Michael O'Loughlin: Winter replaces Spring in Prague as populist takes charge

This year, the commemorations of the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, and the Prague Spring of 1968, will be bittersweet for many Czechs

Tanks on the street during  the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Photograph:  Memory of Nations

Tanks on the street during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Photograph: Memory of Nations

 

Exactly 40 years ago, as a young student I travelled by train across several heavily militarised European borders, behind the Iron Curtain, to spend some time in Prague. I thought it would be interesting to be there on the 10th anniversary of the suppression of the Prague Spring in August 1968.

The events in Prague had make a huge impression on me as a child, as it did on many, with its indelible images of long-haired young people fighting Soviet tanks on the streets, expressing the Czech desire for freedom. I don’t know what I expected. But what I hadn’t expected was that absolutely nothing would happen. Prague was subdued. I ended up drinking beer with a bunch of Czech students in a beer cellar. Their attitude was classically Czech: stoic, wryly amused, as they waited for the end of Communist rule.

Recently I found myself back in Prague again. This time I wasn’t in a dark beer cellar, but had somehow ended up at a formal dinner in an iconic restaurant with a distinguished group of city officials, architects, poets and diplomats, some of them associated with Václav Havel and the dissident movements of the 1970s and 1980s. I was looking forward to an illuminating discussion on issues of democracy, freedom and multiculturalism. Certainly, there was an animated discussion going on in Czech, but when I asked my interlocutor what it was about, he answered laconically: “Real estate”.

He explained. Havel’s family background was a privileged one: his father was a property developer, his uncle a movie studio mogul (who after the war was accused of collaborating with the occupying Germans). After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, his family set about recovering the property that, in their view, had been stolen from them by Communists. One example was the magnificent Barrandov Terrace, a leisure complex overlooking the city and landmark of 1920s Functionalist architecture, built by Havel’s father. The property had been recovered, but since the death of Havel there was now some division in the family with regard to who owned what exactly.

Misunderstanding

An easy mistake to make when looking at the current situation in Eastern Europe, one which leads to many misunderstandings, is to regard them as fundamentally strong, stable historic democracies whose development was interrupted by foreign imports such as Naziism and Communism. But this is an illusion. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Nazi occupation followed by Soviet-backed Communism, simply froze political development in those societies, without changing them very profoundly, and now they are returning to type.

To understand the appalling developments now taking place in countries such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, we need to look at those countries as they were in the 1920s and 1930s, and if possible further back. Certainly, in the case of Poland and Hungary, how can the emergence of authoritarian leaders, with a distinctly nationalist, anti-liberal and anti-immigrant programme, come as any surprise? During the 1920s and 1930s, both countries were controlled by strongly nationalist, authoritarian governments, dominated by right-wing strongmen like Admiral Horthy and Josef Pilsudski. The only real change is that anti-semitism has been replaced by anti-immigrant and/or anti-Islam.

Czechoslovakia, however, is a different case. Its foundation 100 years ago led to an explosion in culture in Prague, to the extent that it has been called “the capital of the 20th century”, with an astonishing range of innovative poetry, art, architecture and film. Politically, the state was guided by gifted and idealistic statesman such as like Tomas Marsyak and Edward Benes, and it was an industrial powerhouse.

Discriminated against

When Hitler embarked on his campaign to dismember the country, the Czechs found themselves left in the lurch by the English and the French, in what is still seen there, and rightly so, as the “Munich betrayal” in 1938. But the violent secession of the Sudeten Germans, followed by Slovakia, seems to have come as a complete surprise to the Czech government, and led to the death of the First Republic, and indeed, Czechoslovakia.

This year, the commemorations of the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, and the Prague Spring of 1968, will be bittersweet for many Czechs. They now find themselves ruled by a populist, anti-immigrant billionaire – ironically, but characteristically, the son of a high-ranking Communist functionary. Truly, this could be called the Prague Winter.

Michael O’Loughlin is currently writer in residence at The Heinrich Boll Cottage, Achill

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