Burying the Dead
December 30, 2012
We are now 23 years removed from communism and in a few days it will be the 20th anniversary of a state named Czechoslovakia ceasing to exist on the world stage. January 1, 1993 independent Slovak and Czech Republics came into being.
With distance, the memories blur. What was once clearly good or bad turns into gray. And sometimes what was once gray turns into black and white. How bad was communism, really? Many people have forgotten and would like to return. There’s value to remembering tidbits from history, lest the lessons of the past be repeated.
As we get further from communism, the affect of communism on the people of central and eastern Europe disappears. In all likelihood, it will be a generation or two before communism cannot be so strongly felt.
I always ask myself how pronounced communism was on the Slovak people. I realize that there is a distinction today between countries that were under communist rule and those that weren’t. Sometimes I wonder how much the distinction continues to affect people psychologically and culturally, and sometimes I speculate that the distinction is nothing more than an economic one.
Austrians – The First Communists
It is important to remember that the Austrians were the first communists. By this I mean that many of the unpleasant behaviors that were linked to communist regimes could be felt under Austrian rule pre-WWI, several decades before Czechoslovakia was actually communist.
I think I am not the only one who has observed a longstanding Austrian appreciation for bigger, more intrusive government. Leon Trotsky for example – founder of the Red Army, founder of Pravda, and founding Politburo member (among other accolades) – fled Russia to Vienna when he was looking for a welcome place to start Pravda and circulate his pro-communist propaganda.
And even today, it seems so clear to me that so many Viennese secretly wish that the Russians would have taken control of Austria. They could have had the ideal communist society if only someone with a stronger will, like Stalin after WWII would have come along and helped them out. The only thing wrong with Austrian socialism from the perspective of many Viennese is that it is simply not socialist enough. Austrian School Economists such as Friedrich von Hayek (author of The Road to Serfdom) would not be bashful about calling a statist form of government exactly what it is – statism – likely without quibbling about the differences between socialism, or communism, naziism, or socialist democracy.
The love of senselessly large bureaucracies began not with Lenin in his Russian backwater. It began further West. Read The Good Soldier Svejk, a book written before there was a communist regime in the Czech Republic and you will see a Central Europe that look a lot like a big bureaucratic communist government was in control. You may think big state behemoths existed in Czechoslovakia only from 1948 to 1989. I think this is simply an example of complex and confusing Central Europe.
As soon as the central state started to become more powerful in the late 1700 and early to mid 1800s it probably started to look like the bungling mess of bureaucrats that we know today to be “communist.” It’s not really the form of the government that makes it bureaucratic (at least not in this part of the world) it is the mere existence of any form of government that makes it bureaucratic. Anything Central Europe is bound to be confusing, government included.
A Gift that Keeps on Giving
Bureaucracy is one of the great inheritances that Austro-Hungary left the region. There are quite a few reformers in the nation-states in the year 2012 who would love to give that gift back, as the bureaucracies have outgrown their effectiveness. In Austro-Hungary there were many dozens of dialects spoken, in a polyglot superstate which was not being run by the people who had an ethnic majority. The superstate included present-day Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, large parts of Serbia and Romania, and smaller parts of Poland, the Ukraine, Italy, and Montenegro. To say the least, there was a lot of cultural variety in that empire.
The Hapsburg Theory of Confuse and Rule
The “Hapsburg Theory of Confuse and Rule” became useful in such a situation: Confuse everyone equally with your bureaucracy and at the end of the day everyone is 1. equally unhappy and 2. equally too tired to revolt. To take it a step further – Redistribute the misery and that way no one person is too miserable. Isn’t that the Marxian dream? Yes, but it is also the Hapsburg recipe for ruling the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Everything in Central Europe is naturally very, very confusing. Political discussions always reveal that there is little black and white here – where one grandpa always seems to have fought for the Nazis and the other grandpa seems to have been a devout communist – where one parent is Slovak, with Hungarian and Czech parents, the other is something similarly confusing, and there’s always that greatgrandfather who was Italian, or Russian, or Turkish, or something else that you really didn’t expect.
Freud’s Theory on the Central Europeaness of the Human Mind
This is where Freud was when he concluded that there is not one autocrat in charge of your mind, but a collection of bureaucrats each warring with the other, making nothing in your life simple. Constantly feuding. Others may have many different names for it, I choose to call it “Freud’s Theory on the Central Europeaness of the Human Mind.” This conclusive theory (a.k.a. Freudian psychoanalytic theory) considers the following “bureaucrats” to be big players in your decision making process: the libido, cathexis, ego, anticathexis, id, life instinct, death instinct, all of this taking place in several offices in the same building, the most prominent among those offices called “the unconscious” and “the conscious.” The group of them are arguing over something called libidinal energy. Defense mechanisms and fixations are among the other bureaucrats in the office. Like any good person who lived during the 20th century, we must not forget that some entities receive titles that remind us that grandiose figures are present in the world – ”der Fuehrer,” “Il Duce,”
President Roosevelt, “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God” and one of the internal bureaucrats named by Freud the ”SUPEREGO!”
Central Europe is where Ludwig von Mises grew up, helping giving birth to a theory of human action and economic behavior that would come to define the Austrian School of Economics and would look at government in all instances as confusing by necessity and design. It’s no wonder Mises had little appreciation for government – he knew what the most contorted complicated governments in the world were like. It’s no wonder Mises had no appreciation for central planners who repeatedly used the terms “trust me!” He understood how very complicated economies really were and in several books deals with the fact that experiments in socialism will always fail because there is no effective method of economic calculation that can be used by central planners under a socialist model. As early as 1922 he wrote books illustrating this principle and referencing the failure of Russian socialism to deliver needed items to the people living under that economic system.
These men had special vantage points, they grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire Pribor, Czech Republic and Lviv, Ukraine respectively and moved to the capital of the empire – Vienna.
Mises, Freud, and many thinkers from the region are people who understood that nothing was simple, because they were from Central Europe, where nothing is simple. Nazis and communists married into the same family, Russians and Germans, Hungarians and Slovaks, rich and poor. There is nothing simple, everything is mixed. There is always a story of tremendous inner conflict.
There is a cannon of Jewish literature that speaks of the constant inner conflict of Jewish culture. Well, like Freud, like the uber-state, like Mises – you can take Jewish culture out of Central Europe, but you can’t take Central Europe out of Jewish culture. I am often reminded of ways that Central European Jewish culture, the most dominant root of Jewish culture in America, is so similar to Slovak culture. Both cultures are, after all, rooted in the same geography and possess a shared recent history.
If you want to see the state at its most confusing, study the makeup of the state here. If you want to see the mind at its most confusing, do the same. If you want to see communism at its most confusing, then Czechoslovakia is where you wanted to be pre-1989. A second best option is to study there today, for the confusing old ghosts of communism continue to walk the streets of former Czechoslovakia.
The Old Ghosts
The only way to remove the confusing old ghosts of the past from the equation is for them to die. They would in all other situations always be part of the discussion - as investors in politics or as the politicians themselves, as the funders of the investors in politics, as the ministers, as the privatizers. Name the most head-scratching confusing place that you could possibly imagine a former communist ending up and that is exactly where he will end up in former Czechoslovakia. (hint, prison is probably not the answer, but that too happens once in a while)
That Vaclav Havel, the dissident, went from a prison cell to the Prague Castle in under a year still astounds me. Will the true story of how that happened ever be told? Whatever the story is, the confusing drama of it all fits Central Europe perfectly. There are a thousand lost languages and cultures that crossed these lands back and forth, settling and raiding. Only a dozen or so remain to the untrained eye. The streak of red, the green eyed child, the dark skinned mother, the exotic last name. Hints of stories long forgotten are left in the genetic makeup of the people. This is where Nietzche wrote that society had gone beyond good and evil.
We have spent a year without Havel. He is one of the specters of the past. Was it good for Havel to pardon so many criminals after 1989? Was it good for Havel to unravel the status quo between Czech and Slovak Republics? Was it good for Havel to ascend to power?
There are many viewpoints on matters like this and the late Havel still has friends and enemies alike. For decades, these questions will be discussed over bitter beers and smelly Czech cheeses. There is a point at which the debates of the past become draining and useless to engage in.
Havel is among the ghosts of communism. He was no Husak, no Brezhnev. He was more a Dubcek. If you want to draw lines in the sand that is. In time, as memories fade, as greater understanding of communism begins to take place, as Slovaks accept their past and enter into a relationship with it, as all that happens, the ghosts of communism will cease to mean very much.
We are now one year without Havel. In due time, we will be 5, 10, 100 years without Havel. Maybe he will be but a footnote in world history. Communism and Czechoslovakia feel so present still today – heck 2 DECADES after Czechoslovakia ceased to exist people continue to say “Czechoslovakia” as if it still existed. I can’t go more than a few minutes in certain circles in the U.S. without hearing the word “Czechoslovakia.” Yet it’s a word that is two decades obsolete. You better believe that if some people can’t learn to stop using a word, they are going to have a hard time parting with the hurt feelings of the past.
One day there will be no specter of communism, there will be no specter of Havel or Dubceck, of Husak or Brezhnev. There will be footnotes in distant history. These names will have left the recent memory of the people who are living. The battles of the past will be laid in the past and the battles of the now will be all that matter. Any Slovak who has accepted that kind of thinking as of December 31, 2012 is a Slovak who is busy today writing the world’s future – looking around himself and herself and asking “How can I use what I have today – this young country – to write the future of the world?”
Havel, a man I’ve long admired, is buried. Like all buried people, he exists only in the past. The past affects us only when we allow it to. Havel no longer affects me.A year of mourning has come to an end.
Perhaps for some on January 1, 2013, the 20 years of mourning will come to an end. Perhaps for some the loss of Czechoslovakia can finally turn into fertile soil for the future. Her corpse rots in the soil. You can plant flowers there or you can have her nutrients washed into the neighbor’s field. Either way flowers will grow from the corpse. Whose flowers will they be?
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.