Is there a Czech European Identity?

Forefather Cech

Joining the European Union has highlighted many questions about the nature of the Czech European identity. For a historical perspective I spoke with Don Sparling from the Masaryk University in Brno. As a scholar in literature and cultural studies, he says that for much of European history Czech involvement has not been central, but the Czech lands have always managed to absorb and transform outside influences into something that is typically Czech. As various forces have swept across Europe over the centuries, it is very typical that Czechs have found themselves at the receiving end - in both a positive and negative sense. They have absorbed elements of a huge variety of different European influences, but experience has also made Czechs cautious. Professor Sparling begins way back in the 14th Century.

"You can see it when Charles IV was the Holy Roman Emperor and Prague was really the centre of Northern European culture. There was a great flowering of architecture art and so on. You can also see it in the next century the 15th century the Hussite movement. This was kind of a proto protestant movement in which the Czechs set themselves up against the rest of Europe and said, the Catholic Church has to be reformed we want to do it this way. Armies were sent to try and destroy them; they managed to maintain their identity and their kind of proto-protestant culture.

If you look at the 16th century the very rich court of the Hapsburgs, which was in Prague not in Vienna, with mannerist art and science, with Kepler and people like that at the imperial court. The 17th century - The Thirty Years War beginning in Prague then convulsing the whole of Central Europe destroying countries and cultures. The Counter-Reformation having perhaps its purist form here in the Czech lands, as a country which had been predominantly protestant; it was transformed into a very passionately passionate country.

The 18th century with the flowering of Baroque culture, again an imported culture but one that was totally absorbed by the Czechs to such an extent that you can go to the country-side and see farm buildings which are built in kind of a very basic folk Baroque style. The recreation of the Czech nation in the 19th century with all of these national ideas floating around Europe: What is a nation? What is a "people"? What is the role of a language in the creation of a nation? And within a hundred years the Czechs going from being a nation largely of peasants to a totally modern society: with industrialists, industry, universities, educated people, and rich culture. In effect a total recreation of a new nation within a hundred years is one of the purest examples of the positive power of nationalism in Europe.

And of course the 20th century, the Czech Republic being the first victim of Nazi aggression and so on: Communism with a human face, the Prague Spring in 1968 was probably the last attempt to try and reform communism. So there's virtually nothing in European culture, history, politics that hasn't passed through this Czech "sieve" if you want to put it that way. Whether the Czechs have a vision of Europe or not or what kind of vision they have is very difficult to say, but I don't think you can say they have a single vision of Europe because from what I have just said you can see that their experiences have been both very positive and very negative. What has remained in them is a weariness about Europe and other outside forces, particularly in the last hundred years in the 20th century. They have been battered rather badly, battered by the Germans in the Second World War, battered by the Russians, Soviet Union, and communism. I think it is a very false weariness. I think Czech culture is extremely resilient. So if you want to talk about European cultural identity I think you can study it extremely well by studying Czech historical events. They are a perfect embodiment of what Czech European culture is which is a wonderful, open, mish-mash and not the kind of nationally defined set of cultural spaces which people until recently thought in terms of. There really is a European culture and a European identity and the Czechs embody it I think more than most other nations."