Two Decades after Czechoslovakia: A Belated Requiem
On the morning of 1 January 1993, two decades ago, I sat with my second ex-wife, a Czech born in České Budějovice, to watch the news on CNN. We waited for the coverage of the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia, but there were two events dealing with borders. First, there was news about the implementation of the Single Market Act in the European Union. As the commentator spoke, a clip showed guards on the German-French border raising the gates to allow for the free flow of vehicular traffic and then returning to their guard booths to collect their belongings before heading home. Seconds later, another clip showed gates lowering at a temporary border installation on the Czech-Slovak border. Czechoslovakia was no more. Both of us were teary eyed, but the reality hit me in the summer of 1993, when I had to show my passport on the train at the border crossing from the Czech Republic to Slovakia as I made my way to Poprad to visit my cousins. After a long weekend visit, one of my cousins decided to travel with me to Prague, where she had not been for some time. Then she realized that she had no valid passport, and even though she could have traveled on her identity card, she hesitated, fearing some bureaucratic technical glitch that is famous in Franz Kafka’s part of Europe.
For many specialists studying Czechoslovakia, the division of the state was not too personal, but my past prevented me from being very dispassionate about the republic's demise. The lives of many of my family members and me have revolved around the various incarnations of Czechoslovakia. Through what is known as chain immigration, my mother’s parents and several of her brothers gradually immigrated to America before the First World War from the northern portion of Slovakia, then in the Kingdom of Hungary, itself a part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. After the creation of the Czechoslovak First Republic in 1918, when Slovakia joined with the Bohemian Lands of the Austrian portion of the Monarchy and Ruthenia from Hungary, my grandfather often spoke of returning to Slovakia. When work in the USSteel mill in Vandergrift, PA, became scarce in 1926, my grandfather, who never spoke English, made the decision to return. My grandmother, who also spoke no English, acquiesced, and accompanying them to Europe were my American-born mother and her two American-born brothers. Upon turning 18, in the midst of the Great Depression, my mother set sail for America. The Munich Agreement ended the First Republic in 1938, and Nazi Germany’s subsequent occupation of the Bohemian Lands, the creation of the independent Slovak Republic, and Hungary’s absorption of Ruthenia in 1939 ended the short-lived Second Republic. During the early stages of the Second World War, the family in America brought their brother, Joe, back to America from Slovakia because he was young enough to be drafted to fight on the Eastern Front. My other uncle, Frank, remained in Slovakia, cared for his parents, married, and began a family. His village was fortunate enough to avoid the ravages of war, but some of the inhabitants, my uncle among them, were brave enough to save a few Jews from deportation. The republic reemerged in 1945, but in 1948, when the Communists came to power, my uncle failed in his efforts to return to America. In 1961, my Slovakia-born Uncle Andy in America journeyed to what, since 1960, had been the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Afterward, I enjoyed his stories about his visit as well as his life there as a boy. For that matter, I listened intently to any discussion about Slovakia and Czechoslovakia from my mother, her siblings, other relatives, and friends. I begged my mother to teach me Slovak, which she refused to do. “We’re American now,” she was fond of saying. In 1967, as the Communist regime took small steps to liberalize, Uncle Frank came from Czechoslovakia for a visit, an exciting event for me, and a few months later, the family feared for Frank and his family’s safety during the Warsaw Pact invasion that brought an end to the 1968 Prague Spring. To nearly bring the circle to a close, my maternal great grandparents on my father’s side were Sudeten Germans from the village of Petlarn (today's Žebraky) who immigrated to America in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but that is another story.
It is no surprise, given my family’s past and the strong ties with Czechoslovakia, that I was to become interested in the country, despite my parents’ efforts to guide me in the direction of law, medicine, dentistry, architecture, engineering, or anything that they believed would be respected and lucrative. I pursued a degree in history, and I visited Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1976, not long after the end of the so-called normalization process that removed the Prague Spring reformers. After touring Prague, my first wife-to-be and I drove a rented Avis car to Kutná Hora and then on to visit relatives in Slovakia. I interrupted my graduate studies for several years upon earning my master’s degree, but when I returned to complete my doctorate, I went to Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1985 to improve my mastery of Czech, which I had been studying for some time (I never convinced my mother to teach me Slovak, and both the materials and the assistance to study Czech were readily available). I returned for thirteen months in 1986 and 1987 to research for my doctorate. During that time, I experienced some of the difficulties of living in what was referred to as the advanced state of socialism, but as an American, I was able to supplement my Czechoslovak stipend and had a comfortable existence. I also experienced the seamier side of socialism: I was followed, the secret police searched my room at least twice, a friend of mine was harassed because she had corresponded with me, and the secret police built a dossier on me. My access to archival materials was restricted, and it took me six months even to get into the archive, time I used to scour the periodicals from the 1920s and 1930s and to gather other information pertaining to my subject. This all was mild, considering that I endeavored to do nothing that would irritate the authorities. On a positive side, I met my future second wife. We married on 5 March 1988, the thirty-fifth anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death (on 19 October 2001, we divorced–the 188th anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of Leipzig).
When the Velvet Revolution occurred in 1989, I was in California with a postdoctoral grant, and I could not afford to travel to the republic to witness events personally. I finally managed to return in the summer of 1990, just a few months after the country had become the Czech and Slovak Federated Republic. I expected to gain access to some of the materials that authorities had prevented me from using. To my surprise, I had no success. The archive at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism was being dismantled, so I could not see any of the private papers of Tomáš G. Masaryk or Edvard Beneš, the first two presidents of the republic. The head of the institute turned me over to the librarian, who escorted me to the library and explained that there is little he can do for me. As we entered the imposing two-story library with a balcony that afforded readers access to the shelving above, he began to weep. “All my life’s work is here,” he muttered, trying to hold back his tears, as he showed me the towering heap of books in the middle of the floor that reached to the balcony. Those in charge of clearing the library irreverently tossed the books to the ground in preparation for their removal and pulping. Revolutionary transitions, no matter how peaceful, can be traumatic for history and for historians. I also was in for a surprise at the Archive of the Chancellery of the President of the Republic, where the archivist told me at the door during my second visit that the holdings contained nothing for me. I had a distinct sense that she was afraid that the revolution would not survive and that her position would be in jeopardy were a counterrevolution to occur.
In the summer of 1993, during that trip when I had the surreal experience of presenting my passport on the train at the border of the new Czech and Slovak republics, I managed to get the archival materials I needed. The Masaryk and Beneš papers were in a new archive, temporarily located at Invalidovna, a former infirmary for war veterans dating from the eighteenth century that the Ministry of Defense owned. The same archivist at the Presidential Archive who had denied me access two years before welcomed me and was more than helpful as I tracked down various documents. Since then, I have been in the Czech Republic and Slovakia numerous times. My stay in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2003 included a memorable experience. In anticipation of the republic’s entry into the European Union in 2004, legislators had been passing new laws for several years to conform with the acquis communautaire. New EU-regulation crosswalks, known in Czech as zebry (zebras), just had been painted on the street, and a pedestrian in those crosswalks had the right of way. Gone were the days when Prague drivers targeted old ladies pulling their carts of groceries and laughed as the babičky scurried toward the curb.† As I stood at a notoriously dangerous crosswalk with others, waiting for a break in traffic, I saw that one brave soul next to me placed his or her foot on the crosswalk. The drivers suddenly stopped their cars, at least one of them screeching his tires. We crossed unconcerned and unharassed. Clearly, the EU, about which many were skeptical, would have its benefits. Another minor but amazing experience was visiting Slovakia in the summer of 2009, when on a Poprad street corner, the bankomat, that is, the automatic teller machine, spat out euros.
When my second ex-wife and I watched the CNN broadcast that morning of 1 January 1993, I remarked in frustration that the republic had divided so that it can come together again in the European Union. Eleven years later, that prediction became reality. Driving from Slovakia to the Czech Republic in 2009, a few newly-minted Slovak euros jingling in my pocket, Slovak police stopped me at an abandoned border check post. I wondered what I had done wrong because I was not speeding. After giving them my papers, they began grilling me: Was the woman in the passenger seat my wife? (It was Lenka, a close friend of mine from Prague.) Why was it that the car was not registered to me, was not the possession of the woman in the front seat, and not a rental? (A friend in Prague had lent us the car.) Was the boy in the back seat mine, hers, or ours? (Vojtěch is Lenka’s son.) How is it that I am driving with an expired Florida license? (The renewal sticker was on the reverse side of the license.) How was it that I speak Czech? (I explained that, as a professor, I specialize in Czechoslovak history.) What was I doing in Slovakia? These last two questions and the policemen’s increasingly friendly tone made me realize that their curiosity was getting the best of them. I told them that I had been visiting relatives in Poprad, and they asked why, if my relatives are Slovak, I am speaking Czech. I offered my standard line: my mother, who was Slovak but born in America, refused to teach me Slovak, and Czech was easier to acquire. They returned my papers and wished me a pleasant journey. As I took the documents, I asked what I had done to be stopped. “Nothing,” they replied. I left the abandoned border crossing and wondered whether it had been the same one that I had seen on CNN sixteen years earlier.
31 December 2012
†During socialism, Czechs humorously commented that the grandmothers were pulling RVHP carts, after the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (Rada vzájemné hospodářské pomoci), the Warsaw Pact’s equivalent of the European Economic Community. The abbreviation for the carts, however, stood for something else: ráno vyjedu, hovno přivezu—in the morning I leave, and I bring back shit. In other words, the grandmothers, who often bought groceries and did housework for their grown children, would shop but bring home very little because of the poor selection of goods, shortages, or lack of disposable income.