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Commentary: Czech society is becoming extremist - where will it end?

Prague, 27.2.2011 0:23, (ROMEA)
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The atmosphere of any society can become oppressive and stifling, often for an unbearably long time. The consistency of any atmosphere is almost always changed by politics and politicians, visible people whose behavior is perceived as establishing the norm. This is why changes in the atmosphere tend to precede the fundamental turning points in the life of a society. It is quite possible that such a change is about to occur in our society, because traditional values here are slowly transforming into a caricature of themselves, and the term "human rights" is perceived by many today more as a slur than as a basic concept which we only stumbled across at the cost of a great deal of painful history.

Evil in the community interest

"We should be clear that the real innovation of the 20th century was the totalitarian state and Auschwitz. Auschwitz can also be explained as a result of the archaic, if prevalent, concept of anti-Semitism, but we must understand that there is no clear, organic connection here. Our era is not a time of anti-Semitism, it is the time of Auschwitz. Today the anti-Semite does not turn against the Jewish people, but he does desire Auschwitz, the Holocaust.… It is not easy to be confronted with the brutal fact that the lowest point of existence to which humanity fell during the last century is not just the devastating story of one or two generations, but represents an experiential norm which includes our own potential under certain circumstances." This is the warning of author Imre Kertész, who survived the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald at the age of 15 (from "Waiting for the Hour of Truth -Čekání na hodinu pravdy", RESPEKT magazine no. 25, 2007).

Here I would add that Kertész's idea of the experiential norm is universal and does not just apply to Jewish people and the Shoah. Marija, a Slovenian woman who survived the war of the 1990s in Sarajevo, contemplates the change that occurred in the atmosphere of that society prior to the war in the book "Marijin Dvor" (by Dominika Prejzová, published by Dauphin in 2009) as follows:

"She supposes it was all planned from the beginning. After all, so much hatred and all of that wartime machinery do not spring up overnight. All of that Serbian propaganda, those lies belabored a hundred times, until in the end they started to seem like the truth…. A co-worker told her that her Serbian neighbors, who were also in the Serbian party, left just before the war broke out and never said anything to her about what was being prepared…. A Muslim acquaintance told her that when the war began, her Serbian neighbor came to see her, announced it was finally time to rape her, and then actually proceeded to do so. He hadn't gone crazy, her acquaintance said; until the time came, he had behaved completely normally and they had gotten along well. It just wasn't possible that he had been waiting to attack her all that time. He had probably taken a fancy to her, and during that upside-down time, that attraction transformed itself into rape - but there was probably no point in trying to explain what happened. When a society becomes ready for such an atmosphere, then under certain conditions bad things are not just acceptable, but required - they are done in the common interest, and anything is possible. Many people then supposed that the Serbs were really just reprobates who during the entire communist era had just been waiting for the moment they could overrun their Croatian and Muslim neighbors, that they are people without any moral character. It is true that it was hard not to see them that way when the propaganda from the other side depicted them as inhuman. It is hard to find your way in those mixtures of lies and truths…. The Serbs did the worst things of them all, even though the others gradually fell into such behavior as well, and it probably couldn't have been otherwise…."

It does not take long to establish the sort of "common interest" that turns the existing values upside-down. In the former Yugoslavia, it took only three years. Here we can make use of a well-worn cliché: When the atmosphere of a society becomes so unbearably oppressive, values break down and are replaced by simple recipes, by ideologies which, despite the obvious evil they bring with them, are acceptable to most of society under certain conditions, particularly if the first wave of repression and violence committed by the regime does not concern the majority population, as we know from Germany after the rise of Nazism.

In his 1933 novel "The Oppermanns", Lion Feuchtwanger describes the rapid change in the atmosphere of society with Adolf Hitler's accession to power and the fate of a Jewish family who own a furniture factory. To make a long story short, at the moment Hitler was named Chancellor, most Germans were either contemptuous of or indifferent to his statements, but in less than a year they had learned to keep quiet, to parrot the Führer's nonsense, and to enthusiastically support his "politics" to an unanticipated degree.

The atmosphere here is already oppressive

The atmosphere of Czech society is shifting in a similar direction, towards the same anti-values as in the above examples. For quite some time it has been acceptable to generally label all Roma people "inadaptable", or to directly depict them as the "enemy". All of these Čuneks, Janáčkovás, Jezerštís, Řápkovás and many other politicians have traveled the well-worn path of this "acceptability" through their own stupidity, generalizations, and directly racist and xenophobic statements. Their fellow politicians have defended them, the police have not investigated them, the courts have acquitted them, and the mainstream media has mostly remained either silent or has directly praised them.

Their successors today are already bending the voters' ear in an atmosphere in which neither the police nor the courts have to worry about addressing anything. What previously seemed inappropriate or outright unthinkable is considered ordinary today. The experiential norm has been transformed in the sense described by Imre Kertész. For the time being this is not a "matter of life or death", but in the beginning it never is.

This shift in norms has afflicted all of society, and the proof of this is that it is manifesting itself across the entire political spectrum, including those who describe themselves as left-wing humanists. Some Social Democratic candidates were so racist and xenophobic during the municipal elections that even the neo-Nazi Workers' Party would have been proud of them. Party chair Bohuslav Sobotka's only response was to give the candidates a clean alibi. No one even notices the racist and xenophobic babbling of some members of the Civic Democrats (ODS), because they carry on with complete impunity as far as their mother party, or rather its leadership, is concerned.

The Public Affairs Party (Věci veřejné -VV) has really done "justice" to its pre-election "civil patrols", which experts said were indistinguishable from those sent out by neo-Nazis. The leader of VV in the town of Chodov is now Ladislav Paštéka, until recently a member of the now-defunct National Party (Národní strana - NS). That party's politics freely carried on the tradition of Czech fascists and ultra-conservatives from the time of the First Republic. A hint of those politics is embodied in the time just before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, which is now called the "Second Republic" and which featured a massive restriction of civil rights and freedoms. The NS was opposed to immigrants, Islam, and Roma people. The party is known for its racist publication, "The Final Solution to the Gypsy Question" (Konečné řešení otázky cikánské), for which its author, Jiří Gaudin, was given a suspended prison sentence. The party also refused to recognize the existence of the WWII-era concentration camp for Roma people at Lety.

The experiential norm in practice

The mayor of Nový Bydžov has called on right-wing extremists to cancel a demonstration they are planning to hold there, even though it is he who de facto invited them to town. The mayor spoke about all of the Roma people in town for so long and so persistently as dangerous criminals that the extremists have grabbed ahold of those lies. If this politician had even a little know-how at his disposal, he would have known that this mechanism has functioned in exactly this same way in this country several times before, most visibly at the Janov housing estate in Litvínov: The leadership of the Litvínov town hall shouted for so long that all of the Roma people at Janov were bad that the racists decided it would be worth attempting a pogrom there.

People of this type, who are either full-on extremists or whose behavior operates on the border between what is acceptable and what is extremist, are starting little by little to make it into the highest political positions. This gives almost no one pause, because the societal atmosphere has shifted to the advantage of such people, in the direction of extremism. Czech Education Minister Josef Dobeš, according to news server Parlamentnilisty.cz, is considering making Ladislav Bátora his first deputy as of the start of March. This position reportedly includes responsibility for the ministry's administration, budget and economy, as well as for EU funds. Bátora ran on the candidate list of the extreme-right NS in the 2006 lower house elections as the first-place candidate for the Vysočina region. The weekly RESPEKT has quoted him as saying: "If I identify with anyone it would definitely be Jörg Haider or Jean-Marie Le Pen.“ Not long ago, Bátora would have been standing on the fringes of society, a natural part of a rejected pathology.

It is plain enough that Bátora's possible appointment tells us nothing good about Education Minister Josef Dobeš or VV. The ministry did call Bátora's appointment to the position of first deputy "speculation", but only after a rather long delay and with a transparent excuse, which was that the minister wanted to consult this new staff decision with the PM and coalition partners first. However, no minister ever needs to consult the appointment of a deputy, such consultations are not required. The desire for such a consultation indicates that the person concerned is objectionable and the minister is not sure the appointment will be accepted.

I will end here with a question. Where will this gambling with our norms end? Will it sink as far as the nadir to which humanity fell during the last century?

František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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