Analysis: Refugees, the past, Chairman Vodička, and the Russian path of the Czech Fighters' Union
Jaroslav Vodička, chair of the Czech Freedom Fighters' Union (ČSBS) caused a certain amount of disarray - as well as an engaging, spontaneous reaction of rejection from Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon - when he gave a speech at Sunday's commemorative assembly in Terezín that included generalizing, xenophobic blather about refugees. Because Mr Vodička echoes [Czech President] Miloš Zeman (whom he supported during his presidential campaign and with whom he has exchanged medals), and because recently the ČSBS has been joined not just by the President, but also by several other bizarre figures in public life here (the group's cell in Lidice is led by Jana Bobošíková, presidential spokesperson Ovčáček has joined, etc.), the impression might arise that the Union has only now, during these new conditions of rule by [Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister] Babiš and Zeman, been infiltrated by nationalist/populist "elements" who have stolen it from the anti-Nazi resistance fighters and are now abusing it.
The story is different, though: The ČSBS has long been an intolerant institution disseminating chauvinism and leaning toward the very worst that Czech politics has to offer. Some of its members are disgusted by what is going on in it (Pavel Vranský, a veteran of the Siege of Tobruk, recently resigned as Vice-Chair), but they should have been discussing this 20 years ago.
Defender of a "thousand years of values", friend of Putin
Is it absurd that Jana Bobošíková (born 1964), a former member of the Union of Socialist Youth, is leading the ČSBS in Lidice? It is indeed.
However, the chair of the Union, ČSBS, is by all accounts no freedom fighter either. He experienced neither the Nazi occupation nor the war, but was born in 1948, became a professional soldier, and joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
He was thrown out of the party in 1970 and four years later was thrown out of the Army, but I cannot find any mention of his having been involved in any activity during the 20 years of the Soviet-occupied "normalization" period that could be called fighting or resistance (ordinarily I would not accuse him because of that, but he is, after all, supposed to the chair of the fighters' union). During his speech at Terezín, he declared he was concerned with "how to defend the thousand-year-old values of our culture from this invasion by a different culture whose aims we can only imagine," but all it takes is a moment of searching online for one to comprehend that his position on what should be defended is, shall we say, very selective.
In some cases an "invasion by a different culture" whose aims "we can only imagine" doesn't bother him at all. On 16 April 2014, i.e., the day Russia invaded the Crimea, this "fighter" sucked up to Russian Ambassador Kiselev in writing as follows: "Ever since the time of the national uprising, the ordinary Czech person has felt a special sympathy for Russia and other Slavic states and nations. Today, too, the principle of Slavic mutuality is one we call our own ... . It is just the representatives of some Slavic states who are alienating the feelings of most of their own citizens. Even in our country, this is partially the case. That is why we are expressing our disagreement with the information being reported in both the Czech and world media about Russia and other Slavic countries, information that frequently is not objective. We are turning to you, dear Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador, to assure you of our support for Russia. The representatives of Russia, including President V. Putin, should know they have many friends among the Czechs who are following Russia's activities with sympathy and understanding. We especially appreciate the direction in which the values of Russian society is heading."
The entire letter to Putin by his friend Vodička, who holds the Czech Presidential Medal for Service to the State in the Field of Security of the State and its Citizens, can be found here - and this matter has another amusing dimension to it. Activist and commentator Jan Šinágl published Vodička's letter to the Russian Ambassador on his website on 23 April 2014, and even though that version bears the same date as the original, it is not the same, but is significantly richer in terms of content -for example, in these passages: "While during the Soviet era NATO was considered by many to be a defense organization, after the collapse of the USSR it has become an offensive bloc"; "Currently the West is striving to harness Ukraine, even though she is on the verge of economic collapse, and to remove her from the sphere of Russian influence, striving for her to join the West, for the time being freely. This and apparently other efforts to weaken Russia are the order of the day. NATO has de facto arrived at Russia's very borders. We understand that Russia must take measures to defend herself."
There are basically two possible explanations for this: Either Šinágl invented this entire passage in the letter, which I sincerely believe he did not, or Vodička subsequently altered it. He had the opportunity, as the obscure website ceskenarodnilisty.cz ("Czech National News"), which published it, is connected to the ČSBS (which literally links to it from its website).
As I mentioned above, the ČSBS did not accidentally reach the point of having Vodička as chair, but has naturally developed into what it now is. The group is the successor to the discredited Communist regime's Union of Anti-Fascist Fighters, an organization that never succeeded in raising the difficulties of its very dark past, to say nothing of resolving them.
The Soviet totalitarian regime in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was not unacceptable to many members of that Union - on the contrary, they made their careers in it, as can be demonstrated by the symptomatic CVs of its functionaries, who were Army members who fully subjugated themselves to Moscow. The current First Vice-Chair of the ČSBS, Emil Kulfánek (born 1946), "graduated from the Higher Artillery School in Marina (today the Slovak Republic) in the department of weapons technology. In July 1968 he was recruited to be a professional soldier and performed expert technical management roles in the Armament Services for various military units. In 1971 he graduated from a course in expert pyrotechnics and from 1974-1978 from the Military Academy in Brno, Department of Electro-technical Weapons. After three years with the anti-aircraft missile brigade ... he performed expert technical functions at the Ministry of Defense of the Czech Republic staring in 1981."
Another current Vice-Chair, Antonín Štícha (born 1924), was actually in the resistance during the war, but nonetheless: "After liberation he voluntarily joined the Army and graduated from the reserve officers' training college, then from the Military Academy in 1946-48, where he studied tanks, and from 1956-9 he completed his distance studies with the Military Academy in Prague. Until 1982 he commanded tank units for the Central and Western Military Circuit and taught tank preparedness at the Infantry College and later at the Military Department of Charles University and the Czech Higher Technical College."
Since the 1990s, thanks to its leadership, the ČSBS has acted as a domestic post-Communist outpost of National Socialism, rejecting any helpfulness toward (or even just politeness toward) the Germans who were expelled from the reconstituted Czechoslovakia after the war. Whenever anybody has attempted to change that - such as, for example, Oldřich Stránský, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz - that person has been hounded out of the organization (in Stránský's case, specifically for responding with a polite letter when he was invited to visit the Sudeten German office in Prague).
From 2001-2011 the ČSBS was led by Anděla Dvořáková, an anti-German chauvinist who made her mark on Czech history post-1989, among other things, by conducting a protest campaign during the presidential elections in 2003 against candidate Jan Sokol, a former dissident and philosopher, whom she said did not deserve to become President because of his position on the postwar expulsions. She cultivated good relations with the broadest possible range of extremists and with Czech President Václav Klaus (who rewarded her in 2009 with the Order of TGM, First Class), and she also addressed the convention of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (understandably she, too, had been a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia).
In light of the pre-1989 history of the ČSBS representatives, it is especially brilliant that Rabbi Karol Sidon did not confine his reaction to Vodička's "refugee analysis" just to its relevance to the Nazi period, but that he also declared: "My generation also experienced a time when most people knew the Communist regime was criminal but had no other choice but to outlive it. Most of them had the good fortune to survive that regime."
Why should Vodička even speak at Terezín at all?
Let's return to Vodička. It's possible to map even more pro-Russian activities by the current representatives of the ČSBS, but what is most important right now?
What is important first and foremost is the fact that Vodička is a disseminator of extremist opinions and Putin's propaganda, one component of which, naturally, is stirring up fear of refugees, as that will aid in weakening the Czech Republic's pro-Western orientation. There was not the slightest reason to make it possible for him to abuse an occasion like the commemorative assembly at Terezín by making his political, xenophobic speeches.
To put it bluntly, there was no reason to invite him to speak at Terezín at all. Everybody is pretending his participation at these commemorative events has been some kind obligation flowing from the fact that he ostensibly represents the victims of Nazism who are associated in the ČSBS.
That is absolutely absurd: The ČSBS today is an interest group and neither Lidice nor Terezín belong to it - those are national memorials. The members of the ČSBS chose in 2013 to be represented by a man who is an embarrassment and who supports an adversarial, authoritarian regime, then that's their problem, and it would be absolutely appropriate to say to them: "If you want a representative of your group to make a speech, then choose someone respectable."
Understandably, that will not happen because Czech democracy is too diffused, fear of Zeman is too high, and the representatives of various institutions are too crafty - and too obedient. If fewer people here were to behave like one of the most recent figures to join the ČSBS, Cardinal Dominik Duka, and more people were to manage, at the right moment, to behave decently and freely like Rabbi Karol Sidon, then life would be better here.
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