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The Role Of Ethnic Nationalism In Czechoslovakia History Essay

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The Power of the Powerless (Czech: Moc bezmocných) is an expansive political essay written in October 1978 by the Czech dramatist, political dissident and later politician, Václav Havel. The essay dissects the nature of the communist regime of the time, life within such a regime and how by their very nature such regimes can create dissidents of ordinary citizens. The essay goes on to discuss ideas and possible actions by loose communities of individuals linked by a common cause, such as Charter 77.

The separation of Czechoslovakia traverses a long time. As early as 1918, the two groups, the Czechs and the Slovaks seemed uncomfortable co-existing due to minor differences. Although various factors are responsible for the break-up of Czechoslovakia, ethic based nationalism played a critical role in the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Henceforth, matters came to a head in January 1968 when the Czech leader, Antonin Novotny, a pro-Moscow communist, was forced to resign and Alexander Dubcek became the First Secretary of the communist party. Dubcek and his supporters had a completely new program, primarily the communist power would no longer dictate policy or dominate the political and social life of the state. Industry would be de-centralized, which meant that factories would be run by works councils instead of being controlled from the capital by party officials. Independent cooperatives were to be set up to govern farm work, rather than them being collectivized. There were to be wider powers for trade unions, expansion of trade with the West and freedom to travel abroad. A significant accent was made on the encouragement of freedom of speech and freedom for the press. The government longed for criticism; Dubcek believed that although the country would remain communist, the government should earn the right to be in power by responding to people’s wishes. He called it ‘socialism with a human face’.

This does not however negate the fact that other factors such as the surrounding environment facilitated the separation. As the paper develops, it is revealed that events in Eastern Europe, especially in Yugoslavia and in the USSR proved significant in terms of influencing the separation.
Nagy’s plans were cut short by the fall of his Soviet Protector, Malenkov, in February 1955. Rakosi seized the opportunity to regain leadership over both the state and the party, re-instituting a Stalinist hard line. Nagy gave in without a fight, perhaps because he expected Rakosi would fail in his attempt to re-impose ideological conformity. His intuition has not deceived him; hatred of Rakosi’s brutal and repressive regime which executed at least 2000 people and put 200,000 other in prisons and concentration camps was enormous. Masses were enraged by the falling living standards, while hated party leaders were comfortably off. However, Nagy could hardly have expected the shake-up in the Soviet block that was to result from Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956. While Rakosi tried to re-establish his authority, Khrushchev was exonerating Bela Kun, a discredited former Rakosi rival and a National Communist. Buoyed up by Khrushchev’s action, Hungarian intellectuals demanded an investigation of Rakosi’s past, and three months later, inspired by Gomulka’s successful stand in Poland, openly opposed Rakosi in the columns of the party newspaper Szabad Nep. The Soviet Union opposed Rakosi’s plan to silence his opposition by arresting Nagy and other intellectuals, both because the plan might fail and because it certainly would not endear the Communist party to the Hungarian population.

Despite this realization, this paper solely focuses on how ethnic nationalism proved to be the main factor in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. In order to bring out the role of ethnic nationalism, the paper gives a chronology of events and then shows how such events were shaped by ethnic nationalism.
Czechoslovakia, now known as the Czech Republic is a small country located in central Europe. The cause for the separation of the country was that both the Czechs and the Slovaks had different views in their government. After many conflictions with the government, they decided to change from one country to two. Before we get all into that, you should know about its history, their political system and the people.

The inhabitants of the current Czech and Slovak originally came from the political entity under the Great Moravian Empire. At the peak of the empire, it was slightly bigger than Czechoslovakia. At the collapse of the empire, beginning the 10th century marked the point at which separation began.

The government for Czechoslovakia started way back at the beginning when it wasn't even considered a country. How it is run now, is...

At this point, the Czech speaking people from the western part commenced a different historical development. On the other hand, the current day Slovakia became part of the Hungarian state. During this time, power rested with the Magyarized Slovaks and the Magyars.
The Power of the Powerless was originally written by Havel in October 1978. It had its genesis in a planned book of Polish and Czechoslovak essays on the nature of freedom. Each of the contributors was to have received a copy of Havel's essay and then to respond to it. However only the individual Czechoslovak essays were "published" and distributed in samizdat form in 1979 after Havel was arrested along with other members of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (Výbor na obranu nespravedlivě stíhaných or VONS); an organization that Havel co-founded in 1979. An English translation by Paul Wilson was published in 1985 in a volume of essays edited by John Keane.

This was especially the case in the cities having Germans. Come 1918, the Czechoslovakia republic was established. However, one third of its population had different nationalities other than Slovaks and/or Czechs.
From 1918 until 1938, Czechoslovakia had been a liberal, west-orientated state, valuing democratic principles, such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement and so forth. Soviet acquisition of Czech territory has not only brought Russian domination in the country’s political affairs, but also the ideological uncertainty. Social-political repression - media/press censorship, restrictions on personal liberty, economic imposition of Soviet delegated economic measures - were resented by Czech intellectuals and masses in general. Violent and brutal methods of the police, which were often used to disperse various protest marches and demonstrations, only mounted tenacious opposition in the Czech population.

Worse still, in 1930, there were more German-based nationals when compared to Slovaks. The republic's German ethnic citizens were 3,306,099 as compared to 2,295,067 of the Slovaks (Skalnik 1997).

The constitution of 1920 gave the Slovak language legal status as Czech.

Under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, there was an omnipresent pressure exerted by the political apparatus on culture. Various methods were utilized to pressure citizens into compliance. Havel's philosophical mentor, Jan Patočka, who was also the co-spokesman of the human rights petition, Charter 77, died of a stroke in March 1977, after an eleven-hour interrogation by the Czechoslovak secret police regarding his involvement in the Charter.

However, the constitution failed to settle the question regarding whether the two languages were separate or equal. The constitution though indicated that Czechoslovakia was linguistically a unit. This is based on the idea that the republic rested on the idea that the Czechoslovak language being common among the people of the republic (Kamm 1992).
From the afore-analyzed events we can make a conclusion that rebellions which occurred in Hungary and in Czechoslovakia were bound to take place sooner or later. Masses were tormented through the extensive control of the Soviet Union. They longed for better standards of living, for freedom of various life aspects, such as speech, movement, choice. People were suppressed from communication with the rest of the world, suppressed form cultural and industrial progress. This degradation could not be endured for a long period of time, which was justified later on in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Despite the presence of other ethnic groups surprisingly having larger numbers than the Slovaks, the preamble of the constitution clearly underscored the direction the republic was taking, that of recognizing the two groups, Czechs and Slovaks.
The topic of how best to resist a totalitarian system occupied Havel's mind after the launch of Charter 77. This became the crux of his essay, which was one of the most "original and compelling pieces of political writing" to come out of the Eastern Bloc. Dedicated to the memory of Jan Patočka, the opening section of the essay sought to explain what Charter 77 signified to those living within Czechoslovakia, and "to give courage" to fellow opponents of the Soviet block elsewhere.

This unity between the Slovaks and the Czechs formed the ideological basis upon which held the state together. The tragedy of this state of affairs however rested on the idea that the Czechoslovakian State was in part not cognizant with the ethnic identity of the Slovaks.
Despite the fact that Dubcek’s government was most careful to assure the Russians that Czechoslovakia would stay in the Warsaw Pact and remain a reliable ally, Russians became immensely disturbed as the new program was carried into operation. They were well conscious that such a immense liberalization in Czechoslovakia would lead to an all-round cooperation with the Western block, and thus with the United States. Russians could not give card blance to Czechoslovakia, and therefore in August 1968 a massive invasion of Czechoslovakia took place by Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Hungarian and East German troops. The hapless Czechs, stunned and infuriated, were forced to restore Communist party control, remove Dubcek, re-impose censorship, and curb democratization. Reprisals followed and the new leadership imposed severe dictatorial controls.

Constitutionally, the Slovaks were at a disadvantage specifically prior to the Second World War. At this time, the Czechs failed to make any meaningful effort in concealing their conviction that they were superior to the Slovaks in reference to culture and literature.
Havel touches upon the concepts articulated by fellow dissident and Charter 77 signatory, Vaclav Benda, who had earlier described "parallel structures" of "parallel institutions" within a society more responsive to human needs. He points out that the first person in Czechoslovakia to formulate and put into practice a concept of a "second culture" was Ivan Jirous; although Jirous was mainly referring to events such as rock music concerts.

The relations between the two groups were further dented by the economic circumstances they found themselves (Mojmir 1999).

Unlike in other cases of nationalism where violence takes its toll, the case of Czechoslovakia reflects a stark contrast as the pursuit for independence ended peacefully, without bloodshed.

In later sections, Havel writes of what form opposition in such regimes could take and the nature of being a dissident in the circumstances of the time, using the example of Charter 77. Havel's political program being a breaking with both the traditional forms of governing and opposition. He contrasts Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk's observation of the limits of grassroots organization, of so-called small works, with the example of the Polish Workers' Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników or 'KOR) and of what could be achieved through an independent social life and organization to achieve "social self-defense". Such a defense throughout the then Eastern Bloc having as its basis the defense of human and civil rights.

The separation, coming up in 1992 has been seen as based on cultural differences between the two states, Czech and Slovakia. Although ethnicity played a key role in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, other aspects were equally crucial.
Havel explained step-by-step that the powerlessness of the powerful is traceable to several factors: Those who rule at the top of the pyramid are fundamentally incapable of controlling every aspect of an individual citizen's life despite their best efforts to do so. And those in petty power positions all the way down the line perform the prescribed rituals mandated by the State yet it is this blind obedience which in turn tends to dull the perceptions of the leaders at the top — inadvertently opening space for those who wish not to conform.

Specifically, the role of negotiations in seeking separation stands critically valuable in the separation process.

Referring to the Baltic States, no major disputes were reported between the two nations, a major reflection on why there was no violence witnessed.

Havel uses the example of a green grocer who displays in his shop the sign Workers of the world, unite!. Since failure to display the sign could be seen as disloyalty, he displays it and the sign becomes not a symbol of his enthusiasm for the regime, but a symbol of both his submission to it and humiliation by it. Havel returns repeatedly to this motif to show the contradictions between the "intentions of life" and the "intentions of systems", i.e. between the individual and the state, in a totalitarian society.

The other reason rests on the idea that the two states did not have mutually exclusive ethnic groups (Csergo 2001).

Before the first establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Slovaks had lived within the Hungarian kingdom for ten centuries, and the old territorial border remained a sub-state boundary in Czechoslovakia (Rothschild 1974).

Although the Hungarian uprising had failed due to the military predominance of the Soviet Union, the longing for liberalization and independence refused to be suppressed. In Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s the internal reforms went furthest from any other satellite state in the Eastern block, which posed the most direct challenge to the Soviets. The Czechoslovakian opposition escalated gradually for several reasons. First of all, the Czechs were industrially and culturally the most advanced of the Eastern bloc peoples, who strongly objected to the over-centralized Soviet control of their economy. It seemed senseless, for example, that they should have to put up with poor quality iron-ore from Siberia when they could have been using high-grade from Sweden.

After decades of co-existence with the prospect of mobility within a common state-first in interwar Czechoslovakia, later in communist Czechoslovakia-no sizable Czech national minority developed on Slovak territory or Slovak historic minority in the Czech lands that would articulate a sub-state national challenge to either of the new states.
Havel proposes that the oppressed always contain "within themselves the power to remedy their own powerlessness..." Havel argued that by an individual "living in truth" in their daily life they automatically differentiate themselves from the officially mandated culture prescribed by the State; since power is only effective inasmuch as citizens are willing to submit to it.

Another important reason why the Czech and Slovak divorce lacked significant controversy was that the Hungarian minority in the Slovak part of the state, a historic minority with competing homeland claims in the southern region of Slovakia, did not challenge the Slovaks' right to independence (Brubaker 1996).

Many Slovaks and Czechs had a desire to continue co-existing under the Czechoslovakia federal.

After the launch of Charter 77, which coincided with the release of The Power of the Powerless, Havel was put under continuous pressure by the secret police. He was under constant government surveillance and they interrogated him almost daily. When he didn't cave, Havel was imprisoned. He was arrested in May 1979 and remained imprisoned until February 1983.

However, a slender majority of the Slovaks were in favour of a loose co-existence whereby achieving full independence and sovereignty was the main goal. After 1990, political parties re-emerged in Czechoslovakia. The most noticeable issue centred on the absence or limited presence of Czech parties in Slovakia and corresponding scenario depicting a limited precedence of Slovak parties in Czech. The government, in a bid to have a functional state relied on Prague as a control centre while Slovaks were intent on achieving decentralization (Wolchik 1995).
The causes for such a massive and all-captivating rebellion, which occurred both in Hungary (1956) and in Czechoslovakia (1968), originated most from deep-rooted antagonism towards Soviet domination in the Eastern Europe in the post-war era. A continuous political and cultural suppression by Soviet dictatorial policies, obviously linked with economic constraints, coalesced to provoke robust insurrections. Short-term reasons are of no less importance in the analysis of these events. In the case of Hungary, Khrushchev’s speech on the 20th Part Congress - which discredited Stalinist rule and encouraged a policy of diversion - played a significant role in the development of Hungarian resistance. While observing events in Czechoslovakia, the role of Dubcek’s government should be emphasized, since it was their new program, which raised a significant enthusiasm in Czechs, to aim for a neutral course.

Based on the views of the Czechs, the Sudeten German people played a significant role in the breakup of the state of Czechoslovakia. This happened at the Munich conference in 1938. At this point, around twenty-eight percent of the German population was in support of the pan-German nationalism.

The Soviet leaders decided time was ripe for a change in the leadership in the Hungarian Communist Party (CPH). Nevertheless, they denunciated Nagy as a potential premier and instead appointed Erno Gero, whose governing methods, according to Tito, were in no particular way different from Rakosi’s. Had the Soviet leaders supported Nagy at this point, when he still had a chance to put himself at the head of the reforming forces, they might have prevented the more radical revolution that was to follow.

However, the collapse of the sovereignty of the Czechoslovakia republic is traceable to the minority Germans who were calling for annexation of Sudetenland into the 3rd Reich. As such, the German minorities found among the populations of the Czechs and the Slovaks were the primary reason behind the separation of Czechoslovakia into two states (Wightman 1991).
One of the main reasons for the initiation of a certain alienation process in Hungary was the brink of an economic catastrophe, to which Hungary was brought by its ex-premier Matyas Rakosi in the mid-1950’s. Since Hungarian economic developments mirrored those of the Soviet Union, Rakosi also made a strong emphasis on the build-up of Hungarian heavy industry at the expense of the rest of the economy. Likewise, Rakosi’s successor, Imre Nagy, was to pursue Malenkov’s ‘new course’, which aimed to divert the country’s resources to light industry and seize the imposed collectivization of agriculture. The economic relaxation led to a corresponding intellectual relaxation. Intellectuals began to discuss not only the nature of the changes in Hungarian communism, but also the value of a Communist system; society commenced debating on the possibility of achieving democracy in a Communist state.

Referring to the Slovak economy, there was a slight growth and development at the onset years before slumping into a slow down during the interwar period. As at 1937, twenty-four percent of the country's economy was under the control of the Slovaks. Of the twenty four percent, the Slovak population only contributed eight percent in reference to the industrial sector. The contribution based on the agricultural sector was not any favourable towards the overall economic capability of Czechoslovakia.

Individuals at each level within the bureaucracy must display their own equivalent of the grocer's Workers of the world, unite! sign, oppressing those below them and in turn oppressed by those above. Against this public lie is contrasted a life lived in truth, a title suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his essay Live Not By Lies. Havel argued that the restoration of a free society could only be achieved through a paradigm based on the individual, "human existence," and a fundamental reconstitution of one's "respect for self, for others and for the universe"; to refuse to give power to empty slogans and meaningless rituals, to refuse to allow the lie to oppress oneself, and to refuse to be part of the lie that oppresses others.

This played a part in sowing the seeds of negative ethnicity in the state since the Czechs viewed the Slovaks' contribution as minimal to deserve a special place in the Czechoslovakia configuration. Put in simplistic terms, the Czechs saw the Slovaks as appendages to the economy (Brubaker 1996).

It is not perplexing to note that voices calling for self-government by the Slovaks began early prior to the post first world war. The signing of treaties signalled the movement towards independence as this served as a platform used to launch a political party as early as 1919, Slovak People's Party. Despite this development, the response by the central government from Prague turned out to be formal. In 1938, Nazi Germany forced Czechoslovakia to surrender the German-speaking segment. The Slovaks took advantage of this scenario to declare their autonomy given the ensuing paralysis. After a month, Hungary, took a large part of the southern part of Slovakia, which was home to a good number Magyar minority ethnic group. A day before Nazi fighters commenced occupying the remaining parts of the Czech-speaking section Slovakia declared its independence (Brubaker 1996).

Given the time, it was only logical for Slovakia to declare its independence.

Official power is further eroded by the ideological rituals that the entire power structure depend on, and "that are ever less credible, exactly because they are untested by public discussion and controversy". Havel argued that the part of a human being that yearns for freedom, truth, and self-dignity can never be fully repressed.

If Slovakia would have failed to take the move to declare its independence, then possibly, the Germans or the Hungarians could have laid a claim to its control. The worst scenario could have witnessed a partitioning of the Slovakia State between the Germans and the Hungarians. The Slovakia declaration could not amuse the Czechs at the same time since the Czechs' foreign policy was unstable.
Havel echoed Patočka's sentiment that no matter what the situation, individuals carry responsibility with them. Therefore it is possible to not allow oneself to be humiliated by superiors anymore, or intimidated by the secret police. Havel felt that all that is suffered over time under such systems often leads to deeper reflection: "There are times, when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight." Havel wrote that "living in truth" meant rejecting the notion that power is something to be grasped or abolished. Havel instead argues that power is relational.

As such gaining independence on the part of the Slovaks could not be counted or seen as betrayal to the Czechs (Musil 1995).

After World War 2, there were controversies regarding how the republic would be ordered. Immediately after the war, political party leaders from both the Czech and the Slovaks communities in exile, commenced talks on the way forward regarding the relations between the two groups. Several arrangements were proposed with the exiled Czechoslovakia president Edvard Benes preferring the pre-war arrangement. Other arrangements tossed included having a partially independent Slovakia State, fully independent Slovakia, a soviet Slovakia to a federal government (Rothschild 1974).

In 1945, Slovak was given some measure of self-government under a program entered at Kosice. However, less than a year down the line, the authority of Slovak's National Council had become weak and was operating in subordination to that of the Czechoslovak government. Although attempts were made to strengthen the Slovak National Council's powers, in 1960, the passing of the socialist constitution paved way for centralization of powers. This thus marked the demise of the Slovak National Council as far as power relations were concerned (Innes 2001).

From this time on, an asymmetry in relations was to ensue unabated. The asymmetry in relations between the Slovaks and the Czechs soared during the 1960's and it proved an irritant to the two parties. The initial view by the Slovaks that they were appendages in the arrangement of co-existing with the Czechs took its toll, as legislation by the central government appeared to cater for the interests of the Czechs as opposed to those of the two parties. On the other part of the divide, the Czech community perceived that those Slovak institutions, which did not have corresponding ones in the Czech territory as undue privileges, awarded to the Slovaks.

An individual living within such a system must live a lie, to hide that which he truly believes and desires, and to do that which he must do to be left in peace and to survive.

As an illustration, the Slovak Academy of Sciences was seen as an undue privilege provided to the Slovaks. Even though it took long to come out in the open, the Czechoslovak Communist Party's Central Committee responded in1968 as pressure mounted due to the dissatisfaction in Slovakia. The pressure paid off as later in the same year, the Czechoslovak National Assembly gave in to demands to have a federation in the country (Kamm 1992).

As such, the federation facilitated the co-existence of Slovak Socialist Republic and Czech Socialist Republic until 1990. The two groups had separate jurisdiction in reference to both primary and secondary education. Other aspects involved apart from separate jurisdiction included health, internal commerce, national culture among others. It should be noted that the tendency to centralize power at the expense of the separate jurisdictional arrangement continued (Mojmir 1999). The velvet revolution coming in 1989 brought to a halt of forty years of communist rule. Attendant to this was the reopening of the question on Czech-Slovak association. At this time, the democratic space was wide and it was difficult to hide the differences between the two groups (Innes1997).

At 1990, the changing of the wording of the state took centre stage since the Slovaks questioned whether the then wording, Czechoslovak. To the Slovaks, the word failed to reflect equality. In addition the Czechs doubted whether the wording reflected ethnic distinctness characterizing the two groups. This rested on the idea that Czech was being used synonymously with Czechoslovak. After considering options, the word Czech and Slovak Federative Republic was adopted. However, this did not dampen the spirits of sections of Slovaks who still felt that they were entitled to be existing distinctly away from the Czechs. Slovaks in the Diaspora who supported calls for complete independence heavily influenced this minority group (Kraus 2000).

After the elections of 1990, the rift between the two groups seemed to be widening. In a bid to arrest the situation, representatives from the warring sections, Czech and Slovak, continued meeting behind closed doors. The representatives from the side of the Slovaks was clear, they wanted to have strong republics coming together to form a federation while the representatives from the Czech side were in support of a stronger central government. This s not surprising since the Czechs knew that a stronger central government was instrumental in fostering their interests since they controlled the wing of government. Aware of the same predicament, the Slovaks were unwilling to play second fiddle to the Czechs since they fully understood that their interests would be best taken care of under an arrangement which made the republics autonomous. However, in practice, having strong republics would simply imply a reduced role of central government and increased difficulties in policymaking. This was a precursor to actual separation. It was not surprising as later in the same year, nine political parties from Slovak published seven points in a clear indication of declaring self-rule. December the same year, all parties, party to the coalition government were ready to petition the Slovak government to declare sovereignty of Slovak laws over those of the federation. However, this was shelved due to economic and other considerations (Musil 1995).

Immediate causes for the dissolution however centre on the issue of inevitability against the velvet revolution events. Those who favour inevitability point to the problems facing the two nations under shared communalism. In reference to this, communalism thrived in the Slovak land while failing in the Czech land. The 1968 constitution, which provided for a minority veto was also partly to blame. Looking at events between 1989 and 1992, one gets the idea those international events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union being a huge influence (Csergo 2001).

According to Hilde (1999), the Slovaks were a distinct ethnic group from the Czechs. They had their own language as well as a well-defined territorial space. In addition, a larger part of their history was clearly different from the one of the Czechs. Further, there was a difference in the attitudes of the two groups as underscored by the cautious and pragmatic approach by the Czechs. Although ethnicity played a critical role in the separation of the two countries, events in Europe were also partly responsible for the split. This view is held in respect to the events in Yugoslavia and USSR.


It is clear that ethnic nationalism was at the centre in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Claims on various aspects like economic, social and legislative matters simply oscillated around ethnicity. The most critical finding rests on the idea that perceptions were different. On the one hand, the Czechs perceived themselves as being superior to the Slovaks. On the other hand, the Slovaks felt undermined in the union. Overall, the contribution towards the economic wellness of the country was skewed since Slovak offered less as compared to Czech. The feeling of inferiority coupled with the fact that the Slovaks had a different history worsened matters, as they appear to have slowly but progressively pushed for their independence. Other ethnic minorities in the country of Czechoslovakia contributed towards the collapse of the republic. As illustrated, the Sudeten German people proved influential in reference to the calls made in favour of the annexation of Sudetenland into the 3rd Reich. It is concluded that although other factors such as events elsewhere in Europe being partly influential on the direction taken by Czechoslovakia, the role of ethnic nationalism was clearly a driving force leading to the eventual split of country.

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