Czechs to celebrate birth of a country that died 10 months ago Birthday observed for Czechoslovakia

October 27, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- Like old friends grimly anticipating the birthday of a recently deceased companion, Czechs are gearing up to commemorate the founding of a country that died 10 months ago.

Tomorrow, Czechs will mark the 75th anniversary of the birth of Czechoslovakia, even though the country ceased to exist Jan. 1 of this year. For lack of a better alternative, the Czech Republic will continue to observe Oct. 28 as its national day.

"It's a Czechoslovak tradition, but also a Czech one," said historian Josef Tomes. "The present-day Czech Republic has the right to claim this holiday, because the history of Czechoslovakia is an important chapter in Czech history. And without the long history of the Czechs, Czechoslovakia wouldn't have ever come into existence."

But don't hold your breath for any joyous parades or celebrations. Because of political conflicts and hard feelings left over from the split of Czechoslovakia, the day will be marked with little more than a couple of speeches and ceremonial wreath layings -- and it could be marred by demonstrations and violence.

Part of the problem is an identity crisis: Czech history lacks any clear, seminal event marking the beginning of the Czech state. Some have suggested the holiday be changed to the anniversary of the Prague Uprising during World War II. That, however, marks not only an anti-Nazi revolt, but also the arrival of Soviet troops and ultimately Soviet domination -- a chapter of Czech history most here would just as soon forget.

Others had hoped the national day would be moved to Sept. 28, the name day of St. Wenceslas, a 13th-century Bohemian king who consolidated his rule over most of the present-day Czech Republic. That proposal is complicated by the fact that it is unclear whether Sept. 28 marked any event in Wenceslas' life. Some people oppose the religious implications of the day.

Another possible day would be Jan. 1, when today's Czech Republic came into existence, but that day usually elicits behavior not considered conducive to nation-building.

"If there were any other day in Czech history that could be as historically significant as the 28th, I would say yes, we should change the holiday," Mr. Tomes said. "But you won't find one."

Which leaves Oct. 28th, the day in 1918 when the first modern independent Czech state -- albeit one shared with the Slovaks -- was born.

Leaders of the Christian Democratic Party, among the strongest proponents of a change, note that while Oct. 28 does indeed mark the beginning of Czechoslovak independence, during the four decades of Communist rule the day commemorated the nationalization of private property -- a far less popular historical benchmark for the post-Communist Czech Republic.

"We see the 28th as an important date, but it shouldn't be the national day," said Frantisek Stanek, the Christian Democrats' spokesman. "We think it would be better to find a date that means more in the specific framework of Czech history."

Tomorrow's celebration plan is further complicated by a political conflict between a small right-wing party and the governing coalition.

The Czech Republican Party, led by the fiery and demagogic Miroslav Sladek, has reserved the traditional spot for observing the holiday, the area around a statue of St. Wenceslas in the center of Prague.

The extreme right-wing Republicans initially intimated they would not allow President Vaclav Havel, Premier Vaclav Klaus or other mainstream politicians access to the site -- which is not unlike Lyndon LaRouche reserving Washington's Mall for the Fourth of July and then banning anyone but his supporters from the area.

Mr. Sladek has said he will not interfere with the president or others from laying a wreath at the statue. He has, however, said he cannot guarantee the actions of any individual citizens, leaving open the possibility of violence.

"We want to mark the 75th anniversary of the birth of the Czechoslovak state, which Messrs. Havel, Klaus and [Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir] Meciar destroyed last year," a secretary for the Republicans said. Mr Sladek himself would not consent to an interview without a guarantee that his picture appear on the front page of this newspaper.

Apparently backing down in the face of the Republicans' threat, Mr. Klaus and Mr. Havel will lay a wreath at the statue of St. Wenceslas this evening. President Havel and a handful of other politicians will then return to the statue tomorrow morning, but before the Republicans' rally really gets going.

"The president will be there [at the statue] on the 28th of October," said Jiri Schindler, a spokesman for Mr. Havel. "If he's been influenced by Mr. Sladek, I don't know, but he will be there."

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