Czech national identity

28-10-2003

October 28th marks the 85th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. Many say that the legacy that Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, bestowed on his nation was one of democracy and not nationalism. But it was the birth of a sense of nationalism or rather national identity that led to Czechoslovakia's foundation - Czechs and Slovaks united in their opposition to Austro-Hungarian rule, proud to be Czechoslovak and not just a small part of a large monarchy. But what is it like today? With globalisation, and the Czech Republic's expected accession to the European Union, is that sense of national identity still as strong, visible, and important? Are fears of a possible decrease in national identity legitimate? In this week's Talking Point, Dita Asiedu talks to independent commentator Vladimira Dvorakova, Civic Democrat MP Jan Zahradil, and Czech student Lukas Pustejovsky, to find out:

"It is more connected with the large number of changes. This society is tired of these changes. They experienced a lot in the past ten years, in their everyday life - change in the social status, the first contacts with unemployment, taking responsibility for their own life. It's nice to be free but then again it is easier to live when someone else is making the decisions for you. So, there were a lot of changes in society that were rapid and fast and people are now a little tired. They would like to stop that and stabilise their life and be sure of the rules. They can be afraid of that and they can also be afraid because of the historical experience of our nation. We are a small nation. We were never the conquerors but rather the victims. Before WWII we concentrated on Great Britain and France. Then there was the Munich Agreement and we lost. Then we concentrated on the Soviet Union, the great Slavic brother, and we were occupied in 1968. So, this is deeply rooted in the generations. If you ask the young generation about these events, they do not know much about them and are not very interested. But it's inside them; a kind of genetic information that's been given and that will have some influence in some period of time."

Says independent commentator and professor of politics Vladmira Dvorakova. Civic Democrat MP and shadow foreign minister Jan Zahradil, hopes that globalisation and EU membership will actually help to strengthen national identity:

"There might be a certain feeling that the national identity is decreasing with the Czech Republic opening to the world, the mutual exchange of people, more frequent travelling, and also economic cooperation and increasing international trade. On the other hand, however, these features of a globalising world could also have the opposite effect. The more the world is globalised and the more the same values and life styles are spread all over the world, the more could people within states feel or try to find again some pillar or fixed point that could help them re-identify themselves within the changing world, which is uneasy to touch because it is changing very quickly and is very dynamic and so on. So, that renewed sense of national identity could be a tool to find again a stable place in the changing world."

What about the Czech character, what we call the "Czechness" that many say started or developed with the foundation of Czechoslovakia? Will it be lost once the Czech Republic becomes an EU member? Lukas Pustejovsky is a Czech student majoring in Serbian nationalism.

"We are only nationalistic during football or a hockey match but ten minutes after, nobody cares. We continue drinking beer. Okay, we celebrate one or two days but the next day is an ordinary day when we have to go to work and earn some money. I think that when we become members of the European Union, it will be much worse because a lot of clever people, people in top positions, will go to work abroad because they will have the permission. I, for example, am also considering to go abroad because I don't care if I stay here or work in Paris or London. For me, it's important to earn money and live comfortably. Of course, I will be Czech but on the other hand, I will try to assimilate. So, it's not so important to keep my Czechness. I think it's not so important for us to stay here and keep our Czech traditions."

VD: "I think when it comes to Czech humour and the Czech understanding of life, then Czechs in some sense are a very plebeian nation that is very pragmatic in their solution. The 'we have survived almost everything so we will probably survive the next centuries' attitude. So, I'm not afraid that this Czechness will disappear."

One of the symbols of every state is its national anthem. The Czech anthem called "Kde domov muj?" or "Where is my homeland?" was composed by Frantisek Skroup and the lyrics were written by Josef Kajetan Tyl back in the 19th century as a song in Tyl's theatre play "Fidlovacka". The song became immensely popular and in 1919, it was officially recognized as the National Anthem of Czechoslovakia. But what you just heard was only a part of it. The Czechoslovak national anthem had two parts - the Czech part, Kde domov muj, was followed immediately by the Slovak national anthem, "Nad Tatrou sa blyska" or "Thunders rage over the Tatra mountains". After the so-called Velvet Divorce, when Czechoslovakia split into two separate states - the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on January 1, 1993 - the two anthems were separated as well, resulting in "Kde domov muj?" becoming the sole anthem of the new Czech Republic. But how important are national symbols to Czechs today?

VD: "The most important symbols are the classic ones, meaning the flag, the national anthem, and the Czech lion that is also very important although I'm not sure whether it is for the Moravians who have another type of symbol. But the symbols have changed in the past. I remember that an important symbol for us when I was young was the statue of Czech poet Macha in Prague's Petrin area. It was celebrated by us because of his poem on May 1 that is connected with love. The younger generation loved this date partly to go against the Communists who had May 1 as a symbol of labour and the manifestations. So, the young people as a protest very often went to the statue on May 1. So, I think that symbols changed according to the questions we were asking, what we needed, or wanted to do, our problems. Prague Castle and Vysehrad are the places connected with statehood, which is very important. We can also mention Wenceslas Square where St. Wenceslas on the horse is where Czechs meet."

LP: "I think that the Czech flag is the main national symbol because you can see this symbol everywhere. The lion is not so important in different parts of the Czech Republic. For example, in Moravia they do not consider it as a national symbol because they have the eagle. Regarding the national anthem, first of all I think it's too short and it's too sad. If you look at what it says 'where is our homeland' it's absolute madness. When you compare other anthems to it, they are happy and the people enjoy it. Of course, it's very important when we win an important football match, then it's absolutely great to sing this song but it's a sad song, so I think it's not as important as the national flag."

JZ: "I would neither underestimate nor overestimate any symbols. Symbols like the flag or the anthem are, of course, important because they are simple, understandable and identifiable. However, they do not create the national identity itself. They can only be instruments or tools used to symbolise the internal feeling."

VD: "You know, each nation is different in their emotional relations. Czechs traditionally do not show their emotions very much. It's not like in the United States, where you have a flag almost everywhere. But on the other hand, in some periods of time, these symbols became very important - in the moment of crisis or some change, when you needed some identification with society and with the nation. The younger generation may not think about these things but it is deep inside them and when there is a problem, they [national symbols] will immediately become important to them."

28-10-2003