Explorations of the Czech National Identity

Central Europe

Developments in Central and East European PoliticsQuestioning EU Enlargement: Europe in Search of Identity (Routledge Studies on Democratising Europe)Central Europe is an area “in between” (Batt 2003: 9) – Western Europe and Russia (or Eastern Europe), Russia having been “the (rejected) other” (Kundera 1984: 34, Drulák 2006: 171). However, it would be wrong to imagine that Central Europe can serve as a mediator between those two – in fact, the “Russians have always had much closer and more direct contacts with the Germans and the French.” (Kundera 1984: 34)

Central Europe consists of young states that had been a part of larger empires before gaining independence at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, based on the principle of national self-determination. The concept of nation in Central Europe goes along cultural and linguistic lines, as formulated by Herder. Central Europe comprises mainly small nations – as Kundera (1984: 35) puts it: “the small nation is one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear and it knows it.”

Central Europe is a concept that covers a group of diverse states (in terms of religion, languages, etc.) from the Balkans to the Baltic Sea, from Austria to Ukraine (geographically). What they have in common (and Austria is not included in such a concept) is an experience of decades of communist regime, subsequent economic and social transformation, and “return” to Europe (not of all the states and not at once). That is to “Western Europe”, represented by the EU and NATO, to Europe that is ‘civilized’ and ‘modern’ (Batt 2003: 20).

Czechs (and Slovaks)

To be honest, I was at first quite surprised when I read that “Czechoslovakia ... disappeared by 1993, fractured into two independent states as a result of long-submerged national differences between Czechs and Slovaks that resurfaced after 1989.” (Batt 2003: 8, emphasis added) I have always thought that the break-up was a matter of a power struggle between the political elites, and that normal people did not really want to have separate republics. However, as I read other articles from this part of the module, I realized it was probably because I am Czech, and Czechs identified with Czechoslovakia because they had majority in it, while Slovaks felt their nation was suppressed...

Drulák (2006) analyzes the perceptions of nation and Europe among Czechs and Slovaks, and he points out that the Slovak elites have always had a stronger nationalist feeling in the sense that they perceive nation as a community (based on culture, language and blood), and the “others in terms of cultural and territorial entities” (Drulák 2006: 169), while among the Czech elites, the understanding of the state/nation (and Europe) have, at times, been that of a union (rights-based, defined in terms of institutions and procedures) or even a regime (based on utility, prosperity, security). Nevertheless, he concludes that both Slovakia and the Czech Republic after 1998 treated the nation and Europe as a community.

The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation: National Identity and the Post-Communist Social Transformation (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)I really liked Holý’s book (1996) and his sociological analysis of Czech identity, highlighting the necessary difference between the perception of the “Czech nation” and the “small Czech person”. What I found particularly interesting was his point that people have been forced to realize their nationality and they have been reminded of its importance during censuses. (p. 14 - read in the Czech translation) Another one is approaching, and I have just noticed an article mentioning that there have been discussions about what nationality should people from Moravia choose. Another important point in Holý’s book was that the sense of cultural homogeneity among Czechs is much stronger than among e.g. Britons due to the “discursive practices of intellectuals” and the “mass, public, compulsory and standardised education system”. (p. 18)

Czechs imagine their nation has a tradition of culture, erudition, and democracy. However, Holý shows that these traditions are created discursively, by highlighting and suitably interpreting convenient events in the past, while omitting others. He also explains why there is another level of the perception of “a Czech”, a level where various negative characteristics, such as envy, conformity, cunning, selfishness or laziness (p. 72) prevail. He argues that it is nationalism what causes this discrepancy: a collectivist ideology attributing more importance to the national entity than to an individual that should not differ too much from the others. Interestingly, he finds proofs of that in the Czech custom of addressing people by their work positions, instead of names. (p. 62) National identity is viewed as something natural, just like sex or age (p. 63), and considered one of the most important characteristics of an individual. It is because of the nationalist ideology that the perception of emigrants by Czechs has be ambivalent and rather negative: on the one hand, their bravery and success is admired and a reason for pride, on the other hand, they are regarded as renegades and traitors, especially if they do not come rushing back once they are allowed to.

As far as the perception of Slovaks by Czechs is concerned, I must say I was rather surprised by the image of a “dumb shepherd” (p. 70). I would say that this has changed since Holý conducted his research, but perhaps it is just my experience from the university where Slovak students were rather bright and assertive...

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