Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Reader review: Battle for the Castle

In the latest of our reader reviews, Zbysek Brezina reviews Battle for the Castle by Andrea Orzoff.

by Zbysek Brezina,

Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia, 1914-1918 is a result of the author, Andrea Orzoff’s, deep research interest in 20th-century East and Central European history. In particular, she explores the use of mass media in propaganda, the role of nationalism, and the origin and continuance of national mythologies in Czechoslovakia in the interwar period at home and abroad.

The book’s title, Battle for the Castle, refers not only to the Prague Castle, but also to an unofficial group of significant people (and sometimes to the organisations to which they were affiliated). More specifically, Orzoff considers the role that intellectuals played in supporting various national policies and programs created in interwar Czechoslovakia mainly by Tomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937), the founder and the first President of the Republic, and Edvard Benes (1884-1948), the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In chapter one, the author argues that it was primarily professor Masaryk who, during his time in exile from December 1914 to 1918, created a positive image of Czechoslovakia as a politically and culturally progressive and pro-western nation in the eyes of the French, British and American intellectual elite. He was able to successfully seed these messages largely through propaganda concentrated in the hands of an assiduous Edvard Benes. This war propaganda strategy was thereafter brought home to the newly established Czechoslovak republic; keeping it alive was one of the most important tasks of the Castle group.

Chapter two explores the informal Castle organisation itself. In particular, the author examines the presidential chancellery, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the pro-Castle press and pro-Castle intellectuals (such as Karel Capek and Ferdinand Peroutka), as the main centres for gathering, evaluating, analysing and disseminating the Castle’s ideological, political and cultural ideas. Orzoff also emphasises the fact that although the Castle was an unofficial centre of power, it played one of the most vital roles in shaping Czechoslovak domestic politics, primarily through its struggle with Parliament and the party leaders who fully controlled the constitutional body.

In chapter three, the author addresses the complex issues of Czech (and partly Slovak) interwar nationalism and the key role that the Castle played in portraying Czechoslovakia as pro-western and almost transnational. This was in direct contrast to the Czech political Right, which put forward a chauvinistic and national model of Czechoslovak history. It is not surprising that newspapers and journals became major battlefields for this ideological exchange between the Castle intellectuals, led by Masaryk himself and his intellectual lieutenant Karel Capek, and opponents of the Castle. Furthermore, the rapidly growing popular support and ‘cult’ of Masaryk was another important part of this ‘mythical combat’.

Chapter four charts the development of Czechoslovakia’s position on the international scene, which, in the 1930s, in the face of the growing threat of Nazism, became increasingly complicated. The Czechoslovak position weakened not only in London, but also in France, Czechoslovakia’s key western supporter and guarantor of its security and independence. The 1920s and 1930s were times of hectic media duals between Czechoslovak and foreign propaganda, in which Czechoslovakia was constantly criticised for its artificiality and hypocrisy.

Orzoff concludes, in the final chapter, that the Munich Diktat meant the end of the interwar Czechoslovak myth about both itself and the nobility and trustworthiness of the West. However, as she persuasively demonstrates, Czechoslovakia was not just based on myth. Without doubt, in the interwar period, it was the most democratic and socially progressive country in its region. The Republic had its flaws, but in the end, the ‘Czech democracy failed because Europe failed’.

This well-written and researched study will be essential to anyone interested not only in Czechoslovak interwar history, but also in the impact of various national myths on our recent history. Orzoff’s study could have profited from more of her deep knowledge of her subject instead of using space to recapitulate well-known events. Another minor omission is a bibliography to supplement the book’s detailed notes. It will be very interesting to see the Czech readers’ reaction, if Orzoff’s work is ever translated and published in the Czech Republic. It may notably raise controversial questions and new ideas about Czech perceptions of the country’s recent history.

Zbysek Brezina is Assistant Professor of History at Bethany College, Kansas. He has recently completed a dissertation on the informal group of people around President Tomas G. Masaryk and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edvard Benes in interwar Czechoslovakia.

No comments:

Blog Directory