Review: An expat's reading of Czechoslovak history

Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond

By: Robin H. E. Shepherd
Pages: 194 including notes
Available from: Macmillan Press Ltd. (London, 2000)
Rating: 8 out of 10

One often has mixed feelings on reading histories of one's own country written by foreigners. No matter how painstaking the research or insightful the writing, the native-born reader is apt to dismiss the work as lacking in perspective or sophistication. It's just not that simple, people are tempted to say of even the most penetrating analyses.

This reluctance to accept foreigners as chroniclers of 'our' history is as common among Slovaks as anywhere. Take the case of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar - countless articles, books and debates in Slovakia over the last decade have attempted to explain the Mečiar 'phenomenon', and while academics have been unable to produce a compelling explanation of why the 'Father of Slovakia' behaved the way he did, they are almost uniformly skeptical that where they have failed a foreign journalist could succeed.

So when Robin H. E. Shepherd's bracing study of the Czech and Slovak Republics since 1989 (Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond) finally reaches Bratislava, it is apt to meet with some resistance among Slovak academics, especially those who have known Mečiar personally and worked with him in politics. Shepherd's take on Mečiar - that betrayal by his own party colleagues in 1991 and 1994 turned him into a paranoid autocrat who sought political and economic security "regardless of the law, the constitution and the interests of Slovakia abroad" - is a compelling one, but unlikely to satisfy the desire of Slovaks for a richer understanding of their former leader.

But for foreign readers, Shepherd's work is ideal. Covering almost a century in less than 200 pages, the book attempts to be provocative rather than authoritative, and treats its topics thematically rather than chronologically. Czech president Václav Havel, for example, is dissected using a 1978 essay he wrote as a dissident and a 1997 speech he gave as the head of state; the breakup of Czechoslovakia is given the fascinating backdrop of Slovak nationalism, in which Shepherd rightly berates Canadian Slovak historian Stanley Kirschbaum for his repulsively flattering treatment of Slovak WWII leader Jozef Tiso. The moral decay that Czechoslovakia experienced during communism is also shown to have roots in the way the Czechs treated Sudeten Germans living on their territory after the war; by brutally expelling several million people, Shepherd notes, "the people had degraded themselves and compromised their instinctive commitment to law and morality."

If the book suffers from anything, it's a certain identity crisis. Shepherd has spent most of the last decade in the Czech and Slovak Republics as a journalist, and his natural urge to dramatise and entertain makes for a clanger or two. The expulsion of the Sudentens is recounted with relish: "Old people who could barely walk were kicked into line in forced marches where the sick and infirm died en route... This was real ethnic cleansing." Meciar's recruitment of foreign stars to support his 1998 election campaign "convince[d] the electorate that a large pot of cash could convince some people to appear with anybody." At other times, however, Shepherd is almost professorial, particularly in his discussion of the economic policies of Czech prime minister Václav Klaus, and readers are repeatedly referred to foregoing arguments with a masterly "as we have seen." Philosophical discussions and book reviews also jostle with historical analysis for attention in the pages of Czechoslovakia.

But the final product is a satisfying and enlightening discussion of the tumultous period this region is going through, and comes highly recommended - to foreigners and natives alike.

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