Our Locations in France

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Random Reactions to Central Europe

Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube
For the last two weeks we have been traveling through Central Europe, specifically Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. We expected the cities and countryside to be beautiful, and it exceeded our expectations. We were told that the people would be friendly, and they exceeded our expectations. We were warned about pickpockets, car thefts, corrupt police, prostitutes, "consumption girls" and merchants that would attempt the cheat us, but we did not have any problems. However, we were unprepared for some of the things that we saw.

Typical communist art / propaganda on the side of a police station in Prague

Note the scaffolding protecting pedestrians
from falling pieces of the building
First, the contrast between Austria and the rest of Central Europe (which was formerly behind the "Iron Curtain") is startling, especially in the countryside. In Vienna, we felt like we were in Western Europe. Budapest, Bratislava, Krakow, and Prague were in most respect similar to large cities in Western Europe although the impact of World War II and 40 years of communism was evident. The most obvious evidence of the destruction of World War II and 40 years of neglect under communist regimes was the crumbling buildings that seem to be everywhere. Many of the buildings, especially on the side streets, have nets and scaffolding protecting pedestrians from the crumbling buildings. Although many of the communist plaques and monuments have been removed, there are still plenty of plaques and monuments reminding you of the power of the communist state (see picture above).

Apartment building in Krakow
with nets protecting pedestrians
from falling pieces of the building
Another reminder of the failure of the communist governments were the roads. In some places, such as the Czech Republic, the highways constructed during the communist era look like modern "interstate" highways, but were built so poorly that it is not unusual  to encounter sudden dips and bumps in the road. The skid marks on the road and the gouges in the asphalt after the undulations testify to the fact that some cars and truck become airborne. In eastern Germany, the present government seems to be excavating the communist era highways down to the native soil and starting over.

Picture of Roma community 
The biggest surprise about Central Europe was the poverty in the countryside. It was a shock to drive from the countryside of Austria (which seems to be beautiful, prosperous, and idyllic) to the countryside of eastern Slavakia (which was more beautiful than we expected, but also more impoverished than we expected). Many farm fields seem to be overgrown with thorn bushes and shrubs, and some of the fields that were being worked were being worked by hand rather than with machines.
Roma community in Slavakia (source: SME)
The worst housing that we saw in central Europe was in the countryside and small towns of eastern Slavakia. Many homes in the Slavakian countryside have one or more holes in the roof and sometimes gaps in the walls. Apartment buildings seem to be surrounded by trash. At first, I thought that the buildings were simply uninhabited, but they seem to be inhabited (as evidenced by laundry hanging on the line and people in the yards).  We also saw small wooden shacks behind a factory building surrounded by fences with barbed wire, which made me wonder if the factory was using slave labor. I did not have the heart to stop beside the highway and take a picture through the fence with the families staring at me, but I found pictures of these same or similar communities on the internet. Later were learned that these might have been Roma communities (a/k/a gypsies). Apparently, some of the poorest communities in Central Europe, particularly poor communities in eastern Slavakia, are Roma communities. Many reports suggest that the poverty of the Roma communities is due to deliberate discrimination against this minority.

House of Terror Museum in Budapest
(note that the modern sunshade casts a shadow
that spells out "Terror" on the building)
The second thing that surprised us about Central Europe was the history of wars, persecution and attempts at "ethnic cleansing." Every one of these nations has undergone bloody wars and destruction of the countryside for hundreds of years. It is scary to realize how cruel people can be to each other. The people of all of these nations have endured unbelievable suffering. It is inspiring where individuals and occasionally an entire nation have chosen to forgive past wrongs, or at least not try to seek revenge for past wrongs, thereby helping break the cycle of retaliation. (Unfortunately, in other cases the current governments seem to be continuing the cycle of retaliatory persecution.)

The House of Terror in Budapest, which formerly housed the Hungarian version of the Gestapo and its communist successors, is amazing both for its graphic depiction of the crimes against humanity which occurred within its walls, but also in the fact that many of the people responsible for these crimes (whose pictures are posted on the walls) are still alive and have not been prosecuted.

Controversial Holocaust memorial in Budapest
with protest signs in front of the memorial
As you move from museum to museum in different countries, you realize that history is still being rewritten, reinterpreted, and often distorted -- usually by blaming problems on minority ethnic groups and foreign countries. Each nation's historical monuments and museums seem to emphasize how the country writing the history been the victim of its neighbors and seem to ignore the parts of history where it had been the aggressor. Even Austria seemed to fall into this trap. After going through one of the history museums about the Hapsburg dynasty, I was amazed that there was almost no mention of World War I, which effectively ended the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austrian empire. Another example of rewriting history is a controversial government-sponsored Holocaust memorial in Budapest, which implies that all of the 450,000 - 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed during World War II were killed during the brief occupation of Hungary by Germany near the end of the war, and that the government of Hungary, which was an ally of Hitler during World War II and exceeded the Gestapo's quotas for shipping Jews to concentration camps, was blameless.

Notwithstanding the poverty and the crumbling infrastructure, we left Central Europe with a sense of hope. The people seem determined and optimistic. They have a long history and amazing cultural resources to build upon. There is construction almost everywhere in the cities and things seem to be improving. Most importantly, some of the people seem determined not to repeat the past mistakes of history and free expression of dissenting political views seems to be tolerated.
Protest against Russian intervention
in Ukraine in main square of Old Town Prague

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