Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Czech-affiliated physicist Angela Merkel back in Prague

The world's most powerful woman, Angela Merkel, is visiting Prague today. She speaks Czech to some extent; to say the least, her skills would simplify her practical life in the Czech lands because she knows how to order beer or a hotel room. ;-) Today, she was asked what food she was served. It wasn't a steak; we received game instead, she answered in Czech.

Oops, correction: she actually said that she was served game so she couldn't say what it was because "řízek" (steak) is the only similar meet she can name in Czech. She can also order a bottle of white wine and say that "I'll slap you in your face" which may have been helpful for her interactions with Czech men 30 years ago. :-)

Klaus and Merkel in Prague today

How is it possible? Why would the world's most powerful woman learn the world's most important language more comprehensively than many devout TRF readers? Well, when she was in her mid 20s, i.e. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she spent several years (well, nine months in total distributed over several years) at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in Prague. Her boss was Prof Rudolf Zahradník [Gardener] who would later become the President of the Czech Academy Sciences for many years during the years of modern democracy.

Prof Zahradník could only say good things about his junior collaborator and comrade from East Germany. Around 1988, several papers resulting from their collaboration were published. As far as I can say and despite the fact that the papers only have 3-6 citations or so, it's a perfectly serious branch of physics and they did research on it in a totally respectable way. (An article by Havlas, Merkel, and Zahradník is the most widely read article of the Journal of the American Chemical Society on the web altogether but that's mostly due to Merkel's current political power.) While atomic and molecular physics and biophysics and physical chemistry don't have to be the most ambitious or hierarchical disciplines of physics, they surely belong to the solid core of the discipline.

While Prof Zahradník would say that Ms Merkelová – the correct form of her name in the Czech language – had all she needed to be a serious physicist, he was never surprised she would become a politician. See e.g. this 2005 Prague Post article and Zahradník's fresh "Merkel is a constant of motion" musings in the Czech radio (his accent in English is cool; he explains that East Germans were more constrained when it comes to traveling than the Czechoslovaks). There was a little joke among Zahradník's German colleagues, soon after Angela became a minister: Through the experience of studying with Prof Zahradník in Prague toward a grand political career in Bonn.

[Just to be sure, my diploma thesis (ex-)adviser in Prague and our linear algebra textbook co-author is also named Zahradník but it's a different one, Miloš.]

Other Czech scientists said good things about her, too. Dr Zdeněk Havlas, the director of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, described her as follows: "It was a girl who was very diligent, systematic, accurate in the German way, and enthusiastic about the research topic." According to Havlas, Merkel's second husband Joachim Sauer is a great scientist [and he would be even better if he focused on acids, a stupid German pun by LM] and Merkel could reach a similar level if she continued as a physicist.

One of the Vindobona trains, launched in 1957. Merkel traveled from Berlin to Prague with these Vindobona trains. In 1979, the pre-war German wagons and some Western wagons were replaced by their fully standardized socialist railways counterparts (even though the train continued to Vienna) so the train was no longer seen as a dangerous messenger from the West.

During her debate with the law school students in Prague today, Merkel remembered her years in Prague. "I was usually going here by train and it was often delayed by several hours which drove me up the wall. At that time, my teacher, Prof Zahradník, was telling me: don't be upset, Ms Merkel, both of us know that socialism cannot work although we may be the only two people on this side of the world who know that." Merkel told the current students that they no longer had to suffer from the planned economy. (As recently as in the 1990s, the Czech law required the railway labor unions to make strikes at least 12 hours long so that the passengers notice it's not just a delay.)

Angela Merkel with Josef Michl, a top Czech American chemist, in 2008.

So Prof Zahradník wasn't quite sad that chemical physics had lost a researcher; of course, he wanted to suggest that her political skills were even greater. I would probably disagree. Czech President Václav Klaus said that Angela Merkel completely lacks the coherent political compass that e.g. Margaret Thatcher used to possess. And despite some words from Merkel's mouth that may sound encouraging, I agree with him.

After all, what did her trips to Prague tell us? I think that they tell us that she was compatible with the socialist regime and she didn't really care about politics. From this viewpoint, she was as far as you can imagine from the concept of a dissident. Her story shows that her greatest achievement in her opposition towards socialism was that Prof Zahradník thought that she thought that socialism didn't work. But she was apparently less interested in politics than folks like Václav Klaus, too. So I would still say that she was pushed to the top of German politics mainly due to the combination of two types of affirmative action, one helping women and one helping East Germans, and her apparent success mainly reflects her proximity to the average German.

Current Czech-German relations

The current Czech-German relationships are the best ones in the history. (A perfect replica of a concentration camp will even be built in the middle of Prague: photos, article.) This is true despite the differences in the official foreign policies of both countries. Germany represents all the efforts to federalize the EU and create some modern Germany-centered federation on the European continent, a Fourth Reich with a human face, if you wish. On the other hand, Czech foreign policy is the most sensible i.e. most euroskeptical one. President Klaus is of course the most colorful representative of this fact but even if you look at the slightly less colorful Czech governments and the Parliament, you would see some diluted version of Klaus's caution in their attitudes.

Needless to say, those things don't really hurt. As long as the countries don't intervene into its internal affairs, no one really feels threatened in any significant way. That's true in the Czecho-Slovak relations and many others, too. The new Slovak prime minister, Mr Robert Fico, is a horrible person. He is a social democrat who despises the principles of the free markets and even the Velvet Revolution. To make things worse, he's much more charismatic than any comparably old or young top Czech social democrat. I would clearly hate him if he were a Czech politician. ;-)

But when he's just leading a country that we may consider a foreign one today and when he respects all the traditional above-the-standard Czecho-Slovak relations and diplomatic niceties, it's just enough to appease people like me. Slovakia is an independent nation, after all. If the sensible rightwingers in Slovakia can't manage to beat a chap like Fico, it's mainly their problem. After all, we have very analogous problems and worries that directly influence us, too.

Merkel has talked to prime minister Petr Nečas, another physicist (plasma physicist), and our president, Václav Klaus. One may see both similarities and differences in their proclamations.

First, they agreed that they would respect the decisions of the other country when it comes to nuclear energy. That sounds like a good deal for us. Merkel has informally promised not to question the planned expansion of our nuclear power plants; on the other hand, Nečas agreed that we won't use our powerful Czech military to force Germany to return to nuclear energy that Germany wants to abandon due to the German citizens' prevailing post-Fukushima irrational hysteria. When you compare the sizes of both countries, you may agree with me that it's a pretty good deal for us. If Germany decides to stop its coal power plants (so far they're thriving more than ever before), it will see that this agreement is a good deal for them, too. ;-) Both sides have also agreed that they will improve the grids to protect both of them against the irregularities of the output from the German pinwheels.

The organization (and petition) "Start Zwentendorf" is a friendly twin organization of "Stop Temelín", an Austrian anti-nuclear movement. The goal of this Czech organization is to start an Austrian nuclear power plant that was stopped by a referendum in the late 1970s.

When it comes to the European fiscal affairs, Czechia belongs to the coalition with the U.K. that didn't sign because it opposes attempts to politically centralize the EU. Germany is the official main force attempting to centralize the EU. So there is some difference here. But when you think about these things rationally, these differences are secondary. What is really primary is whether a country wants to impose some fiscal discipline and expect it from others. And be sure that Germany and Czechia are on the same boat. Our PM said that we're "shadow signatories" of the pact because we pretty much obey its conditions, anyway.

Still, the proclamations during the press conferences may have differed brutally.

For example, PM Nečas insisted that the European Union has been, from the beginning, an economic, not political, project, and it should remain one. I am afraid that Ms Merkel doesn't quite agree. She is just beginning to speak now. It seems that in her speech – and her debate with the law school students in Prague – she avoids the topics in which she should disagree. So she repeats some words by Nečas that Europe has to be competitive. She even said that "the crisis has demonstrated that the political union and shared competitiveness doesn't work". Wow. She thinks that we need to do trade with countries like China and India, too.

She's been peaceful on her visit. Not only our nuclear rights were tolerated and she has even echoed the Czech pro-trade, anti-political understanding of the European integration. She also declared it was fine for us not to sign the fiscal stability pact (along with Great Britain). I am sure that there are people in Germany who are even more fanatical euronaivists and who will criticize Merkel for not "slapping their into face" but they're wrong and I gather that Merkel partly understands why they are wrong and how sensible as well as cordial the cautious attitude of Prague is.

Czech-German relationships in the past

According to the Czech nation's most articulate and media-savvy leaders of the 19th century, the history of the Czech nation is the history of the confrontations with Germany. Communists happily adopted this attitude. I have had many natural patriotic sentiments since I was a kid and many others may have been squeezed into my head by education, whether at schools or in my family or via TV or whatever, but let me say that the hostile definition of the Czech history sounds pathetic to me.

Germany has influenced Czechia in some negative ways but it has influenced us in many positive ways, too. Its atmosphere has included the Czech lands into the Western civilization a thousand of years ago, at least marginally, and I think it was a good thing. A century or two later, Czech kings would invite skillful German craftsmen into the territory we would call the Sudetenland since the 1930s. And it has worked very well or at least well until the 1930s. Of course, the influence of Germany on Czechia – and other lands – during the World War II was much less human and respectful but it wasn't 100% bad, either. During the centuries of the Austrian Empire, the Czech national identity was weakening but it survived and at the end, a fair observer may see that the co-existence with Austria has had good effects, too.

Much like Germany has been kind of important for us, there are segments of the German nation for whom Czechia or Czechoslovakia have been naturally important territories and nations throughout the history.

In particular, Austria may be defined as the subset of the greater German ethnic demos that decided it's totally OK to share states with Slavic and other "more Eastern" groups of nations. Of course, when it comes to the pure latitude, Austria is more Eastern than Czechia, but that's not the case for the "broader language families" into which the nations belong.

Bavaria has (almost) never been integrated with Czechia but the amount of trade and cultural exchange has made Bavaria and Czechia very similar, almost twins. Just consider the traditional brass band music and the beer culture in the countryside, not to mention the omnipresent dumplings.

And East Germany became particularly aligned with Czechoslovakia during the era of socialism because these were the two most industrially (and, arguably, otherwise) advanced countries of the Soviet bloc. We tried to keep some contact with the Western culture and technologies; most people in both countries had some idea that the living standards in the West were significantly higher (this level of knowledge wasn't quite a normal thing in the Soviet bloc); and there were many reasons why we could understand each other today. Merkel's delayed trains to Prague, much like the melted East German plastic spoons in the coffee mugs in "Cozy Dens", represent the typical shared achievements of the two countries. One could also compare the Czechoslovak and East German cars but it would be like comparing a good joke (Škoda) with a joke (Trabant) that is so brutal that it isn't funny anymore. ;-)

Today, Czechia, while trying to remain independent enough, after a comparison of the independent Czechoslovakia with the era of Austria-Hungary, Third Reich, or the Soviet bloc, is fully integrated to the broader German economic space. One could say it's more integrated than countries like Denmark or the Netherlands. Much of it is due to simple geometry. If you look at the map of Germany above, you see that a significant part of Czechia – but not the other country – belongs to the "convex envelope" of Germany. My hometown of Pilsen is safely inside this envelope (although it has always been a nearly purely Czech town, with at most a small German minority); Prague is almost exactly lying on the boundary of this envelope.

But it's not just about the geometry, I think. It's also some habits at work that we used to share a century or two centuries ago as well as the "more free" markets that still allow the German companies to spread to Czechia and used the cheaper labor for rational reasons rather than because of multi-trillion subsidies that East Germany would receive in the last two decades.

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