Towns on the Czech-German border are divided by what must be one of Europe’s strangest frontiers. Strange, because there ought not to be any frontier at all there anymore, really: in the Schengen space, people can freely cross the border wherever and whenever they like, and in some towns the only reminder of a border is a small “welcome to (Germany/Czech Republic)” sign. But more than that, the people should be almost the same on both sides: hard-working, mostly Catholic and German-speaking. But 98 percent or so of the Czech Germans disappeared between 1945 and 1947, expelled to Germany and Austria in a gargantuan ethnic cleansing operation.
The houses once looked the same on both sides too, but while many remain, the visual gap stuns you: on one side clean, bright, well-kept houses, shops selling locally made products, local small businesses providing services to local people. On the other, neglected buildings, Vietnamese-owned shops selling junk food and cheap imported goods, far fewer service providers. Things are changing on the Czech side, mostly for the better, but that bizarre invisible frontier remains. To borrow the terminology of a perceptive essay published recently, the Czech side illustrates the workings of three frames of mind: small-country, post-communist, and Central European.
Enter, from behind the rusted iron curtain, a man wearing the rear end of a car. Filmmaker Martin Dušek sports this bizarre getup in a mockumentary showing this week on Czech public television, Mein kroj (Mein Folk Costume). Dušek hails from Česká Lípa in northern Bohemia. As he told a Radio Prague interviewer, when he found out that the “folk costume” of Česká Lípa exhibited in the town museum was an artifice invented after World War II by the new, Czech inhabitants of the town, he thought, “I cannot identity with this fake costume, so I thought that I should make my own folk costume, to have something I can identify with, which I did really. I took an old blazer from my grandfather, even the rear lights from the old Skoda Octavia I had inherited from him.”
And, clad in lederhosen, the red bandanna of the old Czechoslovak Pioneer scouts, and those Skoda tail lights as epaulets, he and a camera crew set off to visit a Sudeten German convention in Augsburg. The Sudeten Germans take their old customs very seriously (on this, go here and search for “tracht”). The humor and the conflict arises from Dušek’s efforts to crash their party in his outlandish costume, claiming Sudetenness through his German-speaking grandfather. The first day, he inveigles himself inside and even takes to the dance floor with a Tracht-clad woman named Ulrike …
… but when he returns the next day and tries to join a procession of elderly ex-Sudeten Germans from various parts of the Czech lands, tempers flare and he ends up being escorted off the exhibition grounds by police.
[“You’re trying to expel me!”]
One man calls Dušek crazy and accuses him of setting up the subjects of his film as buffoons. Indeed, Dušek throughout maintains a Borat-like, or rather Michael Moore-like sincerity, but there is a difference: unlike Sacha Baron Cohen in Kazakhstan, he really can claim some cultural affinity with his subjects, through his ancestry and through living where they once lived.
If “Central Europe” exists as something more than a temporary feature of late 20th and early 21st century political affairs, I would argue that the German-speaking lands belong in it, for one thing because German institutions were the single most powerful civilizational force in large parts of the region. The essay mentioned above (it’s by a Prague think-tank head, Petr Drulák), concisely lays out a scheme for understanding where Czech political culture is at these days. Drulák writes that in the 1990s the “Central Europe” label “was warmly welcomed by Czechs keen to distinguish themselves from (allegedly less developed) Eastern Europeans. However it also distinguished them from being from Western Europe, which represented what they aspired to. EU accession ameliorated most of these fears, and the current Central European condition suggests a geopolitics whose principal components are the Russia, Germany and the US.”
He goes on: “The perceived friendship between Germany and Russia is seen as particularly concerning, although Germany also plays its own important role in Czech mental geopolitics.”
Mentally, and physically, this part of Central Europe is still divided. Thanks to Martin Dušek for trying to bridge the gap through straight-faced wackiness – a classic Czech shtick.
Screen grabs from Czech Television