Poland: Why we heart the Czechs
9 February 2011
According to a recent survey, Poles are more fond of the Czechs than they are of any other nation. Polish author and Czechophile Mariusz Szczygieł wonders: could it be that the Poles see in their Czech neighbours qualities that they would like to have themselves?
Today I received a text message from my Czech friend Petr Vavrouška on the subject of the figures from the Polish Centre for Public Opinion Research (CBOS), which indicate that half of Poland’s citizens have a soft spot for the Czechs: "You have no one else left. You don’t like the Germans, the Russians or the Belarusians, and you’ve even fallen out with the Lithuanians. In terms of neighbours, you are reduced to the Czechs and the Slovaks."
Being born a Czech atheist was a sin in itself
According to the CBOS survey, 51% of Poles have a special place in their hearts for the Czechs, as opposed to only 12% who admit to disliking the population on the other side of the southwestern border. The Slovaks were ranked second with 49% approval rating, and the big news is that the citizens of both of these countries are more popular than the Americans – who can still count on the affection of 43% of the Polish population.
To think that for years, I was convinced we did not like any of our neighbours, and that the mere fact of being born a Czech atheist was a sin itself. But now, I am glad to report that the tide has turned. I have no idea as to why so many Poles confess to a liking for the Czechs, but I know why I have a soft spot for my friend Petr Vavrouška. For the last two years, the Warsaw correspondent for Czech radio has lived in Poland with his wife Katka and their two children. When he recently filed a report on the beatification of Jean Paul II, the station asked him to re-record the piece because he had been a little over the top.
At issue was the very Polish manner he adopted in discussing "Jean-Paul II’s miracles." He quite simply overlooked the fact that for a Czech audience, you have to talk about the “alleged” miracles of Pope Jean-Paul II. As the Czechs are wont to point out: we like them because they are not devout like us. When Petr speaks to priests, he often forgets himself and tends to call them “Mr” instead of the more traditional “Father” – and if they make a fuss, he feels obliged to point out that it is either “Mr” for gentlemen or “Mrs” for ladies.
We love them for the qualities that we lack
When comparing the election campaigns in the Czech Republic with those in Poland, he was fascinated by the fact that Polish politicians, regardless of their political colour, bang on about “patriotism” – a word which is completely absent from political debate in the Czech Republic. What he really wants to know is: “Why on earth are you Poles so afraid?” When asked about the difference between our two nations, he inevitably raises the question of "hysteria" on the issue of national identity – a syndrome that plagues the Poles but does not really affect the Czechs.
Petr believes that we would like to have a Czech sense of calm and balance. As he puts it himself, “hysteria and exasperation are just not our bag.” The Czech Republic has accepted its status as a small country, while Poland appears to be involved in an obsessional quest for someone to cut it down to size. Poles cannot decide whether Poland should be viewed as a small country or as a nation on an equal footing with Germany and France. As Petr explains, this is a question that is constantly eating away at us, which will probably never be definitively settled.
For what it is worth, here is my take on this survey: the 51% of Poles who have a soft spot for the Czechs, love them because they are everything that we are not, and because they act in a way that we have yet to emulate. We love them for the qualities that we lack, and would very much like to acquire.