Ethnic Poles and Hungarians - the gradually disappearing minority nations

For the last fifteen years the association Koexistencia has been promoting the rights of Polish and Hungarian minorities in the Czech Republic. In this week's Talking Point, we look at how these two national minorities, amounting to tens of thousands of people are faring in the Czech Republic today.

"One thing that I must point out is that this is our homeland. We thank the media for reports supporting the cause of minorities but object to the common notion that we and the groups of refugees or immigrants who come here to look for work are one and the same minority group. Even if we have the same ethnic background, we are different because we have longstanding ties with this country, are citizens, and are bound by the same rights and obligations as any other Czech citizen."

Laszlo Koscis is one of an estimated 15,000 ethnic Hungarians who live in the Czech Republic and see it as their homeland. The Hungarian community moved here when the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their number decreased dramatically after WWII when the so-called Benes decrees sanctioned their expulsion in reaction to Hungary's cooperation with the Nazis during the war. Their number fell further to an estimated 20,000 after Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

Another national minority from a nearby country are the Poles.

"The area around Tesin, in northern Moravia and Silesia, was given to Czechoslovakia in 1918 when it gained independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At that time around 300,000 people of Polish ethnicity lived here. But soon the Czechoslovak state began an assimilation process by bringing in Czechs from the inland area and that's how the ethnic Poles became a minority."

...says the Czech Republic's former human rights commissioner, Petr Uhl.

A 2001 national census showed a clear drop in the number of people who declared their Polish ethnicity. Over 50,000 members of the Polish minority, for example, claimed Czech nationality. The days when there was a Polish school in every village and a choice of a number of specialisations in Polish secondary schools are long gone. Today, children of ethnic Poles and Hungarians speak better Czech than their native language and the number of mixed marriages too is on the rise. The older generation of ethnic Poles and Hungarians therefore fear that their language, schools, and their minority too will soon be non-existent.

Laszlo Koscis believes it would help if Poles and Hungarians had more representatives in local government:

"We would like to see members of the minority nations represented in the local administration and possibly even in Parliament. This is extremely difficult for us Hungarians. The Poles have been a little better off - there are even a few Polish mayors. But the election law that sets down a 5 percent threshold for parties to get into parliament makes it hard for us to achieve our goal. With the way things have developed, there really isn't much that we are asking for. However, one painful fact is that the Benes decrees, which sanctioned the post war expulsions, have not been revoked. They are based on the principle of collective guilt and this principle is observed to this day."

Czech law gives minority nations like the Poles and Hungarians the right to radio and TV broadcasts in their languages. They are also allowed to set up schools and to use their language when they deal with local authorities. But in practice it does not really work, says Petr Uhl:

"I will give you one example how the Poles in the Tesin area are governed by senseless and bureaucratic regulations. They can only have signs put up in Polish if 40 percent of the ethnic Poles sign a petition and if the result of the latest census shows that 20 percent of the inhabitants of the region in question are ethnic Poles. This is difficult to achieve because many of them said they had Czech nationality in the census."

To former human rights commissioner Petr Uhl, the country may have a law that guards the rights of minorities but has yet to find a way to teach people to accept them.

"Minorities are only tolerated here if people assimilate. If you look at schools there is very little about different ethnicities. The history books are all about how the Czechs tried to fight German control. All that school children learn about the Second World War is that the Nazis tried to wipe out the Jewish people but very little is taught about the Jews and their culture. So, the entire educational system needs to be changed. As long as we do not have text books that give the big picture - not just Czech but also Hungarian and Slovak and Polish standpoints, we will live in isolation."

This is not a happy state of affairs for an EU member, Petr Uhl adds. Could the gradual disappearance of various ethnicities be a cultural loss for the Czech nation?

"We Czechs first got rid of the Germans by expelling them after the Second World War. Before that we watched the Nazis - but also some Czechs - participate in genocide of the Roma and Jewish communities. Then we got rid of the Slovaks. So now we lack that variety of ethnicities and I think it's a shame. It's a pity that Czechs do not mix with others and learn from them too. The Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian cultures have always enriched the Czech culture. Now, with the minority nations assimilated and gradually disappearing, it is a tragic cultural loss."