Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 26
22 March 1999

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
Bureaucracy Is as Czech as Beer
The Czech Republic is a bureaucratic superpower
Sean Hanley

Like many foreigners living in the Czech Republic, I often find myself baffled and frustrated by something so strange and complicated that, try as I might, I simply cannot understand it.

"The language?" I hear you ask. No. A good guess, but no. For all its exotic unfamiliarity, unpronounceable consonant clusters and multiple endings, the Czech language can be learnt and understood. It has a discernible logic, a comprehensible structure and indeed a certain beauty - not to mention being obviously useful in a country where, despite valiant efforts, most people know only rather basic English or German.

No, if there's one thing in the Czech Republic that gets foreign residents hot under the collar, it's Czech bureaucracy. Identity cards and several types of personal identification number; permits and licenses for every conceivable type of activity; rubber stamps large and small; forms, rules, regulations galore. Changing the details on your gas bill requires a day-long odyssey to the other side of town; re-registering a telephone consumes less time and (slightly) less paper, but takes several weeks to be processed. And, should you be bold enough to want use a modem, then Czech Telecom would also like written notification of this including confirmation in writing that the said modem was fitted in the approved manner by a qualified engineer (with a stamp from the said engineer, if possible).

Anyone who has ever ventured into a Czech social insurance office with some innocent query and wandered out bewildered and unenlightened hours later will appreciate why Kafka might have drawn inspiration from working in such an office in fin de siecle Prague.

Czech bureaucracy, unlike the Czech language, seems to have no discernible logic to it, no comprehensible structure or beauty, and to be of absolutely no use whatsoever to anyone. Grumble as they might, however, many Czechs cannot imagine that any well-ordered society could function without it. When CER editor, Andrew Stroehlein, crossed swords with readers of the Czech internet daily Britské listy on the subject a few weeks ago, many told him that he was protesting too much. American driving licenses, they confidently assured him, were identity cards really. US social security numbers were in a way like the Czech system of multiple personal identification numbers and ID cards. The USA was like the Czech Republic really, wasn't it? Czechs aren't that bureaucratically-minded really, are they?

The answer is, of course, that yes they are. In fact, a more bureaucratic, bureaucratically-minded nation can scarcely be imagined. What else can you say about a country where government deals with the problem of red-tape by setting up an inter-ministerial Anti-Bureaucracy Commission with a series rapidly proliferating sub-committees and working parties?

But let's be honest for a moment. There is something that many foreign residents, in the Czech Republic, including myself, know inwardly, but are usually too frustrated and angry by their latest visit to the Tax Bureau, the Immigration Police to admit. The plain truth is that bureaucracy is as Czech as beer, Milan Kundera and the Good Soldier Svejk. Baroque administration is as much a part of the Czech lands as baroque architecture. It is one of the glories of the Czech nation, a national cultural treasure, in fact, that should be appreciated and cherished by Czechs and foreigners alike.

Many people mistakenly assume that Czech bureaucracy is largely a legacy of Communism. There is, of course, some truth in this argument. After 1948, the Communist mania for planning and state control did indeed give full, and often surreal, rein to bureaucratic inclinations. But the Czech love affair with red tape has deeper roots than the country's brief forty-year with socialism. Indeed, in many ways, the Communist period perverted the country's fine traditions of regulation and form-filling. What self-respecting bureaucrat, after all, could be happy in a system where rules are made to be broken and everyone knows official statistics and plans to be meaningless?

It was the great German sociologist Max Weber who first argued that bureaucracy was not some temporary aberration, but rather the administrative machine driving all modern industrial societies. If Czechs have a penchant for bureaucracy (and by God, they do), then it is perhaps, above all, a legacy of the remarkable social and economic modernisation of Czech lands in the late 19th century. Within the space of a few generations, the Czechs transformed from a bucolic Slav backwater into a sophisticated, industrial European nation, inventing a rich literary language and cultural tradition along the way. At the same time, of course, they also developed a rich administrative vocabulary (most of it calqued from the German of their Austrian Hapsburg rulers) and a magnificent culture of bureaucracy and administration. Not pointlessly, for example, did the Hungarians see the stereotypical Czech as a long-coated, hard-hearted, Hapsburg tax collector relieving the honest Magyars of their hard-earned cash.

Many people, including Max Weber, have equated bureaucracy with rationalality and efficiency. If bureaucracy isn't rational and efficient, then at least in theory it should be. Modern sociologists of organisation, however, know better.

Bureaucracy is, of course, intended to get certain things done. It is, of course, a good idea, if these things do actually eventually get done. However much more important, is that bureaucracy is a culture, a custom, a way of doing things that everyone understands, even if they do not particularly like it. And, of course, different countries have different cultures and customs. Bureaucracy is something like coffee. In some countries like the Czech lands, they take it strong and have lashings of it with everything. In other countries like England, they like it weak and generally keep it for special occasions. And, as with coffee, there is no real evidence, that when not taken to excess, bureaucracy is really bad for you. The French, for example, have their own very Napoleonic brand of bureaucracy, yet compared to the paperwork-averse Brits, France is fearfully well-administered.

The idea that Czechs should dispense with their bureaucratic traditions is then like suggesting they turn Prague Castle into a branch of Tesco, or that they demolish the National Theatre to make way for a multi-storey car park. And, God forbid, that Czech officials should start communicating with the public in clear, comprehensible everyday language. Official-ese is one of the great unsung Czech literary genres. It inspired not only Kafka, but also Czech writers such as Vaclav Havel and Bohumil Hrabal (whose novel Closely Observed Trains takes its title from a special term for railway munitions shipments). Form-filling, rubber-stamping, ID cards and identification numbers are, in short, part of the Czechs' Central European heritage.

As with other neglected national cultural monuments, however, a bit of cleaning up and restoration would be in order. When the money can be found, let us hope, long on-line electronic forms will replace the tatty paper versions. 'Smart cards' with holograms and silicon chips can come in to replace scruffy old cardboard passes with blurry old snapshots. Citizens will be baffled by 'virtual officials' over video-links in the comfort of their own homes, rather than in person in some dingy office with wilted potted plants on the desks.

The Czechs, however, should stay true to one of their oldest national traditions. As the 21st century dawns, may they continue to leave other nations open-mouthed at the sheer sweep and complexity of their bureaucracy. I have every confidence that they will.

Sean Hanley, 22 March 1999


Back to the
Sean Hanley
main page

Back to Central Europe Review


Articles galore
in the

Find out more about our Virtual Internship Programme


Book Shop


Music Shop

with your comments
and suggestions.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved