The State that Failed
(continuing from last issue)
About Mary Heiman’s chapter 8 I have the right to be critical, because I lived through it, although living abroad, closely following everything, and wrote my MA thesis for Columbia University as “On the Way to a Revolution. (Praeger published it, popularized by another author, who shamelessly used my translations of Czech and Slovak articles and even kept some of my chapters’ titles). I also published two books on it, she did not consult: Fools and Heroes (1980) and Daydreams and Nightmares (1990); also a study of Kundera (in Kosmas) and other articles. It’s a disaster, esp. from the beginning. She sees it only as a fight for power between Communist leaders. And opposition was lately using the openings. She has no idea about the solid, gradual, careful, systematic fight from the bottom for changing the oppressive system and getting rid of it. The bosses often used this opposition for their own infighting for power. It began well in the middle of 1950s. The author claims that at the beginning of the sixties all was normal.
They had successes and reverses. Her claim that the changes flattered the Czech false self-image as progressive and democratic is not only nonsense, it is deeply offensive: she is absolutely wrong about her claims that the nation still felt pro-Soviet and proud of it, as the pinked tank and idiotic monuments testified: however, these were constructed just by the government and were mostly ridiculed by the people.
Writers like Kundera attempted to win space for criticism by beginning to complain about relatively innocent topics: lack of kindergardens for mothers working in factories; long fronts for food, hurting production; lack of knowledge about developments in other socialist countries etc. Ofcourse, it had to be cautious and only merited Communists could dot it at first (Havel only later), but it worked; RFE and Tigrid’s Svedectvi helped, many radical Communists were frustrated and willing to cooperate. The US secret ideological warfare was very smart and efficient (I would like them to be so smart against the Moslem and Chinese warfare).
Mary Heiman does not seem to be capable of understanding that some people (like Masaryk and Dubcek) can be genuine. She always suspects them of being deliberately cunning and self-centered. Dubcek was winning support and later crowds by smiling, diving publicly in pools, he just was not the usual dogmatic and sour oppressor. Since 1963 Czech opposition used Kulturny zivot for publishing criticism and reforming proposals that they were not able to voice in Prague or Brno. The opposition grew very fast, as well as in the USSR, Poland and Hungary (no comments on that and on their mutual support). The growing criticism was not just nationalistic, but it was a genuine return to pre-war Masaryk’s democratic republic, that was re-asserting itself against the Soviet import of barbarism. And people knew it and felt it that way. (At least on p. 225 she mentions the nation’s “the sense of alienation”). The later parts of this chapter at least enumerates some of the attempts at changes, but the opening and later statements spoiled the whole: chapter into a disaster. Why? Because she could not claim that it was typical for a failing state?
The same lack of appreciation for the brave opposition to normalization and for the united nation after the military invasion in 1968 is shocking because she so much attempted to denounce the supposed, but non-existing, nationalist cum socialist spirit of the nation, happy under the dictatorship. The chapter is otherwise factual.
In chapter 9, devoted to “normalization” after the invasion, Mary Heimann commits an incredible misunderstanding of the courageous efforts of the opposition by claiming that “it was largely propaganda and political theatre”. Again, for her own reasons she does not believe in genuine acts of bravery. The rest of her narration is factual, based on her readings of other people’s books. She even acknowledges that “the party leadership was continually forced to give ground to external pressure” and begins to incorporate into her text comparisons with the growing opposition in other Communist countries.
However, after another well researched and narrated chapter 10, entitled “From Resentment to Revolution”, comes the book’s conclusion, “The End of Czechoslovakia”. The author returns to her mantra of “nationality, the mythical kinship based on shared language, culture and ethnicity that had fascinated Czech and Slovak political leaders for centuries”. Mythical kinship!
Doesn’t she value her own nationality? Born American, she obtained British citizenship. But that does not explain why she does not even consider that the fight for national identity was genuine, when she herself admits that it lasted centuries, and therefore must have been real! Then she truthfully and factually describes stages of tensions that finally led to the end of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992. She also mentions that there was no referendum, although in both parts of the republic, Czech and Slovak, the majorities of citizens were not for the split, and just two top politicians arranged it. But the concluding three pages of her book again show why her book disastrously failed: on page 322 she reaffirms her lack of comprehension of basic features of nationhood by claiming again that “Czechoslovakia/Czecho-Slovakia had been brought into existence in 1918 because self-appointed (sic) spokesmen for a mystical (sic) entity calling itself the ‘Czech’ (and, later, the ‘Czecho-Slovak) nation had spent the First World War exploiting fears and and fanning hatred (sic) of an equally vaguely defined group known as ‘the Germans’.” The tragedy of the Munich appeasement merits the comment that “even Czechoslovakia’s closest allies temporarily washed their hands of the state”. Again for her, T.G. Masaryk and Edvard Benes change into “brilliant propagandists”. In a similar vein the “petty viciousness” of the normalization ‘s twenty years and the “widespread” (?) anti-Semitism during the 1950s” is explained as organized by the whole nation, and not by the dictatorial powers! Her authoritative judgment culminates in her conclusion: “Nationalism, not Communism, is the unreformed, unrepentant force in the region. A particularly Habsburg (sic) way of conceiving of national identity... led its people into authoritarianism, demagoguery and cause millions unnecessary suffering. It is time to abandon the Whig interpretation of Czechoslovak history”.
The author of the book still has much to learn and understand about the history of Central Europe, and to get rid of her prejudices against genuine nationality - calling it “chauvinistic nationalism” does not help her understanding of the history of the state that was created in 1918 and peacefully split in 1992/3.Peter Hruby, USA
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