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Fear and ratings in the Czech Republic

A Czech reality TV show is portraying the tribulations of a family under Nazi rule in 1939. The producers dismiss criticism that it's a cheap trivialization, saying the show brings to life the hardships back then.

A frightened family of seven struggles under fascist occupation - in late 1930s Czechoslovakia - dealing with oppression from German secret police and the general fear that they won't be able to survive. Nazi spies abound.

Don't worry. It's not real.

The drama is far removed from the modern day Czech Republic. Yet, this is what Czech people are watching on television, at least some of them, following the launch of a new series, "Dovolena v protektoratu" (Holiday in the Protectorate).

The eight episodes of the reality show are set in a fictitious village in what was known then as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, areas ruled by a self-proclaimed Nazi government established on March 16, 1939.

Hundreds audition

For the production company and the major network (ceskatelevize) running the series, the decision to go ahead with it was clear:

"I spent a long time looking for a concept that would allow me to show life in another era, while ensuring the highest level of authenticity," said director Zora Cejnkova.

"I wanted people to see what hardships ordinary people had to go through to survive Nazi occupation," creative producer Zora Cejnkova said. "It was interesting to see how people make decisions under such psychological pressure, in front of TV cameras," Cejnkova added.

But the question most certainly remains: What exactly were those 400 people who showed up for the audition (for the seven parts) - a role that entails nothing other than being oppressed for eight weeks - doing?

Deutsche Wehrmacht in Prag Archivbild 1939

The Nazis entered Prague on the Ides of March, 1939

Tremendum et facinosum

Terror is something that fascinates the human psyche.

It's possible that German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto would have been able to explain why "Holiday in the Protectorate" is not only completely justifiable, but also why all those people showed up to audition for the seemingly revolting role.

A "holiday" in the Protectorate is a trip back to a time period that is inconceivable for our modern mind. It is also a time period that is connected with a kind of fear that very few in the Czech Republic know.

Otto proposed in his groundbreaking work The Idea of the Holy that human beings are drawn to the things they aren't in a position to know - and even more so because those things engender within them a sense of fear.

For him, the idea of God had unparalleled attraction. This was primarily because human beings couldn't comprehend the concept of the divine, but it was also because they were afraid of it.

Reinhard Heydrich quer

Heydrich has left an infamous, indellible mark on the Czech consciousness

Harbinger of dread

And indeed, the Czechoslovakian people lived under incomprehensible fear, in particular after Hitler and Himmler's appointment of Reinhard Heydrich as Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941. Nobody back then had any idea why they were being persecuted.

Heydrich, a favorite of Hitler's, got the Moravia and Bohemia job on account of his uncanny ideas on efficient genocide and also his pledge to "clean things up the East" (the actual words are much more heinous). He shortly began a reign of terror in and around Prague that sent shockwaves throughout Czechoslovakia.

Nine months of genocide, claiming hundreds of thousands of victims in Moravia and Bohemia, were brought to an end on May 27, 1942, when a British-trained duo of Czechoslovak paratroopers surprised Heydrich in his car in Prague en route to meet Adolf Hitler in Berlin. The assassination would prove successful, nine days later, bringing a sense of relief to the Czechoslovak people hardly conceivable in the present day.

"In 1942, the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia was beginning to seem like it would last forever," Mikulas Kroupa, director of the Post Bellum project in Prague, told DW.

"Most Czechoslovaks were paralyzed by a feeling of defeat, fear and humiliation. The killing of Heydrich roused the people into standing up to the Nazis. It showed we were not a nation of slaves."

Are the Czechs these days still taking pride in that moment of liberation?

The producers and creators didn't respond to requests whether the show had anything to do with Heydrich.

For critics, however, the Holiday in the Protectorate is nothing but a potential harbinger of even worse.

"What's next? Big Brother Auschwitz?"

That was a headline in British paper The Times this weekend.