A century of Czech independence - according to Pavel Kosatík

Pavel Kosatík, photo: Jana Přinosilová / Czech Radio

As the end of 2018 draws near, Czechs are reflecting on the century of their independent state. All years ending in “8” have a special meaning for this nation – 1918, 1938, 1948, and 1968 were the main turning points for the country and its people. Pavel Kosatík is a journalist and writer, author of many books, screenplays and documentaries about Czech history.

Pavel Kosatík,  photo: Jana Přinosilová / Czech Radio
Pavel Kosatík devoted most of his professional life to writing about Czech history. After decades of tackling its twists and turns, he obviously still finds the subject fascinating:

“Czech society has demonstrated an unbelievable will to survive. And it was not easy in this high-risk geographical location. Central Europe has always been under enormous pressure from Germany, its language and culture, on the one hand, and Russian influence and imperialism on the other. This combination of forces has never been good. Right now it looks like everything is stable, but it need not necessarily always be so. That is why I write about the past but always take a keen interest in the future.”

The past century has been full of both tragic and joyful turning points for people in the three historical lands that form today's Czech Republic – Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. The year 1918 brought independence, 1938 a crisis over Sudetenland and loss of independence to Nazi Germany. Ten years later the Communist coup d’état meant decades of Soviet dominance. When, in 1968, Czechoslovakia tried to reform socialism, the Soviet Union and its allies crushed this attempt with tanks and troops.

Freedom and democracy finally came in 1989. Czechs re-joined the Western fold of democratic states, entering NATO and the European Union. However, for Pavel Kosatík, the struggle to build healthy, self-confident, yet not nationalist, democratic institutions is far from finished. He sees everything in a broader historical context:

Sudetenland in 1938,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1976-033-20 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
“I believe the year 1938 was the main turning point for the Czech nation in the 20th century. That was the moment that changed that centuries-old trend. Ever since the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, when the German-speaking Austrian Habsburgs dynasty re-confirmed and strengthened its dominance over the Czech Lands, Czechs were on the way up as a nation. Step by step, first by preserving the language and literature in cottages, in the countryside. Later on, Czech started penetrating the world of industry and business. But what was most important, Czechs built up their own political organizations from scratch and acquired confidence. After the First World War, they founded their own state which prospered fairly well and they thought that this would go on and things would only get better.”

“Instead, they were stabbed in the back in 1938, quite unexpectedly for many. Their development suddenly stopped and I believe that many Czechs are still kind of “blocked”, echoes of that national trauma can still be traced and I personally do not know whether we can achieve complete catharsis. I try to do my bit by writing books. I believe in reflection. If you describe a trauma or a problem, you start the process of healing.”

Czechs, unlike their neighbors in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary often, do not seem to take themselves and their national identity very seriously. For Pavel Kosatík, this tendency has deep historical roots:

“Our society did not have a firm structure, unlike that in Poland, and most other countries. It took a long time after the Battle of White Mountain, to develop in the sense that every person would know what is expected of him or her. People have different roles, but they know about the others and know that they need each other. The intellectuals know that they need workers, workers know they need intellectuals, to put it simply. This is the only way in which so-called „elites“ can work in a society if they trust others and are trusted, everybody realizes that the structure is needed for the life of a society.”

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1976-033-20 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
“I do not like to say this, but I think we Czechs resemble an amorphous crowd. We want to make sure that no one can think himself or herself better than others, that no one is too different. In the end, we all pay for this by not allowing the elites to lead. As Masaryk said, we end up like those proverbial frogs in a pond, croaking at each other.”

The century of Czech independence was interrupted by war and totalitarianism. But historian Pavel Kosatík does not worry overly about the return of some sort of authoritarian regime or the present military and security threats. It is the environment that burdens his thoughts:

“Lately, I have been having some doubts whether historiography is really the discipline that a man should devote his energy and time to. If it really becomes evident that climate change is irreversible, then we all have a great civilization problem. Politics and history as we know them may become outdated. The way we lead our public discourse cannot bring any change. That is why we need some degree of national hierarchy so that different groups and layers of our society communicate and recognize this hierarchy. Those ignorant, mischievous people, who only create chaos and bad will in internet discussions should know their place. We need to kind of close ranks into national and state unity and join other nations in order to solve this problem which is most likely ahead of us. It cannot be done by individuals and even individual nations, we have to act together, if we want to survive.”

Warning words from journalist and writer Pavel Kosatík. Perhaps the best hope for the future lies in the fact, that he can voice them freely. He can be critical of the present government without fear of repression. No doubt Czechs, as other nations in Central Europe, have a lot to worry about. But they also have freedom of choice, something they so often lacked in the past 100 years.