What matters in the Czech Republic now
3. 11. 2020 / Jan Čulík
Should democracy work, surely it requires two all-important conditions: 1. functioning, impartial, critical media and 2. a good educational system which teaches young people to assess information critically. These conditions are not present in the Czech Republic. The system is not ready to cope with crises efficiently and at the moment, as we speak, it is close to collapse. For many years, Prague journalists were in the habit of preaching to the rest of the country about how wonderful Western capitalism was. They never bothered to leave Prague in order to find out how ordinary people actually live and what their problems are. This has, of course led to the discreditation of mainstream politics and democracy by populism. Politicians and the media have reacted not by a genuine effort to tackle existing problems, but by distracting the citizens by constructing non-existent problems and culture wars. Weirdly, people enthusiastically accept this nonsensical discourse.
But we must not gloat because, regrettably, it has turned out over the past few years that democratic structures are not unstable only in post-communist countries like the Czech Republic, but, remarkably, also, in some of the “model” Western democracies, especially the English-speaking ones, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.
Increasing influence of powerful oligarchs on the economic and political orientation of the Czech Republic is also a major concern. Some of them, like the populist PM Andrej Babiš, openly imitate Donald Trump, so much so that they wear a hat with a somewhat ridiculous version of the MAGA slogan, saying Silné Česko, Strong Czechia:
But many of the Czech oligarchs are subjugating the country to China, in order to further their personal economic interests. Approximately ten per cent of Czechs have been thrown into debt slavery by oligarchs. They are persecuted by a system of private debt collectors. The system turns minimal debts, for instance a fine for not purchasing a ticket on public transport, into astronomical indebtedness causing people to lose their homes. Most of the Czech media are now controlled by oligarchs, so these issues are not independently discussed. What is fascinating is that a large number of the Czech population positively lap up fake news and allow themselves to be deflected from real problems.
This is the context of the current situation in the Czech Republic. I will now talk about the current culture wars which are being used to deflect the attention of the public from real problems which remain untackled by the politicians and will complete this presentation by a discussion of an outrageous recent piece of fiction and of a remarkable recent feature film. And yes, indeed, Milan Kundera does have a place in recent developments in the Czech Republic.
1. Islamophobia, xenophobia and a hatred of refugees
Unlike in many West European countries, but very much like in the other post-communist countries of East-Central Europe, the Czech Republic was seized by a wave of anti-refugee and islamophobic hysteria right from the beginning of the 2015 refugee crisis. Both politicians and ordinary citizens actively demanded that the Czech Republic is hermetically closed to refugees. In the autumn of 2015, only 4 per cent of Czechs were of the opinion that refugees should be allowed permanently to settle in the country. The anti-refugee and anti-islamic attitudes are probably partially due to the mythological narrative of the creation of modern Czech nationhood, which was constructed in the 19th century as absolutely anti-cosmopolitan. The deportation of non-Czechs from Czechoslovakia after 1945 possibly also contributed to this because it created an extremely homogeneous society. Most Czechs have never met a muslim or a refugee and unexperienced “danger” is often seen as the most acute. The hatred of muslims and refugees has been currently somewhat masked by the citizens concern about the Covid-19 pandemic, but still during the four weeks of February 2020, approximately a thousand strongly islamophobic articles were published in the Czech media. This has been registered by the Newton media database, which archives published material from more than 700 Czech language newspapers and websites. A simple search reveals that the Newton database comprises more than 5000 articles, published between 1st February 2014 and 1st March 2020, which include the expression “střílet uprchlíky” (“to shoot refugees”). These attitudes do have an impact on Czech politics. SPD, an extreme right wing anti-refugee party, has the support of 6 per cent of the Czech voters and is represented in parliament. Most of the Czech political parties have strongly xenophobic attitudes. The government of Andrej Babiš has absolutely refused to accept child refugees from the Greek islands, in spite of the pleas from the European Union and lord Alf Dubs, a member of the British House of Lords, who himself is a child refugee:
from minute 6 to minute 7
2. Culture wars about the interpretation of communism
Several historians, led by Muriel Blaive and Michael Pullmann, are now using Western methods of historical research, analysing the communist period in Czechoslovakia by examining everyday life in the regime and the relationship of citizens to the regime. Especially, these historians point out that even the communist regime negotiated with its citizens in order to keep them satisfied so that they would not revolt. This type of work, earlier done by German historians about the situation in communist East Germany, has enraged Czech anticommunists who see it as a subversion of their power discourse, within which they argue that communism was a forty-year-long period of unmitigated terror.
is no morality in history. Our
past consists of a large number of events. History requires a
chronological narrative. It is impossible to create such a
chronological narrative without a selection of suitable historical
facts. It only depends on us which facts we regard as important. Most
modern European nations were formed in the 19th century. This is when
these nations constructed their own national narratives. These are
basically narratives about how great their national past was. A
majority of citizens in each of these nations then identify
themselves with such a narrative. This national narrative is then
codified and set in stone by means of the teaching of history in
schools. From the point of view of this narrative, the present looks
like a logical outcome of the past.
“But since history does not have an end, the so called ‘contemporary history’ is gradually also being included into the received national narrative. However, this creates an insurmountable problem: When you try to construct a historical narrative using events which people have personally experienced and they remember them, these personal experiences are often in conflict with the attempts to create a unified national narrative. The consensual assessment of recent history functions as a justification for the currently ruling power wielders.
“After the 1989 fall of communism, briefly, the post-communists tried to continue the reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring, but that narrative was soon discarded and replaced by a total condemnation of communism - this was a narrative which was very close to the interpretation of communism by the anticommunist post-1948 emigration. But of course, it was modified to fit the needs of the new post-communist establishment.”
Contemporary Czech anticommunists have reacted furiously against the subversion of this vision by historians. Muriel Blaive has been depicted as a communist:
Clip Muriel Blaive
From 4.44 – 5.19
3. Milan Kundera as a real bastard
The reception of Milan Kundera in the Czech Republic, a world-famous Czech author who has been living in France since 1975, has been rather problematic since the fall of communism in 1989. Since that time, Kundera has visited his native country rarely, always in secret. For a long time, he delayed the publication of some of his novels in Czech in the Czech Republic, although they had been published in Czech by the writers Zdena and Josef Škvorecký in their Toronto-based emigré publishing house 68 Publishers and throughout the world in translations into many languages. There are still people in the Czech Republic who do not like the fact that in his youth, in the early 1950s, Kundera was a member of the Communist Party and supporter of Stalinism. The fact that although he became a major, official cultural figure in the 1950s and 1960s in Czechoslovakia, he was always openly critical of Stalinist excesses, even in his early collection Man, A Wide Garden (1953)i and that he was actually expelled from the Communist Partyii, is often overlooked.
In 2008, the Prague weekly Respekt created a major international scandal about Milan Kundera. Adam Hradilek, a Respekt reporter, had discoverediii a note in the police archives which said that in March 1950, Milan Kundera as the student leader of a Prague university hall of residence went to report the presence of an unknown person in the room of a student. This report allegedly led to the imprisonment of a young CIA agent for many years. Respekt, quite unusually, published this article in English and in its Czech version used it to boost its circulation numbers in the Czech Republic – the issue containing the article about Milan Kundera was given out free to passengers at Czech railway stations, etc. But the problem was that the Respekt article had many flaws. It was under-researched and left many unanswered questions. It was interesting that although the Respekt article received a wide international coverage at the beginning, many Western journalists and authors later realised that it was flawed and some French newspapers rallied behind Kundera.
Many readers and literary scholars is the Czech Republic take Milan Kundera’s work seriously. There is, nevertheless, a constituency which distrusts him and regards him as a “bloody communist”.
At the end of June 2020, this latent, ever-present distrust and hate of Milan Kundera in the Czech Republic suddenly burst out into the open with the publication of Jan Novák’s almost 900 page “study” of Kundera’s life and workiv in Czechoslovakia prior to his emigration to France in 1975. The publication of this voluminous work has produced a real conflict in the Czech Republic. Many critics have condemned it, some, however, have welcomed it. This is how Petr Fischer, former programme controller of public service Radio Prague’s cultural Vltava station, assesses Mr Novák’s work:
clip – Petr Fischer – Turn on the English subtitles
From 4.44 - 5.55
Petr Bílek, Professor of Czech and Comparative Literature at Charles University in Prague concluded his review of Novák’s work with these words:
“If, to end, inspired by Jan Novák, we also speculate a little, we find an author in a trap behind this work. The material offered him dramas of an almost classic, ancient Greek nature. It would have been possible to develop them in many remarkable ways, if the author was capable of empathy and of sophisticated analysis. But since the principle of a best seller says clearly that the number of sold copies of the work will be directly influenced by whether the author manages to turn Kundera into a really devious monster, Novák must systematically behave like a prosecutor with an amateurish interest in psychoanalysis, who pushes all this remarkable material into pre-existing compartments and presents these to the poor reader as though they were solid instruments of scholarly analysis. The trapped author has thus created a superficial and shallow novel with many footnotes.”
When Professor Bílek’s review was published on the aktualne.cz website, he was flooded by a wave of hateful emails from Jan Novák’s supporters.
A. Culture Wars as the context for literary and artistic endeavour
So these culture wars are being used in the Czech Republic these days to deflect people’s attention from real problems. And how does literature react to this situation? In connection with the topic of xenophobia and islamophobia, I would like to introduce you to the first fascist novel in Czech literature, David Zábranský’s work Za Alpami, Beyond the Alps.
The novel is a repository of the deepest prejudices about German society. It is an expression of a degenerate nativist discourse which has, it seems been adopted by so many Czechs. Racist, nativist and white supremacist constructions are presented as the only correct views. Humanistic approaches, which ruled in Czech literature over the past five hundred years, are being mocked.
A racist construction of collective guilt is a major problem in this novel. There is not a single, individual refugee in Zábranský's novel. The refugees are feared and hated as an uninidvidualised mass - just like in the Czech media.
The hero of the novel, a 35-year-old German doctor Matthias Walter (he has a Czech mother whom he hates) despises refugees, as does everyone in Germany around him. They are apparently well-known for their sexual violence, but weirdly, the sexual violence that Matthias Walter and his Polish colleague commit on a young Rumanian girl and their bullying of nurses, that does not seem to be a problem.
Interestingly, Zábranský is an open imitator of Milan Kundera's writing. Just as Kundera, Zábranský uses explicit sexual scenes in his novel. But the times are now much more advanced than Kundera's 1960s and Zábranský's descríption of sexual scenes is much more explicit. In Kundera, sterile sexual scenes signal the dehumanisation of relations between people, in Zábranský, sex signifies brutality, consumerism, selfish aggression and absolute humiliation of women.
Zábranský seems to know Germany well and he depicts it in the worst possible way. The Germans have a feeling of superiority towards the East Europeans, they will never accept them as equals, especially now that Eastern Europe rejects the refugees - that is proof for the Germans that the East Europeans are primitive, argues the novel.
There is an inconsistency here, because at the same time, Zábranský’s novel says that apparently the whole German nation now knows that it made a mistake in 2015 when it accepted the refugees. The whole German nation is now rebelling against their presence on the German soil. Zábranský uses the Nazi concept of Festung Europa as a starting point. Apparently, the Germans made a fatal mistake when they opened Western Europe to the East Europeans in 1989 and they made a second fatal mistake in 2015, when they accepted more than a million Syrian refugees. The West is now degraded: it has opened itself to the great unwashed.
What is fascist on Zábranský's novel is the fact that he normalises selfishness, aggression, nativism and European supremacy. He ignores or mocks everyone who holds humanitarian and multicultural attitudes. No one ever thinks in Zábranský's novel that non-Europeans are also human beings. Left wing activists do not support refugees for humanitarian reasons, but because they are uneducated, spoilt fools, victims of consumerism. They know nothing and their self-indulgent support of refugees will ultimately destroy them and their societies.
B. The Owners
But would Czech society even be capable of analysing its problems, if it was not being deflected from them by nonsense? A brilliant recent Czech film warns that it would be unlikely: Vlastníci, The Owners (2019):
https://youtu.be/Ihmk0Zd_R5s clip from 0.48 a few seconds
Based on a play, it mostly takes place round a single table, during a meeting of the owners of the apartments within one block of flats. The group of these “owners” functions as a synecdoche of the contemporary Czech Republic.
The block of flats is falling to bits and energetic, collective action by its owners is required if it is not to collapse. That is the agenda of the meeting. But the owners are incapable of any action. Instead, they squabble interminably.
There is a youngish couple Mr and Mrs Zahrádka, who are aware of the dangerous state of the building and they are trying to persuade the other apartment owners to act. To no avail. A long time is wasted by nonsensical administrative procedures, on which the secretary of the grouping, a lawyer, insists. But even after all the administrative requirements according to the statute book are done, nothing is achieved. Those present verbally attack one another. One of the owners, Mr. Kubát, who managed to seize as many as three apartments in the building in the early privatisation period by shady means ("it was an action typical for the 1990s") refuses to cooperate with anyone or anything. People reproach one another with nonsense (accusing one another about who uses more water, for instance), keep attacking one of the owners, a homosexual, and the black tenants who live in one of the properties. They abuse those families who say that they have children and they need an elevator to be built in the building ("you should not have had your children").
The film is a serious warning for the Czech Republic: you house is disintegrating before your very eyes while you argue about irrelevant things and are unable to reach any solution. Almost all protagonists are aggressive, vulgar and selfish. They use blackmail.
What is particularly ominous is the presence of two extremely polite, but evidently criminal businessmen, the brothers Čermák. They have acquired their apartment in the block of flats only recently, inheriting it from their deceased father. They have spent a long time doing business abroad - they own firms both in the USA and in Russia, What might this mean? A warning against the growing power of oligarchs over Czech society. While everyone is vulgar, the Čermák brothers are consistently overpolite, even when those present attack them. Thus they gain everyone's trust.
Towards the end of the meeting, when everyone is frustrated, the Čermáks suddenly propose that they could take over the management of the building. No, it would not cost anyone anything. Everybody reacts enthusiastically to this proposal. The thing is, though, in order to start, the Čermák brothers need powers of attorney from all those present. Unfortunately, they do not have the text pre-printed and there is no printer. But they have a stack of blank papers, would people sign these blank papers, please? Everyone signs enthusiastically. Their aggression and selfishness goes hand in hand with incredible naivety. The signatures are to allow the Čermák brothers "to run the block of flats like a business" - that is a famous slogan of the current Czech PM, the oligarch Andrej Babiš.
To sum up: Rather than dealing with real problems, the Czech public discourse is now being deflected by nonsense: xenophobia, culture wars about communism and Milan Kundera. Most recently by the controversy around the Covid pandemic.
In the context of this situation, I have discussed two works – a novel expressing the currently prevailing nativist discourse and a film which warns the public that their ability to solve problems and to create a meaningful social strategy for the future is fatally compromised.