Igor Lukeš: Czechoslovakia’s founders should have done far more to shore up new state

Igor Lukeš

The leaders of the newly established Czechoslovakia could and should have done far more to ensure its stability. So says historian Professor Igor Lukeš from Boston University, author of the recently published collection Dějiny a doba postfaktická (History and the Post-Factual Age). Our interview also touches on NATO enlargement, Václav Klaus and Ukraine, Putin – and much more besides.

In your new book you write about mistakes made by Czechoslovakia in the interwar period. You also say that a lot was achieved and that the conditions were difficult. What were the biggest challenges facing the new state when it was founded in 1918?

“If you thrust a new state into the very centre of Europe, of course you are asking for very serious problems.”

“Well the challenges were enormous, obviously.

“In retrospect it’s hardly surprising that it ended the way it did.

“First of all, if you thrust a new state into the very centre of Europe, of course you are asking for very serious problems.

“You’ll be stepping on other people’s toes, you will be clashing with other nations’ interests, not everybody will welcome you.

History and the Post-Factual Age | Photo: Maraton

“And that’s exactly what happened.

“Sadly enough, the Czech political leadership must have been unaware of the seriousness of the challenges, because it did not go all out trying to make the state as acceptable [laughs] as was humanly possible.”

What particular mistakes did they make in that regard, do you believe?

“First of all, it seemed that Germany was the local superpower, was the Central European dominant force, and one needed to take into consideration that over 3 – 3.3, if not more – million of the now Czechoslovak Republic were in fact German speakers, who considered themselves to be German.

“Many undoubtedly had Slavic names, like Zajicek and Novotny and so on, but in many cases that actually made them ‘echt’ German – they simply needed to make up for their Slavic names by being even more German than their neighbours whose names were Schwarz, or Bismark [laughs] for that matter.

“So there was the German issue.

“Masaryk and Benes were of the view that the Catholic Church was a symbol of backwardness and the feudal past.”

“Then, of course, there was Poland, another mighty neighbor – and everybody knew the Poles took their Catholicism very seriously [laughs].

“Unfortunately Masaryk and Benes were of the view that the Catholic Church was a symbol of backwardness and the feudal past.

“And of course the Poles didn’t like to hear this is the way Masaryk and Benes spoke in front of Western diplomats.”

And you suggest in your book that the Czechoslovaks should have looked to Poland as an ally, rather than faraway France?

“Of course. Somebody said, If your house starts burning, a friend who is far away is simply not going to be helpful – you need to make sure that you’re on good enough terms with your neighbours, so that they get up in the middle of the night and help you deal with the calamity.

“The Czechs had some sort of a wild dream, an illusion, that they were very popular in the United States.”

“Whereas the Czechs were somehow focused, as you mentioned, on France, they also had some sort of a wild dream, an illusion, that they were very popular in the United States: of course, the majority of Americans had no idea that Czechoslovakia existed.

“So when the going was good, well, things were OK.

“The Czechs were certainly handling things economically much better, all the way until 1927, ’28 – and maybe even the beginning of the crisis in ’29.

“But once the crisis hit here, as it did elsewhere, it turned out that the Zajiceks and the Novotnys and the Poles and the Hungarians and all the others were unhappy about the Czechoslovak Republic.”

T. G. Masaryk and Edvard Beneš | Photo: Czech Television

There’s an amazing line in the book where you say that Masaryk, when he saw St. Vitus Cathedral, said that it could become a Sokol hall. Was he really so anti-clerical as that?

“He must have been [laughs]. He really must have been.

“And of course Benes imitated him completely in this sense, and that further alienated the new republic, which really should have been going all-out, extending its open arms to others.

“We’ve already mentioned the Poles, but how about the Bavarians, another very Catholic, German speaking part of this neighbourhood. And certainly Austria.”

Similarly you say that it was a mistake, or a missed opportunity, the way that Masaryk and Benes treated the nobility, when they stripped them of their titles and so on. But do you understand to some degree why they would have been like that, that they wanted to start with true democracy?

St. Vitus Cathedral | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

“In fact this is related to their anti-Catholicism – they saw both the Church and the aristocracy as elements of denationalization of the Czech milieu.

“The Church was for them basically an Austrian instrument, as long as the Czech lands were part of the Habsburg Empire.

“Then of course the nobility was divisible into the pre-White Mountain nobility, the old Bohemian nobility, and the after-1620 nobility.

“Indeed the after-1620 nobility had Italian names, German names, Spanish names.

“But the point is these people built these beautiful palaces all over the city of Prague, and certainly throughout the Czech lands – obviously including Moravia.

“And those people could have been embraced.

“I don’t want to say this in some kind of superficial ‘PR’ manner, but they could have become instruments of perhaps legitimizing Czechoslovakia in this territory if employed in some capacity; for instance in the diplomatic corps, which would have been the tradition at that time.”

You say an aristocrat could have done a better job [as Czechoslovak ambassador] in London than “Honza” Masaryk. Was he really so bad?

T. G. Masaryk | Photo: eSbírky,  National Museum in Prague,  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

“Well, he probably was a man of considerable charm.

“I have spoken with several American diplomats who knew him personally, and I have to say that some of them, especially the ladies… there was something special in their voices when they talked about the encounter.

“I think he enjoyed saying risqué things, and they still remember them, because in those days they were truly shocking.

“Today they would probably be considered completely banal.

“It was all very well that he could tell good jokes and that he was an entertaining person during a dinner party.

“It was all very well that he could play the piano and that he could sing American jazz with hardly an accent; obviously his mother was American and he spent some time in the United States before WWI.

“But that did not translate well into making Czechoslovakia known in places like London, which of course proved to be tragically relevant in 1938.”

Getting closer to the present day, you present the two Václavs, Havel and Klaus, as a kind of unwilling, but still successful tandem. Havel’s reputation is still pristine in some circles, but Klaus is not seen in such a positive light by many people today. For you, what did Klaus achieve in the 1990s?

“I have been very critical of Mr. Klaus and I am happy to defend my negative view of the man.

“I thought the way Klaus handled the coupon privatization was particularly gutsy.”

“But I thought that in the early 1990s he played a positive role, particularly when it came to making sound economic decisions.

“I thought the way he handled the coupon privatization was particularly gutsy.

“Although there are many critics, I think the critics don’t really know what they are talking about.

Václav Klaus | Photo:archive of Czech Radio

“And I am, and have been, a defender of that.

“I thought he also did quite well during the breakup of the country.

“It was an apparently insurmountable obstacle and I thought he really handled it well.

“Whatever happened later on, that’s an entirely different story.”

On NATO enlargement, you say that only Clinton and Albright, among top US representatives, were actually for the expansion of NATO to take in the Czech Republic and the other countries. Why was their not greater support for that enlargement?

“I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant, but at that time I was actually present at certain meetings in Washington and I have to tell you that it was not at all uncommon, and it certainly wasn’t surprising [laughs], to hear comments from those people who never really introduced themselves by name, and yet attend these meetings, that the last time the Czechs fought for anything was in 1620.

“Whether this was true or not – of course, this could be debated; the Czechs would vigorously disagree, etcetera, etcetera – this was the opinion of the establishment.

“But of course once it turned out that the secretary of state was in favour, and that she had the ear of the president, the bureaucracy… well, it’s obedient [laughs].

“It receives its talking points and it snaps into action and whatever happened in 1999 was the outcome.”

Madeleine Albright,  Bill Clinton | Photo: White House Office/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

So I presume then we should all be grateful to Clinton and Albright?

“Yes, although the really unsung hero behind this was Zbigniew Brezinski, the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter.

“At that point, in the 1990s, he was a private person but still he was very well connected in Washington.

“He was highly regarded, and when he proved to be an advocate for NATO enlargement he was, I think, an even more important personality than Madeleine Albright, who was understood to be essentially his pupil”

You point out in your book that Klaus was pro-Ukraine joining NATO, and then a few years later he wasn’t. You’re critical also of Zeman and his apparent pro-Russian positions. How should we see those two, particularly in the light of what’s happened this year?

Crimea | Photo: Anton Holoborodko,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“[Laughs] Well it’s a question that I would be very happy to pose to you, because I am really at a loss to explain this dramatic change that is just impossible to miss.

“I think that it was while Mr. Klaus was still president that he went to Ukraine and he said quite openly, and officially, that once Ukraine was ready to apply for membership in NATO and the EU – in this order by the way, first NATO then the EU – he, the Czech Republic representative, would be the first one to stand up and advocate in favour of the application.

“Then came Crimea, and Donbas, in 2014 and suddenly there emerged an entirely different man.

“In my opinion Mr. Putin, to a considerable extent, is a product of the West.”

“Of course, one could speculate, one could indulge in conspiracy theories, but one shouldn’t.”

Zeman at least has rowed back on this apparent support for Russia. How should we view the fact that so many people seemed to underestimate so much Putin, and how far he could go?

“It certainly won’t make me very popular if I say that in my opinion Mr. Putin, to a considerable extent, is a product of the West.

“There is no doubt as to how he rose to power, from the second half of the 1990s all the way to the presidency, through the second Chechen war that had just been preceded by the mysterious, or rather not so mysterious, apartment explosions in which some 300 people died – and which was then used as a pretext for the second war on Chechnya.

Vladimir Putin | Photo: Official Kremlin,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 4.0

“The West knew, it really did, that the official version explaining this was false.

“And it did nothing, it looked the other way.

“The West could see that Putin, most likely, had never really abandoned his sort of intellectual baggage acquired as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB.

“And Western leaders looked the other way. Why? Because they were anxious to entice the dirty, oligarch, Russian money.

“People like Blair and others were willing to even humiliate themselves to kowtow to Putin, in an effort to make, for instance in this case London, a very cosy pad for people whose recent past included not just plain thievery but in some cases even murder.”

“I believe that had it not been for the fact that NATO was enlarged, we would have had, probably, a much larger conflict right now.”

Where do you stand on the question of whether it was wrong of the West to “provoke” Putin by enlarging NATO to the East?

“I perhaps won’t surprise you if I start by saying I completely disagree with the premise of your question.

“In fact I believe that had it not been for the fact that NATO was enlarged, we would have had, probably, a much larger conflict right now.

“I think it was Aristotle who noted first that good fences make good neighbours.

“And I think it is really the awareness of the fact that countries like Estonia, or Poland for that matter, are members of NATO – and most likely their invasion would have triggered Article 5, which would have meant obviously all-NATO engagement – is the only reason why Putin so far has limited his aggression to Ukraine.”

Your book is called History and the Post-Factual, or Post-Fact, Era. I guess we could also call it the post-truth age. It’s such a huge question of today, how we have arrived at this point where the truth is up for question. I often wonder, is there any way we to put that genie back in the bottle? Is there any way we’re going back to a time where people agree that there is an objective truth and where most public discourse is within certain boundaries?

“Luckily enough, objective truth doesn’t really depend on whether people believe in it or not [laughs], it simply exists.

“The way Newton was able to discern certain physical principles in nature, the way Einstein was able to enlarge this knowledge to outer space – that really has nothing to do with us imperfect, fallen humans expressing doubts about E=MC2, or any other objective truth.”

But people do question so many things that you or I may consider objective truth. For example, science – to do with Covid, for instance. Do you know what I’m talking about here?

“Painfully [laughs] – I’m painfully aware of that.

Igor Lukeš | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“We’re near the epicentre of those doubting Thomases when it comes to science in that regard.

“But to go back to your original question of whether the genie can ever be bottled up again, I think the answer is probably not.

“And I think it really has to do with new media.

“Because now essentially every single human being in this country, and many people on this planet, can at the touch of their little finger address hundreds of thousands of others, and can switch the conversation any way they want.

“And if you make this field and this technology available to professional disinformation services, such as the GRU in Russia, then you basically create chimeras that will replace reality in the minds of many people.

“Unfortunately there is nothing we can do about it, other than if you make the gap between the reality and the false image of it too wide, then something snaps.

“And even the biggest doubting Thomases, for instance once they are afflicted with Covid, will say to themselves, Maybe it isn’t just a little flu, maybe it’s something much more serious and maybe I should have listened when people told me to take the shot.”