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Czechoslovakia: Czechs
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Ethnic Groups > Czechs

CZECHS


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 theological doctrine. 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.

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

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.

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 the republic. 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. 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, 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




Last Updated: August 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Czechoslovakia was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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