Monday, August 01, 2005

Iron curtain

Update for German visitors: this blog does not contain and will not contain any nude pictures of Angela Merkel. You must go elsewhere.

Last weekend, which is also the last weekend before I fly back to Boston on Thursday (with stops in Amsterdam and New York - no better air ticket could have been bought so quickly), we made a bike trip to Šumava ("Bohemian Forest" in German), the mountains in the Southwestern Bohemia (Czech Republic) that we share with Bavaria (Germany).

Figure 1: Preparations after a small training on Friday.

The main goal was to conquer the Great Maple peak ("Gross Arber" in German, "Velký Javor" in Czech) at 1456 meters above the sea level, the highest peak of Šumava. Those who know me in person realize that your humble correspondent is no exceptional athlete or at least not a person who would like to picture himself as an athlete ;-) and therefore he can be quietly proud that he was probably the only person in our team and possibly in the world who got to the very top using the mere power of pedals (well, except for 20 vertical meters or so) on that Saturday.

Figure 2: Bikes near the peak. As a kid, my theory was that the spheres were most likely Pershings that Germany wanted to use for an attack against the Soviet bloc. The teachers did not protest against my theory and I don't remember anyone said the word "observatories".

(The weather was fine; last Friday was the second hottest day of the last 10 years in Pilsen and around; 38.3 Celsius degrees was the daily maximum. However, a thunderstorm on Friday evening abruptly reduced the temperature by 15 Celsius degrees or so; it had also caused a blackout in our hostel which prevented me from seeing the happy end of "Sister Act" on TV NOVA, the leading Czech commercial TV station.)

But of course, this is not the main reason why this note is being written. The main purpose of this article is to celebrate the freedom we re-gained after 1989. In theory, we only needed the Czech Republic Identification Card ("Občanský průkaz" means "Citizen's ID" in Czech and it is used instead of the driving license if the situation has nothing to do with driving haha) to cross the border; no passport is necessary to visit Germany.

In practice, we did not even have to show this document to cross the border. Instead, we have had a friendly and entertaining conversation with the Czech and German border guards who work together. Compare this pleasant experience with the laborious, annoying, and uncertain procedures associated with the U.S. visa, one-hour-long lines at the airport's INS, tired INS officers, fingerprints, and so on, and you will understand why for a Central and Eastern European citizen, the U.S. is not as attractive as it would be if the U.S. were a member of the E.U. or, alternatively, the Czech Republic were a member of the American Union instead of the European one. :-)

(A week earlier, one of the interesting moments of our trip to Prague occured when two Arab tourists with a backpack were "racially profiled" by two Czech cops. The poor guys had to show their backpack. While I find such stories slightly painful in individual cases, it seems obvious to me that such checks simply have to be done.)

But some comparisons are even more drastic. In the 1970s and 1980s, Šumava was already a favorite destination for tourists from Prague, Pilsen, and elsewhere. Thousands of people always went skiing there in the winter and some of them went hiking in the summer. But something was different. The main different thing was the iron curtain. When I was a kid, we used to sleep in various hostels. One of them was at the end of Železná Ruda ("Iron Stone"), the last town before the "evil" capitalist empire. Whenever we were returning to our cottage, we had to ask the socialist border guards for a permission because it was already in the dangerous zone. Once again, in practice it was often an easy experience. But don't forget: we only needed to return to our own hostel in Czechoslovakia.

However, it turned out that this cottage was actually a mile or two miles from the actual border! There is one more Czech village behind Železná Ruda along the road, namely Alžbětín (let me translate it as Elizabethville). During communism, it was apparently another forbidden area occupied by the border patrols and/or the military. Today, it is another village with commercially used buildings whose facades have been repaired a lot. On the Czech side, most shops are either owned or rented by Vietnamese retailers; these guys seem to be banned in Germany. What they sell is typically cheap, and no doubt, their existence is a virtue for many Czech customers (including me). I buy a lot of stuff from the Vietnamese and not only because of the price; they have kind of revived the proverb "the customer is our king".

You may ask why it's exactly the Vietnamese who dominate the cheap street shops in the Czech Republic. I don't know the exact answer; it's a kind of a phase transition. We also have thousands of Ukrainians in Czechia and they usually have very different jobs (typically low-salary jobs, despite their PhD degrees they have acquired in Ukraine). There is clearly a pressure for a foreign worker to acquire the same job as his or her countrymates. However, whether or not there exists a rational justification of the correlation between the jobs and the nationalities - a historical, social, or genetical justification - is unknown to me.

Figure 3: A forest prophet.

Back to the discussion about the iron curtain.

When I was 6, my uncle who had emigrated to Melbourne (after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1968) was visiting Europe and he invited me and my mother to Munich. The communists did not allow me to go - they were apparently afraid that we would not have returned; that was my first (and as of today, the last) unsuccessful experience with the visa policies; nevertheless, it was enough to help me to hate the visa systems throughout my life.

Incidentally, my other uncle, the father's brother, was also an emigrant; he and his family moved to Nuremberg, Germany in the early 1980s. Combine it with my exclusive non-membership in the Socialist Youth's Union, my dad's anti-communist jokes, and be sure that if I wanted to join the college, we simply had to initiate the Velvet Revolution in the middle of the high school studies and win it which is what we eventually did (with our college friends in Prague).

In a deep contrast with the story about the cottage in Železná Ruda above, all of us were suddenly free to travel after 1989. In the first years after the collapse of socialism in Czechoslovakia, it was always a cultural shock when we entered West Germany. The roads were always perfectly smooth, the streets were clean, the houses were cute, and the shops were full of many brands of high-quality goods. You could always tell whether you were still in Czechoslovakia or whether the country around you was Germany. For me, these short visits of Germany and Austria were always quite impressive, but also frustrating: not really because I could see that the Germans were 10-20 years ahead of us but especially because I always had a feeling that the improvements of the economy and of the consumers' society wouldn't be enough to make us truly happy.

Figure 4: The backpack has made the last meters more difficult; the front wheel was jumping all the time.

Today, you can still see the difference if you look around for a few minutes. But locally, the countries are compatible. Many houses in the Czech Republic are in a much better shape than they were before 1989; the modern architecture looks fine. There are many places in Bohemia where you could think that you are somewhere in Germany, and vice versa. The GDP per capita in Prague is already above the average of the EU. The story may not be entirely a story of the Czechoslovak progress (incidentally, the Czech GDP grows by 4 percent these days) but also a story of Germany's stagnation, especially after the re-unification. The German perfectionism had to be partially sacrificed and a compromise with the East Germans had to be found (this description of our former allies in the DDR does not apply to any individuals who read my blog, especially not the East German physicist Angela Merkel who is gonna replace Schröder as the chancellor in September). Moreover, the traditional standards of social welfare and other symbols of luxury that had become parts of the German social capitalism started to look unsustainable in this competitive world.

What are the punch lines of this text? You may think that there are many wrong things going on in Europe these days; but you should not forget all the changes since the fall of communism in the late 1980s that have made Europe - especially Central and Eastern Europe - a much better place to live. I also want to stress that the amount of unification of Europe has been more or less enough; I personally don't encounter any problems that would go away if the European unification were deepened. Also, it seems wrong to send a lot of money from Western Europe to the East because the East does not really need it; the low salaries provide the new members with a significant competitive advantage that leads to a higher growth. In other words, the unification process should slow down and other recipes to improve the old continent should be looked for.

Meanwhile, Joe Quimby a.k.a. Jiří Paroubek, the new prime minister, is becoming a true political superstar of the Czech political scene. His approval rating is skyrocketing together with the support for his Czech Social Democratic Party. Most likely, the support won't diminish even after the police stopped CzechTek, a banned Czech techno party, and injured roughly 100 "dancers" (or, if you wish, semi-naked drunk disgusting bastards who were destroying private land elsewhere in Western Bohemia). Mr. Paroubek and Mr. Bublan, the minister of interior, say that the police's response was appropriate. The opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), most likely together with the majority of the population, disagrees.


  1. Hi Lubos,

    I am happy that the Czech people are able to get along with their Germany neighbours, especially after the terrible events of WWII.

    However, I am surprize for your implied surport for Angela Merkel. She is the leader of the CDU which seems to want the Czech people to apologise for the expelling of 3 million Germans at the end of WWII.

    Their point being that the fault for that catastrophe was not just Germany, but England and France as well, and not all Germans were guilty!

    Personally, I believe they were economically better off in West Germany, and should keep their mouth shut!

    An Amateur Mathematician

  2. Great post Lubos - and congratulations on conquering the peak. Next year, the Tour de France!

    Your story was fascinating and illuminating.

  3. Hi CIP and Zelah, thanks for your empathy and compliments.

    Zelah, I'm happy that you're happy but you exaggerate the implications of the WW2 for the present.

    My grandfather - my mom's dad - was not only bitter about the communists, but even more strongly anti-Nazi. The number of people like him who were partly active in the resistance was pretty small, however.

    You should realize that hundreds of thousands of Czechs - maybe even a majority - happily collaborated with the Nazi regime. (In 1942, hundreds of thousand of Czechs even gathered on the Wenceslas Square and promised to be faithful to the Third Reich - a historical event that is rarely discussed in the Czech history classes.)

    And during the war, the Nazis gave the Czech nation a somewhat working version of socialism (until the time when Germany started to lose). You know, the Czech lands were a "protectorate" - an occupied territory that is "protected" by the Third Reich. To some extent, the protection was real.

    Most of the people who were most strongly affected by the war and the Nazi regime have unfortunately died by 1945 which reduces the implications for the present. ;-/ Sounds like black hunor but it is unfortunately an important fact.

    Only a certain fraction of the people above 70 years of age may be influenced by bitter memories from the war; these people typically vote for the communists. For the (three) younger generations, Germany is a richer neighbor, a colleague in the European Union, an important investor and the employer of a fraction of Czechs, a nation of slightly overly perfectionist and serious people.

    For Germans, Czechia is - so far - a poorer neighbor, a place with a lot of common history, a place for good investments, cheap labor, cheaper beer and lunches, and finally also a Slavic colleague from the EU. And it is also the country around Prague which is already a rich and important city.

    Moreover, Czechs were often labeled as the Germans among Slavs ;-). You should understand this as a compliment.

    Almost no one views the EU as a drastically negative thing, and it will be so unless Germans or others will expect us to learn their language or something like that.

    Of course, I realize that Merkel will be more supportive of the SudetenGermans and related controversies which is why I may support the German Left more than what you would expect from a right-of-center person. On the other hand, she is a great deal more peaceful than Edmund Stoiber (CSU), and it is more pleasant if she is the candidate.

    I don't believe that under Merkel, the Sudetenland controversy will become important. For me, a much more material piece of history is the DDR. Merkel is a person who lived in a similar regime as my parents in every stage of her life, for example. It may be appropriate to compare the people from the DDR to African Americans. ;-)

    You know, it is a minority with a poorer background and history, and one feels something special if such people are able to get to the top. A difference is that Merkel's skin has the same color as the West Germans' skin; but something inside is analogous anyway.

    By the way. She's not the chancellor yet. ;-)

    These discussions about the Left vs. Right in Germany are funny. My roommate in 2001-2004 was Jochen Brocks, a left-wing German and a geochemist. Given the history, it's kind of a funny combination to see a slightly right-wing Czech and a left-wing German. Sometimes we had interesting arguments (friendly in the background, of course).

    Germans are very different today. Many of them, especially the young generation, are overly sensitive to any issues that could just remotely remind someone anything from the Nazi era.

    Czechs are different in this respect. The national character is captured by the good soldier Švejk. They make fun out of anything, including and especially themselves, and no enemy ever becomes an absolute enemy.

    Of course that 99% of Czechs would say that they are anti-Nazi, but 80% of them would again live happily under Nazism if it were revived and offered a livable environment.

    It's of course naive to imagine the whole nation to have unified opinions that reproduce the role of the nations in the history. If there are some real sources of tension around the Czech Republic, you will have to look elsewhere than to Germany.

    It is likely that the relation of the white Czechs to the Gipsy Czechs is a more emotional issue today; but don't expect a timebomb.

    All the best