A Land Lost & Found | Czechia’s Spectacular Comeback

Czechia has experienced hard times and a spectacular comeback. In the border regions, all this is magnified.

by Luboš Kreč & Benjamin Wolf

You would be hard-pressed to find two such different villages as Horní Blatná and Doubice. And yet, they have so much in common. Less than 200 kilometers apart, along the craggy ranges of the Ore Mountains and passes between, both towns are framed by the breathtaking sandstone rocks of Bohemian Switzerland.

Both also lie close to the Czech border with Germany in the heart of a popular tourist area, with only a few hundred inhabitants in a once wealthy region called the Sudetenland (Sudety). Once dominated by a German-speaking population, it is a region that encapsulates the country’s modern history in all its rawness, experiences that are still a trauma that affects Czechs to this day.

The forested and hilly border regions of Bohemia are full of history and culture – but much is buried deep down (c) Filip Molcan.

History casts long shadows: Today it is a hundred years since the establishment of an independent Czechoslovak state, one in which German speakers represented one-third of the population; 80 years after the signing of the Munich Agreement that joined the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany; and 70 years after the coup of the Communists, who brutally transformed the whole country and especially the borderlands.

Horní Blatná used to be a prosperous town. At the end of the 19th century, 2,340 inhabitants lived in the village, mainly busy with mining tin and metal ores as well as the manufacture of cutlery and ornamental textiles popular throughout Central Europe.

Today, this reputation is largely forgotten and the once glorious monument of Emperor Franz Joseph I gone. Perhaps the only reminder of Horní Blatná’s prosperous past, both in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and after the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia, is a rectangular square with a couple of renovated houses and the massive baroque church of St. Vavřinec. Today, the town has only 440 citizens, and a dubious claim to fame – it is one of the two communities in the Czech Republic most affected by repossessions for failure to pay. A stunning 63% of its population over the age of 15 has experienced at least one “repo” in their lifetimes. The republic’s average is 9.7%.

There is little work in Horný Blatná and the surrounding area, despite record-low unemployment at 2.3% in the country as a whole. In summer and winter, tourism help, but the situation is difficult off season. What used to be a symbol of local pride and an extraordinary privilege – the thriving textile and glass industry, along with mining – has long since vanished. Ultimately, victims of globalization, these industries had begun their downward trajectory far earlier, with the tensions of the interwar years, the expropriations after the war and decades of Communist mismanagement. Horní Blatná thus faithfully illustrates what some call the “Sudeten of poverty” – western and northern Bohemia, and part of north and south Moravia, affected by higher unemployment, a lot more “repos” and in general, less prosperity.

Glory Gone By

“The original wealthy areas in northwestern Bohemia-based their prosperity on industrial activities that have not been significant factors in the post-World War II economy,” explains Radim Perlín from the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Prague’s Charles University. “Simple glass and textile production or engineering that is not technologically advanced has not been competitive globally since 1990.”

Perlín has been studying the situation in the border areas, regions that have gone from poster children of progress to being tragically left behind. “The Socialist regime was unable to modernize, unable to prepare these regions for modern challenges – in the command economy of Communist times, these industries were artificially maintained without any major modernization.”

Once at the forefront of technological prowess and wealthy, the Czech border regions experienced blow after blow in the 20th century, making them fall far behind its Bavarian and Austrian neighbors. © Ibra Ibrahimovič

A big problem for places like Horný Blatná is talent flight, with young and skilled people moving to distant cities where they envision a better future for themselves and their families. The village of Doubice is the exception that confirms this rule. There, the trend is reversed. People from Prague are moving in, attracted by the beauty of the countryside in the surrounding national park and the recreational cottages built for Czech celebrities like popular singer Karel Gott, famous both at home and abroad.

As a result, conservative and liberal parties win the elections in Doubice, while in the greater Děčín area, the Socialists, Communists, and increasingly, the new populists score victories. It is a dangerous phenomenon, with the former Sudety a hotbed of the kind of political populism that is on the rise in many other Western countries.

This was demonstrated in the Czech presidential elections in January. Sitting President Miloš Zeman ran a campaign to mobilize voters in the border regions, warning against immigrants and their alleged advocate, his election rival Jiří Drahoš. In the north of Bohemia and in Moravia, this strategy paid off, with more people coming to the polls in the second round, helping Zeman win a narrow victory – only 160,000 votes ahead of his more moderate challenger, who had support in large cities and among the more educated.

Filip Molčan, a 33-year-old IT entrepreneur from Děčín, now lives with his family in Doubice.

Among Zeman’s strongholds were the counties of Děčínsko and Šluknovsko in the former Sudetenland, where 5.5% of the population is officially unemployed, double the national average of 2.3%.“There are significant numbers who work in Germany, still they chose Okamura or Zeman,” says Filip Molčan, a 33-year-old IT entrepreneur from Děčín, who now lives with his family in Doubice.

“But if we leave the EU, they would be punished among the first,” he said, referring to the xenophobic politician Tomio Okamura, who preaches the need to leave the EU (dubbed Czexit) and stop the influx of refugees, none of whom actually came to Czechia. The irony of his hard-line stance is not lost on critics – Okamura is of Japanese-Korean origin. All the same, his support has grown to over 10% of the vote and 22 seats in Parliament.

The Communists are Back

In October, the Czech Republic will commemorate the 100th anniversary of an independent Czechoslovakia. Perhaps even more important is the commemoration of the 70 years since February 1948, when the Communists seized power and condemned the country to 41 years of economic, cultural and moral decay. The Communists executed 262 political opponents and directly or indirectly, caused 420,000 people to leave the country.

Today, the Bolsheviks are again gaining power – Prime Minister and populist billionaire Andrej Babiš, himself a former Communist with a record of cooperation with the secret service, is courting their support for his minority government. No post-revolutionary prime minister has dared to do that until now. The former Sudety, where both Communists and populists have strong support, remains a testament to how poorly some Czechs are coping with, and learning from, their past – and of the devastating influence the Communist legacy still has on the country to this day.

The First Republic

When the empire was dissolved in 1918, Bohemia inherited up to 70% of the industry of Austria-Hungary, most of it located in the border regions within a stone’s throw of the new rump state. The Sudetenland initially sought to join the Austrian republic, but as this would have meant splitting historical Czech lands, the new government in Prague quickly quashed these ambitions. Nonetheless, the Deutschböhmen and Deutschmährer (German-speaking Bohemians and Moravians) were in a strong position in their new country, owning directly or indirectly more than three-quarters of Bohemian industry.

For over 700 years, German-speaking communities have settled and lived in the border regions of Bohemia and Moravia.

Between the wars, “the north-western Sudetenland belonged to the most economically advanced areas in the country,” explains historian Perlín. Bohemian glass and porcelain, as well as beer, schnapps and other liquors, were world-renowned; Czechoslovakia was one of the world’s 10 leading industrialized countries. Prague hosted French surrealists André Breton and Paul Éluard, along with native grandees like Karel Čapek and Franz Kafka, boosting the self-confidence of the young state and its Czech and Slovak peoples.

Share of German-speakers in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia in 1930

While the First Austrian Republic fell into a profound identity crisis after World War I, and Hungary, traumatized by the Trianon treaty, burned through several rulers, systems and currencies in record time, the First Czechoslovak Republic was an island of relative stability and dynamism in Central Europe. The splendor of this time still glistens today in places like Prague’s Lucerna cinema.

Dark Times Ahead

However, the luster faded with the Great Depression. By 1932 European trade had fallen to a third of its value in 1929, with industrial production plummeting more than 40% in Czechoslovakia and unemployment hitting the heavily industrialized Sudetenland particularly hard. As the economic situation deteriorated, rising nationalism, fascism and national socialism in Europe complicated relations even further between the government in Prague and the mixed border regions.

There was also a lingering feeling of many German-speaking Czechs that despite sharing in the post-war prosperity and democratic processes – in the 1920s, a majority of them voted for so-called “cooperative parties” – this new state was not truly theirs.

“With a population of 3.2 million, there were more German speakers than Slovaks in the First Czechoslovak Republic,” points out Milan Hlavačka, history professor at Prague’s Charles University and member of both the Czech and the Austrian Academies of Sciences. “For historical reasons, they were also well-educated and strongly involved in the economic and cultural life of the country. Yet while Slovaks were recognized in the name of the state – they even had a stanza in the national anthem in their language – no such official gestures were extended to the German-speaking population.” Instead, Czech was mandatory in schools and in public spaces.

Of course, such slights cannot excuse how, in the 1930s, many readily supported the idea that the Sudety should join Germany, particularly given that their rights as citizens in a democracy had always been respected. What they do show, however, is how the centuries-old melting pot of Central Europe, imperfect but still intact, started to unravel in the years leading up to World War II. It was the specter of nationalism, in societies that proved unable to find adequate answers to the questions it faced, that tore Europe apart.

In the wake of the world wars, country after country in Europe was left with ethnically homogenous but incredibly impoverished  societies, losing their diverse peoples and their ancient connections, traditions and history.

The growing tensions after The Great War were overlooked but fanned by the Nazis across the border, leading to growing support for the Sudetenland joining Hitler’s Germany. In the Munich Agreement of 1938, France and the U.K., notional allies of Czechoslovakia, helped Hitler annex the Sudetenland, thereby stripping the young republic of the regions where most of its heavy industries and natural defenses were located. Half a year later, Hitler occupied the rest of the country, while the Slovaks declared a separate state, a satellite of the Nazi regime.

Where is my Home?

After the end of World War II, all German-speakers were labeled collaborators, and forcibly displaced. In two waves, 2.5 million people were deported, of which 1.6 million went to the American administrated zone of Germany, 800,000 to the Soviet zone (the later GDR) and a small number to Austria. In a cruel twist, some Czechs now committed many of the same atrocities as the Gestapo had before, including death marches, rape, mass murders, looting. The devastation of the region, which for centuries had been an example of peaceful and prosperous coexistence of different languages, cultures and nationalities, reached its tragic nadir.

Then in 1948, the Communists swept in after a coup, winning over the public by redistributing millions of confiscated houses and businesses, and filling the abandoned villages in part with people they wanted to punish or just put out of sight – Slovak gypsies who were accustomed to the nomadic way of life, former prisoners, or poorly educated workers for whom they built lifeless concrete housing blocks.

The counties of Sokolov, Tachov, Děčín and Cheb were soon occupied by people with no relation to the place or the soil, people with no knowledge of the culture and history. They worked in the mines and lived in the barracks. Throughout the 1950s, looting and destruction of buildings abandoned by the Germans was common. And the Czech families who had roots in the region for centuries were too few to revive the local culture and traditions, particularly under the oppressive atmosphere of Communist rule.

The scars of this upheaval are still visible in the Sudety. With open discussion suppressed for decades, it was only after November 1989 that it was possible to talk about it. But after such a long silence, the reaction was predictable: Why are they all pointing at us now? Fear that they might have to return their property to the earlier German owners – something that has repeatedly been ruled out by all parties involved – continues to color the atmosphere.

“The First Czechoslovak Republic was a multi-ethnic state,” emphasizes professor Hlavačka. “There were Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Jews in great numbers, as well as Poles, Roma, Romanians. The Jews were murdered or driven away by the Nazis, as were many minorities. The Germans were expelled in 1946. And the Slovaks said goodbye in 1993. So now it’s only down to us Czechs.”

The society is still trying to figure out what that means in terms of identity.

The city council of Brno, Czechia’s second largest city and the regional capital of Moravia, dared to address the issue in 2015. Mayor Pavel Vokřál invited Germans and Austrians for a commemoration of the “violent expulsion” of the German-speaking population, and the city council expressed its “sincere regret” for what had happened. A similar initiative by politician Dominik Feri in northern Bohemia failed, highlighting how contentious the topic still is.

For Czech President Miloš Zeman, fears and prejudices such as these are key. This year, Zeman won re-election by campaigning against an imagined Muslim invasion; in 2013, he insinuated that his then-competitor Karel Schwarzenberg might reverse the decrees of President Edvard Beneš, which ordered and legalized the expulsion of the Deutschböhmen and Deutschmährer after 1945.

The Paris of the East

The regions facing the greatest adversity are those around Karlovy Vary and Ústí nad Labem, a belt stretching from the southwest of Bohemia to the north to the Krokonoše (Ore) Mountains. Both were part of the Sudety before World War II and at the center of economic prosperity and cultural abundance. European high society used to meet in world-famous spa cities – Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) – who still bask in their splendid architecture from that era; in the Ústí nad Labem region, the charming city of Teplice (Teplitz-Schönau) was once known as the “little Paris of the East,” where Maria Theresia once vacationed and where Goethe and Beethoven met in a park in 1812.

Today, while houses are restored to their former grandeur and the landscape has recovered from decades of Communist neglect, the area with its million inhabitants still lags behind in national statistics. Local pupils have the lowest grades and graduation levels, which is later reflected in their social status.

The northern Bohemian spa city of Teplice, formerly also Teplitz Schönau, was a popular destination for Europe’s elite in the 18th and 19th centuries. Empress Maria Theresia vacationed there, as did Goethe and Beethoven, who met in one of the city’s lavish parks. Today, again beautifully restored, Teplice is on its way back to old glory. // © Visit Teplice

“Education has an even greater impact in Czechia than in other EU countries,” explains sociologist Daniel Prokop, who specializes in poverty research. “Children of collegeeducated parents have a much better chance of going to university.” In Czechia, up to onethird of the population is at risk of poverty, many living in the countryside and the border regions. “For 35% of Czechs, an unexpected bill of €400 would be a problem,” he says.

Although the country is one of the fastest growing economies in the EU, wages are rising slowly. Many poor people feel betrayed by the transition years, reading about higher salaries and chances to travel but not experiencing it themselves. The Czechs see themselves as a hard-working Central European people – just like their Austrian, Bavarian or Saxon neighbors – who have been cheated of their due place and prosperity by the betrayals of history. And the way back seems awfully long.

Just as politicians in the 1930s underestimated the political dangers in the Sudety, today the problems of remote regions are underplayed. The frustration of the locals, especially the “repo men,” was a political windfall for extremist Tomio Okamura.

An (old) new Beginning

Yet, in recent years a number of projects have sprung up promising to mend the fractures that still afflict the Sudety – economically, culturally and even in public discourse. The German luxury car manufacturer BMW plans to build a giant polygon in a former dump in the Sokolov area for €200 million to test self-steering cars. The complex could one day employ up to 400 people and is exactly what the region needs – a sophisticated engineering activity attracting talented brains.

Another such initiative is, surprisingly, located in Děčín, where the largest Czech technical university ČVUT opened a branch in the mid-1990s with a focus on nuclear physics. Over time, this investment in the region’s intellectual potential has borne fruit, as more technology companies have set up shop.

One of them was Doubice-native Filip Molčan’s Good Sailors project, which employs dozens of disabled programmers. Another is Prague’s Mibcon, specializing in corporate information systems, which opened an R&Dcenter in Děčín several years ago. “In Prague, Brno, Plzeň or Liberec, technical schools mainly cater to big IT companies. In Děčín, there is less competition for workers, but they are equally talented and capable,” explains Ondřej Dědina, CEO of Mibcon. Local employee played a crucial role in the decision to open a branch here – reflecting stronger bonds now between the land and its people.

Often cultural projects can have the broadest impact, like the movie Habermann (2010). Based on a true story of a miller and his Jewish wife who, despite their best intentions, were caught in the Czech-German hostility, the film is an effort to reconcile with the past; its production also shows how far we have come. Filmed in Czech and German, this Czech-German-Austrian joint venture used actors from all three countries – a mini-cosmos of what was once normal life in the Sudety.

Another initiative is Antikomplex, a touring exhibition of historic photographs of the region, often showcasing lost villages reverted to nature (see gallery) – hoping to spark a debate on how to revive them. The website, a register of vanished places in the region, is trying something similar, aiming not to reopen old wounds, but to remember, rediscover and revive. What unifies these initiatives is a desire to reconnect the people now living in the Sudety with the rich heritage of the land and encourage them to make this legacy their own.

Perhaps, if places like Horní Blatná and Doubice can reconnect with their history while getting ready for the challenges of the future, the people of the Sudety can lead the way – for their own country and Europe.

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