They're there to protect the pointy heads from the crowds of protestors that always assemble to scream them down. This is a bizarre security arrangement considering it's the Klan that extols and practices violence, but it remains within the bounds of the US Constitution, a document that guarantees the right to peaceful assembly for all citizens. Neo-fascist groups in the Czech Republic, however, enjoy no such rights. Czech law explicitly forbids the public display of fascist symbols or the expounding of fascist ideology. Given the modern history of the region, the anti-fascist laws make sense.
And yet skinhead rallies regularly receive not just the tacit consent of state police, but their active support. Opposition rallies are routinely dispersed with force, while skinheads are treated to free security. In a national political culture that views anarchist collectives as more dangerous than neo-nazis, this practice raises precious little controversy.
Only when Berlin or Brussels cracks the whip over lax Czech enforcement of anti-fascist laws do token shows of police attention occur.
These occasional arrests are always broadcast with bugles on the 7:20 news, as if they represented standard practice by the Czech police. But standard Czech practice is quite different. Massive rallies of skinheads - including many from Eastern Germany, where they rarely dare to congregate in such numbers - are quietly tolerated (and even attended) by Prague's finest. The most recent example of this came in late February, when a skinhead meeting at Eden hall near Zelivskeho drew several dozen protestors.
True to form, the police moved against the collection of (admittedly militant) leftists who were holding a counter demonstration. This was a micro version more memorable events, like May Day 1999, when the cops went on a rampage against protestors and bystanders alike as they cleared a parade route for several hundred skinheads carrying red, black and white flags. But despite scant media attention and the relatively low number of arrests (19) and injuries (3), the clash between police and leftists in February was a landmark.
The protestors were holding camp at Eden hall because inside the Nazi Party of the Czech Republic was being born. The new party, duly registered and preparing to field local candidates, is called the Narodne Socialisticka Strana. As in, the National Socialist Party.
This birth followed an evolution. First there was the ultra-conservative Republican Party. But tensions between extreme and moderate factions led to the defection of a hard-core of neo-fascists, who had joined the Republican Party only when the seig heiling National Alliance was banned. The Republican Party defectors founded Vlastenecka republikanska strana (The Patriotic Republican Party) and had it legally registered, careful to avoid the mistakes of the National Alliance.
When a critical mass of skinheads further infiltrated the Patriotic Republican Party, it became a seething, thoroughbred fascist organization with an alleged 2,000 members. Hence the hastily called meeting in February voting to change the name to the National Socialists and bring other Czech far-right groups under its tent.
By any reading of this nation's laws, the meeting should have been raided and shut down, all equipment and assets seized. Surely the only thing more glaring than the evil of Czech skinheads is their Cro-Magnon stupidity. Naming your party after the war machine that invaded your country, occupied it for seven years, burned down villages and murdered thousands of your citizens is just not smart politics.
But poll driven electoral gamesmanship isn't what Czech skinheads excel in. The twenty-eight corpses and several hundred serious injuries that they are responsible for over the last ten years is more representative of their interests and talents. The terrorized Roma communities around the country and dark skinned individuals who feel threatened at night are their real legacy, not the smattering of local council members that they may eventually succeed in electing.
But while their urban goon squads and impunity from punishment are clearly the most urgent threats posed by the skinheads, their political efforts cannot be ignored, however marginal they may seem. Part of neo-fascist mythology is the story of Adolf Hitler and his small band of brown shirts growing into the big black Hulk that violently outgrew the frail clothing of the Weimar democracy. They do have explicit political ambitions and the smarter among them have strategies for achieving them.
The mere presence of their parties in the political arena is legitimizing and allows them to act as vehicles for the intrusion of barbaric and antidemocratic ideas into a free society still experiencing growing pains. Those who argue that it is also antidemocratic to bar far-right groups from politics are correct. It is antidemocratic. But it is nothing compared to the kind of antidemocratic praxis that these groups teach their victims in the street, to say nothing of their fantasies for the future of "Motherland Bohemia."
If you want to see what real antidemocratic animus in domestic politics looks like, read the first 400 pages of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Or talk to one of the dozens of dark-skinned residents of Prague who've had their faces kicked in on Wenceslas Square.
When the police are not willing to enforce the anti-fascist laws on the books and the political class shows little concern over the Ministry of Interior's lack of control over its own forces, the onus of responsibility falls elsewhere. Unfortunately in this country that crucial layer in the body politic called "civil society" is still onion skin thin.
There are no soccer moms attending anti-fascist rallies like they do in Salt Lake City, no thousands of working people marching against skinhead violence like they recently did in Frankfurt. The vast majority of Czechs are still terrified to open their mouths about anything beyond the realm of the personal, and do not yet understand that they are political agents responsible for the destiny of their country.
Given this state of affairs, it is doubly disturbing that politicians and journalists collude in further demonizing the only real organized counterweight that exists to the far-right in the Czech Republic: the tiny Left. Though widely reviled and often abused, the sole native groups actively involved in opposing neo-fascism here are the anarchists and international socialists. Vaclav Havel's comments against racist violence are welcome, but when was the last time his voice went hoarse in the streets? Where is Jiri Pehe when the skinheads hoist swastikas over Narodni trida?
It's always been thus. When Franco's fascists attempted a military coup, it was the anarchists and the splintered left that went to war, while the bourgeois world watched complacently "without a dog in the fight. " Hitler managed to gain the support of some unions and leading Social Democrats, but the more militant socialist groups and trade-unions constituted his main opposition until 1933, when thousands of leading labor leaders and communists were sent to concentration camps.
This is a great oversimplification, but the larger truth remains that historically the hard left has been the most active agent against the extreme right. Some like to conflate the two into the same moral unit, but those who do so mask a conservative agenda and show an ignorance of history. The heroes on the frontlines consistently opposing the rise of fascism in Europe earlier this century were anarchists and followers of Trotsky - not Stalin. In fact during the 1920s it was Stalin who hindered the development of a United Front in Germany, and his betrayal of the German proletariat resulted in rank and file Communists leaving the Party in droves. Had it not been for the ideological noose hung over Berlin from Moscow, it is likely that the Nazis would have been thwarted by a coalition of left forces in Germany, once home to the most developed workers movement in the world.
And today, the leftist groups in Europe organizing against racism hardly admire Stalin or Pol Pot the way their right-wing counterparts admire Hitler and Hess. Unlike those on the right, young leftist activists are capable of learning from history and do not think that gulags and ironclad Comintern party lines are good things. More importantly, they don't go around killing people.
But even if the Czech government and its security forces did decide to join the anarchists in outrage and crack down on neo-nazi groups, there is always the chance of backfire. In Germany, membership in the far-right National Democratic Party has shot up from 1,000 to 7,000 since parliament began debating the future of its legal status.
The law of unintended consequences was also on display in the EU's attempt to isolate Austria's Freedom Party. Clearly state pressure is not enough on its own to combat the spread and growth of extremism. Fundamental to any long term strategy to combat neo-fascism are national full-employment policies that remove the need for scapegoats, as well as honest assessments of a country's will to absorb immigration.
Coming to terms with the causes of extremism and limiting its growth are long-term projects with no easier answers. The Czech Republic is no different from any other European country in confronting an uncertain and difficult future in the age of globalization.
But as it struggles to maintain social balance in the face of larger forces, this country must keep a pillow firmly clamped over the face of the ugly Nazi baby, all the time vigilant and mindful of the unwanted effects oxygen might have on its ability to grow.