Country Profile: The Czech Republic

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Country Profile: The Czech Republic

Three Countries in One  Czechoslovakia didn't come into existence as a single nation until 1918, hence its people tend not to think of themselves as "Czechoslovakians" but to identify themselves with their region. Before 1918, there were three countries: Bohemia (capital: Prague), Moravia (capital: Brno), and Slovakia (capital: Bratislava). Czechoslovakia is shoe-shaped. The western "heel" of the shoe is Bohemia. The middle "instep" is Moravia. The eastern "toe" is Slovakia. Of the three, Bohemia has the largest population and dominates Czech history. Bohemia is also the most westernized: Prague is actually to the west of Vienna! Early in history, Bohemia and Moravia more or less merged, and came to be known jointly as "Czechy" — the Czech Lands. The big distinction has been between Bohemia-and-Moravia and Slovakia, or between the Czech and Slovak peoples.

In fact, Czechs and Slovaks are ethnically akin; they have been separated, not by race but by history. Their languages are close too: people who speak one can understand someone speaking the other — usually. You'll quickly notice how distinctive is the Czech language, the hardest-sounding of all Slavic tongues. It has few vowels, and many consonants. Whole sentences can be built without a single vowel! A popular example: strc prst skrz krk, "Put the finger through your throat" — a saying having no significance except to illustrate the shortage of vowels in Czech.

Crossroads of Europe  Czechoslovakia is in the heart of Europe. In fact, the exact midpoint of the European continent is marked by a stone slab in the town of Cheb, about 90 miles west of Prague. This has made Czechoslovakia subject to foreign influences and invasions from the very start, and is in a sense its "curse of geography." Yet it has also been a blessing: Czechs have adapted the contributions of many countries, making them a highly cosmopolitan people. The greatest foreign influence has been from Germany and Austria. Bohemia is surrounded by Germany on three sides. The only thing that held Germanic tribes back were high mountain ranges. Yet the German language and German culture did penetrate Czech life, especially during the period of Austrian rule. Original inhabitants of the land were Slavic tribes. Then, large numbers of Celtic tribesmen migrated in, mingling with native Slavic population. One of the Celtic tribes was called Boii, and from this name comes "Bohemia" (as well as "Bavaria"). From that time on, there has been a constant mingling and moving of peoples, making for a history of warfare — but also for a psychology of tolerance.

Great Moravian Empire  The first real "state" in Czechoslovakia (9th century). At this time, Christianity was introduced by two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius (who also brought it to Russia). Cyril and Methodius introduced the alphabet and were responsible for some of the earliest Slavic literature in Europe.

But the Great Moravian Empire disintegrated through internal conflicts and by attacks by Hungarian tribes. Slovakia was broken off and absorbed into Hungary (where it remained for centuries). Bohemia now took center stage.

Good King Wenceslas  The first great King of Bohemia was Vaclav I (920-935), known in English-speaking countries as Wenceslas, and popularized in the English Christmas carol. (The carol describes how Wenceslas sees a peasant carrying firewood at Christmastime, and how he befriends him.) Vaclav spread Christianity to the country villages which were still half-pagan; was well educated, and spoke Latin and Greek. Some of Europe's first coins were minted, and Prague became a center of trade between the Orient and Western Europe, with much prosperity. The Czech groschen, made of silver, became known as the safest currency in Europe. But Vaclav's brother Boleslav thought he was too accommodating to the German Empire, and he assassinated him. Afterward, Vaclav was made a saint, and he became a national hero. Prague's main square is named for him.

House of Luxembourg  Quarreling broke out among contenders to the throne, and the Czech nobility (called the "Czech Estes") selected a foreigner, John of Luxembourg — another example of outside influences. John left the governing to the Czech nobles, and occupied himself with French amusements. Being a Francophile, he joined the French against the English in the Battle of Crecy (1345), where he was killed. The English, led by Richard III, were so impressed with John's courage in battle that they incorporated into the coat-of-arms of the English royal family the three ostrich feathers of John's crown. (They're still there.)

Charles the Great: John's son, Charles IV, was Bohemia's greatest king. He also became Holy Roman Emperor, and brought Bohemia to the forefront of European states. That's why so many places in Czechoslovakia are named "Karl" (Charles in Czech): Karlstejn, Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad — famous resort spa), Karluv Most (Charles Bridge in Prague), etc. Great building projects were begun in Prague, transforming it into a French Gothic city. Charles founded the University of Prague in 1348 — the first university in central Europe. His reign (1345-78) is still called the "Golden Age of Bohemia." Charles also reformed the Czech church, putting in motion a reforming tendency that spread like wildfire a century later under the Hussites.

Hussite Movement  The first appearance of Protestantism in central Europe, though the name wasn't used. A reaction to the luxury and worldliness of the church: e.g. sale of indulgences to build archepiscopal palaces, etc. The movement was founded by Jan Hus, the Rector (President) of Prague University, a learned man who studied the writings of the English reformer John Wycliffe. Wycliffe believed in making the Bible available to the common people in their native language, and Hus did just that in Bohemia. The movement spread quickly, arousing the opposition of the pope and the king, but attracting many Bohemian nobles. Hus was banished from Prague, and settled in southern Bohemia, which became a Hussite stronghold. In 1414, Hus was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance to explain his position. He was given safe conduct by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, but was arrested on arrival. When he refused to recant, he was burnt at the stake (August 1415). Many Hussites rose in revolt, led by Czech nobles, and they built fortified cities in southern Bohemia, giving them biblical names (e.g. Tabor, Oreb, Mount of Olives). Hussite Protestants beat off attack after attack made by the forces of the pope and the Austrian emperor. They invented ingenious battle techniques, including armored wagons (forerunner of the modern tank). This period of Hussite victory is often called the "Second Golden Age" of Bohemia. The Hussites even had their own kings, including the great King Jiri, who proposed an international organization to ensure peace among nations (harbinger of the U.N.). At this time, Hungary (including Slovakia) was joined for a time with Bohemia — a demonstration that Czechs and Slovaks could live united. A century later, Martin Luther proclaimed Hus his "great predecessor," and Hus continues to be another national hero to the Czechs.

Defenestration: A native Czech political technique made its appearance during the Hussite Wars. In fact, the wars were touched off when a group of Hussites threw some Catholic town councilors out the window. (Fenestra = window in Latin.) Several other famous defenestrations occurred in Czech history.

Habsburgs  Czech independence came to an end when Turks began overrunning much of Hungary and Slovakia. The Czechs needed a strong leader and they turned to Ferdinand of Habsburg, brother of the Austrian Emperor. Thus was begun the long domination of Bohemia by Austria, which lasted 400 years (until 1918). The Bohemians, largely Protestant, rankled under the official Catholicism imposed by Austria, and resented the German language, which took the place of the native Czech in the courts and universities.

Thirty Years War: The first "world war" in Europe, engulfing the whole Continent. It was a struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, and it began in Prague with another act of defenestration: Czech Protestants threw two envoys of the Austrian emperor out the window of Hradcany Palace (the main castle in Prague: a popular tourist sight) on May 23, 1618. The Thirty Years War was one of Europe's most violent, and the Czechs bore the brunt of it. The Czechs were defeated in the Battle of the White Mountain (Nov. 8, 1620), the nadir of Czech history. Twenty-seven Czech leaders were beheaded in the Old Town Square in Prague, and hundreds of Czech nobles fled the country (that's one reason there are so many Czechs in foreign countries). Harsh repression followed: the Czech language and customs were banned. However, economic development did occur in the 19th century: modern industry, growth of middle class, medicine, education, etc.

Passive resistance: This long experience of foreign domination molded Czech psychology — and prepared it for its contemporary experience with Soviet power. Czechs were masters of "passive resistance" long before Gandhi. They learned how to defy authority without appearing to do so: using "innocuous" wisecracks to score a protest, communicating indirectly, winking, gesturing, smiling, and above all, playing dumb. There is a classic work of Czech literature that illustrates this last technique: the play, The Good Soldier Schweik, written in the 1920's by Jaroslav Hasek. Hasek describes a Czech soldier drafted into the Austrian army and the various ways he plays dumb in order to defy authority: e.g. carrying out all orders literally, somehow getting lost on the way to the front, reading instruction manuals one word at a time, etc. It takes a lot of cleverness to play dumb this effectively — and the Czechs became geniuses at it.

Czech Republic  The Czech national revival began in the 1780's and grew stronger during the 19th century. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, the way to independence was opened. Czech nationalists, led by the scholar Thomas Masaryk, met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the encouragement of President Woodrow Wilson. On October 28, 1918, in Philadelphia (birthplace of the U.S. republic), another republic was proclaimed: Czechoslovakia. Masaryk returned to Prague as its president. In the 1920's and early 30's, Czechoslovakia was one of Europe's most successful democracies: complete personal freedom, free press, a flourishing of the arts. Also, a psychological tie to the U.S. was created, which continues today.

World War II and Aftermath  The Czech Republic was brought to an end by yet another case of foreign intervention. Hitler began demanding that a large colony of ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia be united with the Reich. This area of Czechoslovakia was known as the Sudentenland. In Munich (1938), the Prime Ministers of Britain and France handed the Sudentenland over to Hitler in order to gain "peace in our time." The next year, Hitler's tanks rolled into Prague itself, and Czechoslovakia was dismembered. During World War II, Czech resistance movements brought savage Nazi reprisals. When, in 1942, the German Reichsprotector Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated by Czech nationalists, the Germans destroyed the town of Lidice (just outside of Prague), shot the men and put the women in concentration camps. Lidice is now a national shrine. In 1945, the Red Army entered Czechoslovakia, and by 1948 Czech Communists had come to power in an "election" that is still debated by historians. A harsh Stalinist regime was installed under Antonin Novotny, followed by slightly more moderate regimes.

Crafts: Czechs are great sculptors — in wood and stone. Wooden houses still survive, with elaborately carved gables. Carved wooden toys are popular as gifts. Painting on glass is a national craft, as is porcelain. Moser crystal is famed throughout Europe.

Literature is the Czech art best known to Americans. The poet Reiner Maria Rilke, who wrote in German, is considered one of the greatest European poets of the 20th century. Franz Kafka's novels, such as The Trial, The Metamorphosis, and Amerika, express modern man's feeling of helplessness as he is caught up in vast impersonal forces such as technology, bureaucracy, and mass culture. (Kafka also wrote in German.) Czech writers who wrote in native Czech are Karel Capek (who wrote some of the earliest science fiction, and coined the term "robot") and Jaroslav Hasek, who wrote Good Soldier Schweik. This latter work is as popular in Czechoslovakia as Catcher in the Rye was in the U.S., although it's officially scorned by the Communist regime (since it glorified passive resistance). Hasek's favorite tavern in Prague, called U Kalicha ("At the Flagon"), is a popular spot for foreign visitors, and you'll see pictures of Schweik in shop windows all over Czechoslovakia. Czechs still use the word "Svejkovina" ("the way Schweid does it") to refer to various ways of getting around authority. Freud, although he wrote in German and was an Austrian citizen, was actually born in Czechoslovakia (in Moravia).

Theater and film: Czechs are addicted to theater. Prague alone has 20 repertory theaters — an astounding number for a city of only 1 million. Though drama is censored like everything else, the Czechs employ the "Schweik" technique to make their plays an indirect vehicle of protest. For example, plays will glorify the Hussite movement, but the script will make subtle allusions to show that the play's really about the modern-day "Hussites" who resist Soviet authority.

Czech theater goes all the way back to medieval mystery plays, which were performed in village squares, with all the citizens participating. Czech theater still has a popular, something-for-every- body flavor to it, and is not confined to savants or specialists. Medieval nobles built private theaters in their palaces, and the oldest theater in Europe was in the castle at Cesky Krumlov. The Czechs have evolved some unique drama forms: puppet plays, with elaborate costumes and movements, Also, the Magic Lantern, where actors do pantomimes against a large movie screen, accompanied by music (NOTE: Many Prague theaters are closed in summer.)

Czech audiences love foreign plays, and are as familiar with the works of Arthur Miller, Shaw, Shakespeare, and O'Neill as are English-speaking audiences. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? made a big hit in Prague, and so, for that matter, did My Fair Lady.

Czech film-making is as robust as theater. Two Czech films won Academy Awards (Oscars) as the best foreign films of the year: The Shop on Main Street and Closely Watched Trains. Loves of a Blonde is another Czech film that made it big in the U.S.

Music: Music is a way of life in Czechoslovakia, a tradition going back to the hymns composed by the Hussites. Generous patronage by Czech nobles made Prague the "conservatory of Europe" in the 18th-19th century. Great composers like Beethoven, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky lived and worked in Prague. Mozart's opera Don Giovanni was premiered at the Tyl Theater in Prague on October 29, 1787. The opera is still performed at the same theater. The Czech composers best known to American are Smetana (his symphonic poem, Vltava, the Moldau, celebrates the main river of Bohemia, and this Slavonic Dances have introduced many Americans to Czech folk music) and Anton Dvorak (who lived for two years in New York and put some Negro spirituals into his popular New World Symphony).

Nor is contemporary music forgotten in Czechoslovakia, where you can hear the Beatles or Rolling Stones in Czech! Louis Armstrong was almost mobbed during his Czech tour. Each autumn since 1964, an International Jazz Festival has taken place in Prague.

Folklore  Czech folklore isn't well known outside Czechoslovakia, but the Czechs passionately preserve it. Folk festivals take place at different times of the year in different villages all over the country. Some customs will seem familiar: painted Easter eggs (Slovakia). The day after Easter in Slovakia, a straw effigy representing winter is carried out of the village and dumped into the river. Harvest festivals are still popular. After the wine harvest, there are great wine-tasting ceremonies. At the town of Melnik in Bohemia, someone wearing the costume of Charles the Great arrives at the town gates, accompanied by an entourage. "Charles" then samples the wine product, and (of course) always pronounces it the best yet. Local costumes are a sight to behold, although you see them only at festival times: fancy embroidery and huge bonnets for the women (lace embroidery is a Czech specialty). Folk costume is almost a science in Czechoslovakia: an expert in the subject can look at a man in his local dress and tell not only his region, but his village, his trade, and whether he is married! Out in the field, the Czech women wear the traditional kerchiefs. Each region has its special musical instruments, such as bagpipes and shepherd's pipes.

Food and Drink  Czechs love to eat and drink, and their waistlines show it. Czech cuisine is hearty and wholesome — and heavy. French cook with butter, Czechs with lard. In addition to regular meals, most Czechs have two "snacks" (little meals) each day, at 10:00 and 4:00. Czech national dish: roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut. Main meats: pork, goose, cooked with blood. Favorite snack: Czech "hot dog," called horky parky, served at outdoor sausage stands (look for the sign). Dumplings are stuffed with everything under the sun, sometimes with fruits. The dumplings are always cut with a string, never a knife. Thick gravy usually covers meat dishes, and soups are always popular. Prague ham is about the best in Europe. There's little fish in landlocked Czechoslovakia, except for fresh-water fish like carp and trout (from mountain lakes). Geese run free in the villages — so common they're part of the family. Pickles are served with everything: be prepared. Hungarian influences are seen in Czech goulash, spiced with tons of paprika. U.S.-style steaks are unknown, save in international hotels (where they're likely to be overdone).

The Czech begins his day with "breakfast," which is the exception to the rule about eating a lot. All the Czech wants is coffee — little else. The big meal of the day is lunch, called obed. (How they keep going during the afternoon, after a lunch like that, is a mystery to non-Czechs.) Supper is a lesser affair, called vecere. It's usually a big sandwich: white bread piled with eggs, caviar, ham, cheese...

Beer is the national drink, and beer-brewing is a Czech art going back to medieval monks harvesting the hops. Czechs drink beer from morning to night. Some say that Czech beer surpasses even Bavarian beer, especially the famous Czech brand Pilsen from the town of Pizen. The most popular beer in America, Budweiser, comes from the Czech town of Budweis (called Budejovice in Czech). Beerhouses are a national institution, where people gather for hours of beer and conversation. Most beer taverns have long histories and colorful names.

Wine making is the art of Slovakia, as beer is of Bohemia. In the Middle Ages, wine standards were so high that Slovakian table wine was preferred by Hungarian kings. Plum brandy is another Czech specialty.

A Nation of Workers  Czechoslovakia is the most industrialized nation in central Europe, and its population is skilled in crafts, technology, and engineering. Czechs are the least "Bohemian" of peoples. (The use of "Bohemian" to refer to kinkiness, laziness, or irreverence stems from the Hussite Wars, when the pope and Austrian emperor launched attack after attack that failed; defying superior force, and winning, the Hussites became, well, the "Bohemians" of Europe.) If it weren't for the accidents of history (i.e. foreign intervention), Czechoslovakia would probably be as prosperous as Germany. Today, the Czechs have to work hard just to make ends meet; it's standard practice for husband and wife both to have jobs (day-care centers run by the state handle the children). But there's a positive inducement to work: many special privileges are available only on the job. E.g. hearty, hot meals at noontime for a nominal fee. (No wonder the Czechs eat heavy at state expense, and light at personal expense.) In Czechoslovakia, the necessities of life are expensive (clothes, shoes, appliances), while popular entertainment like cinema, theater, and books are inexpensive (state-subsidized). Imported goods like cosmetics, tweeds, cognac are beyond the reach of most Czechs. Education is free.

Popular Attitudes  Czechs are simple and good-natured. Most come from peasant stock, and everyone has friends or relatives who still live in a vesnice, village. The Czechs have an enduring interest in America, and are the least "anti-American" people in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, American music, books, blue jeans, hair styles, even slang are quickly adopted by the young people. Czechs love the countryside, and city dwellers try to get away on the weekends. Picking mushrooms in the hills is as popular as chasing butterflies in England. The Slovak national anthem begins, "There's lightning over the Tatra Mountains..." TV viewing has cut into the beerhouse custom somewhat, but families still sit under chestnut trees on Sunday while the old folks dance the traditional dances. Czech life has many problems, however: apartments are hard to get, and newlyweds often have to live with the in-laws for many months until apartment vacancies occur. Czechs love their cars — when they can get them. Cars give people a chance to get away from crowded apartments. (A wait of two years for a new car is commonplace.) The most famous Czech car is the Skoda, which is exported throughout Eastern Europe. But underneath the problems, the Czechs maintain (or try to maintain) their native cheerfulness. The "passive resistance" of Schweik goes on just under the surface.

Practical Hints for U.S. Visitors  Don't be misled by the surface appearance of sullenness. True, native spirits are repressed, and Czechs must be careful of what they say and do, especially around foreigners. This may make them seem "unfriendly" at first. But you mustn't think the Czechs hostile toward Americans: they're far more curious about you than you are about them. Above all, avoid "conspicuous consumption," and don't ask your guide questions like, "why are all these things done by hand?" or "Why aren't there more cars on the street?" Something else: consumer goods are difficult for Czechs to get, and they're expensive. The very clothes on your back would fetch a good price (more than you can believe) if you were foolhardy enough to try to sell them. Don't get involved in anything of this kind, or with selling cigarettes or cameras, or funny currency deals with "friendly" strangers. Be polite, but be cautious. Everything you do in Czechoslovakia will be noticed — by someone. So act accordingly.

Avoid getting into heated political discussions; you'll only be making it difficult for the Czechs you're talking to. Remember, you have your U.S. passport and can leave. They can not.

Shopping: The best of Czech goods can be obtained at the Tuzex chain stores. There are about 20 Tuzex stores in Prague. Czech goods sold here are of export quality. Foreign currencies are accepted here — in fact, preferred. Western cigarettes, etc. can be purchased at Tuzex, and nowhere else. Bohemian glass and crystal, peasant pottery, Carlsbad porcelain, and wood carving are sold at some Tuzex outlets. The concierge in your hotel will know the nearest Tuzex store.

(COURIER: This section is long, and so is your drive through Czechoslovakia. You may want to shorten your introduction by omitting historical details, or else by giving different parts of it on different days. In fact, it might be nice to do the latter in any case, since that would "thematize" each day's commentary.)


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