A glance at a map of Central Europe provides one key to
understanding Czech culture: the Czech lands--Bohemia and
Moravia--are surrounded by Germanic peoples on three sides. The
fear of being engulfed by expansionist Germanic hordes remains a
traditional and deep-seated one among the Czechs. The Germans
prompted Czech concern for their cultural and political survival
long before the Munich Agreement of 1938, when Czechoslovakia
lost the Sudetenland, and World War II. Czech-German relations
were the backdrop against which the controversies of the Hussite
period were played out. The Hussite movement focused on German
hegemony in university and ecclesiastical offices as much as
(see Hussite Movement
, ch. 1). The
linguistic border between Czechs and Germans in the mountains
surrounding Bohemia tells something of the determination with
which Czechs have resisted German expansion; since the ninth
century, that boundary has remained fixed within fifty kilometers
of its present location, irrespective of the political fortunes
of the two groups.
The Czechs have been part of the major intellectual and
artistic traditions of western Europe since the Middle Ages.
Czech influence has been formative in movements as diverse as
Renaissance music, the Protestant Reformation, structural
linguistics, and twentieth-century European literature. A
cultural tradition clearly rationalistic, secular, and
anticlerical permeates Czech life; this is partly a consequence
of the Hussite period and subsequent Austrian efforts to force
Roman Catholicism on a reluctant populace. Part of Czech
self-identity focuses on maintaining the unique blend of Slavic
and Western elements that make up the Czech heritage.
Czechs seem to possess a predilection for political pluralism
and a distinctly antiauthoritarian bent. Czechoslovakia was the
one eastern European country to maintain a functioning democracy
for the entire interwar period and the only one in which the
communist party was never outlawed. In the party's analysis of
the errors of the 1960s' "counterrevolution," party ideologues
especially decried the prevalence of "social democraticism,"
which despite more than twenty years of socialist development
remained deeply rooted in Czech society.
Austrian rule was relatively benign toward the Czechs. The
Hapsburg Empire was more cosmopolitan than aggressively German,
consisting of a hodgepodge of central and eastern European ethnic
groups. German was the lingua franca, but beyond that, German
speakers were not necessarily the only beneficiaries of Hapsburg
policies. If, as Tomas Masaryk put it, the Austro-Hungarian
Empire was a "prison of nations," it was equally clear that some
parts of the prison were distinctly better than others
(see Hapsburg Rule, 1526-1867
, ch. 1).
In comparison with Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine, both under
Hungarian domination for centuries, the Czech lands were
remarkably favored. The Austrians lacked the overweening
chauvinism of their Hungarian counterparts. On the eve of World
War I, German was mandatory neither as the language of
instruction nor as a second language. Censorship of the Czech
press was limited. Czech associations (the basis of the political
parties of the First Republic) flourished in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Cultural organizations,
newspapers, and theaters were all commonplace parts of Czech life
, this ch.).
Czechs were overwhelmingly literate; in 1930 some 97 percent
of the population over 10 years of age could read and write.
There was a substantial middle class that was highly educated and
well trained. Czechs had extensive experience in the Austrian
bureaucracy and the legislative processes. Their wealth of
experience in government contrasted starkly with that of the
Slovaks, whom Czechs found backward. A certain degree of
animosity has always persisted and continues to persist between
the Czechs and Slovaks today
, this ch.).
The Czech region was economically favored as well. The Treaty
of Versailles gave the Czechs substantial arable land and
two-thirds of the former empire's industry. In the late 1930s,
after other powers had spent a decade of frenzied effort
developing heavy industry for rearmament, the Czech lands still
produced half of Central Europe's pig iron and steel. The Czech
consumer goods industry was also well developed. However,
Bohemia's economic advantages proved to be a two-edged sword.
Much industry was owned by a substantial German minority of
dubious loyalty, and this figured in Nazi Germany's designs on
(see The Czechoslovak Republic, 1918-39
, ch. 1).
Nonetheless, the Czech lands emerged from World War II as
virtually the only European region with a reasonably developed
industrial structure unscathed by the conflict.
One characterization of the Czech national character is that
it is Svejkian, a term based on the Czech protagonist in
Jaroslav Hasek's famous (and still popular) World War I novel,
The Good Soldier Svejk. Svejk's adventures in the Great
War begin with his arrest by the Austrian police in connection
with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the
Hapsburg throne. In the conflict between the staid Austrian
bureaucracy and military establishment and the seemingly
slow-witted, literal-minded, provincial Svejk, the Czech
consistently gets the better.
In terms of Czech values and behavior, the term
Svejkian suggests passive acquiescence to whatever regime
holds power and recommends a sort of pervasive obtuseness as the
safest strategy for political survival. The Svejkian means
of dealing with those in power, whether Austrian bureaucrats,
Czechoslovak communist officials, or Warsaw Pact forces, is the
antithesis of armed resistance
(see Popular Political Expression
, ch. 4). In the midst of massive labor unrest in Poland in late
1980, the Soviets hesitated to use armed intervention. Polish
workers indicated their readiness to resist in terms unmistakable
to an East European: "We are not the Czechs." The Czechs are
often criticized for their reluctance to go to the barricades,
but the Svejkian strategy is less a matter of capitulation
than a peculiarly Czech mix of resistance and survival. Hitler is
reputed to have said that he never trusted the Czechs less than
when they were making concessions.
The principal elements of the Czech ethos were played out in
the Czech reaction to events of the Prague Spring of 1968
, ch. 1). Both the Czechs' orientation to the West
and their Svejkism were apparent, in different ways,
during the Prague Spring and the Soviet intervention and its
aftermath. The late-1960s reform movement had begun as an attempt
to remedy the economy's rather dismal performance with as little
change as possible but grew into a full-fledged effort to
restructure Marxist socialism. The call to redress the wrongs of
the Stalinist era led to a full-scale reevaluation of the
appropriateness of that model in Czechoslovakia. Czechs called
for some measure of political pluralism, for greater autonomy for
the myriad associations and unions formerly central to Czech
society and now under control of the Communist Party of
Czechoslovakia (Komunisticka strana Ceskoslovenska--KSC), and for
genuine freedom of expression--"socialism with a human face."
It was clear that for a people with a pronounced egalitarian
bent, Russian socialism was less than congenial. An anonymous
Czech KSC official related an incident that illustrates the gulf
between the Soviets and the Czechs. During the 1968 invasion, a
Soviet military commander asked a Czech official to tell him who
had ordered the road signs and street names removed (to slow the
advance of the invading troops). The official explained that the
people themselves had done it without instructions from anyone.
It was an explanation the Soviet officer simply could not
understand: independent action by the citizenry without orders
from someone in authority was beyond his experience.
Czech reformers sought explicitly political changes: greater
scope for democratic processes, freedom of expression, and more
representative organizations. The Soviet response is, of course,
a matter of history. Because 1968 was, after all, a Prague
Spring, "normalization" took a greater toll among Czechs than
Slovaks. KSC membership purges, changes in the managerial
personnel of factories, and retributions against writers and
artists all fell more heavily on the Czechs.
Data as of August 1987