Letter from Prague


October 28th is a state holiday in the Czech Republic. The day marks the anniversary of the founding of independent Czechoslovakia - a state established in 1918 by the Czechs and Slovaks, following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The common state, later transformed into a federation was to last until 1993 - but neither the Czechs nor the Slovaks were able to embrace their "independence day" as Americans have July 4th.

In the years of the First Republic the celebrations marking "Czechoslovak independence day" were hearty and spontaneous, but that was soon to change. In 1939, roughly eight months after the Nazi invasion, a student protest on October 28th ended in bloodshed and the closing down of all universities on the territory of occupied Bohemia and Moravia. They were to remain closed for the duration of the war. Before independence day celebrations could be properly re-established after the end of the SWW, the communists took power and changed the character of this holiday by making it "nationalization of property day" and thereby redeeming its allegedly negative character of "a bourgeois state holiday". The weight of "independence day celebrations" was shifted to May 9th the day marking the country's liberation from Nazi oppression by Soviet troops. Addresses, parades, red carnations and "compulsory" flags displayed in the windows of every home. The Czecho-Slovak and the Soviet flag. There were three of us in the two member federation for a long time - in particular after the crushing of the Prague Spring ended in the deployment of Soviet troops in the country. Czechoslovakia's independence was a ghost independence celebrated under the close scrutiny of Big Brother.

In November 1989, Czechoslovakia regained its freedom but the federation was to last for only another three years. In their first democratic elections the Czechs and Slovaks parted ways, voting radically different leaderships into office. A wave of nationalism in Slovakia ended in a demand for total independence - and Slovaks abandoned the October 28th independence holiday in favour of their own "independence day" - January 1st of 1993.

At the end of this long road Czechs have been left with a heavy doze of skepticism with regard to any state holiday. For far too long, state holidays were viewed as manifestations of political power. As a result they pass largely ignored by the public while anyone who does something big for the country's image - like the national football or hockey teams - gets instant adulation. Politicians have attempted to change this - going so far as to give the nation another state holiday on September the 28th, marking the death of the nation's chief patron saint - St. Wenceslas. But it is hard to estimate how much effort and time it will take to erase the public attitude of mistrust towards national holidays.