Czech Statehood Day: A look at the symbols of the nation

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

In a special programme to mark Czech Statehood Day, I am joined in the studio by Ondřej Matějka, who is the Deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. He has agreed to help me explore some issues related to heraldry, meaning national symbols and the iconography of the Czech people.

St. Wenceslas
Let’s begin with Czech Statehood Day on September 28th. It marks the death of St. Václav, whom most people would know as St. Wenceslas. Tell me a little bit about this day.

“It is actually the newest Czech public holiday. It was created some fifteen years ago. I don’t think that there is a strong relationship by the Czech public to this state day. I think the 28th October is much more strongly involved with the Czech collective memory. That is Czechoslovak Independence Day. This newest day is connected with St. Wenceslas, who was one of the first dukes of the Czech lands. It wasn’t a Kingdom then – this was in the 10th century. He proved to be an extraordinary figure. It was a really hard time to be a duke. Back in that time, such dukes were essentially successful murderers who had managed to kill all potential rivals. He was a Christian duke and also tried to build a new relationship with the German Reich.”

“The point is that he was a duke of small lands that had to deal with our bigger German-speaking neighbours. He was about to make a deal with the Germans but he was then killed by his brother near to Prague, in Stará Boleslav – people can visit this place, and it is very charming as it has a very old church.”

So Václav was killed in the year 935 AD.

“There are several interpretations of what year this actually was. But this is one of the dates, historians believe he died, yes. Other interpretations are that it was a few years earlier or later. It is not that important, but we assume it may have been 935. So he was killed by his brother, and because of this murder, his brother was not particularly beloved by his people. But the brother was much more successful from the point of view of the power of the state. He expanded the territory of the young Czech state...”

That is his brother Boleslav I. But it is Václav, who is so revered because he put down the definitive Bohemian footprint. And he also brought Christianity to the Czech people, is that right?

Ondřej Matějka, photo: Czech Television
“Christianity started sooner, of course. But he was one of the dukes who stood for Christianity and that is also why Wenceslas was made a saint. And by his acts, and through his Christianity, he brought us into the Western part of Europe, because the Czech lands had been Christianised from the east, and also the west. And for some time, it wasn’t clear which form of Christianity would have power in these lands. This step towards Christianity was a very strong civilisationary commitment.”

And was he a “good king”? As in Good King Wenceslas – was he known for being a good duke and good, charitable person?

“I think he was a good duke. But the point is that in the eyes of his brother, he was weak because he tried to make a deal with the German Reich, with the Roman Reich as it was called. And from that perspective, he was seen as a weak duke, but he was a really good one, a Christian one, and so on. And as I noted, his brother expanded the territory of the country, went to Poland, and he fought against the east and so on.”

So in 2000 this became a national holiday and Miloš Zeman, who was prime minister at the time, described St. Václav as being servile. So this is actually quite a controversial national holiday. Some people suggest it shouldn’t even be a national holiday at all.

“I think that maybe the controversial point is that this holiday is so overtly a Catholic day, because he was a saint.”

And that date is his Saint Day, or Name Day.

“This day used to be a day of many masses held, and of pilgrimages to St. Wenceslas. Today’s Czech Republic is actually more of an atheistic (secular) state, not really a Christian state. The society is a Christian culture, of course, and part of our population belongs to the church. But the country is not really strongly Catholic or Christian like Poland, Slovakia or even Germany.”

Quite strongly atheistic – perhaps the least religious in Europe, right?

“Yes, that is true. And that is why it might be seen as a little bit controversial. But overall it is not viewed as a Catholic day, but rather as a day of Czech statehood. And it is accepted from this perspective, and we celebrate not this saint issue, but the state issue.”

And of course, Wenceslas Square in Prague is famously named after him. When was the statue atop this street built?

“This is from the end of the 19th century. Of course, this was the time of major national awakening. A national rebirth of the country. Of growing self-confidence and the building up of a new, modern Czech society. And even in this time in the 19th century, when the modern Czech ‘nation’ was born, then its people were looking for symbols, and of course St. Wenceslas was a very potent symbol. That is why he has one of the central positions. Then in 1928, there was a huge celebration [also ten years after Czechoslovak independence], because 928 is the other year historians have suggested that Václav died. And during these celebrations, the country somehow really decided to be the country of St. Wenceslas.”

To celebrate the year of his death?

“Yes, and he was actually created as a national hero, founder of the state, and then he also became a nationalistic symbol.”

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, photo: Public Domain
So how does he compare with other iconic Czech figures? I suppose that when the Czechoslovak state was founded in 1918, its president Tomáš Masaryk became the father of the nation. Did he supplant Václav to any degree?

“Not really. He couldn’t supplant him. Masaryk was a very strong person, but he was alive at the time in question. The tricky point with Masaryk is that he started as a critical intellectual. He was really one who criticised the notion of a national mythology at the end of the 19th century. And he really fought against the idea of a strongly national identity, and against this mythology. He wanted Czech society to be a modern liberal, democratic society rather than a community based around old national mythologies.”

“But as Masaryk became president, he himself became an object of this mythology. As president, he lived in Prague Castle, the place where Czech kings used to live. He was typically photographed on horseback, and in a uniform-like suit. He used to be a critical intellectual, but then later became an object of such mythology. The point as to whether he could replace St. Wenceslas – I don’t think so. But I think that Masaryk belongs among the very important founders of Czech statehood; of the Czech sate, I should say. He could certainly be ranked among the most important leaders.”

And across Czechoslovakia, we have many Václavské náměstí, many Masarykovo Náměstí, and we also have many places named Karlové [after Charles IV]. These, I guess, are the top three, right?

“Maybe. I had never thought about what might be at the top. I think now [former president] Václav Havel could also be seen as one of the most important Czech founders. Of course it is too soon to–”

We already have Václav Havel Airport.

“I think it is too soon to build up this mythology concerning Havel. But I am sure that somehow he will be seen as one of the most important Czech politicians or personalities.”

Václav Havel, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
Let’s turn to the Czech flag, which is a very simple design. It is basically the Polish flag with a blue triangular wedge on one side. And apparently until 1920, the Bohemian flag was actually the same flag – just red and white – as the Polish one. And then there was also a Protectorate flag [1939-45), which had three stripes resembling today’s Russian flag. And then it went back to being the original design again. What can you tell us about the flag’s history?

“The point was how to include Slovakia into this flag. And that is why this blue triangle came to be in the Czech flag. After the break-up of the Czechoslovak Federation in 1993, this became a difficult issue. The new Czech Republic basically adopted the old Czechoslovak flag, and since then we sort of say that the blue triangle now stands for sovereignty or a powerful state and so on. And this is a reinterpretation of the break-up. The Czechs really never accepted this break-up as a real division. We still see huge continuity; the Slovaks just left, and we somehow realised that our country is now half as small as it was back in 1918 [Czechoslovakia also comprised of Ruthenia until WWII]. And so having this old flag from 1920, we still somehow believe that we live in the same state as back then. On the one hand, it is good to have continuity, but it also makes it difficult for us to accept the major changes of the Czech state and society since.”

The original Bohemian flag was just red and white and was the same as the Polish flag. So how could two neighbouring countries end up having the same flag?

“We were not states. So before 1918, this was not a problem. There was no Polish state and there was no Czech state. These were flags of the peoples living on this particular territory. The Poles were technically living in Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary. The flag was typical Slavonic colours – red and white.”

Because if in 1993, there had been a serious problem for the Czech Republic in retaining the Czechoslovak flag, what would have happened? One of the solutions would have been to remove the blue bit, but then you couldn’t do that as you would have the same flag as Poland.

Czech flag, photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Yes. Somehow it was decided that we will keep the original flag. Of course, for most Czechs this was very comfortable, because it symbolised to us that we were still one country, which in fact is not true. We are smaller and the Slovaks are not with us any more. We are alone [laughs]...”

But the Czech Republic itself is comprised of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. Presumably the same way that the United Kingdom is comprised of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So do Moravians feel that they are not represented in the Czech flag?

“I don’t think that there are many Moravians who feel that they are not represented by the Czech flag. They are represented in the symbols. For example in the coat of arms.”

Let’s move on to that. Let’s look at the coat of arms. This is basically a shield, which is broken up into four separate squares. And two of those are identical – and that is the Bohemian crest, which is the figure of a lion. And then you have the Moravian square, which is a red and white chequered eagle, and the Silesian symbol, which is a black eagle. So can you explain these to us?

“There is an old tradition that you show all the historical parts of the country in the nation’s coat of arms. If we look at the shield of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy, then we see it is actually huge. It consists of maybe twenty, or twenty-five separate symbols. Very diverse versions of lions, of eagles, and so on. And these represent each little part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is really huge. There are two central coats of arms – one for the Austrian, and one for the Hungarian parts of the monarchy. And then these shields are surrounded by many, many little coats of arms showing all the little parts, like Moravia, Silesia, Montenegro, Bukovina, Galicia, and so on.”

Czech coat of arms
And of course Czech towns and cities also all have their own crests, or coats of arms – Brno, Olomouc, all of them. Many are quite similar, with variations on the Czech shield – you either have lions, eagles etc. So how did the lion come to symbolise Bohemia, and how did the eagle come to symbolise Moravia and Silesia?

“I’m not an expert, but as far as I know, it is not really clear where the lion came from. There is a legend, but I am not sure I could relate it precisely. But as far as I know, it is not clear why the lion is a Czech symbol. But the lion found its way into the coats of arms of various towns, mostly because they were the towns of kings, for example Hradec Králove.”

And it is just normal for a king to be associated with a strong animal, right? A lion...

“And also an eagle. This is also typical.”

Predatory, or top of the food chain, basically.

“Exactly. I think the point of the Czech coat of arms it to represent all of the historical parts of the Czech lands. This is interesting, because normally in the present time, identity is not so strongly historical. Of course you would have people who would affirm they are from Moravia, or from Silesia, but this historical identity is not really expressed in many ways. There maybe is dialect. There may be some historical consciousness. But at present, the historical identities of these regions is not really strong. Which is a pity, because the people don’t know where they come from and so on.”

During the communist era, the Czech lion lost his crown, with a star placed above his head instead. For many people – non-communists, that is – this would surely have been a horrendous insult. In essence castrating the Czech national symbol. Was it really loathed this way?

Státní znak ČSSR
“I’m not old enough to personally consider that. As I was a young boy, I liked that symbol because it was the national symbol of my country. Coming from just a normal family. It wasn’t pro-communist, but nor was it strongly anti-communist. It was just an average family. So for me, when I see it – somehow it has become a kind of retro-fashion nowadays. You can see people have it on their T-shirts, and also wear T-shirts with ‘ČSSR’ on them (Československá Socialistická Republika). For me, the symbol touches an emotional note for purely nostalgic reasons connected to my childhood. But I was just a young boy. I don’t know whether it was beloved or hated by people.”

“The point is that from a heraldic, expert point of view, this was a huge intervention into our heritage. Because they took away the old shield shape, the classic version of it. It was replaced by something that in Czech is called ‘pavéza’ (long shield). It was a Hussite-style coat of arms, and it did not have the traditional form. It was longer, thinner and taller.”

So they re-designed it.

“Yes, and of course added the yellow communist star.”

And the lion's head in that seems more like a panther – more cat-like.

“Yes. It was actually a brutal degradation of our state symbol. From a heraldic perspective.”

But you don’t think it was deliberate (other than the star). Do you think it was poor taste, or some attempt by the Soviet powers to humiliate the Czech people, or anything like that?

“I think whoever did it, it was a real act of stupidity. There were some ideological reasons, and they decided to make these changes, and they were rather tragic. But, as I said, in my classroom, every day at school, that was the symbol that was before my eyes. So somehow you get used to it. And most people are not really dealing with the meaning behind the symbols.”

Let’s now move on to the Czech National Anthem. “Kde Domov Můj?” or “Where is My Home?”. This comes from a musical comedy, called “Fidlovačka aneb Žádný hněv a žádná rvačka” (Fidlovačka, or No Anger and No Brawl). How did this end up becoming the Czech National Anthem?

“Just through a natural process. It was a song that came from this musical. The song ended up then being played at markets and so on.”

I should add that the comedy premiered in 1834.

“Yes, so there was this musical, which had this song. And the song became, really, truly beloved. People just liked it.”

So it just became a popular tune.

“And it kept being replayed and sung. In the musical, it is being sung by a blind violin player. It has a very nostalgic tone to it. And this was around the time when the Czechs started to see a rise in the national movement, even in the 1830s. This desire to become our own nation is somehow expressed via the sentiments relayed in the song. That is why it became so popular.”

And the question: “where is my home?” was just coincidentally related to people saying: “where is our home? We want a state. We want a nation.”

“Not necessarily a state. In the 1830s, nobody would have yet had the idea to become a Czech nation state. But Czech culture, the Czech nation, there was a real desire to have this. And that is why ‘Where is my home?’ is actually an expression of the thought to become a nation again. Because in the 1830s, the Czech nation didn’t really exist in the true sense of the word. There were some people who spoke Czech, mainly in the countryside. In eastern and southern Bohemia. Mostly these were not very well educated people. And then also there were some intellectuals, mostly in Prague, but also in other towns. And they started a project to revive the nation – this was actually a political programme.”

Going back to the Czech coat of arms, I should note that the Czechoslovak version had a Slovak seal added onto the chest of the lion. But was there any heraldic representation of the Sudeten German minority at all?

Saint Wenceslas, photo: Kristýna Maková
“No. Between the wars, in the First Republic (1918-1938), there was no representation of the Sudeten Germans. This would have been difficult, because the Sudeten lands were not a historical region. It was just a significant part of the overall Czech lands, in which people mostly spoke German. It wasn’t a special region, and so it couldn’t be represented this way. Of course maybe if the founder of the new state in 1918 had adopted a greater sense that we need to integrate the Germans, maybe there would be some solution to represent the German minority, as well as the Hungarian one in Slovakia. But there was no strong will to do that.”

Ondřej Matějka, Deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, thank you very much for joining us.