Irony Is the Secret to Saving Democracy

How has the Czech Republic avoided the nationalist populism tearing apart Poland and Hungary? By not taking itself too seriously.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives at the European Council in Brussels on Oct. 18, 2018. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives at the European Council in Brussels on Oct. 18, 2018. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2005, when the public broadcaster Czech Television asked viewers to name the greatest Czech of all time, the landslide winner was Jara Cimrman—a fictional character invented in 1966 who is said to have missed reaching the North Pole by 7 meters, invented yogurt, and composed the libretto for a lost opera on the opening of the Panama Canal, among a host of vanished masterpieces. Under pressure from the BBC, Czech TV nullified the decision and awarded the honor to the second choice, King Charles IV, a 14th-century liberalizer who founded what is today the oldest university in Central Europe.

I have just returned from three weeks teaching a seminar titled “Is Liberalism Dead?” at NYU Prague. I asked the scholars and journalists and veterans of the 1989 Velvet Revolution whom I invited to speak to my class why it was that the Czech Republic had not, at least not yet, gone down the rabbit hole of illiberal democracy that had swallowed up both Hungary and Poland. One of the explanations was Jara Cimrman, which is to say, the sense of rueful irony that comes of being a small country that has not been able to dominate its neighbors for the last half-millennium or so.

I heard many other answers—including, “Just wait, we’re getting there”—but they all proceed on the theory that history, culture, and national values, more than the operation of blind forces such as globalization, determine just how susceptible nations are to the illiberal virus. I’m inclined to think that is true—that American irrationalism, and American grandiosity, explains the election of Donald Trump every bit as much as does the hollowing-out of the working class. In Central European terms, the most salient difference between the Czech Republic and Hungary may not be that Hungary suffered an economic collapse in 2007-2008 while the Czechs did not (the Poles didn’t either) but that Hungarians, who still bitterly lament the Treaty of Trianon that reduced them to a rump state after World War I, continue to argue with their fate while the Czechs accept the consolations of the mock-heroic.

The Czech Republic is hardly in the clear. President Milos Zeman, re-elected last year, is a pro-Russian, xenophobic, hard-drinking vulgarian whom Czechs routinely compare to Trump. Zeman inveighs against refugees and the European Union. Prime Minister Andrej Babis, though at least avowedly pro-Western, is a billionaire who has been indicted for siphoning off EU funds. Unable to recruit centrist parties, he now heads a very shaky coalition that includes the explicitly pro-Russian Communist Party. Voters seem quite open to the anti-EU policies that play so well elsewhere in the region. Polls find that Czechs are more hostile to the EU than almost any of its other members, including Hungary and Poland. A journalist told me that he feared a possible “Czexit” (which at least would have the virtue of euphony). Nevertheless, the Czech press is free, the judiciary is independent, and living standards are rising.

While I was in Prague, Czechs commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, a student activist who set himself on fire when Soviet tanks crushed the 1968 uprising. Palach inspired the generation of dissidents that followed him and became a kind of patron saint of 1989. Everyone I approached at the memorial said, yes, they were worried about where the country was heading, but I had the impression that they mostly feared tempting fate; that may explain why they were standing in the cold, holding candles, and singing the national anthem. “Our lives are so good today,” a young mother said. “People are getting angry about imaginary problems.” Even hating the EU may be a harmless indulgence when you’re safely ensconced inside it.

Czechs cherished liberal values long before the Soviets spread their totalitarian ideology across Central Europe. A full century before Martin Luther, Jan Hus, one of the first rectors of Charles University, railed at the corruption of the Catholic hierarchy and of the pope from the pulpit of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. After Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, his followers established a proto-Protestant sect. Hus insisted on speaking Czech rather than Latin, making him the first of a series of nationalist reformers; the 17th-century educator known as Jan Amos Comenius, a Hussite bishop, published textbooks in Czech and advocated universal education. Protestantism flourished in Czech lands even under the reactionary Catholic rule of the Hapsburgs; the onset of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 forced progressives like Comenius to flee. The Catholic reconquest marked the Czechs’ first failed confrontation with totalitarian power.

Another explanation for Czech liberalism is the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, the new nation of Czechoslovakia enjoyed 20 years of liberal democratic rule thanks in large part to Tomas Masaryk, a deeply humanist intellectual who was the nation’s founder and first president. Poland, though independent during the same period, enjoyed less enlightened and more nationalist rule. From the Czech point of view, the habits of secular liberalism were interrupted by a half-century of totalitarian oppression and then restored.

The intellectuals who led the 1968 uprising were deeply attracted to the visionary leftism of the day, including the doctrine of “Socialism with a human face” propounded by figures such as the Yugoslav intellectual Milovan Djilas. But the brutal Soviet response put an end to such dreaming. The Czech dissidents who signed Charter 77, which demanded that the state honor the human rights principles to which it was officially committed, spoke the language of liberalism. In his celebrated 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel, the face of the Velvet Revolution and later the first president of the independent Czech Republic, wrote, “While life, in its essence, moves towards plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization,” totalitarian ideology “demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline.”

The speakers who came to my class, all of whom had played at least a minor role in the revolution, spoke of the almost naïve faith in liberalism, including the liberalism of the marketplace, of that period. Havel believed that his country (which became the Czech Republic after Slovakia peacefully separated in 1993) could show the world a deeper kind of democracy, in which a robust civil society stood between the individual and both the state and the marketplace. That did not happen—the Czech Republic is just a run-of-the-mill liberal democracy. Yet Poland and Hungary, similarly baptized in liberalism, have now taken a different road.

Illiberalism is a potent force across the Western world and nowhere more so than in the former Soviet bloc. It may be that the only thing preserving liberal democracy in the Czech Republic is the sharp limits that the constitution places on the office of the president. Prime Minister Babis is a doctrine-free pragmatist whose business interests tie him to Europe rather than to Russia.

Yet the Czech Republic doesn’t feel like it’s hanging by a thread. Whatever they feel about the EU, or for that matter about refugees, Czechs seem deeply committed to the secular, humanistic values that lie at the heart of postwar Europe. They don’t seem cut out for conformity, uniformity, and discipline. Irony does not make for a potent sword, but it may serve as an effective shield. Did I mention that Jara Cimrman also pioneered the practice of obstetrics in the Swiss Alps?

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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