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History as fairy tales, myths and clichés

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It is an indisputable fact that, within the framework of collective memory, history is very often more a set of narratives, fairy tales or purposeful manipulations. At the same time, it is not a Czech exception, all nations and societies “produce” and model their own history. One historical event or personality thus has different images in the minds of different peoples. If we take personality as an example Czech King Sigismund, even in the narrower Central European area we would find big differences. In our country, he remains in the image of the enemy of the Hussites and the traitor Jan Hus in Constance. In the German environment, his role may be emphasized more precisely during the Constance Council, when his political pressure may have saved the unity of the church. And for the Hungarians, it will be the image of an important Hungarian king.

Michal Stehlík
is a historian of contemporary history, works at the Faculty of Arts of the UK and the National Museum

At the same time, it is not only about the diversity of views on history, but the very content of these views, so often it is a mirror of entrenched clichés. Let us now leave older history aside and approach our century. One of the prominent clichés is the thesis that the Czechs suffered under the Austrian yoke. After all, we literally deleted three hundred years of development after the White Mountain from our national memory… Certainly, politically the Czechs were not as successful as the Hungarians, who forced the Austro-Hungarian settlement in 1867. Nevertheless, Czech society developed dynamically in the 19th century in the environment of the Austrian state. Both culturally, economically, and ultimately politically.

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In many ways, the First Republic simply followed on from what had been built up in society before 1918. However, this cliché was abundantly nourished precisely by the First Republic, which came from the beginning with a sharp gesture of “Let’s get rid of demons!”. Each subsequent historical turning point then brings a set of stereotypes that remain deeply rooted to this day. If we stay before Munich 1938, we can take the first republic itself as one big historical cliché. Already after the Second World War, it increasingly began to play the role of a kind of “golden age” in memory, which was especially evident from the end of the 1960s.

The complex and painful social situation, political disputes, corruption, and ethnic friction were forgotten. The First Republic, in its idealized form, moves in memory between TG Masaryk on horseback and actor Oldřich Nový with Adina Mandlová on the dance floor. I already mentioned above the turning point of 1938, which is one of the biggest historical myths of the Czech 20th century. In the memory, which is based on a strong feeling of the time, there remains an unequivocal feeling of betrayal by the Western allies. What about the fact that, for example, the British were already skeptical about the national situation in the Czechoslovak Republic during the negotiations the first world war. What about the fact that the British did not have a treaty with Czechoslovakia?

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Moreover, the frustration at the loss of the historical borderland does not perceive a more global political perspective. If the great powers used to paint national borders after the first war, we were lucky to be on the winning side. When, twenty years later, the stability of the Central European area becomes more complicated, we are suddenly surprised that the borders are being redrawn this time to our disadvantage. And what’s more, we can bring diplomatic negotiations into the “story of betrayal”. Edvard Beneš, who, in the secret mission of Minister Nečas to France in September 1938, actually offered to cede part of the territory himself. In light of all these contexts, the cliché of betrayal simply stops working.

When we jump to the next historical figure of 1948, it also contains a traditional image that may not be related to reality. Regardless of the fact that our fixation on historical eights is in a way one big stereotype. In the case of the communist takeover of power in February 1948, the role of the Soviet Union is emphasized in the collective memory, possibly coercive or gangster-like actions Gottwald management during the negotiations on accepting the resignation of President Beneš.

However, we emphasize the behavior and opinions of the public less. Although we take into account the demonstrations and the People’s Militia units, we do not talk about the fact that there were almost one and a half million members of the Communist Party, which is a real and huge political force. For example, we emphasize the students’ march on the Castle, which will suppress security, but we do not ask how it is possible that the communists had such a strong position in the labor councils and peasant committees. Quite simply, the rise of communism has very strong internal reasons and causes and cannot be “thrown” on The Soviet Union and the breaking of Beneš in the days of February.

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The next eight in 1968 brought not only clichés, but this time also a topical discussion of its origin. Writer Milan Kundera he wrote then that during the Prague Spring we once again became a place where world history took place. In his eyes, it was an original attempt to create socialism without secret police and censorship. At the time, Václav Havel did not share this opinion, who openly criticized Kundera when he wrote that 1968 was not a world originality, when we only wanted what was normal in the West. However, this polemic was quickly cut short by the coming normalization censorship.

Looking at our history, we could go on and on. We will probably never get rid of them being presented to the general public as stories and narratives. It’s just a matter of what idea they have and what legacy they carry.

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