Large-scale social catastrophes may simmer under
the surface of everyday life for decades, until their agents feel the right
moment has come.
Looking back, we tend to blame nations running inexplicably amuck, as
the Germans did during the Second World War, or we blame deviant individuals
-- for example Hitler, Stalin, or today's Karadzic and Milosevic, or aberrant
ideologies, like Marxism-Leninism.
I believe that this type of madness is not restricted to a specific
nationality, race, religion or political ideology. This phenomenon can
be found in every population, and it affects its specific parts. The question
is: which parts?
A simple model for illustrating this problem is that of sectarian groups,
such as the skinheads. They stand out by their appearance, ideology, rituals,
symbols, overt defiance of the law and of the norms of conduct. Under normal
circumstances, they would represent only a marginal fraction of our society.
However, during escalating economic, political and national tension, they
are not marginal at all.
The 1996 statistics of the Movement for Civic Solidarity
and Tolerance (HOST) show that about 750 racially and ideologically motivated
attacks have been registered for the same period. The HOST report names
Czech skinheads as being responsible for seventeen deaths (one Turk, nine
Romanies, two anarchists and others). These statistics underlie the stories
of individuals who live their lives feeling as if they are still wearing
a star on their chests simply because they were born as Romanies.
Unlike the ultra-right-wing sectarian groups, there are groups which
profess their ideology of hatred legally and legitimately. An example of
this is Sládek's Republican Party. Its sympathizers, comprising
several percent of the Czech population, represent a real power, one that
threatens the Romanies and immigrants from the East with a "clean-up".
Reading their papers and listening to their leaders, one does not have
to think hard in order to understand just what kind of a clean-up they
have on mind. The Jews and Romanies have already experienced similar people
in power. My mother, father, and my closest relatives all remember the
organized deportations, concentration camps, and the confiscation of property.
This occurred in Slovakia, and the perpetrators were Slovaks. At the same
time, Czechs in Bohemia were setting up and running a concentration camp
for Gypsies in Lety near the town of Písek.
Last year I spoke with Holocaust survivors in the Czech Republic. They
all agreed that the start of anti-semitism in the Czech lands occurred
before the Nazi occupation. Following the end of the war, upon their return
home from concentration camps, the surviving Jews were confronted with
the hatred of those who had confiscated their property.
It's time to say once and for all: the Third Reich
would have not been able to execute its program of racially and ethnically
motivated exterminations in the Second World War, without so many "helpers"
willing to help the Germans anywhere they came. Not only their descendants,
but they themselves are living among us today. Have our war criminals --
those responsible for the running of the Gypsy concentration camp in Lety
-- ever been brought to justice?
Survivors become witnesses. Their testimonies are gathered, published
and stored in archives as a warning for future generations. Nevertheless,
their suffering can never be adequately described. During her life, my
mother never found the courage to tell her children what it was like to
be in a concentration camp. This experience is shared by almost all concentration
What then, is the remedy? First, despite the difficulty in communicating
the level of atrocities, the circumstances leading to their escalation
are communicable. These escalations can not only be monitored, but also
controlled by preventive measures.
Second, a state can not, by itself, undertake the entire task of forming
the right conditions for society. There exist people who aren't impressed
with the idea of economic prosperity, who probe the civic rights of children
and of Romanies, who attack the legal system and the police for their lax
approach to these problems, and who bombard the government and parliament
with cases. However, important issues such as the protection of civic rights
and freedoms must not become exclusively dependent on the actions of a
few. These issues must become the concern of the "ordinary citizen".
It is fairly easy to imagine skinheads in action.
After all, we have seen them fighting for the purity of race, nation, and
faith -- for "our cause". It is much rarer, however, to see an ordinary
citizen defending the victims of their violence. Such defence, developed
to combat racially, ethnically, religiously and politically motivated violence
must be tough, uncompromising and intolerant towards its agents.
It does not matter whether such civic self-defence takes the form of
independent movements, foundation-associated activities, or isolated individual
acts; the important thing is that social deviations not escalate into ethnic
purges, as was the case in Bosnia, right before our very eyes.