Friday, February 5, 2010

Mary Heimann's "Czechoslovakia"

Mary Heimann is senior lecturer in the history department at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed, and reported the following:
Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed is a revisionist history of the state which preceded today’s Czech and Slovak republics, and which experienced democracy, Nazi rule, Fascist and Communist dictatorships, Soviet invasion and democracy again, all within the space of an average person’s lifetime. The book is based on original research in the national archives in Prague, but is aimed at the English-speaking general reader and assumes no specialist knowledge. Page 99 [inset, click to enlarge] touches upon one of the central themes of the book: how the persecution of minorities came to be justified in the name of nationalism and codified in legal statutes right across Central Europe: not only, infamously, in Nazi Germany; but even in a democratic state like Czechoslovakia, which was brought into being in the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War.

On p. 99 of the book, which falls in 1938, the groups being targeted by the Czecho-Slovak authorities are Czechs living in the (at the time autonomous) region of Slovakia, and Jews (especially German-speaking Jews) living in the territories of Bohemia and Moravia. At other points in the story, the victims of legalized discrimination are Slovaks, Gypsies, Ruthenians, Germans or Hungarians. Sometimes the oppressors in one chapter become the victims in the next; elsewhere it is former victims who become oppressors.

The purpose in showing the darker side of nationalism is not to single out Czechoslovakia as better or worse than other states; still less to try to discredit the Czechs (among whom I count many friends, my husband and my son) as a people. Rather, it is to illustrate for the general reader – of whatever ethnic background or nationality – the danger of perpetuating nationalist myths in which one’s own side is presented as the righteous victim, and the injury done to others ignored or downplayed.

The dramatic, and sometimes tragic, history of Czechoslovakia is fascinating in its own right and deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world. Its achievements were remarkable, and the difficulties with which it had to contend at times exceptional. The variety of ways in which its various regimes were established, suffered, challenged, tolerated, supported or overthrown also sheds light on familiar twentieth-century political problems, from how to protect minorities and sustain democracy to how to account for the Holocaust, understand the spread of Stalinism, or explain the collapse of East European Communism in 1989.
Learn more about Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue