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Business as usual (2)

11/04/2017

Much has been made recently of the wanton destruction by the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) of ancient monuments and works of art in such places as Mosul and Palmyra as supposed ‘false idols’. But IS is by no means the only culprit in this area – there have been many others, far closer to home and, at first glance, far more innocent. The local grocery store, for instance.

I just found myself reading the Wikipedia article on the Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize (which last year merged with Holland’s Albert Heijn). The article was in three languages: French and Dutch (hardly surprising, given the Belgian topic), and Czech. Wondering why, I read all three versions – the Czech was a struggle, but I could guess a lot of it via other Slavic languages, and an online dictionary helped me with the rest.

The Delhaize grocery chain was founded back in the 1860s by two brothers from near the city of Charleroi in French-speaking Belgium, and over the years it expanded throughout the country. In 1957 it opened continental Europe’s first fully self-service supermarket in a Brussels suburb, and until quite recently it was a thriving concern, with subsidiaries in other parts of Europe, Asia and the United States.

At one point it spread to the Czech Republic, where its locally unpronounceable name was replaced by Delvita (which included the Latin word for ‘life’). And, in the newly capitalist country, businesses must have felt they were free to do pretty much what they liked – as the following story goes to show. Although there’s no trace of it in the French and Dutch versions of the Wikipedia article (‘Delhaize’), in the Czech version (‘Delvita’) it’s one of the first items – the different language versions of these articles are by no means always identical.

In 1995, just six years after the Velvet Revolution rid what was then still Czechoslovakia of the Soviet yoke, Delvita decided to build a large new outlet in a town on the outskirts of Prague.

Unfortunately the remains of a 3,000-year-old Late Bronze Age settlement were discovered on the planned construction site. And so of course Delvita, and its bosses back in Brussels, postponed the building plans until thorough archaeological research had been done and any valuable objects removed for safe-keeping in museums….

Did they hell. Despite repeated protests from local cultural bodies, they simply went ahead and bulldozed the ancient site (a unique find in that part of Europe); according to one source, they did so with full approval from the parent company. The reasoning behind this shocking act of corporate vandalism seems to have been that any penalties for the damage caused (described by experts as ‘incalculable’) would be more than outweighed by the prospect of getting the store up and running, and earning profits, as soon as possible. As Henry Ford had said in a famous 1916 newspaper interview:

‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.’

By ‘make history’ he of course simply meant ‘make money’; and, in 1916 as in Prague 80 years later, time was money. Just bulldoze the evidence, and you had less history to worry about, you could save time, and you could get on with making money. The bottom line.

One German commentator has said that Delvita would not have been able to get away with such destruction in his own country, where the penalties and above all the public outcry would have been far too great. But in post-communist Czechoslovakia people evidently felt less inclined to put a brake on business when it had only just regained its freedom after half a century.

As if all this were not bad enough, Delvita did not even have a proper building permit; yet in 2000 criminal charges against the project manager were dropped. In short, they did get away with it.

But six years later, perhaps embarrassed by the whole affair, Delhaize divested itself of its Czech subsidiary, which was soon bought up by Austria’s Billa chain, itself already part of a larger German concern. A few more such shunts and no-one will remember there was ever a Late Bronze Age site on the outskirts of Prague.

All these successive divestments, mergers and takeovers are part of a far broader plan: cover your tracks, and business as usual.

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