The mythbuster

Although we may be unaware of it, a number of powerful preconceptions still dog our understanding of the turbulent history of Czechoslovakia, as Mary Heimann discovered. Matthew Reisz reports

December 3, 2009

In the acknowledgements section of her new book, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed, Mary Heimann thanks a seminar group in Prague for "tolerating my rudeness about aspects of Czechoslovak history". Her introduction sketches in a tale of disillusion.

At a time when she "could only read English-language accounts", she writes, she had imagined Czechoslovakia as "a country with deeply rooted humane, liberal and democratic impulses that was twice betrayed: first, in (the Munich Crisis of) 1938, by its Western allies and again, in 1968 (with the Soviet invasion that led to the suppression of the reformist 'Prague Spring'), by its eastern neighbours. Nazism and Communism were misfortunes which befell the state, like natural disasters ...

"The present work tells a different story ..."

It was a long journey that brought Heimann to this point, but it started on the way to an interview at the University of Strathclyde, where she has worked since 1997 and is now senior lecturer in history. Her background was in religious history, but she was applying for a job that required her to teach a seminar-sized class on 20th-century political history for third- and fourth-year students. Keen to avoid a familiar great powers perspective, she began to devise an educational experiment.

"I wanted to look at the period from the perspective of a small power," she says, "where you saw the human side, what happened to someone's life as a result of a change of regime. I wanted it to be unfamiliar, so we could go into it without too many assumptions or prejudices. And I wanted there to be lots of sources in English translation but not much secondary work, because the idea was to build up a picture through source materials alone."

Although Heimann had no real knowledge of the country and its history, Czechoslovakia seemed ideal. While it would let students explore the ever-popular topics of Nazism and Stalinism, she explains, "the Czech case allows you to subvert expectations and show them from a different angle". There was also a nice "artistic unity" to the story of a state whose existence overlapped neatly with the 20th century itself.

Czechoslovakia arose from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The end of communism in 1989 soon led to the much-mocked "hyphen war" - the fierce disputes about whether Czechoslovakia should become Czecho-Slovakia - and then the peaceful 1993 split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, despite a majority on both sides keen to remain united. It was this that marked the state's "failure".

Add in a desire "to bring the feeling back into history" and Heimann's course was born. An early assignment required students to pretend they were Czechoslovak diplomats based throughout the world. Their task was to come back and report from Geneva, Rome and Berlin, using only primary source materials.

"The first essay is a report dated 1935, so they can't know the future, and in week three they are presented with the Munich Agreement and have to debate whether or not to sign it. I just leave them for two hours to get on with it. It gets pretty emotional - sometimes people end up in tears," says Heimann.

After teaching this course for a few years, Heimann decided she should learn some Czech and discovered that one of the only two courses in Britain was at the University of Glasgow, just ten minutes from her flat. She acquired the equivalent of a degree-level qualification in the language, then a Leverhulme grant allowed her to continue her research in Prague, where she managed to live for two years in 2001-03 on a single year's Scottish salary.

As her thinking developed, Heimann began to realise that most accounts of Czechoslovak history skate over the darker aspects. They also put far too much emphasis on "the Czech voice", which led her to wonder "what the other nationalities (such as Slovaks and Ruthenians) had to say. I wasn't trying to be difficult, I was trying to figure out what the hell happened when. You had these partial, clearly selective accounts from the prejudiced view of each national group - and I couldn't reconcile them at all."

The whole process reminded Heimann of her experience growing up as the daughter of American diplomats. "Each time we moved to a different country," she recalls, "there was a different group you were supposed to be racist towards. As a little child, I was quite prepared to be racist towards whoever I was supposed to be, but I reached the third or fourth country and it kept changing and got too complicated to keep up."

As the pieces of the kaleidoscope fell into place, Heimann began to develop an interpretation of Czechoslovak history radically different from what she had expected. "Czech and Slovak nationalists", she reports, "turn out to have been no more immune from the temptations of authoritarianism, bigotry and cruelty than anyone else."

It is easy to see why this might have irritated or upset her colleagues in Prague. But for most anglophone readers and even many historians, the whole subject may sound rather remote. Is it really surprising that Czechs and Slovaks are capable of behaving as badly as the rest of the human race? But although it must be rare for fights to break out in Britain over the interpretation of Czechoslovak history, Heimann believes we have far more emotion invested in it than we realise.

It's in the English-speaking world that people are hanging on to myths of the Czechs," she explains. "There are two main reasons for this: the shame about Munich, which has become part of a bigger lesson (about not appeasing dictators) in which the Czechs are not really significant but are the victims, so it's uncomfortable for people to have them not be the victims. This is hard to avoid because the Munich Crisis is evoked every time there's a justification for going to war - and it's still taught on school syllabuses.

"The Prague Spring of 1968 has also cast a huge shadow, because many well-intentioned, socialist-minded people in the West, including within academia, so wanted to believe in 'socialism with a human face'. The Soviet invasion seemed like a clear example of where Czechoslovakia was a victim of an ugly power-mongering neighbour."

Furthermore, we are still influenced by a number of ideas skilfully promoted by the early Czechoslovak propagandists. The borders and even some of the states of East-Central Europe were essentially talked into being during the conferences that followed the First World War. According to an American diplomat cited by Heimann, a Polish delegate put his nation's claim to a strategically important district of Silesia by beginning "at 11 o'clock and in the 14th century, and reach(ing) 1919 and the pressing problems of the moment only as late as 4 o'clock in the afternoon". Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Edvard Bene? then "followed immediately afterwards with the counter-claims ..."

Bene? and his team proved exceptionally effective advocates. They also peddled a number of enduring myths. It is still not unusual to hear that Czechs are in some sense more "democratic", "humane", "advanced", "mature" or "Western" than, say, Poles or Hungarians - or even that Czechoslovakia is "a misplaced Western nation".

But as soon as we stop assuming the Czechs are always the good guys to whom terrible things happen, the history starts looking very different. Although the country was undoubtedly a victim of the Nazis and the Soviets, that should not distract us from the ways it was also a perpetrator, says Heimann, in so far as it "actively embraced getting rid of the Jews and gypsies, having a fascist, racially homogenous state, having a particularly horrible kind of communism - I don't think these are natural disasters, as they are sometimes presented".

Nor is she convinced that Alexander Dubek, architect of the Prague Spring, was "a convinced liberal who came along with crusading zeal to improve the nature of socialism in Czechoslovakia. He judiciously removed censorship when he knew the newspapers would maul his opponents."

Both she and the students on her course, Heimann reports, used to enjoy "the total immersion in primary material, which they just weren't used to. Luckily there were no secondary sources since 1978." This situation has now come to an end with the publication of her own powerfully revisionist account.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs