Neo-Nazis will march through Plzeň

Photo: Štěpánka Budková

A radical far-right group wants to march through Plzeň on Saturday to protest against alleged restrictions on freedom of speech in the Czech Republic. Two months after thousands of ordinary people took to the streets to block a similar march through Prague’s Jewish Quarter, the organizers of the Plzen march are calling on their supporters to turn up armed this time round.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
A radical far-right group with neo-Nazi ties known as Národní odpor, or National Resistance, feels that freedom of speech is being restricted in the Czech Republic. In November, the Prague authorities together with several thousand people prevented them from expressing their disapproval of Czech participation in the occupation of Iraq which they were planning to voice in Prague’s Jewish Quarter on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a large Nazi anti-Jewish pogrom in 1938. This time, the radicals want to march past the Great Synagogue in Plzeň, on the anniversary of the first transports of local Jews to Nazi extermination camps in 1942. I asked Tomáš Kraus, the secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic if the Plzeň Jewish community was ready for the march.

“The [Jewish] community of Plzeň is prepared for such a provocation. We also hope that other authorities in the city are prepared for the event because this is something new, something they have never had to face before. Of course it needs coordinated action on several levels, starting with the municipality of Plzeň.”

The local Jewish community plans to hold a rally outside the Great Synagogue at the time of the march. According to the community leader Eva Štixová, they will not attempt to block the neo-Nazi march. Neither it seems will the police. Jana Václavová is the spokeswoman for the Plzeň police headquarters.

“Our main task will be to make sure that the event is peaceful, to protect public safety and property. Several hundred police officers will be out in the streets to make sure that public order is maintained. Members of a riot police squad will also participate in the event, communicating with the protesters to prevent any aggressive behaviour on their side and any potential conflicts. We have also asked our colleagues from neighbouring states for cooperation, especially from Bavaria and Saxony.”

The march in Plzeň is the second recent public manifestation of neo-Nazi sentiment with blatant anti-Semitic undertones. Does this mean that extremists are launching a new, more open strategy and trying to draw new supporters from within the Czech society? That was my question for political scientist Miroslav Mareš from Masaryk University in Brno, an expert on Czech extremist movements.

“I think this is another attempt to present the neo-Nazi movement in public, and a new attempt to test the limits of Czech law as regards the possibilities and opportunities for the neo-Nazi movement. It is aimed at unsatisfied young people in small towns and villages. They want to show that something like a protest neo-Nazi movement exists.”

Plzeň City Hall has been criticized by various NGOs, including the newly founded League Against Anti-Semitism, for allowing the radicals to go ahead with the march. But the authorities claim that with all legal requirements met, they had no legal ground for banning the march. The situation resembles the legal battle led by Prague City Hall which only succeeded in banning the November event in the capital’s Jewish Quarter after several failed attempts. Tomáš Kraus of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic says they will push for a change of the law so that similar events would be easier to ban in the future.

“These events are creating some kind of force which brings the various, scattered initiatives onto a common platform. We are now hoping that this platform will be able to come up with some legislative proposals that would improve these existing laws.”