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My Century And My Many Lives, by Frank Munk
Memoirs, 1993
Postscript, 1994

Frank Munk, my grandfather, wrote this autobiography to record his memories from 1901 onwards. This history and its postscript are available on our family website in his memory as they tell a complete story of the 20th century. These memoirs may be referenced as long as proper attribution is made; our family retains ownership and copyright. We have one request: if you reference this material in any way, please send us email at and a copy of the paper, if possible, as we would like to know when this material is of interest and we are curious as to how it is being used. We'd like to hear from you.
© Copyright 1993, 1994, The Munk/Ragen Families


Ever since I got involved in international politics, I was attracted by geopolitics. In its broadest definition, it deals with the political implications of geography, but most often it is an instrument of power politics -- the struggle between states. Some theories of geopolitics have had a considerable impact on diplomacy, such as those of Mackinder, Mahan or Haushofer (whose concepts greatly influenced Hitler).

One of the most fateful consequences of the building of Stalin' s empire was the division of Europe strictly into West and East, with the elimination of what was previously known as Central Europe. The result was an Iron Curtain between the two and a whole epoch known as the Cold War.

The Cold War came to an unexpected, unforecast end in what ought to be called the “annus mirabilis” (the year of miracles) -- 1989. Even more amazing was the fact that it was the work of one man -- Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Not that he planned it that way -- the last thing he intended with glasnost and perestroika was the dissolution of the Communist Party and of the Soviet Union.

Before 1914, Central Europe was increasingly becoming the intellectual center of the Western World. Most of the ideas that defined the modern world came from Germany or from Austria-Hungary (whereas, in the previous two centuries, they originated in England or France). Modern nationalism was the work of Hegel; modern socialism that of Marx; modern psychology that of Freud; and modern physics that of Einstein. Even more surprisingly, the last three were emancipated Central European Jews. And speaking of Jews, modern anti-Semitism really originated in Vienna. Hitler was of course a Viennese, as was the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl. The roots of Communism were to be found in Central Europe, no less than the cradle of the nuclear bomb.

Not surprisingly, in that context, the return of capitalism, democracy and nationalism, that characterized the period after 1989, has almost instantly widened the split between Eastern and Central Europe. Today, there is a world of difference. It is most visible when we compare the most advanced and, so far, the most successful state of Central Europe, namely the Czech Republic, and the succession states of the former Soviet Union and the Balkan Peninsula. It may be premature to talk about a “Czech Miracle,” but there are good reasons to use that term. Perhaps the best testimony is the latest report of the International Monetary Fund, stating that the Czech Republic is the first, and so far the only Central and Eastern European country in transition, which has achieved such a degree of economic stability that it no longer needs financial assistance from the Fund.

Not only did the Czech Republic not have to use the funds previously granted by the Fund, but also it has now repaid all credits due in 1994 and 1995, while at the same time strengthening the foreign reserves of the Czech National Bank, which have passed five billion dollars. There is talk of revaluing the Czech Crown and of making it freely convertible, years ahead of time. As of this moment, the Crown is a harder currency than the dollar.

Unlike the U.S. foreign trade balance, Czech exports show a healthy surplus over imports. The current unemployment amounts to a mere 3.2% of the labor force. The national budget shows a substantial surplus of income over outgo, again unlike the U.S.; inflation in the Czech Republic is the lowest of the post-Communist states.

If this sounds like never-never land, I am not sure it can be maintained indefinitely. I think unemployment will go up if and when the government stops subsidizing the former giant socialist enterprises, when the housing market finally becomes privatized, and when wages rise so as to make at least some exports non-competitive. Political stability, which is of course the foundation of economic performance, may also decline when jobs become harder to find. So far, the Czechs solidly support democracy, which is not entirely the case in Hungary or Poland or East Germany, not to speak of the former Soviet Union. I would even say the political stability of Czechia is most unusual. It enjoys a president, Vaclav Ravel, who makes the Czechs feel virtuous, and a prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, who makes them feel prosperous. An unusual combination -- while it lasts.

I admit not having anticipated so much success, although, in retrospect, perhaps I should have. After all, the former Czechoslovakia too turned out to be a success story after its foundation in 1918. When the Habsburg monarchy was torn to pieces, the economies of all succession states collapsed -- except Czechoslovakia. Within a few years, the Czechoslovak Crown became one of the most stable currencies. When what remained of Austria, the new Austrian Republic, was in dire straits, Czechoslovakia joined a consortium of Western states to save it, an effort that proved a turning point in that country's development. Czechoslovakia, you might say, also had a virtuous president, T. G. Masaryk, and a succession of effective governments, until it was obliterated by Hitler.

Perhaps it all has deeper roots, just how deep no one can say. Max Weber, whom many of us regard as the founder of modern political sociology, asserted that the Protestant ethic was the engine of the Industrial Revolution and godfather of liberal democracy. It so happens that Protestantism, in the form of Husite revolution, started in what is now Czechia, more than a hundred years before Luther. For the next two hundred years, the Czech population was mostly protestant, until a bloody and long-lasting counterreformation instituted by the Catholic Church and the Catholic monarchy returned the country forcibly to Catholicism. However, in contrast to Poland, and even to Slovakia, the Czech acceptance of Catholicism remained halfhearted, and it never played the same role as a national icon. The Czechs are essentially practical, empirical, less emotional, and perhaps typically bourgeois. It is interesting to watch how much more difficult it is for the East Germans to give up the mores and habits of Communism, and even its advantages, than for the Czechs. Lothar de Maiziere, who served in 1990 as the first and last non-Communist prime minister of East Germany, said recently: “I visit the Czech Republic quite often, and I'm struck by how much better the mood is there than here in East Germany.” He added: “I think the reason is that the Czechs designed their new system themselves and feel personally responsible for both its failures and successes. Here, in the east of Germany, it's different. Everything was imposed from Bonn.” The New York Times commented on his views under the title of “How Germany Grew Apart.” All of this in spite of the fact that West Germany is spending some 100 billion dollars to get rid of Communism' s legacy.

Perhaps those people are right who believe that a nation's economic fortunes depend less on policies, technology, natural resources or foreign pressures, than on a single thing: its history and culture. Just like the remnants of Confucianism predetermine the economy of Japan, Korea, and increasingly that of China, Czech experience over the ages may explain that the Czech Republic was in recent years the home of the Velvet revolution, Velvet marketization, Velvet retribution, and even a remarkably Velvet separation from Slovakia.

Contrasting the history and culture of Russia, sitting athwart the steppes of Eastern Europe and Asia, with the Czechs, the most Western of the Slavs, one cannot help but conclude that what worked in the latter, will miserably fail in the former. It has been my contention since Gorbachev that in the end Russia will be neither capitalistic nor democratic. Gorbachev was, and Yeltzin is, only a transitory figure, and in the end Russia will be some kind of dictatorship, whether the autocrat will be a military figure or a nationalist demagogue. By the same token, it is only a question of time before we shall see the emergency of a new kind of Russian imperialism. Already, we see signs of it in increasing pressure towards countries of “the near abroad,” military intervention in some of these former parts of the Russian empire, and opposition to the West in such places as Bosnia, Iraq and elsewhere. No wonder East Europeans are getting scared, especially the Poles, and would like to join NATO, which they will not. More later.

Russian history is fundamentally different from that of Western Europe. Its religious capital was Constantinople, not Rome. It never knew Roman law. It did not experience the Renaissance, the Reformation; the Enlightenment touched it only lightly. Its periods of liberal government were short-lived failures. Land was for centuries held collectively by villages through an institution known as “mir”. Since the 19th century Russian intellectuals, both conservatives and radicals were split between so-called Westerners and Slavophiles.

The latter believed that Russian culture is superior to anything Western Europe can offer, that Orthodoxy is widely superior to other religions, and that Russia “will be the third Rome.” Except for a brief period after the first revolution in 1905, Russia was an autocracy, never a democracy. The Russians were determined to avoid capitalism, which was always regarded as alien to Russian culture and tradition, a view shared by Westerners and Slavophiles, pacifists and bureaucrats, and certainly by Marxists and other revolutionaries. This is probably the main reason for the ultimate failure of perestroika.

I am amused by some Americans who, from time to time, see signs of reforms taking root. Some, like Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard, were for a time paid advisers to and propagandists for Russian governments. Others are American corporations and investment groups only too eager to exploit the natural resources and presumably unlimited markets in the Russian federation. I think they will regret these rosy expectations. Most Russians view foreign investments as only slightly less obnoxious than direct invasion.

The latest chapter in optimistic forecasts of the success of Russian economic' reform, followed by rapid disappointment, was evident in October of 1994, with the sudden collapse of the ruble. It lost some 27% of its value in a single day. One paper described it as “The Ruble in the Rubble.” It is clear that the ruble's slide can only accelerate, and that it will ultimately have to be replaced by another currency, which may in turn suffer the same fate, as we have seen frequently in South America. Without a reasonably stable currency, there is no such thing as a successful reform. The collapse of the German mark in the early 1920's and its role in the advent of Nazism should serve as a warning.

Much is made about the presumed progress of economic reform in Russia. Some of it is true. Streets in the major cities are full of kiosks selling just about everything; Russians (and even more Armenians and other non-Russians) travel in droves to China, or Turkey, or India in search of goods they can resell at a profit, but this is a far cry from what we call capitalism. The Russians have a word (or rather two) for it. They call it “kupil-prodal” (bought-sold). There is none of the investment mentality, especially long-term commitment, characteristic of industrial capitalism. No wonder industrial production is still declining, except for government-run industries still dependent on grants from the public treasury .As a result inflation is again accelerating and the ruble continues in its slump.

Just as democracy -- where it has a chance -- appears in a variety of guises and disguises, capitalism too appears in various configurations, each shaped by local culture. American capitalism is a very different animal compared to the Social Market Economy of Germany, the state-controlled capitalism of Japan, the Communist capitalism of China, the military-­dominated capitalism of many developing countries or the primitive capitalism of many parts of Africa. If it really comes to Russia, its form will be very Russian. It will entail a substantial element of state control. It will strictly limit foreign investment and entry into the Russian market and investment will converge in strategic areas. It will certainly not be what GATT would call free trade.

Now, I wish to consider the final element in the Russian, and indeed the whole East-Central European problem, namely its geopolitical aspects. The map of Europe is far from settled. One focus of change and conflict continues in the Balkans .The Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian war will most likely continue for years and may bring in additional combatants, possibly Macedonians, Albanians, Greeks, and even Bulgarians, and just possibly Turks. It sounds like a replay of events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The other and much larger area of unsettlement will be the former Soviet empire. None of the present national states have firm borders or even an assured existence, apart from the Russian federation, and that too could split before being put together again. Some of the looming major conflicts will involve Ukraine, now the second largest state in Europe, with a population comparable to France or Great Britain and an area not much smaller than that of Germany. There are a couple of likely scenarios including a Russian conquest of Ukraine, probably starting with the re-occupation of Crimea, or alternatively a split between the real Ukraine in the West and a predominantly Russian Eastern Ukraine. Former Soviet states in Central Asia are all barely viable, with the possible exception of Kazakstan, rich in oil and gas, but poor in people. The ultimate test may be whether the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania can continue their independence in spite of Russian pressure -- most likely only with guaranteed support from Western Europe.

Ultimately, peace in Europe will again largely depend on Germany and Russia, with the United States a less important factor. It is too early to speculate as to what kind of Germany will exist in the year 2020. It is possible, but just barely, that the European Union will grow into a Federated Europe with a single currency, a common foreign policy, and a common defense posture, as planned by the Maastricht Treaty. But I feel this is increasingly unlikely, and certainly not possible before the year 2000. However, assuming it is going to come about, it will be a Europe with Germany as its flagship. This is indeed foreshadowed by selecting Frankfurt as the seat of the new Currency Authority, forerunner of a European Central Bank.

The Germany of 2020 may not be the Germany we now know, a brave and well-behaved country as it emerged from Hitler's defeat and from Kohl's unification. As we now know it, it is still recovering from the trauma of a lost war and from the aftershocks of trying to put together two pieces into a single whole. By 2020, and probably much earlier, the two grafts, West and East, will have grown together, and the world will again face a single Germany, with a generation unscathed by defeat and occupation. It is anybody's guess whether it will again, as in the 19th and 20th centuries, be one of an assertive and expansive nationalism. I may lay bare some of my subliminal Czech suspicions when I admit to a suspicion that Germany may again become an unpleasant neighbor.

In that case, and perhaps long before that, the Federation of Europe will have become another pleasant illusion and an impossible dream. I freely admit that it does not seem too threatening now. The German elections of October 1994 have again shown that the radical right is shrinking rather than growing, that German center parties are solidly on track, and that German democracy is in an incomparably stronger position that the Weimar Republic ever hoped to become. So let us hope that my suspicions are incorrect. I cannot however conceal my recurrent doubts. There is an unmistakable trend toward a more nationalistic right in most European countries, as in most other areas of the world. The extreme right is already showing its muscle in France. It certainly is a strong undercurrent in Britain. Italy's new coalition already includes a neo-fascist party, harboring a descendent of Mussolini. It is gaining strength in Belgium, and it is fed by strong sentiment against immigrants just about everywhere, including the United States. So my suspicions about another version of German “Drang nach Osten” may not be so irrational.

Coming back now to the Czech Republic, there is a general realization, although not one that is too publicly raised, that relations with Germany will play a crucial role in its future. No doubt the Czechs would like to have another lifeline. They have always looked for another friend or ally elsewhere. When I was a boy it was Czarist Russia, as illustrated by my wife's first name, Nadezda. During my career as a student diplomat, and beyond, it was France and England. Everybody knows how that romance ended. Then, again for some Czechs, it was the Soviet Union, at least for some time. That ended radically in 1968. Now, for some, it is the European Union and hopefully the United States. Prague, at this time, happens to be home to some 20,000 Americans, playing somewhat the same role that Paris played after 1918. But already there is a good deal of disenchantment with the refusal of the West to facilitate the export of Czech-made goods to their countries. And, being aware, as I am, of the revival of isolationist sentiment in America, it is my guess that when the Czechs again face pressure from Germany, they will again face it naked and alone.

There are of course other possible scenarios. The only one I cannot believe is peace and a prosperous market economy all over Eastern Europe. Developments in the former Soviet Union would seem to preclude it. Most likely the next drama will take place among Russia and the “near abroad,” although it may be preceded by a collapse of the political system of the Russian federation. It may well be heralded by a collapse of the ruble, or by a defeat of Yeltsin, or by any number of developments. All of them are more likely than a steady, if slow, progress of Russia towards democracy and capitalism. The next Russian revolution may be as disastrous as Lenin's, and perhaps less hopeful.

Another geopolitical scenario might mention the possibility of the Balkan illness spreading into Central Europe. The border between Central Europe and the Balkans represented for many centuries the equivalent of the Iron Curtain and fluctuated all the way between the Mediterranean and Vienna. The war in Bosnia is but the last chapter of the Cold (but mostly Hot) War between the Ottoman Empire and the Empire of the Habsburgs, which included the Czechs and the Hungarians after 1526. Now there is a definite danger of a new conflict between newly independent Slovakia and Hungary, fueled by a 20% Hungarian minority in Slovakia. There also are incipient conflicts between Slovenia and Italy, to name only a few. It may be quite some time, if ever, before Central Europe will finally settle down.


The books listed below provide additional background on this period of history to help illustrate this portion of my grandfather's memoirs.


The Czech Republic and Economic Transition in Eastern Europe; Jan Svejnar (Editor)


America's New Allies: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in NATO; Andrew A. Michta (Editor)


Democratic Consolidation in Eastern Europe: The Influence of the Communist Legacy in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania (East European monographs); Wendy Hollis

Other books from that are related to politics in Central Europe include:


Click here for the final postscript chapter

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