Contemporary Czech Republic

Contemporary Czech Republic

The Czech Republic has blossomed into a vibrant and fascinating place to visit in the post-Communist era. Bohemia and Moravia, neglected under the Communists, now delight visitors with their picturesque towns and cities, well-preserved palaces and castles, and magnificent scenery.

Situated in the centre of Europe, the Bohemian Basin was for centuries a crossroads of trading routes and a place where different religious and national traditions came into close contact. This cultural diversity has produced a rich historical heritage, which survives in remarkable condition: the Czech Republic escaped serious damage during the two World Wars, though the decimation of the Jewish community and the expulsion of German-speakers after 1945 had a devastating effect on Czech society. Wherever you go in the country you will find well-preserved historic buildings and medieval districts, and many attractive towns and villages.

Since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the Czech Republic has experienced a rapid process of change. While those who lived under Soviet domination have found this economic and social upheaval hard to accept, the younger generations have embraced the change. The speed with which the country is shaking off the aura of its Communist past is astounding. Soviet-style architecture cannot be wiped out overnight, but many cities are now lively cultural and commercial centres. None more so than Prague, which, as well as being a major tourist destination, is carving out a role for itself, both political and cultural, in the European Union. The pace of change in rural areas has been much slower. Here, the people tend to be more inward-looking and are the most sceptical about the country’s membership of the EU, ratified in 2004. While 77 percent of Czechs voted in favour, only just over half of the population voted. There is widespread concern that EU membership will bring rocketing prices and erode the country’s vibrant folk culture. This culture is most visible in the country’s numerous folk festivals, its music and its art and architecture.

Tradition of democracy

The Czechs are very proud of their traditional commitment to democratic values. This means, on the one hand, opposition to any signs of autocracy, and, on the other, a deep-seated belief in the indisputable nature of laws as decreed by the majority. Rules and regulations are respected by Czech society much more than in other European countries. The Czech people’s high regard for law and order means that it is rare to encounter any violence while in the country. The widely proclaimed egalitarianism seems rather at odds, however, with the Czech penchant for titles and ranks - a result perhaps of the society’s bourgeois roots and the centuries-long rule by Austrian bureaucracy.

Social heritage

In a country where almost every town and village has an historic castle or chateau, the people’s awareness of their history is strong – although this doesn’t hold true in areas of the Czech Republic where the chain of local traditions has been broken: by the murder or deportation of entire Jewish communities by the Nazis during World War II, for example, or by the expulsion of German-speakers after the war.

The vagaries of history also help explain the fact that the Czechs are the most secular society in Europe. Closed and empty churches bear witness to the anticlerical feelings of a nation for whom the Catholic Habsburg monarchy was, for centuries, the symbol of national repression. Socially, Czech atheism means that the often divisive issues of divorce, abortion and childbirth outside marriage raise relatively few eyebrows.

Public versus private

For the Czech people, spending time with family and friends is of paramount importance. Weekends in the country are popular, but the most important venues for socializing are restaurants, pubs and bars. Here, it is easy to strike up a conversation with local people. Visitors shouldn’t hesitate to ask if they can join a group of friends at a communal table; indeed, this is common practice. Czechs are well-educated, and are often well-informed about foreign events and politics. It is rare, however, to be invited into a Czech home, which is regarded as a person’s oasis of privacy.

The dualism of Czech society is also reflected in its language. The literary version of Czech (spisovná čeština), used in public life, exists side by side with the colloquial version (hovorová čeština), which has different grammar; the latter is used on private occasions by all social groups.

The dramatic changes experienced in the last decade or so have not entirely removed the Czech penchant for retrospection and nostalgic cult of old things. An attachment to favourite clothes, places and customs occasionally takes on unusual forms. Nowhere else in Europe will you see so many long-haired men who appear to have been transported straight from the 1960s and 70s.

The Czech Republic abroad

Most Czechs are deeply patriotic and, by extension, are proud of their country’s reputation abroad. The Czech Republic’s prestige has undoubtedly been strengthened by the playwright turned politician Václav Havel, admired worldwide for his relentless defence of democracy and civil rights. A major role in the promotion of Czech culture abroad has also been played by a group of prominent authors and artists, including the writers Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal and film director Miloš Forman.