Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999

The small town of Chotebor in East Bohemia C E N T R E   V S   R E G I O N S:
Not Just Prague

Andrew Stroehlein

One of the key cleavages in Czech society is the Prague/regional divide. It is thus odd that the majority of recent works on Czech politics, both foreign and domestic, concentrate almost solely on Prague and the events there.(1)

There are many reasons for this, some justified and others not. On the one hand, it makes sense to study the Velvet Revolution by focusing almost exclusively on Prague, because it was the focus of political tension and the scene of dramatic political events. On the other hand, such an approach says little about how the Revolution transpired in the rest of the country, where the overwhelming majority of Czechs live. How were those events in Prague perceived by Czechs that live outside Prague? Considering that 88 per cent of the population does not live in Prague and that most Czechs did not take part in the revolutionary demonstrations, this seems to be an important question to ask, if one wishes to understand Czech politics today.

Other questions follow in a similar vein: How did that 88 per cent of the Czech public view the transition which followed 1989? How did they perceive the split of the country? How are they responding to the recent economic downturn and political instability?

As C M Hann points out in his anthropological work on the region, it is important for scholars of East Central European transition not to become "cocooned in the capital."(2)

Limited comparisons

With few exceptions, scholars typically overlook smaller communities in the Czech Republic.(3) Neglecting the rural aspect, many studies emphasise the Czech lands' place in the "advanced and industrialised" group of nations after the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire. Statements such as the following are common in history books dealing with Czechoslovakia:

  • (The First Republic) occupied seventh place in the world in the percentage of population engaged in industrial production...(4)
  • In the 1920s, Czechoslovakia was already among the ten most industrialised countries in the world...(5)
  • The Czech lands traditionally belonged to the most industrially developed part of Austria-Hungary with 60-70% of industrial production.(6)

This standard view is repeated again in the 1995 OECD report on the Czech lands' agricultural history.(7) Usually, it is assumed that the Czech lands have been industrialised and thus urbanised since the 19th century, like much of Western Europe.(8) There are, however, reasons to question this assumption.

The pre-1914 Czech lands are usually declared urban and industrialised by authors who wish to make a comparison between the Czech lands and relatively agrarian Slovakia or between the Czech lands and the rest of Eastern Europe.(9) In such comparisons, the Czech lands do indeed come out as having a longer history of industrialisation, and these were natural enough comparisons to make in the days of Czechoslovakia and the Communist bloc. They are limited, however, especially today, as EU integration will naturally bring comparisons with parts of Western Europe in the same period.(10)

Czech industrialisation

Over the past few years, some authors have been moderating the old, oversimplified view by making wider comparisons - especially with Western European countries. They have concluded that the nature of industrialisation in the Czech lands was different from that experienced by their West European counterparts. They note that the Czech lands, though "industrially advanced" by East European standards, failed to show several of the consequent social changes ssociated with industrialisation in the West. According to Schoepflin, the Czech lands in the 19th century were more similar to Eastern rather than Western Europe in that:

  1. The Czech lands did not exhibit a rise of a politically motivated bourgeoisie that forcefully challenged the traditional bureaucracy.
  2. The Czech lands showed a lack of integration between urban and rural areas.
  3. The resultant working class of the early Communist regime was "new" in the sense that the pre-war working class was "swamped" by the new recruits from the countryside. That original urban working class was relatively small.(11)

Schoepflin's recent assessment is not entirely new, however. According to a book by Otakar Novy published in 1983, Czech industrialisation proceeded on a smaller scale and in a greater number of dispersed locations. At the turn of the century, there were still more people working in cottage industries than in all of large industry and mining combined. The huge "residential-cum-production agglomerations" seen in Western Europe never really developed until the Communist era. In their place were "an excessive number of small communities" which were "evenly distributed."(12)

Earlier, Ferdinand Seibt had succinctly labelled this phenomenon "die Grossstadtarmut der (ersten) Tschechoslowakei." He noted that the small-scale nature of Czech industrial development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was markedly different from the West European experience of industrialisation leading to urbanisation in large urban centres. As late as 1930 and despite significant industrialisation, Seibt points out, more than half of the Czechoslovak population lived in the countryside - while in Germany this number was less than one third.(13) David W. Paul concurred with Seibt emphasising that, in the same year, although 42 per cent of Bohemians were employed in industry, only 25 per cent were actually employed in large-scale industry typical of Western assembly-line enterprises.(14)

It is therefore misleading to assume that Czech industrialisation in the 19th century automatically meant urbanisation, as it did in the West. Dispersed industry meant that the regions and the smaller communities, indeed the Czech lands as a whole, approached modernity in a significantly different way: early Czech industrialisation does not imply early urbanisation in the Western sense.

Demographic legacy

The point of explaining the unique history of industrialisation in the Czech lands is not to theorise that small-scale development created a particularly Czech national character or political culture. Though this may be true to a certain extent, such peculiarities would be better uncovered through empirical research, not grand theorising on the basis of a selective reading of history.

Rather, the point is to highlight the demographic legacy these past developments left behind and to note that, despite the rise of centralising Prague (15), smaller communities in the Czech lands maintained economic and political significance in the past and continue to do so today for many reasons.

The same small-town

As a result of the dispersed development patterns described above, the rural areas of the Czech Republic (communities with less than 2000 people) today contain 2.6 million people: one quarter of the population.(16) 45 per cent of Czechs live in towns and villages of 10,000 people or less.(17)

Though one could never reasonably say that any community in today's Czech Republic is a pre-modern village, even in communities nearing 10,000 people, a resident can still feel that he lives in a place where "everyone knows everyone."(18) Indeed, this assertion will ring true for the many who are born, educated, employed, married and buried all in the same small town. It is very likely that this feeling of community provides a sense of local identity that competes with and perhaps compliments the "imagined community" of national identity (19). The local community is a natural and primary focus for public concern, and thus a key element of political life for a large proportion of Czech citizens.

Past political importance

To add a historical perspective, the importance of the rural countryside was clearly seen during the First Republic, a period when the Agrarian Party received the largest number of Czech votes - in both Bohemia and Moravia - in two of four inter-war parliamentary elections.(20) The Agrarian Party was also the only party to take part in every inter-war government, and it held the premiership in 10 of 13 governments.(21) Not simply representing the small landholders who disappeared with Communist collectivisation, the Agrarian Party reflected a wide variety of interests in the countryside. It functioned as a "supra-class, rural political organisation" that united rural interests to create "the strongest and most consistent single political force in the First Republic."(22)

The precedent for a politically strong countryside is still waiting to be manipulated today. But, with anti-Prague sentiments prevalent and regionalisation on the horizon, some of the political pull of the countryside may soon return to its inter-war strength.

The tractor's political pull today

After collectivisation, one might say that the political role for the countryside under Communism was largely symbolic. Life on the collective farm, for example, was largely politically dormant - even during the Prague Spring.(23) After the 1989 Revolution, however, certain issues greatly enhanced the countryside's role.

Czechs frequently see the countryside as the symbolic source of their nation. Like much of Eastern Europe, the basis of national identity is seen to be historically derived from the "rural folk."(24) In the traditional Czech mythopoeia, the rural dwellers are the people who kept the language and culture alive in the national period of "darkness" following the Battle of White Mountain.(25) The countryside maintains a vital place in the national mythology, and national myths still have an important role in today's Czech politics.(26)

On a related note, the land still has a strong emotive value in politics, as seen by the political potency of post-Communist issues of restitution, the possibility of privatisation involving foreign firms (27) and the political use of the issue of land sales in 1995 and early 1996 connected to the delicate Czech-German debates.(28)

With the importance of agriculture and rural land use being well recognised within the EU(29), the future integration of the Czech Republic into the Union has certainly put a spotlight on Czech agricultural issues. There is no reason to expect that the unique structure of agri-business and the small share of agriculture in the national economy (30) will free the Czech Republic's agricultural interests from future political conflict with Brussels (31); rural antagonisms towards European policy and West European business practices have already been seen on a number of issues.(32)

Of course, the countryside is more than just agriculture. It comprises the villages and towns in which almost half of all Czechs live and work in both industry and services.

The "totalitarian mindset"

Hitherto largely ignored, small communities can shed light on the popular Czech debate surrounding the "Czech mindset" after Communism. The current Western focus on major political events and macroeconomic transition has mostly ignored the "mental transformation" away from an authoritarian mindset, but this issue is often discussed in Czech intellectual circles. Before the Velvet Revolution, Normalisation and its effects on Czech culture, society and political thinking were analysed by several dissidents.(33) Today, Czech psychologists discuss the psychological effects of totalitarianism on Czechs (34), and some Czech scholars see the current mental transition as more daunting for the Czechs than overcoming the Nazi era was for the Germans.(35) It is sometimes stated that totalitarian attitudes remain and that many years will be needed before Czechs will be able to identify with democratic values.(36) Few have supported this line of thinking more than President Vaclav Havel.(37)

If there is a lasting totalitarian mentality that inhibits the development of democracy in Czech society, then it is more likely to be seen outside the larger urban centres due to the particular interpersonal environment there. Anonymity may protect city dwellers, who can change jobs and develop new associations more easily, but "starting afresh," forgetting the past and having those around you forget your past are all more difficult for those in smaller communities where "everyone knows everyone."(38)

Andrew Stroehlein

Other recent articles on the Czech Republic

The Three Vaclavs
An overview of political trends in the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic 1992 to 1999:
From unintentional political birth to prolonged political crisis


  1. This approach is seen, for example, in Bernard Wheaton and Zdenek Kavan, The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1988-1991 (Oxford, 1992). Carol Skalnik Leff, The Czech and Slovak Republics: Nation Versus State (Oxford, 1997), which concentrate on the Velvet Revolution, economic transformation and national struggle in Czechoslovakia almost exclusively through the lens of events in Prague and Bratislava. Though some books do not pretend to be anything other than examinations of Prague, the authors' choice of subject is still telling. Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold: The History of a City (London, 1997) and Michael Andrew Kukral, Prague 1989: Theater of Revolution, A Study in Humanistic Political Geography (New York, 1997). The Pragocentric approach is seen in recent Czech works as well: Jiri Honajzer, Obcanske forum: vznik, vyvoj a rozpad (Prague, 1996) and especially the collection of documents on the Velvet Revolution "Ten Days in Prague" Milan Otahal and Zdenek Sladek, Deset prazskych dnu: 17.-27. Listopad 1989 (Prague, 1990).
  2. C.M. Hann, The Skeleton at the Feast: Contributions to East European Anthropology (Canterbury, 1995), p. 214.
  3. Those exceptions being Zdenek Salzmann and Vladimir Scheufler, Komarov: A Czech Farming Village (London, 1974); and Christine Marie Halkiotis, Peasants and Peasant Political Behaviour in an Industrial Socialist State: The Case of Czechoslovakia, (PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1982). The second of these works concerns research conducted primarily in Slovakia.
  4. Paul, The Cultural Limits of Revolutionary Politics, p. 139. Though this author moderates his position somewhat. See below.
  5. Carol Skalnik Leff, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia: The Making and Remaking of a State, 1918-1987 (Princeton, 1988), p. 12.
  6. Pavel Belina et al., Dejiny zemi koruny ceske II. (Prague, 1995), p. 165.
  7. "...in 1918, the new, independent Czechoslovak state was a highly industrialised country..." OECD Review of Agricultural Policies: Czech Republic, (Paris, 1995), p. 35
  8. "(After the First World War,) levels of urbanisation and the social structure, particularly in the Czech lands, were more similar to those of the developed West European countries than to those of Czechoslovakia's Central and East European neighbors." Sharon L. Wolchik, Czechoslovakia in Transition: Politics, economics and society (London, 1991), pp. 2-3.
  9. Examples of such comparisons include Leff, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia, pp. 12-13, Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain, Eastern Europe since 1945 (London, 1993), p. 1, and Jiri Pokorny, Ceske zeme 1918-1994 (Prague, 1994).
  10. The Economist, 22 November 1997 points out that the time for East/East comparison is over. The initial transition is over, and these countries are increasingly being compared to the rest of the world. Their specific Communist inheritance is no longer an excuse for poor economic performance. See also Andrew Stroehlein in Slovo 27.12.97.
  11. George Schoepflin, Politics in Eastern Europe 1945-1992 (Oxford, 1993), pp. 16, 18, 31-36.
  12. Otakar Novy, Town and Country Development in Czechoslovakia (Prague, 1983), pp. 19-23. Given its place and date of publication, this book draws some surprising conclusions.
  13. Ferdinand Seibt, "Zur Sozialstruktur der Ersten CSR" in Beitraege zum deutsch-tschechischen Verhaeltnis im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Muenchen, 1967), pp. 111-125, especially pp. 117-118.
  14. David W. Paul, The Cultural Limits of Revolutionary Politics, p. 150.
  15. After the Thirty Years War, Prague was rather provincial until 1848. Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, p. 241, and Schoepflin, Politics in Eastern Europe 1945-1992, p.18.
  16. OECD Review of Agricultural Policies: Czech Republic, (Paris, 1995), p. 46.
  17. 50 per cent live in communities of less than 15,000 inhabitants. Calculated from Statisticka rocenka Ceske republiky '96, pp. 53-4.
  18. This is certainly the feeling repeatedly expressed to this author by the inhabitants of Chotebor, an East Bohemian town of over 8,000.
  19. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London, 1991).
  20. Data from Leff, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia, p. 52. Of course, these victories came only after the split of Social Democracy.
  21. Leff, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia, p. 55. This tally does not include the two governments of non-party experts.
  22. Paul, The Cultural Limits of Revolutionary Politics, p. 147.
  23. Halkiotis, Peasants and Peasant Political Behaviour in an Industrial Socialist State, pp. 125-128.
  24. Joel Martin Halpern, and David A. Kideckel, "Anthropology of Eastern Europe", in Annual Review of Anthropology, 1983, 12: 377-402.
  25. "The peasants were for the first modern Czech patriots the guarantee of the national existence..." according to the strongly nationalist history of J.V. Polisensky, History of Czechoslovakia in Outline (Prague, 1991), p. 84.
  26. Kieran Williams, "National Myths in the New Czech Liberalism" in Geoffrey Hosking and George Schoepflin (eds.), Myths and Nationhood.
  27. Some of the complexities of restitution and the nationalist fear of "selling the family silver" through privatisation are dealt with in Wheaton and Kavan, The Velvet Revolution, pp. 159+; Leff, The Czech and Slovak Republics, pp. 189-191; and in OECD Review of Agricultural Policies: Czech Republic, (Paris, 1995), pp. 16-20, 35+.
  28. In 1995, Christian Democratic Party leader and Minister of Agriculture Josef Lux announced that the Sudeten German threat could be reduced if the state's half million hectares in the border regions were sold to individual Czech citizens (Mlada fronta DNES 25.9.1995), and a rigorous debate followed. Lux later resupported this proposition during the 1996 election campaign as a way to prevent Germans buying all the land (Ceska televize 1 - Debata - 1200, 8.4.1996).
  29. More than half of the EU budget is devoted to agricultural subsidies. Richard Rose, What Is Europe? A Dynamic Perspective (New York, 1996), pp. 273-274.
  30. In fact, agriculture only accounted for 3 per cent of GDP and 5 per cent of employment in 1994. OECD Review of Agricultural Policies: Czech Republic, (Paris, 1995), p. 14.
  31. OECD Review of Agricultural Policies: Czech Republic, (Paris, 1995), pp. 14, 31-33.
  32. For example, directors of agricultural co-operatives in East Bohemia have often complained to this author about their dealings with Austrian and German firms. The foreign firms, they say, demand that the Czech firms provide products and not receive payment for up to 90 days, while the same foreign firms demand cash up front when Czech firms make purchases from them. For some of the headline issues dealing with Czech agriculture and the EU, see the "Apple wars, pork wars" section of "The Czech Republic 1992 to 1999: From unintentional political birth to prolonged political crisis" in CER 12.
  33. The best native examinations are Vaclav Havel , "The Power of the Powerless" in John Keane (ed.), The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the state in central and eastern Europe (London, 1985); Milan Simecka, The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia (London, 1984); and Milan Simecka, Konec nehybnosti (Prague, 1990).
  34. See, for example, Jiri Ruzicka, "We Have Not Mourned Communism: A psychological look at the suffering of an era" in The New Presence, February 1998, pp. 2-5.
  35. Jindrich Fibich, "Problemy transformace a demokratizace mentality cloveka" in Vlasta Safarikova a kol. Transformace ceske spolecnosti, 1989-1995 (Brno, 1996), pp. 249-289.
  36. See ibid.; and Vaclav Havel, "The Post-Communist Nightmare", The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, no. 10, May 27, 1993, pp. 8-10. Of course, the irony of this whole idea is that it is basically a 180 degree turn on the old political cultural debates. Before, intellectuals claimed that the Czechs were a democratic people living in a totalitarian system, and now many of the same intellectuals claim that Czechs behave with a totalitarian mindset although they are living in a democracy.
  37. Havel speaks of the "moral illness" affecting Czechs after totalitarianism in several speeches including Vaclav Havel, "Projev k obcanum na Novy rok/Praha 1. Ledna 1990" in Projevy: leden-cerven 1990 (Prague, 1990), pp. 11-19. He speaks of the difficulty people in the post-Communist world have in "freeing themselves of all the bad habits, which Communism developed within them" in his speech to the CSCE summit in Helsinki on 9.7.1992. Vaclav Havel, Vazeni obcane/Projevy cervence 1990 - cervence 1992, (Prague, 1992), pp. 194-197. There will be more on Czech intellectuals in CER 14.
  38. On differences between small Czech towns where "everyone knows everyone" and the anonymity of the large cities especially Prague see Miroslav Vanek, Verejne mineni o socialismu pred 17. Listopadem 1989: Analyza vysledku vyzkumu verejneho mineni UVVM od roku 1972 do roku 1989 (Prague, 1994), pp. 23-4. For some thoughts on the value of anonymity in Prague see Halkiotis, Peasants and Peasant Political Behaviour in an Industrial Socialist State, p. 67.




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