Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 28
6 April 1999

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
"Pathetic Cowards"?
NATO, Yugoslavia, Kosovo and
the Czech Drole de Guerre
Sean Hanley

Strange things happen during a war. People suddenly change sides or change their minds in sudden and unexpected ways. In English there is no real word for this phenomenon. In French there is: the drole de guerre. Since the onset of NATO air strikes against Kosovo, the Czech Republic has been undergoing its own peculiar drole de guerre.

Only a week previously, Czech politicians were celebrating the country's accession to NATO. President Havel gave a ceremonial address carried live on TV. Prime Minister Milos Zeman stood to attention with his Hungarian and Polish counterparts as the Czech flag was unfurled at NATO headquarters in Brussels. 'We're in NATO!' the headlines in the Czech newspapers proclaimed extra-large type, devoting acres of newsprint to special supplements and coverage of this boring, but historic event. All the pundits were agreed that joining NATO was the thing to do. Even former proponents of a Europe without military blocs, such as Vaclav Havel and ex- Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier argued that joining NATO was the best option.

Fair enough. There was little public debate on NATO membership, and no referendum either, it's true. Joining NATO was arguably more a symbolic than a military necessity. And, of course, in the long run, it will be expensive. But, the politicians, who took the decision were voted into office, and choosing to spend more on military security, rather than, say, social security is a legitimate democratic choice.

But, as the first cruise missiles impacted in Yugoslavia, it was a choice that leading Czech politicians seemed to be speedily and shiftily disavowing. In contrast to his long-winded television speech of the previous week, President Havel's immediate reaction was an emphatic silence. Prime Minister Zeman also avoided the issue, telling the public he was not celebrating. Zeman's deputy in the Social Democratic Party, Stanislav Gross, commented similarly that he could not bring himself to express support for air strikes. Even former Prime Minister, and erstwhile hard man of the Right, Vaclav Klaus - a man who made his political career in the trumpeting to the world that the Czechs must fully embrace 'standard' West European institutions, including NATO - pronounced himself 'disappointed' by the air strikes. His deputy, Miroslav Macek, another former champion of all things 'standard' and West European, went so far as to dismiss NATO's action in Kosovo as a pretext to test new weapons.

Such reactions are, perhaps, in many ways understandable from the politicians of a small Central European country - a small neutral Central European country, outside military blocs, that is. It is strange behaviour in leaders, who had signed up to NATO the week before with all the provincial pomp the Czech Republic could muster. Were Czech political elites under some misapprehension? Did they think, perhaps, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was a travel and social club providing language courses for military personnel and weekend breaks in Brussels for top politicians, rather than the most powerful military alliance on the planet?

I was baffled. Perhaps the sudden change of tone was in deference to public opinion? No, Czechs are quite evenly divided on the issue. Nor are there are no strong historic or religious ties between the Czech lands and Serbia that might explain it, as, for example, in the case of Greece. Many Czechs fondly remember Yugoslavia as the place they went for their summer holidays under Socialism. But 'Yugoslavia,' in this case meant Croatia, not grimy Belgrade.

Maybe it was the risk of possible military losses playing on the Czech politicians' minds? Again no. As a catalogue of plane crashes and other embarrassing incidents have revealed, the Czech Republic's badly trained, poorly equipped armed forces are basically a threat to no one. They are hardly fit to participate in a NATO combat operation and would be unlikely to be asked.

Some complex diplomatic stratagem, perhaps? None that I can think of. Such a lack of enthusiasm for NATO's largest ever military undertaking - when it finally registers in Brussels and Washington - is unlikely to earn Prague any brownie points. And if the Czechs took Russian sensibilities seriously, they wouldn't have joined NATO in the first place, would they?

Words are cheap. So why weren't Czech politicians queuing up to back the NATO action?

Flummoxed, I asked my wife, who is Czech, if she could think of an explanation. 'Czechs are pathetic cowards,' she said without looking up from her newspaper.

A bit harsh, perhaps, but with an element of truth.

The Czech Republic is not exactly a country steeped in martial traditions. The most warlike character in the Czech pantheon is 14th century Hussite commander Jan Zizka, whose brand of muscular Christianity aimed quite literally to strike the fear of God into his enemies.

Unfortunately, the next most important Czech military figure is, however, Jaroslav Hasek's fictional creation, the Good Solider Soldier Svejk. An endearing model of cynicism and cowardice, Svejk feigns enthusiasm for the Austro-German military alliance of World War I, while staying as much as possible out of the fighting. Of course, as war memorials up and down the Czech lands still show, most Czech soldiers in World War I were not Svejks. Most fought loyally for the army of Hapsburg Austria; a minority, in the Czechoslovak Legions on the side of the Allies in Russia and France. The army of democratic interwar Czechoslovakia, indeed, was a fighting force to be reckoned with.

But even then, according to contemporary observers, such as the British diplomat and writer Robert Bruce Lockhart, Czech soldiers looked distinctly uncomfortable in uniform. And when the moment of crisis came, in 1938, the Czechoslovak army never fired a shot - the country's politicians simply acquiesced to Hitler's demands to carve up Czechoslovakia, which had already been OKed by Britain and France at Munich. Under Communism in contrast to neighbouring Poland where, despite staging a military coup in 1981, the army retained a certain prestige, for most Czechs the nation's soldiers were 'green brains,' too stupid to do a proper job.

Does this historical background help us understand the current Czech drole de guerre any better? Certainly, the country's politicians seem to have taken a leaf out of Svejk's book in their handling of the crisis. Perhaps too, the Czechs have a sneaking admiration for the Serbs, who are prepared to defy the world by force of arms, in a way the Czechs never were? Does the Serbs ethnic cleansing in Kosovo evoke memories of the Czechs' own post-1945 'transfer' (odsun) of Czechoslovakia's three-million strong ethnic German population?

I have no ready answers. There does, however, seem something deeply wrong with the mindset of a political class that celebrates NATO membership one week and then appears to want to opt out of it the next.

In other ways, though, the scepticism running though the Czech drole de guerre is a healthy one. Who, for example, believes NATO spokesmen when they say that air strikes alone will bring President Milosevic to heel? Do they really believe their own clinical, carefully-worded explanations of what they will achieve? Ever since 1991, the West has got it wrong in Yugoslavia all the way down the line. Why should it be right now? In short, why should the Czechs believe in NATO, when NATO does not even believe in itself?

At first glance, the current drole de guerre hardly seems to show the Czech Republic in a good light. But before we start dusting down the cliches about the Czechs as a nation of Svejks afflicted by a 'Little Czech Syndrome' (cechackovstvi) a moment's reflection is in order. For, a post-Communist nationalism of petty provincial self-interest is surely better than one of fire-and-sword.

In their own minds, the Serbs are defending Kosovo as the 'cradle of Serb civilisation.' Kosovo is the site of the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds, where in 1389 Lazar, the last Tsar of mediaeval Serbia, went down to defeat at the hands of the Turks, choosing - so the legend runs - death before captivity and laying down the spirit of the Serbian nation. The Czechs fought a similar battle, similarly mythologised by 19th century nationalist ideologues, - the Battle of the White Mountain where the Bohemian Estates were defeated by the Hapsburg Emperor in 1620. 'Undoing' the Battle of the White Mountain was to be a major preoccupation of Czech nationalism, and later one of the historical justifications for the odsun.

Quite by chance, I went to the site of the Czech battle a few weeks ago. It is an unprepossessing field on the outskirts of Prague. Amid the long grass at the centre of the field, the site of the battle was marked only by a broken down, turn-of-the-century plinth and a used condom. It was very quiet. There was no one around except for a middle-aged lady out walking her dachshund. Not a tank in sight.

Sean Hanley, 6 April 1999


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