Symbolism Versus Semantics – The Czech Republic Or Czechia: A National Name Calling

One of the more bizarre legacies of Eastern European communism concerns the Czech Republic or as a few still insist on calling it, Czechoslovakia. This was brought back to me not long ago when I met a gentleman whose surname was Czech in origin. When I asked him to confirm his ancestry, he nodded in the affirmative. He then proceeded to tell me that his ancestors had immigrated to the United States prior to World War I from “Czechoslovakia.” This statement left me rather bemused. Czechoslovakia did not exist at any point in European history until after the First World War. It was only a nation state for relatively short periods, from 1918 – 1939 and 1945 – 1992. Anyone immigrating to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the land now known as the Czech Republic would have had no conception of Czechoslovakia. Instead they would have stated as their land of origin an empire rather than a nation-state. In this case, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This would have served the purposes of bureaucratic paperwork when they entered the United States at Ellis Island.

Official paperwork aside, Czech immigrants to America might have known their homeland as either one of the two historically Czech regions, Bohemia or Moravia. As for Czechoslovakia, it lay in a future most had yet to imagine. An American of Czech descent can be forgiven for their confusion over the current name of the Czech nation. They are not the only ones suffering from confusion. That is because the nation’s name is still being openly debated today. Surprisingly, the citizens of the Czech Republic are divided on the subject.  The choices have now come down to either Czech Republic or Czechia. There is no third option, a la Czechoslovakia, for the simple fact that after the Velvet Divorce in 1993 that geopolitical concoction ceased to exist. It quickly became an anachronism, relegated to the dustbin of history. The Czech Republic became the new name for the Czech nation and that is where the controversy began in earnest.

Simply Stated - The Czech Republic

Simply Stated – The Czech Republic (Credit: High Contrast)

Crawling Slugs – A Nation Not By Any Other Name
Low level controversy over shortening the Czech Republic’s name simmered for years. Many Czechs, including some very famous ones, looked askance at using Czechia, which is an anglicization. In the Czech language “Czechia” is “Cesko” (pronounced Chessko). Among those opposed to the use of “Cesko” was the great Czech politician and playwright Vaclav Havel. He memorably stated that it conjured up images of “crawling slugs.” The consternation over naming conventions really took hold in 2016 when Czech leaders asked the United Nations to list Czechia as the official short version of Czech Republic. Their reasoning had as much to do with symbolism as semantics. It was thought that a shorter name would improve the nation’s image as it would be easier to remember and not lend itself to confusion. Not surprisingly, anecdotal rather than empirical evidence was offered as to how usage of the “Czech Republic” was hurting the nation’s image abroad.

The proposed change left many scratching their heads. What was so confusing about the name Czech Republic? Many Czech nationals and most foreigners found the issue difficult to understand. Admittedly, use of “Republic” in the name fails to distinguish it from many other nations. On the other hand, the Czech Republic was the only European nation in which “Republic” was part of the name’s common form. This anomaly set it apart from other European nations who eschewed their official name when it came to common usage. For instance, “Slovakia” is verbal shorthand for “The Slovak Republic”. By trying to impose Czechia on both nationals and foreigners, Czech leaders were following in the footsteps of their former Slovak partners.

Mouthful of Slugs - Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Mouthful of Slugs – Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Image Is Everything – Cross Cultural Confusion
Unsurprisingly, the changeover to Czechia was met with thinly veiled resistance. Critics of the change found it rather ridiculous. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that much of Czech officialdom failed to embrace the change. This led to cross cultural confusion. For instance, the Czech Embassy in the United States continued to refer to their nation as the Czech Republic, while the U.S. State Department took to calling it Czechia. Such discontinuities were self-defeating, led to greater confusion than ever before and made the whole naming issue seem academic. It is little wonder that the Czech Republic continued to be favored by many in common and official usage, including by this writer. My reason for favoring the Czech Republic was just as absurd as the ongoing debate. From a personal and quite superficial standpoint, Czechia did not sit well with me precisely because it looks and sounds like Chechnya, that ill-fated Russian region. The word conjures up images of a war-torn land marked by violence, terrorism and ethnic tensions. Anyone who has spent time in the Czech Republic knows that it is the opposite of that image.

One argument for changing the name does ring true, it would put the Czech Republic in line with the many other nations which have both official and officially shorter versions of their name. The former being used for bureaucratic purposes, the latter in day to day conversation and the media. This often suits convenience. For instance, no one except bureaucrats ever refer to Germany by its yawn inducing official title of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Russian Federation is known to all except technocrats and legalistic types as Russia. To say otherwise makes one sound officious. The same was true of Russia’s immediate forebear. The Soviet Union was never termed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics except by diplomats, apparatchiks and ossified members of the Politburo. Official names are usually too long and ponderous. The Czech Republic is one of the rare few that is short and rather simplistic. Czechia is even more so, but it is at the disadvantage of being a latecomer to the national name game. As such it now enjoys co-official status, but not common usage.

Powerful Reminders – A Republic In More Than Name
Whether or not one agrees with the many Czechs who think Cesko sounds less than desirable, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that it has too much in common with the Czecho of Czechoslovakia. Most Czechs would rather forget the bad old days of totalitarianism. Anything that serves as a reminder of that time is anathema to an overwhelming majority of the Czech population. Today they live in a republic of which they take great pride. Maybe that is why so many of them prefer to clearly and unequivocally state the Czech Republic as their nation’s name.


Accompanied By Fate – The Last Years of Gavrilo Princip

Timing is everything. This was never truer than in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was in just the right place at just the right time. He stepped out of Schiller’s Delicatessen in the early afternoon of June 28, 1914 to suddenly discover the Archduke’s car stalled right in front of him. The rest as they say is history. That moment may have been the right time to commit the assassination, but Princip would later come to regret both the fortuitous timing and the event itself.

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian soldiers

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian soldiers

A Virtual Death Sentence
When the assassination occurred Princip was twenty-seven days short of his 20th birthday. Under Austro-Hungarian law, he could not be sentenced to death due to his age at the time when he committed the murder. This at first might have seemed to be a stroke of luck. After all, though Princip received the maximum sentence, it was for only twenty years. He could possibly live long enough to be a free man once again. Taking such a view of the situation is deceiving. Princip may have avoided execution, but he was also effectively denied martyrdom. Not a small thing in the mind of a man hoping to change the world. Princip’s twenty year sentence ended up lasting only three and a half years. Yet that turned out to be long enough. The tortuous years he spent in prison turned out to be a much worse death sentence.

Terezin was a fortress complex north of Prague, in what is today the Czech Republic. It was constructed during the late 18th century as part of what was to be a system of defensive fortresses to protect Habsburg Austria’s territory. The complex consisted of a large fortress, which was basically a walled town, as well as a much smaller fortress. Neither were ever attacked and both soon became obsolete. The complex was then converted into a prison. Today Terezin is better known by its German name of Theresienstadt. This is because of its role as a transit camp for Jews during World War II. Tens of thousands perished in the fortress due to disease and malnutrition. Those who did survive were shipped onward to extermination camps further east. Almost all the prisoners who were there during the darkest days of the Holocaust are anonymous to history. Strangely though, the most famous person to ever suffer within the walls of Terezin had been imprisoned there some twenty five years before.

Keeping Company With Failure
Gavrilo Princip arrived at Terezin in December 1914. He was lucky to have made it alive to the prison in the first place. On the week long railroad journey that carried him from Bosnia to Bohemia, the train had stopped in Vienna. At the station a lynch mob baying for blood had to be held back by the police. The mob had good reason to be angry. The empire they called home was committing suicide on the southern and eastern fronts of the Great War sparked by Princip. After just four months of war, the Austro-Hungarian forces had lost one million soldiers. And worse was yet to come.

Upon his arrival at Terezin, Princip was immediately placed in solitary confinement within the small fortress. For days, weeks and months on end he was bound with shackles that weighed over twenty pounds. His days consisted of either sitting or sleeping. He was not allowed visitors nor any reading material. In early 1916, during the depths of winter, his will finally broke. He attempted to hang himself with a towel, but was unsuccessful. This was the second suicide attempt by Princip that had failed. His first had occurred in Sarajevo immediately after he carried out the assassination. He took cyanide, but vomited it up. Before he could turn the pistol he had killed the Archduke with on himself, he was stopped by onlookers. It was not just his situation in the prison that brought Princip to such desperation, he had almost surely been informed by guards that the Serbian Army had experienced total defeat. By 1916, the south Slavic areas were occupied by German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. The assassination by Princip had sparked an all-consuming war that had for the time being destroyed the dream of a Yugoslavia, which Princip had fervently believed could unite all the South Slavic peoples.

Cell where Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned at Terezin

Cell where Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned at Terezin

Dreams of Love & The Reality of Hopelessness
Within a few weeks of his attempted suicide, Princip received one of his first and only visitors in Terezin, a psychiatrist by the name of Martin Pappenheim. They met on four different occasions, the first in February and the last in mid-June of 1916. Princip confided to Pappenheim that the days were interminable. He badly missed being able to read and had no intellectual outlet. The only sliver of light that still cast a ray of hope amid the darkness of prison life were fantastical dreams he kept having about love. Yet these were fleeting, since Princip only slept a few hours at a time. According to Pappenheim, the twenty-one year old Bosnian Serb had lost all hope. Now that Serbia had suffered total defeat, there was nothing left for him. Pappenheim also noticed the festering sores on Princips wasting body. Tuberculosis was literally eating the young man alive on the outside. Being chained to the wall of his cell for a year and a half had irreparably damaged Princip’s physique. Little did he or his psychiatrist know that he still had nearly two years left to live.

Pappenheim’s meetings with Princip soon became a thing of the past. He was left alone once again. His condition continued to deteriorate. His left arm literally rotted away at the elbow. A wire was used to connect the lower and upper parts of his arm. Inevitably, an amputation had to be done. This only bought Princip a limited amount of time. With his body covered with infection, sores oozing profusely somehow he lasted into the spring of 1918. Than just after dawn, in late April he finally drew his last breath. The suffering was over for Princip, yet the war raged on.

Accompanied By Fate
A couple of years before his death, in one of the meetings Princip had with Pappenheim their discussion had turned to the war that was raging all over Europe at that moment. Princip found it incredible that the war had started because of the act he committed in Sarajevo. He had thought a war might eventually come about, but not right then. Princip professed that such an outcome seemed unbelievable. He was not the only one who probably felt that way. The rest of the world shared Princip’s disbelief of the Great War that had ensued from the assassination of the Archduke. Princip ended up dying all alone in a Bohemian prison, meanwhile a whole world was dying together on bloody fields of battle all across Europe.

Miracle of Illogic – The Austro-Hungarian Empire In Hindsight

Deep within the dusty tomes of long forgotten history books, hidden nuggets of illuminating information have been known to arise. The old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction can have a much deeper meaning when a fresh light is cast on a once obscure past. As we happen to be on the cusp of the 100th Anniversary of the First World War I have been doing some research on one of my favorite subjects, the Austro-Hungarian Military. Lately I have had the distinct pleasure of reading through Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 prepared by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive. This seven volume set was first published in 1930. Up until just a few years ago there was no English translation available. In 2010, a translation was finally completed by historian Stan Hanna. What an incredible achievement! The seven volumes run to several thousand pages in length. One hazards to guess how Hanna was able to do it all. With this translation English speaking military history buffs now have a window into nearly every facet of the Austro-Hungarian military apparatus during the Great War. A panoramic view is now available of the most multi-cultural empire in European history.

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

To the Ends of an Empire
Consider that it was almost exactly one hundred years ago when the Austria-Hungary went to war with a polyglot group of Central and Eastern Europeans who were tied together for better or worse by an old and faltering monarchy. The empire was home to 51 million people, consisting of nine different ethnic groups of at least a million or more in population. This demographic breakdown still has the power to amaze and confound. How such a multi-cultural, ethnic stew stayed together as long as it did, has become the subject of many debates.

Even more astonishing is the fact that during World War One, the army fought on three separate fronts, suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, numerous setbacks and yet still somehow held together until the very last months of the conflict. Seemingly against all logic, a motley collection of ethnicities carried on a war in some of the most undesirable circumstances and locales experienced by any army in the modern age. Yes there were mutinies at times, yes there were disgruntled soldiers, desertions and surrenders, yes the empire disintegrated at the end of the war. These facts are all indisputable. Yet the empire also lasted for nearly the entire duration of the war, despite a panoply of competing cultures and nationalities vying for freedom, respect and independence.

All for One, One Against All
Perhaps the best way of trying to understand the miracle of illogic that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire is to breakdown just one of the many fascinating statistics found in the seven volumes. On page 42 of Austria-Hungary’s Last War, 1914 – 1918, Volume 1 is the following sentence: “Out of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army there were 25 Germans, 23 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 9 Serbo-Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, and 1 Italian.” This breakdown is quite compelling when viewed with hindsight. Today we know what became of the empire’s ethnic constituents.

Start with the fact that all of the above ethnic groups were squeezed within the borders of a single governing entity. The pressure of that squeeze caused fissures and faults along ethnic lines. The cracks exposed new nations and states, some of which have stood the test of time and others that have long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. A look at what became of these peoples in the aftermath of the empire’s dissolution is revealing. The Germans were predominantly from what would become the nation of Austria. It has been a successful state by any measure, excepting the period when it was sucked up into the vortex of Nazism. Other groups of Germans were scattered in several areas further east. Following the Second World War, luck, fate or a combination of both led them back to Germany via expulsion. The Magyars became a nation, now that they were no longer allowed to be the Kingdom of Hungary. For those Hungarians who still long to right the injustice of the Kingdom’s dismembering by the postwar Treaty of Trianon, they need to keep in mind that in the kingdom, Magyars were barely half the populace. In Hungary today they make up over 90% of the population. The war tore apart the Kingdom, but gave them a nation they can always call their own.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

A Constant State of Becoming
The Czechs united with the Slovaks, creating a state which only lasted until the next war. It rose again after the war, but was peacefully sundered from within. Less than five years after the iron curtain ceased to exist so did Czechoslovakia. The Serbo-Croats started a South Slav state of their own, which descended into warring statelets due to the Second World War. Afterwards it was put back together again, but fell apart once and for all time following the end of communism. Freedom had a strange and unsettling effect on became known as the former Yugoslavia. The Poles finally got their nation back following the Great War, only to have it blown into near oblivion by the Nazis. Somehow it survived. Today it represents a successful, if precarious example of a successful post-communist state.

Then there was the Ruthenes, a people who have become the heart of Ukrainian nationalism in the western Ukraine today. Turning towards the west and then forced east, they are in a constant state of becoming. The story is much the same today as it was during the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia playing its stereotypical role as impoverished backwater has been Europeanized with some success. The Romanians already had their nation, but to them it was never complete without Transylvania. They have pretty much had it that way – with one notable Hungarian forced exception – since the Great War. They have Transylvania, but will they ever have prosperity? And then there were the Tyrol Italians, caught between the Germanic and Latin worlds. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but freed from the shackles of empire these Italians were gluttons who managed to escape the punishing legacy of a post imperial world.

Vanishing Act
In a nutshell, this is the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s constituent parts. What had been all for one prior to the Great War, became every ethnicity for itself at the end of the war. It was self-interest over collective interest. This was the ultimate betrayal of Austria-Hungary and led directly to its ruin. The results were or still are today: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, Greater Romania, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Greater Italy. The loosely unified yet fatally flawed empire is today twelve disparate nations. A whole new world has come into being, born from a vanished one.