Seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, hold the truth and defend the truth until death.
—Czech theologian-reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415)
The independent nation of Czechoslovakia was declared in Prague a hundred years ago this month — October 28, 1918, just as WWI drew to a close and a battered Europe searched for a new beginning. As Hus inspired the Protestant reformation, so his words inspired the fledgling country. Czechoslovakia’s first President, Tomáš Masaryk, established “Truth prevails” (Pravda vítězí) as the national motto, and when the Velvet Revolution overthrew Communist tyranny in 1989, Václav Havel made a point of reiterating Hus’s words. The “Truth prevails” motto is retained in today’s Czech Republic, where Hus’s fiercely independent spirit and martyrdom — he was burned at the stake for refusing to abandon his principles — are commemorated by a public holiday.
One of the most unlikely, influential and overlooked chapters in the long tradition of Czechoslovakian independence is recounted in Kevin J McNamara’s recent Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe. Throughout WWI a unit of the Czech Legion (mostly Czech, some Slovaks, all of them nationalistic émigrés and expats hostile to the Austro-Hungarian Empire) had fought with distinction for Russia on the Eastern Front. When Russia pulled out of the war, Masaryk cut a deal with the Bolsheviks whereby the Legion, now bolstered by Czech and Slovak POWs captured earlier and due for repatriation, was allowed to mobilize in Siberia, en route to continue fighting against the Central Powers. McNamara describes how the 50,000-man Legion managed to seize control of much of the vital Trans-Siberia railway line, put a scare in Lenin’s still unstable Bolshevik government, and win support even in America for the cause of Czechoslovakian independence.
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In her memoir Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright describes how her upbringing, though mostly spent in exile from her native Czechoslovakia, was immersed in the principles that became her birthright and her passion. A career diplomat in Masaryk’s government, Albright’s father fled Prague when Germany invaded in 1939, and the family fled again a decade later when the Communists took over, this time to America. With her, says Albright, came the best kind of baggage:
From my parents I had received a priceless inheritance: a set of deeply held convictions regarding liberty, individual rights, and the rule of law. I inherited, as well, a love for two countries. The United States had welcomed my family and enabled me to grow up in freedom; I was proud to call myself an American. The Czechoslovak Republic had been a beacon of humane government until snuffed out by Adolf Hitler and then—after a brief period of postwar revival—extinguished again by the disciples of Josef Stalin. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution, led by Václav Havel, my hero and later my cherished friend, engendered new hope. All my life I had believed in the virtues of democratic government, the need to stand up to evil, and the age-old motto of the Czech people: “Pravda vítězí” or “Truth shall prevail.”
In the Central and Eastern European region, the Czech Republic maintains its reputation for vigilant democracy, even as many other countries — for example Poland and Hungary, which also achieved independence in the fall of 1918 — lean increasingly towards authoritarianism. But as Arkady Ostrovsky describes in The Invention of Russia, no national border or democratic principle is safe from disinformation and media manipulation, which Russian president Vladimir Putin has proven masterful at weaponizing:
Television has been the main tool of his power, his magic wand that substituted a counterfeit image for reality. As Putin’s friend Silvio Berlusconi once said, “What is not on TV does not exist.” Putin took this one step further: things that did not exist could be turned into reality by harnessing the power of television. This alchemical power was displayed vividly both in the annexation of Crimea and in the war in Ukraine.
In 2017 the Ukraine organization StopFake.org, run by a network of anti-Kremlin journalists, received a democracy award from the National Democratic Institute, an independent NGO which supports and monitors the strength of democratic institutions and principles around the world. Madeleine Albright, the current Chairman of NDI, gave StopFake their award; in her opening remarks she returned to her Czech roots, assuring the banquet attendees that “Pravda vítězí.”