Thursday, August 22, 2013

What to commemorate

We've got the Fourth of July, memorializing the date we told the King where he could shove his taxes.

The Germans have German Unity Day in October, commemorating the reunification of West and East Germany after the Cold War. (It was tempting to make a big holiday out of November 9th, the day the Berlin Wall was opened in 1989, but that date had been, uh, preempted by the Nazis' tasteless use of it in 1938 to stage Kristallnacht, a giant pogrom.)

The Russians have Victory Day, celebrating the triumph over Nazi Germany.

The French have Bastille Day, commemorating that time they tore down a fortress and freed seven prisoners from a fortress that was symbolic but not of any particular real import.

And the Czechs have August 21st.
They've got other actual holidays, marking the declaration of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, and the start of an independent Czech Republic in 1993. And they've got July 6th, the date that Jan Hus was burned at the stake for insisting that one should read and discuss the Bible to find Christrian truth, rather than just listening to the Pope and his legates.

Just to be clear, the Czechs celebrate Hus's life and legacy, not the fact that his life got cut short.

But that brings us back to August 21st.

The Czechs (and Slovaks) had a rough middle of the 20th century. The Czech lands were German occupied from 1939 to 1945. Three years of a fairly democratic regime were cut short by a communist coup in 1948. A slavishly Stalinist regime in the early 1950s. One of the more rigid governments within the Soviet bloc during the 1970s and 80s.

But in the middle of that, there was one brief, shining moment, the Prague Spring of 1968. Reformists within the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia started pressing for more and more openness.

This morning on Český rozhlas there was a show playing audio clips from 1968, and it was heartbreaking, the simplicity and the obviousness of what people were asking for, what they thought their future held.
  • The state should exist to serve the people, rather than the people serving the state.
  • We need more openness to initiative in our workplaces, and that will probably mean more democracy in our politics as well.
  • People should be free to discuss ideas opennly and honestly at work, rather than having to be concerned that they'll get in trouble if someone decides they weren't following the Party line.
And more of the same.

By the summer, press censorship had been ended, and the logic of events seemed to be leading toward real democratic elections.

Here were people who'd just spent thirty years being punished for thinking for themselves, and they were sezing an opportunity to speak their minds and engage in civic life.

And the only clear day they have to commemorate the whole affair is August 21st, the day that Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country and brought the reformers to heel, leading to the 20 frozen years of "normalization."

It's an interesting fate, to recall one of your country's most inspiring episodes on the day that it was brought to a forcible end.

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