2 of 4) Prague, Czech Republic

The second leg of the trip was to Prague, Czech Republic, 402 km from Munich.

Country Manufacturing Value-Added (% of GDP) 27% (World Bank, 2019) 

The Czech Republic was the longtime industrial center of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.  According to EuroStat (2018), “The most important sector for Czech SMEs is manufacturing, which generates almost 30% of SME value added and employment, nearly 10 percentage points more than the respective averages in the rest of the EU”.  These manufacturing statistics may be the most similar to Indiana’s of the four cities on the trip, since Indiana ranks #1 in percentage of statewide economy attributed to industry.  Also, much like Indiana, the Czech Republic relies heavily on agriculture as a means of economic output.  Our trip from Munich to Prague allowed much time to gaze upon the countryside, which gave us a look at the many fields of rapeseed and hops.

 

Most Czechs over 40 years old do not speak English because the Russians closed off their society from the West behind the Iron Curtain.  Even today, they prefer to be referred to as “Central Europeans” rather than “Eastern Europeans”.  However, those under 40 generally speak English and enjoy chatting with Americans and discussing American culture.  Truly, Czech culture is shaped by their turbulent political history.

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Václav Havel, Czech dissident turned national hero and then president, was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.  He symbolized the citizen struggle that toppled communism and provided economic opportunity to the Czechs.  Here, he is seen speaking to a joint session of the US Congress in Washington, DC in 1990.  Seated behind him (clapping) is former VP and Indiana Senator Dan Quayle.

 

1) Multinational Automobile and Supply Chain Tours:

The reliance and emphasis on production in the Czech Republic can be partly attributed to the country’s historic and current proximity to markets.  The Czech Republic has one of the highest economic concentrations of GDP originating from automobile design, manufacture, and supply-chain in the world (Czech Invest, 2018).  AIA (2019) noted, “The Czech automotive industry employs more than 150,000 people and accounts for more than 20% of both Czech manufacturing output and Czech exports.”  In fact, the country supplies parts to every automobile manufacturer in Europe (Czech Ministry of Trade, 2016).  There are numerous automobile R&D and production centers in the Czech Republic, including Volkswagen (the owner of the Škoda automobile factory), Toyota, and Hyundai.  The automobile industry provides the country a high per-capita income compared to its European peers, similar to the way the three major Indiana-based Japanese multinational automobile organizations, Honda, Subaru, and Toyota boost Indiana’s per-capita income.  Toyota produces in the Czech Republic as well, employing 3,000 workers at their factory,  which is located right outside of Prague, manufactures over 300,000 automobiles annually.

The economic rise of the Czech Republic has been led by the automobile industry.  We had the opportunity to tour the massive Škoda Auto factory.  Škoda began in 1895 as a pressing plant that manufactured bicycles.  Ten years later, it began producing motorcycles.

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Student next to Škoda founders Václav Laurin and Václav Klement outside the factory

 

Since 2000, Škoda has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Volkswagen.  More than 1.25 million Škoda cars are sold in 102 countries (under the Volkswagen name in America) worldwide each year, including daily production of 2,500 at the factory we toured.  The company also produces in India and was voted the most dependable car brand in the UK in 2015.  Currently, China is the #1 export market for Škoda.  60% of their products are transported via trains, and 40% via trucks.  During the German occupation, the factory was utilized for production of German military vehicles under the German automaker Ferdinand Porsche.  It was bombed in May 1945 in Allied air raids.  Like many Czech industries, Škoda experienced massive management changes after the Velvet Revolution and the influx of privatization brought on by the fall of communism.  During this phase, Volkswagen beat out French automaker Renault to win equity rights in Škoda.

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Example of Škoda’s many logistics trucks

 

The factory tour gave us an enhanced understanding of Škoda’s modern production process, particularly the design and production of their new 7-speed automatic transmissions.  Students had the opportunity to observe the press shop with its 2,000 pound pressing power machines that cost €55 million each, the welding shop, and the final assembly hall.  The group also got to see the 250 kilograms of excess metal waste for each vehicle, which is eventually recycled, and learned about the welding process, which is completed at 950-degree temperatures, and cooled within 5 seconds in order for the metal to harden appropriately.  85% of the welding process is automated, using 620 robots and 260 workers per shift.  As in the BMW factory, no photos were allowed during the tour.

 

Today, the Czechs are proud of building their own modern transportation network, including the continual release of new models of trams.  This was no surprise to students, who noticed that some models were newer and had more innovative screens than others.  Of course, Škoda designs and manufactures the Prague public trams (as seen below with the logo on the tram).

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2) Cultural Excursions and Immersions:

Europeans know how to be mobile, and we again jumped into this cultural phenomenon and learned about the logistics of getting from place to place.  Experiential learning is the best way to acquire knowledge, and we did just that as we maneuvered through train stations, trams, and buses (see below).  A few students usually step up and help with extra sets of eyes as we navigate trams and metro systems (Thanks Mark!) through the city in our excursions and activities.

 

The Munich Agreement document in Prague is a contract stipulating that Britain and France would cede the Sudetenland of the Czech Republic.  This agreement was made in spite of unacknowledged Czech protests and is seen as a low point in the history of the country.  Prague was the last democracy to govern in Eastern Europe, but in 1948, the country became communist and endured authoritarian rule of the USSR for more than 40 years.  In 1968, reformers galvanized efforts to allow freedom of the press and other reforms until the USSR deployed 200,000 troops to storm the country and crush the rebellion.  The Velvet Revolution was a non-violent shift to capitalism and democracy that started as a student protest in November 1989 on International Students’ Day in Wenceslas Square, leading to a non-violent era of political upheaval.  The first elections since 1946 were held in June 1990 and overturned the one-party communist system.  Students have taken an active role in shaping Prague.  Since Charles University in Prague is a public higher education institution, it is free for all Czechs.

For the first time in the history of this trip, the group was able to make time for “Lennonova Zed”,  the John Lennon Wall, which is a formerly blank wall that locals began filling with Lennon-inspired artistry and Beatles lyrics in the 1980s.  It became a major irritant of the communist regime in Prague during the late 1980s due to the spirit of revolution Lennon espoused during his life.  This led to a violent confrontation in 1988 between police and local youth, whom authorities attempted to describe as mentally deranged and agents of capitalist antagonists.  Many cite the demand for banned Western music in the late 1980s as the push to end communism.

 

St. Wenceslas Square, the historic center of Prague and a World Heritage Site, was first established in 1348 as a horse market.  It has been the epicenter of all the major political protests, speeches, and demonstrations over the years, from the Proclamation of Independence in 1918 to events in the German occupation, to communism, and now capitalism.  We spent quite a bit of social time there.

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St. Wenceslas Statue at the Historic St. Wenceslas Square

 

St. Wenceslas Square also includes the famous Charles Bridge, first constructed in 1357 during the reign of King Charles IV, who founded the first University in the city.

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Students at the Charles Bridge

 

Since Prague was the only major Central European city to avoid being bombed in World War II, their historic architecture remains in tact.  During our tour of the city,  we saw that their Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance-era buildings are winding and close together, unlike the spaced-out urban phenomena of Midwest US cities.

 

One group dinner was held at the Výtopna Railway Restaurant, where the drinks of patrons are delivered to the tables via model trains.  The Czech economy has ebbed and flowed with the supply chain capabilities of their train system.  The first train transport organization in the Czech Republic was established in 1832 and was key to the development of its industrial might.  However, during the Cold War, border crossings were strictly controlled and trains were strictly regulated, which destroyed the traditional supply chain strengths of the economy.  

 

The Havel Market, in Old Town (seen below), has been a public market since 1232, when it was first established as a medieval settlement for trading food.  We had the opportunity to stroll through Old Town, which still operates as a food market and is the longest continually-running market on earth and became a shopping/souvenir destination for students.

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The Gothic chapel in the Old Town Hall includes the famous astronomical clock at the base.  The astronomical clock was first installed in 1410 and is the oldest one still operating.  We were witnessed the hourly ringing and the mechanical apostles rotating around the two windows above the main dial. 

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The New Town area of Prague, first built up in 1348, is also home to the Museum of Communism, which offers an overview of the recent history of political freedoms in the Czech Republic.  The current freedoms enjoyed by the citizens have been fiercely fought for, as we saw in a documentary video, and have resulted in the capitalistic prosperity that the citizens now enjoy as seen in the pictures with students below during our outing there.

 

Czechs enjoy their sports, and sports are shown on televisions at hotels. European pubs and restaurants don’t have televisions behind the bars.  Popular sports in the Czech Republic include soccer, ice hockey, and tennis.  In particular, ice hockey games were broadcast prominently during our time there.  The NBA playoffs were in the conference finals during the trip, but none of us noticed any games or highlights being played.  There was no hint of baseball either.

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3) History of Capitalism/Trade:

The Czech Republic was one of the most affluent countries in Europe until communist rule took over.  Since the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic has dived into capitalism and international trade.  Today, the country boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU, growing from less than $50 billion GDP in 1989 to over $200 billion today.  Since joining the EU in 2004, its global competitiveness has made it the heart of many European global networks.  The Czech Republic’s first modern democratic/capitalist leader, Václav Havel, is credited with redirecting its economy after playing a key role in the Velvet Revolution.  Although the Czech Republic has made massive strides since adopting capitalism, including an astounding 4.5% annual GNP growth rate, many reminders of its Eastern European past remain, including the Czech Republic’s not yet adopting the Euro as currency.  It’s always challenging for students to adapt to the Czech Korona (crown) due to its high denominations.

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Our currency for the three days in Prague.  1000 CZK = $44

 

The Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour of Prague and the Museum of Communism are both relevant examples of how the limitations and suppression of the old communist regime set back the production capabilities of the country for much of the twenty-first century.  Although the country had been the center of production for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, communist rule thwarted much of the usual production capabilities.  The Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour highlights relevant communist and capitalist moments between the 1940s and the Velvet Revolution, including information related to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s coordinated assassinations of capitalist leaders in Prague during the 1950’s.  The bunker could hold 150 people for 2 weeks.  The VIP Hotel above the bunker was for notable communist political leaders from around the region.  An escape tunnel went to Wenceslas Square 15 meters away.  One of the pictures below shows a map with the various nuclear bombs in Czechoslovakia pointed West, along with the maps of the various communist armies stationed around the border.  We were able to play with the 1950’s-era communist spy equipment developed by Czech technology experts, wear communist military garb, and hold 1950’s-era guns.  This is typically a favorite tour of the trip.

 

Cooks weren’t used to using fresh ingredients in the communist days, so fresh food is not common and there is not much of a culture of restaurants and eating out.  Soup (polevka), beef sirloin with gravy/boiled sausage/ketchup/mustard on a roll (the Czech rohlík), and goulash/meat stew with white rice are all common.  Some students seemed to enjoy Czech cuisine more than that in Bavaria, including some of the dishes pictured below (Bohemian Beef Goulash on the left, Czech kielbasa/sausage on the right).

 

Guy Myers of Purdue Polytechnic Vincennes continued to maximize the available free time, including a trip to the 9th-century Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world, seat of the former kings of Bohemia.  Once again, Guy found his way to the top of the tower (see pictures below).

 

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It’s a pleasure to see a picture posted by a student of some fellow students looking at a map one night during a student-initiated excursion.  That’s what the trip is all about- exploring and learning, in the spirit of famous American explorers such as of Lewis and Clark, George Washington, and Neil Armstrong.

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Unexpected American culture and history in Europe are always pleasant surprises.  Just as we were leaving this former communist city, we saw this at the Prague train station before we boarded our train (below).

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On to Hamburg…

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