The Czech National Day: celebrating a state that no longer exists

The 28th October is an unlikely date for Czechs to be celebrating their national holiday. After all, it commemorates the founding of a state that no longer exists. Czechoslovakia was established in 1918 with the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy at the end of World War I, and was relegated to the history books 74 years later, when Czechs and Slovaks - or rather their political leaders - decided to go their separate ways at the end of 1992. While Slovaks quickly forgot their old national day, Czechs went on as if nothing had happened. To this day wreathes are laid, the national anthem is played, and except when the holiday falls on a weekend everybody enjoys a day off work.

To talk about this paradox, I'm joined by the award-winning novelist and journalist, Martin Simecka. Until recently he was editor-in-chief of the Slovak daily SME, and he is now just taking over at the helm of the Czech political weekly Respekt. He is the son of Milan Simecka, one the most influential dissident philosophers of communist Czechoslovakia, and with an upbringing that spanned both parts of the former Czechoslovakia, Martin has very personal insights into the complexities of the Czech and Slovak national identities.

"My parents were Czechs but they moved to Bratislava - to Slovakia - in 1953 and I was born in 1957 in Bratislava. So I'm by birth Slovak, but I'm bilingual, we spoke at home Czech and Slovak, but I have lived all my life in Bratislava. But my whole family are in the Czech Republic. So from my education in my family I feel more like Czech, from Czech literature and so on, but my schools were Slovak. So I'm divided in my heart. My father used to say that he was divided one half Czech, one half Slovak. I feel the same."

To what extent was the division of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992 a trauma for you?

"Yes. It was traumatic, but I was not the only one. My brother lives in Prague, for example, so it was a division directly in my family. But the biggest trauma wasn't actually from the split itself, but from what I was afraid - and it was fulfilled - would happen with Slovakia after the split. It happened that Vladimir Meciar and his regime ruled the country for six years. It was obvious that after the split this would happen."

This is a programme to mark the Czech national holiday on 28th October. Isn't it a strange paradox that we are marking a holiday that commemorates the foundation of a state that no longer exists?

"Well, for me it is a little bit confusing that Czechs have this day as a holiday and they celebrate it actually as the founding of the Czech Republic! They don't speak so much about Czechoslovakia, but about the Czech Republic. So they celebrate their own state now in memory of 1918. This is understandable, of course, as they can't celebrate Czechoslovakia, that's clear, but Slovaks have no holiday on that day and except for a couple of people who will probably organize a kind of very small meeting where maybe a few dozen people will come, nobody probably will commemorate it in Slovakia."

Doesn't it, in a sense, confirm what some Slovaks have complained all along, that Czechoslovakia was essentially a Czech state and therefore many Czechs have no problem taking on Czechoslovakia and the legacy of Czechoslovakia as there own?

"This is a feeling, and quite a general feeling in Slovakia, but I think it is not true. Historically it is not true, because for Slovaks it was the first state they had, where they had felt at home, so this is a confusion again. I would say that for Slovaks it would be much more important to celebrate this day than for Czechs. But they don't. This is about how Slovaks see their own history and it's about an irrational feeling that Slovaks were not quite recognized as a nation in that state. Again I don't think it's true, although, of course, there are some historical facts: Edvard Benes [the second president of Czechoslovakia] especially didn't feel the Slovaks to be a nation, but this shouldn't be the reason for Slovaks not to celebrate that day. But you can't help it. In Slovakia you wouldn't now find many people who would commemorate that day as something very important - except historians, who would say that this is certainly the biggest day for the Slovak nation in the last hundred years."

Edvard Benes
And just to return to the paradox that we're marking the holiday of a state that doesn't exist - doesn't it in a way reflect the very strange nature of Czechs' and Slovaks' relationship to their national identity? For Poles, for example, it is much more straightforward.

"Yes. If you compare it to other nations you are right. Both the Czechs and Slovaks are now more oriented to the present day than the past, because it's so difficult to identify yourself with this anniversary, as you have to understand many things. Because this state doesn't exist any more it's a complicated situation. So for people it's easier not to talk about that so much, and they try to occupy themselves just with the history of the last few decades, rather than with something that is so far away in history. But you are right. I don't feel very much, either in the Czech Republic or in Slovakia, an interest in the deeper past of these nations. That's something very unusual, compared to Poland or even Hungary."

For a modern, forward-looking Europe where there is a lot of talk about integration, it sounds, in a way, like a very healthy attitude towards your nationhood.

"It may look like an advantage these days, but the problem is that it's not something natural and healthy. I think that people rather don't want to know about history very much, which is not good. If Czechs and Slovaks will be those Europeans who don't care very much about their own identity and past, I don't think that it's something Europe should be happy about."

You grew up during the period of "normalization" when, after the Soviet invasion of 1968, there was a gradual re-imposition of hard-line Brezhnevite rule in Czechoslovakia. How was the 28th October celebrated then as the national day?

"The 28th October was actually a day that was not very much celebrated. It was difficult to talk about it because for the communists it was a date that marked the founding of the first, capitalist Czechoslovakia. So for them it was very difficult to find a way of celebrating that day and saying on the other hand that actually it was not good because the [pre-war] republic was bourgeois-democratic. It was so confusing for people that the regime itself rather preferred not to celebrate it at all."

Does it make any sense to be celebrating the 28th October as the national holiday in the Czech Republic in 2006?

"Definitely yes. What I would prefer, on the other hand, would be for Czechs to celebrate not only our own state, but also the state which is our closest neighbour, that means the Slovaks. That would be fair. What disturbs me is that this is not mentioned at all."