Why are Czech Roma in ghettos?

The Communists not only made it harder for Roma to assimilate, but also provided a blueprint for discrimination lasting generations

In north-west Bohemia on the outskirts of Most, next to the Bílina River, exists one of the most notorious housing projects in the whole of Czechia.  Widely considered to be “a zone of deprivation”, the Communist-built Chánov contains almost the whole of the Roma population which once hailed from the old city of Most. Today, the Roma population in Chánov face well-documented cultural, educational, social and economic exclusion, as well as a constant struggle for space as the population of the crumbling housing estate increases.  These deep-rooted issues are not just applicable to Chánov, but also to much of Europe; contributing to Amnesty calling the European Roma one of the “most deprived and discriminated minorities”. Chánov is just one of many microcosms of the situation of many Roma communities in Europe.

Chanov view

 Photo by Vladimir Beran, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0

For many, the word “ghetto” is not pleasant and conjures up images of poverty-stricken minority groups crowding into one particular part of town, becoming isolated from mainstream society and having no interest in working.  This is grossly unfair and the history of the creation of these so-called “ghettos” must be analysed to see how the Roma became stuck in a vicious cycle of ghetto-life and discrimination.  By taking the example of the destruction of Old Most, the erection of New Most and the creation of Chánov in the former Czechoslovakia (present-day Czech Republic), it will become clear why you will find Roma ghettos in Czechia and other parts of Europe. 

The Roma arrive in Most

When the Czech government-in-exile returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945, Edvard Beneš (the reinstated president) issued constitutional decrees that put into force an aggressive programme of expulsion of the German population from the Czech Borderlands. Although a dark chapter , many ethnic Czechs saw this as an opportunity and decided to move to the Borderlands in search of a better life. Roma, searching for an alternative to their dire living and working conditions in Slovakia, also began arriving in the Borderlands in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At first, the Communist planners saw this as a positive social trend, fitting an ambition to transform the Borderlands into a well-oiled industrial machine, and fulfilling a desire for the typically nomadic Roma population to settle, assimilate and conform to Communist social norms.  However, the Communists’ supportive attitude turned quickly to one of concern.

The ‘Gypsy Question’

Compelling Roma communities to conform to Communist norms was easier said than done. In 1950, the first Czech Communist premier, Klement Gottwald, ordered a Commission to find a solution to the disturbingly phrased “Gypsy Question”. An initial report on the Position of Individuals of Gypsy Origin in the Work Process had no real effect until 1958, when the Communists published a last-ditch declaration to find an “unconditional solution”. At this point, a more forceful policy of assimilation was pursued.

The declaration of 1958 divided Roma into three categories: nomadic, semi-nomadic and completely sedentary, and worked alongside a new law, No. 74 on the Permanent Settlement of Nomadic People. This legislative package  limited the movement of approximately 5%-10% of Czechoslovak Roma and gave obligations to local authorities to collaborate with Roma communities to find work and housing. Typical of Communist legislation, there was a punitive element for Roma who did not conform and continued a ‘nomadic lifestyle’: jail time. These early policies were neglectful of the rich culture of Roma communities, did little to tackle health and educational issues, focused too much on material equality rather than diversity and, most significantly, started a process of explicit stereotyping.

The fatal category

Compelling local authorities to provide work and housing for Roma was a step in the right direction. This soft approach (albeit with punitive threats) was short-lived and, in 1965, a survey of Czechoslovak Roma was taken – known as Ordinance No. 502. The recommendations of the Ordinance were quickly adopted as policy and were seen as vital to solving the issue of integration. The Ordinance further placed Roma into three categories.  Category I and II were similar to the classifications made in the 1950s for semi-nomadic and completely sedentary Roma, but it was Category III, which described Roma as ““recidivist, half-wits, alcoholics, criminals and jobless or uninterested in working”, which was fatal for Roma assimilation during the Communist era.

Aggressive social categorisation backfired because, throughout Czechoslovakia, the vast majority of Roma were placed in Category III.  At a time when antigypsism was increasing, this sort of categorisation compounded Roma assimilation. In what can only be described as legally endorsed stereotypes, the Communists not only made it harder for Roma to assimilate, but also provided a blueprint for discrimination lasting generations. The stereotypes of Category III endured long after Communism and, even today, it is common for majority populations in Central and Eastern Europe to regard Roma as backwards, stupid, alcoholic, criminal and unwilling to work.  

With this destructive description of the Roma community, the policy aims of full employment and settled assimilation become utterly unachievable.  Roma were naturally opposed to being ripped away from their communities and the opposition of majority population municipalities, heightened by aggressive stereotyping, made Roma largely unwelcome and vilified. 

The perfect laboratory

An example of these failed Communist policies was the old mining town of Most which benefited from the post-war migration of ethnic Czechs and Roma. With the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States gaining traction and ever more demands from industry for natural resources, Most was a key player in the coal supply chain of Central and Eastern Europe. So, when it was found that the city itself was sat on 86 million tons of coal, “zealous communist productivism” kicked in and decreed that the historic city had to go. It was also a chance for the Communist planners to put their plan to urbanise the Roma into action.

In a sizeable logistical exercise, the majority of ethnic Czech families were moved from ‘Old Most’ by 1970 and relocated to state-of-the-art apartments in ‘New Most’. However, the Communists, after the failed policies of dispersion, were struggling to solve the town’s “Gypsy Question”. The local authority did not help itself because, with the guidance of Ordinance, they only allowed Category I Roma (working) to be relocated to the new apartments in of ‘New Most’ and the remaining Category II and Category III Roma (86 % of the local Roma population) were left without a future. This came back to haunt the local authority, as Roma were forced to survive in an abandoned and crumbling old town; creating a ghetto. 

From one ghetto to another

In 1975, it was decided that a new housing estate should be built to house the Roma surviving in the old town, allowing for the remnants of the city to be destroyed.  The district of Rudolice nad Bílinou would be the location of a new estate called Chánov and, by 1979, twelve apartment blocks had been built with a capacity of approximately 360 flats. The Communist planners had managed to provide modern housing for the Roma, but had essentially moved the deprivation and segregation of the old town ghetto to another location. Disastrous central planning, the categorisation of Roma as social outcasts and racial discrimination all played a part in the creation of the Chánov ghetto and, certainly, other Roma ghettos in Europe.

The issue of Roma assimilation was insensitively dubbed the “Gypsy Question”, dehumanising vulnerable communities and forgetting that the lives of real people were affected by the discriminatory attitudes and policies. Chánov stands as an example of the power a state can have, both in terms of policy and public perception, and should serve as a call to the modern Czech and Slovak governments to use their power to push forward ideas of genuine and constructive methods of assimilation.

Edited Version of Assessed Paper at Charles University in Prague entitled: “Chánov: A Case Study on how the Communist Legal Attitude to Assimilate the Roma Culminated in the Creation of Ghettos”, Fil Sys, January 2018

One thought on “Why are Czech Roma in ghettos?

  1. Pingback: The Hostel on the Hill | Fil Sys Blog

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