What's in a Name? Identity Politics in "Czechia": The Challenge of Identity Politics: How Can a Nation Define Itself If Its State Lacks a Concrete Geographical Name or Geopolitical Identity?

By Velisek, Zdenek | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

What's in a Name? Identity Politics in "Czechia": The Challenge of Identity Politics: How Can a Nation Define Itself If Its State Lacks a Concrete Geographical Name or Geopolitical Identity?


Velisek, Zdenek, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


The Czech Republic's name contributes to creating distorted and confused perceptions of Czech people and their culture from abroad.

Media Distortion of Identity Before we begin, the following discussion necessitates that we first differentiate between "countries" and "states." While it is possible to distance oneself from the international reputation of a government/ state, an individual's relationship to his or her country is intrinsic--the term country refers to a nation's specific identity as a unique cultural group. A country's reputation is therefore derived from how its people represent themselves abroad and how the nation is represented in foreign media.

Every single day hoards of famous individuals--especially politicians, political subjects, and political parties--loudly complain about their portrayal or image in the media. The real victim of the media is, however, the Czech Republic. The media has permanently distorted the country's identity abroad, and it has no means of defense. To make matters worse, the media's misrepresentation threatens to damage the country's moral reputation on the international stage.

Over the past seven months, the European media has spun a rather deformed and unpleasant image of the Czech Republic based on its performance at the helm of the European Union. But perhaps the greater pity, is that the media's image of the country is oft en seemingly validated and substantiated by the controversial contributions that Vaclav Klaus, the country's own president and most well-known official representative of the country, has to offer.

Tchequie, Tschechien or Czechland?

Our country's unfortunate international portrayal over the past year thus necessitates that we create a precise image of ourselves abroad. We have neglected a lot in this respect, not least in the name of our country. And a name is the basis of identity! With the breakup of Czechoslovakia, we should have promoted a norm for the geographical name of our new nation in at least every world language.

Most modern countries have adopted two country names: a political and a geographical name. The political name designates (among other things) the political orientation of the country, while the geographical name appears in less official contexts. The geographical name is, as a rule, one word, e.g., the Slovak Republic / Slovakia. The Czech Republic does not in fact have such a name despite the existence of one from the eighteenth century: "Cesko." And, if we were to use Cesko, we would be known in English as Czechia.

Unfortunately, the name Cesko was not revived at the time of the Velvet Divorce in 1989; for whatever reason, it has never been popular among Czechs. In a purely geographical sense, the Czech Republic does not therefore exist.

But the real result is that, in absence of any norm, the name of our country has become a source of confusion for our international counterparts. While the French oft en use a geographical variation--Tchequie--its multiple meanings (Czech, Gipsy, or Bohemian) render it slightly inappropriate and embarrassing for them to say and us to hear. The Germans, on the other hand, now generally refer to us formally and cumbersomely as Die Tschechische Republik (the Czech Republic) because German officials found themselves using Tschechei (a derogatory term from World War II) instead of the more dignified and politically correct term Tschechien (which is the equivalent to Czechia in English).

If we had promoted the name Tschechien in Germany ourselves, then we would now be able to insist upon its use. In our failure to promote any one term, we essentially lost the rights to our name. While Czechland was briefly toyed with in the English language, it did not--perhaps luckily--stick. And even though Czechland parallels Poland, the former sounds funny because it is not a well-established name.

I have watched foreigners on a regular basis struggling with the fact that they do not know the appropriate name for the Czech Republic. …

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What's in a Name? Identity Politics in "Czechia": The Challenge of Identity Politics: How Can a Nation Define Itself If Its State Lacks a Concrete Geographical Name or Geopolitical Identity?
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