Poland and the Czech Republic were isolated for 40 years by communism and have been separated since 1989 by old stereotypes. They may only come to regard each other as equals when they are both safely inside the EUby Timothy Snyder / February 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
A decade after Solidarity in Poland and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia helped to inaugurate a new European era, bureaucracy is about to catch up with history. In April, exactly ten years after the legalisation of the Solidarity trade union in Poland, Nato will expand to the east. Last November, the EU began negotiations which will bring about its own enlargement. Poles and Czechs, included in both enlargements, will tell you that they were in Europe all along. And there could be nothing more European than the mutual indifference-cum-hostility with which the two countries regard each other. A consideration of this Polish-Czech tension provides a perspective on the historical memories and political styles which have emerged in the new democracies since 1989.
Golden Prague, Grey Warsaw
Prague is perhaps Europe’s most beautiful capital; tourists marvel that so much gothic, renaissance, baroque, art nouveau and art deco beauty has escaped the ravages of this century. Warsaw is perhaps Europe’s ugliest capital; its enormous city blocks and non-functional functionalist buildings appeal only to eccentrics. A general rule is that anything added to Prague diminishes the city; anything added to Warsaw enhances it. Where central Prague’s delicate beauty is violated by every neon sign, the skyscrapers which now fill Warsaw’s open spaces seem to heal a wound and confirm a bounding progress towards recovery.
Prague’s loveliness and Warsaw’s ugliness have persuaded many western visitors that reform was succeeding in the Czech lands but failing in Poland. But Polish tourists will remind you that Prague remains beautiful because it was not destroyed by Nazis or communists. By contrast, in 1945 about 95 per cent of Warsaw’s buildings were razed. The Red Army, having watched passively for weeks as the Wehrmacht crushed the Warsaw Rising, occupied Warsaw in its turn. Its presence was indispensable to the installation of a Polish communist government, whose first project was the rebuilding of the capital. All this Polish sacrifice seems to leave Czechs cold. If Poles think that Prague is beautiful because Czechs were too cowardly to oppose Nazi Germany and too naive to oppose communism, Czechs reply that Warsaw is ugly because Poles are too frivolous to protect what is of value.
A little prodding will produce similarly coherent (and unfair) accounts of the other country’s experience of communism. Although Poles regard the Prague Spring of 1968 as noble, it is denied the honour reserved for bloody conflict. Poles will tell you that four people died in the shooting of a Czech film about 1968-more than died during the August invasion. This is not true (Soviet soldiers shot 15 unarmed civilians in the first hours of the operation), but it reveals the Polish belief that Czechs are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for ideals. Poles tend to forget that the “normalisation” which followed the invasion left Czechoslovakia a far more authoritarian police state than Poland was in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Czechs, for their part, have never seen the point of all the Polish strikes of those decades, and are proud of their peaceful Velvet Revolution. They will tell you that the Polish revolution took ten years; the Czech one, ten days. Its most important casualty, we now know, was a secret police agent posing as a student. He was supposed to leave the students whose group he had penetrated before a march began, but did not wish to appear a coward in the eyes of his student girlfriend. When his police colleagues closed in to truncheon his group of students, he fainted and was taken for dead. This led to the demonstrations which toppled the Czechoslovak communist regime. Poles find this story very amusing; they will remind you that the speed of the Velvet Revolution was made possible by the Polish precedent of a Solidarity-led government that summer.
Language and religion
In the decade since, Poles and Czechs have had plenty of opportunity to discuss these matters. This has had precious little effect. Polish and Czech are both west Slavonic languages, and their similarity creates the misleading impression of mutual comprehension. Each language sounds to speakers of the other like the speech of a child with pronunciation problems. Czechs giggle at the babyish soft sounds of Polish; Poles howl at Czech diminutives which render the world small and cute. A legion of faux amis (words which sound the same but have different meanings) ensures that anyone who attempts to learn one language from the other will commit funny, but plausible, errors. For example, the Polish word for “look for” is the vulgar term for “have sex with” in Czech. Last year a Polish political scientist, who is also a striking young woman, entered the interior ministry in Prague to interview the minister. “I have come,” she announced to his secretary, “to fuck the minister.”
A Czech joke plays on the same misunderstanding. A Polish tourist loses his wife near Prague’s Old Town Square. He becomes frantic, and runs from shop to shop to ask if she has been seen. Meaning to communicate that he is looking for his wife, instead he tells shopkeepers that he has regular sex with her. The Czechs shake their heads, and one wit says: “Those Poles, always making a great conquest out of nothing at all.”
Yet these prejudices do not reflect any painful experience. Czechs fear Germans, but rarely would Czechs claim that Germans represented an anti-model. Poles fear Russians, but they do not deny them kinship. Polish-Czech prejudices, by contrast, are self-contained and independent of history. They endure because each nation’s stereotype of the other is the reverse of its own image of itself.
Czechs see Poles as nobles and peasants lost in the modern world, too disorganised to manage anything but folly; Czechs see themselves as rational, modern citizens, the only true democrats in eastern Europe. (The Polish word for “the state,” means “courtly ladies and gentlemen” in Czech, and appears mainly in fairy tales). Poles see Czechs as burghers who want peace to enjoy their beer and dumplings; Poles see themselves as the only nation willing to sacrifice for freedom in eastern Europe. These attitudes reflect real differences between Polish and Czech society; they will surface as European integration proceeds, and will perhaps influence the character of European life in years to come.
The first difference is religiosity. Officially, both nations are catholic; in fact, the Poles are Europe’s leading believers and the Czechs are Europe’s leading unbelievers. Images of a White Mountain relate the catholic religion to national life for both Poles and Czechs, but they carry opposite meanings. The Polish “White Mountain” is a shrine at Czestochowa, where in 1655 a small band of soldiers held off a Swedish attack with the aid of the Virgin Mary. In Polish, “White Mountain” stands for the holiness of struggle against overwhelming odds. It has come to stand for the church as protector of national life under German (protestant) and Russian (orthodox and communist) rule. The Czech White Mountain is a hill outside Prague where the Czech protestant nobility was routed by the Habsburgs in 1620. The country (as the Czechs recall) was then re-catholicised by the force of Habsburg troops. “White Mountain,” in Czech, has come to mean the destruction of native spirit by superior force.
Private and public
The two White Mountains are only 200 miles apart, but they stand for two separate worlds. Poland is not only the bigger and more populous country (there are about 40m Poles to 10m Czechs); it is also much more rural. About a quarter of Poles make their living from the land; there are as many Polish peasants as there are inhabitants of the Czech Republic. This, combined with the wartime depopulation of cities, gives rise to the impression of the absence of urban traditions: a Czech expert on Poland once confessed to me that she saw Warsaw as a giant village. Poland’s leading class has been the rural gentry and, later, the intelligentsia; in the Czech lands, the middle classes of small cities have set the tone in politics.
These differences, together with distinct experiences of war and communism, produce different political styles which sustain mutual stereotypes. Czechs distinguish very clearly between the private sphere of social life and the public sphere of political life: the realms of emotion and reason. The greatest hero of Czech literature is the good soldier Schweik: the little guy who outwits his superiors and his enemies, preserving all the while the private space to eat, drink and talk with boon companions. Even Czech communists now claim to have practiced Schweik-like resistance to the old regime; it was part of V?av Havel’s genius as an opponent of communism to explain the link between private choices and public outcomes. This was a difficult message-then and now. The ideal Czech politician is the articulate technocrat, who promises practical solutions at public meetings so that they can all go home.
Poles are not inclined to accept the practical or moral distinction between private and public life, nor the assumption that politicians should be cool calculators. Religion, for many believers, is a matter of public expression as well as private faith: the most contentious debate in Poland since 1989 concerned the prominence of God in the constitution. Polish heroes are typically those who are torn from their families by the demands of history, and die on battlefields or languish in exile. The Polish national anthem begins: “Poland has not yet perished, as long as we still live”-and refers to a Polish Legion which won glory for Napoleon before being wiped out far from home. For Poles, the idea of “Solidarity” unites private wishes and public aspiration, catholic faith and the aspiration to improve this world.
Such grand assertions beg for exceptions, and indeed there was an important one in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement attracted a group of courageous Czech and Slovak dissidents, who met secretly with Polish friends near the border. After 1989, it came to light that “Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity” included many of the leading lights of each country’s opposition, who took for granted the necessity of central European co-operation. V?av Havel attended some of its meetings. Adam Michnik, editor since 1989 of Poland’s most important newspaper, publicised its activities and pressed for closer Polish-Czechoslovak political co-operation. In a burst of central European enthusiasm, Poles now prefer to forget that in January 1990 Poland’s Solidarity-led government went so far as to propose a Polish-Czech-Slovak-Hungarian confederation.
This was unacceptable even to the most polonophile of Czechs and Slovaks, and the Poles settled for the creation of the Visegrad group of Polish, Czechoslovak and Hungarian governments. The Visegrad group polished an image of democratic east central Europe, helping to convince west Europeans that they were governed by better reformers than their eastern or southern neighbours. The group promoted regional co-operation through the Central European Free Trade Area. But it failed to foster contacts among real people, as the original dream of east central European civil society was abandoned for trade targets.
The free trade agreement has little visible impact on Czech and Polish economic life. Agricultural goods are still subject to a good deal of protectionism. Wyborowa vodka, perhaps the best on the planet at its price, is still unavailable in the Czech Republic. Polish textiles are about one third cheaper than their Czech counterparts, but Czech distributors often refuse to stock them. The products labelled in both Polish and Czech which you find in department stores are usually of Italian, German or British origin. Cultural goods flow east and west, but not north and south. The Czech press is all but absent in Warsaw, and the Polish press is unavailable in Prague. A Dutch, Spanish or Russian tourist in Prague’s Wenceslaus Square can choose from a variety of newspapers, while a Pole-only 80 miles from the Polish frontier-must go without.
Separate Returns to Europe
As the Czech Republic and Poland oriented their polities and economies to the west, it was inevitable that regional contacts would become secondary. But the different political styles in the two countries have produced very different conceptions of Europe. After 1989, there was broad agreement in both countries about the desirability of “Europe.” But in Poland there was considerable disagreement about what that meant. Important post-Solidarity politicians talked about the superiority of Polish Europeanness to the decadent model on offer in the west, and proposed (for example) a catholic alliance with Ireland. Only the political centre (post-Solidarity liberals) were Euro-enthusiasts from the start. Over the course of the decade, however, both right and left have come to accept EU membership as the central goal of foreign policy.
Something completely different happened in the Czech Republic. Whereas in Poland the tone of the European debate has been consensus through contention, in the Czech Republic it has been consensus through conceit. Prime Minister V?av Klaus and his centrist Civic Democratic party dominated Czech politics from the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 to the end of 1997. Although President Havel remains a respected figure, Klaus’s message of rational reform in public life and continuity in private life has proved much more popular than Havel’s ethical demands. Going one better than Margaret Thatcher, Klaus denied the existence of both society and politics.
His technocratic populism appeared at first to be a short cut to reforms needed for EU membership, but it has proved a poisoned chalice. Although Klaus styled himself a free-market radical, he moved very slowly to free prices. This allowed the voters time to adapt, but it also allowed Czechs to grow accustomed to living above their means. Klaus’s most lauded reform, the voucher privatisation of state enterprises, was designed to keep Czech industry out of foreign hands. To a remarkable degree for such a convinced liberal, Klaus worked to insulate Czech society from external influences. Not only did he scorn political co-operation with backward Poland, he tended to present the Czech Republic as an island of calm in the middle of Europe-avoiding the chaos of the rest of the post-communist world, as well as the dead end of western Europe’s ossified socialism. After two years of economic crisis, Klaus fell in late 1997. He was replaced last year by a minority Social Democratic government, in power now thanks to an “opposition agreement” with Klaus’s party. Despite these reversals, Klaus remains the most formidable Czech politician, and he will be heard from again.
The Polish economy, meanwhile, has grown rapidly since 1993. Polish economic reforms, far more drastic at the beginning, and continued by governments of various political colours since, have created a booming market economy. Western images have duly reversed, and Poland is now regarded as the region’s leader in reform. But there is an even more important legacy of this first decade of reform. The Polish debate over Europe was contentious from the beginning, but the elite consensus in favour of EU membership is secure precisely because it was so hard won. The huge Polish agricultural sector is, of course, a great practical barrier to Polish EU membership; the danger is an unholy alliance between Polish peasants who fear Europe and French peasants who fear that EU enlargement means a cut in their subsidies. The most vehement opposition to Europe hails from a renegade catholic radio station called Radio Marja, but the catholic church is officially pro-European, as are most priests. For the most part, the contentiousness has now shifted to the execution of European policy, where liberals and conservatives (with Solidarity roots) vie for influence within the government, and the socialist (former communist) president tries to take as much credit as possible.
In the Czech Republic, a good deal of argument about the idea of Europe is yet to come. Because Klaus pre-empted debate over Europe, European harmonisation and legislation are felt to be impositions. Klaus reinforced the Czech belief that domestic affairs are a private matter, to the point that Czechs are only now beginning to see what membership of the EU requires. Czechs are not only behind the Poles and other neighbours, they also lack the expertise needed to make up for lost time. This is important, not because the acquis communautaire is the golden fleece of reform, but because the progress of negotiations will depend on governments keeping their commitments. Each failure will give opponents of enlargement within the EU (France) a useful stick.
The present Social Democratic government in the Czech Republic has tried to reactivate political co-operation with Poland; but familiarity between Czechs and Poles will probably have to await their membership of the EU. Isolated for 40 years by communism, and separated since 1989 by old stereotypes which resonate in new circumstances, Poles and Czechs will regard each other as equals only when both are recognised as such by their western neighbours. In the meantime, each will continue to gripe and tell jokes about the other in a manner fully consistent with European standards in these matters and a reminder that the great achievement of the EU is the preservation of peaceful variety.