Searching for Normality in Central Europe

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Searching for Normality in Central Europe


Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review


THE author who writes in the first person risks provoking readers, and takes further risks when he ventures into fields where he is more enthusiast than expert. But I came to an enthusiasm for Central Europe by such a curious route, at so bleak a time and in such contrast to contemporary hopes and freedoms, that it is worth taking the risk now that the lights have gone on again all over Europe.

I reached Central Europe via the United States, or rather that exciting new-found-land of American history which opened up enthusiastically in British universities in the decade after the Second World War. Esmond Wright, whose passing the editor of the Contemporay Review marked so nobly a few months ago, developed an honours year seminar at Glasgow on U.S. foreign policy in the age of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. I was sucked in, fired up, and dangerously diverted by the fascination of the think-tanks which Wilson set up in preparation for the peace settlement of Versailles--or, strictly speaking, in the case of former Austrian and Hungarian territories, of Saint Germain and Trianon.

It was also through the American connections with Central Europe, political and ethnic, that I wandered off into exploration of the life and times of Thomas Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia and the philosopher who (unlike so many of his Central European contemporaries) represented nationalism with a human face and intellectual honesty.

Masaryk is now a founding-father figure for the modern Czech Republic, even though one of his most distinctive contributions in 1918, union with the Slovaks, has gone the way of the Habsburg monarchy itself. His statue stands on the corner of the Prague square outside the main gate of the castle tenanted over the centuries by the rulers of Bohemia. His name has replaced the Communist Gottwald's on the stretch of the Vltava embankment upstream from the National Theatre. The name of his son Jan, who fell to his death from the Czernin Palace just after Gottwald's brutal putsch in 1948, has found a more modest place on the map over towards bourgeois Vinohrady.

When I first visited Czechoslovakia as a journalist in the early 1960s--it was just after the giant Stalin statue had been cast down from its perch above the Vltava--the Masaryk name was still the Great Unmentionable. Questions about his place in history were turned away, sometimes deftly, sometimes brusquely, except at an otherwise tedious luncheon at the official Writers' Club. My neighbour was notoriously unsound politically and had been through hard times after being purged in 1948 from the Czech news agency. But the writers had got him partially rehabilitated because he could translate them into effective English. 'Has the view of Masaryk changed now?', I asked, for there was already the slow thaw that five years later became the Prague Spring. 'Do you mean the official view, or the view of the people?', he replied. 'For the view of the people never changed at all'.

Now official and popular opinion have come together again, and Czechs cherish the memory, hazy and distorted perhaps by the passage of time and convulsions of history, of what the Communists denounced as the 'bourgeois Republic'. This affection for a relatively brief interlude of troubled freedom (1918-38) is perhaps an appropriately idiosyncratic Czech variation on two wider Central European themes. One is the urge to retain and express nationality within the new European Union of twenty-five countries. The other is to celebrate a continuity with the past which feels like a return to normality.

There is a mixture of rather superficial and harmless nostalgia with a genuine desire to combine the triumph of nationalism with the old historical and enduring geographical affinities as well as the new Union.

The problem for the Czechs is that their nostalgia has to be selective. The nationalist interpretation of history demands that their great nineteenth-century age of national revival, cultural achievement, and industrialisation, when their language was re-established and their music captured Europe's attention, has to be seen as a struggle against oppressors. …

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