The foundation of Czechoslovakia and how its anniversary is perceived by Czechs today - a special debate

La bandera checa cumplió 85 años de existencia

Radio Prague has prepared a special programme, to mark the Czech Republic's national holiday, the 28th October. It's been 86 years since the Czechoslovak Republic was established - in 1918. Martin Mikule has hosted a debate to look at the significance of this day, both historically and in today's Czech Republic. Why is the foundation of Czechoslovakia still the Czech national holiday even though Czechoslovakia no longer exists? Is it really a day of celebration or is it nothing more than another day off work? And how do people in neighbouring Slovakia - the other successor state of Czechoslovakia - see the anniversary?

Martin Mikule: To answer those and many other questions, I am now joined in the studio by Michaela Prokopova, a staff writer of the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, who focuses on Slovakia. Jiri Musil, a sociologist and expert on nationalism issues, teacher at Charles University in Prague. And Jan Rychlik, professor of history, based the Charles University in Prague as well.

Martin Mikule: To start, I would like to ask you Mr Rychik to sum up briefly what does the 28th October means? What is the background of the day that we are celebrating?

Jan Rychlik: "On 28th of October 1918 in Prague the national committee proclaimed the national state. Historically, this day is considered the first day of independent Czechoslovakia. However it took several weeks until the Czechoslovak authorities could extend their power over the belonging territory. Especially in the bordering areas inhabited by the German population, the next day October 29th a separate province of 'Deutsch Bohmen' was proclaimed. This territory had to be reincorporated militarily. In Slovakia - I think it's very significant - the separation from Hungary and proclamation of the common state was done two days later."

Martin Mikule: I would like to ask: Why is this day so important? Not only today but also during Czechoslovakia this day has always been considered the National Holiday. Why was that?

Jiri Musil: "Well, I think it was an end of a long process of Czech national movement. In fact the establishment of Czechoslovakia was by most Czechs considered as a renewal of the Czech statehood. I would add as well one thing: that it was a part of general European change. I think Czechoslovakia formed after 1918 was an example of modernization processes. For example, before 1918 there were only two republics in the whole Europe - French and Swiss. Now suddenly the whole centre of Europe changed into a republican pattern. I would stress also the thesis that it was also a social change."

Martin Mikule: Aha. If I understand well, what you're saying is that we celebrate not only that an independent country was established but also the change from monarchy to the republic.

Jiri Musil: "Yes. It was definitely a huge change in terms of power structure, political framework and all respects of life. If you look at the literature, films, fashion....- it was a change in all aspects. I think this is underestimated."

Martin Mikule: And was it essentially better for the Czechs to live in an independent state and in a republic comparison to the Habsburg Monarchy?

Jiri Musil: "Listen, it depends on generation. I belong to those people for whom it is quite obvious that it was a positive change. If you look at the atmosphere and climate, this was a very optimistic period. There was a drive. I can even compare it to some extend to the mood which I see around nowadays. I can compare it to the time when I was a boy, I remember it. There was a loyalty to the state, loyalty even to the army. Of course mainly by the Czech population - it doesn't include the others."

Jan Rychlik: "Well, since I belong to the younger generation - despite the fact I am almost 50 - I would put it like this: The establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic from the Czech point of view was a fulfilment of the programme of reestablishment of Czech (Bohemian) statehood. From this point of view it was certainly a success. I can not say if the Czechs lived better or worse before that because it is relative and I don't think that from our point of view it's important. But by the establishment of their country the Czechs definitively have appeared on the scale of international law."

Martin Mikule: That's interesting - so the Slovaks did not identify with the state as much as the Czechs. Would you agree with that?

Jiri Musil: "I think it was mixed I don't agree with those people who now stress more the fact that they didn't like it. At the beginning definitely there was a sympathy..."

Jan Rychlik: "Well I because I am teaching Slovak history and I deal mainly with Slovakia at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University. I would put it like that: we can divide the Slovak society in 1918 into two groups, right? Certainly for the Slovak society as such, they welcomed the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, because for them much more than for the Czechs, the situation was better in the Czechoslovak Republic than in the Hungarian part of old Austria-Hungary, while the Czechs in Austria had all national rights - they were not denationalized, the Slovaks in the Hungarian part, were. That's very important. But there was a different attitude for most of the Slovaks to the new states. For the Czechs it was a renovation of old Bohemian statehood. The Slovaks saw it simply as something new because Bohemian statehood was nothing for them - they never belonged to the kingdom of Bohemia... and their concept of Czechoslovakia not to be simply the Czech state extended over Slovakia to the east, but rather two nation states connected with a common roof, into some sort of union."

Martin Mikule: This is for the history, but today how do the Slovaks perceive the 28th of October - it's not a national holiday in Slovak Republic is it M. Prokopova?

Michaela Prokopova: "It's not a National holiday - they are just considering it as a memorial day or something like this - there are just discussions about this in parliament but nothing happened and I think it's partly because under the Meciar's who was former prime minister of Slovakia, you know, he split up the republic, and so he just couldn't have come and said, ok, let's celebrate it... and I think it's changing a little bit now, and you know, the discussions opens and and you know, it might in the future become..."

Martin Mikule: But would you agree with the point that the Slovaks did not identify with the Czechoslovak Republic as much as the Czechs and that's why today their relationship to the day, to the 28th of October is not as warm as the view of the Czechs?

Michaela Prokopova: "It really depends. I've met people who just kept saying the division was very good for us, and also I've also met people in the east of Slovakia who really are very sorry that the republic split up, and they for example, the mother of my friend, says you know I can never be happy on the 31st of December because I always think it was the last day of the federation and I'm very sorry that the split happened."

Jiri Musil: "Can I add one thing? One should not forget that the relationship between Czechs and Slovaks, nowadays, is extremely good. The sympathies are very high on both sides - if you look on the preferences of whom you like, the people around you, then Czechs would almost all mention Slovaks."

Martin Mikule: Do you think it's better than 12 years ago when the common state split up?

All: "Definitely."

Jiri Musil: "Definitely it's better on both sides and one can see a lot of publications, journals that try to make it a new type of cooperation based on independent states in the E.U."

Michaela Prokopova: "It's also diplomatic relations are very good, you know, always the prime minister the first trip he goes to Slovakia and vice versa."

The monument of Slovak national uprising
Martin Mikule: So the Slovaks they do not celebrate the 28th Oct? What is the major national holiday in Slovakia- is it possible to say?

Michaela Prokopova: "The day of constitution - the first of September."

Jan Rychlik: "Well ah, in Slovakia it's rather complicated because there are two holidays within three days, Slovak national uprising which is 29th of August and constitution day, which is September the 1st, which means that the opponents of Slovak national uprising of 1944, which was for reestablishment of Czechoslovakia, still can celebrate it just saying we are- it happened to me because I am living partly in Slovakia, my wife is a Slovak and I am travelling - and we are not celebrating the Slovak national uprising day we are celebrating the Constitution day, and the opponents of independent Slovakia who didn't support it and for them Constitution day was of no importance because it was just a further step for total ... they say well, we are celebrating Slovak National Uprising and some of them are celebrating both."

Martin Mikule: This is interesting - it seems to be quite legitimate because their national holiday is more related to the current state. Why don't we in the Czech Republic celebrate more the 01 of January when the Czech Republic was established?

Jiri Musil: "I think if you look on the symbolics of this country, then you discover that most symbols are stressing the link and the continuity with the first Czechoslovak Republic. I think Czechs remain Czechoslovaks if I may say it, so the flag, there were a lot of discussions and in fact, the Slovaks asked us to pay for the flag, because we were using the symbols which contained in blue colour Slovakia so to say, and the flag of the president, again the same as in the first Republic, so I think Havel, President Havel, stressed all the time the continuity and I think most Czechs mainly again probably, the older generation, I don't know the opinion of the younger people, they would say this is a continuation of Czechoslovakia, a bit smaller."

Jan Rychlik: "Absolutely, I agree with Professor Musil because it's really like that and that's also the explanation for why there's no reason to celebrate January 1, 1993, because for most of the Czechs, even for my generation, and for the younger, nothing really happened. Simply, Czechoslovakia when it existed, it was a Czech state which extended to the east, and in 1992 or 1993 if you prefer, simply it was cut short but it's still the same quality. And also why the Czech Republic was established on January 1 there was this day was because the previous day the last federal budget expired. So it's very difficult to celebrate something which we don't see as something new which we see just as continuation of what had existed before."

Martin Mikule: You're listening to Radio Prague in its special debate to mark the 28th October which is the National Day of the Czech Republic. I'm Martin Mikule and my guests are Michaela Prokopova, a writer from Mlada Fronta Dnes, sociologist Jiri Musil, and historian Jan Rychlik.

Jiri Musil says that the Czechs they perceive the symbolism of Czechoslovakia maybe a little bit more than the Slovaks do. To find out more about the Czech attitudes to the Czech national holiday of 28th October, we went out to the streets of Prague and asked people how they celebrate it if they celebrate at all.

Man: "I don't celebrate it."

Do you know why we celebrate this day - what happened?

Man: "Probably Czech Rep was founded?"

Do you think it should be celebrated even though Czechoslovakia doesn't exist anymore?

Man: "I don't think it should be celebrated even if Czechoslovakia would still exist. I'm not so enthusiastic about these national things."

Girl: "Well, I don't know - I'm not interested in that. I guess it's something with the year 1989 - but I think we should celebrate it because we have the day off school."

Do you celebrate the 28th October?

Woman: "Not really at the moment because I'm on the maternity leave so every day is the same for me at the moment."

Tell me what do you know about the day? Why do we celebrate it?

"I'm just thinking about that because you asked me that question yeah, - it's a shame, it should be a national day and we don't even know why or the year when it happened - sorry yeah."

Martin Mikule: So it seems that we have this day on our calendar, but most Czechs just ignore it. Many of them don't even know what the day means. Are you surprised?

Jiri Musil: "I'm not a bit. I think it's a part of the reaction to the forty years of communism; partly, I would say. Don't forget that at that time very often people were asked to celebrate it officially. They were controlled if they put flags in the windows, et cetera. This, of course, was so unpleasant that a kind of overreaction happened. But I think slowly - maybe with a kind of civility - this day will start to be important."

Jan Rychlik: "I am not surprised at all because, simply, I think Czechs do not celebrate holidays. You know, the 28th of September, the Day of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint - which is a much longer tradition than the 28th of October - is also not celebrated. And the end of the war, the 8th of May, is also not celebrated. So, why should just the 28th of October be [celebrated]? But I think that really, partly maybe, it's a reaction [to the fact] that these celebrations were we can say mandatory, or obligatory, during the communist regime. Whether it will change or not, I cannot say, but I'm not surprised."

Martin Mikule: But in some other countries like the United States - the fourth of July [or] Independence Day - or Bastille Day in France on the Fourteenth of July - they are celebrated quite a lot. Can you compare these national holidays in these countries to the Czech one? Why are they celebrated in France or in the United States or in some other countries and not celebrated in the Czech Republic?

Michaela Prokopova: "I've been in the United States during their national holiday and it was just amazing. Everybody was speaking about it. Everybody was inviting people to his house, and I'm afraid we won't see this in the Czech Republic. It's just a different attitude."

Jiri Musil: "And maybe even a different mentality. You know after so many disasters and discontinuities in this country, people are simply cautious, even emotionally to being attached to something?"

Martin Mikule: Do you think that there might also be a difference between generations or people with different educations [as far as] how they understand [and] how they perceive the National holiday?

Jiri Musil: "Definitely, I'm sure that if you would ask people of different age groups then the answers would show you that the older the more loyal to the state the people are."

Martin Mikule: Michaela Prokopova, you are representing the rather younger generation. Do you think that the young people sometimes celebrate or somehow mark the national day?

Michaela Prokopova: "I don't really see it. No. Maybe they take it as an opportunity to see a documentary film about it on TV and get together."

Jiri Musil: "But I'm a bit afraid of one phenomenon. On the other side, if you look on the emotional involvement of young people when the Czech ice hockey team won - for example in Nagano, the world championship - you see the emotional excitement. And at that moment the flags, for example, played an enormous role. So why I'm worried, it's more ethnically based, this attitude. It's not a kind of statehood attitude, or to the state, it's more an attitude toward language, cultural and ethnicity, which makes me a bit nervous."

Martin Mikule: Exactly, probably the National Holiday is also an occasion to show your patriotism? Does that mean that the Czechs are less patriotic than the French or the Americans?

Jan Rychlik: "I wouldn't say that, definitely. I simply think that simply it's a different tradition. We cannot compare the Czech Republic neither with the United States, nor with France. I'm not afraid that simply it will not be the same as in the United States. I think it's good. We have our own traditions. And really I don't think that the Czechs would be less patriotic than anybody else. But I think Mr. Musil made a point: simply it is a fact of state discontinuity, which cannot be abandoned - the problem which of course the French people or the Americans do not face. So if, theoretically, you have people who are 90 today - very old - they lived in several states, several regimes, and all of these states, all of the regimes, wanted taxes and loyalty, and it simply had to somehow have some impact on their attitude. So I think they are more loyal to the nation than loyal to the states, because states are coming and going."

Martin Mikule: Well in the end, let me ask you, do you celebrate - or do you mark somehow - this date, the 28th of October, Ms. Prokopova?

Michaela Prokopova: "Not really. I realize that it's the day of the creation of the republic, but I don't ask my friends to come over. It's just ..."

Martin Mikule: ... just a day off?

Michaela Prokopova: "Not just a day off. I think about the day, but I don't really celebrate it."

Martin Mikule: Mr. Rychlik?

Jan Rychlik: "I don't celebrate it, but for me it is an important day, but I'm a historian, so it is my [job]. And I think I am not a typical Czech in this respect, but I don't celebrate it personally."

Martin Mikule: How about you, Jiri Musil?

Jiri Musil: "Well, I have to admit that I celebrate it in a very silent way, but let me tell you something very personal. My father was a Czech legionnaire in Russia, fighting for the independent states. So I have a feeling that I must so-to-say remember him as well, who risked his life. He could have stayed as a prisoner of war. He was in the Austrian army. He voluntarily moved to the other side. So if you have such a family history, you have to ask what moved the people [or] why they have done it. Therefore I sometimes read a book or a piece of literature somehow linked to it."

Martin Mikule: Thank you for that point.

And that brings us to the end of the discussion. Thank you very much for joining me in the debate. My guests were Michaela Prokopova, a writer from Mlada Fronta Dnes, sociologist Jiri Musil, and historian Jan Rychlik. And that is all from me and all of us in the studio of Radio Prague. Thank you for listening. Good bye!