Communism only postponed Czechoslovakia’s end, historian Jan Rychlík says in his new book

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Czechs and Slovaks spent most of the 20th century in one country, Czechoslovakia. Ever since its foundation, however, each nation had a different idea of how the country should work, and what their role in it should be. In his new book entitled Czechs and Slovaks in the 20th Century: Cooperation and Conflicts, historian Jan Rychlík argues that Czechoslovakia was in fact bound to fail as a state, and that communism only postponed its inevitable end.

Jan Rychlík, photo: Šárka Ševčíková
I sat down with professor Rychlík and asked him how different the expectations of each nation were when Czechoslovakia emerged in 1918.

“For the Czechs, the new state was a resurrection of the mediaeval Bohemian state which gradually ceased to exist in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Czech thinking, it was simply the revival of this state which only extended to the east, up to Yasinia in Ruthenia. But even the outside world – the English speaking countries, France, and so on – considered Czechoslovakia a resurrection of the Czech state.

“The Slovaks never saw it like that. They had nothing common with the Czechs in the past; they were part of the Hungarian Kingdom. The Slovaks – and it’s naturally a generalization – had a vision of Czechoslovakia was that of a union of two semi-independent states, something like the old Austria-Hungary. That’s also why they consistently wrote, and still write today, Czecho-Slovakia, with the dash and capital S. For the Czechs, this vision was something they were not prepared for, and it was difficult for them to put up with.”

Did this asymmetry in the relation to Czechoslovakia eventually become the key factor behind the split of the country?

“I would not put it like that. In my opinion as a historian and ethnologist, it’s not possible for two or more conscious, political nations to live permanently in one country. There is not such case in Europe; all states compound of one or more nations are very instable.

“The main problem of Czechoslovakia was very similar to that of Austria-Hungary: it failed because people of that country did not have a single identity. They did not consider themselves to be Czechoslovak, even the Czechs did not. They said they were Czechoslovaks but they were not; they said Czechoslovak but they meant Czech because the Slovak influence was very small if any.

“So that’s the main reason: Czechoslovakia failed because there was no common identity. What I said about the different expectations had of course some impact but on the other hand, we have to say that close to the end of Czechoslovakia, the idea of a loose federation materialized but it proved to be too late. It would be a speculation and historians should not really ask whether things would have developed differently if this idea had appeared earlier.”

In the course of the 20th century, Slovak representatives from time to time repeated their demands of cultural and political autonomy. But they were never really answered by the Czechs – did Czechs understand the Slovak point of view?

“It depends about which period we talk about. The Slovaks always had cultural autonomy, even during the First Republic (1918-1938). Their demands of political autonomy in the First Republic were certainly not understood. But after WWII and later, this was a main issue of the Slovak reform programme in 1968. So Czechs did understand it was necessary. But I think there was another problem. We should not believe that if a self-conscious nation obtains autonomy, it will be satisfied. Autonomy is just the first step of further demands. By the way, the Czechs adopted absolutely the same police vis-à-vis Vienna before 1914.

“So with all likelihood, autonomy even during the First Republic would not have helped because sooner or later, it would be seen as too narrow and the limits of Czechoslovakia would be considered an obstacle to further Slovak development. After 1968, Slovakia had broad autonomy. We of course have to put aside that under communist dictatorship, it was more of a fiction than anything else. But after 1989, their autonomy was very broad but it did not help anyway.”

So you think that communism only postponed the inevitable end of Czechoslovakia?

“It’s my personal opinion – I cannot prove it – but I am deeply convinced that paradoxically, the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and the forcible end of the democratization process extended the life of Czechoslovakia. But that’s another speculation and we will never know.”

Those opposed to the split of Czechoslovakia in the 1990s often noted that most Czechs on the one hand and Slovaks on the other did not want the country to fall apart. Did it split against the wishes of the people?

“I think this is a myth. If you put it like this – that most Czechs and Slovaks were for the common state, then you’re right. But the problem is what they meant by common state. It’s a very wide term and the Slovaks certainly did not mean a federation in the form it existed, or even a centralized state of the inter-war period. If you look deeper, you’ll find that Slovaks were talking about a common state but it would be so loose that it would have fallen apart anyway.

“Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, an Austrian journalist who covered Central Europe for Austrian TV, made a good point when she said on once occasion that under the term common state, the Czechs understood Bundesstaat, a federation, while the Slovaks Bund der Staaten, a union of states. It’s more precise in German than in English but I think the difference is obvious. Such a very loose federation with practically no competences for the central authorities would be an advantage for the Slovaks but of no use to the Czechs.

“The coexistence of stronger and weaker partners, bigger and smaller entities, is only possible if it suits the stronger one, not the weaker one. So after the elections of 1992, it was the Czech side – Václav Klaus as the leader of the winning Civic Democrats – who said ‘either you accept our terms or we split. No confederation or loose union is good for the Czechs. Take it or leave it’.”

When Czech and Slovak historians today look at Czechoslovakia, how different are their perspectives?

“I can say that the majority of Slovak historians, intellectuals and public figures are aware of the positive impact the existence of Czechoslovakia had. Only marginal, extreme right-wing political groups – which are no longer present in the Slovak Parliament – denied it.

“The Slovak approach today basically maintains that Czechoslovakia was good for the Slovak nation which could prepare for the final step – independence. On the Czech side, we have the permanent continuity of the present Czech Republic with Czechoslovakia. We consider the First Republic part of the same tradition; October 28, the day Czechoslovakia was proclaimed in 1918 – is observed as a public holiday.

“So these are different approached to the 74 years of common history but we can’t say that the Slovak attitude is negative. They say there were mistakes but it had a positive significance for our development.”