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.