Thursday, 11 March 2010

Reader review: Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed

Continuing our series of reader reviews, Zbysek Brezina reviews Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed by Mary Heimann.

By Zbysek Brezina,

Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, a book with a slightly provocative title written by American historian and senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, Mary Heimann, is a controversial revisionist account of the history of Czechoslovakia, from its birth in the fall of 1918 to its peaceful disaggregation in the winter of 1992.

Heimann’s educational background (DPhil in Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford) and scholarly opinions better fit the British revisionist school than the American one. She describes the Czech nation as ‘a mystical entity’ that has been wrongly represented in western historiography as a nation that was morally, economically and culturally ‘better’ than other nations in Central and Eastern Europe. In her own assessment of Czechoslovak history, based primarily on her two-year research effort in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Heimann argues that the Czechs were nationalists, if not chauvinists, who from the birth of the Czech Republic deliberately discriminated against minorities including Germans, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Jews and Gypsies with the goal of creating a homogenous society.

In the introductory chapter, the author outlines the history and geography of the Bohemian Crown Lands from the medieval age until the beginning of the Great War. The following chapter focuses on the political activities of the founder of Czechoslovakia, Tomas G. Masaryk, and of his two closest colleagues, the Czech Edvard Benes and the Slovak Milan Rastislav Stefanik, during the First World War. According to the author, the trio consciously tricked the western powers and therefore received their sympathy, and later their full political support, in Masaryk’s effort to establish the Czechoslovak Republic on the ruins of the Habsburg monarchy. Chapter three charts the establishment and interwar development of the First Republic, from the fall of 1918 until the infamous Munich Agreement in September of 1938. Although the Czechoslovak Republic was the only one that could be called democratic in that region at the time, Heimann fails to adequately credit this historical reality. In chapter four, the author deals with the so-called Second Republic and tries to convince the reader that Czech anti-semitism was not very different to German anti-semitism. She suggests that the West has only recognised Czech racism or xenophobia in recent years. In her description of the lives of Czechs in the German Protectorate and of the Slovaks in their First Republic, in the following chapter, Heimann concludes that, despite some dramatic moments, the lives of the majority of Czechs and Slovaks remained, on the whole, relatively unaffected.

The sixth and seventh chapters examine national cleansing, focusing on the cleansing of Sudeten Germans, which was particularly widespread in the immediate postwar period, and the unique Czechoslovak road to the communist dictatorship that followed. In the author’s opinion, both events were silently supported by the majority of Czechs. In chapters eight and nine, she argues that the events leading up to the well-known Prague Spring and later to the Soviet invasion were nothing other than a power struggle among the Czechoslovak communist leaders and explains how the nation was thereafter rapidly put ‘back to normal’ without any serious resistance. In chapter ten, Heimann considers the political, economic and cultural situation in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, a time of political apathy, economic stagnation and of inner immigration amongst the majority of the non-communist population. She also analyses the steps that led to the Velvet Revolution, arguing that the revolution was not planned and ended happily only because international events took over domestic ones, rather than because there was a Czech readiness to get rid of communism. Heimann evaluates, in the final chapter, the various causes of the division of Czechoslovakia into two republics. She concludes that the 74-year-long Czechoslovak existence was relatively unsuccessful.

If Heimann’s views are correct, historians may need to redefine what we know about the origins of Czechoslovakia, democratic Czechoslovakia in the interwar period, the Protectorate, the brief semi-democratic period after the Second World War, the origins of the communist dictatorship, the Prague Spring, Normalization, the Velvet Revolution, and the Velvet divorce. However, this is not the case. Prior to the Second World War, the British Ambassador to Germany, Neville Henderson, considered the Czechs ‘a pig-headed race’ and Heimann’s views of the Czechs gives the reader a similar feeling. This is unsatisfactory for a historical study supposed to be written by an objective historian.

Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, Mary Heimann (Yale University Press)

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.

If you would like to review one of the latest history books, see our selection of books for reader review.

No comments:

Blog Directory