Small Nations and Europe 90 Years After Masaryk

Autor: Václav Klaus | Publikováno: 26.10.2005 | Rubrika: English

It is a great honour for me to be here, to participate in today’s celebrations of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and, especially, to be invited to speak at this important moment. We are all aware of the outstanding achievements of this school in the first 90 years of its existence and there will be, certainly, further, similarly successful years in the future. I know that our first president, T. G. Masaryk, delivered a speech here this very day 90 years ago. To have the same opportunity is extraordinary.

I will begin my remarks with a few words about the term “Slavonic” and then I will use several arguments of President Masaryk as a starting point for my discussion of contemporary European problems.

I take for granted that the field called “Slavonic Studies” is a respected and respectable field of academic inquiry. However, the adjective “Slavonic” is – in our part of the world – not that much in use these days. I am not sure I know why. We are, of course, Slavs and have no reason or motivation to forget it or to be ashamed of it. We feel elementary friendship and many similarities with other Slavs and it is part of our consciousness that we repeatedly helped each other in the past. For us being Slavs is one of the several identities we belong to, but it is fair to say that our feeling of belonging to this entity is weaker than our identification with other entities. It is undoubtedly weaker than being Czechs, and/or than being Europeans. It is probably even weaker than our feeling of being Central Europeans.

That is not all. I have to confess that there is a relative uneasiness in using this word now, which is, of course, the consequence of various historical developments and coincidences. As a result, we have had – most of the time – more productive, or perhaps more politically correct, banners to march behind. To proclaim openly one’s affinity to Slavism was always a symptom of having an alternative, substitute political programme (Ersatzprogramm) to civic freedom, to political democracy, to Czech patriotism, to our pro-European orientation, etc. The adjective “Slavonic” does not deserve it, but its fate has been rather complicated. At least in our part of the world. So, to summarize, I like being a Slav but I feel being a Slav more as an object of inquiry than being a Slav as a subject of history.

This confession does not suggest or imply anything negative about “Slavonic Studies”, about their relevance and significance. Their existence, on the contrary, motivates us to pay more attention to our “Slavism” or “Slavonicism”, or perhaps to our “Slavonicness”. But one thing should be mentioned. Unless I am mistaken I have not used the term “Slavonic” in any of my speeches in the 16 years of my political carrier. It is an interesting, perhaps even slightly surprising, observation.

As I said, I feel extremely honoured to be asked to deliver this lecture exactly 90 years after the well-known speech, almost historic in importance, given here by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk when this School was founded. It should be mentioned as well that 10 years after that, 80 years ago, another important speech was given here by Edvard Beneš, our second president. This sequence of speeches is very flattering and challenging for me. I will try to continue in this series and to use the same or similar topic as my two distinguished forerunners. Professor Masaryk called his lecture “The Problem of Small Nations in the European Crisis” and Dr. Beneš entitled his speech “The Problem of Small Nations after the World War”.

Both of them used their lectures to promote the case of the Czech nation and of its nascent, about to-be-born or already-born state (then in the form of Czechoslovakia). Both tried to promote the case of all small or smaller European states vis-à-vis their bigger neighbours (especially Germany and France). In addition, both of them stressed the similar positions that our country and other smaller European countries had with England in many fields, especially in their views concerning European history and various ambitious plans to artificially integrate Europe under the leadership of one nation (Masaryk repeatedly mentioned the term “Pangermanism” and already then he was speaking of the German “Drang nach Osten”). Both of them also saw the World War as an opportunity for the political reorganization of the complicated region of Central Europe.

Since these two lectures were taking place, many things have happened in Europe and in the whole world. We went through the relatively short interwar period, dominated by the Great Depression and by its destructive impact on political, economic and social arrangements. It moved the world towards statism, government interventionism and welfare state. The world witnessed communist Soviet Union build an aggressive, oppressive and very dangerous imperium which became the main destabilizing factor of most of the 20th century. Simultaneously, Hitler and his National Socialists tried to conquer the world, to liquidate democracy, to destroy whole nations and to unify Europe under their leadership. Events followed one after another. The Second World War was worse than the first one. The Cold War, the resulting dominance of the US and the divided Europe led to a very strange and vulnerable international equilibrium.

The European integration process, which institutionally started already in the fifties, “opened up” Europe (within Europe) and radically increased the freedom to move in or around Europe. It was, undoubtedly, a very positive thing. We have to say, however, that the original, predominantly liberalizing tendency was slowly, gradually, and for many Europeans invisibly metamorphosed into something else, into the building of a centralized, supranational entity with only very limited residual sovereignty left in individual member countries and with ambitions to mastermind Europe from above. This second development coincided with the collapse of communism, with the relatively successful transition of former communist countries and with their transformation into “normal” European countries, structurally identical with West European countries which were lucky not to go through the same totalitarian experience. Many other things happened as well but it is not my ambition to deliver an exhaustive list of them here.

I have a different ambition. I take the title of Masaryk´s lecture seriously and ask myself:

- is there a “problem of small nations” in contemporary Europe too?

- is there another “European crisis” now, after 90 years, in the first decade of the 21st century?

I do not see the position of small nations in Europe as problematic now as it was in 1915. The current European problem – in my understanding – is not connected with the size of nations (or states). The current European problem lies elsewhere: it stems from the application of the prevailing European doctrine or ideology I call Europeanism which is an amalgam of two political and ideological stances:

- it is based on disbelief in the spontaneous evolution of human society and, symmetrically, on belief in the possibility (and necessity) to organize human society from above;

- it is based on the idea that the era of states (or nation states) is over, that externalities prevail and that the majority of aspects of human society must be decided at a pan-European, continent-wide level.

The first topic relates to the eternal struggle between the private and the public and the second to the shifting of the public from lower to higher levels.

I do not think there is a difference between small and big nations in this respect. I do not think smaller nations are smarter, more freedom-loving, more democracy-conscious than bigger nations. I do not think that Europeanism is more suitable or more advantageous for small rather than for big countries (and vice versa). I do think – on the contrary – that the apparent dispute between small and big nations is currently an artificially or perhaps even purposefully created (because officially permitted) criticism of Europeanism. (It is similarly “allowed” to criticize the EU bureaucracy, or the misuse of EU funds for travel expenses by individual MEP´s.)

90 years ago Masaryk stressed that “Physical greatness and strength, being ipso facto always relative and correlative, is no warrant, no foundation of right and of prerogatives.” (p.19). I take it as a similar argument. In 1915, he was, of course, much more afraid of bigger nations than I am now. He had the feeling he had to warn that “as there is no superman, so there is no super-right of great nations” (p. 29), but we live in a diferent world these days. European learning from history is in this respect much more important than the beauty of the acquis communautaire or the greatness of the European Commission’s personalities. We should not fight the old wars. The battlefields are different now.

To the second question my answer is yes. I think that there is a “European Crisis” even if I am ready to accept that the word crisis may be too strong. I am ready to modify it by saying that there is a crisis of EU institutional arrangements. This crisis was not created by the results of the French and Dutch referendums. Their results were the consequence of the existing crisis, not its cause. The problem is that the people in Europe do not believe in Europeanism, in supranationalism, in the necessity of making decisions in Brussels. They are experiencing a huge democratic gap. They see a deep gap between ordinary people and the EU political elites, between “real” and political Europe. The people in Europe consider themselves primarily Czechs, Poles, Swedes, English, not Europeans. No European demos, which is a precondition for a truly democratic all-European entity, is to be seen.

European unification has no sense without the existence of the European nation. And the European nation does not exist. Masaryk argued that the creation of states was “a gathering of the same people, of the same nation” (p. 20). I would add that the existence of the European nation cannot be based on a political and rationalist construct of putting different nations together, as was the case of Masaryk´s Czechoslovakia.

In summary, I would dare to say that there is a crisis of the idea of European unification, of the idea of an “ever closer Europe”, of Europeanism. Masaryk was right when he stressed that “history is a process of integration, but at the same time of disintegration” (p. 20). History is not a one-way street. He also mentioned – like Ortega y Gasset – that Europe is not a physical entity, but “a balance”, and that “history tends not towards uniformity, but towards variety” (p. 21). We should be aware of this.

We are, after 90 years, enriched by our historical experience. We should not forget the four decades of communism. This system demanded uniformity and centralized control. Diversity, originality and our own thinking were considered dangerous, something that should be silenced. We should be cautious and sensitive to all attempts to create democratic deficits and constrain our freedom. I wish I was wrong, but I do see such attempts now. I hope that in ninety years’s time there will be no European crisis for the next speaker to discuss.

Reference: Thomas G. Masaryk, “The Problem of Small Nations in the European Crisis”, The Council for the Study of International Relations, Westminster, S.W., 1915.

Václav Klaus, Inauguration speech at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, October 19, 2005

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