A Nation Which Cannot Take Itself for Granted is an excerpt from From Czechoslovakia: The Party and the People, published in June of 1967, by Milan Kundera. Although it focuses upon Czechoslovakia (the nation which cannot take itself for granted), it is more than a warning to the Czechoslovakian people of Czechoslovakia; it is also a foreshadowing of the coming danger to all nations. Although Kundera speaks directly to the Czech people, the significance of this work is its universal applicability. Kundera begins by quickly describing what makes a nation.
He summarizes it as an amalgam of a people’s culture, political system, and history. He notes that though nations are a new phenomenon their existence is usually taken for granted by that nation’s people. Here is where the focus upon Czechoslovakia is so valuable Unlike many of its western neighbors, like France, England or Spain, or the states that lie to its east, Russia or Poland, Czechoslovakia is a more recent nation, and so Kundera believes this is why Czechoslovakia in particular cannot take itself for granted. Czechoslovakia slept through several vital phases in the evolution of the European spirit.
Although they experienced the Czech Revival in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which began a light national consciousness, this consciousness has risen and fallen. At this consciousness’s height, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was quickly broken. Stunted by foreign occupation and followed almost immediately by the crushing anti-nationalism of Stalin and Soviet Union. Viewing Czechoslovakia under Kundera’s lens we see what may be the inevitable result for all nations. Czechoslovakia was at the time, and still is a small nation, weak in all of the features by which Kundera judge’s nations.
But we see many nations following Czechoslovakia’s path. Kundera notes that because man has reached a point in his evolution where mass travel has bolstered internationalism “this makes a few world languages all the more important, and the whole of life becomes more and more international, and the influence of the languages of small nations all the more limited…” As the English language, and its geographical neighbor’s languages to a lesser extent, becomes more and more important, so fades the interest, and particularly the raw importance of all other languages.
Kundera levels that without Czech culture, which rests upon the Czech language, the Czech people cannot live a “real life”? That many languages are fading, and that a handful are rapidly rising to take there place needs no citation, but to state that a man can only live a fulfilling life through their native culture is more debatable. Kundera attempts to make his point by comparing the destruction of nationalism to vandalism. He claims that without culture and historical continuity it does not matter whether vandalism is carried out by legal or extra-legal means.
When representatives of the people or the relevant officials decide that a statue or a castle, a church, an old lime tree is pointless and order it to be removed, that is just another form of vandalism” Vandalism then being the destruction of any object which gives persons value, regardless of whether a teenager tears down a statue or its destruction is ordered by the state. This cry, that destruction of any object that is of value to a nation’s history or sense of nationhood, necessarily rests in the emphasis Kundera puts upon a nations value in a persons life..
In 1967 the horrors of run-away nationalism where still clear in the minds of all; Less than 30 years before they where over run by the most nationalistic nation ever born, Nazi Germany. Here his absence of a counter to this point is curiously absent but his thesis not only sticks but also can be seen to hold greater validity knowing what has occurred since 1967. The knitting together of the whole world through multi-national corporations and the rapid transportation capacities that have evolved with them has slowly dissolved the cultures of many people.
However, it is difficult to measure whether the value of an independent culture, the connection to ancestral lands, the passing of stories from one generation to the next and communal beliefs are essential aspects of an individual’s sense of self. It is a stretch to go as far as Kundera to say that without a nation an individual cannot live a truly “real life”. But Kundera’s great prediction, the prediction that lends A Nation Which Cannot Take Itself for Granted it’s greatest significance, is that culture is founded on language, and as a language fades so does its accompanying culture.