Q & A: Czech History of the 20th Century

Being at the very heart of Europe tends to throw you into the centre of bigger countries’ turmoil. Czech history has always been shaped by its unique location between the East and the West, between the North and the South. During the Thirty-Years war in the 17th century, it was the Swedish armies which invaded the Czech lands of the Austrian Habsbourg monarchy. At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleonic armies faced their enemies in the battle of Slavkov (also known as “the battle of three emperors”) in southern Moravia, near Brno. Nevertheless, the Austrian empire had always been re-established eventually – until the end of the First World War when Czechs and other nations living under the Habsbourg rule received their independence.

Battle of Slavkov (1805)

WW1, independence, the First-Republic era, avant-garde artistic movement, 1938 Munich betrayal of the Western allies, Nazi occupation, holocaust, post-war expulsion of Czech Germans from the borderlands, 1948 communist coup d’état, 1950s political trials, Dubček’s Socialism with a human face, “Prague Spring” followed by the 1968 Soviet invasion, Normalisation, dissent and the Velvet revolution – that’s only a brief selection of the most crucial key words associated with the Czech 20th century. Experiencing four different regimes (absolutist monarchy, democracy, nazism and communism), two wars (WW1, WW2) and two occupations (1939-1945, 1968-1989) in a hundred years, modern Czech history conceals a lot of intriguing moments, facts and wisdom worth sharing. It was up to you, readers, to pose questions. Now, it’s my turn to give you the answers.

Prague Castle (1939)

What is the history of Czech feminism?

Božena Němcová, a famous mid-19th-century writer might be considered the first Czech feminist. This author of the classic novel called The Grandmother and collector of well-known Czech fairy tales took off in literature in an epoch which was very difficult for most women all around the world. She lived an artistic life and passed away at the relatively young age of 41.

In 1865, the American Ladies’ Club was founded in Prague thanks to the initiative of legendary Czech traveller Vojta Náprstek who had just returned home from the United States. Náprstek was in touch with Czech intellectuals living in Prague including Karolína Světlá – another significant Czech writer of the 19th century and Němcová’s friend. Vojta Náprstek wanted to share his adventures and stories from the journey and Světlá introduced him to her friends. Surrounded by female company, Náprstek had an idea to enrich Prague ladies with some modern-household advice. He offered them practical lessons based on his experience with living in America. These courses were very popular as most women had essentially no access to any kind of educational space and the club became the first official female Czech voluntary association. Its members were, for example, writers such as Eliška Krásnohorská, Tereza Nováková and Sofie Podlipská or Charlotte Garrigue-Masaryková, feminist and the wife of the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Following the Communist coup d’état in 1948, Czechoslovak authorities decided to ban the American Ladies’ Club. The institution was re-established in 1996 and continues to unite female intellectuals from all spheres.

In 1890 in Prague, writers Eliška Krásnohorská and Tereza Nováková, members of the American Ladies’ Club, founded the first female grammar school in Central Europe in order to provide secondary-school education for women not for financial purposes but for securing better emancipation of women in the Czech lands. Before that, women had no chance to attend secondary schools with the final maturita exam which would make their university studies possible. Students of the Minerva Grammar School, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom, were the first women to ever study at Czech universities, having passed the final secondary-school exam called Maturita which Czech students still take today. Thanks to Minerva, a new generation of female intelligentsia was created here. Among them, there were Anna Honzáková, one of the first Czech female doctors, and Marie Zdeňka Baborová-Čiháková, a renowned zoologist and the first Czech woman who received a university degree in philosophy. However, most of the absolvents of the Minerva Grammar School usually ended as journalists.

Minerva Grammar School

One of the most important supporters of the emancipation of Czech women was certainly professor and the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his wife Charlotte. Charlotte was publicly known as a feminist activist and TGM (Czechs usually use this abbrevation) defended women’s rights even at the times of Austro-Hungarian Habsbourg monarchy. Mainly thanks to him, Czechoslovakia (created in 1918) became one of the first countries in which women had the right to vote (since the first elections which took place in 1919). Women in the USA, Canada, Latvia, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Turkey, China, Brazil and many other countries were enfranchised later.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his wife Charlotte

Masaryk’s daughter Alice studied at the Minerva Grammar School and she continued in her parents’ work. Even though she initially wanted to study medicine, because of her bad eyesight, it wasn’t possible and hence she aimed at philosophy, sociology and history. During WW1, she was imprisoned because of her father’s illegal resistance activities (more information about it in my article ‘How It All Began’). After the war, she founded the Czechoslovak Red Cross and led it for 20 years. She helped with establishing several hospitals and providing good-quality education to future nurses. It was also Alice Masaryková who consulted on the Prague-Castle renovation with the famous Slovenian architect Josip Plečnik. However, after the 1948 coup d’état and the mysterious death of her brother Jan Masaryk, Alice decided to emigrate to the United States. All her properties were nationalised and she died in Chicago in 1966, aged 87.

Alice Masaryková with her father

Nevertheless, members of Masaryk’s family weren’t the only people engaged with women’s rights. Politicians Františka Plamínková and Milada Horáková were among the other people and to some extent, they were leading them. Plamínková initially worked as a teacher and journalist but during the First-Republic era, she was active in politics as well. From 1925 to 1939, she served as a Czechoslovak senator. She had known Masaryk’s family since her childhood and TGM represented a vital moral authority for her. Therefore, she always defended human rights and the values of democracy. In the 1920s and 1930s, she participated in numerous international feminist conferences and she was one of the leading figures of the Czechoslovak feminist movement. In 1938, she sent a letter to Adolf Hitler, accusing him of believing historical and national fallacies. Although she had a chance to leave the country after the Munich agreement (more information about it in my article ‘Czechs under the Nazi Rule’) as she was travelling in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, she decided to stay with the nation and return to her homeland. Right after her arrival in Czechoslovakia, she was arrested. However, she was released 6 weeks later. Nevertheless, she didn’t stop being politically active, especially in the sphere of feminism and human rights. Unfortunately, after the successful assassination of German protector of the Czech lands Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, Plamínková was arrested, deported to the Jewish ghetto in Terezín (she was Jewish) and executed for her passive resistance. 

Františka Plamínková

Her colleague, lawyer Milada Horáková was another significant representative of the Czechoslovak First-Republic feminist movement. She began examining and defending women’s rights during her university studies at Charles University. In 1924, Horáková joined the Women’s National Council instituted by the aforementioned Františka Plamínková. Thanks to her proficiency in law, she helped with preparing modern feminist laws which Plamínková effectively lobbied for. As a national socialist supporting solidarity among people, Horáková was a member of Alice Masaryková’s Czechoslovak Red Cross too. During the First Republic, she also travelled around Europe in order to gain new knowledge and experience.

Milada Horáková and her husband Bohuslav Horák in their wedding picture

After the breakout of WW2, Milada Horáková was an active member of the anti-nazi resistance. However, the Gestapo arrested Horáková and her husband in 1940. She was brutally tortured and eventually deported to the Jewish ghetto in Terezín where she met Plamínková who was going to be executed. Afterwards, she was sent to Leipzig and Dresden where the final trial took place in 1944. Horáková, who spoke English, French and German fluently, defended herself in front of the Nazi tribunal. Her death penalty was changed to 8 years of prison in an Austrian work camp. However, the American army liberated her in 1945.

Bohuslav, Milada and their little daughter in the 1930s

After the war, she was reunited with her husband who had survived a dead march. She became a member of the Czechoslovak parliament and one of president Beneš’s closest colleagues. However, after the communist coup d’état in 1948, Horáková as a representative of the democratic opposition couldn’t continue in her political career. Although she had the opportunity to leave the Czechoslovak Republic, she decided to stay and fight against communist dictatorship within the limits of Czechoslovak laws. She was arrested in 1949 as one of the communist party’s house-cleaning targets. Despite requests for her liberation by Albert Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt, Horáková was condemned to death and executed in 1950. 

Milada Horáková and her political monster-trial

Thanks to brave women such as Františka Plamínková and Milada Horáková, women’s rights have been equal to men’s rights since the end of the first half of the 20th century. After the Velvet Revolution, women became more financially independent and hence, their rights don’t exist only de iure, but also de facto. 

Czechia today

How did the Czech art evolve during the 20th century? Were there any specific artistic movements?

To some extent, I have already answered this question in my article aimed at the First Republic. In brief, it’s possible to say that Czech art was influenced by numerous artistic trends essential to the 20th century.

At the beginning of the century, Czechia wasn’t an independent country. Nevertheless, a lot of Czech artists reached fame in Austria-Hungary and even abroad. Among them, it was Alfons Mucha, a secession painter and designer, who took off in France and today, he’s one of the most popular artists all around the world, particularly in Asia. Secession played a key role in Czech design and hence, Prague is, together with Paris and Vienna, one of the world capitals of this artistic movement. 

Mucha’s art

Czech artists also fancied cubism immensely. Therefore, in the first half of the 20th century, Prague gained one of its most distinctive features – cubist architecture – which you cannot find anywhere but the Czech Republic. Furthermore, Czech cubist artists even made classic peintures and sculptures which certainly belong to the best in the world. In the Czech National Gallery, you can find loads of cubist art works.

House of the Black Madonna

Cubism and other artistic movements such as surrealism, fauvism, expressionism, orphism or futurism dominated in the First Republic thanks to the Czech connections to France in which most of these movements were created. Thanks to Czechoslovakia’s good relations with the French Republic, French culture also permeated to the Czech one in literature and other cultural spheres. If you are interested in the avant-garde epoch and its art, check out my article about the First Republic which contains several personal stories of the best Czechoslovak painters and other artists. Nowadays, names like Toyen, Štyrský, Šíma, Filla, Kubín, Zrzavý, J. Čapek, Kubišta or Kupka aren’t only present in the Czech galleries, but also in the foreign ones. 

Toyen and Štyrský

After WW2, Czechoslovak painters and sculptures enjoyed their last moments of artistic freedom before the communist coup d’état in 1948. Afterwards, the only permitted artistic movement was the well-known Socialist Realism. This idealised life in communist Czechoslovakia and worked as an omnipresent propaganda. Although the situation changed in the 1960s, it was just temporary as the Warsaw-Pact armies led by the Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. The new era called the Normalisation re-normalised even the Czechoslovak art and re-brought the ideals of stalinist soc-realism. Artistic freedom was again established in Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

The Velvet Revolution in 1989

In terms of politics, to what extent would you agree that the vast majority of Czech artists were left-wing orientated? How did this change after the end of WW2 and the 1948 communist coup d’état?

Speaking about the avant-garde artist community, it’s certainly true. Devětsil, the most important First-Republic art institution in Czechoslovakia – uniting writers, sculptors, painters and other artists and intellectuals – was certainly left-wing. Most of them even sympathised with the revolutionary idea of Communism. Nevertheless, majority of Czechoslovak artists changed their opinion after the 1948 coup d’état as they had already had some experience with the Nazi totalitarian regime from WW2, and the communist party started behaving similarly by forcing them to make only soc-realist artworks. Those who realised that the communist threat jeopardised their artistic freedom soon enough had a chance to emigrate. Anyway, many artists decided to stay and stop being active in their field or accepted the soc-realist terms dictated by the newly established communist dictatorship.

1948 communist coup d’état

How do people see Alexander Dubček?

Honestly, this is an extremely difficult question to be answered generally. Alexander Dubček, the main protagonist of the Prague-Spring democratisation of Czechoslovakia, is a very complex figure. In the 1960s, the majority of Czechs and Slovaks truly adored him as he represented a new progressive direction of Communism which overshadowed the 1950s terror. However, it was he who decided not to act during the Soviet invasion and sign the Moscow protocols which confirmed the occupation’s legality. Moreover, shortly before leaving his position of the Czechoslovak communist number one in 1969, Dubček’s signature appeared on the so-called “truncheon law” which empowered Czechoslovak police to massively suppress any kind of citizens’ disobedience. People who were arrested in public manifestations could be legally fired from their job or be expelled from school. Almost 10 000 Czechoslovak university students (out of 85 000 students overall) couldn’t continue their studies after this first normalisation house-cleaning. Dubček also didn’t sign Charter 77, the main action of Czechoslovak dissent, although he had an opportunity to do so.

Brezhnev and Dubček

Hence, in 1989, when the new Czechoslovak president was going to be elected in order to overthrow the communist reign officially, it wasn’t Dubček who got this nomination. Ironically, Václav Havel, a man who was imprisoned by the communists at the beginning of the year, was eventually chosen by the communist deputies in the Czechoslovak parliament to become the first non-communist president after 40 years. Dubček had enemies on both sides of the barricade – Havel-supporting dissidents, the main coordinators of the Velvet Revolution, didn’t like Dubček for his passivity during the Normalisation epoch and on the other hand, conservative communists who had wielded the power since the Soviet invasion had never forgotten Dubček’s attempt of Czechoslovakia’s progressive democratisation which might have led to an usability of the regime.

New Czechoslovak president Václav Havel greeting people from his presidential office at Prague Castle

Personally, I’m not a big fan of Alexander Dubček. In my opinion, once he decided to take the responsibility for leading a country progressively, he must have expected the response from the Soviet side. Therefore, he failed by signing the Moscow protocols even though he was forced to do it as he broke the people’s trust. Together with Dubček, the whole Czechoslovak communist leadership was kidnapped and sent to Moscow. All of the progressive communists legalised the invasion except František Kriegel who refused to sign the protocols. Brezhnev would have killed him or sent him to a Siberian gulag if the president Svoboda, who just arrived in Moscow, didn’t tell the Soviet leader that their plane wouldn’t take off without Kriegel on board. Although Dubček’s life was saved by his signature, in my eyes, he can’t be considered to be a hero just like František Kriegel didn’t give up on his honour. His decision is understandable, but not heroic.

Václav Havel and Alexander Dubček

What films would you recommend to me to learn more about the Czech cinematography and famous Czech directors?

In my opinion, the best Czech film which you can start with would be Pelíšky (Cosy Dens), a tragicomedy set in the era of Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion. Czechs usually watch it at Christmas and it’s one of the most popular films here as Czechs love crying and smiling at once while watching a good movie. Thanks to Pelíšky, you will better understand Czech history, traditions, humour and nature.

Pelíšky

Otherwise, you should certainly try some films by Miloš Forman, the best Czech director of all time. His parents died in concentration camps during WW2 and their properties were nationalised by communists shortly after the coup d’état in 1948. Despite his cruel childhood, Forman successfully finished studies at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and he quickly became famous not only in Czechoslovakia but also abroad. His films were nominated for Golden Globe Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film. After the Soviet invasion, Miloš Forman emigrated to the USA where his career reached its peak. In 1975, his film named One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won five Oscars including the Best Film Award.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In 1984, his film Amadeus depicting the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart won eight Oscars and became Forman’s absolute masterpiece. After its introduction in American cinemas, sales of Mozart music immensely increased. This movie was also filmed in Prague which represented Mozart’s Vienna. Even though the communists felt deep hatred towards the emigrant director, American dollars changed their mind and allowed Forman to reunite with his former Czech colleagues. If you are interested in history, music or biographical stories, I can certainly recommend Amadeus as something you might enjoy.

Amadeus

Other Czech films worth watching are Kolja, ‘Vrchní, prchni!’ (English – Waiter, Scarper!), Po strništi bos (English – Barefoot, or Barefoot on Stalks), Masaryk, Lidice, Shadow Country (Czech – Krajina ve stínu), The Painted Bird (Czech – Nabarvené ptáče), Havel and Seclusion Near a Forest (Czech – Na samotě u lesa).

How much impact has the communist regime of the 20th century had on politics and life in Czechia today?

In short, it’s possible to say that the communist regime’s impact on the modern Czech Republic has been immense. However, I’m going to attempt to explain it properly by dividing this general question into several thematic parts.

The Velvet Revolution

First of all, I’ll focus on the Czech economy. As a part of Austria-Hungary, Czechia was the wealthiest part of the empire. Most of the industry was concentrated there. Therefore, after WW1, Czechoslovakia was one of the economically strongest countries in Europe. Companies such as Škoda, Tatra or Baťa expanded even overseas and everything was going well. Nevertheless, the first damage to the Czech economy happened during WW2 within the Nazi occupation as the most of Czech industry was nationalised by the Reich and transformed into military-equipment facilities. Hence, at the end of the war, Czech factories producing German weapons were vital bombarding targets of the Allies.

Škoda

However, it was Communism that undoubtedly had the worst impact on the Czech economic state. Planned economy – causing shortages of certain products, exporting the best-quality goods to the Soviet Union and lack of competition as everyone basically worked for the same salary –  significantly affected Czech work ethics. The law said that unemployment was illegal. Nevertheless, being employed didn’t mean that the people really worked. Furthermore, they had no motivation for that as everyone had almost the same money. And if someone had a higher salary, there weren’t many things which he or she could buy for that since the stores were usually half-empty because of the lack of goods caused by the planned economy. Endless queues at the butchers’, no toilet paper, the same clothes for everybody – that was the communist Czechoslovak reality. 

After the Velvet Revolution, the majority of the state-owned companies were privatised in order to establish Capitalism here. According to GDP comparison, Czechia is the economically strongest former Eastern-Bloc country. Nevertheless, if there had never been any Communism, Czechia’s wealth would have been comparable to that of Switzerland or Austria.

Prague

Aside from this (which is, in my opinion, the most significant) there are several other aspects which impact modern Czech society. Older generations learnt Russian at schools as their first foreign language, which means that,  even though many of them attempted to learn English basics, you might struggle while communicating with them. Another aspect of Communism’s influence on modern Czechia is the possession of cottages – most of Czech families own a cottage where they go for holidays. The reason for having two houses or a flat and a house (the cottage) is that Czechoslovaks couldn’t travel abroad. Hence, they bought these old buildings as places where they could familially spend their summer (and sometimes even winter) time. It’s also possible to say that Czechs don’t have the best relationship with Russians (or with Russia precisely). This is because our nations’ complicated history is associated only with the communist era (we had never had any direct connection to Russia before) and the 1968 invasion which has never been forgotten. Czechs’ attitude towards them is quite negative. Ice-Hockey matches (our national sport) against the Soviet Union / Russian Federation have always been really emotional and tense. Although we don’t exactly hate Russia as much as the Polish do – they have numerous reasons for that – Russians still don’t tend to be seen positively. 

Czechia against Russia

In terms of politics, the current political system is absolutely different to the communist one – Czechia is a democratic country. Personally, I don’t see any significant parallels between the communist regime here. Actually, the system is inspired by the First-Republic democratic system. It’s important to say that thanks to the First-Republic era, Czechs had awareness of democratic values and the establishment of the new democratic regime was easier thanks to that. For example, that’s one of the reasons why there could be no democracy in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union as Russians had only had experience with absolutism and totalitarianism. 

Prague Castle during the Velvet Revolution times

In conclusion, Communism have left a legacy which we’ll never be able to get rid of but it may be a good lesson for future generations who would certainly not want to live in their parents’ and grandparents’ era.

The Velvet Revolution

Vojta

MĚLNÍK / CZECHIA

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