Czech Political Culture and Civil Society

Culture is the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.
According to Samovar and Porter (1994), culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.

Political culture is most commonly defined as common perceptions of the rights and obligations of citizenship and the rules for participating in the political process; it is agreement on fundamental principles, not specific policy issues. It can also be defined as a sum of dominant patterns of political behavior in a given society.
The history of civil society in the Czech lands is a good example of a complicated relationship between culture and political culture. The rise of civil society in the Czech lands began in the first half of the 19th century and was heavily influenced by several factors:

— During that period Czech society went through the process of national (cultural) emancipation but was not, at the same, able to achieve political independence (or a greater degree of autonomy) from the Hapsburg Empire;

–the inability of Czech society to achieve political emancipation, comparable at least with that of the Hungarians, put a heavy burden on civil society to act, in some respects, as a substitute for politics; the need to emphasize national issues heavily influenced the Czech civil society and determined its agenda;

–at the same time, Czech civil society reflected in its actions the defensive attitudes of Czech society as such;

–throughout the 19th century, ethnic German and ethnic Czech societies grew apart, and toward the end of the century each of the two ethnic groups had its own “civil society”;

–Czech civil society was influenced by a degree of provincialism resulting from the position of the Czech lands on the political periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire;

–being politically marginalized, Czech society had weak political elites.

National Emancipation

Both main dimensions of a modern civil society—the market and the public—were in the Czech lands heavily influenced by the fact that both the Czech economy and a variety of public activities were initially dominated by ethnic Germans.

Throughout the 19th century there were attempts to create and strengthen Czech economic and political institutions. However, the nationalization of capital and markets in the Czech lands was not easy. Most banks and major firms were controlled by ethnic Germans. A number of firms and banks that claimed to be purely Czech were eventually established, but until the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, the ethnically based Czech economy remained relatively weak vis-a-vis the German based economy—in particular in relative terms (that is, if we compare the numbers of Germans and Czech living in the Czech lands).

This created some disadvantages for purely Czech civic initiatives, in particular as far as their funding was concerned.

In the Czech lands, the rise of civil society coincided with the process of national emancipation. Therefore, civil society, which normally is anathema to nationalism, grew in concert with an ethnic revival in the Czech lands, and the Czechs’ own national state had some negative effects on the functioning of civil society.

In general a modern civil society does not thrive in an environment of tribalism and nationalism. It can be argued that the organization of society along civic lines is a precondition for establishing national states as political nations rather than ethnic nations. In societies with a strong ethnic identification, bordering on tribalism, a civil society is often truncated. Its various parts tend to serve national interests and, as a result, the civil society as a whole is subordinated to a national ideology.

Political versus civic emancipation

Another problem of Czech civil society was that in the presence of strong national aspirations, accompanied by the absence of a real political emancipation, various civic groups took it upon themselves to formulate national interests. They could not do so openly, however, with the use of a political language, and, as a result, the national political agenda was often formulated through, or with the help of, the language of culture. Conversely, cultural and artistic efforts that did not contribute to the “national cause” were often deemed unworthy or outright “anti-Czech.”

Especially after the failed revolution of 1848, various groups and associations that described themselves as cultural in fact attempted to formulate national interests. A kind of schizophrenia developed that has served the Czechs well in times of political oppression but impeded the growth of healthy civil and political societies during the periods of freedom. It is still present in the Czech political culture today. Both civil and political societies learned very well during this period how to subvert the politically dominant institutions of the time; Czechs learned how to express their sentiments and demands indirectly– between the lines. The willingness to mobilize and confront important political issues directly and make clearly formulated demands was low.

Defensive Attitudes

Another aspect of this development was that most civic initiatives were defensive in their attitudes. They were focused on defending Czech national culture, promoting Czech social life, cultivating the Czech language, or carving out and defending Czech economic interests. Charities, cultural associations, and sports clubs were, as a result, certainly far more numerous than groups that actively tried to press for Czech political interests or tried to influence Czech and Austrian politicians.

This feature of Czech civil society, again, remained prominent even in times of political freedom. Civic activities, such as organizing demonstrations, petitions and labor actions have been few in comparison with activities aimed at fostering economic solidarity or promote national culture. Formulating public policies has also been a rather weak feature of Czech civil society. In general, the Czech civil society was inward looking—a majority of civic initiatives did not venture beyond the boundaries of the ethnic Czech society.

Czech and German Civil Societies

Although the Czech lands, just like the Hapsburg Empire as a whole, were multiethnic and multicultural in composition, interactions on the level of civil society among various ethnic groups—certainly between the Czechs and the Germans—were not intense. At the end of the 19th century, each of the two dominant ethnic groups in the Czech lands had, for example, its own high schools, universities, newspapers, and theaters.

The Jewish community in the Czech lands was predominantly German-speaking
and participated mainly in the life of the ethnic German civil society. But on some levels the Jews built bridges between the two increasingly separated ethnic-based civil societies.


The functioning of Czech civil society was also influenced by the fact that the center of power was in Vienna, not in Prague. The Czech lands were a province of the empire, although an increasingly affluent one. The fact that civil society in the Czech lands had little or no direct ties to top political institutions of the empire caused a degree of provincialism. Not only were Czech civic and political institutions often focused on dealing with issues that were marginal from the point of view of the Hapsburg state’s policies on the international scene, but they were also relatively weak even in pressing national concerns.

The inability to exercise real political power and have real influence on the empire’s politics resulted in sentiments that could be best described by a slogan: “Let’s mind our own business.” This attitude survived the fall of the empire and was fully revived in during the Nazi rule and during the Communist regime, when real political power was again outside the reach of the Czechs and real decisions were made either in Berlin or in Moscow.

Even today both Czech politics and Czech civil society are inward looking. Czech politicians and most civic groups do not like to address big issues that transcend the borders of the Czech Republic. Politicians such as former President Vaclav Havel, or civic groups such as People in Need, whose outlook was non-provincial, global, have been seen to some extent as curiosities not fitting into the usual pattern of national behavior.

Political Elites

The marginalization of Czech political elites was later accompanied by frequent cases of political discontinuity. Political elites changed almost completely in 1918, 1938-39, 1945, 1948, 1968-1970, 1989, and to some extent in 1993, when Czechoslovakia disintegrated. One result of this historical misfortune is that in the last 100 years, no political elite in the Czech lands had enough time to really establish itself and learn how to govern effectively.

This has had adverse effects not only on the ability of the Czechs to govern themselves but also on the life of civil society. The instability of political society in the Czech lands made it difficult for civil society to build stable ties with politicians. As a result, the pattern of avoiding political themes and focusing more on economic solidarity and cultural issues, acquired in the 19th century, remained a salient feature of Czech civil society even in the 20th century.

Moreover, there have not only been repeated instances of political discontinuity in the 20th century but also instances of discontinuity in the life of civil society. The Nazi regime severely suppressed any manifestations of Czech civic life, and the communist regime basically destroyed civil society.

Civil Society under Totalitarian Regimes

However, some patterns of civic behavior survived and were useful in subverting both the Nazi and the communist regimes. In particular, the ability to express political sentiments and demands through the language of culture remained strong. In many ways, cultural figures and artists substituted for politicians. It is no coincidence that major political reforms during the communist regime were started by intellectuals—writers and artists in particular.

Even Charter 77, the most prominent civic movement during the last twenty years of the communist rule, couched many of its protests in the language of culture or highly intellectualized discourse. Its actions were, again, more defensive than openly political. On the other hand, Charter 77 represented an important breakthrough in that it managed to overcome the boundaries of Czech provincialism. It not only cooperated closely with similar Polish and Hungarian groups, but also frequently expressed its opinions on major international issues.

Civil Society Today

Both political culture and national culture in general have heavily influenced the functioning of civil society in the Czech lands. Even today, it is possible to see that the structure of Czech civil society is heavily slanted toward a non-political agenda (charities, interest groups) and that pressure groups, trade unions, professional associations and, in particular, public policy groups are relatively weak—certainly when compared with similar groupings in the West.

There is also much reluctance on part of citizens to mobilize for particular political causes and put pressure on politicians. Groups and initiatives with a global agenda that transcends parochial Czech concerns are also relatively weak.

Another factor in the functioning of civil society today is mutual distrust between politics and civil society. Average citizens do not trust their political elites; conversely, individual politicians and political parties are distrustful of civil society. Any attempts by civic groups to influence politics are often condemned as “improper efforts to interfere with politics.”

It will be very interesting to see whether (and if so, how quickly) EU membership will change such patterns of civic behavior that, it seems, have deep historical roots.

Cultural Differences in Europe, Europeum and NYU, Praha – 15. 11. 2003


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