Interview with Benjamin Tallis
for Atlantico France, originally published here (in French)

Atlantico: 18 years ago this week the EU gained 10 new members. You explained on twitter that EU members tend to see “enlargement as a form of charity, bestowed by a virtuous Western Europe that pays the costs, while Easterners – who should be grateful – get the benefits.” Why is this vision both wrong and problematic ?

Benjamin Tallis: It’s wrong because Western Europeans also greatly benefitted from EU enlargement. It’s problematic because it created an unmerited hierarchy in the EU. It led to a false sense of superiority in Western European EU states which left people in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) with the suspicion that they are still seen as ‘2nd class Europeans’ – and that they and their governments are judged more harshly because of it. 

It might not seem like it today, but it was never certain that the CEE states would get full membership of the EU, rather than just ‘association’. In fact, many Western European states thought they could get most of the benefits of enlarging by offering this lesser status, and without having to pay so much for it. However, securing membership of the EU – and NATO – was crucial for CEE’s sense of belonging as well as security and hope for a better future. That’s why it was so important for dissidents turned statesmen, such as Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, to make sure that what they called the ‘return to Europe’ was recognised in an institutional way. 

To do so, they played somewhat on fears in Western Europe of democratic backsliding or even the rise of aggressively anti-democratic regimes in CEE. They argued that it was, therefore, in Western Europe’s interests to truly bind their region into the EU and ensure that its democratic transition took hold. Yet they also appealed to Western Europeans’ conscience, highlighting their own role as dissidents, as symbols of the suffering that their people endured so that the West could enjoy stability. This worked and helped get the CEE states into the EU – but it created a false impression that enlargement was, at least in part, an act of charity. 

That’s also because Western Europeans didn’t properly acknowledge the benefits they would get from enlargement. The economic benefits for Western European companies and societies were clear, even considering the financial support that was provided to CEE states to help their transition. What is not properly accounted for are the political and security benefits that enlargement brought. Enlargement made a very substantial contribution to sustainable security on the European continent – and transformed a moment of great uncertainty into a path of mutually beneficial progress. 

This was not only because it greatly reduced the risk of conflict in or between those accession countries, but because it validated and legitimised the EU’s geopolitical model. It greatly increased the EU’s geopolitical weight and its potential to act in the world – and thus Europe’s ability to influence global order.

Atlantico: Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky asked for a fast accession of Ukraine to EU membership. According to you, we undercalculate benefits of a possible adhesion. What is the real cost/benefit calculus that needs to be done ? What are the benefits we underestimate? 

Benjamin Tallis: Many Europeans are concerned about the cost of reconstructing post-war Ukraine or the difficulties that would come from some parts of its territory being under Russian occupation. Others worry that Ukraine wouldn’t make the necessary reforms to become a member and so we shouldn’t raise expectations about membership that we are not willing to honour. They point to the history of failed reforms in Ukraine and in the Western Balkan countries and lament that, despite engagement with the EU, these countries have not been able to come up to ‘European standards’. On that basis they argue that we should not offer Ukraine candidacy for membership, but rather find some form of alternative – as Emmanuel Macron seems to have proposed recently. 

The people who make these arguments seem to ignore or downplay the fact that Ukraine is fighting against an aggressive and oppressive regime, for all of our values and freedoms – and for Europe’s security and so merits special consideration for candidacy. Their attitude, when faced with such remarkable courage and valour, perhaps shows the extent to which the malaise of technocratic and narrowly defensive or cynical politics – have taken hold in Europe, but there are also other flaws in their case. 

The trouble with these arguments is that they are self-fulfilling and self-referential – while also ignoring important lessons from European and EU history. Self-fulfilling because without the possibility of full membership Ukraine has less incentive to make all those reforms, which will be hard but are much needed – as Ukrainians know better than anyone. Self-referential (on the part of EU leaders) because it is they who would judge whether Ukraine has made the reforms necessary to allow it to become a member – a political process that is often disguised in technocratic language. The main obstacle to Ukraine becoming a member would be these leaders’ own unwillingness to welcome it in to the EU. 

These arguments also overlook how Germany was reconstructed after WW2 (which paid off for everyone) or how Cyprus has been integrated into the EU despite its own territorial issues. Most importantly, they ignore the EU’s own role in previous, failed reforms in Ukraine and the Western Balkans. The EU’s broken promises, half-hearted support and continued moving of the ‘goalposts’ for meeting standards led to a loss of faith and a loss of trust. It led Ukraine and the Western Balkan countries to suspect that they were not really welcome, not really considered European enough for the EU. That caused huge psycho-social damage and resentment and replaced the virtuous cycle seen before the 2004 enlargement with a vicious one. 

The (somewhat) hidden cost of this failure was to the EU’s influence in its neighbourhood and a wider loss of geopolitical credibility. That’s a cost we also need to factor in when evaluating now whether to offer Ukraine a membership perspective or, as Macron suggested yesterday, something lesser than that. There is room for innovative thinking about how to get there, but in my view, nothing less than candidacy for Ukraine with a clear perspective of membership when reforms are made, will do. 

Atlantico: How do you explain that the EU has lost part of its geopolitical sharpness regarding this matter or other ones? 

It’s fundamentally about a change in attitude, a change in worldview and approach – which relate to how Europe sees itself. The EU’s forerunner organisations were created to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems and to transform threats into opportunities. Through ‘creative geopolitics’ – the re-imagining of sovereignty and borders to foster mutual interference and oversight – European states were able to both prevent war between them and allow deeper mutual engagement for mutual benefit. That’s the fundament of the peace and prosperity that was long the EU’s calling card. 

This approached worked because it unleashed a ‘transformative power’ that transposed structural conflict (e.g. between France and Germany) into structural cooperation via a deep interconnection of nations as well as states. This fostered a greater frequency of encounter and density of interaction between peoples and businesses, as well as governments, which took the danger out of the differences between European peoples. The EU’s power was transformative in another way too – it helped sustain the transition of states and societies, such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Germany, from dictatorships to democracies. This  benefitted their own citizens but also other states, with which they were less likely to come into conflict. 

This method was complemented and empowered by a ‘progressive security’ approach based on a voluntary ‘Sphere of Integration’ model, rather than the imposed ‘Spheres of Influence’ beloved of Vladimir Putin and some ‘realist’ scholars in International Relations. Progressively greater integration offered the possibility – and provided the means to deliver – brighter futures for more people (which is the essence of progress). It depended on seeing a world of opportunity, rather than just threat. 

This is what really changed – the EU and its member states started to see the world (inside and outside) in a more negative way and thus changed their approach. A more traditional geopolitical viewpoint replaced its creative approach, the pursuit of hard power (via military means which remain a long way off) replaced transformative power and a protective rather than progressive security doctrine took hold. We can see this in reluctance on enlargement, in the way in which the EU turned inward migration into a crisis and in the EU’s reliance on technical, legal and regulatory processes rather than politics and outcomes. 

Atlantico: Is re-enacting the true meaning and worth of what it means to be part of the European Union an important thing to do in the actual context with Ukraine and in general? What should this vision precisely be ?

Benjamin Tallis: I very much think so. Ukraine’s brave fight has inspired so many people across Europe and around the world and we should seize that chance to reflect on what we really want to achieve and how to go about doing it rather than simply accepting our ‘fate’ and trying in vain to shield ourselves from it. A key pillar of President Zelenskiy’s appeal to the West for help has rested on ideals – as he has had to work around the limited material power his army could wield. Instead, he has appealed to the idealistic moments in European and North American history, where we have gone above and beyond to do the right thing – even if it was hard to do so. He’s also confronted us with moments where we failed to do that. 

Sadly, that’s a failure that we’ve also seen from the EU in recent years, including in relation to Ukraine. This failure fits with the view of Europe as a continent in decline which sees itself as having reduced economic and geopolitical influence in future. This declining Europe thus needs to protect what it has rather than innovating to further develop or, more ambitiously, trying to spread the benefits of its (former) model. Worse, it risks turning relative decline (due to the rise of others) into absolute decline (whereby we, ourselves, fail). Such an approach will likely be self-fulfilling – we can read the EU’s ‘Strategic Compass’, its new security strategy in this way. It paints a dark picture of the world and makes little meaningful reference to, for example, supporting or promoting democracy and ideals. It imagines an EU that tries to protect itself from the world rather than engage it with progressive, transformative intent.

This is what’s so dangerous about proposals like that made by Emmanuel Macron on a multi-speed/ variable geometry Europe. This isn’t a new idea but the suspicion is there now, more than ever, that it’s a device to keep Ukraine in the permanent twilight of not-quite membership – and to relegate CEE members who don’t share Macron’s view on Russia (e.g. Czechia, Slovakia and Poland) to a ‘2nd class’ version of membership. The problem with all of this is that it not only forgets the better aspects of the EU’s history but it also imagines a problematic Eastern European periphery and a problem-free Western European ‘core’. That’s nonsense of course – as anyone following French, Dutch, Austrian, Danish, German or Luxembourgish politics over the last few years will know. 

Many observers also detect a desire to put French interests and ambitions first – for France to be a classic great power, a peer of Russia, and the EU is the vehicle to get there. That might be unfair but Macron will have his work cut out to convince others, especially in CEE, that it is not in fact the case. Given the more idealistic approach that, for example the Baltic states, Czechia and Slovakia have take to this crisis, it will be hard to do so while the protective security, hard power and traditional geopolitics approaches dominate EU discourse – however far they are removed from reality. 

Rather than this questionable approach, which offers more of the same half-heartedness to Ukraine, and more of the charity approach (and its hierarchical underpinning) to CEE more generally, the EU should learn the right lessons from its history and update them for the future. As Jacques Delors put it, taking Europe forward requires “three qualities: vision, heart and strategic realism.” We should take inspiration from this now, but to do so we would need to properly assess the costs and benefits of enlargement, including in relation to the EU’s geopolitical influence. The EU should leave the hard security in Europe to NATO – it has far more to offer in other ways. Military capabilities are necessary but not sufficient for the kind of real, deep and meaningful security that the EU was founded to provide. 

The progressive security approach depends on a positive, optimistic outlook that threats can be transformed into opportunities and a belief that we can overcome uncertainty to create brighter futures. Ukrainians have given us all the chance to revive that approach. We should seize it – for their sake and ours. 

Interview with Benjamin Tallis
for Nepszava, originally published here in Hungarian

GEOPOLITICS As a result of the war in Ukraine, a new, values-based approach to foreign policy is emerging from the region. However, Hungary is being left out of this process and is becoming increasingly isolated, said Benjamin Tallis, a researcher at the Hertie School in Berlin.

Nepszava: In your recent commentary, you wrote that a new model of morally-based foreign policy is emerging in Central-Eastern Europe, which you called neo-idealism. How did you notice this?

BT: The Czech Republic and Slovakia’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine shed light on this approach. These two countries provided material support to the attacked country, coupled with a strong moral commitment. They have been at the forefront of military assistance, being amongst the first to send heavy weapons to Ukrainian forces, for example. They also make it clear with gestures that they are on Ukraine’s side: Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala visited Kiev in mid-March and met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in person among the first foreign leaders since the outbreak of the war. Neo-idealism is also echoed in the rhetoric of Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who regularly makes moral arguments to say that the Czech Republic must stand firm for democratic values – and challenges those countries that dont.

Nepszava: You are talking about Czech and Slovak idealism, yet these two countries are reluctant to agree on the European Union’s planned oil embargo on Russia. Don’t you see some contradiction in that?

BT: I am not saying that these countries have suddenly became perfect. It is clear from the oil embargo issue that leaders fear serious difficulties in implementation. I’m sure they’re not proud of their decision, but there are some things you can’t simply change overnight, which also puts Germany’s difficulties on this issue into perspective – its not a clear cut case of good and bad. There are also other issues that call into question the neo-idealist commitment of the two countries. In Czechia, for example, advisers with extreme views on homosexuality are employed by the government. This is an issue for which the Czech leadership must find a solution over time to be consistent and be able to credibly represent neo-idealism. There are contradictions elsewhere: in the UK, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has announced that Britain is building a ‘network of liberty’, meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to create a hostile environment for migrants. The two are not compatible at all. These are some of the challenges that stand in the way of the success of neo-idealism.

Nepszava: How would define this new emerging approach?

BT: Neo-idealism is fundamentally about securing the freedom, self-determination and future of all democratic societies’, not just ‘great powers’. It emphasizes values to a greater degree than ‘liberal internationalism’, which has become too focused on the rules and procedures of institutions in which it tried to include illiberal states. Neo-idealism focuses on politics and outcomes. It is based on the power of values conceived as ideals to strive for– human rights and fundamental freedoms, liberal democracy, collective self-determination for democracies and, above all, the right of their citizens to a hopeful future. It sees a stronger role for states and nations than, e.g. neoliberalism, in order to spread the benefits of progress to the many rather than the few. It’s a strong, optimistic alternative to decadent cynicism and to the kind of ‘realism’ in which only might makes right and in which only great powers count.

Nepszava: In addition to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are there any other states in Europe with neo-idealism in their foreign policy?

BT: I would definitely list the Baltic states among them. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas came to Berlin in late April and gave a fantastic speech that fits in perfectly with neo-idealism. She talked about her own childhood, about growing up under Soviet oppression. She recalled a trip at the age of 11 and, looking through the Brandenburg gate from East Berlin,that her father had told her to inhale the air of freedom that came, through the gate, from the western half of the divided city. And it’s an experience she has never forgotten. The effect of this kind of experience is clear on the direction she has given to  Estonia’s foreign policy. Estonia also provides Ukraine with heavy weapons and munitions, and even one of the most significant subsidies in proportion to GDP but, again, its the values-based underpinnings that make it stand out. We can see a similar orientation in Lithuania, even outside of the context of Ukraine: in the debate over the name of the Taiwanese foreign mission that erupted last year, for example, they resisted very strong from Beijing pressure and sacrificed trade with China to stand up for democracy and self-determination. This approach has also been explicitly supported by the Czech Foreign Minister who has called out Chineses bullying of democracies, including Taiwan. IT is important to note, that neo-idealism is not limited to Central and Eastern Europe but that’s where it is most concentrated at the moment. 

Nepszava: What are the drivers of this change of attitude?

BT: It can be traced back in part to historical reasons – the memory of the repression of communist regimes and the feeling of deprivation of liberty are still alive in the collective memory of the region. On the other hand, there is also pragmatism at work – this isn’t some naive utopianism: it is in the interest of Central and Eastern European countries to defend themselves against possible Russian aggression, but they have also realized that it can only be a real defense if they adhere to and support democratic values ​​and ideals. At the moment, deterrence against Russia and reassurance of the Allies and support for Ukraine, which fights on the front line of all our freedom are key. What’s really interesting is that leaders in the region are doing so while clearly citing historical memory and the protection of values ​​and ideas important to their societies. At the same time, neo-idealism can be seen as a kind of backlash against illiberal political developments in CEE over the last decade. Until last year, Czechia was governed by Andrei Babis, who would by no means be considered an idealist, in fact he is the opposite of that. His successors are, by contrast, updating the tradition of Vaclav Havel for today’s world. In Slovakia, Igor Matovic, the founder of the coalition’s biggest force, OL’ANO, was forced to resign last year and, like Babis, was quite ‘anti-political’ and certainly ‘anti-idealist’. It is his successor, Eduard Heger, who has managed to stand out and break with the country’s recent history, and away from from the reactionary policy line of Robert Fico, who was PM for a good part of the last ten years.

Nepszava: And how does Hungary fit into the picture? There has been no change in government or attitude.

BT: I have to give a sad answer: Hungary is outside these processes and is becoming increasingly isolated. I think this is a real tragedy for you, Hungarians, who were also terribly oppressed by the communist regime and testified to your courage during the ’56 revolution – and in enduring the everyday hardships of the regimes that came after that was crushed. The actions of the Orbán government betray this legacy, although it must be acknowledged that Hungarians have repeatedly voted for it. It is an interesting question as to why the will of the people is different, how Hungary differs from the surrounding countries in terms of historical memory and its uses in the present. Poland is certainly an interesting contrast in this respect, after all, the Hungarian and Polish leadership have been allies in recent years, based on certain conservative values ​​and opposition to the EU. However, they gave a completely different response to the Ukrainian crisis, and their differences with Russia seemed to overwrite even their previous friendship. I think the explanation for this is that the values ​​of Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski are not so close: the Hungarian prime minister is a cynical opportunist, while the leader of the Polish ruling party is really ideologically committed – and part of that commitment is to a free Poland and to facing down Putin’s Russia. In any case, the change of attitude in Poland makes things significantly more difficult for Hungary as the Hungarian government will often find itself completely isolated in discussions with the EU. Orban will use this to strenghten the ‘seige mentality’ his voters feel – but is being under siege really what Hungarians want? It certainly doesn’t make for a brighter future for you.

Nepszava: Kaczynski is visibly working on the implementation of the Orban model, but on foreign policy he is on the side of neo-idealist countries. How are these compatible?

BT: Polish society is at a crossroads. They have to decide what is more important: ensuring the nation’s survival by forging closer ties with the United States and European allies or pursuing an illiberal path domestically that contradicts the values of the communities (the EU and NATO) that they rely on for their security and survival. The Polish government knows that they alone cannot defend the country, so it has refined their rhetoric. Some international differences have been resolved, such as the conclusion of a dispute with the Czech Republic over the Turów coal mine. They are communicating to the EU that further changes are expected, but we can see from the press that they are not (yet) stepping back from certain reforms that the EU considers illiberal. There is no complete turnaround in Poland yet, but there are some encouraging signs. A good example is the friendship of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki with his Czech colleague Petr Fiala. The Czech prime minister represents a conservative but neo-idealist line in the conflict in Ukraine. For example, he clearly rejected Andrei Babis’ accusation that the Czech Republic cared more about Ukrainian refugees than its own citizens. He could persuade Morawiecki to return to the European mainstream of Europe because they are, to some degree, on the same ideological wavelength. However, Poland would need a lot more change to be considered neo-idealist in domestic policy. .

Nepszava: Do you think the Visegrád cooperation can survive the war?

BT: I hope it doesn’t. If the war in Ukraine demands a single extra victim, let it be the Visegrád group! This format did not serve the interests of Central Europe at all, and often reinforced the worst trends in the region, as it created a sense of belonging in opposition to, rather than integration with the rest of the EU. Poland and Hungary, and previously the Czech Republic and Slovakia, became isolate. It was particularly detrimental to the Czechs, whose foreign policy lost its ideological basis in the early 2010s and drifted aimlessly without clear purpose or identity, but was propped up by the V4. I think the Visegrad Cooperation began to fall apart when the staff of the European Commission and the Brussels institutions convinced Slovakia that, as a member of the eurozone, it would lose a lot if it moved away from the core of the EU. There was no such pressure in the Czech Republic, so the change came from within. In the V4, a fault line has now emerged: on one side is neo-idealism, on the other Kaczinsky’s reactionary, oppressive, old-fashioned conservatism and Orbán who dresses up his cynicism in a similar way and forces like those of Babis who didnt even bother to do that and so was purely cynical. 

Nepszava: The war in Ukraine has changed the dynamics of the EU’s foreign policy, Germany, which has had a significant influence before, has come under criticism. Can pragmatic German foreign policy be pushed into the background for good?

BT: I hope so. Over the past decade, the direction of the EU has been set by Germany and France, and the union has lost its way – the community has lost its power instead becoming embroiled in internal conflicts over and over again. In addition, it has lost its transformative power to steer societies towards a more democratic, hopeful future. European leaders started to focus more on threats and protecting against them, rather than opportunities or ways to transform those threats into opportunities, inside and outside the EU. This is a self-reinforcing process and their fear and pessimism have intensified. Because of this, they focused on easy economic benefits – which should be obtained as long as possible – rather than transformation. This approach can be seen in Germany’s attitude towards Russia. I would not even call this foreign policy pragmatic, they simply wanted an easy life and a cheap profit at the expense of all our interests and values. The Germans have since recognized their mistake, but they are still slow to enact their turnaround.

Nepszava: Do you think it is possible for neo-idealism to be driven by EU foreign policy?

BT: It’s difficult to estimate the probability, but I am sure that such a change of attitude would be positive for the European Union, and I am working towards it myself. I believe that the description and naming of the phenomenon, to allow it to cohere, is already a step forward. It gives diverse groups a common core to identify with as it highlights the interconnectedness of what the Czech, Slovak or Estonian Prime Ministers are saying and doing – and even connects them to elements of British foriegn policy. You can also see that some MEPs – and even critics of the German Government take this approach as an obvious counterpoint to more cynical or supposedly self-serving but actually self-harming policies. I believe that neo-idealism can become a powerful force over time. Its most visible proponent is Volodymyr Zelensky, whose speeches to Western countries and foreign parliaments are permeated by idealism. It always evokes the brightest historical moments of a given nation, confronts them with their idealized self-image, and rebukes them if they don’t match it. Zelensky needs to use ideals to leverage his country’s relative material disadvantage – and these are the ideals that should be as important to the West as they are to Ukraine. This is major departure from most recent geopolitics and iin itself shows that a new approach is emerging. Nor should it be forgotten, however, that there are serious obstacles to the rise of neo-idealism. Within the EU, for example, Orbán’s reactionary politics show one alternative. Past experience also suggests that refugees in the Middle East will not be as warmly received as Ukrainians. This must change if Europe is to be truly driven by a neo-idealism. We must also recognize that the West is in systemic competition with authoritarian and anti-democratic states like China and Russia, which seems like old-fashioned ‘great power competition’. For neo-idealism to flourish, we need to overcome the shortcomings of the liberal world order so far and stand firmly for the values ​​we profess. This is a key issue for the future of the whole world, but, as we have seen in the war in Ukraine, even Europe, not all democracies are committed to join the fight for liberty – and for our future.

Dr Benjamin Tallis is a fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre of International Security in Berlin and an Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He worked on security missions for the EU in Ukraine and the Western Balkans, has advised numerous European governments and has extensive experience in academic and policy research and analysis. He is the author of a forthcoming book on European security, identity and the crisis in the Eastern Neighbourhood. twitter @bctallis 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during their meeting at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2022. Sven Hoppe / Pool / AFP.
Interview with Benjamin Tallis for
Atlantico, originally published in French, here

Atlantico: In a thread on twitter you listed the main reasons for Germany’s reluctance to help Ukraine, especially by delivering heavy weapons. What are those reasons ? Why do you consider them to be inaccurate ? 

Benjamin Tallis: Focusing on heavy weapons, there are two main reasons given in Germany for not doing more to help Ukraine. It is argued that delivering heavy weapons could: 1) make Germany a party to the war and thus also a potential target for Russia; and 2) increase the chance of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO which runs the risk of escalating into ‘World War 3’ or even a nuclear war. 

The first is wrong as states can supply other states with weapons to defend themselves if they are attacked and request help, as is the case with Ukraine, without being considered a party to war. To worry about becoming a target might seem more reasonable. However, this ignores the fact that other NATO states, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as the US and UK, took the lead and sent, e.g., tanks, artillery and air defence systems to Ukraine without being attacked. 

Berlin’s approach seemed to suggest that it was ok for these other countries to risk becoming targets but not Germany – even though NATO membership obliges them to treat an attack on one ally as an attack on all. That brings us to the second reason which is, ostensibly, about avoiding escalation. When asked about providing heavy weapons, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly directed his answers to the danger of provoking a (nuclear) conflict between NATO and Russia. On the surface, this seems prudent and reasonable, after all no sane person wants such a conflict to happen.

The problem is that such escalation is really very, very unlikely – and the heavy weapons delivered by others haven’t triggered escalation with NATO. Putin’s military is having enough trouble dealing with Ukraine and wouldn’t be able to successfully attack a NATO country if the alliance sticks together. Russia’s inferiority in conventional forces leads some analysts to claim that it would be tempted to launch a nuclear strike. That also seems highly improbable because the Russians know that NATO states, which have a significant ‘second strike’ nuclear capability, would retaliate. That’s the point of mutually assured destruction – it provides an incredibly powerful deterrent.

So why mention nuclear war? Well, it’s a good excuse not to act and, with the exception of the admirably warm welcome offered to refugees, the Scholz government has really been doing the bare minimum to support Ukraine. This approach plays on genuine (if unwarranted) fears among significant part of the population, which are rooted in Cold War memories and stokes those fears to justify inaction. In turn this plays into Putin’s strategy of ‘Reflexive Control’ which relies on sowing unreasonable fears to get the West to deter itself from standing with Ukraine and standing up to Russia. We shouldn’t fall for it and let Putin – or Scholz – convince us that we have no cards to play. 

Atlantico: What harm could this position and rhetoric from Scholz and his government do to Germany, the EU and NATO’s reputation and power?

Benjamin Tallis: The damage to Ukraine and to Ukrainians’ lives should be our prime concern but there is other damage too. Most dangerously, Germany’s stance is causing concern among its allies. The reasons given for not doing more to help Ukraine (fear of becoming a target and of escalation to nuclear war) wouldn’t change if it was a NATO ally that was being attacked by Russia (however unlikely that is). This matters because deterrence (of Russia) and reassurance (of allies) both depend on credibility and perceived commitment. That’s what’s coming under question now because of Germany’s behaviour and its policy has even been described as a threat to European security because, by signalling weakened resolve, an attack on the alliance becomes more rather less likely.  

This situation was exacerbated by the way that some of the excuses have been made. For example, when he warned that Germany could become a target, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck also claimed that other NATO allies had not sent Tanks or heavy weapons to Ukraine. That was nonsense and it was really disrespectful to Czechia, Slovakia, Estonia and others in the vanguard of providing such support – as well as misleading for the German public. 

Some of the other excuses haven’t helped either. It’s been repeatedly claimed that Germany had nothing to send until it repeatedly turned out that it did – from Anti-Tank Missiles to the Anti-Aircraft Tanks (Gepards) that were, finally, approved this week. Then there have been the claims that it would take Ukrainians too long to learn how to use German equipment. This came across as really patronising, especially considering the relative reputations of the German and Ukrainian armed forces. 

Atlantico: Do you think those reasons might genuinely be the real reasons for Germany’s lack of action ? or is it possible that there are hidden reasons ? 

Benjamin Tallis: They are certainly the reasons that are given, although its often suspected that some in Germany’s elite that would appreciate a swift return to ‘business as usual’ with Russia and Ukraine’s astonishing and inspiring resistance is therefore viewed as a bit of an inconvenience. Other ‘inconveniences’ have also played a role in the debate, like the rising costs of petrol, transport and heating, although that looks seriously petty when compared to the hardships Ukrainians are enduring. It also hardly compares to the ‘pain’ that Germany demanded other countries swallow in the Eurozone crisis. 

Then there is energy dependence and Germany’s inability or unwillingness to act swiftly to stop the flow of Russian hydrocarbons in one direction and European money in the other. There are differing and hotly contested estimates of the possibilities for and costs of doing that. Now it seems that, after a slow start, real progress might actually be being made – on oil at least – and Habeck deserves credit for that, if not for the overly-rigid attitude to nuclear power. 

Lastly, and this is important, many people in Germany have the impression that their country has already made a sufficient change in policy and approach with Scholz’s ‘Zeitenwende’ (Turning Point) speech. The trouble is that this transformation will take time to find meaningful expression and needs to be properly developed into geostrategy as well as security and foreign policy. It will only seem real to others, outside Germany, if it is turned into action, which it hasn’t been so far beyond generating a large shopping list for the Bundeswehr. 

In reality even this won’t be enough to make up for years of under-investment. It will patch some holes, but it’s not yet a game-changer in capability terms. Procuring the F-35s is really good step, but Germany is buying far less of those (35) than Finland (64), which has just over one twentieth of the population size. Moreover, none of helps Ukraine now, when it needs it most. Overall, this creates a gap between how Germans see what they are doing and how its NATO allies, and Ukraine, perceive that, which makes external criticism both more likely and harder to take.  

Atlantico: Do you think that the rumour saying that Putin might have some compromising information on Olaf Scholz might be a possibility?  

Benjamin Tallis: No. These kind of conspiracy theories might seem appealing to explain polices we don’t agree with or can’t understand, but they are actually very damaging. They distract from the very real critiques that we can make with good evidence and they take analytical and popular attention away from the real underpinnings of bad policy, which makes it more difficult to challenge. They should be avoided. 

What is clear is that there was an all too cosy relationship between many German politicians and the Putin regime. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his proteges Frank Walter Steinmeier (now President) and Sigmar Gabriel, have come to symbolise this in public discourse. Taking a charitable reading, their policy – also pursued by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governments – stemmed from a distorted application of the ‘Wandel durch Handel’ (Change through Trade) approach. In reality it was all Handel and no Wandel – the greedy taking of economic gains without really trying to push Russia in a more liberal direction. 

That also betrayed the original and successful ‘Ostpolitik’ pioneered by Chancellor Willy Brandt, which sought to catalyse change in the countries to Germany’s East by genuinely engaging with them, rather than just profiting from them. With Putin’s Russia that type of Ostpolitik wasn’t given a chance. 

Atlantico: Is there any hope to see Germany change its position?  What might be the long term consequences if it doesn’t? 

Benjamin Tallis: Yes there is. Germany has started to do more and the Gepards could (and should) open the floodgates – because they give the lie to the excuses noted before. The crushing majority in the Bundestag for sending heavy weapons is also indicative. Although Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has repeatedly signalled a willingness to do more to stand with Ukraine and stand up to Putin, it’s been parliamentarians from across the party spectrum who have been the strongest voices. As they are answerable to voters and in touch with constituents, that’s a really positive sign.  

Influential committee chairs like Michael Roth (SPD), Anton Hofreiter (Greens) and Marie-Agnes Strack Zimmerman (FDP) but also MPs like Sara Nanni (Greens), Roderich Kiesewetter and Norbert Röttgen (both CDU) have all called for increased weapons deliveries, a tougher line on energy and for Ukraine’s EU membership candidacy to be endorsed. That last step would be a huge boost for Ukrainians as it offers the promise of salvaging a brighter future from their heroic struggle – and it would be also be in Germany and the EU’s interest. 

Failing to seize this chance to really change course would have negative consequences for Ukraine, although other allies could compensate to a degree. Yet it would also be damaging for Germany itself as, tragically, it is currently burning through the moral capital that it worked so hard to rebuild after World War 2. Now its squandering that reputation through its inadequate support to Ukraine – and the other flaws in its system, political elites and political culture that this crisis has exposed.

Failing to fix this would sow further doubts in allies minds, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe which have been much more effective. If this dynamic worsened, it could even come to question the security guarantees upon which Germany itself depends. More generally, Germany would find that a falling reputation makes it harder to conduct effective foreign policy of any kind at a time when democracies need to work together to defend their ideals at home as well as in Ukraine. 

Dr Benjamin Tallis is a fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre of International Security in Berlin and an Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He worked on security missions for the EU in Ukraine and the Western Balkans, has advised numerous European governments and has extensive experience in academic and policy research and analysis. He is the author of a forthcoming book on European security, identity and the crisis in the Eastern Neighbourhood. twitter @bctallis 

Security expert: “Germany’s fear of a nuclear war is an excuse”

The hesitant attitude of Germany’s federal government to arms deliveries to Ukraine scares NATO partners, says British political analyst Benjamin Tallis.

*** Original interview with Peter Althaus of Berliner Zeitung (in German) available here – published 24/04/2022 ***

The German refusal to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine is received with incomprehension in many countries abroad. Benjamin Tallis is a security expert at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin focused on international relations. He has contact with security experts throughout Europe and sees that the Federal Government’s response to the Ukraine crisis has battered Germany’s reputation.

Berliner Zeitung: Mr. Tallis, the German position in the war against Ukraine has been openly criticized. You are British and in contact with many security professionals in different countries in Europe. What is the around Europe to the hesitant attitude on the subject of arms deliveries to Ukraine?

Benjamin Tallis: Unfortunately, it must be said that Germany’s reputation is going downhill fast – and considerably faster than some German politicians want to admit. There is widespread dismay at the German attitude. It seems to many that German politicians would rather try to find ways NOT to help Ukraine. It’s really a ‘Can’t do’, rather than a ‘Can do’ approach.

Berliner Zeitung: In which countries is the disappointment greatest?

Benjamin Tallis: It’s especially stark in the Baltics and in Poland, where people and experts are astonished at the German attitude. But there are also countries that have not always taken a position that is so openly critical of Russia and are also very negatively surprised about Germany’s approach. This includes the Czech Republic. For them, Germany’s Ukraine policy is not so much a failure as a major disappointment – because they know how much more Germany could do, if it wanted to.

Berliner Zeitung: In Germany, many people fear a possible conflict with a nuclear power [Russia]. Isn’t this also seen as a real possibility in other countries?

Benjamin Tallis: This is a classic example of Putin’s strategy of ‘reflexive control’ – which effectively means self-deterrence [by EU & NATO states]. It is intended to discourage us from taking actions in support of Ukraine. Unfortunately, one has to state that this bogus argument works in Germany, but it hasn’t prevented countries like the USA, Great Britain, Slovakia and the Czech Republic from delivering heavy weapons. They don’t fall into this trap, whereas Germany does. Above all, Germany’s leadership seems to calculate the short-term economic advantages rather than the long-term security interests of Germany and Europe. So this ‘fear’ of escalation is in fact an excuse. NATO partner countries are also asking how reliable Germany would be in the case that a NATO partner country were to be attacked – because the reasons given for not helping Ukraine (fear of escalation, fear of being a target) would also apply in that case.

Berliner Zeitung: In Germany, there is a lot of criticism but also praise for the behavior of the Scholz government. What does it look like abroad?

Benjamin Tallis: It just seems like the decision makers are incompetent. The delays on every single aspect of support, the changing reasons given for doing and not doing various things, the symbolic insult of the 5,000 helmets and the mouldy rockets were all significant. Even worse, however, were the statements by Olaf Scholz and Robert Habeck that other NATO partners would also not supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. They weren’t just factually wrong. They were also perceived as extremely disrespectful by NATO partner countries and deliberately misled the German public. 

Berliner Zeitung: It is often said that Ukrainians must first be trained in Western [weapons] systems and, after all, this takes time.

Benjamin Tallis: This aspect is actually again particularly disrespectful. There’s this patronizing attitude about how long it would take Ukrainians to learn how to use German weapons systems. That’s pretty arrogant, not least because the performance and reputation of the Bundeswehr isn’t exactly sky high. The Ukrainians fight extremely bravely and very effectively. Germans, who haven’t done anything like that kind of fighting, now telling them that they can’t learn it that quickly, it comes across extremely badly. If anything it should be that the Germans should learn from the Ukrainians 

Berliner Zeitung: You are British. Great Britain has now left the EU, but is still in NATO. How is the German attitude seen there?

Benjamin Tallis: At first, many were impressed by Olaf Scholz’s speech about the Zeitenwende. Because that would have meant a real change in attitude. But now it seems as though nothings really happening. As a result, the initial enthusiasm has disappeared and has given way to disappointment. People simply take Germany less seriously now. That’s a shame because in the UK we actually respect Germany and see the great potential that it has as a partner – we see its potential and what it could do, but doesn’t. There’s a real desire for a stronger partnership, including through the Strategic Dialogue, but it takes two to tango.

Berliner Zeitung: In the USA there has long been strong criticism of Germany’s Russia and Ukraine policy. Do Americans feel confirmed in their skepticism about the German government’s course in relation to Ukraine?

Benjamin Tallis: Actually, the USA has been quite indulgent toward Germany. Last year, the Biden government came to a compromise on Nord Stream II with the Merkel government and declined to implement sanctions at that time. Biden had to take considerable criticism for this. In addition, Germany has been encouraged by announcements to help balance Russian gas supplies in the event of a boycott. Now to see how little Germany is willing to do in the end and how long it all takes is a bitter blow for the Americans and will certainly influence future politics in dealing with Germany. Again though its mainly a disappointment because of wasted potential to do more. If Germany’s attitude changed – and its actions change – then there is great scope for more cooperation. 

Berliner Zeitung: After all, Germany decided to backfill tanks so that Slovenia could send some of its tanks to Ukraine. What else can Germany do?

Benjamin Tallis: Germany should speed up its action [especially on weapons] and improve its communication on supporting Ukraine.
And it could do a fairly simple thing to help Ukraine without arms supplies. It should finally – actively and unequivocally – support Ukraine’s EU membership candidacy. There are already several politicians from the traffic light coalition who openly support this. It’s really important for Ukrainians and cost-free for Germans, in fact its beneficial for both sides. That’s the kind of win Ukraine needs and Germany should be happy to take.

The report on Jo Cox and Brexit is from the beginning of the show. I’m interviewed from 5:30 to 10:00. The video of the show is available here:
IMG_9740The following is a rough outline of what I said (it doesn’t correspond exactly to the words used but is close and gets the meaning across) – for those who can’t pick up the English over the Czech interpreter. The questions from the interviewer are followed by my answers

The death of Labour MP Jo Cox – the motive is yet unclear – but there are speculations that it could be political, even connected with #Brexit. If that were true – does it show, how divided and emotional the country is before this crucial decision?

  • Let me first say that my sympathies – as I am sure all of our sympathies tonight – are with Jo Cox’s family and friends. This is a truly awful event and unprecedented in recent British political history.
  • It’s not clear yet what the motive behind the attack was, but what is clear is that an increasingly hostile and tense atmosphere that have been propagated by anti-migrant and anti-Europe politicians from both the far right and the far left in the run-up to this referendum.
  • That’s not to blame or to smear the leave campaign that would be a disrespect to Jo Cox who said in her first speech to parliament “our communities have been enhanced by immigration … we have far more in common than that which divides us”. That can be understood in terms of the referendum debate as well.
  • Rather, it is a warning to those politicians, in this country, around Europe and around the world – who use the politics of hatred – when you use the politics of hatred you are playing with fire and when you play with fire there is no telling who will get burned.

According to what will Brits decide? Are the newspapers, celebrities, a bigger influence than the actual topics, like the economics?

  • Well, it’s interesting, there is the form and the substance. In terms of the form, indeed certain newspapers, such as those controlled by oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch the media have had a huge influence in spreading the lies, falsehoods and other scandalous statements primarily from the leave campaign.
  • Despite the fact that the remain campaign clearly has the better arguments and more evidence and so on, it doesn’t seem to be having quite the impact that we might expect. So people are perhaps engaging more emotionally
  • But on the substance, if there is one issue more than anything else, then it is migration.
  • Now, many people fear for their jobs, their security their families, friends and so on. That’s perfectly legitimate and it doesn’t make them racist in any way. However, to link those fears, without any grounds to migration or indeed to the European Union is wrong and it is those lies and that hatred that has been spread by the Murdoch media.
  • However it falls on fertile ground in the UK. There is poor education about the EU, the political class have failed to make the case for the EU, no one has made the big, positive case for it.
  • Britons experience Europe in a different way than continental Europeans do. Partly its geography – being an island – but mainly its mentality – being an island nation and having an oppositional relation to Europe. This makes the way that people deal with all these issues more about emotion than about analysis

Both camps – leave and remain – suspended campaigning today. But the polls are tight, and what’s more – they can all get it wrong. Still – is the remain camp of the pm Cameron getting nervous?

  • Definitely, but its not just David Cameron, we have to remember that the Remain campaign spreads across the political parties, across the political spectrum of Centre-Right and Centre-Left.
  • I think that anyone who, like myself, supports Britain remaining in the European Union is definitely getting nervous.
  • However I think that David Cameron is probably more nervous than most because his job is certainly on the line whatever the result of the referendum.

Did David Cameron make a big mistake in calling for referendum?

  • No, because it is important that people have a say on what is a very important and relevant issue for the UK, but it does raise questions about why, having called the referendum he has run such a dismal campaign. Cameron has failed to make any kind of good campaign whatsoever, or to make the big positive case for Europe – none of the politicians have – which again reflects the difficulties that Britain has in understanding the EU in its complexities but also in the big ideas
  • Mostly this referendum campaign has been a quarrel inside the Tory party, a squabble between cynical populists like Nigel Farage and self-promoters like Boris Johnson. It has showcased the worst rather than the best of British democracy.
  • This is not a proud chapter in the history of British politics, nor of our nation and it does raise questions about how referendums are managed.

Obviously 5 minutes is nowhere near enough time to say all that could be said on these issues but in the context of contemporary news media I’m grateful to Horizont for giving me that much time – and asking great questions!

It may seem odd that many British people want leave the EU, but to a Brit living in the Czech Republic it comes as no surprise. The low quality of the Brexit debate shows that for too many Brits, Europe is still a strange and distant place.


The outcome of the British EU membership referendum is likely to come down to a few key factors: the weather (which affects voter turnout), the registration of young voters (who are less likely to vote but more likely to vote to remain), whether Boris Johnson can reign in his ego (and stop comparing the EU to Hitler’s project to “unite Europe”), and which way the country’s corrupt media Barons tell their newspapers to lean.

To steal a phrase from Neville Chamberlain, “how horrible, how fantastic, incredible” it is that such an important issue, which could see one of the most populous and potentially powerful European countries leave the world’s most exclusive and desirable political club, should be at the mercy of such superficial and arbitrary considerations.

For any Czechs and others still in thrall to the UK as the cradle of modern democracy or as an example of an independent voice to look up to in Europe, this state of affairs may come as a something of a shock. For me, however, having grown up in the UK but spent most of my adult life on the continent and most of my career working in the study or practice of politics and government, including for the EU, it comes as no surprise.
You can read the full article in English at the Reporter website  

This article was originally published in Czech in the June edition of Reporter Magazine 
and in Czech and English on their website.

I am a foreigner. A migrant. I live and work in Prague, the city that has become my adopted home. No one forced me to come here, nor even invited me – I decided to come here myself. I have been warmly welcomed by Czech people and love being a part of Czech society. As a foreigner and a migrant with such a positive experience here I now watch in disbelief at the stance the country is taking to the ongoing refugee crisis.


“Sit Down! Watch this, its important. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life.”

My Mum probably didn’t know it then, but she had sparked a chain of events that would have great importance for how – and where – I live my life and for how and why I am writing this article. Although I was born and grew up in the UK, I live and work in Prague and have lived most of my adult life in Central and Eastern Europe. Time and again when people have asked me – often somewhat incredulously – why I am so interested in this part of the world, I come back to these words and to the impact of the reportage that I was about to watch. Now I come back to them again as a migrant living in the Czech Republic and contemplating the country’s response to the migration crisis.

Originally published in Czech in Reporter Magazine on 12/10/2015
Read the full text in English at:

and in Czech at 

by Benjamin Tallis

‘Who could possibly want such things?”
Pragotron_Sq2  Pragotron_Sq_1

When Jiří Mrázek and Adam Karásek started Nanovo in 2009, they were prepared for the fact that their salvaged and restored modernist furniture would not be to everyone’s taste. However, Karásek’s mother’s reaction (quoted above) shows the scale of the challenge they faced. Given the general revival of modernist architecture and design over the last decade, this may seem surprising, but it reveals much about a regionally particular politics of memory that colours attitudes towards domestic design as much as architecture. However, Nanovo’s success also shows how dominant narratives about the past and the present are being challenged and highlights the role of material objects in doing so.

Saar_TWA_1  Saar_TWA_Ineterior

 Saar_Arch_1 Saar_Arch3

Many Czechs share the – now widespread – appreciation of the International Style. This strand of modernism carries the echoes of the First Republic, the Czech golden age, when a flourishing of art and design and the big-thinking industrial dynamism of companies such as Baťa, combined to thrust the newly-stated nation onto the world stage. This celebrated history has long allowed Czechs to embrace the International Style as a part of their own heritage, exemplified in the Tugendhat and Muller villas, but mid-century meant something very different here than the purposeful elegance of Mad Men or the soaring hope of Eero Saarinen. After ‘89, the urge to disavow the communist past led to a disavowal of its aesthetics. At home this often meant junking the old in favour of the flat-packed or multinationally homogenous new and many design classics of this other modernism became flotsam and jetsam in the currents of post-communist transition.

Jested_Interior  liberec_me_bavi

Mrázek and Karásek travelled and studied abroad, where they saw that, far from being shunned, the designs of this other time, of this other modernity were celebrated. These experiences drove them to question the conformism of domestic consumption after communism and to speculate that the objects, the material remains of that past could also have a place in the present. Inspired by flea-market-furnished Berlin, Mrázek and Karásek, set about rescuing the “gems” of communist-era domestic design from thrift stores and junk shops around the Czech Republic. Rescuing domestic objects from the garbage heap of history, resonates with bigger trends in Czech society that seek to reclaim private memories from the blanket condemnation that obscures the lived experiences of this period. This resistance to locally-dominant politics of memory is interwoven with a dissatisfaction with – what might be termed – the ‘multinational style’, the homogenizing blandness that became characteristic of much of the 90s and 00s in ‘transition’ and which manifested itself in the limited choice of Western-approved or Western-owned furniture, beer or politics.


Nanovo’s focus is on domestic objects and their ever-changing collection of household and industrial modernism. However, the Jitona sideboards, Tesla desklamps, Pragotron clocks, workshop lighting are complemented by other minor markers of time and place: chicken-shaped plastic eggcups, vintage paddles for boats long stuck-up other creeks, maps of the world made for socialist classroom walls. These objects recall the private lives of Czechs and Slovaks in the period of ‘Normalisation’. This closing down of the public sphere, a social permafrost that followed Prague’s most famous spring, heightened the importance of creating ‘cosy dens’[1]: domestic realms of retreat, resilience and resistance which functioned as interior ‘outsides’, where children could grow up and happy times could be had, in spite of “post-totalitarian” one party rule. As Charity Scribner notes in Requiem for Communism[2] consideration of the domestic objects of these times allows for collective “memory work on a human scale”.

PeeM_Red Peem_Black

Despite muddled media reports,[3] Mrázek is adamant that Nanovo does not seek to satiate  Ostalgic desires for retro kitsch that rest on the allure of a dangerous regime now thrillingly exotic at a safe historical distance. The focus is on design quality rather than the period or conditions of their production. The Finnish PeeM chair – a leather upholstered armchair, which turns on an aluminium four-spoke base – has proved as popular now as it was in 70s Czechoslovakia. Mrázek argues that: “These pieces looked good 20 years ago; and they will look good in 20 years.” Nonetheless, Nanovo’s style certainly appeals to those, like its founders, who grew up in the 70s and 80s and who were “heavily shaped” by the architecture and urbanism of the time as these “styles unconsciously sunk under our skin” as Mrázek puts it.

Jested_Staircase  logo  HlavNad_Interior

Mrázek and Karásek grew up respectively in the lower and upper parts of Prague’s Smichov district, where they still live, although they have now swapped places on the hill. From flea markets to the annual design supermarket, via the opening of a large warehouse space (and mid-century Aladdin’s cave) in the outlying industrial area of Vysočany and, recently, the opening of a flagship store in Prague’s Old Town, Nanovo has come in from the margins and spawned a series of imitators. This growing acceptance and success speaks to the changing conditions of the politics of memory – and its material manifestations in the Czech Republic.

Nanovo’s founders are part of the generation known locally as ‘Husák’s Children’ – after the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husák who oversaw the period of normalisation. Coming of age only after ’89, this generation has sought continuity between their past and present; to reconcile the material environments of  chidhood and adolescence with those encountered later. It is no surprise therefore that the ‘Nanovo look’ is commonplace in the new generation of bars and cafes they own, run and frequent: Café Kaaba’s opaxit glass-topped coffee tables, the industrial lamps in Café Sladkovsky, the Ton and Tatra chairs in Cafe v Lese and the plectrum-shaped formica ‘Brusel’ tables in the Malkovich bar are but a few of many possible examples. These hipster hangouts combine internationally recognisable traits with a distinctive Czechness that speaks of a resurgent self-confidence – a willingness to rescue their childhood from the totalising judgements of history and to reject the ‘post-historical’ ablandisements of transition.

Ton_Chair kaaba sladkovsky lampblack2

The Ambiente restaurant group has also got in on this act with its haute reinterpretations of classic Czech cuisine but, even more so, with its ‘Lokál’ pubs. These locales pride themselves on serving only Czech products – and some of the finest Pilsner in Prague – but it is in the décor and in the small touches, such as the flea-market-familiar plastic bread baskets, that Lokál really stands out. The wooden benches and wall coverings feature etched, backlit graffiti of the kind familiar from school desks Europe-wide, harking back to the schooldays of designer Maxim Velčovský (born 1976) and many others. The bathroom decoration takes things a step further with the walls (in the gents) covered from floor to ceiling in a scrapbook collage of images from the 70s and 80s: Niki Lauda’s Ferrari and Škoda sports editions; Franz Beckenbauer Michel Platini and Antonin Panenka; glamorous foreign air hostesses and local soft porn. These images are taken from period magazines – not only from Czechoslovakia and other Warsaw Pact countries, but from Western publications as well. Lokál’s fixtures, fittings and collage questions the sweeping judgements that emphasise clear-cut difference between West and East and the isolation and inferiority of the latter, by recalling the ways in which people lived and the connections between the blocs.

 IMG_2833  IMG_2835

IMG_2842 IMG_2838

Mrázek – a big fan of Lokál – was also quick to note the international influence in Czech design during communism: “You can see that a magazine came from, lets say Italy, and that then there are some designs for lamps that, don’t copy but somehow work with, what the designers had seen there.” A generation of what Mrázek describes as “open-minded” Czechs are looking afresh at the aspects of their past, which, far from being something to be ashamed of are now celebrated: for the skill of designers and architects in remaining conversant with and making major contributions to modernist design under testing circumstances. Emphasising the connections of this modernism to Western outsides, rather than seeing it as product of isolated communist inferiority, has helped spur public re-appraisals of brutalist architecture as well as of Nanovo-style domestic design.

Pragotron_Circ_1  Plectrum table

However, the Czechoslovak modernism of the 60s, 70s and 80s also testifies to particular lived experiences – of communism and of what followed. Contemplating the worth of the design of this period invites reflection on the ways that Czechs can find their place in their increasingly interconnected post-communist world without totally disavowing their past or surrendering to the false diversity of much of the multinational present. Charity Scribner, quoting Maurice Halbwachs, argues that: “‘Space is a reality that endures.’ Indeed, we can only recapture the past by understanding how ‘it is preserved in our physical surroundings’. Place and group mutually constitute one another.” Nanovo’s founders Mrázek and Karásek provide material ways in which this can happen and spur modernist questioning of the pseudo-diversity of the postmodern present. We should seize the chance, as many Czechs are doing to consider their place in the international order and in their own cosy dens.

JitonaSideboard Pragotron_Circ_2  

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Modernist, ‘Domestic’ issue in 2014.

[1] Cosy Dens is a literal translation of the Czech term ‘Pelíšky’ which is also the title of a well-known, 1999 Czech film, directed by Jan Hřebejk.

[2] Charity Scribner (2003), Requiem for Communism, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[3] For example in Czech Daily MF Dnes –; or online news site Czech Position –


Prejudiced and Prefabricated Judgements obscure the lives that were, are and can be lived in housing estates built during the communist period. Debunking these myths – these panel stories[1] – can help promote wider and deeper reflections on the communist period, postcommunist transition and the material politics of both the past and the present.


By Benjamin Tallis

Despite their best efforts neither jetset shock therapists nor home-grown dissidents and their various governmental inheritors have been able to make postcommunist transition a clean break with the past. Apparatchiks and functionaries were denounced and (occasionally) lustrated, only to re-appear as nomenklatura capitalists and even government ministers. Statues were removed, but the metronomic passing of time in their after-image triggers memory, not forgetting. Streets and metro stations were renamed, but we still know who Evropská and Dejvická used to be.


The persistent presence of the communist past is a key site of struggle for Czech (and Slovak) collective memory. Competing interpretations, both domestic and international, significantly impact the ways in which people can live today, how post-communist societies are structured and whom they are for. Material reminders of that time have come in for particular criticism and none more so than the paneláky, the concrete-panel blocks that make up the sídliště and sídlisky which became such prominent features of Czechoslovak socialist cities. While a nascent revisionism has begun, belatedly and hesitantly, to recognise the architectural quality and even (shock, horror!) beauty of Czech brutalist architecture, it tends to focus on particular marquee buildings (such as the Nova Scena of the National Theatre or the Nova Budova of the National Museum). Meanwhile the communist-era housing estates are still routinely damned from all sides.

However, recent research has shown that both domestic and international criticisms of the paneláky and sídliště are wide of the mark. Blinkered by ideology and blind to the plurality of panelák and project life lived both then and now, these flawed critiques are indicative of wider problems of both understanding and policy in postcommunism.

This essay sets out to debunk three of the most significant myths or ‘panel stories’ associated with communist era housing projects: (1) that paneláks and sídlištěs were a ‘communist’ idea that were imposed on Czechs and Slovaks from elsewhere; (2) that problems with high-density public housing are indicative of the futile and flawed pursuit of modernist and social-democratic goals; and (3) that people lived, live and will live badly in paneláks and sídlištěs.


Tall Tales & Sweeping Judgements

Condemned by some at the time of their construction as “cement deserts” good only as “battle grounds for high-rise brats,[2]” the estates provide an all-too-easy synecdoche for the time of their building; “monotonous and repetitive, banal, inhuman […] poor in quality[3]” or most commonly (and lazily) “grey”[4] or at least “grayish.”[5] Normally nuanced and even-handed judges have been moved to unequivocal castigation of the aesthetics and morals of the ‘structural panel buildings’ that make up the vast majority of Czech housing constructed between 1955 and 1990. Sean Hanley of the UCL School for Slavonic and Eastern European Studies describes the “monster estates” as “hideous” and “awful,” and Václav Havel famously spoke of “undignified rabbit pens, slated for liquidation.”[6]

The controversy and criticism that continue to batter these concrete facades, from both home and abroad, reflects and reinforces a particular politics of memory, identity and belonging. It stems from a combination of blanket judgements on the communist period, teleological notions of neoliberal postcommunist ‘transition’ and particular (Western European and North American) experiences and ideological interpretations of high-density social housing.

Negative Czech judgements on paneláks in popular discourse and the statements of well-known figures seem to stem largely from the circumstances of their making – they were built by the communists and must therefore not only be bad, but are a malaise forced upon Czechs (and others) by unwelcome intruders and occupiers.[7] The popular and academic focus on the myriad crimes and appalling injustices of the communist regime have helped to support such views.

These are undoubtedly important stories that needed to be told about life in communism. However, they are not the only stories of that time and cannot be used to sustain uniformly negative views of an era in which, under trying circumstances, people continued to live, laugh, love, have children and make the homes in which they could grow up. The regime failed in its totalizing ambitions, but has been posthumously been granted success that it could have only dreamed of in a totalizing memory of the time that erases the positives of this painful past.

Similarly, while institutional design and the processes of re-adopting democratic politics, market economics and re-integrating to international institutional structures have been highly significant, they have often obscured lived experiences of transition, what came before and what may come after.[8] This blinkering, combined with the prefabricated opinions of many Americans and Western Europeans towards large scale public housing projects has allowed skewed views of the material and social conditions of sídliště life to dominate past and present.

After the fall of the wall, it was easy for incoming investors, advisors and other ‘tutors’, keen to school the ‘children of the revolution’ in their neoliberal ways, to tar the paneláky with the same brush as their own concrete jungles. They knew of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and heard in the Sídlištěs the echoes of the doomed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. The self-styled ‘tutors’ found eager prefects in the dissidents of the communist period, all too happy to run-down the remnants of a hated regime, often with little thought for the people who lived there. Unlike many dissidents and their quieter sympathisers, the Sídliště dwellers were not waiting for prime real estate to be restituted to them.

Many of these tutors also had a double interest in denigrating the communist past. It would both bolster their own superiority (and thus legitimacy as teachers) and enhance the case for neoliberal transition as a greater contrast to what had gone before, rather than a more social-democratic approach. Tearing down the old structures of ownership and usage was more feasible than destroying the paneláks themselves and raised the potential for Western-owned banks to introduce market rates to these rent-controlled worlds.

Social research conducted over the last two decades has questioned the basis for each of the criticisms leveled at Paneláks and sídlištěs, exposing them as mere ‘Panel Stories’. Challenging these stories and telling new tales of panelák life not only has specific relevance to these persecuted places but opens up the possibility of questioning the socio-political settlements of transition more widely. It can allow us to ask again what type of societies we want to build, who they are for and how they are constructed, as well to re-examine the various roles of the state, the market, the individual and the collective.


DSC_0020 Detail from building at  Sídliště Invalidovna, Prague

Panel Story 1: A Communist Idea, Imposed from Outside

Over the last five years, the writings of Kimberly Elman Zarecor have made a good deal of multidisciplinary Czech scholarship on paneláks and sídliště’s available to Anglophone audiences. Zarecor has exposed the double fallacy of claims that concrete tower blocks were a communist idea and that they were only accepted in Czechoslovakia under Soviet duress[9].

KEZar_CZ  Zarecor

Zarecor highlights how far from being imposed from outside, the specific circumstances of postwar Czechoslovakia spurred the continuation and development of interwar architectural practices and politics to accelerate and intensify, but not intitiate, the development of prefabricated structural panel housing in the communist era. The construction technology for Czech paneláks owed its development to the Building Department of the Baťa shoe company in Zlín, which had been experimenting before the war with prefabricated building technologies. The architects Hynek Adamec and Bohumil Kula had continued these experiments during the war and headed the projects on new structural panel housing at the time when the department was incorporated into the communist Stavoprojekt building co-ordination system. Despite Zlín having been renamed Gottwaldov after Czechoslovakia’s first communist leader, Zarecor points out that Adamec and Kula were still working in the same office when developing the first panelák – the G-building (named for Gottwaldov).


zlin_estate  zlin

Zlin, Bata building from; Zlin  workers housing, pre-war brick ( and post-war concrete ( 

Far from following developments elsewhere, Czechs (and Slovaks) were actually ahead of the game in panel building. The crucial breakthrough – as Zarecor shows – came when an innovative solution was found to the problem of joining the concrete panels together in a stable way. The use of a series of steel ‘hooks’ and staples’ allowed for full exploitation of their structural properties and eliminated the need for an additional skeleton.[10] The pioneering architects who found this way previously worked for the feted (and avowedly capitalist) Baťa company and were actually continuing construction-technology research that had begun long before the communist takeover. It is also significant to note, however, that the ideas which inspired the social aspects of both the panelák and the sídliště can also be found in the first Czechoslovak Republic (as well as elsewhere).

The First Republic under the ‘Liberator-President’ and ‘philosopher king’ Tomas Garrigue Masaryk is widely hailed as the Czech golden age, a brief and glorious interlude of independence, after empire and before both Nazi occupation and Soviet subjugation. The wave of creativity in both culture and commerce that was unleashed during this time merits this golden reputation, with companies such as Baťa and Tatra stylishly propelling Czechoslovakia into the ranks of the top-six exporting economies in the world. The poetry of Vítězslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert; the painting of Frantisek Kupka, Jindřich Štyrský and – the already post-gender – Toyen; the buildings of local talents such as Josef Havlíček and Karel Honzík, Josef Fuchs and Oldřich Tyl, alongside those of proto-starchitects Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe, ensured that there was plentiful art to accompany the industry.

  teige_stavba_basen Teige teige_nejmensi

Karel Teige, Building and Poem (1927) & the Minimum Dwelling (1932).

However, like much of Europe at the time, the First Republic was also awash with radical Marxist ideas. A mixture of proactive idealism and reaction to the polarized living conditions of the time inspired those such as Nezval and Karel Teige – writer, architecture critic and ringleader of the radical Devetsil group – to rail against the inequalities and injustices they saw around them. They sought collective salvation through both art and industry, but saw that both should serve functional, social goals rather than being beholden to the monied mores of the market. Teige in particular struggled with the tension[11] between instrumental social function and liberating creative expression, but in architectural terms prioritized the former, arguing that beauty would spring from the minimal forms that would most efficiently serve their purpose.[12] Demanding that those at the sharp end of the housing crisis at the time receive only “the best of the best,” Teige publically upbraided Le Corbusier for abandoning such functional purity and effectively re-introducing decoration; he slammed Mies’ much-praised Tugendhat Villa as the “pinnacle of modern snobbery.”[13]

Villa Tugendhat exterior

Villa Tugendhat, Brno, from the

It is therefore no wonder that Zarecor is able to draw a clear line between the construction of paneláks and sídlištěs in the communist period and social tendencies in First Republic Modernism, which were, however, also strongly connected to non-marxist Bauhaus figures such as Walter Groupius. Although Stavoprojekt, a state-run system of architecture and engineering offices, replaced private practice in the late 1940s and changed the profession profoundly, the vast housing estates in many Czech and Slovak cities are, in fact, the fulfillment of an interwar vision of modernity that emphasized the right to housing at a minimum standard over the artistic qualities of individual buildings (a debate that Teiger wrestled with and which continues to animate discussions over functionalism and modernism’s social purpose into the present).

Zarecor highlights intensified construction of Paneláks, as the Czech version of what she beautifully terms “Socialism with a Modernist face” in the wake of the success of the Czech pavilion at Expo ’58 – the Brussels Dream of ‘One Day in Czechoslovakia’. The socialist students of Karel Teige – notably Karel Janu, Jiři Stursa and Jiři Vozelinek – that rose to prominent positions in postwar Czechoslovak architecture helped shape the estates. However, so too did Havlíček, Honzík and other non-Marxists who continued to build for the new regime, sharing the common idea that building housing was a social good.[14]

 While it is almost certainly true that the scale and scope of panelák-based sídlištěs was greater in Czechoslovakia due to the communist takeover, it cannot be claimed that these architectures and urbanisms were imposed on Czechs from outside, nor that they were a communist-era idea. However, emphasizing the links, rather than the rupture, between the First republic and the Communist period goes against the currently dominant and highly Manichean politics of Czech collective memory that divides positive and negative in fairly bald temporal terms – 1918-38: Good; 1938-1989: Bad. 1989 onward: Good again (we hope).


Panel Building at Hloubětín, Prague

Panel Story 2: High-Density Public Housing as Failed Socialist & Modernist Dreams

Dissident attacks on paneláks have resonated with wider narratives of neoliberal transition about the role of government in society and related attitudes toward public housing. The ‘End of History’ consensus that laissez-faire, (neo)liberal-market-democracy is the only way to govern chimed with hostility towards high-density public housing as architecturally flawed, naively irresponsible and ultimately dangerous social engineering. Scepticism of government born from bad experience of a particular regime has met ideological opposition to the state as such. The failure of social housing projects in the West has been conflated with the failure of state socialism in the second world with both used as evidence of dangerous burdens of utopian dreams.

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Buildings from Sídliště Invalidovna and Sídliště Cerveny Vrch, Prague

Such attacks generally eschew the controversialist, yet architecturally adventurous and open-minded iconoclasm of Charles Jencks.[15] They tend to prefer the offended traditionalism of Simon Jenkins, whilst retaining their mutual weakness for décor and ornament – eyebrows simultaneously arched and furrowed in facial gymnastics that Alec Guinness would be proud of. Crucially they often combine this aesthetic position with the selfish Hayekian/Friedmanite socio-economic Darwinism that seeks to entrench power for those who already have money and which, since ’89, has come disguised as freedom. A supposedly hard-headed pragmatism in which politics is disguised as economics; a refusal to be suckered into social dreaming. Often accompanied (in some quarters at least) by faux-rueful laments for the failure of stillborn social schemes that never had a chance, they are wheeled out time and again as evidence for why even marginally idealistic or minimally visionary social endeavours can never work.


The Death of Modern Architecture

Long before Jencks famously used the dynamiting of this massive and ill-fated housing project to proclaim the death of Modern Architecture “on July 15, 1972 at 3:32pm or thereabouts” the Pruitt-Igoe story had come to symbolise the supposedly hopeless futility of well-intentioned social housing in the US. A recent documentary film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,[16] exposes even this – the nadir of all the panel stories – as just that, a myth. The documentary, which takes an academically informed, socio-anthropological approach, effectively refutes the charges against the architecture of Pruitt-Igoe (and by implication against the principles of modernist-inflected high-rise and high-density public housing in general).[17] The joy with which the initial residents recall first moving in to the sufficiently spacious and well-appointed apartments (particularly in comparison to the slums where many had previously lived) is manifest. One resident – Ruby Russell – who moved into an apartment on the 11th floor coined the affectionate and memorable term “the poor man’s penthouse” to describe her apartment, while others describe the feelings of community, of safety and the possibility this provided for children to play and adults to live.

However, this was not to last. As the documentary shows as it details the total collapse of this housing project to the point where the police were afraid to enter and the tower blocks ended up being dynamited, this fate was largely pre-ordained. Cutbacks to the original design and the failure of the 1949 US Federal Housing Act to provide any maintenance money for such projects – requiring that such funds came from the rents paid by the low-income tenants – was the first nail in its coffin. Racism in both planning policy and the everyday practices of citizens continued de facto segregation policies long after they became de jure impermissible.[18] The combination of ‘white flight’, a declining city population (robbing it of necessary tax revenues to pay for essential services, including housing maintenance), the selling off of the downtown to property developers and official encouragement for sprawling suburban, low-density housing at the expense of the rotting urban core meant that the estate failed within grim socio-economic context. Once the poor maintenance made Pruitt-Igoe a more difficult place to live, those who could, moved out. Low occupancy rates further diminished the money available for upkeep and repairs, unleashing a vicious cycle of decline and degradation. As the documentary powerfully shows, this was not accidental. Rather, it was rather the result of the deliberate diminution of governmental power to act in a socially progressive manner in a politico-economic environment stacked against the most disadvantaged and predicated on the myth of the socially-unencumbered, all-consuming individual.



Park Hill, Sheffield,; the and Robin Hood Gardens from

Significantly, the documentary specifically links the failure to support social housing to its associations with socialism, which both during the cold war and in the aftermath of ’89 made it ‘un-American’ and thus taboo in the US. While European experiences of public and social housing have not been as extreme as Pruitt-Igoe, the problems of housing estates such as Park Hill in Sheffield and Robin Hood Gardens in London, as well as many of the French banlieues can similarly not be blamed on their modernist (or, too-often, modernish) architecture, nor on the social intentions that inspired their construction. Rather, it was the failure to adequately address the underlying social conditions that prompted their creation and then the lack of conviction in backing the estates – with proper materials and maintenance – to provide (part of) the solution that sealed their fate.

That this lack of conviction held after the fall of the Berlin wall is not surprising. The very construction of such estates as a response to the demand for rapid urbanization and the ongoing postwar housing crisis in communist countries can be described after ’89 as “arrogant”[19] or dismissed as being “in the best traditions of vulgar Marxism” which apparently implies that, “the Communist regime believed that people were shaped by their environment.”[20]

It would be hard to think of a government – or indeed practically any other institution – that didn’t believe people were to at least some degree shaped by their environment. Indeed the prospect of people being impervious to their built environments would mean the end of architecture as anything more than art, or worse, decoration. When Sean Hanley claims that this substantiates his charge that the building of the paneláks was ideologically motivated, the point made by Michel Foucault and echoed by Slavoj Žižek that ideology is at its most powerful when it is most hidden, should also be considered in relation to the ‘pragmatic’, post-’89 treatment of social housing and the damage done more widely to ideas of social democracy and transformative governance by the collapse of communism and the neo-liberal consensus that filled the vacuum.



Panel Building at Hloubětín

Panel Story 3: People Lived and Live Badly in Paneláks and Sídlištěs

The fall of Pruitt-Igoe, the Brixton and Toxteth riots and the postmodern malaise that long beset the Unité d’Habitation and its ilk have been particularly unkind to millions of Central & East Europeans. They have been forced to belatedly ‘learn’ that the places in which they grew up, laughed, loved, raised children, realized creative activities, plotted defiance, cohabitation, collaboration or escape and where they created their cosy dens[21], insulated to some degree from the party regime, were no longer appropriate for their lives as ‘New Europeans’.

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Sídliště Invalidovna

Crucially however, as even noted by critics[22] of the appearance and intentions of the paneláks, the social mix of the communist-era housing projects was very different than that of their counterparts in the West. In the second world, largte numbers of people from different walks of life and from varied social strata finding themselves (willingly or otherwise) thrust into high-rise neighbourhoods. This is partly due to the sheer number of people who live in such developments. Zarecor[23] quotes figures of 3.1 million people living in 1,165,000 apartment units in 80,000 paneláks in Czech Republic. With almost a third of the total population and nearly half the city of Prague living in paneláks, the issues facing postsocialist sídlištěs are, in most cases, very different than those experienced by residents in their deprived and marginalized western counterparts.


Building at Sídliště Dablice

Many communist-era estates are well-planned. Well-connected and well-provided for communities: house-proud and successful places. Their abundant and well-kempt common spaces (leafy in summertime, albeit rendered climactically bare in winter) host a variety of public services and private activities and allow collective grandmothering in the ample and adventurous social space they provide for children. There was not the same stigma attached to living in these places and as the artist Eva Koťátková argues, these were places where many people grew up happily and well, learning to be the creative and independent, experiencing concrete as schoolyard rather than jungle and certainly not succumbing to the attempts to create new uniform ‘Socialist [Wo]Man’:

I was born in Prague, grew up in one of the typical grey block-houses on the periphery and went to school there. Many people find this kind of architecture awful or boring but I have a strong nostalgia connected with this place – a place of the most formative periods of my life. Many motifs appearing in my work have their origin in the time of my childhood and adolescence and in the specific atmosphere of this location.[24]

Koťátková’s comments are not the isolated opinion of a nostalgic or contrarian artist. Zarecor’s work also draws upon several academic studies that show consistently high levels of satisfaction with sídliště life. Research conducted in 2001 by Lux and Sunega showed that 64% of Czechs considered their accommodation ideal and only 11% planned to move within three years. Moreover, Zarecor also cites studies that show that this is not a new trend, with many sídliště residents recalling moving to their new Haviřov homes in the same excited and reverent terms that the Pruitt Igoe tenants did. Recent work by Eva Špačková and Martin Jemelka in the Hranice sídliště in Karvina also shows generally high degrees of satisfaction, although mixed with calls for further improvements relating to upkeep and noise issues. As Špačková put its in an interview with Zarecor:

Generally it is possible to say that the majority of imperfections in the housing development, according to the opinions of the residents, are not conditional on architectural solutions but rather on the unmaintained, disordered, and unsatisfactory control and commercial abuse of public space and the former civic facilities. [25]

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Hotel Kupa at Jižní Město

In a widely cited ethnographic study of the Prague sídlištěs at Jizni mesto and Jihozapadni Mesto, French anthropologist Laurent Bazac-Billaud concluded that people in paneláks generally know their neighbours and that both social and transport networks not only exist but also work.[26] Furthermore, Hanley repeats Bazac-Billaud’s finding that:

panelák life is based on a intense drive for privacy and individuality. Inside their standard panelák flats – identical in layout and to thousands of others the length and breadth of former Czechoslovakia – the key impulse of Czech panelák residents is to create their own private worlds.

This is still however not enough for Hanley who claims that “In a democratic society, [paneláks] would never have been built. Such hideous-looking, poorly planned public housing would quickly have attracted criticism and protest (as it did in the West). In a market economy, no one with any money would have invested a crown into a panelák flat.”

braodwaterfarm_trainwalksldn  broadwaterfarm

London’s Broadwater Farm Estate, from and 

Hanley’s critique could be read as a dire warning about the potential fate of paneláks in the postcommunist period after the end of rent controls, although currently this has only happened in exceptional cases. In the town of Most, the semi-ghetto of Chanov carries the real echoes of Pruitt-Igoe, not in its architecture, but in the social neglect that led to the decay and near abandonment of this Roma-majority housing estate. Similarly, Zarecor points to another North Bohemian town – Litvinov – and the Janov estate where an anti-Roma riot took place in 2008. Research conducted by a team lead by the prominent geographer Luděk Sýkora showed that the situation in Janov had been exacerbated by the sale of municipal apartments to ‘investors’ who refused to invest in repairing or upgrading the buildings and rented the declining apartments to low-income Roma groups, helping to create social segregation and stoke racial tensions.[27]

Chanov_Most  pruittdecay_ghost of [ruittigie

Chanov, Most, from; Pruitt-Igoe from

In many more cases however, the right-to-buy schemes allowed tenants to purchase their apartments affordably from municipalities and rent controls remained in place until recently. Right-to-buy schemes were balanced with incentives to form tenants associations and residents committees in order to be able to benefit from EU-funded refurbishment schemes. These schemes have largely consisted of the installation of new windows, doors, elevators and the application of fixed Styrofoam cladding directly to the outside of paneláks, which are then covered with plaster in order to improve insulation. Residents have then been able to choose from a variety of colours to repaint the new cladding, eliminating the darkness at the edge of town. However, transforming the dreaded grey into what Zarecor terms a ‘rainbow’ of colours threatens to create what Špačková terms “multi-coloured kitsch.” Zarecor too warns against the loss of architectonic detail such as the definable edges of panels or surface texture which give the buildings a sense of proportion and without which they risk becoming “cartoon likenesses in the shape of apartment buildings with undifferentiated surfaces.”

Popular with residents, these largely cosmetic renovations seem to please Hanley, who in a later piece states “After this beauty treatment the hideous grey paneláky look pretty civilized” passing in an augenblick, for Holland or Germany. This confirms Hanley’s mainstream hierarchical view of transition (where success equals imitation of the West), but also Zarecor’s observation that, if all that took was a lick of paint, then perhaps there wasn’t so much wrong with them in the first place.


Sídliště Rajska Zahrada (Paradise Garden)

 Building New Panel Stories: Re-evaluating and reviving the realities beyond the myths

The difficulty of disentangling aesthetic judgements on ‘grey’ or ‘ugly’ panel buildings from their context in the politics of communist memory and the particular political economy of the post-89 world makes it unsurprising that they should provide rich material for visual artists with social sensibilities. That artists with praxis as different as Veronika Drahotová, Tomáš Džadoň, Patricie Fexová, Eva Koťátková and Katerina Šedá should find inspiration or fascination in these massive structures and micro-societies speaks to their significance as sites for the interaction of and negotiation between public and private, uniformity and individuality, enabling constraints and bounded freedoms.

The work of scholars such as Kimberly Zarecor, Eva Špačková, Laurent Bazac-Billaud and Luděk Sýkora, as well as the engagements of the aforementioned artists call into question what we know about paneláks and sídlištěs and the contexts in which we know it. This challenges the how we remember both the public politics and the private lives of communism and the ways they have been re-negotiated in transition. It questions the social relations that are possible on housing estates today and between the estates and elsewhere. In turn this prompts us to consider who we live with, how we want to do so and to what extent we can achieve that. It questions the underlying assumptions of post-communist societies and they ways these societies are constructed – now and in the future – as well as who they are for.

Paneláks and sídlištěs are too often seen merely as monumental milestones on the way to a future that was never built: as inconvenient reminders of a past that would be better forgotten or as hangovers of uneasy dreams. Zarecor rightly calls for the rehabilitation of paneláks, which would act as a catalyst for re-appraisals of other aspects of Czech society. If this is to happen, then the old myths of outside imposition, misdiagnosis of the ills of social programmes and social democracy need to be exposed. Fallacies of indignity and malicious attacks on panel dwellers need to be put to rest in order to better deal with real emergent inequity and emiseration. To start telling new panel stories, we need to experience and embrace the diversity and vibrancy of sídliště life, aesthetically and socially, from the clean neo-functionalist lines of the Invalidovna estate to Ďáblice’s open green spaces, Jižní Město’s thriving brewery and the panoramic views from the Hotel Kupa

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jm_pivnicicz jiho_pivnizasilkacz (1)


This is a re-drafted version of a piece that was initially published hard copy in Vlak 4, Prague, London, New York, Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam: Eqqus Press (2013) and is also featured in Abolishing Prague, ed. Louis Armand, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia (2014).


[1] The title refers to Věra Chytilová’s legendary film ‘Panel Story’ which provides a supposedly candid, but largely negative look at the early days of the Jižní Město housing estate.

[2] From the poem Jižní Město (South City) by Jiří Žáček, reproduced in From a Terrace in Prague, ed. Stephan Delbos (2011) Prague: Litteraria Pragensia

[3] As noted by Els de Vos’ (2012) review of Lynne Attwood’s Socialist Housing in the Eastern Bloc: Gender and Housing in Soviet Russia and Kimberly Elman Zarecor’s Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity, published in Technology and Culture, 53 (2), April 2012, pp. 465-469

[4] Sean Hanley (1999) ‘The Discrete Charm of the Czech Panelák, Central European Review

[5] Ivan T. Berend as quoted in Zarecor (2012) Zarecor (2012) ‘Socialist Neighbourhoods after Socialism: The Past, Present and Future of Postwar Housing in the Czech Republic’, East European Politics and Societies, 26: 486


[7] De Vos (2012).

[8] e.g. Alison Stenning & Kathrin Hoerschelmann (2008) History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism? Antipode, 40(2): 312-335

[9] Zarecor (2009) ‘The Rainbow Edges: The Legacy of Communist Mass Housing and the Colorful Future of Czech Cities in Peggi Clouston, Ray Kinoshita Mann, Stephen Schreiber, eds. Without a Hitch – New Directions in Prefabricated Architecture.; Zarecor & Eva Špačková (2012) ‘Czech Paneláks are Disappearing, but the Housing Estates Remain’, Architecture & Town Planning (Architektur & Urbanizmus), 34: 288-301;

[10] For the fullest treatment of this, see Zarecor (2011) Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960, Pittsburgh University Press: Pittsburgh, PA.

[11] See for example Peter Zusi ‘s excellent (2004) ‘The Style of the Present: Karel Teige on Constructivism and Poetism’, Representations (88); & (2008) ‘Tendentious Modernism: Karel Teige’s path to Functionalism’, Slavic Review (67:4).

[12] e.g. Teige (2002[1932]) Nejmensi Byt (The Minimum Dwelling), MIT Press: Cambridge MA, trans Eric Dluhlosch

[13] Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, p6.

[14] Zarecor (2011).

[15] Jencks (1991 [1977]) The Language of Postmodern Architecture, New York: Rizzoli

[16] The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) dir. Chad Friedrichs.

[17] See for example Oscar Newman (1975) ‘Reactions to the Defensible Space Study & Some Further Findings’ International Journal of Mental Health vol 4(3):48-70.

[18] See also Elizabeth Birmingham (1999) ‘Refraining the Ruins: Pruitt-􏰅Igoe, structural racism, and African American rhetoric as a space for cultural critique, Western Journal of Communication, 63:3, 291-309

[19] Radio Prague’s Martin Mikule –ák-housing-estates-the-indelible-heritage-of-communism

[20] Sean Hanley (1999) ‘The Discrete Charm of the Czech Panelák, Central European Review,

[21] See the Czech film Pelíšky (literally translated as ‘Cosy Dens’), directed by Jan Hřebejk.

[22] Sean Hanley specifically notes this in his 1999 piece.

[23] Zarecor (2012).

[24] Interview with Luigi Fassi in Koťátková ‘Documentation 2’

[25] Zarecor (2012).

[26] Hanley (1999) and Kristina Alda, writing for the Prague Daily Monitor both reference Bazac-Billaud’s work.

[27] Sykora et al (2010), Rezidencni Segregace, Univerzita Karlova & Minesterstvo pro mnistni rozvoj v Ceske Republice.

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The Prague metro system’s design transcends the circumstances of its making, yet still provides a rich architecture of memory.

By Benjamin Tallis

Prague’s trams are its mechanised flaneurs; their scenic routes criss-cross the city in a dense meshwork that makes them a prominent feature of street-life in the Bohemian capital. For those leisured travellers with time on their hands there is no better way to ride the city. However, for those of us whose schedules and planning skills mean that we live more like futurists than flaneurs, getting there on time often means going underground.

Hidden beneath Prague’s richly layered material histories, the subway system, with its 61 stations and 65km of tracks is the 7th busiest in Europe, carrying more than 1.5 million passengers every day. This adds up to nearly 600m passenger rides per year: more in absolute terms than on either the Vienna or Berlin U-Bahns and, given Prague’s relatively low (1.25m) population, this makes it the best used metro system on the continent in per-capita terms.


Begun and primarily built during the communist period, this massive public infrastructure project became one of the flagship projects of ‘Normalisation’ – the clamping-down on the public sphere that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring. The precarious Husák regime that sought to build socialism without a human face attempted to offset the loss of public-political possibilty by boosting material conditions. Increased consumption and enhanced infrastructure represented the politics of meagre promise, laced with threat.

Keen to show that ideology was no impediment to innovation, the regime invested heavily into architecture, prompting a flurry of public building. Brutalist shopping centres and high-modernist office buildings proliferated. Despite the popularity of these styles in the West, in Prague they continue to be associated with a distinct and ill-remembered, politically periodisable vision of how the future used to look. The tighter Soviet embrace of Czechoslovakia brought new technology and resources to bear on large infrastructure projects and it was with Russian help that a plan to take the tram underground was abandoned in favour of a building a proper subway system. This intervention allowed Prague to realise one of its recurring 20th century dreams[1] and become a genuine metro-polis, but like its overground counterparts it was realised in a style that became synonymous with the oppressive regime of the time.

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However, the metro system also provided the stage for one of Czech political performance art’s most famous actions: “on an escalator … turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me.” Jiří Kovanda’s attempt to provoke connections amidst atomisation and anomie was typical of attempts at low-key defiance of Normalisation’s numbing conformity. Like Havel’s contemporaneous Power of the Powerless, it suggested the fragility of the seemingly implacable post-totalitarian façade and the role that people would need to play to exploit its cracks.

After the revolution of 1989 many stations were renamed as the metro system shed its party nomenclature to become a velvet underground. Moskevská (Moscow station) became Anděl (Angel), while other socialist shibboleths were swapped for prosaic descriptions of location: Budovatelu (Builders [of the future]) became Chodov; Leninová became Dejvická, Kosomonatů became Háje, Družby (Friendship) became Opatov; more proudly, Gottwaldová (named for the first Czech Communist premier, Klement Gottwald) became Vyšehrad, the high castle that is a sacred site for Czech nationhood.

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(Photos from and

The metro system recently celebrated its forty-first birthday and many new stations have been added in the last decade. However, it is the formal qualities – as well as the functional efficiency – of the older sections that continues to enchant. Entering the streamlined catacombs beneath Prague’s streets may mean sacrificing the breathtaking vistas afforded on certain tram routes, but in no way abandons aesthetic interest. Like the normalisation-era’s architectural flourishing above ground, the design of the metro – more modernist than the peoples’ palaces of Moscow or Petersburg – has stood the test of time. It transcends the loathed regime that made it and gives the lie to the notions that there was no creativity or quality production in the communist period, or that this era was somehow “post-cultural.”[2]

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Descending from the square at Náměstí Míru, with its art nouveau town houses and pitch-perfect neo-gothic church, toward the vanishing point of one of Europe’s longest escalators (87m length, 43m drop), is to allow oneself to be transported into a gleaming futuristic grotto. Filtered between thick set rectangular pillars, elegant in chrome and marble, passengers are greeted by the colourful, curving surfaces of the tunnel walls. Coloured rows of anodised aluminium tiles – silver, aquamarine, royal blue, aquamarine and amber-gold, provide a wonderful horizontal articulation and a dynamic modernist sheen. Concave and convex indentations and protrusions[3] in the tiles prevent heat warping, but also enhance the tension between motion and stillness that encapsulates the role of the station – a node in a fast moving network. The decor benignly (dis)orients passengers and helps immerse them in metroland as they are transported.

Hradcanska  Flora

photos from

The majority of the stations on the Green ‘A’ line follow a similar pattern, distinguished by colour and the re-combination of modular components. The other lines have their own design identity. The Yellow ‘B’ line makes great use of reflecting and refracting surfaces, particularly visible in the chrome ‘lenses’ at Náměstí Republiky, the curved glass tiles at Jinonice and the . The Red ‘C’ line is plainer and was designed to provide a smooth transition from overground to underground,[4] generally employing wide central platforms and high ceilings. An exception is the dual-platformed, glass-walled Vyšehrad station from which trains are dispatched over a valley, encased in the belly of the Nusle bridge’s elegantly soaring concrete. The newer stations tend to be somewhat blander, although the elegant curves of Střížkov and Nemocnice Motol merit some attention. The stunning effects as coloured light plays on the chrome columns of Letňany’s platform space are in marked contrast to the rest of the station and its surroundings.

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Returning overground, Jože Plečnik’s famous Church of the Holy Heart (1929) dominates the square at Jiřího z Poděbrad. In front of the church stands an unusual structure – a distorted, tiled concrete cylinder, leaning and tapering before being opened and crowned by a series of chrome verticals, supporting what look like rusting venetian blinds. Around the corner, in the Svatopluk Čech gardens, another anomaly faces the monument to the 19th century Czech poet. An outcrop of angular, mosaic-tiled, micro towers, reaching, striving to their different flat-topped heights with the aid of sweeping, curvilinear chrome frontage, looking like something scalped from the head of a brutalist medusa.


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Resolutely functional, yet formed with the sculptural and material qualities of the best public art, these structures are just two of the many air vents that serve the Prague metro. They appear in sometimes-unlikely parts of the city and provide reminders of what lies beneath. These quiet monuments provide material-mnemonic links between the concrete estates of the periphery and the affably pretty inner suburbs and speak of the revenant presence of the past, even as their design transcends the conditions of their production.

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The best of Prague’s metro stations are gloriously encapsulated event architecture, while the air-vents often provide incongruously quotidian counterpoints that draw out the best in their surroundings. The now velvet underground and its above-ground eruptions are essential parts of Prague’s palimpsestuous psychogeography that disrupt all-too coherent narratives that oversimplify the recent past.

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[1] Previous plans for a Prague metro had been made in 1898 and 1926 –

[2] As Milan Kundera claimed in his famous essay ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ –

[3] Known locally as ‘breasts’ (prsy) and ‘anti-breasts’ (anti-prsy).

[4] Interview by Ryan Scott (2013) with Evžen Kyllar, one of the architects involved in the Metro design, along with Jaroslav Votruba and others.

A version of this piece was originally published in The Modernist, Issue 8 – ‘Carried Away’ in 2013.