The Czech Nation and Its Past and Present Identity

Prague CastleThe purpose of this short work is to give the reader a brief exposure to the issues that are at stake in the problematic of correctly understanding and using the past by the modern nation-state. It approaches this subject by examining the case of the Czech Republic, as one of the nation-states of the post-Soviet ‘new Europe,’ by comparing its contemporary idea of the “Czechness” to the self-understanding of the Czech people in the period before the emergence of nationalist movements in Europe (up to the late 18th century). In doing so it is argued that the modern concept of homogeneous nation to which the contemporary Czechs subscribe is, notwithstanding the belief of the Czechs to the contrary, exactly that – a modern ‘invention’ that cannot stand up to a more closer historical scrutiny.

More precisely, the purpose here is not to proceed in the steps of Ernest Gellner or Benedict Anderson by alleging that the 19th and 20th century ‘awakeners’ of the Czech nation are guilty of a deliberate attempt to construct a new historical entity,[1] but to show that the critical understanding of the past is always to some extent limited by the (tacit) understanding, traditions and problems of the present. It will be therefore claimed that the 19th century group of Czech thinkers, who in the so-called period of National Revival set as their task to avert the progressing germanisation of the Czech crown lands, were trapped in what Martin Heidegger called ‘metaphysics of subjectivity,’[2] as they believed that the Czech identity they were defending was an atemporal and ahistorical entity. In other words, this nationalist movement was implicitly positivist in its assumptions about historical objectivity, in a similar way as the Marxist historiography of the French Annales school in the 20th century.[3] The nation was for them adopted as the unit of analysing the past. The historicity and timeliness of the concept of nation was denied, and the whole history was reinterpreted according to its prism, without acknowledging that in the past the Czech identity might had been perceived differently. This essay thus both briefly overviews how the modern concept of the Czech national identity and then counterpoises it to an older, more territorial and political, and less ethnic understanding of the “Czechness.” By making such comparison it thus also shows the limits to the efforts to critically perceive history through the (narrow) scope of nation and nation-state.

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The Idea of Europe in the work of Denis de Rougemont and the French non-conformists

Denis de Rougemont was a main thinker of the so-called non-conformistes des années trente, a movement of young intellectuals that appeared in France at the beginning of the turbulentcover 1930s, in opposition to both the individualism of liberalism and the collectivism of the Soviet Russia. [1] The main bulk of their work was published between 1930-34 and was concentrated around three separate currents:

  • The founders and members of L’Ordre nouveau. An intellectual movement established by the Russian migrant Alexandre Marc (born in 1904 in Odessa as Aleksander Markovitch Lipiansky), its goal was to prepare the conditions for a ‘spiritual rebirth’ of the European culture. Its effort was concentrated on going beyond such dualistic divisions as nationalism-internationalism and capitalism-communism. Its inspirations came, among other sources, from the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard, the federalism of Proudhon, the great critique of Modernity Nietzsche, or from the historicism of Péguy. The thinkers who were a part of L’Ordre nouveau also included Robert Aron, Arnaud Dandieu, Daniel-Rops, Jean Jardin and finally Denis de Rougemont.
  • The Catholic revue L’Esprit of Emmanuel Mounier, founded in 1932. From the beginning it evolved in tight collaboration with L’Ordre nouveau. In reaction to the events of the Second World War it radically shifted to the political left , in order to slowly move back to more moderate positions of the ‘New Left’, under which it still publishes to this date.
  • Young thinkers of Jeune Droite, who were mostly dissidents of the French reactionary and monarchistic right Açtion française. These thinkers included Jean de Fabrègues, Jean-Pierre Maxence and Thierry Maulnier.

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Sovereignty: The History of the Concept

leviathanWhat is sovereignty? In general, it might be said that the sovereignty is always either ‘internal’ or ‘external’, or de facto and de jure [1]. My primary concern in this essay will be to shed some light on the first of these – internal sovereignty. Indeed, it is entirely correct to say that sovereignty cannot be so easily labelled into two separate categories and it should be acknowledged that the ‘external’ sovereignty, in the light of the Westphalian peace treaty, could be regarded as nothing else but placing a last piece of the puzzle of sovereignty into its place – granting the internally acknowledged sovereign entity also the external recognition of its legitimacy.

John Hoffman suggests that most often, the contemporary view considers sovereignty to be a ‘unitary, indivisible and absolute power concentrated in the state’ [2]. However was it always so? If not, when did the idea of sovereignty as supreme power, as Weberian ‘monopoly on the violence in a given territory’, first appear? My suggestion will be that the concept of sovereignty in its fullness is a very modern phenomenon, whose emergence can be traced back no deeper than into the early modern period [3], but which, nevertheless, remains with us almost intact even today – still being necessarily thought of as ‘absolute and indivisible’.

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Carl Schmitt, Aristotle and the concept of the political

schmittCarl Schmitt, besides being one of the thinkers of the ‘conservative revolution’ of the interwar Germany, was also notoriously infamous for being a ‘Hitler’s jurist,’ thus one of those important intellectuals who provided the necessary legal framework for the brutish Nazi regime. Yet, our world is seldom such that individuals can be so simply categorized as ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ and Carl Schmitt, has an interesting concept of the political which might give, and gives, contemporary political students and academics a completely new perspective on the sphere of politics.

Indeed, what is politics and its area of interest – the political? I might well continue by countless common definitions like ‘the political is what concerns the state,’ or I might mention the argument of many radical feminists or some of the scholars as Colin Hay (2002, pp. 69) who suggest that ‘everything has the potential to become political’ – even what was considered to be solely a domain of the ‘private’ – as was a few years ago shown in the infamous ‘fox hunting case’ in Britain.

Thus, the ‘classical’ definition of the political perceives politics as an arena – as Politics with the capital ‘P’ (by equating politics with places where is politics being created ~ usually the state, the government. However, many scholars including the ‘communitarians’ Charles Taylor, Michael Walker, Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre would certainly argue that politics is today also, or even primarily, created outside the national borders of the state – for instance in INGOs, QUANGOs, TNCs and in economic and financial organizations associated with them such as WTO or Bretton Woods institutions). Nevertheless, the second, ‘less traditional’ definition of politics perceives it as a process. When conceived as a process, in terms of application of power, or as of ‘transformatory capacity’ as Anthony Giddens formulates (1981), politics has the potential to emerge in every social location.

Colin Hay specifies:

‘Power … is about context-shaping, about the capacity of actors to redefine the parameters of what is socially, politically and economically possible for others. More formally we can define power … as the ability of actors (whether individual or collective) to “have an effect” upon the context which defines the range of possibilities of others’ (Hay, 1997, p. 50; quoted in Hay, 2002, p. 74)

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Nietzsche on friendship and on the ‘tragedy of life’

Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Friendship’ is something to which we all probably would nod and we would say that we fully understand what is meant by it, but do we? Who are these ‘friends’ we think are around us? What do they mean to us and do these ‘friends’ of today really differ from people we only ‘know better’ and or to whom we ‘talk more’ than with random people we daily meet? These might sound like silly questions to ask, really, however, when the phenomenon of Facebooks, Myspace etc. strikes daily the news and journalists often mention that people have tens or even hundreds ‘friends’ on their profiles, I believe it is never useless to stop and wonder for a moment.

Quite interestingly, I would like to point out to perhaps the most unexpected person who considered friendship in his work – to Friedrich Nietzsche. He, just as the voluntarist Schopenhauer before him, had almost no friends at all. Suffering from constant health problems – migraine headaches and vomiting, this brilliant intellectual had to resign from the post of professor at the University of Basle, which he received at unheard age of 24, and in 1879 started to travel around Europe, seeking seclusion and peace from his collapsing health near mountain lakes deep in the Alps.

In earlier days of his writing career, Nietzsche was a friend and admirer of the work of Richard Wagner. Nietzsche saw in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1865) the possible resurrection of the antic tragedy. The Greek tragedy was for Nietzsche especially important because he regarded it as an ‘honest depiction of human life.’ That is, as a piece of art that depicts each person as born with certain qualities, but also possessing the ‘tragic flaw,’ which gives him a destiny that he cannot escape. Although in the Greek tragedy characters struggle with their predestined path, by each step they inadvertently proceed towards their certain end.

This is perhaps best depicted in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus is given a terrible predicament – he is to marry his mother and kill his father. The tragic flaw in case of Oedipus is hubris – and although that when he hears his terrible fate from the Delphic Oracle and tries to flee from the place where his (foster) parents live, escaping, he kills his father Laius – only because they argue who has the right-of-way.

Nevertheless, heroes of the antic tragedy – although endowed with the tragic fate – are not content with it, and they struggle till the very end. As Nietzsche mentions in The Birth of Tragedy this is a ‘honest’ image of what life is – tragic.

One is born into a condition one does not chooses. He is endowed with certain predispositions, born into a certain family, into a specific community, which make tremendous impact on one’s identity – on the fact ‘who one is.’ The ancient Greeks personified this human precondition as ‘given’ by three Moirae – the personifications of destiny. The ancient hero, however, is the one who, although endowed with both flaws and qualities, does not ‘give up’ and fights his destiny and although never wins (the human life can never be won, the human life is tragic, it always ends in death which can never be avoided) he understands that ‘there are moments and things worth living (and dying) for.’

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