On shared Central European history, female solidarity and educating men
I’m proud that I can count Eugenie amongst my close friends and mentors. We got to know each other at the annual Czech-German Discussion Forum in Lauf an der Pegnitz, a German village where there also happens to be a castle built by Charles IV. At this castle, there is a rare decoration displaying coats of arms which represents one of the most important collections of Czech, Moravian and Silesian heraldry. We both felt like we were in the Middle Ages not just because of the venue, but also because as we are both passionate supporters of women’s rights and equality, we were struck by how few women there were within the Czech-German Discussion Forum, and how little topics which naturally resonate with women, such as education, social services, combating violence, inclusion and equal pay, are reflected at these annual meetings. This June, Eugenie received the Bridge Builder award for her lifetime contribution to Czech-German relations.
Eugenie left for West Germany in 1967. She studied to be a nurse in Germany, acquired a diploma in Political Science from Munich University in 1976, and achieved her doctorate in 1982. She remained in contact with her homeland not just through the Czech topics she focused on as an academic, but also through contacts with dissidents. Following the Velvet Revolution, she led the Central and Eastern Europe Department at the Ministry for Europe and Federal Affairs in Thuringia and she was actively involved in the establishment of the Egrensis Euroregion. During her career, she has drawn attention to issues regarding equal rights for women and refugees. And because Eugenie is a member of PEN International, we decided to perform this interview in written form. Eugenie is mother to a daughter and a son, whom she raised equally.
Eugenie, congratulations on your award. First let’s look at the award’s name. I wonder whether you’re bothered that the award doesn’t describe you as a female bridge builder? [Note: the award’s name in Czech, Stavitel mostů, is in the masculine gender] Or does the name not matter? Recent debates within Czech society, including regarding the –ová suffix, have shown that names and forms of address are also important.
Of course the name is important: the masculine naming is merely a reflection of the fact that men still predominate as recipients of the award.
You received the award for your lifetime’s efforts to promote good Czech-German relations. Relations between Czechs and Germans, which are today perceived as unproblematic, were extremely fraught and strained for many decades. What led you to decide to promote good mutual relations?
Personally, I am convinced that it is my duty to promote Czech-German mutual relations. I wasn’t even 17 when I arrived in Munich. From the very first day, I had to look after myself and find work. At the beginning, I looked after three young boys for a married couple who were doctors. I had nothing except what I had brought with me in a single suitcase. Everything I needed was given to me, almost always by Germans who had themselves also had to flee from somewhere. The Bavarian authorities supported me in every way: I received special approval for everything. They recognised my year at medical school in Prague so that I was able to finish school after two more years. I then got approval to go straight to Year 13 at gymnasium, even though I had only done ten and a half years at school in Prague. They told me that if I could manage the curriculum by the half-year point, then they would accept me. And they did. I graduated from gymnasium in 1972. I was even able to do final exams in Czech and Russian, as I didn’t know any other languages at that time. I did my degree at the Education Faculty in four semesters. When I did my doctorate, they again recognised my knowledge of languages, and I didn’t need to do an exam in Latin, which was otherwise compulsory for historians at that time.
Few people from Prague (and also perhaps from Berlin?) fully appreciate the close cross-border co-operation and specific benefits of Euroregions. You were involved in setting up the Egrensis Euroregion. I was surprised myself that during my stay in Mariánské Lázně I only found two fleeting mentions of this important project.
Between 1996 and 2013, a number of Czech-German school projects were implemented within the Egrensis Euroregion with the support of the Czech – German Fund for the Future. 36 classes were involved in the last project. The projects ran smoothly, the pupils produced joint projects, went to camp together, etc. It turns out that the media has very little interest in positive stories. Many projects were implemented within tourism, and promoting co-operation between emergency services, fire fighters and hospitals. Hospital co-operation was not written about until this pandemic. Unfortunately, the fact that no money was misappropriated, and the projects work and fulfil their role is not sufficient for a newspaper article.
We’re both advocates of human and women’s rights. Could I ask again for a kind of retrospective analysis of how these issues have been perceived over time?
Sadly, I have to report that basically nothing has changed. My daughter was born in December 1970 in Starnberg, Bavaria. At the time, I thought that when she became an adult, emancipation would have been completed. She wouldn’t have to explain why she wants to study and why she wants to achieve the highest positions in employment. But there is still inequity both in terms of the gender pay gap and in female representation within top-level positions.
I know myself how little solidarity there is amongst women, so I’m trying to change that. My goal is to bring women together from various regions both in the Czech Republic and in Germany so that they can know about each other, co-operate and support each other. I was the only woman in the Science Department in a so-called high position at the Thuringian State Parliament. And even though the President of the Parliament was a woman between 2000 and 2013, I was the only one within that department not to be promoted.
The award was given to you for your lifetime’s work, but I know you have further plans. What new projects are you setting up?
I’m currently focusing on the best way to transfer my experience in implementing joint projects to my young colleagues. I really appreciate that young people of my children’s age are willing to co-operate with me. People usually do projects which directly affect them. For myself personally, that means focusing on the crimes of communism, and emigration. I’m also very pleased to have found many female supporters of restoring the Czech – German Women’s Discussion Forum. Within this forum, we are preparing two projects: an audio-visual project on Czech and German writers with the Czech PEN Club and the Adalbert Stifter Association. And I’m also looking forward to our joint project focused on the political and social status and situation of women in Germany and in the Czech Republic. And next year, a second conference is taking place on Czech – German – Jewish relations.
You live with your husband in Germany, but you regularly travel to Prague. As such you occupy a unique space for comparing our two societies. So what are the Czechs and Germans like?
It’s complicated to compare both societies. Personally, I’ve been working on this issue for almost half a century. I take the view that there is no typical German or typical Czech society. During my first project in the Egrensis Euroregion in the second half of the 1990s called “Knowing Yourself in the Other,” our pupils soon realised how much they had in common. All that’s needed by way of explanation is to say that while the Egrensis Euroregion has been in existence since 1136, the nation states as we know them today only came about after the First World War.
I lived for over 25 years in Bavaria. I’ve been living in Thuringia, in the former East Germany, since autumn 1992, when I went to help the state build up its administration. It might sound unusual to Czechs, but I probably understood the problems of the East German citizens better than Germans from the West. Thuringia’s connections with Bohemia go back to King Ottokar I of Bohemia, who married Judith of Thuringia, and spent his old age in Thuringia. The University of Erfurt was founded by professors at Charles University. It was at the University of Erfurt that Luther encountered Hussitism. During the Thirty Years’ War, Hussite writings from the 14th century were kept in Jena at times of greatest conflict. Ján Kollár also studied there, though now we’re in the 19th century. Somebody once calculated that Goethe spent a total of more than three years in Bohemia. His contacts with Dobrovský and others in the Czech National Revival movement should be better known. Just like the fact that Herder would never have studied theology and become a supporter of equality of minor languages if he had not been an admirer of Comenius. Smetana’s benefactor was Franz Liszt. I’d like us not just to realise that we have a shared Central European history, but also to begin teach others about this fact of enriching co-existence.
I’ve already said in my introduction that you are not just a close friend of mine, but also my mentor. As a mentor, what advice would you give to the new generation of young women? And as a mother of a son and a daughter, what advice would you give to young men?
As the only woman in the parliament’s Science Department, I was responsible for a parliamentary committee which bore the name “equality”. Within this committee, we focused on domestic violence and raising boys. Our committee visited Austria and Sweden. There is a school model of education against violence in Austria, which is designed for boys. Our committee was unable, however, to push through this model in Thuringia. I brought up our children entirely equally, and I taught them everything I knew in the household. I was recently on the phone with my son Jan, who lives in The Hague and works in Amsterdam for a bank as an internet banking expert, and he told me that likes to knit during Zoom meetings. And when he visits us with his son and wife, three generations meet up in the kitchen, including my husband.
By Linda Štucbartová