The EU referendum campaign reminds me how much we remain influenced by our national mythologies. The Brexit campaign often implicitly evokes the memory of the Second World War as a time when Britain stood alone in Europe against Hitler, then came together with our Allies to defeat him. By contrast, the Czechs remember only that in September 1938, at Munich, France and Britain sided with Hitler against Czechoslovakia to avoid war, in effect allowing the Czechs and Slovaks to fall under first Fascist and later Communist dictatorship. Some even speak of a psychological ‘Munich complex’ that limited popular Czechoslovak resistance to both dictatorships and even hampers efforts to build genuine civil society after Communism; this notion is boisterously satirised in Petr Zelenka’s 2015 film, Lost in Munich.
On his return from Munich, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain infamously declared: ‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing...’ These words must have been especially painful for the Czechoslovak leadership, which had spent the twenty years since the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 trying to ensure that the world knew exactly what Czechoslovakia was and what it stood for. In the 1920s and 1930s, Czechoslovakia worked to acquire and exercise what we now call ‘soft power’, vigorously supporting the League of Nations project, building alliances and promoting cultural exchange.
I am currently writing about how, in this period, Czechoslovakia tried to raise its profile in Britain through literary translation. The Czechoslovak elite felt close to the British, not only because some British intellectuals, cultivated by Czech and Slovak counterparts, had lobbied hard for the creation of independent Czechoslovakia, but also because they identified more with imagined ‘gentlemanly’ British values - civility, tolerance, good humour, pragmatism - than what they saw as German cultural aggression. The embodiment of Czech Anglophilia was Karel Čapek, the first Czech writer to win an international reputation, thanks to his 1921 play R.U.R., which gave the world the word ‘robot’. His tour of the British Isles in 1924 resulted in the travelogue Letters from England (1927). It says something about the self-centredness of the British reader that, though many of Čapek’s plays and novels about the politics and landscape of Central Europe were also published in this period, these quaint impressions of Britain – and The Gardener’s Year (1931), about that most British of hobbies, gardening – were by far his best-selling.
In October 1938, in the aftermath of Munich, Čapek drafted a letter to his ‘unknown British readers’. He notes that ‘what has happened on Czechoslovak soil is in great measure a piece of Britain’s, France’s and Europe’s fate’, and asks: ‘was it really ever in the interest of your country and of France to ensure that the very worst happened to Czechoslovakia, and if so, since when, why, and in what British or French interest was it concluded that this small and relatively happy country should be existentially broken?’ Čapek writes as someone inexplicably betrayed by a friend; his perspective reflects how much Czechoslovakia overestimated the extent of its ‘soft power’ in Britain. His main British publisher, Stanley Unwin, a long-standing supporter of Czechoslovakia, wrote to Prague publisher friends expressing his regret and shame. He notes that ‘most intelligent people and practically the whole of the British left realised that Czechoslovakia occupied a key position’, but ‘two of the most popular newspapers in circulation, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, are emphasizing the undesirability of our meddling in Central European affairs’ (George Allen & Unwin Collection, University of Reading). He graciously does not mention the Royal Family’s position at the time.
I spoke on this material last week at a conference in Budapest on cultural transfer, where colleagues from Turkey, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia spoke passionately about international exchange, dialogue, empathy and cooperation, and the wretched consequences of fragmentation and atomisation. Whatever is said about Britain becoming a better partner outside the EU, ‘Brexit’ will only be understood internationally as a self-centred, but self-defeating act of distancing, a decision to stand aloof, to give up on notions of shared fates and collaborative efforts to find solutions to common problems. The Czechoslovak story reflects how Britain simultaneously takes for granted and fails to understand the esteem and affinity felt for it especially by smaller European countries; perhaps therefore it misses the opportunity to build the lasting relationships in Europe through which it might secure genuine reform. In the face of climate change, international terrorism, massive displacement of people and permanent economic uncertainty, all Britain really has left – like Czechoslovakia in 1938 – is its ‘soft power’. To recognise that, however, we need to see behind the glories of Churchill, the Blitz and D-Day to the ghost of Munich.