Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

CZECH REPUBLIC: The March that Never Was

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Nov 13 2007 (IPS) - A failed neo-Nazi march in Prague’s old Jewish town has been the object of hyped media attention at a time of growing interest in right-wing extremism in formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe.

Several demonstrations were planned in Prague for the anniversary Nov. 10 of the 1938 Kristallnacht in Germany, when dozens of Jews were murdered and some 30,000 were deported to concentration camps.

Czech right-wing extremists had announced their decision to rally through the old Jewish town defying a city hall decision to ban their demonstration. Close to 2,000 heavily equipped officers were involved in patrolling activities, assisted by helicopters.

About 400 right-wing extremists came to Prague, but they failed to reach the city centre thanks to preventive police action.

The day began with a few hundreds commemorating the victims of the 1938 pogrom in Prague’s Old-New Synagogue, in what Jewish groups planned as also a form of protest against the extreme-right rally.

Some politicians attended the event, but other high-ranking figures refused. Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg said neo-Nazi marches should be prevented but warned of the danger of exaggerating the threat. “Don’t let us pay them too much attention because it is what they wish; they want to be written about.”

The same afternoon, around a thousand anti-fascist demonstrators, some carrying Molotov cocktails, eagerly awaited the arrival of the neo-Nazis in the old Jewish town. “Some of us want to block them, but others want to fight,” Michael, from the Antifa Dresden group told IPS.

The activist was among the many Germans and other foreigners who travelled to Prague by bus to support either the anti-fascist demonstration or the neo- Nazi groups. “As soon as we heard what the Nazis were planning, we decided to come to the Czech Republic and stop this,” he told IPS.

As the Nazis failed to appear, some amused voices could be heard. “Where are the Nazis? Why are we demonstrating against nobody?” said a young man.

Eventually a dozen neo-Nazis who successfully evaded the police controls appeared in the middle of the street and defied the anti-fascist activists with a gas pistol shot. One of the skinheads was beaten up, televisions filmed the fight, but the vast majority of the crowd failed to notice what had just occurred.

In spite of international media reports of clashes in the city, only a handful of skirmishes and five light injuries were registered. The 396 people detained, mostly right-wing extremists, and one-fourth of them foreigners, were apprehended before they could reach the planned location of the march.

Daniel Hnizdo, an international relations fellow at Charles University in Prague who observed the events says the coverage by some of the media had several factual mistakes.

“The media needed a story because nothing spectacular usually happens in the Czech Republic; there was a lot of build up, and when it didn’t materialise they decided to create the story nonetheless,” Hnizdo told IPS. “While there were fights, they were mostly between police and anarchists, and very sporadic.”

Viktor Velek, a journalist for the Prague Post weekly adds that “there were powerful symbols at play that attracted international media – Prague as a city with a rich Jewish past, and the Kristallnacht as a historical milestone of the Jewish persecution in Germany.

“The march also received much publicity because it was accompanied by protracted legal disputes over its lawfulness. This inevitably increased anticipation on the march itself,” Velek told IPS.

The neo-Nazi march that was to go through the old Jewish town was organised by a group called the Young National Democrats under the banner of opposing the occupation of Iraq, but the city hall banned it, terming the action provocative and calling the pretext “fictitious.”

The decision was twice overruled by the Prague city court which cited procedural mistakes. The court said the city hall was not empowered to judge the veracity of the pretext behind a march.

Later the city hall kept the ban by saying the streets of the old Jewish town had been booked by the Jewish Liberal Union every day from October until the end of the year. The extremists proposed eight alternative routes and another date, all through the old Jewish town, but the city hall rejected them all.

Czech right-wing extremists earlier gathered mostly at music concerts, that were regularly raided by the police. They have now begun to seek visibility through political activities such as demonstrations, and legal bodies are finding it increasingly difficult to prosecute them.

Experts claim the extremists are becoming more professional and sophisticated, slowly abandoning socially unacceptable actions. The groups are shifting towards autonomous nationalism, and adopting new symbols at the expense of those connected to historical Nazism.

Some in the Czech political scene rang the alarm bell in late October when the extreme-right and extra-parliamentary National Party announced the set up of a National Guard paramilitary group, reminiscent of the Hungarian Guard.

The creation of the Hungarian Guard last August in Budapest stirred up more controversy and was considerably more visible. Slovakia, a neighbour of both Hungary and the Czech Republic, criticised the Hungarian government for its alleged poor handling of extremism.

Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic, whose country was also under attack from Hungarian and German politicians for reportedly tolerating extremism in the government, asked the Czech Republic not to ignore the creation of the Czech National Guard.

Representatives of the Czech guard claim it is an unarmed body that will serve at rallies and in case of major disasters. The National Party cited the “police inability to secure calm, order and security to the public” and “fear for the behaviour of minorities and immigrants” as reasons to set up the guard.

The Czech civilian counter-intelligence agency estimates that 3,000 to 5,000 people in the country sympathise with neo-Nazi ideology, but they are mostly splintered, weak, and do not pose a danger.

Yet Hnizdo feels that many in the media might be rushing to paint a uniform picture of the region’s extremist trends. “The media has a tendency to put Central and Eastern Europe in one file, and perhaps they are trying to compare Czech extremism to diverse extreme-right phenomena in countries such as Russia, Slovakia and Hungary,” he told IPS.

The Czech population at large is, however, not immune to xenophobic attitudes. According to a recent poll, half the country believes there are too many foreigners living in the country, and 12 percent go as far as saying they should not have the right to stay at all.

About 2.5 percent of the Czech Republic’s 10 million inhabitants are foreigners or of foreign origin, a number well below that of Western European countries.

Yet according to studies, the attitudes are not always connected with either right or left wing ideologies, though close to five percent of the population leans towards extreme right values.

Hnizdo explains that xenophobia and extremism should be understood separately in the Czech case. “There is a lot of public criticism against Czech far-right groups, which are very marginal, but there is a tolerance of xenophobia especially regarding the Roma and Islam, which Czechs express rather passively.”

Republish | | Print |

finite element analysis book