life-long job about as secure as that of a plumber.

As long as this situation prevails, new myths excusing and ameliorating Czech failures will be born. The worst - though not unlikely - scenario is that frustrated Czechs will give their vote to the Communists, and due to the ensuing international isolation, the window of opportunity, opened for the nation temporarily by the events of 1989, will permanently close. Then, once again, Czechs will be left with nothing but themselves and their myths.

Tomas Pecina, 17 August 1999




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