In fall 1994, my first visit to the Czech Republic, I learned a lesson I shouldn’t have had to learn. “Right” or “truth,” I learned, is no one’s exclusive property. I also learned that “freedom,” that is, the return to constitutional law and liberal democracy, comes at a cost. I guess that’s really two lessons.
Before crossing the border by train from Poland, I spent a couple of days in what had once been a favorite Soviet resort town on the Baltic near Gydnia. The waterfront hotel, built with turrets and balconies in an era of extravagance, had grown shabby during the communist decades. The local private economy, in its infancy, was struggling. Tourists were few. My traveling companion, a native Polish speaker, struck up a conversation with a woman sitting alone on a bench by the waterfront. Picture soft evening light, calmly lapping water, a hotel and promenade all but deserted. We asked this attractive woman, dressed as fashionably as one could at the time, how she felt about the switch to democracy. Her answer was equivocal at best. It used to be, she told us, she could walk at any time of night, alone, without any fear. There were no rapes, no personal assaults. Property theft was unheard of. Now? Her expression grew bitter. “Now,” she said, “everyone want something more than they have. Everyone want what they see everyone else have. Now you can be afraid. Now I do not feel safe to walk alone after dark.”
Freedom comes at a cost, okay, I got that, but that she might question its value—that disturbed me. In The Taste of Ashes,by Marci shore, there is reference to Adam Michnik, a Polish writer, describing the dilemma faced by his generation, those who grew to adulthood in the Communist era. In order to champion something those of us who grew up in a liberal democracy take for granted, such as the absolute right of free speech, Michnik claims his generation has to first overcome the “stigma” of their origins. Their journey to freedom is burdened by the heavy baggage they carry of guilt and shame. Michnik suggests a way lighten that load:
“All of us, of that generation, from that background…despise the communist system… We believe that communism was a falsehood from the beginning. We try, though, to understand the people who were engaged in [it], their heterogeneous motivations and their biographies, sometimes heroic and tragic, always naïve and brought to nought. We do this, driven perhaps by a conviction hidden somewhere in our subconscious that it’s necessary to distinguish the sin from the sinner: the sin we condemn—the sinner we try… to understand.”
Not, apparently, all of that generation feel so willing to understand. My first evening in Prague, while sitting at an outdoor café in Old Town Square, observing pastel restored mini-palaces cheek by jowl with towers, cathedrals and bridges still brown from pollution that had yet to be addressed, I was approached by a woman who assumed I was German. She had a bone to pick. I was her intended target. Discovering that I was actually American (having Czech relatives didn’t count since I could speak no Czech), she drew me in as a confidant.
“They act like they own Prague,” she said resentfully of the Germans who’d begun flocking to Prague since the transition that culminated the Velvet Revolution in December 1989. Truth? In her mind, there was but one truth. They were all exploiters, motivated by greed. “They come to steal antiques,” she opined. “My apartment building has original Jugendstil [Art Nouveau]. Thieves steal first my door knocker, then my door handle, then door. They sell to Germans.”
It would probably not have been politic, at the time, to remind her that between 1945 and 1947 Czechs forcibly expelled up to two million Czech Germans, most from the area bordering Germany known as Sudetenland. These Germans were not recent immigrants. Most had been there for several generations, at least, some families for several hundreds of years. This was their home, the only home they’d ever known. And the expulsions were not orderly. They were brutal. The rapes, the group, public murders rivaled the savagery that had been visited upon them by the Nazis. The property stolen from those families? Unacknowledged, never returned. (For details, see Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of Germans After the Second World War, R. M. Douglas, Yale University Press.) None of this occurred to her.
Would she prefer a return to the communist days? I asked.
”Ano, I would go back,” she claimed. “But first I would evict worker families from my home. It is not right. Is my home, not theirs.” Her family owned a lovely flat in a period building near Old Town Square. Re-distributed property was neither a right nor a truth she would condone. Even she saw the contradiction in this. She didn’t care. She wanted her door back.