Minister at UN: Chicago connections were key to foundation of Czechoslovakia

Jan Hamáček, photo: ČTK/AP/Frank Franklin II

The Czech deputy prime minister, Jan Hamáček, referenced key moments in the country’s modern history in an address to the UN General Assembly on Saturday. In an interview at the UN, he also discussed his visit to Chicago for major celebrations of the centenary of Czechoslovakia’s foundation.

Jan Hamáček,  photo: ČTK/AP/Frank Franklin II
On Saturday the Czech Republic’s deputy prime minister, interior minister and acting foreign minister Jan Hamáček addressed the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly.

In his speech he expressed support for reform of the UN, reiterated Prague’s commitment to human rights – and referenced one of the most traumatic events in modern Czech history.

“This year the Czech Republic commemorates 50 years since Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia.

“The experience of the 1968 invasion still resonates strongly, not only in the Czech Republic, as the moment where many people lost faith in the promises of a better world preached by the Soviet Union.

“This seemingly historical event, however, carries lessons still relevant today and echoes in incidents which are still occurring in the world around us.”

Mr. Hamáček additionally highlighted another key date for the Czech nation.

“This year we also celebrate the centennial of our modern statehood and independence, as Czechoslovakia was born in the crucible of the first world war in 1918.

“The founder and first president of my country, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, rightly posited that states are sustained only by those ideals from which they were born.

“The same must also be true about the United Nations.”

Moments before his address Jan Hamáček sat down with me for a short interview largely focused on the Czech Centennial Gala, which had just taken place in Chicago.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in Chicago in 1917
On Friday you were in Chicago for celebrations of the centenary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. Could you please tell us what were the highlights of your visit to Chicago, which I suppose is the city outside the Czech Republic with perhaps the strongest Czech connections?

“Absolutely. I fully understand the reason why if we are to remember the 100 years of our independence in the US we are doing it in Chicago.

“President Masaryk had strong links to Chicago to the Crane family [millionaire Charles Richard Crane was a supporter of Masaryk’s and sponsored Mucha’s Slav Epic]. When President Beneš fled after the Munich Agreement he found a place at the University of Chicago.

“The Czech community in Chicago is very strong and without their help before independent Czechoslovakia it wouldn’t have been possible for President Masaryk to succeed.

“So if there’s a place in the US to remember this anniversary that’s for sure Chicago. And I was pleased to meet members of the Kotík and Crane families and it was a great gathering.”

Tell us about your meetings with those people, who were the grandchildren [Charlotta Kotik is actually the great-granddaughter of T.G. Masaryk] I guess of people who were extremely important in the early days of Czechoslovakia.

“We had great conversations and they are very interested in today’s Czech Republic.

“They are our great supporters and again without them, then and today, it would be impossible for us to operate on the level that we are operating on in the US at the moment.”

Did you get to see any signs of the legacy of the Czech connection to Chicago?

“Absolutely. We laid a wreath at the monument to the Blanik Knight and President Masaryk on the campus of the University of Chicago.”

Czech Centennial Gala,  photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry
Ties between Czechs and Americans were very strong 100 years ago and also in the 1990s after the Velvet Revolution. What’s your sense of where Czech-American relations are today?

“I would say nothing has changed substantially. We are members of NATO and both the Czech Republic and the US believe in a strong transatlantic link and we are doing our utmost to keep this link as strong as possible.

“I think that we in the Czech Republic understand that without the US there wouldn’t have been an independent Czechoslovakia. And the US understands that in the Czech Republic it has a strong and reliable ally.”

Have you heard any concerns from your US hosts about a perceived realignment in the Czech outlook internationally, driven by President Zeman, toward Russia and China?

“Not at all.”