A Good Divorce Can Beat a Bad Marriage

If the liberal consensus was correct about nationalism, world order, and Europe, Czechs and Slovaks would today be preparing for war. Instead, they are — quite literally — celebrating the 25th anniversary of their “Velvet Divorce,” which created two new nations among two peoples who did not get along for decades. More than just another example of empirical evidence running counter to conventional wisdom, this circumstance illuminates a much larger misunderstanding of human history, one that explains why the European Union will not survive.

Discussions of Europe assume that its past was directed — and then damned — by nationalism, requiring its surrender to the trans-national agenda of the European Union (EU). Advocates who are perplexed by growing resistance to this view fail to grasp that Europe is both the product and progenitor of multi-national empires — whether Roman, Byzantine, Carolingian, Holy Roman, Ottoman, Spanish, British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Nazi, Soviet, even Yugoslavian — every last one of which collapsed into smaller, more cohesive national units. Throughout history, Europe’s peoples have fled the empires that its elites have championed.

The 2016 Brexit from the EU is a fine recent example, but much more illuminating is Slovakia’s exit from Czecho-Slovakia in 1993, whose 25th anniversary is being celebrated this year. [1] Brits and Slovaks follow an ancient tradition of peoples who opt for the defensive sovereign powers of nation-states over the more expansive promises of trans-national realms that, however, fail to grant peoples the sovereignty they need to direct their own lives.

A good divorce, in other words, can beat a bad marriage.

Nation-states have dominated Europe for some time, but the Roman Empire put Europe on the map, and its tradition of empire resumed in 800 A.D., when the Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor of a large European realm. His Carolingian empire begat the Holy Roman Empire, which spawned the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and all three honored the hallowed tradition of Christian monarchial rule over disparate lands and peoples — i.e., empires. It was from the prosperous and powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire that Czecho-Slovakia emerged.

When the Great War erupted in 1914, this empire occupied present-day Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, northern Italy, southern Poland, and the western regions of Ukraine and Romania. It entered the war a major power, but its 52 million people consisted of about a dozen nationalities. Aside from a common army and bureaucracy, the only shared bond among Vienna’s subjects was its ancient Habsburg dynasty.

The death of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1916, war-related deaths exceeding 2 million civilians and soldiers, severe food and fuel shortages, Berlin’s refusal to let Vienna surrender or negotiate, independence demands by its subjects, and the recognition of those demands by the Allies led to Austria-Hungary’s collapse and the founding of the democratic republic of Czecho-Slovakia in 1918.

Europe’s empire-building habit, however, burdened the new republic with an old problem; Czecho-Slovakia turned out to be too much like the empire it helped to destroy. Prague was granted the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia and an unincorporated Slovak territory from the Hungarian Kingdom, but the new borders did not align perfectly with ethnic populations. Of its 13 million citizens, less than half — 6.8 million — were Czech. The rest included 1.9 million Slovaks, 745,431 Hungarians, 461,849 Ruthenians, and 75,853 Poles. [2] Most ominous, however, were 3.1 million Germans along the republic’s borders (the “Sudetenland”), who were not given any say in where they would live. Their immediate demands to merge with Austria or Germany were outlawed.

That Czechs did not constitute even half the population of a country everyone assumed they would govern undermined the majority-rule basis of national self-determination. It occurred to Prague, however, that if one pretended Czechs and Slovaks are one people this new ethnic group would number 8.7 million people — or 65 percent. Since this appeared the only way to rescue the Czechs from reverting to minority status in their new country, Prague began to insist on a largely fictitious “Czechoslovak” nationality and language as components of its new constitution and centralized government.

Promises of autonomy for the Slovaks were ignored, and the two peoples settled into an unequal, unhappy, dysfunctional relationship, only to fall captive to the empires of Nazi Germany (1938-1945) and the Soviet Union (1948-1991). With this endless, unhappy experience of three successive empires, is it any wonder the Slovaks exited the Czecho-Slovak “empire” so quickly?

And what a difference a divorce makes.

Throughout 2018, diplomats from both countries have come together at countless ceremonies to celebrate the 100thanniversary of the founding of Czecho-Slovakia — and the 25thanniversary of the “divorce.” One would be hard-pressed to find such harmony and good will between any other two peoples. “Today,” says Radio Prague, “they say they have no closer partner in Europe, or beyond.” [3]

After his 2018 appointment as Slovak Prime Minister, Peter Pellegrini made Prague his first foreign stop in April. His Czech counter-part, Andrej Babiš, reported Radio Prague, “welcomed Pellegrini as a close friend.” The two states have become each other’s second-largest trading partner — after Germany — and Czechia is the second most-popular tourist destination for Slovaks.

Both leaders appeared together again on Česká Televisein May, declaring that the founding of Czecho-Slovakia, as well as its break-up, “benefitted the Czechs and Slovaks,” according to Radio Prague. The first republic enabled the Slovaks to emerge from 1,000 years of Hungarian oppression, Pellegrini said, while their split occurred in “an exemplary manner without conflict or bloodshed.” He said the 25 years apart have brought the two countries closer together. [4]

Opinion polls confirm all of this. Seventy-nine percent of Czechs feel they can “trust and rely on” Slovaks, the highest rating of any of 11 European nations and the United States (trusted by 41 percent of Czechs), according to a 2016 poll of citizens. Seventy-eight percent of Slovaks feel the same way about the Czechs (while only 27 percent trust Americans), the highest level of Slovak trust among the 2 nations listed. [5] A 2017 poll of “policy-makers and opinion leaders” in Central Europe provided further confirmation. “The Czech-Slovak ties,” it said, “are the only ones which might be considered outstanding.” [6]

Less outstanding are their relations with the often-disapproving European Union, with truculent arguments over migrants just one of many of their differences.

The EU — which one analyst calls “the first post-modern empire” [7] — is in effect an empire of hearts and minds. It reflects elite aspirations to create a new rational and moral commonwealth, based on abstract principles they believe to be universal, derived from the application of human reason and the assumption of human goodness. This gives politics a less pragmatic and more emotional character, so that any failure at consensus is blamed on either bad faith, outdated institutions or customs, or on a lack of intelligence or the moral failings of those who disagree — most often the EU’s newest members from the East.

Innocents assume the EU exists for the pragmatic purpose of creating and maintaining a free-trade, travel, and currency zone, all of it to strengthen economic growth through greater efficiencies and economies of scale. Yet Brussels has long since moved on to a more ambitious project — getting all of Europe to subscribe to a very au courant political and social agenda. EU edicts aim to impose modern progressive political values on its members, requiring them to adopt domestic policies more popular in Paris than in Bratislava. This alienates many voters in the East and is, in fact, seen as trampling on their domestic sovereignty.

Because EU’s principles purport to be universal, its edicts are uniform, taking no account of the radically different histories and cultures of its eastern members, 11 of whom recently emerged from decades of totalitarian oppression. Last exposed to the full light of Western Civilization in the 1930s, they are now learning just how much that civilization has changed.

Their much more recent experience of empires, wars, and occupations makes realism, rather than utopianism, the dominant ethos among the EU’s eastern members. Taking for granted that human nature is not always benevolent, they incorporate imperfect human impulses into their plans. Living in the shadow of both Russia and Germany, they know politics is about power and conflict, where moral principles may never be fully realized yet might be approximated through negotiation and compromise. Easterners rely more on historic precedent than abstract principles and aim at the realization of lesser evils rather than absolute goods. All of this makes them wary of the EU’s post-modern imperium.

The rule of empires, not nationalism, is Europe’s tradition, but each empire has an expiration date. If the EU imperium aims to survive long enough to leave a worthwhile legacy, it ought to take history and culture into consideration and demonstrate more tolerance for its eastern members. If, instead, the EU continues to brow-beat, threaten, and punish them, Vladimir Putin might finally enjoy a real coup in his relentless efforts to lure these countries into his orbit.

_______________________________________________________________Kevin J. McNamara visited five cities in the Czech and Slovak Republics in 2018 for the U.S. State Department. An Associate Scholar of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, he is the author of Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe (New York: Public Affairs), which tells the very dramatic story of Czecho-Slovakia’s founding.

This article is based on remarks delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, on October 4, 2018.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The “Czechoslovak” spelling was an artful creation of the Czechs who dominated the first republic, founded in 1918 amidst broken promises for autonomy for the Slovaks. Originally, the hyphen was used by Czecho-Slovakia’s first president, Tomas G. Masaryk; by his “Czecho-Slovak National Council” in Paris; by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; and in many of the documents that circulated at the Paris peace talks. It was Prague’s subsequent desire to promote the fiction of a single “Czechoslovak” people that led the government in Prague to drop the hyphen.

[2] Census of 1921, conducted on the basis of “mother tongue.” Statistics on Czechs are arrived at by subtracting those on Slovaks from those called “Czechoslovak.” While imprecise, these numbers are widely accepted. Vaclav L. Benes, “Czechoslovak Democracy and Its Problems, 1918-1920,” in A History of the Czechoslovak Republic, 1918-1948, Victor S. Mamatey and Radomir Luza, eds. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 40.

[3] “Slovak PM in Prague: Greater Respect for National Interests Would Help Prevent EU Divides,” by Daniela Lazarova, Radio Prague, April 12, 2018.

[4] “Czech and Slovak Prime Ministers Say Common State Was Beneficial,” by Daniela Lazarova, Radio Prague, May 26, 2018.

[5] 25 Years of the V4 as Seen by the Public, by Olga Gyarfasova and Grigorij (Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs, 2016), pp. 20-21. The polling was limited to residents of the four Central European member states of the Visegrad Group (V4). Aside from the United States, and the Czech and Slovak republics, the countries whose trustworthiness was assessed were Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. Aside from the Czech and Slovak republics, the V4 Group includes Hungary and Poland.

[6]Trends of Visegrad European Policy, by Vít Dostál and Zsuzsanna Végh (Prague: Association of International Affairs, 2017), pp. 12, 15-16. Policy-makers and opinion leaders from the four Visegrad Group (V4) states were asked to assess their own country’s relations with the other V4 countries and several other EU member states.

[7] “If the European Union Is the Titanic, Bet on the Iceberg,” by Doug Bandow, The National Interest, December 8, 2016.

Czech President Thomas Masaryk, at Karlovy Vary in 1931 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-11965 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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Author: Kevin J. McNamara