Nationalism as a solution
30. 3. 2013 / Přemysl Janýr
It is possible that this may sound like irony to some considering my frequent commentary addressed to the nation. It is not. It is increasingly confirmed that our acute, even chronic, problem is not an excess but, on the contrary, the absence of the national. Of course I will not please Klaus or Zeman, the Czech nationalists, or the Workers' Party (Dělnická strana), because the nationalism we lack is far off from what they consider it to be. Nationalism as a solution starts with questions like who actually is this we, how are we characterising ourselves, and what is our place among others. And, above all, the most pressing question is: Why do we evidently not function as a nation?
(Translated from the Czech by Julia Secklehner, a student in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow. The Czech original is HERE)
I (often) use we, the public, although normally it does not occur ever to me to think about whom I am actually thinking of with that. We -- the Czechs is of course an axiomatic set for the majority of us, which does not require any further attention. This notion is put on ice only by those who give priority to seeing themselves as Moravians, Silesians, Romani, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Jews, Vietnamese, Russians, Ukranians, Ruthenians... and who have been living with us- some only since recently, others already for many generations. And I am asking: Are they also we? Are they also Czechs? And if yes, then who are the Czechs- Czech citizens? And if not, then who are they, if they were born and live in the Czech Republic and do not have another home?
Our first problem therefore is that we are a nation without a name. We do not have a word with which we could unambiguously label us as a whole. The construct us Czechs immediately has a whole range of overlapping meanings: we- the inhabitants of Bohemia, we -- the inhabitants of the Czech Republic, we- the ethnic group with a Czech mother tongue, we- the nationals of the Czech Republic, we, who derive our origins from geographic regions of today's Czech Republic, or we identify with it in some other way. For a numerical majority these five meanings overlap of course so the identification with us Czechs is not a problem - and our own perspective is considered to be valid for all. This is called majoritization: The majority forces the minority into the acceptance of an arrangement that is disadvantageous to them. This mechanism was, is, and, if we don't pull ourselves together, even in the future most likely will be one of the main reasons why, in effect, we work neither as a nation nor as a state. At first glance this seems painless, democratic, the minority can in no way loudly defend itself. At least not until a suitable occasion comes along. Our Germans detached themselves from us that way in 1938 and after them the Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles, in 1945 the Ruthenians, in 1968 the state federalized the Slovaks and in 1992 it disintegrated from internal causes. Will it end with that?
A related and our second problem is our specifically Czech understanding of the nation. An emotional distinction between what is ours and what is foreign is of course innate in humans and even in other social creatures, it is an evolutionary selective proven instrument for survival and reproduction. The trouble is that after a hundred thousand years of coexistence in a small well-arranged group its formula for development is really not the most suitable in this raw form for life in a large anonymous society. From the city-states in the Middle Ages over the Roman Empire, Christianity, medieval lordship, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the industrial and social revolution, wars, up to the European Union, the criteria according to which we recognise members of our group are constantly evolving, changing and differentiating.
It is often stated that the identity we nowadays label as a nation arises with Romanticism at the end of the 18th century, with reference to proto-nationalist elements perhaps even with Cosmas of Prague, Dalimil or the Czech Uprising (1618-1620). I think that's not quite it. The model for modern nationalism as an exclusive society of what is ours, identified by a common language, religion and a shared history, as well as a shared fighting for geographical space with genocide of the foreign, is the Jewish Old Testament. From it, Czech mythology also borrows its forefather, who brought the nation to a promised land where milk and honey flow. Luckily without racial elements of common biological ancestors: if the Czech ancestry of one's grandparents had had to be identified, the country would practically have been depopulated in the post-war displacement.
Nonetheless, with the disintegration of feudalism and the abolishment of serfdom also fell the feudal identity of belonging to the land and a feudal lord. Mass migration from villages to the cities and factories required a new, modern definition of who is we and who is foreign, an orientation for on whose side to stand and against whom to fight. Nationalisms emerging after the American War of Independence and the French Revolution are regionally delimited as our union is fighting against exterior foreign dominance on our territory: Americans, Italians, Germans, Poles, the Southern Slavs, the Arabs... Special attention is devoted to a newly emerging national identity, overshadowing that parallel to it in the changeover from farming to industry also evolves a rehashed social identity, that the dictatorship of "superior races" and the dictatorship of the proletariat have common roots and are results of the same process of modernity, that solely the selection criteria differ who is us and who foreign, and that both these identities can also overlap.
Simultaneously, with similar developments elsewhere, streams of young people from Czech speaking villages are confronted with a different situation in German speaking cities. The opponent one has to fight and unite against is not found outside, in the border regions, but inside, at home: The German gentry. Hence, from the beginning onwards, the modern Czech nation arises from a shared social and national identity. The applicability of what is ours overlaps not with a region but with language and social classes within the region, the opponent is not a foreign power but a more privileged fellow-citizen with a different language against whom, conversely, an exterior power, if we can class 19. century Vienna as such, is a welcome ally.
Reciprocally, the second party of course also identifies with that ally. Correspondingly, a greater German identity, a united region of German states and cities against external Napoleonic and Habsburg predominance, gains strength with the Czech Germans with unexpected competition and with the upsurge of native ethnicities in lower social ranks with an additional social component.
Václav Jaroslav Klofáč founded the first nationalist socialist party in 1897 in opposition to a social democracy without a national component. In response, Ferdinand Burschofsky and Wilhelm Prediger founded the first German nationalist socialist party in Ústí nad Labem in 1903. After the First World War the Czech Germans' model as a nation threatened by fellow-citizens of a lower ethnic group found its followers in Bavaria in 1919, and the right circumstances spread it all across Germany. Hitler stole our name, our programme and our motto complained Klofáč precisely all the good things are quite frankly borrowed from us.
Czech nationalist socialism of course reaches its peak only after the defeat of the Germans in the Košice Government Programme, which in one breath drives the enemy nation from the country and introduces socialist foundations. National and social diffusion permeates the whole Czech political scene from left to right up until today. If we disregard Zeman's, Paroubek's or the Workers' Party, who all explicitly state in their programme it is the nationalist component over an explicitly internationalist ideological tradition, it is even emphasised by the communist party (KSČM) and the Social Democrats (ČSSD) as well as providing a populist filler for the neoliberal Klaus. The latest resurgence of the nation threatened by fellow-citizens of a lower ethnic group nowadays is the Czech relationship with the Romani. In the future, the rise of a new nationalist socialist identity already lies in waiting for us, uniting what is ours against Czech rule according to the example of predecessors.
Demarcation against German rule is of course long predetermined even in the more subtle constants of national culture, not only in political programs. This also means distancing oneself from the country's authorities, its international context and even the responsibility for the whole. All that is their things, the gentry's things, whilst we care solely for our national interests - understand the silly internal fight for position, authority and power here. So, the passive and obstructive Czech politics against the diet of the Austrian Empire are repeated with the attitude of Beneš's London government regarding the coordinated demands of the Allies half a century later, as well as with the sabotaging Czech politics towards the European Union a century later.
Of course, the formula of their things, which do not concern us is not only limited to the relationship between the nation and transnational society, but fractally even blends into the citizens' estranged relationship to managing issues in their own country. Today, the anonymous them, originally associated with the Habsburgs and the domiciliary Germans, in a later era with the communists, prevailingly determines the citizens' relationship with society, the state and its leaders -- this is their thing, we look after our own interests.
Another nationalist socialist paradigm unfolding with consistency is the demarcation not against a foreign power but against fellow-citizens, the formula of the enemy within. This also does not end at the primal master ethnic group but fractally permeates the whole of society. Who actually belongs to us and who is foreign is pragmatically and continuously newly redefined. Only with the foreign Sudeten Germans in the post-war era the line of collaborators and traitors, bootleggers and exploiters, agents and reactionaries, counterrevolutionary and anti-socialist elements, castaways and intruders, communists and STB agents, left-wingers and right-wingers, Romani and foreigners was unremittingly established. All of them should perhaps be expelled, disposed of, if not with physical liquidation, camps and expulsion then at least with repudiation, ostracism and isolation. Get rid of Haider, premier Zeman recommended the Austrians. This statement, regarded as ordinary in the Czech Republic, occasioned a wave of incredulous dismay wherever the option of getting rid of someone was exclusively reserved for organised crime and the secret service. The deeply rooting formula of the enemy within became particularly transparent in the recent presidential elections. Apparently obsolete, the well-spun image of the foreign gentry proved to be the decisive factor for the winning candidate. The opponent was identified with his foreign origins and insufficient language competency, as well as with his historical social affiliation with the nobility and his current affiliation with the asocial government. The unforgivably irrational divisional line us-them so not only took its course across right-left structures, thereby confirming the idleness of such a division, but also across groups with similar ideas and opinions, like work, friendship, family. The absolute lack of understanding of the fact that one of us could vote such an absolutely inacceptable candidate of them shook the unity of many.
Apart from the dependence on the apathy of citizens concerning administration matters of the country and state, a further implication of the nationalist socialist formula is showing in the actions of the nation's leaders: As long as the enemy is here amongst us, our allies and protectors are suddenly to be found beyond the border. All historical turns with the exception of the Prague Spring progress according to a steadfast scenario: A small, self-appointed elite subscribes to a foreign power with whose help and in whose intentions they carry out a putsch, disrupt the current order, replace the existing elite and install a new order in the intentions of their allies. This way Czechoslovakia emerged in 1918 and was restored in 1945, this way the communists took over in 1948 and after 1968 renewed their power, this way even the current elite won their fight for power in 1989. The nation accepts these twists here with greater, there with smaller enthusiasm, but that it tried to revolt at least for a short time happened only one so far, after August 1968.
According to his steadfast scenario things even proceed twenty years later. A new order came not from an organic, home-grown development, but was artificially implemented with exterior interests. Therefore, the plotters of the putsch have to compensate the deficit of their legitimacy with the demonization of the previous order, a hysterical hunt for their overthrown proponents and an ideological overzealousness, transgressing even the intentions of their allies. Whether it is changes to or reversal of the conditions, for those who get to power they represent an existential threat and are therefore contested and ignored. Thereby, our new orders so stay with the admiringly rigid ideological construct from the time of their beginning for their twenty-year life span, entirely detached from the reality of subsequent developments. Then a shakeout comes, a new elite seizes power and, drawing a think red line, we start again from zero.
After the fall of the monarchy a radical monarchy emerged this way, fighting against the Habsburgs until the Munich Agreement. After the Third Reich's capitulation a very nationalist socialism emerged, fighting against the Germans until the communist putsch. After the putsch a very orthodox dictatorship of the proletariat emerged, fighting against bourgeois exploiters until the Prague Spring. After it was quelled the most cynical form of Socialist Realism emerged, fighting against counterrevolutionaries until its collapse. After its collapse a very neoliberal form of capitalism emerged, fighting against the communists until its own self-destruction.
The question is to what extent we can still talk about a nation if all sorts of groups, crowds and factions are unhesitatingly uniting with foreign powers in the fight against the enemy within, always chasing down further groups of fellow-citizens and time and again disrupting everything that was established until their accession. A nation is neither a group defined by language, nor a group of people living on a given territory. A nation is a culture, or an accumulated whole of knowledge, skill, habit and material goods developing for generations, sharing common moral concepts and a sense of belonging. It needs neither a common language nor territory, because it occurs in the head, in the heart and in communication. It only needs time and continuity because without them it can neither evolve moral concepts nor a sense of belonging. Consequently, exactly those conditions absent in our development.
So no matter how much I agree with all those lamentations about the corruption of morals, solidarity and unity that have recently flooded the media and even my emails, I do not see them as causes but as logical and predictable consequences of the relentless adherence to repeatedly unreliable formulae. And even though I refrain from all emotional and moral appeals, maybe it is evident that this way a functioning society that would be liveable in can never develop. Let the ending of the twenty-year period now be an opportunity to reflect on the form of a truly national and simultaneously viable identity.
Maybe someone can infer from the past that written formulae are invariable, irreversible and final, that we simply are like that and nothing can be done about it. This is of course the basic lack of understanding of a stereotype. In contrast to systematizations like flies have six legs and spiders eight, stereotypes are merely statistical depositions. They say that certain formulae of thoughts and actions occur more often and more distinctly in some given environments than in others. They do not say anything about concrete actions, those scattered around the average value in a wide range on both sides. Stereotypes of the Czech sense of humour making fun of German preciseness include overly precise Czechs without humour just as much as witty and messy Germans. Both groups differ only in the relative count of their occurrence.
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