Bestowing of state honours changed with the times, from the First Republic to the communist era to the present day

Photo: Czech TV

Every October 28th, marking the founding of the former Czechoslovakia, the president presents state honours to chosen recipients which recognise their life’s work, sacrifice and outstanding contribution. Awards range from the country’s highest honours – the Order of the White Lion or the Order of T.G. Masaryk – to Medals of Merit.

“The history is very interesting because of all of the different periods: the First Republic, WW II, the Communist era and today.”

To learn more, I recently met with Vladimír Jašek of the Czech Medals and Orders Society. We discussed how the awards ceremony has changed as well as the history of some of the state decorations.

First, something about the history; Vladimír Jašek:

“The history is very interesting because all of the different periods: you have the First Republic, then the period during WW II, the Communist era and the modern day period and the only honour which connects them all is the highest one, the Order of the White Lion. The award was established in 1922, four years after the founding of Czechoslovakia, and was originally given to foreign nationals, such as visiting heads of state. There were other medals, of course after WW I, but these were military honours. The ceremony, as we know it today every October 28th, when recipients are invited and are honoured at Prague Castle, that didn’t exist during the First Republic.”

The Order of the White Lion,  photo: Public Domain
If the Order of the White Lion is the highest honour then who were some of the dignitaries who received it in those first years?

“There are five classes and the first class of the Order was reserved for kings and queens and they received a special chair with the honour. The archives of the Office of the President reveal that the order was given to the king of Romania, the French and Estonian presidents. After 1945, you see less of those but you see Soviet officials awarded and later even Yasser Arafat. Lower classes of the Order were for ambassadors or military officers. There were differences which reflected the public standing of recipients.”

During the communist period, the honours changed yet again: there was much more emphasis on Soviet heroes, the working class, Czechoslovak heroes of socialism…

Socialist orders,  photo: Czech TV
“Yes. Even before there were changes, new military awards and medals for Czechs and Slovaks who fought in exile, in the RAF against Nazi Germany in WW II and after 1948 the emphasis changed. We generally took over the Soviet system, taking on heroes of socialist labour and so on. We had far fewer ‘heroes’ than the Soviet Union.”

In the background there is a very sad chapter in Czechoslovak history which was what followed the end of the war: you had three years when Czechs and Slovaks who had fought in exile returned and were treated and awarded as heroes and three years later were treated as traitors. Many of them were sentenced to work in uranium mines, labour camps, prison or even executed. What were their medals ‘worth’ then?

“Former RAF pilots were heroes for everyone and suddenly they were just ‘traitors’. Their medals were taken away and they were punished.”

“They were heroes for everyone and suddenly they were not: they were just ‘traitors’. Under the criminal law then, their orders were taken away and they were punished, sometimes receiving death sentences. What you had done for your country no longer mattered, hero or not, you were punished.”

After 1989, after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, the country went a long way in rehabilitating people who had served their country with honour and distinction.

“That’s true. If you see the list of recipients in the 1990s, many were from the military and were WW II veterans, and they were given proper recognition at last. In some cases, they didn’t live to see it and the award was bestowed upon a family member, given in memoriam. But I think that it was a very important gesture thanking them for their sacrifices and everything they did.”

The president presents state honours to chosen recipients,  photo: Czech TV
How do you think the ceremony is seen today? I suppose there must have been additional fanfare in the event after the fall of the totalitarian system, there was the first post-communist president Václav Havel, many people tuned in. Since then, there have been two more presidents, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman… has the ceremony changed?

“Formally the ceremony has remained more or less the same. But there things we haven’t seen before. There was a case of a recipient showing up in improper attire [a fleece sports jumper] and somehow the dignity of the ceremony has gone down. What we have now, which we didn’t before, are that some recipients have rejecting awards from Mr Zeman. That is different. Over the last two years there were people who were proposed who didn’t want the award from the current president, they said ‘No, thank you’.”

The Chancellor Vratislav Mynář reads out the names of the recipients,  photo: Czech TV
So in effect politics, personal politics, have kind of encroached upon the ceremony at least for some. For me, one thing I think which is a bit of a lost or missed opportunity, is that the Chancellor who reads out the names of the recipients no longer provides nearly as much background, which I think is a shame. You can’t assume people will go back and search out information post-…

“In the past there was a special book which came with the honours which listed all of the recipients with photos and I think that was very worthwhile. Such things emphasized the contribution, perhaps more than just articles in the newspaper.”

“What we have now, which we didn’t before, is that some recipients have rejected honours from the current president.”

When we talk about some of these recipients, the honour many would receive is a medal of merit in all kinds of fields, from the economy to the arts. Medals for heroism attract a lot of attention generally, where someone has perhaps risked their own life to save someone else’s…


Incidentally, when did your interest in the state honours begin?

Vladimír Jašek,  photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague
“As a child. My brother specialized in restoring old and antique furniture, so I used to go with him to all kinds of antique shops in the quest for pieces and I was proud that I could recognize the different historic styles. And one time, I went through several rooms in one shop and they had a room which was dedicated to medals. And it hit me that this was the right thing for me. I had collected all kinds of things before, stamps, but this captured my imagination.”

So basically, today you have extensive knowledge about the history… Since you have touched upon collecting, what is the market for collectors like? Has it changed in recent years? How do medals get onto the market? I imagine some families would prefer to hang onto them and pass them down…

Photo: Czech TV
“During the communist period it was forbidden to sell them and in Russia it still is. In the Czech Republic today you of course can and there are various means – through auction houses or online, the 1990s saw a number of collector’s societies crop up and like anything in the collecting field, there are both common items and very rare ones. There is a group of 30 medals from Czechoslovakia which, for example, is very rare and most are accounted for: 15 went to the former Soviet Union, six are with the families of presidents, one is in a museum in Slovakia, so to get one is almost impossible. Most collectors have never seven seen them with their own eyes although there was a big exhibition at Prague Castle in the year 2000 where they were presented. Generally though only very few people saw these Orders with their own eyes.”