Discursive Construction of the Czech National Identity

(This is a part of the paper that can be downloaded from the bottom of this page.)

1. Background

In 2009, the Czech Republic celebrated several significant anniversaries: 5 years since the EU accession on 1 May 2004, 20 years since the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism on 17 November 1989 and 70 years since the beginning of Nazi repressions in 1939. The truth is that the previous year, 2008, bore even more significance: 90 years since the “birth” of Czechoslovakia in 1918, 60 years since the communist putsch in February 1948, and 40 years since the “Prague Spring” and the beginning of Soviet occupation in 1968, to name just the main events. But I focused on the more recent past.

Jan Fischer is currently the prime minister of the Czech Republic. His interim government was appointed after the fall of Topolanek’s government in March 2009. He is an economist and statistician, and has been the head of the Czech Statistical Office since 2003.

Václav Havel was the first president of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic after the Velvet Revolution and then the president of the independent Czech Republic (1993-2003). Originally, he is a writer and playwright, and he played an important role in the fall of communism. As a president, he used to have conflicts with politicians because he places emphasis on civil society and humanitarian and moral values, and disgusts political quarrels and the priority of “national interests”.

Václav Klaus is the president of the Czech Republic. He is originally a liberal economist and was the first minister of finance after the fall of communism and later became the prime minister. In 2003, he was elected to be the president, and re-elected in 2008 to stay in the office. He is well-known for his open euroscepticism and controversial opinions about global warming.

2. Sources

For the analysis of the discursive construction of Czech national identity, I selected several documents – speeches of the top representatives of the Czech Republic:
  1. Speech of the prime minister Jan Fischer on the occasion of the fall of communism in Poland (Krakow, 11. 6. 2009)
  2. Speech of the former president Václav Havel on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution (Czech television, 14. 11. 2009)
  3. News report on the celebrations of 17 November (iHNed.cz, 17. 11. 2009)
  4. Three speeches of the Czech president Václav Klaus
    1. At the ceremonial assembly at the Prague Castle on 28 October 2009 (the day of the establishment of Czechoslovakia)
    2. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall (California, 6. 11. 2009)
    3. At a remembrance meeting hosted by Václav Havel on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in our country (A cultural centre in Prague, 14. 11. 2009)

3.Contents – Topics

In the analysed speeches, several recurring topics may be identified:

1. The Czech Republic and communism
Obviously, communism is the central topic of these speeches. All the speakers praise the freedom gained in 1989. However, freedom has a slightly different meaning for each of them. Fischer highlights the freedom to vote, Klaus speaks about “free selfrealization” (14. 11. 2009) and for Havel, freedom means basic rights and freedoms. Also, Klaus speaks of freedom (or rather lack of it) in association with the European Union. Especially in his speech in the USA, he openly states: “In November 1989, I thought that the world in 2009 would be freer than it is. To my great regrets, I experience more state interventions into my life and less individual freedom than I [...] expected then.” On the contrary, Fischer speaks of the EU as a “free family”.

Communism is something the Czech Republic fought against, something that had its victims, but something the CR has overcome to become a democratic country. Since 1989, it has been in a process of transition, undergoing many changes. The prevailing impression is that catching up has not been finished yet. The former prime minister Mirek Topolánek present at the celebrations of 17 November 2009 confirmed the notion that the CR still lags behind: “More than ever before during the 20 years, we feel that our country is still immature, that democracy is still not as anchored as we would wish.” Klaus points to the fact that the young Czech generation does not even remember communism anymore and freedom is a commonplace for them, not “a precious gift that we constantly have to nurture and fight for. That is what we, eyewitnesses, must never stop reminding them.” (14. 11. 2009) Obviously, communism is less and less a part of the national identity of the young generations.

2. The Czech Republic and other post-communist countries
The Czech Republic is compared with Poland, on the one hand, and Germany, on the other hand. While Fischer contrasts Poland (mentioning its strong ally during the communist era, Pope John Paul II.) with the “religiously much colder” Czech Republic, Klaus repeatedly refers to Germany. In the USA, he differentiates East Germany from the other communist countries, because “East Germans had their older brothers in West Germany”. At the more informal meeting in a Prague cultural centre, Klaus recollects his presence at the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin wall: “There, I became strongly aware that we are different and that also our 17 November 1989 was different than 9 November of that year in Germany. Therefore, it is good that we choose ways less pompous and choose events that to a greater extent and more directly concern that what happened 20 years ago, and those who were there. We do not have the need to invite contemporary politicians of great powers who have nothing to do with what happened back then.” Klaus seems to despise the ostentation of the German celebrations and praises the quiet “Czech way” of doing things: be it a revolution or its celebration. Germans (and Austrians) have historically played an important “other” in the construction of Czech national identity.

3. The Czech Republic and Europe
On the one hand, Fischer speaks of becoming “members of one free family of European nations”. On the other hand, I have mentioned that in 2009, the CR celebrated an anniversary of its EU accession: but in fact, there were no significant events on that occasion. The Czech Republic is rather sceptic and the EU is a distant and not entirely comprehensible concept.

Still, most Czechs are not as eurosceptic as their president Klaus, who insists: “Dangerous erosion of the state is taking place as a result of the accelerating European integration process. Also for that reason, some people cease to consider their state and its institutions to be the unit they can rely on, with which they can and should identify themselves, and whose development and strengthening they should strive.” (28. 10. 2009) European Union is conceived as “the other”, although opinions whether it provides or restricts freedom may differ.

4. The heritage of the “First Republic” (1918-1938)
Havel identifies two possible perceptions of Czech national identity: One is the tradition of democracy and humanity, and the other is narrow-mindedness and expediency (a legacy of communism, in his view). He says: “Two basic traditions can be observed in the Czech public and political life. A tradition of Masaryk’s followers, for which the Czech question is a human question and which affirms our shared responsibility for the world, and a tradition of selfishly narrow-minded Czechs who look at all foreigners with mistrust and constantly suspect them of the intention to hurt us. When it is allowed, the representatives of this tradition noisily shout something about our closer unspecified national interests, and when it is not allowed, then on the contrary, they cower and start to mind their own business and wait how everything will work out. ... I believe that in twenty years we will not be a subject of the international attention and thanks to a would-be strong struggle with big states for our importance, but thanks to the way of our existence in the world, our share of responsibility for the whole, thanks to our good ideas that we offer to all for common possession.” Klaus refers to a similar division of Czech society: “[...] our country was deeply divided during the long 40 years [of communism]. During this day [28 October], many of us used to recollect the ideas and ideals that our country had been founded and built on for 2 decades after WW1 ... We suffered from the fact that we had not managed to keep suverenity and independence ... Others ... were assuring themselves that exactly thanks to the February turnover [1948] we were living in the best of possible worlds." (28. 10. 2009)

4. Discursive Strategies

“We-group” of Czechs is constructed (constructive strategy) against the “other-groups” of Germans, Poles, Russia (Havel refers to it as “the big brother”) and the European Union. It is presented as a group of those who defeated communism – in a way different from Germans or Poles. Despite pointing to divisions in Czech society (young, not remembering – old eyewitnesses, pro-communist – anti-communist, moral – immoral), communism is presented as something impersonal and inflicted from the outside. The speakers do not overly blame the collaborators, which would create an undesirable divide. On the contrary, “we-group” is in some respects extended to all Central European post-communist countries, or even the European Union (Fischer).

It is especially Klaus who uses positive self-presentation and negative otherpresentation: of Germans (see above) and the EU. He has actually paralleled the EU with the communist regime in the past. On 6 November 2009, he warns against “other collectivist and dirigist “-isms””. It may refer to the EU, which he openly accuses of limiting the state sovereignty.

5. Linguistic Strategies

The use of “we” has been indicated above. It has also been noted that communism was presented by the speakers as something impersonal and inflicted. It is the case especially in Klaus’s speech. He states that “[a]t the end of the 1980s, communism was already so weak, soft, old”, and further on that “communism was not ready to voluntarily declare itself dead” (6. 11. 2009). By this personification, communism is constructed as an (outside) enemy of the Czech nation.

On the other hand, communism is also identified with the Soviet Union. Klaus fluently switches from communism to the USSR when he mentions “a successful strategy how to defeat communism and win the cold war” (6. 11. 2009). Fischer differentiates more precisely: he speaks of “communists”, “the communist empire” and then uses a metonymy “Moskva was afraid”. Havel, in comparison, is more subtle and ambivalent when using the metaphor “big brother” – big Slavic brother Russia or Orwell’s concept of monitoring (by secret police).

Regarding the current unity of the Czech nation, verb tense is also used by Klaus to point out that the division of Czech society during communism is not present anymore: he uses past tense when speaking about the “huge discrepancy” between the two groups of pro- and anti-communists. He confirms the thought by continuing: “I am convinced that nowadays, there is no reason for a formation of a new deep trench dividing our society in the same way as in the past.”

6. Conclusions

In my paper, I have attempted to analyse the language and phrases in several speeches of the top representatives of the Czech Republic, with the intention to find examples of the discursive construction of Czech national identity.

The most important “others” in the discursive construction of Czech national identity can be identified as: Germany, Russia (or former Soviet Union), and the European Union. Regarding the EU, two tendencies compete: one viewing the EU as a new enemy (e.g. Klaus) and one including the CR into the “European family” (e.g. Fischer).

Communism and gained freedom still play an important role in the national identification. On the one hand, the term “fall” is used when speaking about the end of communism in the Czech Republic. On the other hand, politicians speak of gradual changes and envision that the process will continue.

Havel indicated two perceptions of Czech national identity: a tradition (or rather an ideal) of high morals and humanism, and a self-perception of a “small” Czech person, who is narrow-minded, shrewd, not very brave, but boastful. Also Klaus referred to the tradition of high morals originating in the First Republic. Furthermore, he presented Czechs as quiet people, in contrast to ostentatious Germans. Another feature of Czech national identity was mentioned by Fischer: atheism.

I am aware that a deeper analysis and more detailed references and background studies should be applied, but I hope I have managed to pinpoint at least some aspects. Especially, deeper understanding of linguistics and CDA would improve the results of the analysis.

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