A A A

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 Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

By Blog Admin, on 7 March 2013

Vaclav-Klaus-01 cropped

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   CC BY-SA 3.0

Václav Klaus ends his second and final term as Czech president today. He has been a blisteringly controversial head of state. But his high profile and confrontational style masked underlying political weakness, argues Seán Hanley.

 In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? (more…)

Czech presidential elections: Surge in support for Schwarzenberg sets up close second round

By Blog Admin, on 21 January 2013

The Czech Republic held first-round presidential elections on 11-12 January. Seán Hanley assesses the results and how the two remaining candidates – Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg – are likely to fare when the country goes back to the polls for the second-round run off later this month.

Karel Schwarzenberg

Karel Schwarzenberg Photo: Pastorius

 Few observers, even a matter of weeks beforehand, would have predicted the success of the two candidates who will be contesting the second round run-off to choose the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president, which takes place on 25-26 January.

 Miloš Zeman, who topped the poll in the first round on 11-12 January with 24.2 per cent, is a former Prime Minister who led the Czech Social Democratic Party between 1993 and 2001. However, he acrimoniously split with the party he once led and his return from political retirement in 2009 to lead his own Citizens’ Rights Party (SPOZ) was regarded by many as a vanity project. SPOZ failed to enter parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections and Zeman’s presidential bid, announced in June last year, seemed set to be similarly unsuccessful.

 Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic Czech foreign minister, who ran Zeman a close second with 23.4 per cent of the vote, was perhaps always a more plausible contender. A scion of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, diplomat and former chief of staff to Václav Havel, Schwarzenberg was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians.  The electoral success in 2010 of TOP09, the newly formed party he led, owed much to Schwarzenberg’s appeal as retro anti-politician. However, although one of the first to announce his candidacy, Schwarzenberg‘s campaign soon flagged badly, damaged by TOP09’s role in the governing centre-right coalition and unwavering commitment to austerity. At 75, Schwarzenberg was the oldest candidate and had not always appeared in robust good health. By December 2012 polls still put his support at under 10 per cent. (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.

(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…)