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History is too important to be left to politicians

By Blog Admin, on 10 July 2013

Sudeten-Gedenktafel (Linz)

Photo: Christoph Waghubinger/Wikimedia Commons

Czech debates about the forced removal of the Sudeten Germans exercise a powerful fascination, but they are refracted unevenly in historical writing in English writes guest contributor  Martin D. Brown.

 Seasoned Czech Republic-watchers will be well aware of the paucity of coverage provided by English language sources. With some exceptions, on the sporadic occasions when the country does make an appearance it tends to be in stories about political corruption, natural disasters, or the Czechs’ fondness for beer.

 This is nothing new – see Neville Chamberlain’s comments, circa 1938 – and the obvious solution is to read Czech, although, even this approach is not always straightforward, as was revealed by a dispute that arose during the Czech Presidential elections in early 2013.

 The elections, a contest between foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former prime minister Miloš Zeman (who won), proved ill-tempered, and included a heated televised dispute over the legacy of the forced removal of around two and half million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Intriguingly this just happens to be one subject that has garnered a fair amount of English language coverage in recent decades.

 Superficially this was a clash between opposing sides of the Czech political spectrum: Schwarzenberg, on the centre-right decried the ‘expulsions’ as illegal, unjust, against all the accepted norms of international law and argued they had contributed to the success of the communist coup in 1948; while to the left, Zeman defended the ‘transfers’ as a necessary response to the Sudetens’ collaboration with the Nazis, legal under international law and part of the constitutional   foundations of the modern Czech state. Particularly noteworthy was the way both candidates expressed their respective positions through the terms ‘expulsion’ (vyhnání) and ‘transfer’ (odsun)  to denote their approval or disapproval for the process.

 Anyone following this spat would have been left with little idea which position was the more accurate, and turning to Czech sources wouldn’t have offered any immediate answers. (more…)

Václav Havel today

By Blog Admin, on 21 December 2011

Václav Havel

Photo: Martin Kozák via Wikicommons

The challenge, suggests Tim Beasley-Murray, is to make the death of Václav Havel not only the cause of sadness and commemoration, but a new(s) story of ‘the art of the impossible’

Václav Havel’s essay of 1987, The Story and Totalitarianism’, opens with the following anecdote:

‘A friend of mine, who had serious problems with asthma, was sentenced for political reasons to several years in prison.  In prison he suffered greatly because his cellmates were smokers and he could not breathe properly.  All his requests to be transferred to a cell of non-smokers fell on deaf ears.  His health was seriously in danger, indeed his life was at risk.  An American woman, who found out about the situation, wanted to help and telephoned an acquaintance, the editor of an influential newspaper, asking if he might be able to write an article about the situation.  The editor replied, “Ring me when he’s dead.”’

Czechoslovak asthma isn’t enough of a story for the Western editor.  ‘We are not worthy of attention because we don’t have stories and we don’t have death.  We just have asthma.  And who wants to hear our stereotypical coughing?’ Totalitarianism, Havel argues, neutralizes the drama of stories and it makes everyday suffering into something normal and unexceptional.

Now that Havel is dead, it is worth asking what sort of story his death makes.  Havel’s death is the cause of great sadness, in Prague and around the world. And yet, long expected and undramatic, it does not appear to be much of a news story, rather one of the final melancholy pages of a certain chapter of history. (In addition to Havel, this year has seen the death of a number of his comrades in dissidence and power, including Jiří Dienstbier and Jiří Gruša.  That is to say: a generation is passing.) That mortality is kind to no one and has no respect for goodness and reputation is shown by the swift and unceremonious way that Havel’s death was replaced on the front pages by the death of another, very different sort of political leader. (more…)

Remembering Václav Havel

By Blog Admin, on 21 December 2011

Czech flag Sedlcany

Photo: Ben Hall

How does one respond to a life so obviously admirable in a way that avoids both sentiment and  scepticism, asks Peter Zusi

The spectre haunting those who write in response to the death of Václav Havel is banality: what might one write about someone whose accomplishments are so obvious, so widely recognized, and so sincerely admirable?  The papers have been full of platitudes.  Most of them true.

In recent days commentators have, quite rightly, focused on praise; but there have been other times when criticism of Havel has seemed to come far too easily.  For many, the shortcomings of his presidency are clear, the naïveté of various positions demonstrated.  Indeed Havel has himself often been accused of banality and oversimplification.  Early in his presidency Havel returned to an idea dating from his dissident days: the ‘third way’, which would involve a complete rejection of the Communist past, to be sure, yet something less, or more, than uncritical acceptance of trans-Atlantic capitalist society.  Few ideas earned him more derision during his transition to the rigours of ‘regular’ politics.

(more…)