Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999
C E N T R E V S R E G I O N S:
Not Just Prague
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)
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:
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)
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:
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.
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)
Other recent articles on the Czech Republic
The Three Vaclavs
The Czech Republic 1992 to 1999:
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