Menu
Voices

The momentous “eight”

Jacques Rupnik about turning points in Czecho-Slovak History

5. July 2019
Magazine > Voices > The momentous “eight”

Czechoslovak history of the 20th century provides us with abundant and difficult options in connecting its momentous eights in the search for a usable past and a narrative for the 21st century In his keynote speech at the IWM, Jacques Rupnik pointed out that these historical dates – ranging from the national independence and formation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 to the “Velvet Revolution” of 1988/89 – mark turning points in both national and European history.

Anniversaries can be an occasion or a pretext to look back and reflect upon the past and present in Czech (and Slovak) society in 2018. This is even more the case when – as with the Czechoslovak “Eights,” i.e. years ending in “8” – we are faced with a combination of several historical turning points to be examined simultaneously, and questions about their interplay are to be confronted. Each generation, aware of the debates of the previous one (or in reaction to them), tends to reformulate these questions in the light of new evidence and new concerns.

Commemoration, as we know, tends to be more revealing about those who commemorate than about the actual events commemorated. The Czechoslovak eights provide an occasion for government and state institutions to formulate their “memorial policy” and define how it fits into the dominant historical narrative. For historians, drawn into this process, it is an opportunity to revisit the subject with the benefit of hindsight, like “a distant country” (Jean Racine). It can also provide some with the Warholian fifteen minutes of fame, when they are summoned by the media to provide short and definitive judgments, and thus it also entails some risks. It may be worth to take these risks, as long as the distinction between history-writing and memory politics of today remains intact, i.e. as long as the need for public debate is differentiated from the uses and abuses of historical arguments in political competition.

1918 – 1938 – 1948 – 1968 – 1988/89

Commemoration tends to be more revealing about those who commemorate than about the actual events commemorated.

Czechs’ ambivalence about what it is that they are actually commemorating as a nation-state now constrained by its entanglements within the European Union, reveals certain anxieties associated with the crises of the past and conflated with those about the future – not exactly what you expect in a quiet, fairly prosperous and somewhat self-absorbed country in the middle of Europe.

The number eight lends itself to this mindset rather well: put horizontally it becomes the symbol of infinity. But, it also refers to the so-called Möbius strip, a surface with only one side and only one edge. It can be made using a strip of paper by gluing the two ends together with a half-twist. The twisting is possible in two directions; so there are two different (mirror-image) Möbius strips. A bug crawling along the centre-line of the loop would go around twice before coming back to its starting point. Jacques Lacan[1] – if a reference to psychoanalysis is permitted in this context – wrote insightfully on this and the gist is that the double loop bringing you back to the starting point is important for understanding the “anxiety of repetition”.

This anxiety about the past is no doubt also an anxiety about the future.

This anxiety about the past is no doubt also an anxiety about the future. It points to the idea of cycles, of the “eternal return,” and in the Czecho-Slovak narratives it contrasts moments of hope and euphoria (as in 1918, during the Prague Spring of 1968 or the “Velvet Revolution” twenty years later), followed by tragic set-backs, defeats and self-defeats, which breed collective depression and strategies of survival.

There are two caveats to this tale: First, it is a Czecho-Slovak 20th-century trajectory and therefore at each turning point you get a different reading in Prague and Bratislava from politicians and historians, and more generally in public perception. This is a story of a country that became two. Postwar surveys asking periodically Czechs and Slovaks to identify the most glorious period of their history reveal rather contrasting readings of their history.

Second, and no less important, perceptions change over time. Thus, on the eve of 1948 (in 1946) Czechs valued most the Hussite period (15th century), followed by the reign of Charles IV. (14th century). In 1968 they valued most the 1st Republic (1918-1938) followed by the Hussite period and Charles IV. By 2008, they put the Charles IV era on first rank, followed by the 1st Republic and then the 19th century “national revival”.[2] That is most likely to remain the dominant perception today.

© IWM

The Momentous “8”: Rethinking the “Philosophy of Czech History”

The year 2018 calls upon us to revisit the iconic moments of Czechoslovak history of 20th century, which we can designate as the Momentous “8” : The national independence and formation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the Munich Agreement of 1938 allowing Nazi Germany the annexation of the “Sudetenland” and subsequently the occupation of the whole country, the seizing of complete power by the Communist Party in 1948, the world-wide observed crushing of the “Prague Spring” in 1968 and, finally, the “Velvet Revolution” of 1988/89 – all of these historical dates not only carry an almost emblematic significance in the national context but indicate turning points for European history.

This European dimension might be especially visible for the year1918 witnessing the end of the Hapsburg Empire which was tantamount to a fundamental restructuring of European power constellations and not any less for the events of 1968 which fundamentally changed European societies, but entailed different messages and underwent quite diverging perceptions in East and West. As Milan Kundera once nicely put it, the 1968 protests in Paris were regarded as the enthralling outbreak of “revolutionary lyricism,” while Prague Spring – simultaneously, yet reversely – signalled the onset of “post-revolutionary skepticism.”

The 50th and 100th anniversaries of both historical caesuras and the spell of the momentous “8” invite us to rethink the “Philosophy of Czech History” which Jan Patočka considered as a unique phenomenon in European historiography of fascinating quality. In this spirit, the IWM hosted a workshop entitled The Momentous “8”: Rethinking the “Philosophy of Czech History” from March 8-9, 2018.

The conference, conceptualized by IWM Permanent Fellow Ludger Hagedorn and organized within a program that is supported by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, brought together leading international experts on Central European history. www.iwm.at

Photo: © IWM

I will not attempt here to provide a potted history of 20th-century Czechoslovakia through its greatest hits, known as the “eights”. Nor would I try to do the opposite: to fit the Czecho-Slovak experience into a “global history”: i.e. view a small, 20th-century central European country from the perspective of the global century we now live in. Patrick Boucheron has recently published a collective volume entitled Histoire Mondiale de la France (“A Global History of France”) which provoked a widespread debate about the purpose and fate of national narratives and attempts to deconstruct them.

I propose, more modestly, and hopefully with some relevance for historians and the broader public, an in-between approach: the connection/the interaction between the Czech (Czecho-Slovak) and European dimensions. Put another way: The Czechoslovak “eights” as a barometer, a seismograph, “un révélateur” of the European predicament at crucial junctures of the 20th century.

I’ll confine myself to the 20th century though one could – and perhaps should – connect them to another “eight”: 1848, the Spring of Nations, the first time Czechs, moving from culture to politics, explicitly confronted the question of the relationship between the nation and democracy. They (wisely) opted for Palacky’s version of “Austroslavism” at a safe distance from both the Russian tsar’s combination of autocracy and pan-Slavism and the parliament in Frankfurt whose guiding spirits tended to confuse the progress of democracy with that of Germanization. Or should we look as far back as 1618 when the Thirty Years War – a truly European war! – starts in Bohemia, with the Prague defenestration…?

The famous Czechoslovak eights are an integral part of all the key turning points of 20th-century European history, revealing major European dilemmas: between East and West, between capitalism and socialism, between democracy and totalitarianism. To examine the way these issues played out in the Czech context can thus provide with insights into Czech ways of belonging to Europe and, more generally, for understanding European history of the past century.

During the Prague Spring of 1968 the student paper conducted a survey where they asked leading protagonists of the reform movement the following philosophical question: “Where from, where to, with whom?” To which Ivan Sviták the philosopher and enfant terrible of 1968, gave the most concise answer: “From Asia to Europe. Alone”! This sense of uniqueness and isolation is perhaps the sharpest contrast with the “Velvet Revolution” twenty years later, where the Czechoslovak “return to Europe” was very much part of a collective, Central European endeavour. As Timothy Garton Ash put it: “Poland ten years, Hungary ten months, East Germany ten weeks, Czechoslovakia ten days”!

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Academy of Sciences presented a collective study entitled Cesko na Ceste[3] (“Czechia on the road”). It was not meant as a narrative inspired by Jack Kerouac, a wandering, meandering journey from Czechoslovakia to Czechia. Rather, the title suggest that the country is heading somewhere, though most authors seemed to refrain from actually spelling out the European or Western destination, as if to suggest that some of the questions concerning its geopolitical orientation remain open. And indeed they do just like those concerning its founding principles.

A historian approaching the subject should thus try to avoid two traps: that of romantic historiography which inherited from the 19th century the idea of Czech democratic exceptionalism of which the new First Republic of 1918 to 1938, was the embodiment. And, conversely, the opposite inclination which is “presentism”: you read the past from the perspective of your present concerns and since the Czechoslovak state was unable to sustain itself both in 1938 (mainly under external pressure) and in 1992 (for internal reasons) it was doomed from the onset to become a “failed state”.[4]

[1] Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre X, Paris, Seuil 2004. lien entre réel, symbolique, imaginaire.

[2] Stepanka Pfeiferova, Jiri Subrt, “Verejné mineni o problematice ceskych dejin”, Prag, Naše společnost 2 (2009) S. 16-23.

[3] Pavel Baran und Petr Drulak (Hrsg.) Cesko na ceste, Academia, 2017.

[4] Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia the state that failed, New Haven, Yale UP, 2009.

First published in IWMpost Nr. 122 (Fall / Winter 2018). This text is the introductory part of his keynote speech delivered at the workshop “The Momentous ‘8’: Rethinking the ‘Philosophy of Czech History’” in March 2018.

This text is protected by copyright: © Jacques Rupnik. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: On 4 May 2019 an official ceremonial marked the 100th anniversary of the tragic death of the Slovak-born founding-father of Czechoslovakia, Milan Rastislav Stefanik (1880-1919), which took place at the Memorial to Stefanik on the Bradlo Hill, Slovakia, where his remains are buried. Photo: © Dalibor Gluck / CTK / picturedesk.com