Written by Terje B. Englund
Republished with permission
Generalizations are always dangerous, and especially when speaking about an entire nation, so let´s put it a bit cautiously: even though Bohemia and Moravia have a 700-year long history as a multicultural society, there are plenty of other countries where a foreigner probably will feel more welcomed than Czech Republic.
This, unfortunately, seems to go double if the foreigner´s complexion is darker than what´s common in Central Europe – or at least it did in the 1990s, when not only Czech Roma, but also numerous black and coloured foreigners were physically attacked just because of the colour of their skin. Except for the intolerable demonstrations of violent racism (which is on the retreat, thanks to firmer reactions from the police), it´s not totally impossible to understand why many Czechs are a bit sceptical towards foreigners.
Just take a short look at their history: the Battle of White Mountain, in 1620, where a coalition of (Catholic) foreigners beat the Czech army into its boots, led to 300 years of Austrian rule. In 1938, Czechoslovakia was – after only 20 years as an independent state – sacrificed to the Nazi wolves (see: Munich Agreement) and then submitted to six years of German occupation that cost more than 120,000 Czechs (78,000 of whom were of Jewish origin) their lives. And finally, in 40 years of communism, the Czechs were in reality governed by dictators based in Moscow. Such traumatic experiences would have marked any nation.
In the Czech instance, it has resulted in what some people regard as a rather inward-looking mentality. Which is quite logical. Every culture can be seen as a defence system; the more you try to change it, the more defensive it becomes. This has not made the Czechs overt nationalists in the ludicrous Scandinavian way (“We are simply the best!”) or in the militant
Balkan manner. Instead, the Czechs have, as the Danish communication expert Claus Munck Birch points out, “learned to live with this pressure without really being influenced by it”. Thus, on the surface, many Czechs will accept things imposed on them by their foreign master, but eventually, they´ll do whatever suits them (see: Švejk, The Good Soldier). In the Czechs´ relations to the approximately 250,000 foreigners officially registered (at least another 250,000 are living here illegally), this has found expression in a somewhat duplicitous attitude.
On the surface, most Czechs are polite and often even obliging towards foreigners. Yet their inner feelings, it seems, often tell them to be cautious and regard them as intruders, just as those scumbags who came in 1620 and 1938 and 1968. As a result, it may be hard to get to know them on a more personal level – especially if the foreigner lacks a command of the Czech language.
The fact that Czechs have to speak a foreign language (which many of them still don´t) and thus risk making fools of themselves seems to be very, very scary. This language problem, however, applies even more the other way around. Many foreigners have lived for years in this country without mastering more than a few phrases in Czech. Learning Czech (of course, nobody expects you to speak it fluently) is therefore a fundamental requirement for breaking the ice.
In addition to the historic traumas and the language troubles, there is a social barrier. To many Czechs, only two types of foreigners exist: either those from a Third World country who have come to the Czech Republic to learn how to become a civilized human being, or ”businessmen and managers” from Western Europe or America, who have come to exploit the country´s economic wealth. While the members of the first group are tolerated as long as they express their admiration for Czech culture and, not least, leave the country as soon as they have been “civilized”, the Western foreigners are more enigmatic and troublesome.
According to the widespread cliché, Western businesspeople and managers (who were, in a survey in late 2003 elected the most detested professional group in the country, alongside members of the Czech nobility) behave like colonizers in some Third World country. The typical businessman – more seldom a businesswoman – lives in a luxury flat that ordinary Czechs only can dream of, or in Disney land-inspired villa-ghettos where most natives never set foot. The foreigners don´t drive Škodas or Zhiguliks, but rather fancy cars – which are even singled out by blue number plates. And, most importantly, they earn in a month what a Czech earns in half a year, which is not a great advantage in a nation obsessed by egalitarianism. But then, one might ask, hasn´t the freedom that followed after 1989 managed to curb xenophobic sentiments and stereotypical thinking?
In some aspects, the answer is definitely yes. Open borders and free access to information have done miracles to the atmosphere of musty provincialism that reigned under the communists (see: Ocean, Absence of). During the last decade, millions of Czechs have travelled abroad and acquired personal experiences from international surroundings. And even more importantly: by now, a new generation of young Czechs not traumatized by the Bolshevik regime´s cheap propaganda, have grown up.
Yet one unexpected setback has appeared. The separation of Czechoslovakia, in 1993, had an impact that is largely ignored. After centuries of multicultural co-habitation with Sudeten Germans (who were kicked out in 1945), Jews (who were, largely, killed during the war) and Slovaks (who now had their own state), the Czechs could finally say they were living in a more or less mono-ethnic state (typically, Czech Roma tend not to be counted).
In addition, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Czechs were finally masters of their own house. So why should they now greet foreigners with open arms? Well, for economic reasons, foreign investors had to be tolerated, but as late as in 2003, more than 50 percent of the Czech population, according to a survey, said that they regarded the inflow of foreigners as a negative phenomenon, especially so when it comes to people from Asia and the former Soviet Union. The survey suggested that two thirds of the Czech population would prefer to live in a closed society where they “could solve their problems themselves”.
Does this attitude explain why the “right-wing” government in the first half of the 1990s was so hesitant to sell state industry to foreign investors, as the Hungarians had done, but instead launched an unsuccessful voucher privatisation program for the country´s citizens? Or was it rather an expression of the golden hands formula – the notion that the Czechs have a God-given talent for creative improvisation (see: Cimrman, Jára)?
In any case, the xenophobic revival in the 1990s has by now, to all appearances, passed its peak. Besides that, the Czechs have, during their turbulent history, demonstrated an amazing capability to adapt to new regimes, so there´s no reason to paint the devil on the wall. The historian Dušan Třeštík probably hit the nail on the head when he stated that the Czechs have already become completely normal Europeans. “The only problem is that they´re not yet aware of it.”