World of the Two Václavs

After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, issues relating to post‐communism, both on a political and economic level, took precedence in Czech intellectual and political life over every other topic. Paradoxically for a revolution undertaken in the name of the ‘return to Europe’, even Europe could not compete with post‐communist issues for centre stage.1 However, most observers have distinguished two currents of political thought on the European topic, generally considered to be represented by the ‘two Václavs’: Václav Havel and Václav Klaus,2 two individuals who make no secret of their antipathy towards one another.3

The former is one of the leading Czech intellectuals: a famous dissident under the communist regime and subsequently the inspired leader of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, Havel was also the first president of free Czechoslovakia and of the independent Czech Republic. His humanist and ethical views are well‐known; as a dissident and founder of Charter 77, he promoted ‘apoliticism’, solidarity, reconciliation, and effortlessly sustained the Czech tradition of ‘truth’ and ‘love’ during the Velvet Revolution (Ducreux 1990). (p.258) Klaus, meanwhile, takes pride in his role as a technocrat, avoiding any political commitment before 1989 while rapidly shaping and taking control of the Czech conservative party (ODS) after 1990. Klaus became the emblematic prime minister of post-1989 privatizations and decommunization, and eventually succeeded Václav Havel as president of the country in 2003.

We will attempt here to describe the different worlds in which these two figures and their supporters position themselves in relation to Europe,4 starting with an emblematic regional outpost of the European idea: the concept of Central Europe. Although it might seem irrelevant and distinct from ‘Europe’ as seen from the West, the concept of Central Europe carries a crucial, symbolic value on the Czech intellectual scene, without which the wider European debate would take a completely different shape. Central Europe is an intellectual gate which cannot be ignored since, as we will see, individual and collective answers to the geopolitical, strategic, historical, and philosophical issues that it raises always predetermine attitudes to Europe as a whole.

Czech intellectuals and Central Europe

Václav Havel’s vision of Central Europe had already been promoted by the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic (1918–35), the philosopher Tomáš Masaryk. Because Masaryk supported a European federation and a political integration of Central Europe, the pro-(Central) European stance in Czechoslovakia became retrospectively associated, under communist rule, not only with centre‐left democracy but with the democratic era as a whole. The debate on the position of Czechs in Europe and, simultaneously, on the identity of a real or imagined Central Europe, came to represent the opposition between the democratic and the communist camps. Between Germany and Russia, where did the Czech Lands stand (Rupnik 1988: 3–23)? Was Central Europe East of the West, or West of the East? Did Central Europe exist at all, or was Czechoslovakia part of Eastern Europe only?

The Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and the East/West divide seemed to impose an answer to this question.5However, Czech intellectuals were unhappy with this forceful geopolitical ‘solution’, and tried to bring the question back to the fore first of all during the Prague Spring in 1968, and later as dissidents or exiles between 1969 and 1989. Czech dissidents, like their counterparts in the other (p.259) ‘satellite’ countries, were strong supporters of Central‐Europeanness (Faraldo, Gulińska‐Jurgiel, and Domnitz 2008; Laignel‐Lavastine 2005; Miłosz 1964; Rupnik 1988). Their Homeric efforts to meet with Polish dissidents over the Polish–Czech border in the vicinity of Havel’s country house became legendary, while one of the biggest Czech samizdat reviews was called Střední Evropa (Central Europe).

Rehabilitating Central Europe was a way of asserting these countries’ moral superiority over occupying Russian forces, and of grappling with the threat of a disappearing cultural heritage (Blaive 2006). Milan Kundera should of course be singled out here for his ‘Tragedy of Central Europe’ (the telling original French subtitle being, ‘L’Occident kidnappé’ [The Kidnapped West]: Kundera 1983), a text written in exile in 1983 but largely rooted in his essays from the end of the 1960s, and in particular from his much debated ‘Czech Fate’ essay of 1968.6 By defining Central Europe as something ‘culturally in the West, geographically in the centre and politically in the East’, his intention was of course to reposition Czechoslovakia in the West and to show how alien the Soviet dictatorship was to its political tradition (Nilsson 2000).

From Central Europe to Europe

The fight over the legitimacy of Central Europe in fact hides a wider controversy over the legitimacy of Europe and the position Czechoslovakia should play within it. Through his dissident political activity, Václav Havel took a clearly favourable position on Europe as an intellectual concept (Kopeček 2005). The Charter 77 manifesto, which he largely inspired, repeatedly emphasized the importance for the Czechs of belonging to Europe (Skilling1981). In its 1985 ‘Prague Appeal’, for instance, the Charter pleaded for an end to a divided Europe and for its reunification – including that of Germany.7 Havel also insisted in all his political essays – implicitly or explicitly – on Czech ‘Europeanness’ (Havel 1989); as, of course, did the most important Czech philosopher of the twentieth century Jan Patočka, another key opponent of communist rule and a proponent of an inherent Czech ‘Europeanness’.8

(p.260) At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the regime ideologist Zdeněk Nejedlý denied that Western Europe had held any cultural legitimacy during the era of European construction, which he saw as a ‘dollar‐driven American project’; he considered the Soviet Union as the only ‘true Europe’ (Reijnen 2008: 111–12, 116). It must be underlined that after the Second World War, Czech society was largely ripe for the advent of communism. As historian Carlos Reijnen (2008: 112) explains: ‘The post‐war Czech communist perception of Europe and the West and the need to formulate new positions in “national” questions were deeply entangled. Rethinking the future was also rethinking the past’, not least concerning the national relationship to the vanquished and victorious regional powers of the Second World War, Germany and the Soviet Union, in a process of respective demonization and glorification.

The ‘East’ represented not only a sought‐after geopolitical security but also socialism, a societal project which suited a Czech political and social practice imbued with egalitarianism. The communist regime also revived and promoted pan‐Slavism, which had taken root in Czech culture as early as the nineteenth century.9 All in all – and this explains its long‐lasting success – the anti‐European and pro‐Russian mindset of Czech communist propaganda did more than match Stalinist standards: it took up its ‘self‐evident place in the intellectual history’ of Czechoslovakia, while addressing the widely shared concern among the Czech population that Nazism and fascism were ‘inherently linked to a deep crisis of Europe itself’ (Reijnen 2008: 111, 115). European references disappeared from the Czech public sphere after the war; while Czechoslovakia, which had featured so prominently in all debates on the European idea after 1918, simultaneously disappeared from a European meta‐narrative which increasingly came to resonate with the successful history of the (Western) European institutions (Schulz‐Forberg 2008: 41).

What is important to understand is that the intellectual attitude to Europe has been historically ‘politicized’ by the fact that the pro‐European discourse was carried on only by exiles10 and dissident circles. In the Cold War context, being in favour of ‘Central Europe’ and then of ‘Europe’ was akin to positioning oneself against the communist regime. By contrast, the famous ‘return to Europe’ advocated by Václav Havel as newly elected president of free Czechoslovakia in December 1989 was meant to represent the antinomy of everything noxious that was represented by real existing socialism.

The politicization and simultaneous de‐intellectualization of the European issue today in the Czech Republic is in large part an outcome of this particular (p.261) historical path and conceptual confrontation. It explains why the pro‐European stance, both past and present, is not only a primary political issue, but is also closely linked to certain attitudes on the domestic front relating to decentralization and civil society. Because themes such as Central Europe, Europe, humanism, human rights, civil society, or ecology were historically shaped as one and the same ethical weapon against the communist regime, they still go hand in hand today. After the fall of communism, the issue of ‘Europe’ was additionally politicized by the fact that many Czech politicians are intellectuals and former dissidents, and that they have brought their previously philosophical debate onto the political scene.

Intellectual conceptions of Europe

Accepting a decentralized power shared between Brussels, the central government, and local governments or authorities is tantamount to a ‘democratic approach’,11 recognizing an intermediary between the state and the citizen in the form of trade unions, confessions, associations, and so on. Groups who accept this view tend to support ‘Europe’. They range from the centre‐left (Vladimír Špidla, former right‐wing social‐democratic prime minister) to the centre‐right, from social‐democrats to conservative Christians (journalist Petruška Šustrová, adherents of the review Střední Evropa, which is still published today) and of course to the centre: Greens (Jakub Patočka, who also for a long time published the literary weekly Literární noviny), Christian‐Democrats (former dissident and university professor Petr Pithart), and social liberals.12

These intellectuals sometimes disagree with Václav Havel’s views, but pay him tribute and respect. The Greens, for instance, are opposed to the state negotiating with organized religion; conservative liberal Christians are not supportive of trade unions, and so on. All of them, however, support the existence of these intermediary bodies with whom the state should negotiate, what Havel calls civil society. Some NGOs, conceived almost structurally in the Czech Republic as heirs to the former dissident movement for the historical reasons explained above – which tightly associate civic society, Europe, and (p.262) intellectuals – also lead reflection on Europe and its importance, but their representativeness is as limited as was that of the dissident movement under communism.13 In comparison with a country like France, these NGOs and ‘civil society’ in general represent only a tiny portion of the population.

Among the most prominent intellectuals reflecting positively on Europe, we can cite Petr Pithart and Jan Křen. In the best ‘Havel spirit’, Petr Pithart – a major Czech intellectual and former dissident, last prime minister of the federal Czech Republic before the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and today vice‐president of the Czech Senate – defends European integration because he is convinced that it is a ‘story without ending’, without a definite and quantifiable shape, where the process of construction constitutes a goal in itself. Referring to philosopher Karl Popper, Pithart expressed his belief that Europeans would correct and improve their mistakes in a continual process, rather than try to impose their conception of truth (Pithart 2006).

In a thinly veiled criticism of Václav Klaus, he warned against the tendency of Europeans, as opposed to Americans, to succumb at the least temptation to universalistic ideologies such as fascism, Nazism, communism – and now nationalism. It is true, he claimed, that the EU is hit hard by bureaucracy; but the case of the United States shows that federalism, self‐management, and the most developed civil society in the world are the best weapons against this tendency. The third sector in the US, primarily churches and NGOs, takes over many tasks fulfilled by the state in Europe; this, claimed Pithart, should be our model (Pithart 2006).

As a prominent historian, specialist of the hotly debated Czech–German relations, and advocate of reconciliation (he has presided for years over the Czech–German Historical Commission), Jan Křen portrays Europe as a complicated superimposition of national narratives. Facing the quasi‐impossibility of writing a ‘European History’, he proposes to take into account, as a first step, macro‐regions. Indeed, he considers that regional grouping is not a danger but an asset for the European construction. That is where Central Europe reappears as a conceptual stage on the way to Europe as a whole.14

Other intellectuals consider themselves simultaneously as pro‐European and enlightened Czech patriots, judging that commitment to European civilization and community is not incompatible with a deep love of the nation. We are (p.263) referring to the group of the so‐called ‘Bad Boys’ (Parta u Stinadel), inflammatory intellectuals such as Bohumil Doležal, Emanuel Mandler, and Milan Churaň. Ever since 1968, those strongly anti‐communist intellectuals have been publishing in the reviews Tvárˇ and the above‐mentioned Strˇední Evropa (Central Europe) – although Emanuel Mandler died in January 2009. Even though they hold or held different opinions on nearly every subject and do not always offer a coherent vision, this group of three strongly rejects close‐minded Czech nationalism, especially the violent version which characterized the period 1945–8. Their motto is reconciliation with the Germans, a will to open the Czech intellectual scene to the world’s ideas, and a rejection of isolationist nationalism.

Their commitment to and support for the dissident movement and Charter 77, meanwhile, paradoxically translates into an ever more radical criticism of former dissidents and a claim for pragmatism, as opposed to idealism. Although this is a generally pro‐European group, the result sometimes and unexpectedly borders on anti‐Europeanism – Bohumil Doležal was, for instance, an advisor to Václav Klaus at one time.

Doležal and Mandler have argued fiercely with Jan Křen on multiple occasions over a core issue for the European conception of Czech intellectuals: Czech–German relations, especially at the time (1997) when the joint Czech–German Historical Commission published its first results and its Declaration (Stroehlein 1997). On a parallel issue, the two ‘ultras’ (as Andrew Stroehlein calls them) deplored that the past was insufficiently represented in the media, while Křen claimed the contrary.15

Younger intellectuals led by Petr Placák around the satirical, artistic, and intellectual review Babylon, but accompanied by older figures such as former dissidents Ivan Jirous and Zdeněk Vašíček, have been influenced by the ‘Bad Boys’ ideas in their most scathing and provocative incarnation, to a point which could hardly be considered serious in Western Europe but which is not shocking on the Czech scene. For instance, even under communist rule Placák and his colleagues had gone so far as to create a semi‐serious monarchist party [sic] in the name of their fight for maximum individual freedom. In a peculiar conception of Europe and to symbolize their rejection of Czech nationalism, they still call today for Emperor Franz Joseph’s return to the Czech Crown, while organizing an annual rally to stage this demand (Placák 2009). The provocative dimension of this endeavour is of course proportional to the historical role played by Czech nationalism in bringing down the Austro‐Hungarian empire. This group of intellectuals sees Europe as a Europe of Nations, even though some of them are not far from federalist conceptions. Interestingly, Petr Placák is now a recognized authority on Europe: he has been designated editor‐in‐chief of (p.264), the Czech government information webpage on European questions set up on the occasion of the Czech presidency of the EU.

Havel himself is federalist or confederalist.16 Like his most famous political friends and allies (aside from Petr Pithart and Jan Křen) – Karel Schwarzenberg (former president of the Helsinski Committee for Human Rights, currently Minister of Foreign Affairs), Jiří Pehe (prominent political scientist) or Tomáš Halík (former dissident, university professor of sociology and theology, and much publicized priest) – he believes that Europe should be based on the values of human rights and democracy. He and his supporters believe that this humanist Europe has much in common with and owes its freedom to the United States of America, with which it should be strongly allied:17 hence his consistent support of US policy (bombing of Yugoslavia, war in Iraq, radar installation on Czech soil). It should nevertheless be underlined that other personalities from Havel’s ‘camp’, such as social‐democratic politician Lubomír Zaorálek, evangelist and folk singer Svatopluk Karásek, poet Ivan Martin Jirous, sociologist and feminist leader Jiřina Šiklová, politician and intellectual Jiří Dienstbier, journalist Petr Uhl, and others, are not as clearly in favour of a strong partnership with the US, though they do share a positive image of the Americans. Their position is rather to support a ‘strong Europe’.18 As Šiklová expressed it, ‘I prefer to be wrong with America, than to be right with Russia’ (Kouřil 2008).

From the world of ideas to politics: The ‘Klaus trend’ and Europe

In the opposite camp on the European question – which does not necessarily overlap with the opposite side of the political spectrum in a general sense19 – Václav Klaus has endeavoured to construct an alternative ideology. But is Klaus an intellectual in the strict sense? He claims not to be, precisely so as to distance (p.265) himself from Havel and his ideas. In a 2005 speech, he came up with a scathing criticism of what an ‘intellectual’ represented for him, quoting Friedrich Hayek: intellectuals are allegedly ‘professional second‐hand dealers in ideas’, who are proud ‘not to possess special knowledge of anything in particular’, who do not take ‘direct responsibility for practical affairs’, and who need not ‘even be particularly intelligent’ to perform their so‐called ‘mission’.20

Moreover, this unflattering description of intellectuals is politically loaded: Václav Klaus argues that an intellectual is ‘interested in visions and utopias, and because “socialist thought owes its appeal largely to its visionary character” (and I would add lack of realism and utopian nature), the intellectual tends to become a socialist’. This description, of course, smacks of communist intellectuals who – as Czechs know and remember well – enthusiastically led the country to communism between 1945 and 1948 and even to Stalinism after 1948, with the youthful poet Pavel Kohout, for instance, calling for a ‘dog’s death for the dogs’ during the Slánský show‐trial in 1952 (Rupnik 1988: 109).

However, although President Klaus does not consider himself a ‘socialist’, having built his reputation as an ‘economic expert’ after 1989 and during his rise to power, we consider that he should be credited with this effort at defining intellectuals. He did participate in the main academic discussions in the country’s post‐war history, writing articles under the common pseudonym ‘Dalimil’ with arch‐intellectuals Antonín J. Liehm and Emanuel Mandler in 1968’s Literární noviny (Hoppe 2004); and taking part, despite his claims to the contrary, in alternative dissident seminars in the 1980s.21

The European critics in Klaus’ camp support a strong state in a ‘republican’ approach. Everything has to be decided centrally on the national level, and they consider any intermediary body as a danger to procedural democracy. Despite the professed anti‐communism that they share with the social‐democrats, they have largely remained in line with the main options followed by the communist regime and with its sources of legitimacy, and their political weapons remain essentially the same on nationality and identity.

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue