How Czechs Made It through the Last Century
Hailed as the first “cubistic” history of anywhere, this award-winning Polish compendium presents Mariusz Szczygiel’s 2006 attempt to make sense of his nation’s neighbor, the Czech lands that comprised, for most of the last century, half of Czechoslovakia. Cubist, for it refuses one perspective, or one steady perch from where to depict the angles of a land under pressure. Translated into ten languages, here is its English debut through Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ lively rendering. Snappy, moving, inquisitive, and ethical, this examination of how the Czech lands coped under fascism and especially communism, and capitalism before and after those totalitarian regimes, confronts Czech complicity.
Certainly, Szczygiel knows how his foray by way of visits, archives, and interviews reflects back on his own homeland. As an ethnic cousin, he hears resonances, and he relates attitudes Poles have foisted on what they have seen as a more feckless, or less responsible, Slavic nation bordering their own. He impressively manages, however, to make this content accessible beyond this region, so that a wider audience may learn from his diligence. Assembling in-depth profiles, which wind and turn on themselves as if fables, and interspersing wry vignettes, these vivid reports compel one’s attention.
He begins with the Baťashoe empire, which destroyed the traditional way of shoemaking by making it piecemeal work, combining Fordism with Orwellian surveillance and shrewd taskmasters to spur compliance among thousands of workers. When a village cobbler, made destitute by mass production, packed up his tools and shop and sent his final pair of shoes to Tomáš Baťa, Baťa put it on display to demonstrate the backward start from which his enterprise had moved forward. That cobbler himself committed suicide after that final shipment.
How this relentless enterprise fared under the Nazis spins off into subsequent chapters, for capitulation, chosen by most Czechs in order to survive, remains the leitmotif from which Szczygiel composes his intricately arranged scenes.
For example, amid dozens of densely detailed yet briskly told pages, suddenly we meet Ivana Zelníčkov. Born to a Baťa worker in this factory town in 1949, freshly renamed after the first Communist prime minister as “Gottwaldov”, the “American press will call her ‘the spiritual heiress of the genius of capitalism from Zlín who injected an Anglo-Saxon mentality into a Slav body”. Whatever that means. Szczygiel, in typical form, sprinkles such attributions from his journalistic predecessors throughout his chronicle. Sometimes he elaborates on them, sometimes he saunters on.
This sly structure keeps the reader off-guard. In the “liberation” of Gottwald as experienced by young Ivana and her schoolmates, the number of books destroyed was 27 million— about seven times the number of her comrades killed. The enthusiasm with which Czechs embraced their 1948 takeover, when their native Party numbered 40 percent before it wedged in and drove out the non-Communist coalition, surprised those devoted to Moscow. They begged their former rivals to vote against some Party measures, for show, but many who gave in to the new system gave in all the way. At least outwardly.
Such ambiguity sinks into this entire study. Radio Prague played not the Czechoslovakian anthem but that of the Soviet Union at the end of its broadcast. Rivalry continued, however, in more sinister ways. Eager to direct attention away from the iconic Castle to a new Prague icon, across the Vltava River, orders came for a 150-foot granite statue of Stalin, to celebrate his birthday. Szczygiel documents its slow erection, the delays engineered by reluctant architects, and the fate of its designer, sculptor Otokar Švec. His tragic predicament stands for many who had to survive under Stalinism, and the previous as well as later dictatorships. Above all, secrecy compelled intimates to turn inward, to hush.
Censorship sunk in oddly, for “there was no list of names that couldn’t be written or mentioned aloud” as one informant tells the author. How did people know there was a ban? “Everyone had to sense intuitively whose name couldn’t be mentioned.” Indirection dominates. Not only “truth” and “lie” but “I think” in Věra Chytilová’s New Wave films, and a scene in which a man cries “I’m trapped”: all met with elimination from discussion. Szczygiel notes how often the “impersonal” emerges “when people have to talk”—about Communism and their decisions under it to keep working, to keep living.
Szczygiel opines: “As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.” Fifty years after Stalin was toppled from his riverside summit, “Prague’s monument to Stalin does exist.” People still cannot shake their fear that independence cannot endure. As I type this, I think of the assurances now that NATO will shore up nations along the same borders that two decades ago were hailed as harbingers of “the end of history”, as they watch Ukraine and Crimea.
Those who spoke out, as Szczygiel investigates, faced their own fears. Most of the “cultural elite” surrendered to do the bidding of “socialism”, but “a microscopic minority” protested the post-1968 Prague Spring fate of the rock band The Plastic People of the Universe, and these dissenters congregated as “pretenders and castaways from Charter 77” according to the loyal press. While Václav Havel (who appears along with his uncle now and then, in the background) is well-known, the hardships of film writer Jan Procházka and other intellectuals merit their own dramatization.
After “normalization” dominated post-1968, about a tenth of all Czechs were removed from their jobs. Many had to work in menial and even degrading occupations for which they were grossly overqualified or for which they lacked any skills. CLARIFY THIS SENTENCE: While this did admittedly advance class consciousness as the Communists cynically promoted, it made a mockery of artists who claimed, by following orders as it were, that they were in ignorance of what this compelled among the creative class. Szczygiel knows well the parallels in Poland, so he affords fairly the chance for all who made whatever decision they chose to (or had no choice but to choose) in the twisted Czech party logic to justify their own actions, given the lack of alternatives beyond imprisonment, exile, or no income.
Singer Marta Kubišová was one who, after 1968, found herself in internal exile. Separated from her successful partners in the Golden Kid,s Václav Neckář and Helena Vondráčková, whom she told to go on with their careers, she symbolizes the similarly silenced sufferers who endured the regime’s heavy hand. The state archives erased her songs; she could not sing in public for 20 years. When she does so again, after a long estrangement, she does so on stage, hesitantly and awkwardly, reunited with her two partners.
Journalist Eda Kriseová found herself on a list of banned writers prevented from publishing. Working as a librarian but prevented from talking to others, she sought refuge by visiting mental patients to tell them stories. For her, that was “the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity.” Tracing verbal evasion back to Kafka, Szczygiel dutifully tracks down Kafka’s niece near his birthplace in Prague’s Old Town. Szczygiel explains how the nonce word “kafkárna” suitably “describes something everyone knows about, but which they also know nothing can be done about”, as typifying cagey Czechs.
Speaking of words, what about the title of this book? Evidently “Mostly True Stories” has sparked unease from certain Czech critics after its original publication. In the appendix to the new English translation, Szczygiel addresses the reaction to his choices of characters to exemplify Czech evasion and subversion. He emphasizes dissidents such as Kubišová, who faced rejection. He gives equal time to collaborators and compromisers, such as the perennial prizewinning singer and libertine Karol Gott, judged the equal to both “Presley and Pavorotti”. To explain the adulation given Gott by the pro-Soviet regime as well as the post-1989 nation, Szczygiel applies the national stereotype. The Good Soldier Švejk “is the philosopher of cunning acquiescence. And at the same time, the archetype of adaptation.”
Havel and that tiny cadre of opponents to the regime resisted, but most, like Gott, went along, gained plaudits, and grew if not as successful, than at least safe. The alternatives, Szczygiel shows, could be dire.
Author Lenka Reinerová, placed in solitary confinement for 15 months, could not even visit the prison yard. When asked why she was incarcerated, “she invariably heard: ‘You know better than anyone.’” Years later, needing a certificate to prove her arrest, she was told: “Maybe you just imagined it all, comrade.”
Given this situation, Gottland suggests that it seemed wiser for most to bow to safer, secular idols such as Gott, who “is sacred in a desacralized reality” in what Szczygiel terms “the world’s most atheistic country”. I suspected this factoid’s veracity. (Checking, the Czech Republic ranks in 2014 number six; perhaps since the original edition in 2006 or since the Republic’s partition with Slovakia a few citizens reverted back to invisible gods.) Still, such hero worship fits Szczygiel’s set-up. Karol Gott, ever revered, keeps playing the “role of Mein Gott”. His popularity endures.
Within today’s capitalist Czech Republic, how does resistance to such idolatry play out? A young alter-globalization protester decides to emulate the end of Jan Palach. He was chosen by lot to volunteer to set himself on fire at Charles University, near the banks of the Vltava. Palach called horrific attention in January 1969 to the pain of “normalization”. He lingered in agony for 72 hours in the hospital before dying. True to our manner of social protest in a networked generation, Zdenék Adamec posted a message as “The Action Called Torch 2003”. Four yards from the place where Palach immolated himself, so did this second student, at the age of 19, that March.
Nobody called for help. He lived for more than 30 minutes, having first swallowed corrosive acid as had his predecessor to stop from screaming. As Szczygiel refers to Adamec as “Torch Number Two” (his website translates in Czech to “torch”), the site of this second young man’s self-destruction was confused by tourists taking pictures and paying tribute to what they thought of as Jan Palach’s memorial plaque, where “messages appear saying: ‘Zdenék, you’re right!’” Four days later, these flowers and candles were moved out of sight temporarily to allow the site to be filmed for a Canadian biopic about Hitler.
This edition’s new afterword reveals that another Václav, President Kraus, wrote the forward for the perpetually priapic, still award-winning, Gott’s autobiography. One senses Szczygiel’s frustration that the new leaders and the old rascals continue to toast each other’s success. After the poignancy and despair of the Adamec chapter, Szczygiel adds the final word to this translation, if in typically less somber fashion.
Some Czechs thought titling this after Karol G. was unfair. “I started to explain at public events that Gottland could also be understood as God’s land, which is best typified by a quotation from the Czech poet Vladimír Holan: ‘I don’t know who does the Gods’ laundry/ I do know it’s we who drink the dirty water.’” He adds in characteristically sly style: “Strangely, I’ve noticed that this explanation reassures people who object to the title.” As he prefers Holan’s verse as this book’s motto, so I conclude this review by citing it as an appropriate coda to the English version of this spirited and provocative report from half of what was Czechoslovakia.