Timothy Snyder: Significant figures in Czech history didn’t just want to change Czech society but Europe or larger world

Timothy Snyder, photo: ČTK/Michal Krumphanzl

Historian Timothy Snyder is a leading expert on Central and Eastern Europe and has written forcefully about the threat posed by Putin’s Russia and how ordinary people can stand up to tyranny. This week Professor Snyder has been giving lectures in Prague that packed auditoriums. During his visit, Czech Radio’s Lenka Kabrhelová discussed aspects of this country’s history – and present – with Professor Snyder.

Timothy Snyder,  photo: ČTK/Michal Krumphanzl
When we talk about the Central European region and the Czech Republic, what do we get wrong about our own history?

“I should say that I read Czech and Slovak and I find Czechoslovak and Czech history extremely interesting.

“One thing which is very important is to remember that the people who were regarded as the founding fathers of Czechoslovakia, or the Czechs that we think of as we commemorate 100 years since the founding of Czechoslovakia, people like Tomáš Masaryk, these were people who cared about what was good for Czechs, but their thinking did not begin and end with the idea of the nation state.

“On the contrary, they were completely convinced, and I think correctly, that having a state was only an element of the larger pursuit of the good of the Czech people.

“So Masaryk, until the very last moment, actually thought the Habsburg monarchy would be better than a Czech state.

“Then when he built a Czech state he didn’t build a Czech state, he built what Edvard Beneš called a Czech Switzerland, or tried to.

“Czechoslovakia was actually an attempt to recreate the Habsburg monarchy on a small scale.

“So the mainstream in Czech thinking is something like, We are a small people, we should have our own sovereignty, we need something that protects us from Germany.

“That’s all very reasonable. But it was never, Having a Czech state is the end of things.

“This is, I think, the thing that people can get wrong, which is very dangerous.”

Based on what you’ve said before, it means that we live in a myth, right? We see our story as the story of a nation state, as opposed to the story of seeing ourselves from the other side, as a part of something bigger. How, though, do you convince people to change, to tweak the story and see themselves differently as a society?

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
“It’s always easiest to see oneself as alone and special and surrounded by people who are different than you.

“But it’s not socially, or politically, the safest thing to do. In fact, it’s the most dangerous thing to do.

“Because if you say, We’re alone, of if you say, Me first, as America now does, what you’re doing is making it impossible for others to understand you.

“And you’re also making it impossible to understand the world.

“So in Czech history the people who are most significant, whether it’s Jan Hus or Tomáš Masaryk or Václav Havel, these were not people who were saying, I just want to change Czech society.

“They were all trying to change Europe, or the larger world.

“So this is the trick: If you want to exist, you have to be able look outward as well as inward.

“If you only look inward, you lose your ability to figure out what kind of a world you’re living in and you eventually fall for stories of conspiracy or stories of racism or other kinds of stories which are tempting but which ultimately lead to your own destruction.”

This has a lot to do with one other phenomenon that you talk about, which is victimhood. You’ve written a lot in your books about how difficult and painful the history of this region is. How do you convince people in this region specifically, but maybe broadly even, that they are not victims, that they have agency to change things?

“There are many ways to deal with a challenging historical past.

“With every nation that’s suffered – where it’s the Jews or the Belarusians or the Poles or the Czechs – the past is shared but people deal with in different ways.

“One way to deal with the tragic past of Central Europe is to be anti-totalitarian.

“But then what’s the converse of that?

“The converse of that is to say, We need a form of politics in which there is individual responsibility.

“Of course that’s a very important Czech tradition which goes through Patočka and Havel, the idea of, Let’s start from how each individual can be responsible.

“And from that kind of moral platform you can then say, OK, I’m going to do my little thing to make sure this system works.”