Wednesday, 11 March 1998

A Tribal State

This originally appeared in both Czech and English in Britské listy on 11 March 1998, and a few days later in the Czech daily Slovo. It's important to note that Germany reformed its nationality law in 1999, making it a bit easier for people to claim citizenship based on birthplace.

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Before his flight to Poland, Czech President Václav Havel made several interesting comments in front of reporters, and his most intriguing words concerned Czech racism and EU entry. The country had to decide, he said, whether it wanted a "tribal state" or if it wanted to choose a democratic path which respected the rights of minorities. According to Havel, only the latter would bring the Czech Republic in line with the EU.

It would be nice if this were true, but in reality, the EU is far from a paradise of racial and ethnic harmony. Leaving aside the more bloody examples of Northern Ireland and the Basque region for the moment, it is clear that many countries in the EU have serious problems with racism not only in society at large but also in their legal systems. Germany is a perfect example.

The official German concept of citizenship - jus sanguinis - in today's Germany is inherently racist. By this notion of citizenship, a person born in Germany can have less claim to citizenship in Germany than some people born in Kazakhstan. This actually occurs when the father of the former comes from Turkey and the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of the latter came from some kingdom in Central Europe many centuries before Germany and Germans existed. Such an absurd notion of citizenship based on "blood" is so clearly racist, one could easily use Havel's term, kmenový stát, to describe today's Germany.

It may seem odd that the country which should have the greatest historical awareness of the dangers of tribal nationalism maintains a concept like jus sanguinis in its legal code today. Upon reflection, however, there is a logic to it.

After the war, West German society decided to re-enforce the idea of nationhood despite the abundance of horrifying evidence showing quite clearly what that concept can lead to. The purpose of conceptually maintaining and re-enforcing the idea of German nationhood was to allow individual Germans to wash their hands of their individual guilt during the Nazi era. The notion that "the nation is guilty" takes the onus off the individual, and the individual thus need not contemplate his own crimes during the period. Guilt is transferred upward to the mythical "nation."

It is worth noting that something similar is certainly happening today in Czech society in the wake of the totalitarian era. Czechs also re-enforce the concept of nationhood, and many claim "we" (as a nation, not as individuals) are all guilty" for what happened during totalitarianism. Of course, that re-enforcement of an "us" automatically excludes a "them" who become the target of racism.

Philosophising aside, the point here is that Germany and the EU in general are not exactly great models for countries trying to fight racism. Many of these countries confront the problem of racism exactly as the Czech Republic does. Racism is clearly no hindrance to EU membership.

Still, Havel is right when he says it may be a hindrance to EU entry. The EU will likely play a "holier-than-thou" role throughout the expansion process, and the Czech Republic and others will simply be obliged to obey if they want to join the club. This is just another case of the EU demanding that its neighbours to the East do as it says, not as it does.

But pointing to the EU in the effort to eliminate racism in the Czech Republic is not really the best argument in any case. Racism is wrong because it is unfair, because it promotes some people on a basis other than merit, because it discourages others from making a useful contribution to society and because it usually leads to violence. None of this is positive in any society, and one need not invoke the spectre of Brussels to help eliminate it.

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