Paul Anderson, review of Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed by Mary Heimann (Yale, 2009), Tribune, 12 November 2010
Mary Heimann’s history of Czechoslovakia is both a supremely competent and detailed narrative account of the short lives of a central European state (1918-39 and 1945-92) and a brilliant piece of iconoclasm.
For most in the west, Czechoslovak history means four things: the Munich crisis and its aftermath, when a plucky little democracy was betrayed to Nazi Germany by the appeasing governments of Britain and France; the communist coup of 1948 that put paid to a nascent democracy; the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, when Soviet tanks snuffed out a brave experiment in “socialism with a human face”; and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when peaceful protest forced the collapse of the communist regime.
Heimann tells all these stories with verve – but in doing so makes it clear that there was more to each of them than most in the west realise. Czech and Slovak chauvinism were “among the principal causes of the instability that led to the Munich crisis”, she argues; and the same phenomena played a major role both in the anti-Jew and anti-gypsy persecutions of second world war years and in the hardline Stalinism that characterised the country’s communist regime for most of its existence. Czechoslovakia, in other words, was not simply a put-upon victim but at least to some extent the architect of its own misfortunes.
This is a controversial thesis, but Heimann marshals her evidence convincingly, never overstating her case. She shows that the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-38) was never a straightforward liberal democratic utopia. It was, as its architects intended, dominated by Czechs (the majority population in the western two-thirds of the country, Bohemia and Moravia), with the Slovaks (the majority in the eastern third, Slovakia) and other nationalities (Germans in the west, Hungarians and Ruthenes in the east) marginalised from the start and increasingly attracted to authoritarian and fascist anti-Czech nationalism.
She then tells the unsettling story of the short-lived second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-39, after Munich), in which anti-semitism took hold of popular opinion as the far right rose in what remained both of Slovakia and of Czech-majority Bohemia and Moravia – paving the way for widespread willing co-operation with the Nazi Final Solution – and goes on to make clear how far nationalism and anti-semitism embued the communist regime that seized power in 1945.
All that changed after 1968, when the regime was rescued from collapse by Soviet arms and its claims to represent the national interests of its peoples lost all credibility: the next 20 years, Heinmann says, were widely felt as a “foreign occupation”. And when the system finally cracked, it took only three years for tensions between Czechs and Slovaks to reach breaking point. The Czech Republic and Slovakia became separate states on January 1 1993.
This book is a fascinating study of the enduring importance of nationalism and an eye-opening expose of the myths behind received historical wisdom. It is essential reading for anyone interested in 20th century central European history.