History binds us - Czech Republic

History binds us

Finding solutions together
The Dutch and the Czech have a bilateral history that goes back hundreds of years. This history is filled with interesting encounters and exciting anecdotes. Here are four highlights in the history of Dutch-Czech bilateral relations:

Jan Amos Comenius

A 200 Czech Crown banknote depicting Jan Amos Comenius
The philosopher, pedagogue, theologian, and “father of modern education” Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670) is perhaps the most famous Czech exile of all time. Comenius was one of a hundred thousand refugees who settled across Europe at the aftermath of the Battle of White Mountain (November 1620). Comenius spent fourteen years in Amsterdam, where he continued his influential scientific and political work. He showed his admiration for his new place of residence by dedicating his best-known work Opera Didactica Omnia (1658) to the Amsterdam city council. In 1670 Comenius found his final resting place in Naarden. Comenius is still widely admired. Many Christian schools in the Netherlands have been named after him from as early as the seventeenth century until this day. The Czechs commemorate Comenius's legacy on the 200 Czech Crown banknote, which displays his portrait and the fortress of Naarden.

Masaryk monument

The Masaryk monument in Rotterdam;                                           Photo: MatteoNL97
Tomáš Masaryk (1850-1937), the first president and father of Czechoslovakia, visited Rotterdam twice during the First World War. During his time in the Netherlands he started the resistance against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Masaryk secretly met with British historian and publicist Robert W. Seton-Watson, who would play an active role in encouraging the breakup of Austria-Hungary and the emergence of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. During the meeting in Rotterdam, Masaryk outlined the physical and ideological contours of Czechoslovakia. In the Netherlands, he also decided to break definitively with the Habsburg monarchy. A neutral and tolerant country, in the vicinity of England and France, the Netherlands was a suitable place for establishing foreign contacts. After World War I, on June 3, 1918, Czechoslovakia was recognized as an Allied power. On Nov. 14, 1918, Masaryk was elected president of Czechoslovakia, and he was reelected in 1920, 1927, and 1934. In Czechia he is seen as a true “liberator” and “father of his country.” To commemorate this history, the municipality of Rotterdam unveiled the Masaryk monument, designed by artist Hans Citroen, in 2015.

Max van der Stoel and Jan Patocka

The Max van der Stoel Memorial in Prague
In March 1977 Max van der Stoel, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, travelled to Prague for an official state visit. He was to meet the Czechoslovakian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bohuslav Chnoupek and Czechoslovakian President Gustav Husák. Although Van der Stoel, a stout defender of human rights, was discontent with the suppression of the Czechoslovakian human rights movement Charter 77 by the authorities, he still decided to proceed with his visit to Prague. However, he demanded there wouldn’t be any taboo subjects during his talks with the Czechoslovakian representatives and that he could bring journalists to report on the visit. One of the journalists who joined Van der Stoel was Dick Verkijk. This East European specialist arranged a meeting between the Minister and a member of the Charter 77. When Dick Verkijk arrived in Prague he contacted Jan Patočka, one of the head members of Charter 77, and told him to come to Hotel Intercontinental. The unplanned meeting between the Minister and Jan Patočka was very short, around five minutes. Van der Stoel recalls that Patočka was very motivated. Moreover, Patočka repeated that the sole aim of Charter 77 was to humanize the regime within the set boundaries. At the end of the meeting the Dutch Minister replied in a diplomatic fashion. He said that the meeting should not be seen as an interference in the domestic struggles of Czechoslovakia, but that the Dutch government supports the implementation of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. 

Afterwards, Jan Patočka had the opportunity to speak to the international press. According to Verkijk he was euphoric and he said that this was one of the most beautiful moments of his life. Sadly, it would also be one of his last moments. The seventy year old man was arrested by the police and interrogated for nine hours straight about his conversation with Van der Stoel. Shortly afterwards, he died of a heart attack. In 2014, Max van der Stoel’s memory was honored with a park named after him, which is symbolically located next to the Jan Patočka street. In 2017, the Netherlands’ Embassy unveiled the Max van der Stoel Memorial created by Czech artist Dominik Lang and architect Jakub Červenka. The monument is located in the Max van der Stoel park and forms a spacious shadow of a tree that symbolizes in an inconspicuous manner the lasting significance of the meeting. Nowadays, historians state that the meeting broke a taboo in relations between East and West and would be a source of inspiration for dissidents throughout Eastern Europe.

Vaclav Havel in the Netherlands

Queen Beatrix and president Vaclav Havel on the Charles Bridge in Prague
President Vaclav Havel (1989-1992, President of Czechoslovakia; 1992-2003 President of the Czech Republic) was the figurehead of post-communist Czechoslovakia in the first years after the revolution.. His positive image in the West, including in the Netherlands, was well known. Havel's popularity in the Netherlands dates back to the time when the rebellious writer and defender of human rights was persecuted by the communist regime. In 1986, Havel received the prestigious Dutch Erasmus Prize for his courage. In the same year his book Letters from prison was published. His collection was also reprinted in Dutch in large numbers. Almost all of Havel's plays have been performed in the Netherlands and much of his work has been translated into Dutch. Havel's emphasis on ethically responsible behavior in particular resonated with Dutch society. In 1994, Queen Beatrix visited the Czech Republic. In 1995, President Havel paid an official state visit to the Netherlands in his capacity as head of state.