>Klaus on Masaryk: ever changing views…?


Whenever I read Václav Klaus’s takes on Czech(oslovak) history – and, in particular, his views on Czechoslovakia’s first President T.G. Masaryk – I’m reminded of that old Paul Weller song ‘My Ever Changing Moods’. As a neo-liberal turned national liberal VK has a decidedly difficult relationship with TGM, a man of the centre-left, who saw politics was a vehicle for the moral improvement of society, disliked (but accepted ) conventional party politics. Masaryk, for these reasons, is more conventionally seen as political forerunner of Václav Havel (including, naturally, by Havel himself). Social Democrats also claim to be true modern inheritors of the Masarykian tradition because of Masaryk’s concern with social questions, sympathy (and occasional co-operation) with Social Democrats and rejection of Marxism.

Klaus gainfully tried in the early 1990s, just after the split of Czechoslovakia and the unexpected emergence of an independent Czech state, to invent a pragmatic liberal Masaryk who believed in individual hard work not flowery words, whose footsteps he was following. However, by 1999-2000 he was laying into Masaryk (or, as he carefully, put it the myth of Masaryk) telling a conference of historians that the political founder of the state was intellectually overrated, political ineffectual and overly given to grandiose messianic visions inappropriate for a middle-sized Central European state; inclined to underestimate the importance of ethnic and national conflicts; too economically collectivist; and frankly elitist and paternalist in his desire to bypass normal channels of party competition.

In his latest take however – in a speech to mark the 70th anniversary of Masaryk’s death (an English translation can be found here) Klaus returns to his positive vision of the early 1990s of a sort of ‘neo-liberal TGM’. Klaus still has critical remarks to make about interwar Czechoslovak democracy, still viewed by many in the Czech political and cultural elite as a Golden Age of civic and decency and political standards still unmatched in post-communist Czechia – he and reserves the right make criticisms of Masaryk, However, in the speech Klaus once again takes a positive view of Masaryk, albeit with a particular spin. Masaryk, Klaus tells his listeners, was as an academic turned politician of humble background who made his career through hard work; was realistically and although temperamentally in favour of evolutionary reform, recognised the need the revolutionary change at key historical moments; was a defender of Czech ‘national and democratic ideals’ but promoted a civic nationalism free of populist anti-semitic and anti-German accretions; recognised the dangerous appeal of communism for Czechs even during a time when the Communist party seemed marginal; and as President, did not affect a phoney neutrality but was fully engaged in politics as a head of state with clear and straightfoward views.

Now, is that perhaps supposed to remind us of someone? Just in case you missed the point, Klaus also goes on to tell us that Masaryk was a kind of eurosceptic avant la lettre one of the political breakers of a failed centralized bureaucratic European superstate. That’s the Austro-Hungarian empire in case you were wondering…

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