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An interview with Tomáš Jelínek

AMO AMO / Ed. 4. 1. 2016

For a long time I‘ve wanted to write about current Czech-German relations from an informed point of view by the experts involved, rather than their political perspective. It becomes clear that even excellent relations can be improved in many aspects when examined further, despite Czechs regular assurance by politicians that Czech-German relations are excellent.

Tomáš Jelínek is Executive Director of the Czech-German Fund for the Future. This fund helps build bridges between Czechs and Germans. It supports projects that bring people together from both countries, allowing a deeper insight into their common culture and history. The Czech-German Fund for the Future was founded by the Czech-German Declaration, signed on January 21, 1997. Since 1998 that fund has provided approximately 45 million EUR to more than 7500 projects.

Tomáš happens to be my classmate from the Faculty of Social Sciences, but he also studied in Düsseldorf and Erlangen. During his studies, he was a member of the negotiating team in international negotiations on compensating victims during the Nazi era. He is a member of several international bodies and a founder of the Living Memory non-profit organization in Prague.

The first traditional question – how do you perceive today’s world?

What fascinates me about today’s world is its openness and access. I  belong to a  generation that still perceived the bipolar division of the world and what limitations life with a  lack of freedom brings. That is why, today I  see an increase in the number of offers and options for what and where to study, how and where to live, what to pursue professionally, what to get involved in or simply where to go. At the same time, I also realize that this is a privilege that billions of people in the world do not have. The world, of course, remains a  place where contradictory values and principles often clash and where they are often enforced by force or manipulation and not by free and responsible acceptance.

To what extent does the lack of interest and decline in knowledge of German in the Czech Republic infl uence our largest neighbor? When I attended the Czech-German educational program, Czech German Young Professional Leaders, I was surprised that the program was in English.

We have not noticed a  decline of interest in cooperation with the Germans. On the contrary, last year a record number of citizens from both countries in the past fi fteen years approached us with projects. But I  do  think the decreasing number of children learning German is a problem, although it seems there are better days ahead. Two years ago we declared our support of German language as our topic of the year. In  parallel, the German and Austrian embassies and both cultural institutes initiated a campaign called “Šprechtíme” (We speak German), and last year a  second foreign language was made compulsory in Czech schools, which certainly works in favor of German. This is not about competing against English, but rather about what other foreign language to learn. In this respect, the largest argument supports German. In terms of our programs focused on young Czech and German leaders from business, NGOs, government, politics and media, we planned it from the beginning in English, not because we could not get enough candidates, but because we wanted to pull a  new and important target group into Czech-German exchange. Usually, young German speaking professionals already have a  deep knowledge of the neighboring country and they are also networked well with their German counterparts. It’s not that they are disinterested in the program, but from our perspective it doesn’t make much sense. We’re mainly interested in people without a  clear Czech-German background, who will fi nd signifi cant added value from our program and, thanks to whom, Czech-German relations will gain advocates within important positions.

You were appointed at the age of thirty as the director of the Czech-German Fund for the Future. Have you ever seen your youth as a disadvantage?

Youth may be a disadvantage if it’s combined with low self-refl ection and an unwillingness to work harder on certain things. But because I  believe that neither of these was a  problem to me, I  never complained about my age. On the contrary, my affi liation with the young generation was more of an advantage in my work, focusing on overcoming the tragic historic chapters of Czech-German relations, as well as the development of cooperation oriented towards the future.

You were involved since 2000 at the Czech-German Fund for the Future. How do  you reflect upon your fi fteen years of involvement?

This work still has a huge allure for me. In the early years it was a great opportunity to capitalize on my focus on German speaking countries.

As a  member of the negotiating team, I  had the opportunity to participate in the last major international negotiations on the consequences of World War II and then do everything possible to ensure that as many of the nearly 90,000 Czech victims of Nazi persecution and forced labor lived to see their compensation. The fact that this compensation was carried out successfully strengthened the confi dence in the Fund’s work, as well as in the fact that both sides took reconciliation seriously.

Then, when I moved to the Fund’s management, the focus of my work shifted and I  was able to primarily work on the development of relations between Czechs and Germans in the areas of youth and education, culture and science, cooperation of non-profi t organizations and the restoration of landmarks and monuments in the Czech borderland. This is work that remains extremely fulfi lling.

Feeling so much positive energy from thousands of Czechs and Germans investing in joint projects and observing the result of that work is truly encouraging. On the other hand, I also believe that our effort for a friendly approach to everyone who approaches us with an idea for an interesting project is encouraging for them. Work in the Fund is never routine for me, even after so many years. Our annual topic of the year, which impacts dozens of projects and motivates people on both sides of the border to work together on current problems, further contributes to this. This year it will concern our joint engagement in drug prevention.

We are also preparing, along with our German partners, a  large international exhibition on forced labor under the Nazis. It will be presented in the Belvedere at Prague Castle this summer. I am also looking forward to this year’s anniversary conference of the Czech-German Discussion Forum in Litoměřice, as well as the fact that the entire application submission process will be made more accessible, thanks to its move to an online system.

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