More about Czech’s attitudes towards Poles – based on reactions from Blisty’ readers

After the publication of my piece „Je to pravda, že Češi nemají rádi Poláky?” (In English here) in which I analyzed some unfriendly reaction to my previous piece, dividing them in three groups I was literally flooded with e-mails from the readers. „In reaction to your piece, I would like to let you know, that there is a fourth group of Czechs, even if none of them wrote to you. My wife and I like Poles, we also like Polish products, Polish culture etc. And we are not alone – wrote to me for example mr Jiří Ošanec. And he is right – there is a lot of you. I already received over 50 of e-mails (and still counting) and this time not a single one of them was negative.

download3-1024x576Both amount and depth of the e-mails, most of which are of significant lenght and well argumented attempt to analyse current attitude of Czechs towards Poles, gives me much more material to work on and try to get to the root of the current situation regarding Polish exports to Czech Republic. Although some readers accused me of making the problem of nothing claiming that there is no such thing like a trade war, some others provided me a link to this article by Miroslav Vaclavek that seem to prove that the problem is not imaginary.

From the recurring subjects I think I can risk to try to extract main points that might cause unfriendly attitude to Poland amongst Czech public:

1. Těšínsko.

As a Pole, I am quite surprised how one-sided Czech view on that matter is. For example mr. Kozderka wrote: „Poland annected 869 km² of Těšínsko. More than half of the inhabitants of this area considered themselves to be Czech.”Nadpoloviční většina obyvatelstva obsazeného území se hlásila k české národnosti.” This is true, but we have remember that Těšínsko 20 years earlier had more than 50% of Polish inhabitants and Czechs and Germans were a minorities. How it happened that over 20 years such a significant change occured?

We cannot speak about 1938 without remembering Czechoslovakian invasion of 1919. And then the picture tends to put Czechs in slightly worse light, when we remember that it was only pressure of Western powers that stopped Czechoslovakian army from further advances. In international talks division consistent with a result of the plebiscite was agreed. And again it was Czechoslovakian side who was not interested in respecting the agreement and taking advantage that Poland was involved in defending it’s teritory from Bolshevik’s invasion. At the conference of Spa the Czech delegation pushed for that it will be Western powers that will decide over the division of Těšínsko and through backstage activities secured most of it’s lands to itself. Polish government forced upon the wall by the situation on the Eastern front agreed on the condition that Czechoslovakia will allow transit of Polish military convoys and even that was hard to obtain.

As a result, Czechoslovakia took over 1280 square kilometers, inhabited mostly by Poles and including the areas almost exclusively Polish. From a Polish perspective it was a knife in the back to Poland fighting with Bolsheviks, so the events of 1938 when it was Poland that took advantage of the Czechoslovakian situation is often simply considered as a payback.

Yes, we can now come to accuse each other of the unfair treatment of national minority in Těšínsko. Mr Kozderka is right to point that Czech minority was not treated well by Poland after the annexation, it is just worth to remember that war crimes of 1919 war and forced bohemisation of Těšínsko in 1920 are also not the most glorious pages in Czech history… This part of our common history definitely needs to be discussed as different views might lead to lack of understanding and holding a grudge on both sides – it’s enough to compare Polish and Czech Wikipedia entries on that subject to see how divided we are when it comes to interpretation of these events. But I don’t think competent to carry this discussion any further, I believe this is a role of historians, academics and politicians.

Last but not least on that topic mr Jaroslav Kamen made an interesting observation: „Despite talks about Munchen Treachery, nobody says anything bad on contemporary UK and France. Or on Hungary.”. Some of my readers also compared quality of Polish products to German – if the harm done to Czechoslovakia in 1938 should be any significant factor, German products should be of appaling quality compared to Polish and this is not the case…

2. Invasion of 1968

„I don’t think that Polish participation in 1968 invasion damaged Czech attitude to Poles. They had no choice, being, like us, under Russian sphere of influence” wrote mr František Řezáč. Even further goes mr Ivo Tabacek who says: „If someone seeks the root of this hate in 1968, he has to be out of his mind!”. They seem to be in line with vast majority of the readers who are aware, that Polish participation in 1968 events was conducted strongly against the will of the Polish public. And this is where I noticed a strange contradiction in many e-mails. Many readers criticize Polish aggressive attitude towards Russians, both nowadays and in the past, yet still hold some grudge for 1968 – dear readers, in 1968 we did exactly as Russians wanted us to do instead of standing up to them, isn’t it what you expect from us?

3. Relation to Russia.

Polish attitudes to Russians is another recurring topic. Especially current events on the Ukraine seems to bother many of Blisty readers. Poland strong stand against Russian invasion does not meet with understanding – it is often considered as rocking the boat and provoking Russians to further agression (although some readers are of different opinion, or just read too much of Russian propaganda. „How can you support Bandera’s nationalists and Kiev fighting it’s own citizens in the East?” asks for example mr Jaroslav Ouzky for whom obviously Russia has nothing to do with the events on the Ukraine). The reason for these different views might lay in our different experiences. Poland experienced much more atrocities from Russians than Czechs. Beginning from XIX century, when part of Poland was occupied by Russia while Czechs enjoyed relative peaceful existence in a cosy Austro-Hungarian empire then a Bolshevik invasion that we had to fight just after regaining our independence… Soviet crimes in occupied Poland during second world war – deportations, forced labour, massacres of prisoners of war etc. – and their continuation in Stalinist Poland also weren’t helpful to embrace panslavic ideas promoted by Czechs in XIX century… And not only back then. „Germans managed to unite, Slaves failed to do so. And who got it better? For me it’s a big mistake. I believe that if we Czechs, Poles and Russian stick together, it would be much better for all of us” – wrote mr. Radek Vrajik.

Poles are much less optimistic than mr Vrajik when it comes to political relations with Russia for that simple reason that they know Russians much better than Czechs do. If all the Slavic nations came together, as it is suggested by many of my readers, then it would be natural that the stronger one will dominate. Poles have enough reasons to see Russian domination over Slavic world as unacceptable. And I believe that we have more reason for that than just „absurdal Polish obsession with Katyń” as mr Michal Masin summed our relations with Russia.

Thanks to their experience with anti-Russian struggle, along with long standing experiences of living under occupation, Poles also value the power of international support. We don’t want to stand aside, as West stood during Hungarian uprising, and surely we don’t want to support Russia’s interference with other country’s affairs, as we sadly did in 1968. Our history taught as to follow the thinking of Martin Niemöller:

„THEY CAME FIRST for the communist –
– and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews –
– and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists –
– and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Catholics –
– and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant

THEN THEY CAME for me – 
– and by that time no one was left to speak up”

This is why we think that we can’t be quiet when Russians are trying to regain their influence over Ukraine again. Yes, „Ukraine for a many decades was part of the Russian imperium  – and until Majdan protest it was considered as “cordon sanitaire” between EU and Russia. Czechs see, that to change this is already damaging Czech economy, and it might end with terrible war” – rightly noticed mr Vladimir Pavlas. Poles also see Ukraine as a useful bumper state between us and Russia and are aware of the risks and costs of condemning Russia’s behaviour. But Ukraine don’t want to be suspended between Russia and Europe and who are we to deny Ukraines right to decide about its own fate? We weren’t happy when Poland become a „bumper state” between Soviet Union and the West thanks to a decissions made over our heads in Yalta…

„Poles behave shortsighted and stupidly” – accuses us mr Oldrich Kepka. Well, I dare to say that so far our unwillingness to submit to Russian dominance was benefitial also to Czechs. There would be no Velvet Revolution in 1989 without a Solidarity revolution a decade earlier. When first strikes started, Poland for over a two months already had Tadeusz Mazowiecki as a prime minister and partially free elections took place over a six months ago. And this was a result of long-going process that started with „cursed soldiers” fighting against communist Poland in 1940’s, continued through 1956, 1970, 1976 and so on… Many readers recall that they were going to Poland to enjoy more freedom, to watch Hair in the cinema or listen to Western music. It wasn’t given to us of the good will, we fought for it. And that brings us to next recurring topic.

4. Polish fighters vs Czech cowards.

Some readers admire Polish bravery, resistance to German occupation and heroic fight against occupants. Others criticize it as a foolish behaviour, that leads to destruction and rarely brings any good. It might come as a surprise to Czech readers, but the opinion of Poles are equally divided. In the discussion regarding Warsaw Uprising example of Czechs who sat quiet and thanks to it their beautiful capitol did not shared the fate of Warsaw, systematically destroyed by Nazis, often comes up. Many Poles also admire Czechs skillfulness in making their way in meanders of the life under occupation without open agression and explicit opposition. Even Good Soldier Švejk is seen by many Poles as an century old equivalent of Internet Troll, who fights the system by constantly mocking it and spreading destruction while on the outside pretending to be an active participant.

5. Polish conservatism, shallow religiosity and arse-licking towards USA

Yes, this is a problem in contemporary Poland. „We can see how in Poland emerged arrogant Church aristocracy who have nothing in common with Christ’s teachings”. Yes, Mr VK, we, Poles, see that as well and I already wrote about it for Blisty in more than one article. The opposition against church rule constantly grows, but at the same time conservative minority becomes more radical and the gap between those two parts of Polish society widens. I am afraid that this will annoy us (as I am as much annoyed with that as those of You who mentioned it to me) for a quite some time ahead.

As when it comes to our relations with USA, I believe here the change can be expected sooner. Poles mytologized USA for many years, but we are brought down to earth on regular basis. It’s enough to mention that despite all this arse-licking our politicians do, it’s Czechs who can freely travel across the ocean while Poles still need to apply for visa…

6. Polish drivers and other examples of lack of culture. 

For centuries, the Polish elites were always a target of the occupant’s attrocities. Sometimes they were sticking their heads out by themselves – like in uprisings in XIX century. Sometimes they were targetted straight away after invasion – here the fate of academics from Lviv university murdered by Soviets or Kraków academics murdered by Nazis might come as an example. The truth is, that up to XIX century Poles were nation of peasants and aristocracy. There were never such a townspeople’s culture like in Czech republic. Most of the Poles who survived second world war were simply, uneducated peasants and after the war also the inteligence was purged and replaced with people from so called „social advance”. Then it was repeated yet again in 1968 when another purges, aimed mostly at Jewish intelligence took place. Some of my Polish readers might not like this, but the truth is that most of us, Poles, descent from some uneducated peasants. And, as Polish saying goes, „tuxedo lies well not earlier than in third generation”.

Saying that, as a person living abroad but a regular visitor to Poland I have to say that in recent year driver’s culture improved significantly. Now one is able to drive in Poland almost like in a civilised country.

7. Envy of the political and economical successes of Poland.

Many readers speaking about the trade conflict relating to Polish food products mentioned the fact, that Poland managed to secure better deals with it’s borrowers and European Union. Some claim that Poland secured as good farming subsidies as France (which is not true), some point out that most of Polish debt was written off in 1990’s (which is true, but we have to remember that Polish economical situation in 1980’s was much worse than that of Czechoslovakia). It was also mentioned that Poland managed to save it’s farming, while Czech agriculture was completely destroyed by the communist system (I don’t know enough about Czech agriculture, but it’s true that collectivisation of Polish farms failed, while agricultural reform that gave land to farmers was succesful). „Recently situation is getting better, and Czechs start to realise that if Czech Republic is a country that wasted their chance after fall of the Eastern Bloc, Poland is it’s exact opposite – says mr Vítězslav Hlucháň. From what I can read either openly or between the lines, some Czechs see anti-Polish product campaign as a kind of historical justice, but as some of the other readers rightly pointed out, it should be Czech politicians to blame for that they weren’t as succesful in building relations with the West, not Polish food manufacturers.

8. Czechs don’t know Poles or Poland. 

„The biggest problem, of which  Polish side is also partially responsible, is the fact that Czechs don’t know Poland. I can’t say why this is the case, but the significant part of Czech nation spends their holiday in the mountains at the North of our country, some Czechs are often take off to Slovakian mountains, but it never crosses anyone’s mind to cross the border to Poland even for one day. Czechs, who often visit Slovakian Tatra mountains, but they don’t even think about popping out to see those Polish ones, that are really beautiful. The situation is changing for better recently, and Czechs start to realise that if Czech Republic is a country that wasted their chance after fall of the Eastern Bloc, Poland is it’s exact opposite. Nonetheless one can often hear (and I don’t mean only in media, but also in a tramway or in the pub) negative views about Poland. But when I speak with such person, it is always some poor guy who had never been in Poland”– wrote mr Vítězslav Hlucháň. There seems to be a pattern – most friendly e-mails, praising Poland and sharing positive experiences came from people, who have significant contact with Poland or Poles. For some reason though, Czechs don’t visit Poland too often. „I live near Ostrava, just across the Polish border, but I was more times in Slovakia, Croatia, Russia, UK, Holland and Italy. I visited each of those countries for longer, and more often. It is peculiar, as I never felt bad in Poland. I visited Kraków and Mazuria lake district – as I am an angler… It’s hard to say why we don’t go to Poland more”– says mr Radek Vrajik. Some of the readers pointed out that while countries such as Austria advertise their lands as a holiday destination, Poland is almost non-existent at the tourist market. „I think it makes no sense to blame the Czechs or Germans for their racism. You should better try to get more of them making holiday in your country. Convince them with żurek, Piwo grzane, gofry or naleśniki.” says from his Saxon point of view mr Andreas Aysche and I believe he is right.

Mr Libor Petříček shared his opinion as well: „I consider it to be a major mistake of our politics that we don’t aim to strictly cooperate with Poland. I have to add that the same problem seems to exist on the Polish side and it’s a shame, as propably closer political cooperation would also result in improving tourist exchange.

9. Czechs themselves.

Many of my readers wrote only to express their satisfaction with the quality of the Polish product their bought. They seem to be surprised with the negative opinion of others. Mr Jaroslav Kames suggested that complains are only a result of too high expectations of his fellow Czechs. „To understand the complains about Polish goods quality” – he says – „you need to know first, the “typical” (even it say actually nothing) Czech buys the goods with the best quality/price ratio and very often it means the cheapest one. These are not typically but often imported from your country (Lidl, Kaufland and others) and it is not surprising these goods are not the best quality at all, you know, this is not origin problem, only price one. One nice Czech proverb says ‘Hodně muziky za málo peněz.’ – The Czechs are expecting the best quality for few coins – and it doesn’t work”.

The other problem here seems to be a feeling of superiority amongst some of Czechs.
„Part of this reluctance, or maybe even all of it, in my opinion is coming from the fact, that we like to think about ourselves as a Western nation, and look at Poles at an Eastern European and somehow they keep remembering us that we are Eastern Europeans as well while we would like to feel that we are located somewhere between France and Germany” says mr Zbynek Richa. Mr Andrej Votruba does not agree “that the message carried byt my article that Czechs don’t like Poles while Poles like Czechs is true”. But this seems not to be an experience of mr Tomas Cirhan from Aberdeen, who’s research involved Polish and Czech communities in the UK: „Firstly, every single Pole I met (usually as a colleague at many jobs) as well as a number of respondents of my study, were very positive about Czechs and Czech culture, which I always found surprising. Secondly, a number of my Czech respondents stated that they always feel very deeply personally insulted when someone mistakes them for being Polish, or asks them if they are from Poland. Being Polish in the data from Czech survey included such examples of hatred and repeatedly. I never quite understood what makes Czech migrants allegedly superior to Polish ones and what supports this feeling”. His observations are suported by other e-mails in which my readers speak badly about the Polish migrants they met in the UK.

But maybe it’s indeed not only about Poles. Reader calling himself Jarda seems to come with a simpler solution: „Maybe it is simply because Czechs don’t like anyone at all, so Poles are included. Czechs always find in other nation something that makes them feel inferior. And the thought that Czechs are superior is today the only source of National Pride, as even our beer is nowadays made in breweries that belong to foreing companies”– he wrotes.

As when it comes to the whole affair with Polish food products is considered as silly by many of my readers. „People who believe in prejudices are usually heard more than rational majority and tabloids supports those prejudicies.” says František Řezáč. As noticed by Zbigniew Kowalczyk, reader from Opole: while Czech Republic will not benefit from carrying on that trade war, ordinary Czech is reasonable, ignores media and has politics deep in his bottom. „Recently during a train journey I listened for an hour to a Czech pensioner who goes to Cieszyn for his shopping – even for potatoes, that are three times cheaper there and of the better quality.” – says Kowalczyk – „Still, Czech politicians deserve a yellow penalty card from us and we should make it clear to them.

* * *

For me personally all the letters from my readers, both these negative previously, as well as the positive ones now, are a great source to learn how we, Poles, are seen by our neighbours and what we could do to improve our picture in your eyes. I hope that this piece will help my Czech readers can’t see their nation in the mirror and learn something that they would not otherwise be aware of. As if we want to carry on in the spirit of friendship and cooperation, the work has to be done on both ends.

This text was published in Czech in Britské Listy