Most of us in the United States are hyphenated Americans: Hispanic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans. Even WASPs have taken refuge in the term “Anglo-American,” as if the British stock did not define the American identity. At this point in our history, we have trouble even imagining a people that takes its nationality neat without the addition of hyphens to cool down the fires of patriotism. A few years ago, American political commentators were deriding the hyphen war in Czechoslovakia, but if the fate of a kingdom can be determined by a horseshoe nail, the fate of a multiethnic republic can turn on a punctuation mark. The Slovaks wanted a hyphen as proof of their autonomy; the Czechs, who wished to rule over a unitary state, did not, and it was not long before Czechs and Slovaks were setting up border posts and restitching the insignias on the uniforms of the military police that prowl the streets of Prague and Bratislava.
It is no small thing to bring forth a new nation, whether conceived in liberty or by legitimate means. From one little detail you can project the bigger picture: the new republics have established separate currencies, but both are called the korona, and both are worth about three cents; if the countries remerged, they would presumably pay their bills in korona-koronas (or an equivalent number of cigar bands).
My knowledge of Czechs and Slovaks had been limited to the writings of Karel Capek (Kafka was not a Czech writer, no matter what Prague’s city fathers would have you believe), the music of Smetana, Dvorak, and Janacek, and a glass or two of Pilsner beer (also German), I might have heard a Moravian-American hymn or eaten a Slovakian goulash, but these earthly and spiritual delights had left no lasting impression.
I knew vaguely, of course, that the country established by Thomas Masaryk, with the collusion of his friend Woodrow Wilson, included Czechs, Moravians, and Slovaks, but what little differences of language and custom divided these peoples were as opaque to me as to Neville Chamberlain, who refused to go to war over Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, which he dismissed as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” Anticipating a trip to Prague in March, I asked a visiting Czech intellectual about the Slovaks, whom he put down as an uninteresting race of indolent and alcoholic peasants, hardly distinguishable from the Czech lower classes. Since the visitor was Catholic, I asked if it were true that Slovaks were more religious than Czechs. “Oh, well, maybe they go to church more often, but that does not prove that they are more religious.” But, surely, that is exactly what it does prove, I thought. Religion is not, primarily, a matter of faith; religion is a bond, the fulfillment of an obligation. For all I knew, Slovaks might be less spiritual, less moral than the more casually observant Czechs, but the willingness to get up on Sunday morning must count for something.
I happened to be in Prague on Palm Sunday, and I asked the clerk in my lovely hotel (U Pava in Mala Strana), where I could attend services at 9:00 or later. Wearily dragging out a book, she discovered that I could go to a Franciscan church on the other side of the Charles Bridge, right behind the statue of the Emperor Charles. The church was crowded with almost as many tourists as worshipers. Most of the locals were old women, who were as slow to stand or kneel as they were quick to sit.
Afterwards I made my way to the Tyn church, hoping to get a look inside, and came upon the conclusion of a service and procession that had started elsewhere. The Cardinal Archbishop was presiding in all his considerable glory. I had seen the Cardinal a few nights before, when I attended a special vigil in the cathedral up within the Ilrad. It was mv first night in Prague, and as I watched the nuns rehearsing their music, 1 became convinced that my jetlag was causing hallucinations. These were very strange sisters, dressed in crudely archaic habits that were cut in an avant-garde mode. Each one might have been a beauty queen, with an alluring smile and a way of moving less reminiscent of the cloister than of the burlesque theater. It dawned on me that the nuns and monks were performers paid to put on a show, something like the Italian pop group I had seen doing their hit “Giuglio” (a testimonial to the Christian Democrat Andreotti) dressed in clerical habits. But that bit of amusing blasphemy was staged at a rock concert at the Roman arena in Verona. This was in a cathedral and in the presence of the Archbishop at a ceremony honoring a conference on family values.
That, I suppose, is the problem with values. If they don’t fit, they can always be exchanged. As I walked all over Prague that Palm Sunday, the material me was glad all the shops were open, and I could spend the day buying darky (i.e., gifts; the free-enterprising Czechs have not yet reopened the slave trade). In the afternoon we stopped in to look at St. James Church, and I was surprised to find it full, until I realized that the crowd was made up of German tourists waiting for a free Dvorak organ recital.
Walking back through the Staro Mesto square, we found a mob of Czechs (infiltrated by snake-dancing tourists in funny hats), all listening to a group of middle-aged women playing old rock-and-roll and country songs, like “Lonesome Me,” “Jambalaya,” even “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” My favorite was a Czech rendition of “Blowing in the Wind.” The musicians played better than most Americans—the fiddle player was a classically trained violinist—but as I listened to the Peter, Paul, and Mary harmonics floating over the 70’s rock backup, all I could think of was Bob Dylan’s inane lyric: “How many deaths will it take till they know that too many people have died?” If it were not for the military-industrial complex, apparently, we would all live forever. I could not help thinking that these people almost deserve to become Americans, which is already what many of them are pretending to be.
The next morning I took one last look at Prague from my fourth (actually fifth) floor window. Across the Vltava churches and theaters rose up in the early sunlight like an engraving in a fairy-book. More than any city I have ever seen, Prague is Europe, East and West, a strangely harmonious hodgepodge of architecture that seemed designed to refute Descartes’ contention that cities would be more beautiful if they were designed by one man. Too bad, I remarked to a xenophobic American friend, that it is so full of tourists. “Too bad,” he replied, “it’s so full of Czechies.”
I would not wish to be unkind to the Czechs, whose virtues I admire. They are a hardworking, serious, and cultivated people, but many visitors I spoke with found them sly and sullen. An older friend observed to me that in five days he never met a Czech who looked him in the eye. Compared with their neighbors—Poles and Slovaks—Czechs strike outsiders as more intellectual but less emotional and less religious—more like Yankees and Englishmen, if that is not an insult to the Czechs.
My xenophobic friend gave a lecture arguing that America should never have involved itself in foreign wars. Some of the Czechs were outraged: What I want to know, asked one of them, is would mv country be free if America had not stood up to the Russians for nearly 50 years? The obvious answer is that it is not our business to make them free. It never was. The Czechs lost their liberty in the 1620’s, when they started a rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire and then gave up the struggle and opened the gates of Prague to the imperial forces. At Bela Hora, the battle that sealed their doom, the Bohemian army consisted largely of Germans, while the imperial soldiers were from Italy, Burgundy, and the Netherlands. Perhaps the greatest winner of the ill-starred bid for Bohemian independence was the shirttail Bohemian nobleman and Lutheran turncoat who became the greatest Catholic general of the Thirty Years War and built an enormous pleasure palace in Prague. Wallenstein’s gardens are now, appropriately, home to the Czech ministry of culture, whose first order of business should be to decide what Czech culture is. The answer today would seem to be that Prague, at least, can be celebrated as the home of a German novelist and the backdrop for Mission Impossible.
In fact, the Czechs had begun to lose their identity even earlier, when Bohemian Kings invited in large numbers of Germans, who gradually established themselves in a superior position. The Czechs’ great king, the Emperor Charles IV, is commemorated all over Prague, but it was Charles who did the most to promote the suicidal folly of a multiethnic state. As the Germans inevitably achieved economic and political dominance within the German Empire, the Czechs learned to despise their Slavic cousins and to regard themselves as the German Slavs.
Why did the Czechs commit national suicide? One reason was that the Christian kings wanted allies against pagan Slavs, including members of their own families. But even then, the Germans were more industrious and ingenious than the Slavs, and they created the industry and technology that made Bohemia wealthy. One can imagine Charles IV using the same arguments employed today by Chambers of Commerce all over America when they lure foreign industries from Germany and Japan, from business leaders calling for an end to immigration restrictions. A country that cannot survive without the annual invasion of Chinese engineering students and Indian physicians probably does not deserve to survive.
After World War I, Czechs achieved the goal of an independent nation but roped in the Slovaks more or less unwillingly. Hitler detached them from the country and then allowed them to have a puppet state, but there was real resistance against the Germans. We encouraged them to rise up, and did nothing (just as we did in Hungary and then in Czechoslovakia in ’68). After World War II, the Czechs gave the Germans a taste of their own medicine, by expelling German farm families from the Sudetenland, where they had lived for centuries. When my wife made the mistake of asking a German visitor, whose family turned out to have been among the victims, whether or not he had ever been to Prague, he replied, “Only when I will be riding on top of a tank.”
After the Soviet takeover in the late 1940’s, Czecho-Slovak nationalism was directed against the Russians, but the end of the Gold War changed the picture entirely. The U.S. State Department was looking for a weak puppet who could appear to rule Czechoslovakia and hit upon an absurdist playwright, Vaclav Havel, a man of no political experience and whose literary reputation was limited to intellectual circles in Prague. By spending millions on a p.r. campaign, the United States was able to turn Havel’s little group of intellectual poseurs into heroic symbols of resistance, even in Prague, where people should have known better.
What neither we nor the Czechs banked on was Havel’s incompetence. No other Czech leader would have allowed the Slovaks to secede peaceably without, at least, a legitimate referendum, and it is surprising that the United States allowed it to happen. Perhaps, and this seems to be true in the case of Italy, whose regime we have allowed to collapse, we simply no longer cared.
The Slovaks are so different from the Czechs, I find it hard to believe that they could ever have tried to make a nation together. Their languages are similar—though perhaps not so close as Serbian and Croatian—and they share many of the same customs, but they had not lived in the same state together since the fall of the Moravian Empire in the tenth century. Since that time, the ethnic twins were adopted out to different imperial nations, and although they preserved the evidence of their origins, their new masters pulled them in different directions.
If the history of Bohemia is dominated by Germans and Austrians, Slovaks had to put up with Hungarians and Russians. In Bratislava I spent several hours in the old Town Hall, which is now a museum of local history going back to Celtic times. The museum guides were very kind, but when they discovered the limits of my Slovakian, they left me to wander, until an older man tricked me into revealing that I understood his German, I am glad he did, because as he took me through the rooms devoted to Austro-Hungarian Pressburg, he gave me an insight into the Slovak national experience.
I had read, of course, of the Hungarian attempt to suppress the Slovak identity by a program of forced Magyarization more severe than that inflicted upon Croatia, but as he showed me the relics of the few scholars and writers who kept the flame alive (the only one known at all in the West is L’udovit Stur), I realized how different the Czech and Slovak experiences had been. The Austrians were never the freedom-loving federalists that their modern apologists have described—their military and police forces apparently learned a thing or two about torture and oppression from the Turks—but they were also comparatively indifferent to the survival of the “barbarian” cultures within their realm, preferring to rely more on the attractive properties of their superior civilization. The Hungarians, in origin even less Western than the Slavs, had to try harder, and they outlawed the teaching of the Slovakian language and made a very earnest attempt to convert the Slovaks into Hungarians. The proper name for this is cultural genocide.
The golden years of Bratislava had been the period when Budapest was in Turkish hands, and Pressburg served as a Hapsburg capital and coronation. Protestants were tolerated, and the suppressed Slovaks were allowed to drift along in their Slavic rustication. With the resurgence of Hungary, the Slovaks became the target of Hungarian expansion. My guide pointed out the telling difference. Before the Magyarization program was really enforced, Slovak students and intellectuals had gravitated to Budapest or Bratislava; afterwards, they sought refuge in Vienna, which paradoxically became home to Slovak nationalism.
Cut off from civilized Europe for centuries, the Slovaks who did not assimilate to Austrian or Hungarian models fell back on folk traditions that are in many respects superior to the Kmart baroque of the ruling class. The National Art Museum has a collection of the usual German and Italianate paintings, most of them technically competent, but turn the corner and walk into a room filled with paintings and carved wooden statues removed from churches, and you discover an art that combines “primitive” exuberance with a high aesthetic sense. Here was an art that in a real sense had never escaped the Middle Ages, an art that expressed the rough-handed piety of a faithful people.
At Eastertide Bratislava is not miles but centuries away from Prague. All the churches seemed to be full every day, with people of all ages in a fervor of devotion that is enough to make an American uncomfortable. The only exception was a Good Friday’ German service at St. Martin’s Cathedral, where only old ladies (and casual German tourists) attended. I think of Germans as a musical people, but in St. Martin’s, the singing was so bad that I took pity on them and joined in growling my r’s and hissing out my ich’s with the best of them.
Coming back from supper, we stopped to listen to the Easter vigil service in the yellow Capuchin church in the Zupne Mesto. The little square outside the church was filled with the overflow crowd, listening to the beautiful and solemn music, and when we returned the next morning, there was an even bigger crowd. A little after 9:00 we succeeded in fighting our way into church (at which unfortunately a youth choir performed music as tasteless as anything in America) which again filled to the bursting point. An hour later, it took us ten or fifteen minutes to swim against the incoming tide for the next service, and so it went, apparently, in all the churches of Bratislava for much of the day.
Lent is still observed rather strictly. The week before Easter I had been in Košice, a large industrialized city near the Ukrainian border, where we met some very distant relations of my daughter—the nearest common relative is her maternal great-great-great-grandmother. The subject of my Vegas-style hotel came up in conversation, and an American cousin expressed an interest in going to the nightclub and casino. They could do that only after Easter, she was told. “Just like in America, we don’t go in for such things during Lent.” Just like in America.
My wife’s recently discovered cousins taught me more about Slovakia than I was able to find out from books. More than kindness was expressed in the mere fact of the welcome they extended to people whose connection was so tenuous it took some time to work it out on paper. For these people, at least, family is not some abstract concept based on the nuclear household, much less an “institution” that needs to be protected by the United Nations. The ties of blood are something palpable there, something that can almost be sniffed (some rodents identify kinship through smell and will kill an alien-scented stranger). I have several first cousins whom I have not seen in years, and I am not at all sure of the welcome I would receive if I showed up on their doorstep.
In the time I spent in Slovakia I found few people willing to talk much about politics, and I concluded that the current regime was the usual East European set of thugs. The rivalry between Prime Minister Meciar (the real power) and President Kovac has turned into something more like gang warfare, and I heard a number of jokes about Meciar that could have been Brezhnev jokes. Meciar has two cronies with whom he shares the boodle. One day the leader sneezes, and one lieutenant says, “Na zdravie” (which can mean either Gesundheit or cheers). The other lieutenant, misunderstanding, complains: “If you two are having a drink, why don’t I get my share?” hi another story, Meciar dies and goes to heaven where he is dissatisfied with the proposed accommodations. Exasperated, St. Peter asks the Prime Minister where he wants to sit. whereupon Meciar points to the throne of the Almighty.
Overall, people seem mildly content with independence. One professor told me that although his students might grumble about the economy and the government, they are more concerned about getting back to their family farms and getting the spring planting done. A businessman explained to me that independence was a bad idea, because he was being shut out of Prague. “Wouldn’t it have been better,” he asked, “to try to get along with the Czechs?” His daughter, a college student, thought he was being optimistic. “They have always despised us, and they always will.”
I asked a young man about independence. Misunderstanding my question as a reference to the Soviet withdrawal, he joked that the only change was higher prices. There are times in Slovakia when it is possible to forget that communism is dead. State officials seem as lazy and rude as they always were, and everywhere you go there are military police in green uniforms, setting up roadblocks and checking papers. Entering Slovakia on a train from Krakow, I had my passport checked five times: once by the Poles and four times by the Slovaks. The more efficient Czechs only looked at my papers three times, but, then, they did not smile, like the Slovaks, and wish me a good journey.
Whatever else might happen, Czecho-Slovakia represents a rare case of peaceful secession, and both new nations are facing a brighter economic future. The Czechs, it seemed to mc, do not actually want a real nation. They only wish to take their place as a productive part of civilized Europe, and barring some unforeseen international catastrophe, they shall have their wish. The price will be continued dependency upon the United States’ military and diplomatic power and integration into the empire of the deutsch mark. That is not the worst of fates, and, if the gods of the Slavs and Germans are willing, the Czechs will be joined by the Croats, Slovenes, and perhaps the Hungarians in a central European federation presided over by the Hapsburgs.
Slovaks, although in some respects they seem to be at a prenational stage of development, are more like Serbs, Scots, and American Southerners of earlier times. Blood and soil still matter as much to them as profits and progress. As primitive as their art and music might seem to an overeducated foreigner, they are authentic expressions of the national character. They would have an easier time of it, preserving their identity, if they remained in the Russian-Ukrainian orbit than if they fell into the grasping claws of the decadent West.
Down-and-out as we were in Bratislava after being robbed byRussians on a train and abandoned to our fate by American Express, we received nothing but kindness and assistance from everyone at Hotel No. 16, which I recommend to anyone about to take that Eastern European trip. Perhaps I am prejudiced by the one part out of several hundred in my children that is Slovak, but after two weeks I concluded that while I admire the Czechs, I like the Slovaks. But even this remote calculation of affinity and prejudice is one that the Slovaks can still appreciate. Without such sentiments, there can be no nation, only a marketplace.
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