THE COMMUNIST CHALLENGE
TO THE IDEAL CZECH
Kelly Renee Wulf
B.A., Western State College of Colorado, 2007
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Kelly Renee Wulf
has been approved
Wulf, Kelly Renee (M.A., History)
The Communist Challenge to the Ideal Czech National Identity
Thesis directed by Associate Professor James Whiteside
This thesis explores how Czech intellectuals experienced the challenge to
their ideal national identity during the communist era. The works of Czech
intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel and Heda Margolius Kovaly show that
communism challenged the national identity by restricting freedoms and creating
harsh living conditions. However, despite communism the intellectuals
maintained the identity constructed during the nineteenth century Czech
Czech historian Frantisek Palacky defined the Czech national identity
in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He did so by constucting a national
history, traditions, and a written vernacular. These steps are essential in
Ernest Gellners theory of national identity, which is used as a framework for
better understanding the construction of Czech national identity.
During the National Revival, Palacky based the Czech national identity
on democracy, culture, and education. He believed that these characteristics
were rooted in figures and events in Czech history. Using Palackys idea of
Czech identity, this study argues that those same characteristics served as the
model identity for the intellectuals throughout the communist era and into the
These intellectuals do not represent the entire Czech nation. However,
they have been leading figures in recent Czech history and are responsible for
the continuation of Czech identity. Havel was elected President of
Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic from 1990 until 2003 and Margolius
Kovalys memoir is firmly rooted in the ideals of the National Revival. Havel,
Margolius Kovaly and the others have continued to articulate the ideal Czech
identity despite the hardships they experienced during and after communism.
Democracy, cuture, and education continued to be the traits on which
they based their identity and these traits survived despite the communist effect
Through their writings, public comments and artwork, these intellectuals
maintained the Czech national identity in spite of communism and thus
perpetuated the ideals of the revival.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to my parents, who have always been my biggest fans. Their
love, support and patience have provided me with the strength I needed to
complete my degree. I also dedicate this to the memory of my grandparents,
Charlie and Jane Pinto. I am eternally grateful to them and they will continue to
A special thanks to James Whiteside, Rebecca Hunt and Carl Pletsch for their
contributions to my research and their support throughout my graduate career.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. THE CONSTRUCTION OF
CZECH NATIONAL IDENTITY..............................8
Palackys National History and the National Revival.8
The Czechs in the Twentieth Century................17
3 HAVEL AND MARGOLIUS KOVALY CONDITIONS OF
Vaclav Havel: The Imprisoned Playwright............25
Heda Margolius Kovaly: A Loss of Faith.............29
4 THE COMMUNIST CHALLENGE TO THE IDEAL CZECH
The Communist Hangover.............................33
Shaking the Yoke...................................42
Havel and the Velvet Divorce.......................44
5 THE PLAYWRIGHT AND THE ARTIST:
CONFRONTING IDENTITY IN 2009........................49
Czech Embarrassment and the Communist Residue......49
Be Silent and Invisible............................52
Czech national identity, like any national identity, is not a tangible entity.
In fact, the concept of national identity is so elusive there are several theories
regarding it. In Nations and Nationalism, Ernest Gellner argues that national
identity is not created as a unifying movement but rather it is created as a result of
conflict with another nation. Thus, according to Gellner, Czech national identity
was created when the desire to separate from an oppressive nation, like Austria,
became the common cause of the Czech people.1
As the desire to separate from an oppressive nation grows in popularity
and evolves, so too does the culture of the oppressed nation.2 This evolution of
culture is an intricate step in Gellners identity theory. Gellner believes that
national identity transforms folk culture into a high culture.3 In order to form
1 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), xxv.
3 Ibid, xxviii.
a high culture, the fledgling nation must create a written vernacular and construct
a national history and traditions.
The Czech national identity was formed as a result of living under
oppressive, foreign rule for nearly four hundred years. Using Gellners theory as
a guideline, it is evident that the Czechs formed a national identity in order to
separate themselves from oppressive Austrian rule. During the three hundred
years the Czechs spent under Austrian control they began to construct a national
history and with it, national traditions. The move to high culture, took place
mainly in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the Czech National
Revival. During the National Revival, Czech language, literature, and historical
tradition took shape as the Czechs began to crave freedom from Austria.4 As part
of the construction of national history, the Czechs relied heavily on pre-1620
historical figures and events, including the Hussites, Charles IV, and the
The 1620 battle of Bila Hora marked the end of Czech independence and
their subjection to the Austrian Habsburgs. Because of this event, nineteenth
century Revivalists, such as Czech historian Frantisek Palacky, made the
deliberate choice to base the Czech identity on historical figures who existed prior
to the 1620 loss of freedom. As the Czechs slowly evolved into a self-conscious
4 The Czechs refer to this time as the obrozeni (revival), znovu-zrozeni naroda
(national rebirth), or uzkfiseni (resurrection).
nation, they, with the help of Palacky, created a national identity based on Czech
culture and education. Holy Roman Emperor and Bohemian King Charles IV
exemplified these two traits. Charles IV made Prague a major European cultural
capitol in the fourteenth century. Palacky also forged their identity on democracy,
which he rooted in the sovereignty of the Bohemian Crown Lands.5 The Hussites
of the fifteenth century also embodied personal freedom and freethinking, which,
for the Czechs goes hand-in-hand with the term democracy.6 The Czech
democratic tradition was and continues to be coterminous with freedom, both
personal and national, and does not suggest the democratic political system.7
Many Czechs regarded these traits to be the ideal Czech identity well into the
With the twentieth century came the end of the Habsburg Empire, the
creation of an independent Czech nation, occupation of Czechoslovakia by the
Germans, a moment of renewed independence followed by forty years of
communism. Despite these drastic changes and the accompanying hardships,
many Czechs tried to maintain their identity by clinging to the ideals of
culture, education, and democracy. Communism in Czechoslovakia acted as a
catalyst for intellectuals to discuss the ideals of national identity through
7 Ibid, 70.
literature. The communist era fits with Gellners national identity theory.
Oppressive rule encouraged Czech intellectuals to perpetuate the ideals of
Czech identity so as to separate themselves from the Soviets.
While it is difficult to analyze the effect of communism on Czech
national identity as a whole, it is possible to analyze the works and
experiences of intellectuals who articulated the Czech ideals of national
identity during and after communism. This study analyzes various Czech
intellectuals who felt communism challenged their ideal national identity.
Their works show that they continued to propagate the ideals established in the
nineteenth century despite the fact that their national identity was diminishing
as a result of communism. Those examined are Vaclav Havel, a Czech
dissident and politician; Zdenek Mlynar, former secretary of the Central
Committee of the Komunistska strana Ceskoslovenska (KSC) or Communist
Party of Czechoslovakia; Milan Kundera, renowned Czech exile author and
communist opponent; Ludvik Vaculik, a former member of the KSC; Pavel
Kohout, Czech novelist and former KSC member; Heda Margolius Kovaly,
former KSC member and wife of Slanksy Trial victim Rudolf Margolius; and
David Cerny, a contemporary Czech artist. These intellectuals experienced the
impact of communism and each chose to discuss how those experiences
affected their ideas of identity. These writers were also chosen because many
of them, like Margolius Kovaly, were at one time average citizens rather than
intellectuals. Others, like Havel, have since served as elected political
representatives of the Czech people.
The writers, politicians, and citizens mentioned illustrate the impact
communism had on their views of national identity. These authors built their
identity on the ideals established during the Czech National Revival and felt
communism challenged those ideals. This thesis does not assume that these
works speak for the entirety of the Czech nation, but that they do offer insight
into the communist impact on identity. Within their writings, these authors
demonstrate that while the idealized version of Czech national identity existed,
it was challenged during communism.
Certain steps must be taken in order to appreciate writers like Havel
and their views on national identity. Czech history and how it led to the
construction of national identity is an integral part of this study. The national
identity created in the nineteenth century was the model used by intellectuals
during the communist era. A brief history of the Czech Lands and the
National Revival will shed light on what the authors believed to be the ideal
The works and lives of the authors will then be used to discuss the
conditions of communism in Czechoslovakia. Havel and Margolius Kovaly
felt their national identity withering away as their personal freedoms were
revoked. Havel lost his freedom in a jail cell, whereas Margolius Kovaly lost
her husband, her home, and nearly her life. The personal hardships of these
intellectuals reveal why their national identity was challenged under
As a follow up to the conditions of communism there will be an
analysis of these authors works and how they saw their national identity being
affected by communism. An examination of the works will show that these
authors continued to propagate the ideal Czech identity of the nineteenth
century despite it being tested during communism. Through Havel and the
others it is possible to see their ideal Czech identity start to wane under the
pressures of communism and during the post-communist era. Also discussed
in this section is the disintegration of Czechoslovakia in 1993. This led to the
creation of two separate states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. For Havel
the separation acted as an aftershock of communism and further impacted how
he experienced the communist challenge to his ideal Czech identity.
Finally, there will be discussion and analysis of how Havel and artist
David Cerny viewed the ideal national identity in the Czech Republic in 2009.
In 2009, the Czech Republic had the honor of being President of the European
Union. However, their presidency proved embarrassing for many reasons,
including the collapse of the government. Interviews of Havel and Cemy
show that while Czech identity had changed since communism these
intellectuals continued to perpetuate the ideals created during the National
THE CONSTRUCTION OF CZECH
Palackys National History
and the National Revival
In 1836, Czech historian Frantisek Palacky wrote the Dejiny ceske
naroda v Cechach ana Morale, which he diligently researched in libraries and
monasteries throughout Bohemia and Moravia.8 Palackys history marked the
beginning of the nineteenth century Czech National Revival. According to
Joseph Frederick Zacek, Palackys history Propounded an inspiring
philosophy of Czech history, portraying the Czechs as predestined to be
martyrs to the defense of democracy in church and state.9 In view of
Gellners theory, one might also argue that it was also the first step in creating
high culture out of Czech folk culture. As the Czechs became more restless
under Austrian rule they began to respect the national history and traditions
identified by Palacky.
8 In English, History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia.
9 Joseph Frederick Zacek, Frantisek Palacky (1798-1876), in A Global
Encyclopedia of Historical Writing, vol. II, (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc,
In his history, Palacky sought to exemplify what Czech anthropologist
Ladislav Holy has more recently called the Old Slavonic democratic spirit.10
For Palacky this meant relying on the centuries of Bohemian sovereignty that
predated the Czechs fall to Austria. He focused on individuals who existed
prior to the 1620 Battle of Bila Hora, including the Bohemian kings, Charles
IV and the Hussites. Palacky used these figures to give the Czech people
examples around which to create their national identity. By concentrating on
these key figures, Palacky helped create an identity based on culture,
education, and democracy. These ideals would inspire men like Vaclav Havel
over one hundred years later.
Palacky found the root of Czech culture and education in Charles or
Karel IV. Charles IV, the eleventh Bohemian king, ruled from 1347 to 1378.
He was also Holy Roman Emperor from 1365 to 1378.11 Charles IV was, and
continues to be, the prime example of Czech culture and education. During his
reign he established Charles University (Universita Karlova v Praze), and
began construction on three of Pragues most famous architectural structures,
the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), Prague Castle (Prazsky hrad), and St. Vitus
10 Holy, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, 77.
11 Karel IV was the eleventh King of Bohemia but the second King of Bohemia
from the House of Luxembourg. He was elected King of the Romans in 1346,
King of Italy in 1355, and upon his election as King of Burgundy in 1365 he
became the full ruler of the entire Holy Roman Empire.
Cathedral (Katedrala svateho Vita). All remain the pride of the Czech people
and are major tourist attractions.12 Charles IV also expanded the Bohemian
lands by acquiring territory in Silesia, Upper Palatinate, and Franconia.13
Palacky used Charles IV to emphasize the significance of culture and
education within the minds of his readers. And, though his reign took place in
the fourteenth-century, Czechs continue to revere his memory.
To introduce the idea of the Czechs as a democratic people, Palacky
employed the example of the Bohemian Crown Lands. The use of democracy
does not connote the political system, but instead personal and national
freedoms. The Premyslid Dynasty and the Bohemian kings epitomized Czech
sovereignty and freedom from the ninth-century until the twelfth-century.
During their time under Austrian rule, the Czechs believed that the land of the
Bohemian kings was rightfully theirs and this helped drive their desire to
separate from Austria in the nineteenth century.
Palacky also used the Hussite movement of the fifteenth-century to
exemplify the Czech devotion to democracy, freedom of religion, and culture.
Jan Hus, creator of the Hussite Church in the Bohemian Crown Lands, was
influenced by the writings of Englishman John Wycliffe and later influenced
12 Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes in the Life of a European
City (NY: Hill and Wang, 1997), 30.
13 Ibid, 32.
Martin Luther.14 Hus wanted the Catholic Church to set a good example for its
followers and he did not see that happening in Bohemia or in Rome.15 In an
attempt to move away from the influence of the Vatican, Hus intentionally
undermined the authority and power of the Church hierarchy by recognizing
the sacramental succession of the clerical office.16 According to Hussite
historian Frantisek Smahel, Hus, Drew a sharp line through the whole social
pyramid...Hus simply visualised an ideal, fair feudalism would contribute by
fraternal love to the prosperity of all.17 Hus actions and teachings resulted in
him being accused of heresy at the Council of Constance and burned at the
stake in 1415.18 To this day Hus remains a symbol of the ideal Czech national
identity in Bohemia and a monument in his honor sprawls across Pragues
Staromestske namesti (Old Town Square).19
14 Frantisek Smahel, The Hussite movement: an anomaly of European History?
in Bohemia in History, ed. Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998), 91.
16 Frantisek Smahel, Prophets without Honour? Jan Hus-Heretic or Patriot? in
Bohemia in History, ed. Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
18 Ibid, 193.
19 Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, 120.
Following Hus death another Hussite appeared who became a major
figure in Palackys book. Jan Zizka emerged as a Czech hero during the
Hussite Wars (1419-1437). He led the Hussite and the more extreme Taborite
armies against pro-Catholic King Sigismund of Hungary. The Hussite Wars
began shortly after news of Hus death reached the Czech lands. The First
Defenestration of Prague was Zizkas first step towards infamy. It took place
in 1419 when pro-Hussite nobles, led by Zizka, threw the judge, mayor, and
thirteen others out of the windows of Prague Town Hall after they refused to
release Hussite prisoners. The Defenestration marked the official beginning of
the Hussite Wars. Though Zizka died of the plague in 1424 the Hussites
continued to fight the Catholic nobles in Bohemia until the late 1420s. Zizka
is still revered by the Czech people for his courage against the Catholics and
his defense of Hus doctrine.20 A suburb of Prague, Zizkov, bears his name
and a statue of him on Vitkov Hill in Zizkov is the largest equestrian statue in
During the National Revival, Palacky used these historical figures to
re-enforce the belief that the Czechs were a cultured, educated, and democratic
people. However, as previously mentioned, Palacky ended his history when
the Czechs fell under Austrian rule. On November 8, 1620, at Bila Hora, near
Josef Macek, The Monarchy of the estates in Bohemia in History, ed.
Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 106.
Prague the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II defeated the forces of
the Protestant estates of Bohemia and their allies from the Protestant Union.
The defeat marked the end of Czech independence.
The Habsburgs forced the Czech people into German schools and made
German the official language of the Czech lands. This forced assimilation led
to the near extinction of the Czech language in the middle and upper classes
and Czech traditions were no longer passed down.21 In discussing the Battle of
Bila Hora in Dejiny ceske naroda v Cechach a na Morave, Palacky remarked
that it led to three hundred years of darkness.22 Even in 1998 the power of
Bila Hora could be felt. Czech historians Josef Petran and Lydia Petranova
illustrated this when they wrote,
Ask anyone Czech about the White Mountain and even if only a
tiny fragment of school history remains in his memory, the question
will conjure up the vision of an historic national defeat.23
Palacky may have ended his national history in 1620 but he began the process
of creating a national identity that the Czechs could celebrate long after they
gained independence from Austria.
Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, 275.
22 Jan Palacky quoted in Ladislav Holy, The Little Czech and the Great Czech
Nation (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 38-39.
23 Josef Petran and Lydia Petranova, The White Mountain as a symbol in
Modern Czech history, in Bohemia in History, ed. Mikulas Teich (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 143.
In 1848, Palacky focused on renewing Czech language and literature.
Under the Habsburgs the Czech language had become a series of dialects
found only in rural villages. There was no common vernacular in the Czech
Lands.24 Palacky had created a national history and traditions but saw that the
Czechs lacked a modern language, which Gellner believed a nation must
possess.25 Palacky and other Czech scholars such as Josef Jungmann, tried to
remedy this and laid the foundations for modem Czech language and
literature. They helped institute the teaching of the Czech language in Pragues
Charles University and Jungmann modernized the Czech language with the
creation of a dictionary.26 Thanks to Jungmann, the Czech language was no
longer written in Gothic script and the adopted German w was replaced with
the Slavic V. While the Czechs were far behind the Poles, Magyars, and
Germans in modernizing their language, these new changes allowed for a
boom in Czech literature.27
24 Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, 275.
25 Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, xxviii.
26 Vladamir Macura, Problems and paradoxes of the national revival, in
Bohemia in History, ed. Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998), 182.
27 Robin Okey, The Habsburg Monarchy from Enlightenment to Eclipse, in
Bohemia in History, ed. Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998), 286.
The drastic changes in Czech literature and language affected the
intellectual elite more so than the common Czech layman. Czech was the
language used by the lower class and was rarely used by the middle and upper
classes. Because German was the only language taught in schools, the Czech
language had not evolved since medieval times and peasants continued to use
the outdated style until the late nineteenth century.28 As the lower classes
became more educated and involved in the national cause they benefited from
the linguistic changes, though not as much as the intellectuals of the time.29
During the National Revival, intellectuals began writing in their native
Czech instead of German. For example, Jan Kollars 1833 book of sonnets,
Slavy dcera (Daughter of Slavia), reflected the disillusionment of the Slavic
peoples under Habsburg rule. However, the most famous nineteenth century
poet was Karel Hynek Macha. Machas Maj (May) was not well received
when it was first published in 1836; however, in the twentieth century it grew
in popularity. It is still considered the greatest piece of Czech romanticism
and Maj is a symbolic piece of prose for the Czech people. The poems joyous
message of spring is celebrated each May Day by placing flowers at the statue
28 Vladamir Macura, Problems and paradoxes of the national revival, in
Bohemia in History, 186.
of Macha in Petfin Park in Prague.30 Aside from Macha and Kollars writings,
many classic European texts were translated into Czech, including John
Miltons Paradise Lost and Francois de Chateaubriands Atala31
Thanks to the revival, Czech was evolving into a language for the
intelligentsia and Palackys cultural revolution was a great success. Palacky
helped the Czechs construct an identity and move from folk culture to high
culture, thus rendering them a nation, according to Gellners definition. And
while the National Revival was a moment of great pride in the nineteenth
century it also helped inspire those who would continue making Czech history.
Of the National Revival and its impact, Czech author Milan Kundera stated,
A handful of intellectuals made an attempt to resurrect the half-
forgotten Czech language...and an almost extinct nation as
well.. But the Czechs have been through periods of wakefulness
and periods of sleep, and several vital phases in the evolution of the
European spirit have passed them by... In a short space of twenty
years there grew up a whole pleiad of men of genius, who in a
bewilderingly short space of time raised Czech culture for the first
time since the days of Comenius on to a European level, as a self-
30 Ibid, 182.
32 Milan Kundera, A Nation Which Cannot Take Itself for Granted, in From
Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945.
Ed. Gale Stokes. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 151-152.
The Czechs in the Twentieth Century
Eduard Benes and Tomas Garrigue Masaryk were inspired by the
revival and wanted to see the Czech nation among the giants of Europe. Benes
and Masaryk helped lead the Czechs to independence after the fall of the
Habsburgs in 1918. When World War I broke out the Austrian government
drafted men from across the empire, including Czechs. However, Czech
soldiers found it difficult to fight alongside their longtime oppressors and
against their Slavic brothers, the Russians.33 For Masaryk the very mention of
Austria meant, Every device that could kill the soul of a people, corrupt it
with a modicum of material well-being, deprive it of freedom of conscience
and thought.34 35
Throughout the war Czechs resisted the Austrian conscription by
refusing to fight in the Austrian army and deserting at the front. Because of
these courageous acts and Masaryks diplomatic work abroad, the end of
World War I brought the creation of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia.
Masaryks interwar democracy was the culmination of the identity Palacky had
constructed in the nineteenth century. The First Republic and President
33 Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, The Making of a State: Memories and
Observations 1914-1918, (New York: Stokes Company, 1927), xviii.
34 Ibid, xiii.
35 Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, 328.
Masaryk became modem examples of Czech identity and inspired Czechs like
Havel and Heda Margolius Kovaly to perpetuate those ideals during the
Unfortunately the Czech democracy fell to the Germans, but the Czech
people continued to glorify the years of the Republic between 1918 and 1938.
The Munich Agreement of 1938 forced Czechoslovakia to cede the
Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. This led to a full invasion in 1939. Under
Nazi rule the Czech lands became the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
and remained so until the end of World War II in 1945.36 37 Fascism left its mark
on the Czech people and on the national identity of those who survived the
Margolius Kovaly survived both the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz. She
miraculously managed to escape to the Protectorate near the end of the war. In
her memoir, she wrote about these hardships and remembered specific
moments that triggered feelings of the ideal Czech national identity. The first
moment was at Lodz when her cousin Jindrisek was dying. He asked her to
sing him the Czech National Anthem Where is My Home? and the Czech
folk song Where Have All My Young Days Gone? The next moment took
36 Ibid, 361.
37 Kovaly, Under A Cruel Star, 7.
place at Auschwitz. In the misery of the concentration camp she recalled a
Czech woman, Singing the aria The moonlight on my golden hair from
Dvoraks opera Rusalka.38 39 The opera Rusalka was based on national
fairytales and legends written by nineteenth century Czech Revivalist Bozena
Nemcova, hence the reason Margohus Kovaly held the aria so dear.
Margolius Kovalys memoir acts as her perpetuation of the Czech national
identity established during the National Revival. She relied on the ideals of
culture and democracy in order to be reminded of her national identity.40
To further illustrate the effect World War II had on her, Margolius
Kovaly wrote about her experience crossing into the former Czechoslovak
Republic. Upon arriving in her homeland Kovaly desperately tried to find a
Czech with whom she could communicate but remembers hearing, There are
no Czechs here.41 She had survived Auschwitz and escaped the Nazis only to
find that the beloved First Republic had been taken from the Czechs. There is
not much written by Czechs regarding their years under Nazi control.
38 Ibid, 15.
39 Peter Demetz, Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939
1945: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and
Poetry, Politics and War, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 90.
40 Kovaly, Under A Cruel Star, 15.
41 Ibid, 23.
However, Margolius Kovaly explained why she chose not to write about those
years. She wrote, Human speech can only express what the mind can hold.
You cannot describe hammer blows that crush your brain.42 Margolius
Kovaly believed that the Nazis tried to extinguish the Czech national identity,
and the communists almost succeeded in doing so.43
Communism, the focus of this study, came to Prague in 1948 after
President Eduard Benes resigned under pressure from the Soviets and the
Komunistska strana Ceskoslovenska (KSC) or the Communist Party of
Czechoslovakia. After Benes resigned, newly elected president and Stalinist
Klement Gottwald came to power. Communism came to Czechoslovakia in a
reasonably legitimate manner because the Czechs thought socialism was the
right fit for them during the difficult postwar years. The move to communism
was also due to the fact that the Soviets liberated most of the country from the
Nazis and aided the Czechs in the postwar exile of the Sudeten Germans.44
The Czechs wanted to create a unique, inclusive breed of socialism that
would fit the peoples needs. However, they soon were disillusioned about
communism and the Soviets. The Czechs had goals of melding both
42 Ibid, 15.
43 Ibid, 37.
44 Ibid, 47.
democracy and socialism in order to create liberal socialism, but harsh
Stalinist rule was put into place immediately. Regarding the Czech
disillusionments of communism, Holocaust survivor and former Party member
Margolius Kovaly commented in her memoir,
In Czechoslovakia it would all be different. We would not be
building socialism in a backward society under conditions of
imperialist intervention. .but at peace, in an intelligent, well
In 1948 Margolius Kovaly believed the Czechs were capable of creating a
positive government in the postwar world. She referred to the Czechs as
intelligent and well educated which reverted back to the identity
established during the National Revival. Despite Margolius Kovalys dreams
of liberal socialism the Czechs once again found themselves living under
oppressive conditions that would test the traits of their national identity. A
strict communist government controlled Czechoslovakia for forty years, and
was only challenged in 1968 during the Prague Spring and two decades later
during the Velvet Revolution.
In 1968, First Secretary and President of Czechoslovakia, Antonin
Novotny, was removed from power. He had lost the support of both the
Czechoslovak population and the Soviets due to steady economic decline.
Alexander Dubcek succeeded Novotny and became First Secretary of the KSC. 45
45 Ivan Margolius, Reflections of Prague: Journeys through the 20th Century,
(London: Wiley, 2006), 229.
Whereas Novotny had kept Czechoslovakia under Stalinist rule, Dubcek
instituted reforms to regain public support. Dubceks reforms in easing press
censorship and increasing personal freedoms were the beginning of the Prague
Spring. Dubcek fought hard to justify his reforms to the Soviets in the spring
and summer of 1968, but he lost the battle on August 21, 1968.46 Dubceks
reforms led to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops on
August 20-21, 1968, thus bringing a violent end to Dubceks liberalizing
process and an end to the Prague Spring 47 Following the Prague Spring,
Dubceks reforms were overturned, and Soviet-approved Czechoslovak
President, Gustav Hasek, established a harsh process of normalization or the
reinstitution of Stalinist-style rule.
The Prague Spring was an attempt to reestablish the personal freedoms
that had been revoked since 1948. The Czechs did not want to overthrow the
communist government but wanted a return of the freedoms they had been
robbed of. For many, freedom was an intricate part of Czech national identity
46 A1 exander Dubcek, Hope Dies Last: The A utobiography of A lexander Dubcek.
(New York: Kodansha International, 1993), 271.
47 The Warsaw Pact was signed between Eastern Bloc communist nations in
1955. It laid out a general agreement that would preserve the state of
communism in Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact countries that took part in
the invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 20-21, 1968 were East Germany,
Poland, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
and the Prague Spring was an attempt to regain it. Many of the dissidents who
fought for their personal freedoms during the Prague Spring were exiled or
went underground to avoid persecution. One of these dissidents was a young
playwright, Vaclav Havel.
Havel led the Velvet Revolution, which began on November 16, 1989
as a peaceful demonstration for National Students Day and the Fiftieth
Anniversary of the death Jan Opletal. The Nazis murdered Opletal in 1939
during an anti-Nazi demonstration in Prague.48 The 1989 rally was met with
violence from the state police and set into motion a series of events that
toppled the KSC from power by the end of the year. The Czech Federal
Assembly nominated Havel for the presidency in December 1989 and he
became the first President of Czechoslovakia in 1990. Havels roles as
dissident and politician have played a major part in modern Czech history and
his experiences under communism deeply affected his feelings of national
Havel, Margolius Kovaly, and others modeled their national identity
based on the identity created during the nineteenth century National Revival.
Palackys history and Masaryks First Republic helped the authors maintain
the ideal national identity even as the Nazi occupation and communism tried to
48 Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of 89 Witnessed in
Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 79.
break it. After examining Czech history and identity it is now possible to
delve into the experiences of Havel and Margolius Kovaly under communism
HAVEL AND MARGOLIUS KOVALY:
CONDITIONS OF COMMUNISM
As a result of communism the Czech people lost many of their personal
freedoms and their culture and education was stifled. Prominent Czechs like
Vaclav Havel and Heda Margolius Kovaly suffered under the regime and
ultimately chose to write about their difficult experiences. The situations of
Havel and Margolius Kovaly are examples of the conditions of communism in
Czechoslovakia and do not reflect the entire Czech experience of the time.
Nevertheless, the harsh conditions of communism that Havel and Margolius
Kovaly endured are the reason why their idyllic national identities were
Vaclav Havel: The Imprisoned Playwright
Vaclav Havel suffered immense repression under communism. He was
imprisoned in 1977 for his participation in Charter 77. Charter 77 was a
document created by Havel and many other dissidents including Ludvik
Vaculik. It was a human rights document that demanded restoration of the
freedoms the Czechs had lost since 1948. It sought freedom of religion, the
right to free speech, and the freedom to study at university 49 By writing and
signing Charter 77 Havel demonstrated that he still believed in the national
identity established in the nineteenth century, especially culture and education.
However, his further imprisonments and other experiences during communism
continued to test it.
Because of Charter 77, Havel was imprisoned in total isolation for four
and a half months in Pragues Ruzyne Prison.50 He was imprisoned under
similar circumstances in 1978 for publishing The Power of the Powerless.
However, his longest prison sentence was from 1979-1984. This was due to
his creation of and participation in the Committee for the Defense of the
Unjustly Persecuted, which continued to challenge the regimes treatment of
prisoners.51 Havel, a famed playwright and author, was not allowed to write
creatively while in prison. By forbidding Havel to write, the communists cut
him off from culture and his personal freedoms. Havels treatment in prison
had a profound effect on him personally and politically. Though he was not
allowed to write plays he did write a series of letters to his wife, Olga
Havlova. Havel could not make jokes, discuss prison conditions, or even use
49 John Keane, Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, (New York: Basic
Books, 2000), 248.
50 Ibid, 254.
commas in his writing. His letters were later published in Letters to Olga.
Following his release from prison in 1984, Havel had an extensive
conversation with Karel Hvizdala. In this interview Havels prison-induced
neuroses were evident. Havel stated, I was buffeted by strange and somewhat
psychotic states and feelings.52 For Havel these states and feelings came
in the form of illness, night terrors, and fits of paranoia.53
Because of his international fame, Havels prison stays were gentle in
comparison to the treatment of common criminals and less famous dissidents,
but he was still subjected to many of the trademark communist punishments.
During his four-year prison term, as well as during his shorter prison stays,
Havel was not allowed much sleep and was monitored closely so the guards
could interrogate him at his weakest moments.54 Of this Havel stated,
I was a frightened, terrified child, confusedly present on this earth,
afraid of life, and eternally doubting the rightness of his place in the
order of things; I probably bore prison worse than most of those
who admired me would. Whenever I heard the familiar shout in the
hallways, Havel!, I would panic. Once, after hearing my name
yelled out like that, I jumped out of bed without thinking and
cracked my skull on the window.55
52Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace. (NY: Vintage Books, 1990), 67.
This statement illustrated the immense mental and physical strain that prison
put on Havel. Havel did receive better treatment than the typical criminal;
however, the KSC deemed Havel to be a dangerous member of society and
punished him harshly.
Once he was released, Havel discussed how prison affected him
mentally and emotionally. In 1977, Havel said,
My state of mind was such that every madhouse in the world would
have considered me a suitable case for treatment. In addition to...
banal symptoms of postprison [sic] psychosis, I felt boundless
Havels stints in prison left him with firsthand knowledge of how the
communist justice system worked and motivated him to continue fighting for
Aside from prison sentences, Havel underwent other harassments as a
result of communism. His home was bugged and he was constantly followed
by the Statnl bezpecnost (StB). In fact, the StB, or secret state police,
interrogated Havel on a daily basis in January 1977.57 The information gained
from this harassment helped the KSC slander Havels name by denouncing
56Havel, Disturbing the Peace, 142.
57 Keane, Vaclav Havel, 254.
him as an inveterate anti-socialist.58 The KSC hoped that this would make
Havel less popular; however, quite the opposite was true.
Havel lived in constant fear for himself, his family, and his fellow
dissidents. According to Havel biographer John Keane, Havels life began to
feel as if it was one continuous round of threats, bright lights, padded doors,
wooden desks, sliding chairs, handcuffs, truncheons, that pointed to a limited
future.59 While Havel cannot be considered a typical Czech, his
experiences under communism represent the harsh conditions that existed at
Heda Margolius Kovalv: A Loss of Faith
Like Havel, Heda Margolius Kovaly also suffered under communism.
She survived World War n and the Holocaust only to become a victim of the
communist regime. In her memoir Margolius Kovaly detailed daily life under
communism. Describing her life in the 1950s she wrote,
We believed that another world war was just around the corner and
that police surveillance had become the rule all over the world...the
black market...was flourishing...When the arrests first started, it
was generally assumed that the accused were all guilty of
58 Havel, Disturbing the Peace, 142.
59 Keane, Vaclav Havel, 254.
60 Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star, 94.
Margolius Kovalys experience shows that life was difficult from the very
beginning of the Czechoslovak communist era. However, police surveillance
and the black market would be the least of her problems as time wore on.
Margolius Kovalys husband, Rudolf Margolius, reached the highest
echelons of the KSC as cabinet chief in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. 61
However, he was framed and executed during the famous Czech show trial of
Rudolf Slansky in 1952. In Czech, the Slansky Trial is called Proces s
protistatnim spikleneckym centrem Rudolfa Slamkeho, which translates as Trial
of anti-state conspiracy of Rudolf Slansky. The Slansky Trial was a show trial
similar to those held by Stalin in Moscow in the 1930s. The KSC purged
members of the Party who were suspected of sympathizing with Yugoslav
leader Josip Tito. The Slansky Trial resulted in the conviction and execution
of Slansky, Margolius, and eleven other high-ranking Party members.62 The
fact that Rudolf Margolius was convicted of anti-state conspiracy made his wife
an enemy of the state. Because her husband was imprisoned and executed,
Margolius Kovaly was cast out of society and left destitute. She nearly died of
sickness and malnutrition several times. She recalled, Life in Prague, from
which I was almost entirely excluded, had acquired a totally negative
61 Ibid, 78.
62 Ibid, 128.
character. People no longer aspired toward things but away from them.63
Margolius Kovaly serves as an example, but many Czechs lost their freedom,
their basic human necessities, and their health.
Margolius Kovaly lived in a state of panic following her husbands
arrest and says,
Next to my suffocating fear for Rudolf and for the future of my
child, I was most troubled by the impossibility of earning a living.
My landlady developed a habit of coming into our apartment when
we were away and carting off anything of value... these periodic
raids so enraged me that I began to sell off my possessions myself,
rashly, at ridiculous prices. I was sick with worry, and maybe the
reason why my machine worked so poorly was that it was rusting
inside from all the tears that I had rolled into it.64
Margolius Kovaly, once a devoted Party member, was treated as though she
herself had committed a crime against the state. When she finally found a
place to live she and her son inhabited a home not fit for rats. She described it
as, A single room.. the floorboards were broken.. the house was at least three
hundred years old. [and] no hygienic facility penetrated the building.65.
While Havel may have been given special treatment due to his international
notoriety, Margolius Kovaly was cast out of the KSC and left homeless,
hungry, and near death. Her memoir, which was published in 1986, was the
63 Ibid, 126.
product of her suffering. As a final example of her struggle during the
communist era in Czechoslovakia, Margolius Kovaly stated;
Summary of losses suffered by myself and my son due to the arrest
and conviction of Dr. Rudolf Margolius
-Loss of Father
-Loss of Husband
-Loss of Honor
-Loss of Health
-Loss of Employment and Opportunity to Complete Education
-Loss of Faith in the Party and in Justice66
This list shows why Margolius Kovaly and Havel struggled under
communism. These two writers lost much of what was sacred to them,
including their jobs, their family, and their freedoms. The difficult
circumstances Havel and Margolius Kovaly endured will now lead to a
broader analysis of how Czech intellectuals experienced the challenge to their
identity during the communist era.
THE COMMUNIST CHALLENGE TO
THE IDEAL CZECH IDENTITY
After gaining a better understanding of life during communism, it is
now possible to analyze the writings of other Czechs in order to see how
communism affected their national identity. During the communist era Czech
national identity continued to be entrenched in historic figures like Jan Hus,
Charles IV, and Tomas G. Masaryk. However, a shift in the authors mindsets
also can be detected. Along with the writings of Havel and Margolius Kovaly
with those of Zdenek Mlynar, Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik, and Pavel
Kohout show that while the idea of identity, as established during the National
Revival, was tested during communism, it survived.
The Communist Hangover
In 1990 and 1992 the Aktualne problemy Cesko-Slovenska conducted a
poll asking Czechs to ascribe traits to themselves as a nation.61 The traits
Czechs attributed to being Czech included being: Envious, conformist, 67
67 Real Problems in Czechoslovakia
cunning, egotistical, and lazy. Anthropologist Ladislav Holy believed these
undesirable qualities to be a residue of the communist era that created a rift
between the Czech people and their identity 68 69 Envy, conformism, etc., did not
parallel the traits of the National Revival and therefore substantiate the idea
that the intellectuals national identity was challenged as a result of
communism. Perhaps Czech author Amost Lustig summarized Czechs best
when he stated, When a Czech has a goat, his neighbour does not want to
have one as well but rather wishes his neighbours goat to die.70 According
to Lustig, communism taught the Czechs to be not only materialistic, but also
lazy, whereas Palackys identity painted the Czechs in a much more flattering
light. These are but a couple of examples of how the perception of national
identity changed. While these intellectuals do not represent the Czech
majority, their works do reveal how communism nearly destroyed their ideal
version of Czech identity.
Vaclav Havel has written a great deal on communisms effect on his
national identity as well as the nations identity as a whole. He is best known
for being a political dissident who became a Czechoslovak president.
However, Havel was first and foremost a Czechoslovak citizen with a deep
68Holy, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, 76.
love for his struggling country. After entering the Czech political scene in
1968, Havel longed to create an independent Czech nation based on the
identity Palacky defined during the revival. Havel tried to maintain his
identity throughout the communist era despite the hardships discussed in the
previous chapter. However, after becoming president, Havels experiences
under communism led him to doubt whether culture, education, and
democracy still defined his identity.
During his presidency Havel remained optimistic, but was concerned
about the communist effect on his identity. He stated, Freedom and
democracy require participation and therefore responsible action from all, but
Havel did not know if he was capable of this due to the effects of
communism.71 72 When Havel took office in 1990 he saw himself reflected in
the Czech people. He believed they were not civic minded and thus did not
show any interest in bettering the new democracy.73 Havel feared that he and
his countrymen had been so long without the freedoms they once held dear
that they had grown comfortable without them. They had come to rely upon
the state for direction instead of their own personal responsibility.
71 Vaclav Havel, The Art of the Impossible (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 5.
Havel struggled with the lack of civic participation into the twenty-first
century. In 2000, Havel once again addressed the change in identity that he
had seen take place. He remarked, By far the highest ideal was conforming
to norms-essentially the idea of mediocrity, banality, and a kind of middle-
class philistinism.74 Margolius Kovaly also saw a change in her identity and
blamed her willingness to conform. In her view, she no longer embodied the
freethinking Czech Palacky had envisioned but instead had allowed the
government to guide her. In her memoir she remarked,
For them [Czechs], a totalitarian regime is ideal. The State and the
Party think for them, take care of them, and give them the
opportunity for revenge against the people they have always
Havel and Margolius Kovaly believed the communist era hindered their
personal ability to be civically responsible. They had grown complacent and
did not know how to function in a free society.
Margolius Kovaly and Havel offered insight into why, in the post-
communist years, they saw themselves so negatively, but Czech author Milan
Kundera said it best when he wrote:
When the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, they did everything
possible to destroy Czech culture. This destruction had three
meanings; First, it destroyed the center of the opposition; second, it
74Vaclav Havel, To the Castle and Back. (NY: Vintage Books, 2007), 174.
75Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star, 69.
undermined the identity of the nation, enabling it to be more easily
swallowed up by Russian civilization; third, it put a violent end to
the modern era, the era in which culture still represented the
realization of supreme values.76
Kundera maintained his ideal national identity but acknowledges that the
communist system challenged it until it nearly vanished.
After the atrocities of World War II, Margolius Kovaly, Kundera, etc.,
desperately tried to discover where they fit in Europe and while communism
may have been the wrong answer it was the only valid choice they saw at the
time. Pavel Kohouts 1992 novel 1 Am Snowing: The Confessions of a
Woman of Prague reflected his desire, as a Czech, to belong to Europe in the
twentieth century. Kohout, himself a KSC member, stated, Czechoslovakia
could never have turned out the way it did if a whole huge class of people
hadnt flooded into the Party .the same class that earlier served the Nazis.77
For Kohout, the Czech national identity of the National Revival had taken a
backseat to survival. While this is human nature, it supports the statements of
Havel and Margolius Kovaly and shows a change in identity.
76 Milan Kundera, The Tragedy of Central Europe in From Stalinism to
Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, ed. Gale
Stokes. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 222.
77 Pavel Kohout, I Am Snowing: The Confessions of a Woman ofPrague. (NY: A
Harvest Book, 1994), 105.
Following 1992, Havels faith in his national identity had almost
disappeared. He stated, The era of enthusiasm, unity, mutual understanding,
and dedication to a common cause are over.78 Following communism Havel
noticed that the Czechs, as well as himself, did not react well to freedom. He
found that he took freedom for granted and acted like it was not an innate
quality of his national identity .79
According to Havel, communism had morally stunted him and the
Czech people. Even as president he realized he could not force the democratic
tradition. In 1992 Havel stated, The return of freedom to a society that was
morally unhinged has produced something it clearly had to produce...an
enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice.80 The fall
of communism in Czechoslovakia freed Czechs from a straitjacket, but left
Havel unsure about Czech national identity.81 Margolius Kovaly further
illustrated this doubt when she stated, Many good Czechs began to muse
Vaclav Havel, Summer Meditations (NY: Vintage Books, 1993), xvii.
Vaclav Havel, Summer Meditations, 1.
about who they really were, wondering if one could even speak of a Czech
nation. the result was a sudden loss of personal and national identity .82
In the post-communist years, these intellectuals struggled to relate to
their identity of freedom and culture. Communism had impacted the lives of
these intellectuals so negatively that they began to doubt the traits of their
national identity. Havel, Kundera, and Margolius Kovaly never lost sight of
the ideal nineteenth century identity model, but communism hindered their
ability to practice that identity. And while Havel refused to compromise his
own identity he questioned, Whether directness, truth, and the democratic
spirit will succeed.83
For the Czechs, democracy is not merely political. Palacky formed the
idea of Czech democracy around personal and national freedoms. Democracy
as a political system is not a national tradition of the Czechs, but democracy as
freedom is a strong tradition with ties to the Bohemian Crown Lands. This
idea of democracy is what suffered during the communist era.
82Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star, 64.
83Havel, Summer Meditations, 7.
After World War II, the Soviets attempted to replace the Czech identity
with that of the Soviet identity. By the 1940s Czechs associated democracy
with President Masaryk. Thus in order to quash the notion of Czech freedom
the Soviets spoiled his memory. In 1945 the Soviets made May ninth the
national holiday. This was the Day of Soviet Liberation. Originally October
twenty-eighth, the day the First Republic was founded, had been the national
holiday. The Soviets also argued that Masaryk was not the nations liberator
and that he represented the bourgeoisie and multinational capitalism.84 85
Finally, the Soviets made Masaryks name disappear altogether. Streets,
schools, and public parks bearing his name were renamed in the Soviet model.
Where there once was Masaryks name now stood the Avenue of the Heroic
Soviet Army. Even the ancient emblem of the Czech kings had its crown
replaced with a Soviet star.86
As President of Czechoslovakia, Havel had great interest in the Czech
connection to democracy and freedom. In his first speech as President, Havel
acknowledged that the Czechs would struggle with the freedoms democracy
brings. He stated, We are like prisoners who have grown used to their
84Holy, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, 58.
prisons, and suddenly given their longed-for freedom, do not know what to do
with it.87 Havel was aware of the disconnect communism caused between
himself and democracy; however, he continued to believe the democratic
tradition to be innate.
As early as 1948 Heda Margolius Kovaly believed she was losing her
tie to democracy. When the communists took control of the Czech
government Margolius Kovaly thought, This is a day to remember. Today,
our democracy is dying.88 While the end of the Third Republic saddened her,
Margolius Kovaly was truly mourning the end of Czech freedom. Margolius
Kovaly became a KSC member but never lost her strong ties to the nineteenth
century national identity.
Havel and Margolius Kovaly felt the fall of democracy within
themselves and within Czechoslovakia. However, Milan Kundera saw the
effect it had on the rest of Europe. In 1984, Kundera believed that
Czechoslovakia no longer existed in the realm of Europe because of its
undemocratic ties to the Soviet Union.
87Havel, The Art of the Impossible, 52.
88Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star, 74.
If to live means to exist in the eyes of those we love, then Central
Europe no longer exists. In the eyes of its beloved Europe, Central
Europe is just a part of the Soviet empire and nothing more.89
For Kundera, Havel, and Margolius Kovaly communism had caused the
democratic spirit to diminish.
Shaking the Yoke90 91
Despite the impact of communism, Havel and the other intellectuals
maintained their national identity and perpetuated it throughout their writings.
In a moment of optimism Havel stated,
Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek,
humiliated, skeptical, and seemingly cynical citizens of
Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake the
totalitarian yoke from their shoulders.. in a decent and peaceful
Havel tried diligently to move the Czech people out of their forty-year state of
disillusionment and into an era where they could reclaim their national identity
as a democratic, educated, and cultured nation. Havel was aware of the trials
89Kundera, The Tragedy of Central Europe, in From Stalinism to Pluralism,
90Havel, The Art of the Impossible, 5.
he and his people must overcome in order to regain pride in the Czech nation,
but he believed they would be victorious over the residues of communism.
Former communist Zdenek Mlynar also maintained his national
identity. During the Prague Spring and the reforms of Alexander Dubcek,
Mlynar was proud that the ideal Czech identity had been preserved. He stated,
He [Dubcek] was a believing ruler at a time when the entire nation
surrendered to the need for faith.. and it is understandable in a nation for
whom a sincere, human, humanitarian faith is a value in itself. Also in
1968, Mylnars fellow KSC member, Ludvik Vaculik, wrote, We have...the
opportunity...to give it [socialism] a form which will much better suit...the
good opinion that we once had of ourselves.92 93 Despite their political
affiliations, these men shared a sense of pride when reminded of national
identity and all longed for the return of the great Czech nation.
Like the others, Margolius Kovaly also propagated the Czech national
identity during the communist era. Upon seeing President Klement Gottwald
in Prague Castle in 1948, Margolius Kovaly wrote, I remembered the tall,
92 Zdenek Mlynar, Nightfrost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism. (NY:
Karz Publishers, 1978), 121-122.
93 Ludvik Vaculik, Two Thousand Words to Workers, Farmers, Scientists,
Artists, and Everyone, in From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History
of Eastern Europe Since 1945, ed. Gale Stokes. (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1996), 127.
gracious figure of President Masaryk who had walked those magnificent
Castle halls long ago, in the days of our innocence.94 Despite her Party
membership, Kovaly maintained the Czech national identity that was
established during the National Revival. She transferred the ideals of
democracy, education, and culture to President Masaryk, which then allowed
for the perpetuation of the idyllic identity. Communism brought hardship for
Margolius Kovaly, but she still sought to achieve the qualities of Hus and
Havel and The Velvet Divorce
Communism deeply affected Vaclav Havels sense of national identity.
This was evident in 1993 when Czechoslovakia split during the Velvet
Divorce. This created two separate countries: the Czech Republic and
Slovakia. This was yet another way communism impacted Havels national
President Havel wanted to see the country remain unified. Since the
Velvet Revolution, he had sought to foster a sense of unity between the two
groups; however, he failed due to what the New York Times called nationalist
94Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star, 100.
and political rivalries.95 The separation of Czechoslovakia weighed heavy on
Havels mind. For him it was not only a blow to his national identity, but also
a major political failure.96 Regarding the divorce, Havels biographer, John
The hope that post-1989 Czechoslovakia would prove to be a
model multinational post-Communist democratic state, and that
accordingly would play a major stabilizing role in central Europe,
was smashed to pieces 97
Havel wanted to preserve the boundaries of the nation Masaryk created. His
failure to do so wounded his national identity. Havel had been the champion
of the Velvet Revolution and the first President of Czechoslovakia since
communism, but he could not keep the country intact.
In the midst of the parliamentary proceedings regarding the separation
Havel announced his resignation as President of the Czech and Slovak
Federated Republic 98 He had no intention of leading a country that was about
to split but upon realization that the divorce was imminent he decided not to
95 Engelberg, Stephen. Split Is Prepared By Czechoslovaks, The New York
Times, June 21, 1992.
96 Keane, Vaclav Havel, 449
98 Ibid, 451.
abandon the Czech people. He stated, Im not going to leave my citizens.99
Despite the blow to his confidence and his identity, Havel kept his word and in
1993 he became the first President of the Czech Republic.
During the separation, Havel did not believe in the hard-line nationalist
view that some did. Keane argued that the nationalist viewpoint of the
political elite was dangerous, whereas Havels desire to maintain the
boundaries of Masaryks republic was admirable.100 According to Keane, the
nationalist theory argued that Czechoslovakia had been doomed from its
conception. He stated, The moment of birth of. a state populated primarily
by Czechs and Slovaks, but also by Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians and
Poles, was also its moment of death.101 Havel did not believe that the state
failed because of its multinational population. Havel argued that the Velvet
Divorce occurred because, For most people, post-Communism meant
Havel understood that there was historical animosity between the
Czechs and Slovaks; however, his experience was that the divorce occurred as
99 Ibid, 450.
100 Ibid, 451.
101 Ibid, 450.
a result of communisms effect on national identity. Havel stated, People are
unsettled by the fact that they cannot see firm order, structure of
values... everything has been thrown into uncertainty.103 Havel believed that
because the Czech people, himself included, could not find certainty in post-
communist Czechoslovakia, they began questioning the state. Keane
commented, Appeals to the Nation might have been expected to work like a
magic healing potion capable of restoring a sense of balance in their personal
Despite Havels attempts, the country did separate. Havels reputation
in Slovakia was destroyed due to his personal feelings and political errors.105
According to Keane, Havel perpetuated the Czech stereotypes. Havel
believed, Czechs were progressive, intelligent, liberal whereas Slovaks were
unreliable, anti-Semitic, unrepresentative of the newly freed
Czechoslovakia.106 In contrast, Havel remained popular in the Czech
Republic and was president until 2003. Keane believed that Havel had a
103 Ibid, 452.
105 Ibid, 458.
106 Ibid, 456.
Masaryk-like commitment to Czechoslovakia, but in the end his loyalty lay
solely with the Czechs.107 Prior to the separation, Havel stated,
My home is my Czechness, my nationality. .and I see no reason
whatsoever for not acknowledging this layer of my home; after all,
it is as essentially self-evident for me as for example, that layer of
my home which I would call my male sex.108
Following the Velvet Divorce, the residues of communism continued to
test Havels national identity. However, despite the challenge, Havel,
Margolius Kovaly, Kundera, et al, maintained their ideal national identity.
These intellectuals perpetuated the identity despite the fact that the communist
hangover played a major role in their post-communist years. Unfortunately
the hangover would resurface on an international level in 2009.
107 Ibid, 458.
108 Vaclav Havel, Letnipfemitani (Prague, 1991), 18-19, quoted in John Keane,
Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (NY: Basic Books, 2000), 458.
THE PLAYWRIGHT AND THE ARTIST:
CONFRONTING IDENTITY IN 2009
In 2009 Czech politics and identity were at the forefront of
international news. Along with the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet
Revolution, 2009 also saw the Czech Republics European Union Presidency.
Both the EU presidency and the Velvet Revolution anniversary provoked
intellectuals like Havel and artist David Cemy to sound off about their views
of Czech identity in the twenty-first century. The accounts of Havel and
Cemy, demonstrate that their concept of Czech identity was still rooted in the
National Revival. However, they were still coping with their experiences
under communism and the effect it had on their identity.
Czech Embarrassment and the Communist Residue
In 2009, the Czech political system was humiliated on an international
scale, largely because of their EU presidency. Midway through the term the
Czech coalition government collapsed. The Czech parliament removed the
government headed by Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. Jan Fischer, a
former KSC member, replaced Topolanek. Prime Minister Fischer said the
decision to join the Party was one of his biggest mistakes, and despite his
former Party membership he continued to hold the position of Prime Minister
of the Czech Republic.109 Appointing former communists to high-ranking
positions within the Czech government was not a new phenomenon and has
embarassed the country in recent years. In fact, the Czech Communist Party,
an unreconstructed Marxist party, had won nearly fifteen percent of the vote
In October 2009, journalist Alison Smale of the New York Times,
interviewed Vaclav Havel during his seventy-third birthday party. Havel
weighed in on Fischers appointment and expressed disappointment. Smale
paraphrased, Those years have marked many current politicians, leaving
them prone to conspiratorial thinking and acts of petty deceit.111 While Havel
was concerned about the communist residues in the government he has
shouldered the blame for it. Havel did not abolish the communist party in the
early 1990s as other former members of the Soviet Bloc did. He felt banning
109Dan Bilefsky and Jan Krcmar, Czech Activists Seek to Outlaw Communist
Party, The New York Times, December 23, 2009.
110 Dan Bilefsky, Celebrating Revolution With Roots in a Rumor, The New
niAlison Smale, Former Czech Leader Assails Moral Compromises, The New
York Times, October 15, 2009.
the party would only create a witch hunt that would further divide the troubled
country and promote undemocratic sentiment.
Like Havel, artist David Cemy lived under Czechoslovak communism
and his identity was challenged by the experience. Cemy, best known for
defacing a Soviet tank in 1991 by spray painting it pink, was sickened by the
fact that former communists held positons in the democratic government. In
November 2009, Cemy told National Public Radio, In parliament, there is
one guy who was in prison where he tortured dissidents and he sits in
parliament. How the hell is this possible?112 113 The collapse of the Czech
government and the communist infiltration left Havel and Cemy embarassed
and forced them to confront the fact that their experiences had challenged their
ideal version of Czech national identity.
112Dan Bilefsky, Celebrating Revolution With Roots in a Rumor, The New
113 Eric Westervelt, Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency, National
Public Radio, November 11, 2009,
http://www.npr.org/templates/stoiy/story php?storyID=l 20281482.
Be Silent and Invisible
The twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution inspired further
introspection from Havel and Cemy. They argued that the major characteristic
of Czech national identity in 2009 was apathy. Havel and Cemy were also
frustrated by their internal battles with their national identity. These men
believed that they had become comfortable with the You shut up and we will
take care of you mentality, which weakened their connection to Palackys
identity .114 115 Upon the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in November 2009,
Havel and Cemy, took to the press to express how communism continued to
challenge their ideal Czech national identity.
Thousands of well-wishers greeted Havel outside a concert hall in
Prague for his birthday in 2009. Despite the celebratory mood, Havel was
contemplating the past, present and future of his identity. Havel stated, I had
hoped that the country would be more humanistic and less materialistic by
now. And Im still waiting.116 In Havels eyes, his identity had been tainted
by communism. The hardships he had endured during the communist era tried
114Dan Bilefsky, With Sharp Satire, Enfant Terrible Challenges Czech Identity,
The New York Times, September 5, 2009, sec. A.
115 Bilefsky, Dan. Celebrating Revolution With Roots in a Rumor, The New
116 Westervelt, Eric. Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency, National
his connection to the nineteenth century identity and the return of those values
proved more difficult than he had first thought.
Cemy also believed that communism had left him apathetic to civil
responsibility. In an interview with National Public Radio, Cemy admited
that he, Is frustrated that just 20 years after the revolution, there is a sense of
quiet complacency in his country. The consumer is king.. .while former
communists roam the halls of power.117 118 Cemy has made a career of
challenging the establishment and has taken issue with Czech national identity
through art. His government commissioned piece, Entropa, created an
international debate during the Czech Republics EU presidency and he has
also been scorned for depicting the Czech Patron Saint, Wenceslas, riding a
dead, upside down horse. Horse was Cemys direct contradiction to the
famous statue of Saint Wenceslas in Pragues Wenceslas Square which
portrayed Wenceslas as a gallant figure perched right-side up on his steed.
Cerny has taken it upon himself to challenge the ideals of Czech
national identity. Aside from his depiction of King Wenceslas, Cemy has also
attacked Czech identity through controversial and often perverse works of art.
Among these works was his 2004 piece, Piss. This sculpture depicted two
117 Westervelt, Eric. Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency, National
118 David Cemy, Horse, http://www.davidcemy.cz/startEN.html.
men urinating on an outline of the Czech Republic. The urine spelled out
quotes of famous Prague residents, including Havel .119
Cemys art and personal freedoms were hindered during the communist
era, therefore he now uses those mediums to confront the idea of Czech
identity in the minds of others. Cemys works are often criticized or deemed
too eccentric; however, they reflect how his identity was challenged under
communism. In a New York Times interview, Cerny states,
The Czech attitude is not to be proud of being Czech... It is a
postive thing for me, but it also has a dark side, which is that we
never won any war. In America people are taught to be proud and
as visible as possible. Here in this country, we are taught to be
silent and invisible.120
Cerny remains a proud Czech but admits that communism taught him to be
silent and invisible. While Cemys art reflects his anger and frustration
with his national identity, it also acts as a catalyst for identity discussions
amongst Czechs and tourists alike.
119 David Cerny, Piss-Hergetova Cihelna,
120 Dan Bilefsky, With Sharp Satire, Enfant Terrible Challenges Czech Identity,
The New York Times, September 5, 2009, sec. A.
The works of Havel, Margolius Kovaly, and the others show how they
experienced the challenge to their identity during the communist era. Their
writings showed why their identity struggled to persevere, but ultimately
proved that they maintained their ideal national identity. The intellectuals
analyzed in this study found common ground in Palackys identity and
perpetuated it during and after communism.
Palacky based the identity on key values including, democracy, culture,
and education, which are precisely the values Havel and the others maintained.
Palackys creation of national traditions, a national history, and a written
vernacular accurately reflects Gellners theory of national identity. Palacky
and the National Revival moved Czech folk culture to high culture and acted
as way for the Czechs to separate themselves from oppressive Austrian rule,
which also followed Gellners theory. The Czech desire to separate from the
Habsburgs was similar to the way the writers analyzed in this study used their
national identity to separate themselves from the Soviets. These intellectuals
maintained the characteristics of Palackys national identity and continued to
articulate them throughout their writings despite the hardships of communism.
These intellectuals do not represent a majority of the Czech people.
However, they were leading figures in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries
and were largely responsible for the continuation of Czech identity. Havel
was elected President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic from 1990
until 2003 and continued to write until 2005. Margolius Kovalys experiences
were those of a Czech citizen, not that of a political intellectual. However, her
memoir is heavily rooted in the nineteenth century identity. Havel, Margolius
Kovaly, and the others have played a prominent role in recent Czech history
and have taken it upon themselves to articulate the ideal Czech identity despite
the hardships they experienced during and after communism.
Analyzing these intellectuals allows one to understand how and why
communism tested their national identity. The conditions Havel and
Margolius Kovaly experienced were undoubtedly difficult but they continued
to cling to the revivals ideals in the face of adversity. Unfortunately the post-
communist years proved to be just as difficult for Havel. His experiences as
president and the Velvet Divorce further tested his identity but in 2005s To
the Castle and Back he maintained his ideals.
David Cemy also continued to confront how his identity was
challenged under communism. Piss and Entropa were just a few examples
of his works dealing with his perception of Czech national identity. These
works allowed him to encounter his own identity and encouraged others to
encounter their own as well. Cemy respected the Czech identity established
during the revival but continued to question it Based on his comments in
2009, Cemy maintained the ideal identity but had not come to grips with
communisms effect on it therefore he continued to challenge it through his art.
The identity created by Palacky during the National Revival served as
the model for these intellectuals throughout communism and during the post-
communist years. Democracy, cuture, and education continued to be the traits
on which they based their identity; however, communism put a major strain on
it. The loss of personal freedoms and the consticting nature of the communist
regime tested the intellectuals identities. However, they maintained their
ideals despite the communist effect. Through their writings, public comments
and artwork these intellectuals have continued to articulate the Czech national
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