I am a Slovak, a secular citizen with Czech citizenship, by origin a Jew, a husband, father and grandfather, a sociologist, publicist, businessman, veteran, and certainly not a leftist intellectual... And all this at the same time and equally. I perceive my identity as a structured whole, which changes and develops in the course of my life. And in the course of my life, the themes associated with my self-identification have changed and developed.
This also applies to the social world in which I live my life. The people around me are Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Romany..., secular citizens, Catholics, Jews..., leftists, conservatives, liberals..., members of different generations, sexes and sub-cultures. Some express their national, ethnic, religious or political identity more militantly, ostentatiously and often aggressively. In particular, I remember the quarrels about the character of the transformation of society after the fall of communism, the quarrels about the coexistence of the Czechs and Slovaks in a common state, but also the discussions about registered partnership, gene manipulation, minorities, European integration, globalization and many other themes. Quite often they „foamed at the mouth“, but they might also think the same about me. Pragmatic power-political or economic motivations are very often hidden behind ostentatious waving of one of the dimensions of identity. The confrontation of identities may be very dramatic, but we never know whether it is really about identity, or whether identity is only a logo, marketing brand or weapon. The theme of identity is burdened by so many deposits or balasts. For example:
1. Some members of national elites gravitate to the rhetoric of “blood and soil” from mere inferiority complex or feelings of frustration over their own inadequacy in the global arena. However, they vehemently affirm that national identity is the pillar of their self-definition.
2. Ideological floscules often only hide the monolithic character of the internal world of their protagonists. The picture of the world offered, for example, by the communist or nationalist illusions, is really attractive mainly for its simplicity and suggestibility.
3. In better cases, national mythologies, symbols and rituals are a search for stories around which a nation or ethnic group can form its self-identification... However, much more frequently they represent the instrumentalization of insecurity and strengthening of instinctive collectivism. Tons of books have been written about the mass nature of people, but much less about the exchange of myth for history, or mythical stories for historical knowledge.
4. Patriotism and patriotic campaigns are often mere marketing to mobilize the public for the economic and political interests of the elite. We find this repeatedly even in the most democratic of liberal democracies – it is a tried and tested political card.
5. The virtualization or electrification of the public space often blurs the identity of post-modern man and exposes it to the risk of false identification with fictional national models, media celebrities and so on.

It would certainly be possible to mention further examples of the influences attributed to the articulation of the theme of identity and mediated into social conflicts.

My personal experiences and observations come mainly from the real world of the Slovaks and Czechs. These two populations are culturally, historically, geographically and emotionally very close. This may make explanation of the differences more interesting: The Slovaks are generally very religious, while the Czechs may be the most secular nation in Europe. The Czechs speak of a thousand years of history, many Slovaks of a thousand years of oppression. The Czechs regard the “good soldier” Švejk as the symbol of their relationship to the authorities, while the Slovaks, meaning a sort of abstract sociological Slovak, have the robber and murderer Juraj Jánošík, who became a hero of folk mythology, who “took from the rich and gave to the poor”. The Czechs have Kafka, Prague and beer. The Slovaks like to speak of their broad hearts and high mountains. Generally, this recalls the relationship between centre and periphery or city and countryside. After the break up of the common state of the Czechs and Slovaks, the very intimate structure of the identities of its citizens was disturbed. Many were forced to ask the question of their Czech, Slovak, Jewish or Romany identity only after the origin of the new frontier, new state and new situation. This negative self-definition (“I didn’t want to be a Slovak, I felt that I was a Czechoslovak”) is or was shared by about the same percentage of Slovaks and Czechs. However, we cannot perceive the results of such self-reflection exclusively negatively.

In contrast to the inherited or indoctrinated formative factors of identity, such as religious spirituality and mother tongue or those we appropriate from socialization, this type of “forced” self-assignment is really authentic and empirically questioning, seeking and creating. In my own case, I might never have asked myself so urgently the question: “In what way am I Slovak and in what way Jewish?”, if I had not been confronted with sharpened and militant Slovak nationalism and anti-Semitism. In view of the fact that I survived both, I am much more mature in the national and cultural dimensions of my identity. The word “survived” is no exaggeration. My family and many other Slovaks and Czechs, mainly Romany and Jews, did not survive the holocaust, not to mention the victims of the communist regime. But do these considerations also apply to European identity?

European integration and the membership of the two new states of the Czechs and Slovaks in the European Union made the theme of identity an intellectual favourite. But ask a European what he understands as his European identity? He will babble something about cultural roots, common history and utopian projects. However, he will certainly admit that the motive for European integration is not identity, but prosperity and security within the shared frontiers of the extremely varied European Union, a union of different states and nations. But just as the break up of many European states, including Czechoslovakia, contributed to the articulation of serious questions, discussion of the (non-existing) European identity is helpful when groping for our own identity in both political and cultural terms. This search is especially interesting for Czechs and Slovaks after half a century of communism. Wanderers around Europe are opening their eyes. The dream of democracy alternates with the knowledge that democracy is not the same as freedom (Fareed Zakaria). The dream of a Europe without frontiers alternates with the knowledge that “home is really home”. However, the main thing is that the “new” Europe finally has the chance to understand that no external enemies threaten it, but Europeans, who no longer remember the values, which stood at the cradle of their cultures and politics, already push common interests to the periphery of the common political space. The problem is not the shared identities of the theme ordered for my text, but the stability and prosperity of this space. I am far from sure that I can say this about the indefinite future. I can imagine that political development will “force” a new type of self-identification of Europeans. In the end, the trend towards applying the vision of a European superstate is not the illusion of some intellectuals, but of many politicians in the Brussels administration. It is a purely theoretical question whether fulfillment of this vision would guarantee the aims of the present efforts – stability and prosperity. But that is another story.

When I travelled in India, I had a remarkable experience. Ask a member of the middle class from Rajasthan about Slovakia and he will know nothing. He will tell you that he sees a unit called Europe. It appears to him to be Christian, democratic, liberal, modern, technologically developed, prosperous, aging... But when a Slovak or Czech returns home from India, he sees home, part of himself, his identity. The whole of this great institutional – political framework of present-day Europe “only” enables him to enjoy this feeling of greater prosperity and security. But it is not provided free and for ever. Paradoxically, however, it may be that only a threat will bring out forces that will make people into citizens with a European allegiance and perhaps also identity. And the threat today is nothing other than our own anti-Americanism, adherence to the moribund social state and other expressions of mental obesity. A sustainable Europe is in the hands of the elites, especially the political elites, and in the discourse they evoke with its cynical adherence to interests and power. It should not be a discourse about European identity, but about European values.

Acknowledgements: I wish to thank for comments on the text and inspiration: the philosopher Egon Gál, the legal theorist Jiří Přibáň, the literary scientist Petr Zajac, the member of the European Parliament for the Czech Republic Jana Hybášková and the sociologist Pavol Frič. The last two have written their own texts, which form a supplement to my text.

Supplement 1

The text is heading in the direction I agree with.

Already while reading the first sentence, I thought: How is it that Fedor does not feel that he is first of all European? I really thought it over this morning at seven o clock in Prague Airport. One person is flying to work in Paris, another in Brussels, a third in Milan... the airport is full, nobody is flying for a holiday or to visit his grandmother. It is very clear that everybody belongs to the “elite”, and they would all apparently consider the term European in their CVs.

Europe and Europeanism is an elite concept. It is an identity, which undoubtedly already exists, but it is shared by only part of the social spectrum. We know that the modern Czech and Slovak nations are the result of the application of the elite, intellectual concepts of the national revivalists. There were not many of them, but they were active. In Marxism, they taught us that the origin of the modern nation was a response to the demands of the industrial revolution. The national revivals were supported essentially by the “bourgeoisie”, that is by the elite.

I think that the present European elites should carry their intellectual concept of Europeanism forwards in the coming decades. It is not only a matter of security and prosperity, they are inevitably part of the project, but not its only condition. Value judgement, values, but also culture, symbols and education are part of a balanced identity. All these can and perhaps will form a European identity for all, or if you like for the masses. Prosperity and security still do not form identity.

What substantially complicates this in Europe is the question of the social communication system, that is language, and as a social linguist, I know that a real identity is always accompanied by a change of the social communication system. The question of language has an important place in the debate about “identity”. Those, who will not use the European common language simply cannot become Europeans. They will live in another state, in a different world, in a different identity. A key pre-condition is the mastering of a common language in active and written form by the majority of the European population. It does not mean replacing the national languages, but supplementing the social communication system with an active, written common language. Here on the ground – educational and linguistic systems, which are closer to a common language, will be closer to Europeanism.

A second point in the debate is “national” identity. American socio-linguistics has the term nationism, namely identity with the state nation, in this case American. The Americans only very rarely speak of American nationalism... In Europe it is variable – nation states and state nations. The Balkans provide interesting examples. In Bosnia, we are attempting to create a state nation, in Kosovo a nation state. The problem is that identification with the state in the classical sense of the word is slowly but surely weakening as the state itself becomes weaker. The privatization of services, which were formerly the clear domain of the state, and the changing importance of conventional armed forces is significantly weakening the classical state. As a result state national identity is weakened.

Identity is an entirety. I think that power does not reduce it. It is something like a circle, which always has 360 degrees. The part, which is diminished is replaced by something else. It is clear what applies for your first six points – where personal identity is not strong enough, where there is an inferiority complex, the personal part of identity is replaced by the herd instinct. Fear is a very strong source of identity. Therefore, the natural, personal sources of identity are important and it does not matter whether they are the flag, president or language. If they come by natural personal choice, everything is in order. I would slightly criticize the text here, perhaps precisely because of the Americans, their flag, president and Washington.

The third point to the consideration is the vertical shift of identities. Where the state is declining, identity is supplemented in an upward direction – America, China, India, Europe, Islam.

But, and this is the latest hit, it is also supplemented in a downward direction. Much is now written in Europe about so-called urban identity, which is especially strong among the young. The urban identity of the inhabitants of large cities is much stronger than their “national” identity. “I am from London”... “Je suis de Paris”... “Sem Pražák” (I am from Prague)... is an interesting phenomenon, which I think is strong and requires space devoted to it. It is also good to think regionally about this.

Finally, European identity is arising, it may move beyond the elite and will not only depend on prosperity and security, but become a fully developed identity, supplemented by language and, at the same time, by the actually experienced regional and urban identities. There clearly will not be less identity, so it is necessary to cultivate it as an identity of the free individual, a positive identity, not an identity of fear and limitation.

I am convinced that if we try to forcibly remove the outward signs of identity, whether state citizenship, flag or national anthem, people will find the vacuum unbearable. They will find other things to fill this vacuum, and these things will be much worse.

Jana Hybášková

Supplement 2
Firstly, I think that a static spirit prevails in the text, with identity as something given. The Slovaks did not exist until their collective identity was gradually created in the course of interaction between parts of the elite and population of the Kingdom of Hungary. This means that formation of a European collective identity is not an obvious process, but one requiring hard work if it is to become a widely shared identity. I would not separate identity and values so strictly, because identity is also a value for which some people are willing to sacrifice their lives, and it also stands or falls on certain values, whether feelings of security, prosperity or faith, it is really the same. A threat from outside is always a good unifying impulse. I would not reject it, after all, it really exists. It is interesting that first you speak of the strength of nationalism and then in the conclusion state that Europe is in the hands of the political elites, (why political, when we know that they represent the economic interests of large companies?) which are mostly pro-European. I think that the voting on the European Constitution in referenda showed that there are also counter-elites, which have considerable power and the elites cannot simply do whatever they like. History shows that the building of a collective identity is more successful if the values on which it is built, are more widely shared, and more people have the feeling that they are participating in building this identity. It is not only a question of symbolic power and manipulation, but also of convictions and willingness to sacrifice something in the interest of the common good. And one further lesson from history: every new collective identity is born on the ruins of an old identity. This means that the old identity must first get into a crisis and it is possible to successfully seek a new one. I think that the “idea of the nation state” (as Ortega y Gasset said) has been in crisis for rather a long time, and we only lack the charismatic leader, who will sweep everything away and lead us out of this crisis. Yes, it is true that there really are strong personalities, who can be the catalysts of the process of creating new identities, or who become their symbols. Their positive model enables millions to share things they had not even guessed before. I see the problem in the fact that the European identity is still being built in an excessively rational and bureaucratic way, without the spectacular personal contribution of outstanding individuals. Nobody wants to risk anything. As a result the counter-elites often come to the top. Their personal commitment is clear and emotionally exalted, and this is much more attractive for the public and the masses. The problem is that the European elites are a collection of very average personalities, fatally interwoven with interest networks, so that they are able to have very little real influence on people’s thinking.

A further comment on your personal identity. You start from your membership of smaller groups, apart from the family. The facts that you are a sociologist and publicist probably do not give a stronger feeling that you belong somewhere, but the facts that you are a conservative, a member of a party and a former member of the leadership of Verejnosť proti násiliu (Public Against Violence – the movement, which led the 1989 revolution in Slovakia) do give this feeling. I think that in the area of collective identity, a strong movement is in progress from national identity both downwards to communal identity and upwards to European or cosmopolitan identities, because communities or networks of people, who understand each other or share common values are also emerging on these levels. Sharing of common values may not be identical with shared identity, but it is very similar.

Pavol Frič