A foreign influence
In this special programme on Czech Independence Day I am joined by noted historian Jan Rychlík, and we will also be hearing from Jan Hartl of the STEM polling agency. We will examine the influence of foreigners and minority groups in the Czech lands throughout history and try to gain a greater understanding of contemporary Czech attitudes in this regard.
“The Czechs are western Slavs. It means they are part of the Slavonic tribes who migrated to Central Europe. We don’t exactly know when, but there were several waves in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Of course, they didn’t come to an empty space. There were Teutonic tribes here. We don’t know exactly what happened to them. We can expect that they were partly assimilated, partly expelled, and partly exterminated – which means killed; that was normal in those days, and we cannot, of course, apply 21st century standards to the early Middle Ages.
“And then from the 13th century, and also later in the 16th and 17th centuries, a new migration took place coming from the neighbouring German states – Saxony and Bavaria – these people colonised the borderlands. And also in the hinterland, in the big cities, royal cities usually, were the burghers who were of German origin. But in the Middle Ages, of course, people didn’t care about their ethnic origin. Much more important was their estate affiliation and religious affiliation.
“So up to the 19th century, generally we can say that there were no conflicts between these groups. Only when modern nationalism arrived, at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, did the conflicts between Czechs and Germans start. Because both were now not affiliated to the land, but to their language and ethnic origin. We can say that up to the 20th century, they were living side-by-side. Not together, but rather separately – of course there were mutual influences. Also, there was a considerable Jewish minority here, because the Jews had a special status; they were considered to be the subjects of the royal chamber, which meant that on the one hand they were protected by the state...”
And most Czech Jews spoke German, right?
“Yes. Mainly from the 18th century onwards. But in the second half of the 19th century, there was also a considerable group of the so-called ‘Čechožidé’, or Czech Jews, who spoke Czech. We have several famous Czech writers who were of Jewish origin. And we do not consider them to be ‘Jewish writers’, but ‘Czech writers’, like Karel Poláček or František Langer. But, despite this, I don’t think we can say that the Czech lands would be multicultural in the present sense of how we understand it. Because these communities had contact, but as I said, they lived separately. And, of course, after the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans after the Second World War, and because of the extermination of the Jews during the Nazi occupation, today, we can say that the state is relatively homogeneous.”
“We have to take into account the simple fact that Czechoslovakia and now the Czech Republic used to be a multi-ethnic, multinational country. Even centuries ago it was a crossroads of various cultures.”
European cultures. White, European, Christian cultures?
“Yes, but it was normal to meet different kinds of citizens. One third of the population were Germans before the war. The Jewish minority overwhelmingly spoke German in this country. And since we expelled the German minority out of the country, we are a very rare example of an ethnically homogeneous country. So people are not used to diversity. Another point to note is that during the communist decades, we were more or less closed-off here as in a prison. People could not move, could not travel. Whenever you met a foreigner you were suspected of dealing with a potential enemy. People did not know foreign languages.”
So, Professor Rychlík, the Czechs were physically surrounded by a belt of Germans. And then in the early 1930s, people like Konrad Henlein – the Sudeten German Nazi separatist leader – started issuing grievances against the Czechs: we are not being treated fairly; you Czechs are oppressing us. Obviously every such grievance would have a degree of truth to it, but were the Czechs acting in a superior way towards their German minority?
“To a certain degree yes. But I wouldn’t say that this was a central reason. Simply, from the point of view of the Germans, it was natural that when Czechoslovakia came into being, they said: ‘why should we live in a country dominated by the Czechs, when we have the right to our own state, or self-determination? So we, as Germans, would like to be part of Germany.’ And this wasn’t just the case with Nazi Germans. Even the Social Democrats said: ‘of course we oppose Hitler, but the sole fact that we Sudeten Germans should live together with our kinsmen in Germany is something we don’t have any objections to.’ So I don’t think that the situation would change much if the Czechoslovak government gave more concessions to the Germans. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a harsh situation, but during the circumstances of 1938, when this minority had the support of the German Reich, which Czechoslovakia as a small country couldn’t oppose, the result would have been the same.
“But, after the War, despite all those problems, they remained in Czechoslovakia because the big powers did not agree to their forcible transfer to Hungary. And today the situation may not be ideal, but this group are more or less loyal citizens of the Slovak Republic. There was a chance after the War with the new situation that the German minority would accept the state. But in the 1930s, such an option was not very likely.”
You have the Czech people who were surrounded by a larger country. And this larger country turned on them. If to that we also add the fact that the Czechs were never a colonial power, and never had foreign colonies. So those two things – have they affected the Czech psyche to a degree where they view foreign people with greater suspicion, as potential enemies?
“I think that the main problem really is what Mr. Hartl said: that the country was more or less closed – relatively closed, of course this does not mean there was a Chinese Wall; that there were no foreigners or foreign tourists – but we were separated from the rest of Europe and the average citizen very rarely faced a foreigner, except a tourist, who was usually wealthy and just here for a short time; or foreign students, for instance. But there are no communities of ethnically foreign people here. And especially not communities who would be culturally totally different.
“And the second thing is that for the Czechs, most of them are afraid of Islam. This is an atheist country. This the most atheist country, if not in the world, then certainly in all of Europe. More than half of the population openly says there is not God. And they are afraid of people who believe that there is Allah, and that after death if you die in the struggle or the fight you will go to heaven. And this is the threat of something unknown I would call it.”
And it is getting stronger, right? This is something I asked Jan Hartl – how Czech perceptions have changed over recent years. Surprisingly he said that in the last fifteen years it has actually gotten worse:
“It is quite a dramatic shift. There were times 15 years ago, when support for adopting the euro was 51-52 percent. Now it is somewhere around 20 percent. So this means that during the period of our being members of the EU, the Czechs consider this body to be less and less important, and less and less acceptable.”
Is that not due to the recent world economic crisis? That countries withdrew into themselves?
“Sure. It is a result of the response to the economic crisis. But the same applies to what we said about the refugees. That realising that the situation is much more complicated, that the EU would not be a simple funnel through which more money is simply channelled into the country; that there are many problems, including refugees, which the EU itself is not able to cope with at the present time – you realise that there is a diversity of opinions inside the EU; that their ability to undertake a strong response and effective action is relatively limited – in such a situation, you are in a difficult position. And at the same time local politicians blame the EU for many problems in our country – which is actually not the result of the EU, but the result of their own activities – but it is very easy to do this. So they are trying to deflect the attention of the people towards the outside world: towards foreigners; towards the EU; towards refugees; and they want to capitalise on that and get more support in local elections.”
So, Professor Rychlík, how would you sum up Czech attitudes towards foreigners?
“The attitude to foreigners is different depending on the type of foreigner. Czechs generally have nothing against the Ukrainians, for example. We have many Ukrainian guest workers, they speak a similar language, they don’t overtly manifest their Orthodox religion, and there are no problems with them. What people are afraid of is people who are, as I said, culturally different because there has never been anything like that here before.
So the refugee problem is increasing xenophobia. People are becoming more afraid.
“Definitely. And many people have lost the confidence towards the west, and especially the EU and United States. Rather, they are saying: ‘who needs democracy in Syria or Afghanistan? We don’t need democracy or human rights in these countries, we need order. And those dictators who were there before were much better because they kept those people living there, while this is a mess that Europe, and in particular the small Czech Republic cannot cope with.’ In particular, the decision of the EU to redistribute all of those refugees had a very bad impact – not only on the populations but also on the policies of all the political parties from the left to the right. Because they are saying: ‘what can we do with these people? They will not stay here anyway, and we have no way how to keep them here, and this will just cause more problems.’
“And as I said, the average citizen is afraid that this may bring Islam, fundamentalism, Sharia...”
During the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the communist government brought over a large number of refugees from Vietnam. How did Czechs react to that? That must have been an experience of completely alien faces ‘living among us’. Did this cause any problems in those days?
“What I remember is that in the early 1970s there were many Vietnamese students and some Vietnamese who were sent to factories to become skilled workers and then return back. And most of those who studied here, after the fall of communism remained here. And I must say that the local population has no problems with them. They usually own these small shops selling food and vegetables 24/7. But I think that this is because they have been here now for 30 or 40 years and the people are accustomed to them. They connect them with a certain place in the society. So yes, they are culturally definitely different, but still behaving in a way that the local society considers to be acceptable.”
I asked Jan Hartl the very same question about the Czech Vietnamese community and this was his response:
“The major problem with the Czech population is when you have a minority which is seen as being unwilling to adopt to the cultural standards of the society.”
This is what Czechs are afraid of...
“Yes, meaning Roma. The Roma issue. This is very difficult to solve because it is not an ethnic or language problem, but it is more less a social issue, and the issue is of misusing the system of social benefits. And now with the present influx of refugees, the major problem is not the fact that the people are different, but the main threat people feel is from Islam.”
It’s not just more ‘brown people’ who look like Roma?
“No. That is not a serious problem. The serious problem, to Czech people, is that the refugees will bring about a greater influence of Islam in the country, and it is perceived as a clear evil by a majority of people.”
Professor Rychlík, not long ago, I did an interview in a Prague kebab shop with the proprietor, an Algerian man. And he told me that he had never experienced any prejudice or racism from Czechs. So perhaps this perception that Czechs are xenophobic and racist is just one side of the coin, but there is clearly another side, whereby people are tolerant and accepting. You mentioned the ‘hard working’ Vietnamese community – surely Muslim communities are not known for being spongers?
“Well, of course. I know many people selling kebabs or Halal meat and food. The problem is that these people are accustomed to local customs. Here, simply it is out of the question that a Muslim worker in a factory would say: ‘I am a Muslim and I must take time out from work to pray five times daily. Such a person would be fired immediately. Because the owner would simply say: ‘here, you obey my rules, and not your rules.’ If you do it privately at home, and if you try to be familiar with the local customs, then there are no problems, but the number of these people here now is very small. But if we have thousands and thousands of them, then probably it will be different. Because not everyone can come here and sell kebabs in the shops.”
“First of all, the Roma who were here – the so-called old Roma – were totally exterminated in the Second World War. Only about 800-1,000 of these people survived. The Roma who are here now are the second, third, or maybe already fourth generation of Slovak Roma, who came after the War. Because in Slovakia – which was not occupied by the Nazis, but was instead a puppet state – the Roma were not exterminated.
“And I think that it is a social problem that certainly will not be solved in this generation. Because there is something of a vicious circle at play, a deadlock: they are uneducated, which means no jobs are open to them; because they have no jobs, again their children are also uneducated, and families live on social benefits because they are unable to get a job. And there is no way out. And if somebody obtains an education – and there are such people; I know people from these strata – they try to distance themselves from their own Roma communities. So I think that the system regarding Roma cannot change until they develop their own intelligentsia, which is conscious and strong enough to say: ‘you are Roma, and must be proud of it, but it also means that you will not steal, you will not live on unemployment benefits, you will send your kids to school. If not, we will not protect you’.”
Is there not a slightly paternalistic, condescending attitude from the white population towards the Roma? Waving their fingers at them? As in: ‘you need to learn something!’?
“Certainly. I do not hide that there is a lot of prejudice against Roma people. And even if there is a job, and they are skilled, then very often they will not obtain it because they are Roma. And they cannot do anything about it because it cannot be proven. The employer will just tell the Roma applicant that the job has already been occupied; five minutes before they came someone else got the job and sorry. They cannot rent apartments because the owner of the house says ‘I do not want any Roma here because if I have Roma here I cannot rent another apartment, and the whole house loses value. And if I have Roma here then I cannot sell it because no-one will buy it.’ So they end up living in ghettos, separated from the rest of the people, and very often in these ghettos there are no jobs, except very unqualified work. Or they are involved in various criminal activities like trafficking drugs.”
And after the expulsion of the Germans from the Sudetenland, those emptied border areas were sometimes re-populated via the communists sending Roma there...
Let me ask you a final question about simple compassion. Visiting Germany recently, in the city of Dresden, I noticed there were big signs draped on certain flats saying ‘refugees welcome’; someone had created a booth in the centre of the city to help any potential arriving refugees. You might call it an extreme outpouring of compassion, but at least it exists. Some other Germans, naturally, might be saying ‘stop’ and a debate may be underway about this going too far – but nonetheless, there was this outpouring of compassion. Whereas in the Czech Republic, the reaction has, one might say to an overwhelming degree been marked by cynicism, and fear and so on. Sometimes you hear certain Czechs saying, in reaction to this, that they are ashamed to be Czech...
“You know, I’m one of those – maybe you heard about it – we scientists signed a petition or memorandum against xenophobia. That was in August this year.”
In reaction to?
“In reaction to the increasing xenophobia of some. and also as a reaction to some politicians, who said that the Czech Republic should simply [close its borders]... Because we are afraid that many political parties, both on the left and right, are trying to use this problem to gain popularity. But, yes, sometimes, one is ashamed for what is happening here. Especially over the fact that people who have crossed the border illegally were sent to detention camps for forty days. Despite the fact that they didn’t commit any crime. Illegal border crossing is not a crime. It was a crime under the communist regime. But this paragraph was crossed out of the penal code in December 1989.