173. Philosopher-Kings and Technocrats: Intellectuals in Czech Politics

By
Andrea Orzoff

The image of humanist intellectuals opposing absolutist power in the name of Enlightenment ideals is a powerful one. Yet it represents only one way intellectuals have engaged in political activity in Europe. Czech intellectuals have been more than dissidents: they have also led political parties and served as parliamentary delegates, ministers, and presidents. Moreover, some of the best-known figures in Czech politics have been intellectuals. This essay addresses the careers of four intellectuals who have played important roles both in Czech letters and in Czech politics from 1848 to 1998.

Frequently the importance of these intellectuals stemmed from their elaboration of Czech national identity. The cause of the nation granted Czech intellectuals an almost automatic political relevance. In the lands of the Habsburg Empire, national identity was usually linked to and legitimated by linguistic identity. Thus, the development of (and work in) the Czech language had political consequences for the 19th-century intellectuals who took up this scholarly pursuit. The discourse of Czech national identity elaborated by these thinkers can be described as a romanticized Slavic democratic populism that often invoked "Mother" Russia.

One of the most important of these early thinkers was FrantiŠek Palacký, often known by his honorific title otec národa (father of the nation). Palacký's monumental, three-volume history of the Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia, whose central topic is the Hussite period, refocused Czech attention on the Czech nation as a subject. His was a romantic nationalism that portrayed democratic, peace-loving Slavonic Czechs opposing authoritarian, invasive Germans.

As a politician, Palacký chaired the National Party, which was also known as the Old Czechs; he has been dubbed "the foremost Czech political leader from the 1848 revolution through the early 1870s." Palacký's successes as an intellectual and politician were intertwined, related to his widely-read histories (the first text to put forward a national political agenda). Also, a great personal cult arose around the otec naroda. Until his death in 1876, Palacký remained a sacrosanct figure, politically inviolate. Finally, while an idealist historian, Palacký was an eminently practical politician and was willing to compromise on questions of principle in order to achieve his goals.

A second example of a politically successful Czech intellectual was Tomas Masaryk. In 1886, Masaryk and other young academics and writers created the Realist party, which joined forces with a new political party (the Young Czechs) in the early 1890s, but advocated a far more interventionist liberal platform. Masaryk first served as a Young Czech parliamentary deputy from 1890 to 1893, and again from 1907 to 1914. At the outbreak of World War I, he went into exile with Edvard BeneŠ and Milan štefánik to agitate for the existence of an autonomous Czechoslovak state. After the war, Masaryk remained engaged in everyday politics as president and was able to circumvent the constitutional limitations of his office.

As early as 1895, Masaryk had made his intellectual mark as a perceptive analyst of Czech politics and history. His works, including The Czech Question and Our Current Crisis, presented a vision of Czech history that went beyond Palacký's schema. While Palacký's romantic nationalism pitted Czechs against Germans, Masaryk contended that a small nation needed to solidify its identity through positive and universal goals. Masaryk's vision of Czech identity and politics in these essays is firmly democratic and humanist.

Masaryk's political success parallels that of Palacký. He set the tone and parameters of interwar political debate with his early intellectual work and was also a practical politician. Like Palacký, he was protected from political unpleasantness by a cult of personality. Equally analogous to Palacký's legacy is the fact that much of Masaryk's political gravitas stemmed from his intellectual work.

After the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, native Communists created their own paradigms for politically-engaged intellectuals based on Stalin's example in Russia during the 1930s. Zdenek Nejedlý, the first Communist minister of education and national enlightenment, oversaw this process of cultural Stalinization. During the interwar period, Nejedlý had been active in socialist and communist circles. Returning to Czechoslovakia after wartime exile in the USSR, Nejedlý took up the task of "re-educating" the population along Soviet lines. A committed Stalinist, he approached his work with fervor, restructuring all of Czech cultural life according to socialist- realist dictates, delineating even a "proper" national music.

Nejedlý combined Palacký's romantic historical vision with great admiration for the Soviet Union as a paradigm of Slavic achievement. Despite his present unpopularity, Nejedlý remains historically important for a number of reasons. First, he elaborated on the legacy of Czech national thought expounded by earlier thinkers, such as Palacký and Masaryk, indicating intellectual continuity between the early communist period and the previous hundred years of Czech history. Second, Nejedlý stands firmly within the tradition of Czech intellectuals in politics--his patriotism informed his intellectual work, and his intellectual work was one of the primary reasons for his later rise to political power.

The final example, current president Václav Havel, was Czechoslovakia's best-known dissident during the communist period, involved with cultural affairs and constantly in trouble with the regime from the Prague Spring until the Velvet Revolution. In 1989, he led the movement of dissidents, students, and actors which sped the Communist Party's demise. Havel's first presidential speech repeated Masaryk's first speech in 1918: "People, your government has returned to you."

Unlike Palacký, Masaryk, and Nejedlý, Havel's intellectual work has focused on universal themes, not Czech national identity. Havel's thoughts on his nation typically place it within European culture. His best-known essay, The Power of the Powerless, explained his notion of "living in truth," of refusing to accept a docile life within a government-orchestrated lie. Not even the Velvet Divorce (the mutually-agreed-to separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia) spurred Havel to write on the nature of Czech history.

Since 1989, Havel has served as his country's president, with one brief hiatus around the time of the division in 1992-93. Havel began his presidency from a position of relative domestic weakness. Like most Czech dissidents, he had comparatively little popular support (this only changed in the late 1980s); and the office of president in the Czech Republic has constitutionally less power than that of the prime minister. But Havel has only occasionally overcome the constitutional limits of his office to exercise real political power. After the fall of Prime Minister Václav Klaus last year, Havel appointed Josef Tosovsky's relatively nonpartisan "caretaker" government once it became clear that the country's political parties could not form a governing coalition. Last December, Havel publicly excoriated Klaus for the purported corruption and arrogance that characterized Klaus's government. At the same time, however, Klaus and Milos Zeman, the Social Democratic leader, have worked to remove Havel from political prominence.

These four examples imply some general conclusions about intellectuals in Czech politics. First, their ability to enter politics usually stems from the strength and importance of their intellectual work. Moreover, their political activity is usually consistent with ideals elaborated in that previous intellectual work. Second, these intellectuals have either worked with and reshaped aspects of Czech national identity, or emphasized values integral to that identity, such as democracy, liberty, and tolerance.

Finally, one can argue that the Soviet period and its aftermath have left lasting effects on the role of intellectuals in Czech politics. The Czech situation more and more mirrors our own: although the philosopher-kings are still publicly respected, they have little effect on policy--the technocrats and professional politicians wield the real power. Still, the Czech electorate does not seem ready to abandon completely their unique and longstanding tradition of philosopher-kings.

Andrea Orzoff spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on January 12, 1999.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant