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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…)

1989 in fiction: a story that is not a story

By Blog Admin, on 17 November 2012

Tim Beasley-Murray on a story that slips under the radar of history

Pictures of 1989 - Exterior

Photo: Gribsche (Rob Sinclair). Creative Commons license via Flickr

Peter Pišťanek’s Rivers of Babylon is the best-selling Slovak novel of all time.  It tells the story of Rácz, a peasant from the Hungarian- speaking countryside, who arrives in Bratislava in Autumn 1989 and finds a job stoking up the boilers of the city’s top hotel.  With a combination of priapic brutality, Nietzschean will-to-power, and control of the heating in a freezing winter, he rises with meteoric speed to become, by the summer 1990, the head of a criminal empire, with the Hotel Ambassador, the city and its politicians in his pocket.

 This riotous and irrepressible novel is a combination of things: a video-nasty subversion of the Bildungsroman; a vicious satire of (Slovak) notions of the ethnic and moral purity of the countryside and the corruption and vice of the city (after all, it is Rácz who corrupts the city and not the other way round); and, with its cast of ballet-dancers-turned-prostitutes, intellectuals-turned-pornographers, secret policemen-turned-mafiosi and so forth, a Rabelaisian carnival of the birth of wild-East capitalism.

One of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book, however, is what it does not portray:  Rácz meteoric rise coincides exactly with the period that sees the fall of the Berlin Wall, mass demonstrations in November against the Communist regime in Prague and Bratislava, the resignation of the Presidium of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the election of Václav Havel to the presidency at the end of December, and finally, in June, the first free elections in Czechoslovakia since 1946.  None of this appears in the novel.

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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.

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