Václav Klaus: The Great War and Its Continuing Impact: The View from the Czech Republic

Many thanks for inviting me to attend this very topical conference organized on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The topic is very motivating and not about history only. In addition to it, the invitation gives me a pleasant opportunity to visit Serbia, a country where the war started, a country I – and Czechs traditionally – like, a country where I have good friends. Last time I was here in January 2011 which is – in the currently fast-going era – already a relatively long time ago.

We should use this opportunity not only to speak about history. We should use it as a way to a better understanding of the present era which shows many parallels with the past. We all know that Serbia didn´t start the war. We also know that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand d´Este, heir to the imperial Austro-Hungarian throne (and his Czech wife) by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914 was not the main reason for starting the war. The war had been already “in the air”. This unlucky, useless and by Serbian government not sponsored or organized assassination was used as a propaganda weapon, as a much needed argument for the justification and explanation of the war for the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including people of my country.

I would like to make two short side-remarks now. Even the children in the elementary schools in my country know that Gavrilo Princip who was too young to be hanged for his deed was imprisoned in the well-known Czech fortress of Terezín (or Terezienstadt) where he died four years later – in April 1918, which means, before the war came to an end. It should be also mentioned that my grandfather was fighting in the war (as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the Austrian side) and was seriously injured on the Italian front. That is the reason why this war became part of my family´s history.

The war was initiated by Austria, with a rather reluctant consent of the Hungarian part of the monarchy. It would be, however, a tragic mistake not to stress the important role played by Germany with its rapidly growing ambitions to redraw the boundaries first of Central Europe, then of the whole continent and, finally, of the whole world. The rather specific, so-called “German Mind” was a significant part of the whole story. German “Kaiser” Wilhelm II., who never appeared in public without his military uniform, proclaimed shortly before the war that the 20th century would be the century of Germany. With the benefit of hindsight and with knowing Adolf Hitler´s ambitions and plans, we can say that his prediction almost came true. Another topic worth discussing would be the current developments in the Germany dominated European Union and their potential geopolitical implications, but I will not open this Pandora box here now.

The consequences of the First World War are well-known now, after 100 years, at least we hope so. In spite of a very strong rhetoric of all the commentators ever since, its long-term impact seems to be even more significant than was generally estimated during most of the last century. This year´s anniversary led to the publication of hundreds or perhaps thousands of articles and books formulated in this spirit. Everyone speaks about “a divide”, about a turning point, about a watershed in history. We have been confronted with formulations such as:

- the civilizational divide;

- the dismantling of long lasting empires (Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire);

- the opening of the doors to Nazism and Communism;

- the artificial, non-genuine parcelling out of the Middle East;

- the gradual, but steadily accelerating decline of Europe and of its position in the world;

- the shattering and relativization of traditional values connected with Christianity and long-lasting humanistic traditions, etc.

This is, undoubtedly, true. There will be, I am sure, speeches given by real experts devoted to all of these topics here at this conference today and tomorrow and I don´t want to compete in an “amateur” style with them. Let me raise just three short points.

We often speak about the shattering of old certainties, about the disappearance of order, authority and traditional structures, about the loss of meaning of life for the whole generations of our predecessors, about the “lost generations”, etc. It is paradoxical that this is not the dominant feeling in my country which – due to the results of this tragic war – got a chance to build its own independent state. The forward-looking, creative and constructive feelings connected with our state-building (after long centuries of foreign domination) plus a relatively rapid and smooth separation of the newly created country from Austrian political and economic institutions and problems together with a very successful avoidance of devastating post-war hyperinflations which occurred in practically all our neighbouring countries made our positive developments in the following two decades possible. This peaceful era was, however, interrupted very early by Adolf Hitler, Munich and World War II.

My second point is about the future. During the 20th century, the main lesson from the Great War was that such a large-scale destruction leads inevitably to non-democratic, totalitarian regimes such as Communism and Nazism. Especially we, who spent decades in an oppressive, irrational, non-efficient communist regime, feel it very strongly. When communism melted down 25 years ago (I am afraid it was not defeated), everyone supposed that the skies would be blue forever. When we look at the current world, we – or at least some of us – don´t see the blue skies anymore. We see other, in many respects, similarly dangerous tendencies.

The Great War shattered the traditional values and traditions in a much deeper way than “only” enabling the emergence of Nazism and Communism. The change of customs and manners, the decay of morals and of work ethics, the attack on Christianity and especially on family led to the “cultural revolution” of the nineteen sixties and, gradually, to the current “Brave New World” of wide-spread relativism, feminism and homosexualism, to the emergence of positive discrimination, to the disregard for parliamentary democracy, for free markets, for capitalism. We finally start to understand that the Great War was an attack on the West (in a broader sense), on its basic values of freedom, liberty and human dignity, on its fundamental institutions. Its consequences have become more and more visible with the passage of time.

I would like to mention another dimension of it all. The Second World War was relatively clear and easy to explain. There was a simple evil – Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Hitler and his country started the war and other countries reacted. Another point is that the Second World War was planned with well-defined, and more or less known and evident aims.

The First World War was different. It was not so easy to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys. The war was initiated by serious men, by respected “gentlemen”, not by totally irrational, if not mentally disturbed dictators. It was not planned, it just happened. Originally meant as a short, in scale rather limited war, it lastedlong four years and cost tens of millions of lives both among soldiers and among civilians. No one expected a conflict of such a magnitude.

I repeat these well-known facts with my eyes turned to the future. We see and feel pressures, tensions, threats, nuclei of conflicts, local wars but there isn’t any crazy dictator who – as we know from Charlie Chaplin´s movie – wants to play football with the ball called the Planet. All world leaders want peace and prosperity now, all are “gentlemen” which brings me to my final statement that a potential future war will be more similar to the First than to the Second World War. It will not be based on any grandiose plan. It will not be started by terrorists, by radical Islamists, Taliban, or other similar “bad guys”. It will be started by people in black ties or fancy business attires, it will be started in Europe if the people of Europe continue looking astray or closing their eyes.

Thank you for your attention.

Václav Klaus, Speech at the conference The Great War and the Beginning of the New World: Actual Agenda for Humanity, Sava Center, Belgrade, September 17, 2014.