Czechs Talk About Czech Culture
It was another maturita week. The fourth year students did their oral exams. The school was full of students and teachers in jackets and ties and lovely dresses. I wore my favorite green jacket and a thin green tie. The maturanti either wandered the halls nervously clutching notes and mumbling to themselves, or flopped in sofas, exhausted and relieved.
As an English teacher, I had a lot to do: there were 29 intensive oral English exams to administer. But there were also long breaks for me while the students fought through Czech, biology, social studies and all the other subjects. During these times I had the opportunity to think deeply about what is going on.
You might have read my essays from previous years. You know that maturita is an intense and important facet of Czech culture. Imagine this iconic moment. On one side of a classroom, there are tables laden with dictionaries, atlases, logarithmic tables, notepaper, and a model skeleton. On the opposite side of the room is a Czech flag. Four students in their nicest outfits line up nervously as if to face a firing squad. The firing squad is the team of teachers who just examined them in four different subjects. The president of the commission, a teacher from another school, solemnly congratulates them, makes a few comments and then reads their scores. There are gasps, sighs, white faces and tears.
There is a gentleman on our staff who is celebrating an important moment of his own during this maturita season. Vlastik Skotnica is the most respected history teacher in our region. Perhaps he is the most respected educator around here of any kind. Many of the Czech teachers who are my colleagues were in his classes long ago. He administered his first matura exams in 1965, the year I was born. This cycle, his fiftieth, will be his last.
I had lunch with Pán Skotnica. Because one of my students had just done a difficult presentation comparing American and Czech culture, our conversation turned to some interesting topics. Pán Skotnica is not just the most eminent history teacher: he has lived key moments in history, such as the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. His insights are fascinating.
The Czech girl who had spoken about America had said things like “America is more open” and “America is more multicultural.” Pán Skotnica described his perspective. He said that a century ago, Czechoslovakia was part of a multicultural, internationally minded empire: Austria Hungary. Czechs went to Vienna and Budapest and interacted with people of many languages and backgrounds. The First Republic — the promising democracy founded by Tomaš Garrigue Masaryk and Woodrow Wilson after the First World War — required the Czechs and Slovaks to think about themselves as an individual nation for the first time. The Nazis, of course, destroyed this. Then the Soviets came in, “liberating” the Czech lands after the Second World War. They explained the Communist occupation by saying they were protecting us (the Czechs) from the Germans, the Americans and all the other evil, capitalist fascists. Germans were forcibly expelled. That was the beginning of an inward-focused mentality, the mentality that strange things, foreign things, new things were bad. This generation, the one taking their tests right now, is the first generation to break out of that isolationist, xenophobic sensibility.
Two weeks before maturita, I had another interesting conversation with another fascinating person. Some of you may know that on Monday nights, I take Krav Maga, a martial art. (If you are surprised, you should be. I’ve never practiced fighting before. Now I am kicking, punching, hacking, strangling, wrestling and boxing every week. The reasons are complicated. The quick version is that I am pushed to stay in unusual physical shape and I have the invaluable experience of being the weakest, most confused student in a class. Every teacher should know this intimately.) I am by far the oldest student in my fight class, but there is one fellow who is 44, so whenever the teachers bark at us to find partners, we go together.
His name is Reinhardt. In 1988, he escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia by sneaking into West Berlin. He danced on the Wall the night it fell. For many years, he lived in Germany and Canada. Then he returned to the Czech Republic. Reinhardt made a bold declaration to me over dinner one night. He said that the definition of the Czech Identity is “We’re not Germans.” Everything, Reinhardt says, depends on being different from those powerful, efficient overlords across the border.
Obviously, Reinhardt has some personal reasons for his views. In fact, he feels more German than Czech. But I have tried out his theory on my Czech students and friends. Some of them growl, “Well, of course that’s what a German would say.” But a lot rub their chins thoughtfully. They add that “We’re not Germans and we’re not Russians.” Yes: there’s always been a greedy German-speaking power coming from the West and a greedy Russian-speaking power threatening from the East.
Saying that Czechs’ Czechness is mostly just non-Germanness is strange to me. I can think of lots of positive ways to define Czechness without mentioning Germans, Austrians, Russians or Poles. The first word that comes to my mind is “thoughtful.” I often tell the story of our second summer here, watching university students (mostly not Christians) dive into a roleplaying game called “The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.” The idea was that the Bed and Breakfast — the dining room, the bedrooms, the club rooms, everything except the bar downstairs — was trasnformed into a giant simularion of Life and Destiny. One room represented “education,” another, “jobs and vocations,” another “family,” There were no winners or losers or conflicts; just hours of wandering from room to room and talking about aspects of human existence. I expected the young people to end up in the bar drinking famous Czech beer. But they didn’t. They spent hours playing this game and then more hours discussing their thoughts.
When maturita was over, I spent an hour at the BMA graduates’ big party. All the other teachers were invited. Two teachers had brought their violins. One of the graduates, a strapping young man who was class president awhile back, grabbed his accordion and the three of them led a hour of rousing Czech folk songs. I was sitting next to this year’s class president, a girl named Katka. “This is what I love about Czech culture,” she said. I totally agreed. I don’t know which American senior class would celebrate the end of finals week with traditional folk songs. Then again, some kids said that most Czech schools don’t, either. BMA is special.
I asked Katka: if her dream came true and she lived for a time overseas, what would she miss about her homeland? She answered immediately, “Czech thinking.” To define that, she said that she found Americans too happy and friendly all the time. She doesn’t trust us. She wonders if we are always honest. When we say, “:How are you?” we don’t really want to know. But Czechs say what they mean, even if it’s a little bitter.
Back to my senior colleague, Pán Skotnica. He was one of the violinists at the party, by the way. Somehow the lunchtime conversation turned to current politics. He is a very mild, kindly man, and I have never heard him speak ill of anyone before. But he lit into the current Czech president, Miloš Zeman. Zeman is probably the biggest fan of Vladimir Putin in Europe today. To many Czechs’ shame, he is constantly visiting Moscow and singing the praises of the Kremlin. Pán Skotnica ascribed this to bribes and corruption. “He’s bought and paid for.” Then, to my shock, he compared Zeman to Hitler.
“Hitler?” I gasped.
“Hitler and Zeman both got votes from the mass of ordinary and the sub-ordinary voters.” They get a mass of ordinary, uneducated people who don’t really pay attention to the issues and they hold on to power in a “democracy” with this support.
Later, I asked our director, Petr Hermann, what he thought. Petr is a Czech who is a little younger than I am. His face fell. But the first thing he said also made me gasp.
“Zeman is a picture of our country.”
“On the one hand, his election was a big mistake. A president should have moral authority. This president says, ‘Smoke! Drink! It’s normal!’ and he comes drunk to public functions. On the other hand, he is a picture of our society.”
I am writing this because I want my American friends and family to think about these different perspectives. Even though I spent most of my youth in other countries, I always knew I was an American and I believed that there was something definite, positive and unique in the American experience. That positivism is very different from the experience of many other nationalities. There are many Czechs who define themselves in terms of negatives. I wish they didn’t. But they do. We should think deeply about how this feels and what this means for the gospel here.
Let me close with two remarkable things said by my students. These are the Czechs born after Communism, who don’t have any way of understanding the society their parents experienced, and who are being tasked with building a new Europe. They are also the Czechs who have to do oral exams which sometimes include “a comparisons of the Czech Republic and the United States of America.”
Nela gave the best five minute explanation of American politics I have every heard from a Czech: the three branches, the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, everything. At the end she ventured an opinion. “How can it be a democracy if there are only two parties handing power back and forth between each other?” Sometimes I wonder about that, too.
Honza almost brought me to tears about two hours before I sat down to write this essay. His task was to “describe two or three themes from American history.” He wanted to talk about the Second World War. “If I were American, I wouldn’t go fight for Europeans. But they had the courage to do it.” He talked at length about D-Day and the Marshall Plan. His eyes shone as he talked with gratitude about the sacrifices Americans made for his continent, and my eyes shone as I considered that some teenagers here still think about such things.