The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/What We Have to Contend With

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What We Have to Contend With.
A Letter to My Bohemian Friends, by René Pichon.

At the moment, when the fourth year of the great war is about to open, at the moment, too, when La Nation Tchèque takes a new departure in its untiring propaganda, it may perhaps be well to look back a little, to size up the present situation and to consider our hopes for the future. Shall we, my dear Czech friends, cast the balance together?

It has not been a failure; far from it, it is even a comforting balance. Your moral position in France, and I believe in all the Allied countries, is infinitely better than in 1914. The official world ignores you no longer. It has granted you by degrees a status which, if not completely satisfactory, protects at least your most essential interests. And above all, it has, in a solemn manner, in the note to President Wilson, included your name among the peoples who are to benefit by the restoration of national rights. The press which had ignored you for a long time begins to speak of you, and it speaks of you with some understanding; with two or three exceptions, what one would call fossils in geology, the survivals of an antediluvian state of affairs, it says in general what you are and why we should give you our support. And finally, as one reads fewer silly things about you, so is the conversation more intelligent; disregarding the masses of the people, those with some education have overcome the old habit of confounding you with the Gypsies, the Hungarians or even the Germans. When I first interested myself in you, a former navy officer asked me, whether the Czechs were Germans, and a young lady with excellent education desired to inform herself about the Czechs ,because she considered Gypsy music so interesting. At this time such misapprehensions are far more rare. Your cause has made great progress, and your leaders deserve to be congratulated on their enthusiasm and activity. But at the same time one must, like Caesar, hold that “nothing has been done, as long as something remains to be done.”

A great deal remains to be done. To prove it, let us review the principal obstacles with which your propaganda has had to contend, and let us see, if we can, how to overcome them.

The first of these obstacles is ignorance. It has grown less, as we have just said, but it has not disappeared. Those who know you are as a whole friendly to you, but there are still many who do not know you. Even among the fairly educated people views are maintained about your country which, while not altogether false, are true only superficially and approximately. People know, for example, that you are Slavs; but do they know, where to place you in the Slav world, what you have in common with the Russians, the Poles and the Serbians, and how you differ from them? These data of ethnic psychology will help to determine our idea of the Franco-Czech relations. People also know that you are one of the active, living constituents of the Habsburg monarchy; but do they know your real importance, the resources of your country, the number of your people, your industrial activity? It will be necessary that those who take interest in your commercial expansion should realize how much you count. Again, it is known that you desire the independence of your country; but why and how? What is your political situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, what are your relations with the Habsburgs and with the other nationalities of the dual monarchy? How is it that you attach so much importance to the “historical state right”? Do our people know all this and understand it? I would not dare to say yes; and so with many other problems, equally important, given by your national history.

What is the remedy for this? You, my dear friends, and we who are your coworkers, must lose no opportunity to bring out in firmer lines and clearer colors the hazy picture of the Bohemian nation, as it appears today to the French. Let us increase the number of tracts and small pamphlets. Whenever anything happens which gives an excuse to speak about Bohemia let us seize the opportunity. If a journalist with the best intentions commits an error in writing about Bohemian affairs, let us correct him. Let us organize conferences as frequently as possible and give no heed to the fear that we may be imposing on others and repeating ourselves. Someone said that tiresome repetition is the virtue of professors and of propagandists.

At the same time let us vary the means of our propaganda. We must adapt our message to the diverse spheres which we desire to influence. Before popular audiences let us draw the noble stories of the Bohemian history, the picturesque views of Bohemia and Slovakia. By telling the story and showing the pictures we overcome the inertia of the public. Before an assembly of business men one ought to speak of the economic resources of your country, as Mr. Beneš has so well done before the Franco-Czech Chamber of Commerce. Upon other occasions it may be necessary to emphasize the diplomatic questions, or the military or scientific side. Bohemia’s national life is so rich that you can pick out every time something that will hold the attention of a French audience.

Next to ignorance the most formidable enemy that you meet is perhaps indifference. Many times it has been the experience of your friends, after they had exhibited your cause as just, sacred, touching, to receive a response, not hostile, but evasive and languid, something like this: “Oh, yes, the Czechs are very interesting, and France has no reason to deny them her support. But really this does not concern us directly.” In the earlier part of the war people usually added: “That is Russia’s business; she must champion the Czech cause and we will support her, but we can not usurp her place.” Since the Russian revolution, whose leaders hold themselves aloof from foreign affairs, people dispose of the matter somewhat differently: “From the time that the Russians take no interest in the fate of Austrian Slavs, it is not up to us who are not Slavs to bother about it.” A journalist, carrying this slothful sophism to an extreme dared to write that since the resignation of Miljukoff the liquidation of Austria was no longer one the present-day problems.

I cannot conceive of greater stupidity, and it must be denounced aloud, not merely in the interest of the Czechs, but just as much in the interest of France. I get angry, when I come across writers with scanty intellect making distinctions between the question of the Rhine and the Bohemian or the Balkan questions, declaring that only the first named concerns us, or condescending to look upon the others with a gracious generosity. At the bottom of their reasoning there still persists the absurd idea of simultaneous wars: one, here, between France and Germany, another, further away, between Austria and Italy, a third, way in the distance, between Austria and Serbia, between Russia and Turkey, between Germany and Japan, all independent of each other; it happens that France is on the same side as Italy, and Austria is in the same camp with Germany, but it might have been just as well the other way. When the mass of the people look upon things in that light, their political inexperience may excuse them. But when public speakers and writers assuming to be leaders of the people, share this error, it is regrettable, it is ridiculous, it is even dangerous. For our enemies count with this idea of separate wars, when they maneuvre with constant cunning for a separate peace. They would have to give up this game, if all the Allies realized fully that they are not engaged in several wars, but in one, that instead of many problems there is but one, a unique and tragic problem: shall Austro-Germany, supported by its vassals, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, extend its dominion from Antwerp to Bagdad? This great question includes all the others, Alsace and Belgium, Bohemia and Serbia, Armenia and Palestine. In order to check the German ambition, liberation of Bohemia is just as necessary as liberation of Alsace-Lorraine. Prague postulates Strasburg. From the military point of view we cannot say in what order the events will shape themselves; will Strasburg liberate Prague or Prague Strasburg, will the German might receive its mortal wound at Belgrade or Kiel, at Trieste or Bagdad? But we may be sure that it will not collapse, unless all its supports are taken away. Prague and Strasburg will both be free ,or they will both remain enslaved. The apostles of the Czech cause must never tire of proclaiming this; they can do so with the assurance that thereby they serve France just as much as they serve Bohemia.

The third obstacle to be overcome is mistrust, the fear of being deceived. The French character on that score is rather peculiar. Our first reaction is a generous welcome, but the second following immediately after is one of timidity and doubt. Unfortunately, this tendency toward suspicion has been strengthened by several unpleasant experiences. The great nations, one must admit, have not always had reason to congratulate themselves on giving liberty to small peoples; in many cases those liberated acquired independence of heart together with political independence. Not to go back too far, Bulgaria has ill repaid the descendant of the Czar Liberator; official Greece understood strangely its duty toward the “protecting powers”. Upon such examples learned doctors of political sciences founded a theory of necessary egoism and systematic heartlessness. According to these so-called realists we have no business to take concern in oppressed peoples or to look for their gratitude. Self-interest in the strictest and harshest meaning of the term should be our only law.

Will this new machiavelism ,armed with the most cutting formulas and cynical sarcasms, make much progress in the land of Lamartine and Edgar Quinet? I hope not. But we have to count with it, insofar as it exists, and to fight it, for it would destroy all friendship for the Czech cause.

We can fight it by calling attention to cases of political gratitude. Sometimes the most distinterested acts turn out to be the most profitable, and a good deed may become good business. Have we not striking proofs of it in this very war? Who can say, how far Italy’s decision to attack Austro-Germany was due to the desire for Trieste and how far to the memory of Solferino? Who can be sure that the United States would have taken the decision which fills us with joy, if Lafayette, the knightly Lafayette, Lafayette the philosopher, had not gone to America to help the people of Washington win their independence? Chivalry and philosophy, great realities which in the opinion of the “positive” politicians are but big words, may prove their usefulness.

Even though historical precedents are too fragile to be employed as convincing arguments, you, my dear Czech friends, have an argument of which, if you will permit me to say, you do not make sufficient use. Do not speak solely of the services that you will be able to render to us in the future; emphasize those which you have already rendered us. Remind us of your protest in 1871 against the theft of Alsace-Lorraine, of your charity for our wounded and escaped soldiers, the declaration of your deputies in 1892 in favor of French-Russian alliance. Speak again and again of the splendid enthusiasm of your volunteers of 1914; they were not thousands in numbers, but what do numbers matter? And if others keep on coming to replace or reinforce the early ones, do not hesitate to make a little noise about the importance of your co-operation. Your devotion is too modest. Point out also what your brothers who are still under the Austrian yoke do against Austria and consequently for us; how the voluntary surrenders of Czech regiments helped the Russians and the Serbians, how the ill-will and the discontent of the Czech people impeded, held back and obstructed Austria’s action, how the journalists of Prague and Brno kept up in the people the will to resist, how the Bohemian bankers, as the Vienna government itself admitted, worked against the war loans. All this is not supposition or promise, but facts, facts which prove what you are able to accomplish, facts before which the most distrustful scepticism is disarmed.

Finally, there remains one factor which may be harmful to your cause, and which is rather hard to explain: it is a kind of an affection for Austria. It is not widely spread. Among the people at large Austria is ignored rather than detested, or at any rate it is only hated after Germany and on account of it. Among the educated and liberal-minded people Austria is hated not only for its actual crimes, but for its whole past of atrocities and baseness. On the other hand a certain number of politicians, society people, journalists ,and particularly diplomats, talk about her with unexpected indulgence. I have often looked for the reasons; I have found many, all rather weak. With some people it is society snobbery; they have known members of the Viennese or Magyar aristocracy, they have found them amiable, with better manners than the Germans, with a certain superficial polish ,and they have concluded, somewhat hastily, that such people must be friendly to France. With others it is an affectation of political wisdom; they believe that by recommending an alliance with Austria, as Choiseul and Talleyrand had done, they become thereby modern Choiseuls or Talleyrands. But above all this regrettable favoring of Austria is a form of disease deep-seated with certain people, a disease that we call habit. As many persons look upon it, the disappearance of Austria would create a gap in Europe which would endanger its equilibrium. Since Austria has always existed, what will happen, if she ceases to be? Such reasoning, unconscious for the most part, reminds me of people who have a bad tooth; they suffer a great deal, but they imagine that if it were pulled out, they would miss something.

How does the dentist handle such naive illusions? He tries to convince the patient that with the rotten tooth out he will be able to bite even better. So we must endeavor to prove to the partisans of Austria that Europe after the elimination of that ugly abscess will find itself in better health. We must not hesitate, when necessary, to shake rudely their sheep-like fidelity to ill-understood traditions. All unconsciously they always fall back upon their idea of an after-war Europe resembling as closely as possible the Europe that was before the war. But no. . The war would be senseless, if it should end in a status quo ante slightly patched up. We must have courage to understand that we are entering into a new world and banish the selfish chill we may feel upon the threshold of the unknown. Europe of 1920, whether we will it or not, will not be at all like that of 1910. Should the Austro-Germans come out victorious, they would change it radically against us; we must not refrain from changing it radically against them.

You see, my dear friends, that of all the obstacles which have heretofore held back the progress of your propaganda none is invincible. Just attack them with resolution, and they will disappear. Compel the French people to inform themselves about the Czech problem, to understand it, to reflect upon it, and you will find out that they will come to take the same view of it. Faithful to the noble admonition of your John Hus, seek the truth, serve the truth, preach it, cry it to the deaf, and it will make you free.

Translated from “La Nation Tchèque” , August 1, 1917.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1923, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 95 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.