Historic Rambles 1, January 8, 2019: 100 years since 1918. How the Czechoslovak nation was born

The Grand Hotel Evropa on Wenceslas Square. Jaroslav Vašata bought it in 1936 at the age of 31. Photo: GK

This is NOT the usual story as we can read it on Wikipedia, see it in at least three exhibitions here in Prague or read it in history books…

I kept promising that I would eventually start writing, what I’ve done already, but this time not about events, but finally about the history&culture treasures we are collecting in our growing library and mediatheque. I am working on the catalogue, actually, and I guess I will publish it some time in spring of this year. Amazing stuff, I tell you.

2018 was the year of jubilees all over Europe, due to the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI and the foundation of various states, mainly as a result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Bohemia, or rather the Lands of the Czech Crown, as it should read correctly, was certainly one of the main drivers in this process, no wonder, if one studies the mindset of the German nationalist elite in Vienna (and elsewhere in the German speaking world), at least since the Vienna Congress. One of the best examples among the numerous texts we have on this issue is

“… Ich muss diesen Trotteln einmal die Wahrheit sagen. Politik, Kultur und Gesellschaft in den Augen des (alt-)österreichischen Abgeordneten und Historikers Josef Redlich” by Hans Peter Hye, Vienna).

This is a text on the life and work of a Moravian born Austrian member of the monarchy’s Imperial Council who, as one of the few, understood what it meant to satisfy the demands of a state consisting of ten or more ethnic communities and quite a few more languages and dialects. The title says it all: “I have to finally tell these idiots the truth…”.

In a super short nutshell: Basically, the idea of German supremacy over the Czechs had been there ever since Louis the German, Charlemagne’s grandson, made 15 Bohemian dukes adopt Christianity in 845. In 1918, the Czechs finally saw the ideal opportunity to take the things again into their own hands, and as the neighbouring Slovaks (similar language, yet through history always a part of Northern Hungary and never independent) felt the same, they united. After that, the German speaking population in this country had a share of 25-30%.

That said, I’m jumping now to a totally different story, and you will soon see, why.

Vašata‘s highly reputed restaurant in New York on East 75th Street. The waiter in front of it is Ota Ulč who came to the US in 1959, after working as a judge in Czechoslovakia. He is the author of numerous books, including The Judge in a Communist State: A View from Within. Later he was teaching political science at Binghamton university. He is also publishing in Czech media his sometimes (for me) controversial opinions. Photo courtesy of http://recordingvoices.blogspot.com/

In 1995 Jaroslav Vašata died in New York at the age of 90. It took me quite a while to get his biography, or rather a series of interviews about his turbulent life, called “Živůtek byl krásný” or “Life was beautiful”, which is not totally correct, but I save you from linguistic details.

I bumped into the name as I wanted to know what was going on with Hotel Evropa, a beautiful old Art Nouveau hotel in Wenceslas Square which had closed for renovation a while ago. Born in 1905, he became a gifted and sometimes quite bitchy, but never dishonest businessman who made a fast career in gastronomy, eventually bought (!) that hotel at the age of 31, made it a success, rented the Municipal House and supported the anti-Nazi-resistance (Another very exciting story, maybe later this year). In 1948, when the Communists took over, he emigrated to New York, opened another restaurant there and was again successful.

I had given up on looking for his biography when I found the book (in Czech) on the website of one of Prague’s fabulous antiquarians (second hand bookshops) and, at the same time, bumped into the website of some high ranking US scientist and government adviser, Paul F. Uhlir, asking myself what he would have to do with my online search. When I checked the biography I suddenly saw, that apart from his amazing academic and professional career, his very first job was – a chef…

Paul F. Uhlir is Jaroslav Vašata’s grandson. Thanks to him, you can read the amazing story, finished in 2018, of his grandfather’s life also in English, online, and for free!

And now I come to the nucleus of this story and the connection to the title. Vašata spent a more or less happy childhood and adolescence in the countryside. We’re talking about the 1920ies.

Chapter 2, p.7 of the online version. I quote:

“I had some interesting experiences in those days. For instance, I became acquainted with Jan Herben. Senator Jan Herben wrote a book entitled Hostišov where he beautifully describes the landscape and people of that area. I liked it so much that I decided I had to go and see this place in person. I went to Votice, that’s one station beyond Benešov, and then walked around three miles up a hill.

I went there and was just poking around when suddenly a voice from a nearby garden called: ‘Are you looking for someone, young man?’ I answered: ‘I’m not looking for anyone. I’m just having a look around because I’ve read the book Hostišov.’

The man said: ‘I wrote that book, I am Herben. Come in, do you want coffee?’ I said: ‘No, thanks. I’d rather help you with something around the garden.’ He agreed: ‘That’s good, you’re young, I can’t climb up there anymore.’ He wanted me to climb up a tree to cut off a dead branch.

We started talking and I asked him: ‘Mr. Senator, can I ask you something?’

‘What is it? You can ask me whatever you want.’

‘I’ve met several Slovaks who told me there is no Czechoslovakian nation and that they are Slovaks and we are Czechs.’

Herben began to explain: ‘I’ll tell you how the Czechoslovak nation was born. When we were drafting the first declaration, we saw that we were nine or ten million Czechs. There are three million Germans and two or so million Slovaks. Therefore, Germans would be the second largest ethnic group in Czechoslovakia. So we decided we would be the nation of Czechoslovaks.’

_______________________

With the friendly permission of Paul F. Uhlir and the publisher, the Club of Dr. Milada Horáková, an association honoring the victims of two totalitarian regimes.

Next: How a controversy over language was the initial trigger of the country’s most successful automobile manufacturer. If I manage, you will be able to read that story soon.

© apart from the quotations and one photo: Günther Krumpak, ARCO Guesthouse, Prague, January 2019

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