In Quest of History: On Czech Statehood and Identity, by Jiří Přibáň and Karel Hvížďala

Kieran Williams is impressed by a dialogue about the history of a single country that offers a powerful defence of liberal, constitutional government

April 27, 2020
View over Church of Our Lady before Tyn, Old Town and Prague Castle at sunset
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There is a long tradition in Czech letters of the book-length interview of a prominent thinker, artist or politician by a probing but friendly journalist. The exemplar of this genre is Karel Čapek’s conversations with the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, in the 1930s. Today it is a badge of honour to be interviewed by Karel Hvížďala, whose two exchanges with another president, Václav Havel, have been widely translated. His interlocutor for this book, Jiří Přibáň, has established himself as one of the Czech Republic’s leading public intellectuals, a remarkable feat given that he works as a law professor at Cardiff University. It is possible to acquire authority in Czech society through time abroad, fluency in foreign languages and mastery of an academic field – sociology in Masaryk’s case, economics in that of another president, Václav Klaus. With that authority, however, come a certain critical distance and a licence or duty to tell Czechs hard truths about their past and present.

The impetus for these conversations between Přibáň and Hvížďala was the approaching centenary of the 1918 founding of Czechoslovakia, and the numerous other anniversaries of years ending in eight, such as 1938 (the Munich crisis) and 1968 (the Prague Spring). But the pair end up roaming over a millennium of history, replacing what Přibáň calls the “clean”, received version of linear nation-building with something much less tidy, a “work in progress” in which “every era creates its own Czechs”. Along the way, they revisit hoary debates about the meaning of Czech history and deconstruct its myths. Despite Stuart Hoskins’ smooth translation, much of this material may seem antiquarian to non-Czech readers unfamiliar with the personages and events, and no explanatory notes are provided for context.

Instead, the potential appeal of this book to a global audience lies in how it showcases Přibáň as a model defender of liberal, constitutional, representative government at a time when it is under strain worldwide and in danger of seeming passé. Pragmatic, tolerant realism is not an easy sell, but Přibáň succeeds by dint of his passion, breadth of learning and the undisguised affection he feels for his people even while going against the grain of their escapist idylls and disdain for democratic politicking as something grubby. Espousing principles without illusions, he follows in a line set by Alexis de Tocqueville and clear-eyed Czechs of previous generations (especially former prime minister Petr Pithart, like Přibáň a lawyer by training). He fashions a cluster of historical moments – from the Middle Ages to the interwar First Republic – into a civic identity that resists the temptations of extremism, populism and technocratic anti-politics; is at ease with neighbours; and makes a virtue of a slower, unheroic way of doing things. This endeavour includes a remembering that confronts head-on the difficult past, with its long stretches of foreign dominion and authoritarianism, but it rules out definitive closure or a single narrative pushed by state-funded institutes. (Czechs, it seems, are condemned to truth without reconciliation.) While much of his effort is tailored to post-Communist conditions, it could be adapted and applied to dozens of other countries, starting with Přibáň’s adoptive home.

Kieran Williams is an assistant professor in political science at Drake University.

In Quest of History: On Czech Statehood and Identity
By Jiří Přibáň and Karel Hvížďala; translated by Stuart Hoskins
Karolinum Press, 290pp, £15.00
ISBN 9788024642673
Published 10 February 2020


Print headline: A bracing lesson in civic identity

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