Rivalries within small states & nations

Our first outdoor beers of 2012 © Ricky Yates

Back in 1970 when I was just eighteen years old, I went off to see the world and emigrated from England to live in the Australian island state of Tasmania. As well as being a formative experience, one thing I discovered whilst living there, really surprised me. Despite Tasmania having at that time, a population of only just over 400,000, there was a great rivalry between those who lived in the south of the island, particularly in the state capital Hobart, and those who lived in the north of the island, either in the second city Launceston, or in the string of towns along the North-West coast.

Bearing in mind that Tasmania was and still is the smallest of the six Australian states, both in area and population, it did seem odd to me that there should be such a rivalry between fellow Tasmanians. Surely, they needed to stand together against the might of the other five much larger states located on ‘the mainland’, the term used by all Tasmanians to describe that rather large island just to the north of them.

Five years later, I returned to the UK and in September 1975, went to live in Lampeter, West Wales, in order to study as an undergraduate at what was then known as St. David’s University College. Wales is also quite small with a population of about 3 million. Of those, about 20% fluently speak the native language of Welsh.

Two of my best friends at university, Aled and Hedd, were native first language Welsh speakers. Yet because Aled came from Trawsfynydd in North Wales whilst Hedd was from near Fishguard/Abergwaun in South-West Wales, each used to quite regularly tell the other that they did not speak Welsh properly! This was a reflection of the rivalry between those from North Wales and those from South & West Wales and the slight variation in the way Welsh is spoken in these different parts of the principality.

I can better understand rivalries when they occur within much larger nations, especially when those nations have only become united in relatively recent times. My wife Sybille, who is German, has frequently pointed out to me the ongoing rivalry between those from the north and south of Germany. Complete German unification only came about at the beginning of 1871.

German citizens from both north and south, rudely refer to each other based on what each believes the other to supposedly eat. A South German will call a North German, ‘ein Fischkopf‘/’a fish head’, whilst a North German will call a South German, ‘eine Weisswurst‘/’a white sausage’. Sybille, who ‘ist ein Fischkopf, keine Weisswurst‘, will point out that if you drive west from Prague to the border with Germany, whilst there is a sign saying that you are entering ‘die Bundesrepublik Deutschland‘, there is a far larger sign saying ‘Herzlich Willkommen im Freistaat Bayern‘/’Welcome to the Free State of Bavaria’!

The Czech Republic is a relatively small nation with a population, according to the 2011 census, of about 10.5 million people. As I explained in a previous post, the country is made up of what was historically known as Bohemia and Moravia, together with a small part of Silesia. Bohemia forms the western part of the country with Prague at its centre, whilst Moravia forms the eastern part where the country’s second city Brno, is located. And as I have discovered, there is quite a rivalry between Bohemia and Moravia.

I first became aware of this rivalry, when Honza, a Czech member of my Prague congregation, said to me, that he would never leave his car, with its number plates indicating he is from Prague, parked unattended in Brno, fearing one of the local Moravians would damage it! The second letter of a seven letter/digit Czech number plate, indicates where the car is from. ‘A’ is Prague, ‘B’ is Brno. In case you’re wondering why Prague isn’t ‘P’, it is because ‘P’ is used for Plzen.

More recently, my friend Katka from Brno remarked that, “…as many of my fellow townspeople like to point out, our favourite view of Prague is in the rear view mirror of a car!” I think you can see from these two remarks, there is quite a friendly rivalry, which can at times, become a certain animosity, between Prague and Brno – between Bohemia and Moravia.

Some of this rivalry can be relatively light-hearted. Back in October 2011, I listened to a speech by the Mayor of Brno in which he declared that Brno was the largest city in the Czech Republic, despite only having a population of no more than 400,000, whereas the population of Prague is 1.3 million. However, his reasoning was based on the fact that Prague is officially a region in its own right, whereas Brno is a city within the region of South Moravia.

Another reason for this rivalry is linguistic. The Czech word ‘Cesky’ can mean both ‘Czech’, referring to the whole country, or ‘Bohemian’, only referring to Bohemia. This was reflected in the recent 2011 census when in answer to a voluntary question, over 500,000 people declared themselves to be ‘Moravian’ rather than ‘Czech’.

Besides the linguistic explanation, I think another reason for this rivalry is that Moravia doesn’t have the country’s capital city – for some things, you have to travel to Prague in Bohemia. This in turn leads to Prague people looking down on the citizens of Brno. In many ways this reflects a wider attitude to which I was alerted very early in my time here. Czech people (both Bohemians and Moravians) look down on Slovaks, who in turn look down on Ukrainians!

Just like Tasmanians and the Welsh, once Czech citizens are outside of their nation’s borders, they stick together regardless of where they originally come from. But as a foreigner living in the Czech Republic, it is good to be aware of the Prague-Brno / Bohemia-Moravia rivalry, if only to be able to appreciate the humour it engenders.

21 comments to Rivalries within small states & nations

  • Ah yes…rivalry in small countries
    Malta has around 400,000 people. However, people in the north still think that people from the south are uneducated, and the southerners think that the northerners are snobs. Not the first time you hear someone from the north saying that they do not go to the south as they will get lost. This is from an island 27km x 14km!

    • Ricky

      Hi Ann – I thought this post might produce comments revealing other rivalries within small countries. Many thanks for your Maltese example.

  • Hi Ricky.
    Great post and blog. I have often wondered about the rivalry and differences between Bohemians and Moravians. I think this rivalry occurs at the most basic levels of human existence. Think football teams especially in the same town or city like Manchester (United and City) and Liverpool (Everton and Liverpool FC). It even exists at a lower level and is territorial, local street gangs etc. I think rivalry is an inbuilt genetic human characteristic. Discuss!

    • Ricky

      Hi Robin – Welcome to my blog & thank you for the compliments! I presume from the first part of your comment that you already knew about the rivalry/antagonism between Bohemians & Moravians but were unsure as to the reasons for it. I hope my post offered a few answers though I’d be interested in hearing other explanations, especially from Czechs/Bohemians/Moravians!

      Rivalry between both individuals and groups, is quite commonplace as you rightly say. Most humans have a tendency to think that they are better at doing something than certain other people and this particularly expresses itself in sporting rivalries such as the ones you mention. But whether it is a inbuilt genetic human characteristic…….

  • Brit in Bohemia

    Hi Ricky,
    Great article. In Northern Bohemia, people from Liberec (population 100,000) look down on those from Jablonec nad Nisou (50,000) 12 km away. Liberec is the county town of Liberecky Kraj (Liberec county). And those from Jablonec think Liberec people are arrogant snobs. Both towns think Prague are snobs.
    Czechs look down on the two main long-time resident minorities, Slovaks, Russians and Ukrainians, but kiss up to or are terrified of Westerners and Americans. As an aside, Geordies says they are from Newcastle, not the UK 🙂
    And on the Isle of Wight, they refer to the mainland as England 🙂
    I refuse to play these silly games.
    Best wishes.

    • Ricky

      Hi Mike – Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for the details of the local rivalries in your part of Bohemia.

      You comments about the Czech attitude to other nationalities living here, bears out what I wrote except you refer to ‘the two main long-time resident minorities’ and then list three 🙂 Yes many Czechs do look down on Slovaks & both Czechs & Slovaks look down on Ukrainians who end up doing all the jobs that no one else wants to do.

      However, Russians are the ones the Czechs most dislike due to the crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968, & the fact that the Russians now living in the CR tend to be very wealthy, rather arrogant, and believed to be heavily involved in the somewhat less attractive side of life here, in particular, prostitution & gambling.

      I don’t know about ‘kissing up to or are terrified of Westerners and Americans’ though there is quite an inferiority complex in many Czechs which our mutual blogging friend GIC has written about.

      With regard to your last two examples, Texans tend to say that they are from Texas rather than the USA 🙂 And the younger of my two sisters lives on the Isle of Wight & I’ve heard her, just like the Tasmanians I wrote about, refer to the large island on the north side of the Solent as ‘the mainland’.

  • Hi Ricky,
    There is a lot of rivalry between Prague and Brno. One thing I love about Moravians (which is part of my own heritage, along with Slovak) is that they are more warm and welcoming than some Praguers tend to be. But some say that is due to all the wine in Moravia! Moravians see Bohemians, especially Praguers, as “cold fish” and a bit snobby by comparison.

    Have you noticed the Moravian accent in Brno? When we’ve been there, I have a harder time understanding them, as I’m more used to the Bohemian/Praguer pronunciation of Cesky.

    For the record, I’m married to a Bohemian :0) But we have Moravian and Slovak friends :0) And I have relatives out there I would love to find.

    I love and enjoy all parts of our small country–and the people who inhabit those parts.

    Have a great day,
    Sher :0)

    • Ricky

      Hi Sher – Yes, I’ve heard the suggestion that Moravians are more warm & welcoming, and that Praguers in particular, are deemed to be cold & snobby. I do like your suggested explanation as to why Moravians are warm & welcoming 🙂

      I have to say that I haven’t noticed a different accent in Brno. But maybe I haven’t been listening close enough or people have spoken to me in English or German! But like you, I enjoy all parts of the CR and have to laugh at these little rivalries though they do make a very good topic for a blogpost 🙂

  • Brit in Bohemia

    Hi Ricky,
    Whoops ! I didn’t write the sentence very well. I meant: Many Czechs look down on the two main long-time resident minorities which I will not name, and in addition Slovaks, Russians and Ukrainians, but kiss up to or are terrified of Westerners and Americans.

    What you write in reply to me bears out with my experience too, although I forgot to mention that I was referring to those Czechs who haven’t mixed with foreigners much or traveled enough.

    My Czech friends treat me fine and relate to me on an equal level, which is how I aim to have all my relationships.
    Best wishes

    • Ricky

      Hi Mike – Always proofread before posting 🙂

      I concur entirely with your middle paragraph. Czech people who have spent a high school exchange year in the USA, or have spent time working in the UK, do have very different attitude towards foreigners living in the CR and a more balanced perspective regarding their own country.

  • Italians and Americans have that whole North/South thing going on in their countries, but I wouldn’t call the American version a rivalry per se. Rivalries occur between two equal and competing regions. Is the South our equal to the North? Oops, just kidding Southern people, I’m just kidding! I wrote that for HUMOR’s sake.

    But I must say, I have never understood the Czech tendency to look down on the Ukrainians. In North America, especially in Canada, there are many Ukrainians and they have been find additions to our continent.

    Turkish people have an East/West thing going on and a Turk/Arab thing going. Turks tend to look down on all things Kurdish and all things Arab.

    The real serious rivalries are saved for soccer teams though and are lovingly handed down from father to son!

    Europe, repeat after me: “it’s just a game. it’s just a game.”

    • Ricky

      Hi Karen – As I say in my blogpost, ‘I can better understand rivalries when they occur within much larger nations, especially when those nations have only become united in relatively recent times’. Your examples of north-south rivalries in Italy (only unified in the 1860s) & the USA (a rather large nation!) come into those categories.

      You make an interesting point about Ukrainians. Those who emigrated to North America earlier in the twentieth century, were probably the better educated ones who, as you say, have since made a valuable contribution to both the USA & Canada. Sybille has a good Canadian friend whose father is of Ukrainian origin. Whilst now here in the Czech Republic, most Ukrainians are manual labourers who are seeking earn money to support their families living back in the Ukraine.

      Regarding rivalries between the supporters of football teams, see the earlier comment from Mike in Bohemia. I know such rivalries are particularly strong in Turkey, especially between the different teams based in Istanbul.

  • Great post, Ricky, and you touch on what I think is a deep-seated tendency in human beings, namely to define ourselves by differences of various kinds into more manageable tribes or families. The divisions can be of language, accent, culture, ethnicity, religion or social class, but we all do it, unless we’re very careful. That’s why the famous “I know my place” sketch is still so funny and so true. Growing up as a Northerner in England, I just ‘knew’ that those down south were different,until I went to live among them and found I’d been wrong. 🙂

    • Ricky

      Yes Perpetua – you will see from earlier comments here that what I describe is ‘a deep-seated tendency in human beings’ as you so rightly put it. I deliberately did not mention the rivalries within our own home country which are not only geographic but can also be based on class. As I wrote in my blogpost, some of these can be just humorous whilst others are sadly based on prejudice.

  • I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I think most rivalries in Australia (such as the one you mention in Tasmania) come down to sport and the support of their local sporting team.

    So while there are strong rivalries within the states (even down to the town level), you can be guaranteed that when it comes time for Tasmania to play Victoria in the cricket, they’re fairly well united.

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  • Katka

    As a Moravian, I dare say that most Moravians actually have no reason to look down on the Slovaks. They are our equally cordial and friendly Eastern brothers. We can always enjoy each other’s company, they are sometimes even a bit more temperamental than we are. Going eastwards, the temperament (and slight tendency to disorder) increases. It’s quite a different story with Bohemians / Praguers, they’re a different kettle of fish… And we agree on that with the Slovaks too! 😉

  • Ricky

    Hi Katka – So Moravians don’t look down on Slovaks – they just think that Slovaks are a little more temperamental & disorderly. Interesting! I’d love a Slovak to tell me what they think about Moravians 🙂

  • Katka

    Well, yes – acknowledging something we see as a fact may not necessarily mean putting down the person doing it. Slovaks are most often just fun to be with and if one may not be a great fan of the ‘Eastern’ easy approach, one may easily think ‘I can do it differently if I need to’. But fortunately, Slovakia is not as far East for the real chaos, so enjoying mutual company is what we know.

  • Great article about regional rivalries. I tease my friends from Pennsylvania sometimes about being crooks who stole good Maryland land, but it’s all in good fun! I have heard about the North/South rivalries in England and Scotland. It seems as if the southerners always thought of themselves as being more “civilized”.

    When I was learning my sprangling of Welsh, I also came across the different dialects in North and South Wales. The differences made things quite complicated, actually. Ha, ha, I’m district neutral; I like British accents, no matter what part of the UK they come from!

    This has nothing to do with anything, but have you ever seen the 2009 film “Wesley”? If you haven’t figured it out already, it’s about John 😉 It’s waiting for me to pick up at the library, and I’m curious about it.

    • Ricky

      Hi Pearl – Glad you enjoyed the post. Certainly within England, there has been a tendency in the past by those from the south to think of themselves as more ‘civilized’ or ‘educated’ than those from the north, often due to which accent was used to speak the native tongue. As for the film, I haven’t seen it so when you have, do tell me what you think.