My obsession with Czech and Slovak anniversaries began the first time I saw Václav Havel. It was in Martin, Slovakia, where I’d been assigned by Education for Democracy to teach English in a secondary school in the autumn of 1990. I’d graduated college in May and had been inspired by Havel’s example of protest unto imprisonment to live in the country of this playwright-dissident-president. Martin was a far cry from the glamor of Prague, a little disappointing initially, but at least it’s the historical capital of Slovak culture. Then, within two weeks of my arrival, Havel came to town.
Seventy-two years earlier, on 30 October 1918, the Slovak National Council had agreed to the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic. This was their day of independence from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, though the Czechs had declared it two days earlier.
The declaration had been passed in a bank building on Martin’s town square. For this occasion, to emphasize the kinship between the country’s two leading nationalities, a federal flag and a Slovak flag were draped from the wrought-iron railing of the balcony from which the original proclamation had been read. Ropes cordoned off the viewers who trickled in during the cool, overcast mid-afternoon, awaiting the playwright-president. I stood a mere fifty feet from the speakers’ platform.
Soon Havel ambled to the stage flanked by a meager security detail. This hero I’d come to admire was the shortest of the five men on stage, wearing an unimposing dark-olive parka. The crowd of three hundred, mainly pensioners old enough to remember the First Republic, chanted “Nech žije Havel! Long live Havel!”
A bit embarrassed, he made short nods, saying “Děkuji.” Thank you. That much I understood. I had to rely on a colleague to interpret the rest.
“When I was in prison I read a novel by Slovak author Martin Kukučín. I recently received a letter from Kukučín’s niece, who now lives in Canada. She said, ‘the return to democracy was exceptionally joyful and hopeful.’”
Another round of “Nech žije Havel!” Exactly the euphoria I’d come here for. But it quickly subsided.
“Now this lady is concerned that certain people don’t want Czechs and Slovaks to live together.” He recalled a Kukučín story about two poor brothers who inherit a farm. “If they try to understand and tolerate each other, they will have a prosperous future. But if they are not mature and wise, then argument will break out.”
Back then I would’ve preferred a glowing oration on the accomplishments of the past, yet Havel insisted on warning of dangerous current trends. Still, I could understand the philosopher-president’s concern for his country’s future, his preference for sermonizing over self-flattery.
Two and a half weeks later, I stood among thousands, pouring through openings in crowd-control barriers onto Prague’s Wenceslas Square. It was November 17, the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Helicopters chuff-chuffed overhead as sharpshooters prowled the terra cotta rooftops. Security for the guest of honor: George H. W. Bush. As he and Havel arrived, spectators in front waved little Czech and U.S. flags, thrown out from trucks by the armload just minutes before. Nice P.R.
Havel, now in a trim dark business suit, began his speech more forcefully than he had in Martin. “A landslide was set in motion by students who decided last year to recall the memory of Jan Opletal.”
Another anniversary. Opletal’s murder for protesting Nazi occupation in 1939. Also International Students’ Day. A solemn occasion, but exultant cries broke out at “landslide,” meaning the communist government’s resignation. I added my voice, almost feeling one with the locals.
Then suddenly, like a schoolteacher dressing his pupils down when the headmaster drops in on class, Havel unreeled a list of his countrymen’s bad behavior during the past year: “spitefulness, envy, mutual defamation, hatred, naked ambition.”
The locals shifted their feet, some looking down, as if to say, Yeah, some kids are like that, but not me.
I was perturbed at Havel for not piling on the triumphalism. I’d missed the big celebration in Prague the year before and now wanted to make up for it. But no one could recreate that initial fervor when the Communist Party ministers announced their resignations.
Havel resumed his earlier positive tone, next lauding American influence on the free world, concluding, “I believe that reason, decency and tolerance will prevail over envy, selfishness and intolerance.”
At this, the crowd roared enthusiastically, “Ať žije Havel!” I felt relieved the whole thing hadn’t been a lecture on civility.
Bush came on and opened jubilantly. “There are no flowers in bloom, and yet it is Prague Spring. The calendar says November 17th, and yet it is Prague Spring.”
The ovation was deafening. This was what I’d come for, a pep talk for democracy.
Still, danger loomed. “It is no coincidence that appeasement’s lonely victim half a century ago should be among the first” to condemn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Some in the crowd clapped approval, but the overall reaction was lukewarm. I wasn’t so sure about the Munich Pact reference, either – or his using the occasion to sell a war.
Bush, quickly buoyant again, assuring onlookers of America’s commitment to helping them through the upcoming transitions.
The event closed with Spirituál Kvintet playing guitars, standup bass, and tambourine, as the crowd joined in the bilingual “We Shall Overcome/Jednou budem dál.” But not “We have overcome.” Fukuyama’s “end of history” was still nowhere in sight.
The following June, the city of Martin commemorated 1861’s Memorandum of the Slovak Nation. A hundred and thirty years before, leading figures had gathered on the humble square in front of the town’s Lutheran church to demand linguistic and cultural autonomy from the Hungarian policy of Magyarization.
Slovaks had admirably survived the attempt at assimilation. But with only a ten-percent Hungarian minority now living on their soil, slogans like “Na Slovensku, po slovensky! In Slovakia, in Slovak!” sounded just plain vengeful.
Matica slovenská, an institution founded in Martin in 1863 to safeguard Slovak interests, was the main sponsor of events. But they’d developed close ties to the Slovak National Party since 1989, which was unnerving to me.
The streets were filled with banners, booths, food stands, and colorful folk costumes. Quaint, in the town of fifty thousand nestled between the Greater and Lesser Fatras. Quaint, that is, until Slovak National Party rowdies marched into the square, shaking their fists. “Dosť bolo Prahy! Enough of Prague!” Later that weekend, a visiting friend and I happened upon a stick-wielding mob. On their way to lynch some Roma. Was this ugliness inspired by the nationalist political fervor? Or just coincidence?
At any rate, Havel’s fears had been well-founded. And I was beginning to see that anniversaries could be co-opted, their significance distorted – or downright perverted.
As I spent five more years in Slovakia, I became increasingly wound up in the cycles of the culture, from seasonal festivals to name days. As a member of local choral groups, I often sang at anniversary commemorations. Largely uncontroversial ones: four hundred years since the birth of Jan Amos Comenius, the polyglot Protestant clergyman and educator. Forty years since the Slovak National Uprising. One hundred seventy-five years from the birth of Lutheran poet and pastor Andrej Sládkovič.
Round anniversaries, quarter centuries. What makes them so special, other than the mystique of numerology? Or our Western way of marking time. After all, Mesoamericans had a sophisticated calendar, a base-twenty numeral system, and counted fifty-two years as a “century.” Even with our highly accurate Gregorian calendar, we still calculate Passover, Easter, and Ramadan by the lunar method.
I’ve become steeped enough in Czech history by now to develop the obsession with the final digit “8.” 1618 – the Second Defenestration of Prague. 1848 – Europe’s Revolutionary Year, which saw the first Slav Congress in Prague. 1918 – the birth of the Republic. 1938 – the Munich Pact. 1948 – the Communist Party putsch. And of course, 1968, the year of the Prague Spring – and the Warsaw Pact invasion.
I find a certain charm in the double-rounded “8.” If you turn it on its side it becomes the infinity symbol. It also suggests that, while history moves in linear fashion, it also repeats itself. It may be straight as an arrow, but our memory of it keeps coiling back to bygone events. Melding past with present is key to making sense of how we arrived here.
During the 2000s, back in the States and busy with grad school, Czechoslovak anniversaries turned for me into quiet home rituals, like listening to Karel Kryl’s “Bratříčku,” his solemn, one-man, guitar-and-vocal elegy on August 1968. But I, like so many others, have used these occasions too much for the sake of indulging in euphoria about the Velvet Revolution. Or the gloomy mood of Kryl’s songs about tanks and executioners. They’re important events to remember, but have I actually learned from them – or just repeated the same themes?
If one single event led to all the other catastrophes of the twentieth century, it was Francis Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914, which led to World War I – and the formation of the First Czechoslovak Republic. So, in 2014, I made a tour of the old Austria-Hungary, to recall the momentous event. It was the largest single impetus for starting this website.
My first stop was Benešov, famed for the Archduke’s castle, Konopiště. That year, a special exhibit for the centenary, “Together in Life and Death,” honored the marriage of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek. Among the artifacts was a Czech grammar book used by Ferdinand and his boyhood tutor. Frequent reference was made to his wife’s deep Bohemian roots. The denizens of Benešov were quite carried away with the Archduke’s apparent affinity for Czechs. Two weeks before I visited the town, they’d honored his memory with over two hundred reenactors, including a Franz Ferdinand imitator, in period costume. Ironically, the musical group that played afterwards was called the “Švejk Band,” a reference to Jaroslav Hašek’s satirical novel that was anything but flattering toward the Habsburg Monarchy. An academic discussion might have pondered the Archduke’s plans for “trialism,” adding Slavs as a third entity to the dualism of Austria-Hungary. Would it really have benefitted Czechs – or was it a scheme to strengthen Vienna?
In Sarajevo the conflicting interpretations were more obvious. Ethnic Serbs unveiled a statue to assassin Gavrilo Princip in their neighborhood. Downtown, hundreds from all over the world flocked around a replica of the car the imperial couple were riding in when they were shot. Monarchists handed out fliers denouncing nationalism and regretting the breakup of Austria-Hungary, while peaceniks laid wreaths at the plaque to the slain couple. The Vienna Philharmonic performed at the town hall, crowning their concert with Beethoven’s paean to humanity “Ode to Joy.” A noble call for peace, surely. Still, a handful of Serbs found reason to protest, wearing Gavrilo Princip masks and complaining that two million Euros had been “wasted” on the event.
After circling back to Prague at the end of my journey, I noticed an exhibition in the National Museum contained an awful lot of display items borrowed from Russian collections. It seemed like a Moscow attempt to influence Czech perceptions of the events, to remind them of their affinities as brother Slavs – at a time when the Ukrainian Crisis was boiling.
The fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion was a mix of contention and celebration, in particular the commemoration at the Czech Radio station. In one particularly pitched, if asymmetric, battle in 1968, Czechs set Soviet tanks ablaze with Molotov cocktails on the street outside, in an attempt to maintain control over the airwaves – essential for coordinating resistance. I was expecting a solemn ceremony with the Czech president, but Miloš Zeman declined to speak there, apparently to avoid upsetting comrade Putin, for whom he has a disturbing fondness. The crowd jeered Czech prime minister Ivan Babiš, (https://www.rferl.org/a/czech-leaders-silent-or-spurned-as-country-marks-50th-anniversary-of-crushing-of-prague-spring-/29445518.html) who at least showed up for the occasion but has also downplayed the tragedy of the occupation. One Czech group protested outside the Russian embassy, associating the 1968 invasion with the territorial ambitions of the Ukraine annexation. I’d like to know the reaction of the tens of thousands of ethnic Russians now living in Prague. Many of them still perceive the intervention as having been “fraternal assistance.”
The centenary of Czechoslovakia’s birth was much less contentious, although I think could have been more of an occasion for soul-searching. For considering how ethnic Germans, Hungarians—and even Slovaks—were treated during the First Republic. And what was lost with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary.
Václav Havel, as a former dissident, would have preferred the critical thinking, but as a man of calm deliberation would have disdained the acrimony on display at the event in front of the radio station. But that’s how things go sometimes.
I’ve had about enough of anniversaries for a while. It’s time to consider the present – and future. Especially in the maelstrom of populism and racism, ecological degradation, authoritarianism, and a constant coarsening of political discussion. Let’s get to work on fixing things in 2019!