The Czech Republic and multiculturalism

The teenagers in this dialogue are involved in a basic discussion relating to multicultural coexistence. Pavla believes there are too many foreigners in the country, and the rest oppose her. Such debates can often slip into a never-ending battle of ideas/ideologies, which will not, however, help us to investigate the phenomenon in more detail. In order to reflect on this matter, we need to acquire a tool which will help us describe and get a grip on things. The following text will attempt to examine how people understand the term ‘multiculturalism’.

  • What is...?

Multiculturalism: This is a term which has many possible interpretations and connotations. For the requirements of the discussions associated with Czechkid, we shall use the term in its descriptive and normative senses. Descriptive multiculturalism describes a situation in which people from various cultural environments live in one territory. Normative multiculturalism offers us the opportunity of describing how the people in the territory in question feel about this fact.

Cultural change: Encounters between two different cultures are determined by the relationships of the members of both cultures to each other. People take certain cultural standards from each other which seem to be effective, and which sometimes must be complied with through coercion. Encounters between individuals of different cultures incites cultural change. When we speak of the dissolution of certain civilisations, in reality we are frequently only speaking of the dissolution of the main power roles of these civilisations. Their cultural inheritance frequently influenced the “newly arriving” culture for a very long time, in some cases to the present day.

Homogeneity / heterogeneity: Frequently, discussions turn on whether it is good or bad to create a homogenous or heterogeneous group (or culture). An example would be discussions as to whether special classes should be created for gifted pupils, or special classes for Roma children, etc. Is it good that members of various cultures live in one country? Without limits on immigration, could we ourselves become foreigners in our own country? Can we imagine the situation of those arriving in the CR from abroad? If as a country we openly accept incoming immigrants, are we genuinely able and prepared to play the role of host? Are they prepared to play the role of guest? Do we want them to move from being our guests to our fellow citizens? Under what circumstances? Do they want to become our fellow citizens, or do they want to return to their native country? If we do not answer the preceding questions, it will be difficult for us to get involved in the dialogue being conducted by our students referred to above in such a way that we derive a benefit from it, and not simply an endless argument. Someone once said: a certain degree of variety is necessary for survival.

  • Topic

Since time immemorial, the members of various cultures have encountered each other, taken words, customs, administrative systems, etc. from each other, affiliated, traded, and fought against each other. The Histories by Herodotus, the Travels of Marco Polo, and the Journey to the Empire of Kublai Khan by Brother Oldřich describe unknown civilisations to Europeans. We could describe the authors referred to as the predecessors of contemporary specialists concerned with the study of various cultures. They managed to examine other cultures from the position of open, perceptive observers. Their descriptions can make the cultures they describe seem exotic, romantic, unreal, just as today. We still know little of them, and we cannot explain their “strange”, “unexpected”, different behaviour. People who have toured various cultures, who have worked there, dealt with their members, who have been involved in intercultural marriages, feel in their bones how necessary it is to have a concrete knowledge of cultures. Over recent years, along with the progress of globalisation, there is a more and more pressing need to discuss the problematic topic of encounters between various cultures or civilisations.

In the following sections we shall be concerned with the Czech experience of multiculturalism, in both its descriptive and normative forms.

From the point of view of descriptive multiculturalism, the Czech Republic (and before that Czechoslovakia, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and the Czechoslovak Federal Republic) has enjoyed very interesting experiences. When Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, the territory was already very mixed. One of the possible reactions to this mixed character was the very creation of Czechoslovakia (as utilisation of the opportunity to reinforce the Slovak cultural entity) with a new, Czechoslovak nationality and Czechoslovak language. However, this Czech-Slovak federation led to tensions which culminated in the annexation of 1939 and the final separation in 1993.

A large problem right from the very creation of Czechoslovakia was the German minority, at that time numbering a good 3,000,000. As well as the German minority, other groups were to be found here, such as Russians, Hungarians, Jews, Poles, etc. First-Republic Czechoslovakia was constructed on the principle of a nation state. However, it is important to realise that this principle is not the only one possible. Smith (1991) distinguishes between so-called ethnic and national concepts of the state. The difference is simple and we could characterise it by a certain predetermination, since it mainly comprises the possibility of individuals to decide. In the ethnic model of the nation, the individual decides on their citizenship, whereas in the national model they acquire citizenship at birth. At present, we cannot find either of these variants in a pure form. However, we can find societies which have a greater tendency for one or the other variant (in Holland there is a tendency to perceive the nation in ethnic terms, whereas the Czech conception is more national). This distinction has one practical result, which is access to and also openness to individual societies.

But let’s return to the Czechoslovakia of the First Republic. The newly-created state was defined by the national principle, as, for instance, Prime Minister Kramář announced in Parliament in 1920 (Klimek, 2000; p 147): “We want this state to be ours, to be Czechoslovak, and we want every citizen of the Czechoslovak state, above all those who must live in a German environment, to feel they are citizens of a nation state.” In the first years of the new state, there was a great deal of tension between individual groups, which found themselves in a new state formation and had to define their relationships anew. This process was played out on both the level of words and in the open skirmishes in streets provoked by individual groups. For instance, in 1922 the Prague authorities published a decree stating that German and Romany songs were banned in Prague restaurants (Klimek, 2000).

The tension between individual groups of the population fell away at the close of the twenties, but was sharpened again by the world economic crisis, which led inexorably to the outbreak of World War II. However, from the point of view of our topic, what is interesting is that in the pre-war years Czechoslovakia was one of the last European countries willing to accept refugees – democratic Germans – fleeing from Hitler (Jesenská, 1997).

After the six-year madness of the war, the need arose again to resolve the question of the coexistence of individual groups. From a Czech point of view, it is interesting that the post-war organisation of our territory was decided as early as 1943, when President Beneš signed a contract with Molotov and Stalin. The Soviets promised support for the post-war expulsion of the Germans in exchange for political control of post-war Czechoslovakia. One of the results of this contract was the enthronement of Socialism in 1948.

After the war, there was a period of ethnic cleansing in our region. The expulsion of the Germans took place in two phases – a wild evacuation organised by bands of national guards, alternating with the organised departure of Germans from the border territories. Three million people were removed (Bauer, 1995), during which between fifteen and thirty thousand people suffered a violent death.

In a situation characterised by a new political regime after 1948 and an ethnically cleansed country, over the next few decades there were not many possibilities to meet people from other cultural environments. In the fifties, a wave of some 12,000 Greek refugees came to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, mainly Communists fleeing from the civil war. In the seventies and eighties, groups of workers and students arrived from the other countries of the Socialist bloc (Cubans, Vietnamese, etc.). After 1989, the overall situation from the point of view of the coexistence of various cultural groups changed radically. Borders were opened, people could begin to travel more easily, learn languages, and study abroad. Even so, the national concept of the state had one last sequel – the division of the Czechoslovak Federal Republic into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic in 1993. This moment saw the definitive end of the journey from a multicultural society to a monocultural one. This monocultural residue of the previous multicultural state gradually began to open up, and at present we find ourselves in a situation in which once more we must adopt an opinion regarding multicultural coexistence (or, if you will, the coexistence of individuals and groups from various different cultural environments). The question is how we will meet the challenge.

In terms of the present composition of the population, we can say that here in the Czech Republic, along with the majority population there are the “traditional” minorities, i.e. those people who have lived in this territory for a long time, and then the new minorities which only began arriving after 1989. The traditional minorities include Germans, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, and Ukrainians. These groups are placed in the category of national minorities, and, as opposed to the new arrivals, have the right to education for their children in their native tongue if certain numbers are complied with. The new minorities, which are called ethnic minorities, do not have this privilege.

A more detailed overview of the structure and number of people belonging to the ethnic or national minorities is to be found on the pages of the Czech Statistical Office under “foreigners”. When comparing the number of foreigners from the point of view of other European states, it should be pointed out that there are in fact very few foreigners in the Czech Republic, and, according to Prudký (2005), the Czech Republic is still one of the most homogenous countries in Europe.

As far as normative multiculturalism is concerned, it seems that the phenomenon of coexisting with individuals from various cultural environments is perceived in a complex fashion. Despite the fact that foreigners remain a very small group in the Czech Republic (around 2% of the population), relationships with them are complex. Although almost 66% of the population rate their relations with foreigners as positive, 66% claim that foreigners cause an increase in crime and take jobs from local people (41%). 55.2% of the population would prefer that Roma people did not live here, and 52.4% of people say the same thing of Albanians, 55% of Afghans, after which there is a general wish not to share the country with the Vietnamese, Romanians, and Ukrainians (Prudký, 2005).

The results of a survey by Nedomové (1997) show that one of the reasons for these feelings is the reverberation or persistence of the national concept of the state. The question, therefore, is who is perceived as being Czech and who as being a foreigner. According to Nedomový, it seems that a real Czech is only a person born to two Czech parents who has both Czech citizenship and Czech nationality. Another possible cause is the reverberation of the post-totalitarian regime. The Czech Republic – still an almost homogenous society – is, in short, afraid of the otherness with which it is beginning to be confronted. But what about multiculturalism?

This can be understood on several levels. Firstly, it is a personal phenomenon. Several people can live in an environment where various cultures are blended, acquire multicultural life experience, and communicate and deal with people within an environment characterised by more than one culture. Multiculturalism can also be understood as a political opinion or objective or as a sphere of education.

It is also possible to view the phenomenon of multiculturalism from the very practical perspective of today’s world. Given that travel, moving from country to country, mixed families, the phenomenon of immigration, supranational concerns and, in short, the whole of globalisation, is a given these days, we cannot avoid the fact that we have to find ways of living together. If we don’t have the courage to do this, the best thing would be to listen to the advice given by Magda, to lock ourselves at home, not to buy things in supermarkets, not to travel abroad to study, and to persuade all the other countries that they try and do the same. If this idea seems naďve, it is basically essential that we find forms of enabling multicultural existence to take place, both in its descriptive and normative form. Such willingness has one premise, and that is to concede that an encounter with individuals from other cultural environments will bring changes on both sides. Such coexistence is a dynamic question of the search for new and untrodden paths.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
Mr Bauer was born in 1921 in Přebuze. He lived there until he was 12, after which he moved to Doks. It is a documented fact that his father was anti-fascist and a social democrat. Mr Bauer was forced to joint the Wehrmacht when he was 19 under the threat of death. On the advice of his father, he registered for education of some kind, but eventually ended up a parachutist. Of his regiment only he survived, and was deployed in Northern Italy. Generally speaking, it was extremely dangerous to be with the parachutists. During a landing in Crete, for instance, the first landing party was being shot at while still in the air, half of the second group fell to the ground, and only the third managed to make it down unscathed. After the war, Mr Bauer was a prisoner of the Americans and was lucky to wind up in the hands of decent soldiers. For some time, he was held in various POW camps, and never returned to Přebuze, since in the meantime the expulsion of the Germans had taken place. Even though it was a documented fact that his parents were anti-fascists, he was part of the expulsion. The people of Přebuze wanted the family to remain, but in the spring of 1946 the National Guard arrived and they had to leave.

In his old age, he no longer wishes to return to the Czech lands. He feels that he doesn’t even have the right, given that he has not looked after the building for 30 years and other people have looked after it who moved in only when the building was empty.

He says that it is not possible to generalise, that there are both good and bad people to be found amongst both Czechs and Germans. In his opinion, the mistake was made in 1918, when the Czechs unjustly occupied this territory. The Germans expressed their disagreement, demonstrated, and were promised a certain degree of independence within the Republic of Czechoslovakia. However, the Czech side reneged on these promises, which led to increased dissatisfaction, which was to be used by Henlein.

Mr Bauer remembers how people were walking around in white socks at that time, and they looked like Bavarians in their national costume, but in fact they were fascists. His father said way back then that it wouldn’t work out well, that the Czechs and Germans had to reach an agreement.

Story 2
Divided village
The Slovak-Ukraine border in 1946. After long negotiations, the border was to be redrawn through the centre of the village, something which was carried out overnight. A six-year old boy went with his grandmother to church on the other side of the village. The police were standing in the town centre and counted them, in order to know how many people to let back in. But when they wanted to return home after church, they had a problem – it seems sixty people had already returned, and they were nearly not allowed back. The grandmother pleaded with the constable. An eight-year-old little girl who had been visiting her grandmother was not so lucky, and was not allowed to rejoin her parents.

Sixty years later, when the population wanted to cross the border to seek out their neighbours and relatives, they had to travel 39 km to the closest border crossing and the same distance on the other side to the village, and then make the whole journey back again. Slovak citizens had even more complicated visa duties. They had to apply for visas in Prešov, which was 140 km away, and to return there to collect the visas. In order to visit a building 100 metres away, they had to cover around 400 kilometres. Source: ČT1 News Bulletin – January 2006

  • Sources

Baar, V. (2002). Nations on the Threshold of the 21st century, Emancipation or Nationalism? Ostrava, Tilia 2002.

Bauer, F. e.a. (1995). One Thousand Years of Czech-German Relationships. Praha: PAN Evropa.

Gabal, I. (2004). An Analysis of the Status of Foreigners Living Long-Term in the CR and a Proposal for Measures to Optimise the Situation. Praha: Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Holý, L. (1996). The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hyršlová, K. (1985). Czech Intelligence and the Anti-Fascist Front. Praha.

Jesenská, M. (1997). Nad naše síly. Praha.

Klimek, A. (2000). History of the Lands of the Czech Crown, Volume XIII. Litomyšl: Paseka.

Klimek, A. (2002). History of the Lands of the Czech Crown, Volume XIV. Litomyšl: Paseka.

Nedomova, A.& Kostelecky, T. (1997). The Czech National Identity; Basic Results of the 1995 National Survey. Czech Sociological Review, 5, 79 – 92.

Pithart, P. & Příhoda, P. (ed.) (1998). A Reader in Displaced Histories. Praha: Nadace Bernarda Bolzana.

Prudký L. (2005). Belonging to a Nation, Relations to Other Nations and Foreigners in the Czech Republic. Praha: KVDO.

Přibáň, J. (2004). How Can We Be? Forms of Democracy and Identity and in a Multicultural Situation. Praha, Slon 2004.

Smith, A. D. (1991). National Identity. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Veselý, Z. (1994). History of the Czech State in Documents. Praha: Victoria Publishing.

Žantovský (ed.) (1998). Czech Xenophobia. Praha: Votobia.

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