If you want to upset a Czech refer to their nation as part of Eastern Europe. The Czechs do not consider themselves Eastern Europeans in any geographic, economic or cultural sense. There is a good argument to made that for the most part they are not. The strongest argument is based upon geography. The fact that Prague is further west than Vienna and almost as far west as Berlin is worth noting, unfortunately most of the world has failed to recognize this fact. Divisions of Europe in the media are still made along East-West dividing lines. Only when Europe is divided into three separate geographical spheres: eastern, western and central does the Czech Republic get grouped into something other than the east. Those who value nuance over the stereotypical will recognize that the Czech Republic’s location places it at the heart of Mitteleuropa, a historical and regional designation that was at its strongest prior to the World Wars. This region consists of historically German and Habsburg lands, with the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia squeezed in between. It was, as it always has been, at the heart of Europe.
Things began to change during the Cold War when Europe was transformed into a bipolar world, with an Iron Curtain dividing it into eastern and western spheres. The Czechs fell on the wrong side of that curtain and are still largely seen as part of that sphere today. The Cold War severed the Czechs from their historical relationships with Austria and much of Germany. Suddenly, Bohemia and Moravia were east of center rather than at the center of Central Europe. The Czechs were cast into a new role, as members of the Eastern Bloc and Warsaw Pact under the Soviet sphere of influence. This situation may now be history, based on a long since vanished geo-political situation, but the stigma still exists. The Eastern Bloc legacy still casts a long shadow across the Czech Republic and affects how the nation is viewed by outsiders.
For many, the Czech Republic is not that far removed from Czechoslovakia, but for the Czechs nothing could be further from the truth. The Czech Republic is much richer, freer and progressive than the archaic communist state that hindered its growth for far too long. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe are still synonymous in for many people. The question begs to be asked, just how Eastern European is the Czech Republic.? The answer, like everything else in this region, is complex.
Between Western Prosperity & Eastern Aspirations – A Post-Communist Utopia
Economically, the Czech Republic straddles eastern and western Europe. The Czechs have largely managed to escape from the dire economic legacy of communism and the chaos of the early 1990’s transition to capitalism and a market economy. The economy has grown to such an extent that it is the envy of fellow former Eastern Bloc members. Some commentators have gone so far as to call it the “Utopia of Eastern Europe.” Such hyperbole does contain many seeds of truth. For instance, the Czech Republic has a higher GDP per person than any of the nations that were considered part of “Eastern Europe” during the Cold War except for Slovenia. And its ultra-low unemployment rate is positively utopian when compared with those same nations.
The picture is different though when the Czech Republic is compared with Austria or Germany. It comes nowhere close to either in terms of economic development or GDP per person. Yet its close geographic proximity to these economic powerhouses has done much to aid its rapid development. It helps that these two nations shared a Mitteleuropa culture with the Czechs for over five hundred years. Taking the long view of the region’s history, communism is an aberration while the relationship between the Czechs and Germanic peoples has been nearly continuous. Due to that long-standing relationship the Czech Republic gets a high degree of direct investment from Germany and Austria due to its low labor costs, highly educated workforce and a population known for its strong work ethic. To a large extent, the Czechs act as an economic bridge for Europe, between western prosperity and eastern aspirations.
Stuck In The Middle – Back Where They Belong
Ethnically, the Czech Republic often gets grouped in with Eastern Europe because the Czechs are a Slavic people. The Slavs are virtually synonymous with entire swaths of Eastern Europe, think Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Balkans. It is also true for Slovakia and Poland, though both would rather call themselves, with some justification, central European. The Czechs are the furthest western outpost of the Slavic peoples. As such they do not have a great deal in common with their ethnic brethren further to the east. They are not Orthodox in religion, or for that matter very religious at all. A 2005 Eurobarometer poll showed that Czechs were the second least religious people in Eastern Europe, behind only Latvians. Those great innovators of the Cyrillic alphabet, Cyril and Methodius, spent a fair amount of time in the Czech lands, but the Czechs themselves use Latin script for their alphabet. Of course, the Czech language is a Slavic one, but the nation’s intellectual and cultural orientation is Central European.
Finally there is the issue of geography. The Czech Republic’s official tourism agency has used “The Heart of Europe” slogan on occasion, but in a scientific sense is this true? Perhaps the best way of answering that question is to figure out where the midpoint of Europe is located. Locating such a point has proven problematic, because it really comes down to the parameters used to find the midpoint. Due to these varying parameters, many different locations have laid claim to the geographic center of Europe. These include central Slovakia, eastern Hungary, western Ukraine, northern Belarus, eastern Lithuania and even an island off the coast of Estonia. If any of these happen to be correct than it means that the Czech Republic lies in western Europe. Of course, politics, culture and economics are not scientific in the same sense as geography. It might be better to say that the Czech Republic lies close to the heart of the European Union. Since the accession of Eastern European nations, the EU’s midpoint is now located in southern Bavaria. This places the Czech Republic just to the east of center, putting it right back where it was for much of the 20th century, stuck right near the middle.