Marek, Irena and their university friends were 20 in 1989. For them the West was a dream that was always out of reach. Or else it was a dream that carried a large price tag: illegal immigration with the risk of not being able to see your country or family again for many years. Jarka took the plunge that year just before the 'Velvet Revolution'. Direction Chicago. Like most of her generation this young woman had her eyes fixed on the United States. Europe? Nothing doing! But whose fault was that? It is difficult to imagine the grandparents of Marek, Irena and Jarka being bewitched by Western Europe: the betrayal in Munich in 1938 (1) put an end to their illusions. Without a doubt they passed their scepticism on to their children and grandchildren. To this historical reason add a more recent reality: the abdication by Western European countries of supporting the opponents of the Communist regime.
Such an absence was felt even stronger during the 'normalisation' of Czechoslovakia after the crushing of the 'Prague Spring' in 1968 (2). The Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, came forward. Important links were woven between the opponents of the East and the actors of American counter-culture. Add to that the lack of information about life in the West in a closed country and you have, in 1989, a youth for whom America embodied a pacifist, libertarian and prosperous paradise, where Bob Dylan played the guitar among euphoric hippies in a field scattered with little flowers. Former President Vaclav Havel did not avoid this enthusiasm and for good reason: American underground rock groups have played an important part in Czech rebellion. The Czech group 'Plastic People of the Universe' took their inspiration directly from Velvet Underground.
Their trial for dissidence was one of the catalysts for the 'Charter 77' opposition movements led by Havel. North American rock music symbolised liberty for Czechs and Slovaks: Vaclav Havel personally welcomed the Rolling Stones at their first concert in Prague after 1989 and the President walked through the streets wearing black shades and a Velvet Underground T-shirt. It is that America that fascinated not Europe that in comparison appeared antiquated, conservative and tarnished.
Czechs and Slovaks alike are starting to cast aside this mythical America; reality has quickly taken the upper hand. The transition from Communism to Capitalism did not happened without pain or distress. Unemployment hit several areas of the two countries hard, notably Bohemia in the North. The youth of Prague had fewer opportunities. Other facts upset them: Macdonald's restaurants and other fast food outlets that sprouted up almost everywhere, cinemas dominated by commercial American films, the worry of unemployment. But when you tackle them about it their reaction is fatalistic: "it's the price you pay for freedom," they say. Sometimes, a very heavy price: during recent weeks several young Czechs shot themselves often right in the street. Two of them left a message declaring that their behaviour was a 'protest' against the way their society was developing "where human beings no longer control anything" and where "only power and money have a voice". In the Czech Republic, according to Radio Prague, adult suicides represent 6 cases in every 100,000 inhabitants, the same as the European average. On the other hand, adolescent (up to age 18) suicide has undergone a worrying development: in 10 years it has risen from 3 to 10 cases in every 100,000 inhabitants.
Fear of a large cousin to the East
This brutal and rapid change to another system, together with a surge in American culture without transition, non-plussed them after the wonder of the beginning. For some, these events have made them realise the common European cultural roots they share with their neighbours. But this development is fragile and fear of the large neighbour to the East, the former USSR, is still very great. Which explains, in part, the impatience to join NATO and recently the stand taken by Vaclav Havel in favour of the United States in the Iraqi crisis. That is clearly the side they want to be on. It seems to them that Europe does not represent a credible guarantee. By joining the EU they hope initially to achieve a decent standard of living and a regulated economy, as the situation in the Czech Republic is today still quite chaotic. Rent often represents the equivalent of a salary. The pay gap between public workers and employees of foreign private companies is without comparison. The arrival of firms from the West and the explosion of tourism have caused prices to rocket, something that has made some people very happy but at the same time has obliged many Prague inhabitants to move increasingly further from the capital or to live with their parents until well after the age of 30.
Today, despite the daily difficulties, Marek still lives in Prague: the Velvet Revolution allowed him to avoid a painful exile in order to realise his dream: becoming a photographer and a film director. He now makes the films that he wants in total freedom. He does not make much money but he is happy. The West that he used to dream about has come to him without him having to move. Irena still lives in New York. In the beginning the high value given to money shocked her. She is critical in many respects. She recognises some positive points from a social point of view about the old regime but she has no regrets: "the feeling in the West of having the choice to decide to do what you want is something very precious" she emphasises. Jarka has returned to Prague for a few months. She does not feel at home: " my homeland is Chicago now" she says, "there is an energy there that suites me. In Europe, Prague or Paris are cities of the past." Being part of the European Union for young Czechs is thus initially an economic choice and a choice of society 'by default': it is the assurance of turning away from Communism. It is currently a decision made without passion, far from the illusions pre-1989. But through strengthening links with other countries of the same continent, this decision might yet become a choice from the heart.
(1) Hitler, Chamberlain, Deladier and Mussolini held a meeting from 29th to 30th September 1938 in Munich. The resulting agreements from this meeting forced Czechoslovakia to cede a third of its territory inhabited by 3.5 million people, half of whom were Germans, to Hitler...The annexation of regions began on October 1st at 6 o'clock in the morning. Wehrmacht's troops progressively occupied the regions to the North West of Bohemia and to the north of Moravia. On the same day, the Czechoslovakian President, Edvard Benes, was summoned to hand in his resignation. On October 22nd he was exiled to London. The tragedy continued. A sitting of the Ministers of Germany and Italy in Vienna imposed ceding the South of Slovakia and Subcarpathian Russia. Czechoslovakia lost over a third of its territory inhabited by 4,800,000 thousand people. (Source: Radio Prague, http://www.radio.cz).
(2) Pavel Tigrid, 'le Printemps de Prague' (the Prague Spring), le Seuil, 1969.