Poll shows most Czechs know little about their country's modern history

1918 - foundation of Czechoslovakia, photo: Public Domain

One hundred years ago this October, just before the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While these are basic historical facts you might expect every schoolchild to know, a newly released poll shows that almost 1 in 5 adults cannot name an event from 1918 – and even fewer knew the basic history of more recent decades.

1918 - foundation of Czechoslovakia,  photo: Public Domain
In Czech history, a remarkable number of years ending in “8” have had a profound impact on the nation. Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918; it lost a third of its territory in 1938, when the Allies ceded the so-called Sudetenland to Hitler; in 1948, the Communists seized power in the “Victorious February” coup, and in 1968, Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops invaded to crush the Prague Spring reforms aimed at achieving “Socialism with a human face”.

But a June poll focussing on those seminal years ending in “8” found that not only did 1 in 2 adult Czechs aged from 18 to 65 years know little or nothing about events of 1938, nearly 1 in 3 were ignorant of the 1948 Communist takeover, and 1 in 4 could not say what happened in 1968 before the Soviet-led invasion and subsequent occupation.

Unsurprisingly, the younger the respondent, the less likely they were to know the history, says Mikuláš Kroupa, founder and director of Post Bellum, a group of historians and journalists who work to increase public understanding of 20th Century history, especially among younger generations.

“Every second young person has not even a basic, surface-level overview of the 20th Century. They don’t understand what happened in the year 1948 or in 1968 – and have absolutely no idea what happened in 1938. Unfortunately, this reflects above all on our schools but also of course on their parents. It shows that most parents can tell their children only about periods of history that they lived through themselves, namely the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Velvet Revolution of 1989.”

Post Bellum, which commissioned the June poll, has collected thousands of witness accounts by interviewing people who lived through significant periods in history, including victims of the Nazi and communist regimes, and involved students in many projects to spark their interest in their history.

Mikuláš Kroupa,  photo: Jana Kudláčková / Czech Radio
People ignorant of such history may succumb more easily to manipulation and be more ready to lean towards extremism, Mr Kroupa argues. To instil democratic values and make history more relevant to students, Czech schools need to move away from stressing the rote memorisation of facts, he says.

“From the work we are doing in primary and secondary schools, we know that a number of teachers, if they at all discuss the history since 1948, approach it as just another chapter, present certain definitions, names and dates that students must memorise – and which they forget the day after being tested on it. So, modern history is not made interesting for the students. It’s not in some way important in their lives.”

According to the survey, 79 per cent of those polled knew that Czechoslovakia was established in 1918 or that WWI ended that year, 76 per cent knew about the Prague Spring movement or the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, 65 per cent knew about the February 1948 events and 54 per cent were aware of the Munich Agreement, the cessation of Sudetenland and mobilisation in 1938.

However, out of the young respondents aged 18-34, only two-fifths know about the events 80 years ago, a half of them are aware of the 1948 Communist coup and a slightly higher share of the 1968 events.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk,  photo: Public Domain
“Of course most people know about the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 – more than 70 per cent of those polled. But it’s necessary to point out that the schools did not play the primary role in this regard. It was the parents. What I find interesting is that this event is seen in the most negative light by the nation, in fact, more negatively than is the Nazi Protectorate. Then there’s the Velvet Revolution, of which far more people know somewhat about and view positively.”

Mr Kroupa says it is encouraging that most people surveyed were aware of significant people in modern Czech history, and expressed the greatest respect or admiration for democratic figures.

“For me, this is probably the most positive outcome of the survey. It shows that the nation most values Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, with Jan Palach a close second – the majority of the nation sees his act of self-immolation as heroic. In third place is Jan Masaryk, the son of the first president, whom most people believe was murdered. In fourth place the nation most values – and this is very pleasing – Václav Havel.