Twenty Years On: Do We Need More of Europe or More of the Nation State?
Twenty years on we—Czechs, Moravians and Silesians—are suffering from a conjoined sense of being both exceptional and outsiders at the same time. We don’t trust anyone or anything, we feel alone, abandoned, no one understands us; we have be on alert, especially if someone appears to be nice to us—he most likely wants to hurt us, like that time in Munich…
This sense of isolation is objectively encouraged by our landlocked position: a country, surrounded by mountains, wedged into a German world.
Moreover, people suffer from not being quite sure what we are like. This is a legacy of alternately taking megalomania pills (we shall be the post-Communist world’s top achievers!) and despondency pills (this kind of thing could only happen in this country…). We don’t know who we are.
For all these reasons I am tempted to say that what we definitely need is more openness and co-operation, i.e. more Europe, but this kind of statement would lack a subject: who is it that needs it? Who and where is there a “we“ to speak of? For in this country we first need to truly become “we“ in order to need, want or demand anything in a meaningful way. Does that mean we need to be more of a nation? Or rather, a motherland?
Turning for advice to fairytale mythology, let us ask a key question: what do we need more, the water of life or the water of death? This mysterious question is inspired by one of the leitmotifs of 19th century Czech fairytale, by Karel Jaromír Erben in this case. One of his tales features two ravens that carry the water of life and death in their beaks. The paradoxical meaning of these two attributes of the fairytale water conceal a general wisdom that is universal rather than just Czech. This truth is both concealed and revealed; revealed and concealed: wise nuggets of wisdom are probably never presented in a cheap and obvious way but through the detour of paradox.
Wandering the world and having to undergo various trials and tribulations in his quest for the beautiful princess, Prince Jiřík, who understands the language of animals, saves the lives of two young ravens (Corpus corax) that have fallen out of their nest. In return, they promise to help him if he gets into trouble, as they can carry two kinds of water in their beaks. The Prince emerges from his tests victorious but that is what makes the nasty old king have him killed and his body chopped to pieces. Jiřík’s loyal friends seek out the ravens and they come bearing the water of death and the water of life. When Jiřík is sprinkled with the water of death, his body heals; after being sprinkled with the water of life, he comes back to life. In fact, he is now younger and more beautiful than before. The old king is envious and asks to be beheaded. His servants dutifully sprinkle him with the water of life to resurrect him but his head won’t grow back on. Then they bring the water of death and although his head grows back, there is no water of life left…
Breaking up and Growing Together
Who knows if there is any water of life left in Europe. Or whether there’s any demand for it. What I have in mind is a positive vision, a grand idea, a dream. The problem is that, as the empires of Central and Eastern Europe fell apart, too much life-saving water has been used up. The alternation of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes brought about floods, indeed devastating inundations of intoxicating waters of all descriptions. And they came from every side. And all these forced attempts at resuscitation by ideology have robbed local societies not only of their illusions but, for good measure, also of all ideas and ideals. Having returned to the fold of the big world, which nowadays gives big narratives a wide berth, they have become doubly broken up, atomized. And the healing and growing together will be a very slow process.
The Czech Republic after 1989 resembled the old fairy tale king, who would love to look younger and more beautiful, without anyone giving any thought to making sure that the country’s body needs to heal first. On the menu of both the Right and the Left were only various cocktails based on the water of life. These days nobody is won over by any idea that any of the political parties in the Czech Republic has to offer. The body is broken, it has become unresponsive.
What is in short supply in the entire region is a positive, yet accepted and healing identity that is not threatening to others. Whenever societies begin to heal too fast, one has to be on the alert: most likely there is a Mečiar, Miloševič, Lukashenko or Orbán behind the healing. All these gentlemen have been, first and foremost, world champions in looking for and finding an enemy. However, another typical effect of this kind of fast healing process is polarisation: the body never heals in its entirety, usually it is just the two “halves“ that grow together, only to show a tendency to fight against each other until one has achieved victory. To the point of total destruction. Which in turn, leads to further break-up.
These days it is often Europe or the European Union that Central European politicians tend to cast as the enemy. Brussels! The Brussels bureaucracy! The latter, in particular, is very well suited for the role of the enemy, being far away and incomprehensible while seemingly omnipresent and, allegedly, omnipotent. It has become a handy substitute for Zionist conspiracies.
In order for us Czechs (i.e. Czechs, Moravians and Silesians) to even begin to want “more“ or “less“ Europe, in order for us to want anything and stick to it, we must start healing again as a community. We have to create and inhabit a public space and learn to relate to the state we live in as our own. We have to acquire the art of sharing power: so far, all we’ve done for a quarter of a century is engage in class warfare, that is to say, we have practiced the kind of politics that regards a political rival as an enemy who needs to be crushed and eliminated. In the “noughties,“ the victorious Right promoted the idiotic slogan of “zero tolerance“: the opposition can’t be right even if it happens to be right… Therefore public space, rather than being colonized by civil society, has been subject to creeping privatization. It is a privatization that resorts to asocial nepotistic practices ruled by the neo- liberal deregulation imperative.
Only when society begins to heal together again, will we be able to ask questions similar to the one raised in the title of this piece, only then will we be able to set ourselves goals of one kind or another.
Unless we make sure this healing process is taking place and unless we cultivate the awareness of an inclusive “we,“ it is pointless to ask whether we need more or less Europe. It is just as pointless as asking whether we should be heading more to the “Left“ or to the “Right“; whether we need more “new“ liberalism or “old“ solidarity. We are still a community that is broken and, therefore, fragile, having been crushed, since the 1930s, by two totalitarian and repressive regimes. Our response to any offer of water of life is either short-lived enthusiasm (albeit only on the part of a minority) or, more likely, heightened skepticism on the part of the majority, that tends to hide from similar issues in the time-proven privatissimo. This is an art we have mastered to perfection during the post-invasion normalization period, 1968 to 1989. Well, that’s at least something! Most of us, i.e. Czechs, Moravians and Silesians, don’t trust saviors. But these days this is something that could change overnight…
The shortest and easiest, as well as the most dangerous, path to new healing is via the construction of a national state—I mean national in the sense of ethnic, tribal. Another, longer but safe and reliable path, is via the creation of something that is known by a similar name—nation state—in the West European understanding of the term, i.e. a political, civil state rather than a state of “fellow tribesmen,“ a state of citizens who relate to their state, to its constitutional and legal order, more or less spontaneously.
At this point, we might well ask what use this confusing, ambiguous terminology is: why should we ask whether a nation state is necessary or not, if the term means something quite different to Europeans on either side of the Rhine? Those on the other side of the Rhine might well respond to a nation state with a “so what?”, since for them nation means both nation and state. To me a term like nation state sounds nonsensical.
The price that has to be paid for the first, easy and faster, path to healing, is the existence of an enemy, whether imaginary, in people’s heads, or real, usually across the border. This is a path that destroys the fragile achievements of a uniting Europe. Its name is nationalism. In this country, to embark on this path these days you just have to join those who have been persistently reviving and cultivating a fear of the Germans (as “revanchists,“ i.e. descendants of our former fellow citizens who had been expelled and displaced after the war) or of the European Union (incidentally, also dominated by the Germans). They also make use of the fear or hatred of the Roma. Or of foreigners, as the case may be. As for the fear of the Germans, its unexpected side effect is tolerance of and sympathy, indeed admiration, for Slavonic Russia, never mind that it is Putin’s Russia.
Old fears and old hopes have started to raise their heads, just as in May 1945. They haven’t come back of their own accord but instead have been revived by those who cannot or do not want to, share power.
The resulting feeling comes very close to claustrophobia. We have started shutting out the outside world, which allegedly threatens us (just as it happened in Munich back in 1938, an event that is serving as an universally applicable cliché that can be used to abrogate any kind of responsibility in this country), and living in this enclosed space has put us in a “bad mood“ (as Václav Havel once defined it). We feel constantly irritated, mostly by ourselves. We are suffering something akin to Cabin Fever.
Nationalism and Patriotism
The longer, more reliable path leads to patriotism rather than nationalism. Or rather to “constitutional“ patriotism. It passes through the stages of strengthening, or if you like “thickening“ of civil society, lively local politics and, last but not least, through people actively participating in democratic competition between political parties. The art of winning elections, however, includes a less obvious willingness and ability to share power with others.
A precondition for this path is applying, as we used to say, revolutionary fervor, to strengthen fraternities. These days sociologists are more likely to refer to it as “social cohesion,“ those on the Left as “solidarity.“ Conservatives call it “compassionate conservatism.“ “Ligatures“ is the term Ralf Dahrendorf once used for something that is becoming increasingly rare. One way or another, this kind of strengthening of internal social cohesion can exist without an enemy, since it is based on confidence, not fear.
The shortest and the longest, the easiest and the most difficult—and yet these two paths go under the same name, that of nation state. However, this is a term that means something quite different in the European West and the European centre, east and southeast. The difference is not just one of meaning: Behind these two ways of relating to the state lie several centuries of European, often bloody, history. The European West got over its nationalist, chauvinist and imperialist forays and convulsions a long time ago, more or less assimilating and devouring the nations and nationalities on its territory and gradually building states of citizens made up of ethnically varied human material.
At the centre, in the east and southeast of the continent, civilization and culture has yet to assimilate this diversity, yet so far it has rather tended to deny it instead, as large states— empires and later socialist “federations“— in this region have been crumbling and falling apart over the course of the past century, engendering an increasingly large number of new states that are as ethnically pure as possible. Quite often this had to be done with the help of a little force.
After 1918, in the course of the Paris negotiations that led to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia, its founders declared it to be a nation state (incorporating this in the 1920 Deed of Constitution). In reality, however, it was a state of nationalities: as late as 1938, 33 % of its inhabitants were of a nationality other than the so-called state-forming nation, i.e. the Czechoslovaks. In terms of ethnic composition, we were the most diverse country in Europe (with a slight lead on Poland). And that was before the Slovaks were taken into account, since they were regarded as belonging to a “Czechoslovak“ nation that didn’t really exist.
After 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into two countries, we have become the ethnically cleanest (after Iceland, allegedly), or perhaps also the “most cleansed“ European country. This happened after more than a thousand years of never living alone in our country home, whatever its name and shape on the map may have been! We have yet to reflect this startling change in the very foundations of our state’s existence. One thing, however, is clear: we feel that democracy, as a way of protecting minorities among other things, is much less needed than it would be in an ethnically diverse country. As our present-day politics make abundantly clear.
That is why, in an EU context, I’d rather not speak of “nation states“ but rather of “member states.“ But even more importantly, I wish that their citizens perceived them as their motherlands. In spite of the fact that the words “motherland,“ “fatherland“ or the Latin “patria“ refer again, albeit obliquely, to the tribe and therefore, ultimately, to blood. On the other hand, the Czech word “vlast“ [from vlastní, i.e. “own” Ed.] refers to the country and its inhabitants, whoever they may be, to a country we regard as our own. We own it, we feel responsible for it.
The Czech word “vlast“ thus might provide a more accurate name for a state of citizens. We have a beautiful, apposite designation of an ideal that is painfully absent in reality.
I find de Gaulle’s definition of Europe as a “Europe of motherlands“ highly acceptable, apposite and semantically clear, much more than a“Europe of nation states“ or a “Europe of states,“ or the tautological “Europe of member states.“
Europe and Its Union
So what is it that is most needed in the Czech Republic? Europe or a nation state? If anything, we need more of a Europe that is truly uniting, since this kind of Europe is predicated on the existence of nation states solely in the West European sense of the word. In these kinds of states a nation consists of the most active citizens imaginable, rather than of people sharing the same blood, the same mother tongue and self-glorifying (or self-tormenting) national myths. The reason why a truly uniting Europe is essential in a globalized world is that this is not achievable without political, civic nations. Let me rephrase this in a negative way: because Europe cannot unite if it is based on states that are defined ethnically, by blood and myths of glorious victories and vanquishings. The path to uniting Europe—particularly in the continent’s centre, east and southeast—is via the development of liberal democracies, i.e. states with a rule of law. Such democracies do exist in the West, which isn’t to say that the West runs no danger of losing them.
The European Union is and will be a union of such liberal state motherlands, or it will come to nothing. It will always suffer a deficit of democracy if it tries to act as if it already were a state, just because it has a parliament. For this is a parliament without a ruling majority and an opposition minority. That would be possible only if we had functioning trans-European parties and that, in turn, would only be possible if Europeans communicated in a single language, read a single European newspaper and watched European TV… And that is likely never to happen. Nor is it desirable, since nation states‘ languages also serve as bearers of cultural diversity, the most important source of our continent’s wealth. Often it is the issues particularly important for one nation that are untranslatable into the languages of others, let alone into some kind of European Esperanto.
It is possible and desirable to reduce the EU’s democratic deficit primarily by means of its member states: this is where the main reserves of EU democracy are located. We will have to find a way of transferring the will of individual states into EU decision-making that is more credible and easier for the citizens to comprehend. The voice of national parliaments in European decision- making has to be much stronger and go beyond monitoring. Currently this monitoring role, too, is often merely formal.
Conservative Values Enhance Healing
The water of life wakes us up, rouses us, raises us to our feet and gives us courage to set more ambitious goals. In larger doses, however, it can intoxicate. On the other hand, without the water of death we lack a body, a whole body, including feet. We are unable to get up, let alone go anywhere.
The water of life is the vague temptation of something that lies ahead, but it is also blindness. Without the water of death, without remembering what we have left behind, what has made us into the whole “we,“ we don’t know who and what we are.
Without it, therefore, we don’t know where we’re coming from and neither do we know where we are headed—without the memory of our family, tribe, village, region, state, Central Europe… It is good old conservative values (N.B. adding the prefix neo- to every word that used to be quite clear only leads to confusion) that contribute to the healing of broken societies. Respect for the family, including our ancestors‘ legacies, the cultivation of memories, including of things we’d rather forget, faith in transpersonal values, yes, including Christian ones. An affection for the country, rather than for the nation, a lovingly maintained countryside and urban landscapes, preservation of historical monuments, local patriotism, regionalism, all this contributes to slow but certain healing. As does subsidiarity, decentralized politics and the fostering of local economies.
All the above is the water of death, always so precious and often seemingly unnecessary. The only chance of changing something for the better, of launching the healing process, is to begin, to keep beginning over and over again from the grass roots, from the place where we live. The small is alive, the large is nothing but a machine.
Ideologies, tribal nationalism, chauvinism, the cultivation of simplistic hostile heterostereotypes (who are the others—those who are not “us“— and what are they like), this too is the stuff of the water of life. Sometimes it resembles illegally home-brewed liquor, usually containing the odd trace of methanol. Of course, ideals and noble ideas can also be the stuff of the water of life. Water of life is always dangerously more abundant than that of death. And it has always been in greater demand.
However, it can only bring to life that which has healed over.
But where can we get hold of it now? Who can we ask about it? Sometimes I feel there is no one left to ask. That we have no option but to turn directly to those who bear both kinds of water in their beaks—the ravens. That we have to ask these smart, careful, distrustful birds: how much water of death is there left at all? Where can we find it? Which part of our broken bodies should be sprinkled first?
I wonder if they will help us the way they helped the prince. Their first piece of advice is certainly available to us, even though we don’t understand the language of animals as Prince Jiřík did: ravens live as permanent couples in permanent nests.
But that’s something real conservatives have always known.
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