A Country by any other Name. . .

Those who regularly read the Wall Street Journal are aware of the news item, usually beginning on the front page, that has an interesting story about some feature of life not necessarily breaking news.

The February 13, 2020 Journal, p. A1, describes a minor kerfuffle in Prague over naming of the country of which that city is the capital. Since the breakup of the former Czechoslovakia in 1993, the nation has been known as the Czech Republic. There have been recent efforts to change its official name to Czechia. After all, one of the proponents of the change observes, the nation of France is named just that, not “French Republic.” The president Milos Zeman is in favor of the change; the prime minister Andrej Babis (which under their form of government, has more actual power) wishes to continue calling it the Czech Republic. The United Nations has acquiesced to the president’s wish and has officially recognized the nation under the new name. The prime minister remains recalcitrant.

All of my maternal great-grandparents emigrated from the area around the Vltava (Moldau) upriver from Prague to United States in the mid-19th century. At the time, the area was known as Bohemia, which together with Moravia and Czech Silesia, constituted what was known as the Czech lands. The lands together were a province of the Austrian Empire (between 1866 and 1918, Austria-Hungary). Prague was, in fact, after Vienna, the second city of the Empire, and German and Czech co-existed as widely spoken languages. My grandmother always referred to herself and her family as Bohemian, and would often refer to “the old country,” although she was born in Ohio, and, to my knowledge had never been there, and was as fiercely patriotic an American as anybody.

Most Czechs continue to refer to their country as the Czech Republic, as do most foreigners, though many, particularly in America, continue to refer to it as “Czechoslovakia” to the annoyance of both Czechs and Slovaks who have had separate nations for nearly 30 years. Czechia, the English/Latinate version of Česko, appears to be a perfectly appropriate name. One objection is that it is too close phonetically to the Russian republic Chechnya, which, co-incidentally is officially the Chechen Republic.

Since so many of, at least here in America, descendants of emigrants, and, surely, some recent ones, refer to the old country as Bohemia, why not give the nation that name? Two problems. One, that is the German name for the former Austrian province. Unfortunately, the history of the former German/Austrian dominance where the Czech played second fiddle in their lands, and the more recent Nazi persecution of the ethnic Czechs leading up to and during World War II, are probably in the memory of the populace. As William Faulkner observed, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. Although one might reasonably wish it to be.

The second objection is that using Bohemia as the name for the entire nation could annoy the inhabitants of Moravia and Silesia, who are ethnically Czech, who speak the same language and all.

So which side will prevail? President Zeman’s Czechia, or Prime Minister Babis’ Czech Republic? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see. For me, I’ve visited Prague twice. The first time when it was still under the old communist regime, the country was called the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, where scary looking border guards armed with AK-47s asked for my papers and scrutinized them carefully. The second time it was the Czech Republic, and a bored immigration officer at the airport stamped my passport with only a cursory glance. Perhaps the next time I go, if I do, it’ll be Czechia. It really matters not, it’s a beautiful and incredibly interesting country whatever the name.

One comment on “A Country by any other Name. . .

  1. Anonymous says:

    Bob–Thanks for your concise essay on the question of Czech Republic or Czechia. I read the article in the WSJ with great interest and was surprised to learn that the UN had accepted the change. The name Czech Republic always seemed stilted to me. Many times I have said that I used to be called Bohemian but now I’m called Czech. So, for me, changing to Bohemia would be fine but Czechia would be an improvement also. Our mutual Great-Grandfather, Joseph Ptak, was born in Velky Vir which was in the southern Vltava River area and, as you may know, the town no longer exists due to the building of the water dam Orlik in the 1960’s which flooded the area. We have lost both an ancestral home and our status as Bohemian descendants.–Cousin Joe

    Like

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