Ideas sought to spark regeneration of scarred Czech border areas

Výškovice, photo: Anne Lungová

Much of the border areas of the Czech Republic still bear the scars of the expulsion of some of the estimated three million ethnic Germans at the end of the Second World War. Many of the towns and villages were only partially repopulated, often with people who lacked the basic skills of the people they replaced. The result has often been the slow death or disappearance of communities altogether or their continued existence in conditions which lag behind the rest of the country. A project to try and put some of these areas on a new path has now been launched.

Výškovice,  photo: Anne Lungová
Výškovice is not a place for the casual visitor. High above the rolling Český Les not far from Mariánské Lázně and the town of Chodova Plana, the village was officially declared dead in the 1970’s. All the remains there now is one occupied building, a partially restored chapel, and some invasive giant hogweed making progress into the valley below. The mainly German population of around 150 was exiled at the end of World War II and hundreds of years of history withered away. There are a few walls and foundations where the former village used to be. Výškovice is far from a local exception.

A few kilometers away is another disused village, Vysočany. Attempts were made to resettle it with Czechs and, mainly Slovaks, after the war but those attempts ended in a catastrophic drought in 1947. The disused village of Carlton lies a few kilometers beyond the nearby former silver mining town of Michalovy Hory.

In fact, hundreds of disused and seemingly half alive villages scar what was the historic Sudetenland. Some houses were deliberately pulled down because after the war it was feared the Germans would be back. Some villages were used for target practice by the army. In many cases the deterioration was slow but relentless. Forests have grown where there were agricultural fields, fish ponds have disappeared, and the many mills and saw mills that used to dot the valleys have all but vanished.

People were brought in but decades later don’t appear to have put down real roots or developed the skills to make the localities a success. Many of the border areas suffer higher unemployment and lower wages and education levels than the Czech average. There is also the broader issue of rural depopulation.

Výškovice is now though the focus for some unexpected attention. An international competition or call for proposals has been launched which aims to encourage imaginative ideas for projects which could encourage visitors to the site and perhaps kick start a much needed regeneration against the backdrop of relative decline and central government indifference for most of the last 70 years. The move forms part of city of Plzeň’s 2015 European City of Culture projects, the locality being one of the furthest flung outposts of the region with backing from the local council in Chodova Plana and a group of local citizens.

Výškovice,  photo: Anne Lungová
Landscape architect Klára Salzmann is one of the project leaders and her husband, Jan, a semi-official spokesman for the project. He takes up the story and explains why the unlikely site of Výškovice was selected in the first place: “Maybe a reason why they selected Výškovice is first of all linguistic or maybe nationalistic since the name Wischkowitz in German did not move that much to the Czech Výškovice. It sounds almost the same, only the spelling differs. Maybe that symbolizes the fact that Czechs and Germans used to live there for generations, for hundreds of years very much in quiet and peace until the time of World War II and after when all the troubles started. By the name itself you can see the passing of power and the times which resulted in today’s state of affairs. Again, there is not too much left of the original Wischkowitz. There is only one standing house now and a little chapel which is almost ruined and it is just the memory of Wischkowitz which remains.

“The reason why my wife got involved is because as a landcape architect she had a project in the vicinity and she kind of found Výškovice only by chance. For a long time she has had the idea of putting a plan together what to do with the area and what would be the best approach how to do it the right way so that there will be some kind of rebuilding and renewal of the whole place. And I suppose Výškovice suited her because of the name being similar in German and Czech, because there is only one house left which means all the past is gone and all the future very much in question and there is Goethe’s stone, a small monument where Goethe used to hide his mistress or something like that, I am not exactly sure what happened there but there is a Goethe monument and somehow it feels right because it is a beautiful landscape and because she is a landscape architect.”

Výškovice,  photo: Anne Lungová
Jan Salzman prefers to talk about the ongoing project as a call for ideas rather than a competition. Ideas have come in from Romania, Germany, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Five of the favorite projects will be showcased at an exhibition in Chodova Plana in late July. Mr. Salzmann again: “It is quite a spectrum of proposals but they all have one thing in common really. They don’t just work with physical substances. They try to put together something like a skeleton of activities which will be feasible to establish in the place and by their interaction create enough interest internationally to get something done there.”

One of the ideas already has grabbed Mr. Salzmann’s attention, though a winner will only be selected later in September with construction of the project set for 2015. “There is one of them which I kind of like, it is a Czech project which calls for the just a self standing framework or façade to be built on the site where there were once houses. It will be transparent so you can see through to the centre where there will be a meeting place with some benches and maybe a monument close to Goethe’s monument.

“So there would be only a framework village there would be no actual buildings which will give the illusion of a village which you may imagine yourself that, yes, here stood a house, here stood a theatre, her a city hall or something. And through that recollection of images you will get to that central focus point and let’s attract tourists here, mainly from Germany, of course, and let’s see what can be done, what kind of industries and activities can attract people to this place.”

One idea is that craft industries could be revived or that organic farming could be developed in an area where land costs are relatively low compared to the rest of the Czech Republic and nearby Germany. The hope is that the Výškovice experience would be the model for tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of similar projects which could transform a large part of the Czech Republic.

Salzmann concludes: “Future oriented thinking is something that can bring us results, which will bring tourists there and establish industry. I think that process already started, there are some industries, there are some tourist points, but it is very little. My wife would like to revive it on the model of this Výškovice project. She wants to have thousands of Výškovices throughout the Sudetenland, all over. Again, I am coming back to my original thesis that the government was evidently unable to do anything positive there. It still looks very much like if the war just ended”.