Many cities can legitimately claim to represent the meeting point of Europe’s East and West – the fact that very few vie for the nomination is only partly relevant. On first glance, Prague is one of those cities. The Czech Republic, as it now is, Czechoslovakia as it once was, and Bohemia, as I suspect it shall always be, is exuberant in its liberation from the Soviet yoke, but conscious of its eastern heritage and its history of unfreedom at the hands of those now amongst its current western allies.
Amongst the many foolish and insensitive words spoken in the name of British foreign policy, Neville Chamberlain’s description of Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country, about which we know nothing about” ranks highly. The truth, had he been half-interested, is that this valley in Central Europe has often mattered very much.
Although given far less time to develop political and social institutions than Poland, the riotous culture of Prague has produced many of the intellectual trends that have led Europe and played host to many others – including the premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and in Charles University, a seat of learning just a little younger than the Jagellonian University in Krakow.
No event put Prague closer to the cross-roads of mankind than my new-favourite historical moment, the second defenestration of Prague. Protestantism developed quickly in Prague thanks to the martyrdom of Jan Hus, a later follower of John Wycliffe, and naescent-Protestantism catalysed by the ambitions of those burghers who hoped for a state independent from the Holy Roman Empire culminated in the early seventeenth century with the townspeople throwing two Catholic emissaries out of the windows of one of the castle buildings onto a pile of horse shit. The emissaries survived, chastened, but Europe was plunged into the Thirty-Years War as a result. No wonder, perhaps, that so many churches are adorned with memento mori, and none more so than the Ossuary at Kotna Hura; its grotesque chandelier containing every bone in the human body.
Prague’s Jewish history is another notable part of its religious nonconformity. The emancipatory reforms of Emperor Josef II spurred two centuries of pedagogical and literary advances, creating the milieu from which Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka emerged. Regrettably, the Prague Ghetto’s Golem is, much like the reincarnation of King Wenceslas (who is supposed to save the Czech people in their moment of greatest peril), a famous no-show. Empty synagogues now stand to the north of the Old Square as a contradictory monument to Hitler’s zeal for extermination.
Czechoslovakia between the two wars owed its existence to the personal friendship of Thomas G. Masaryk and Woodrow Wilson (for whom the main station was once named). After the Allied betrayal at Munich came a second, and worse betrayal from Moscow. The Czechoslovakian leadership, although socialist in inclination, attempted to take part in the Marshall Conference. The summons of its leader to Stalin’s Kremlin indicated that this was not the done thing. Uncle Joe made up for this loss by bequeathing a thirty-metre statue of himself to Letna Hill, overlooking the town. Later, the Prague Spring became the first serious attempt by a Soviet satellite to exploit Khrushchev’s thaw, but Dubcčék’s ‘socialism with a human face,’ remained a pipe dream, now bitterly denounced in the city’s snarky, and entertaining Museum of Communism (which nonetheless has no time for laughs about North Korea).
Despite being one of the later revolutions that caused communism to fall in Europe, Czechoslovakia’s has remained a memorable one, partly because of its description as a ‘Velvet Revolution’ and because of the subsequent ‘Velvet Divorce’ of the Czech and Slovak constituents, but also because of the unique legacy of one Vačlav Hável. Hável, who counted western correspondents and academics amongst his allies even before 1989, was in many ways remarkable in his ordinariness. Prague must have as many garrets as Paris, yet its writers, artists and musicians less of a platform for celebration – which is probably what makes them generally better. Hável made his name writing petitions in support of banned psychedelic rock-groups and essays about the power of slogans. After his group of intellectuals joined the bandwagon of the student movement in 1989, he was elected to the Presidency, where he spent much time castigating Czechs for their small mindedness, wondering aloud what twist of fate had made him a politician, and riding through the halls of Prague Castle on a scooter. Unlike John Lennon, he has no monument yet, but his influence is pervasive, and his ability to unite Czechs and Slovaks unique.
Though locals must decry the summer influx of tourists and stag groups, there is little that Prague has not seen in its history. Back in 1623, a census revealed that one in seven houses contained a tavern. That number may even have decreased a little over time. Today, Prague is an exhibition – a way to put right misconceptions about grey Eastern Europe – the scientists and inventors whose work was interrupted by the political instability inflicted by the Austrians, the Germans and the Russians, and now that Alfons Mucha’s magnus opus, The Slav Epic, has gone on display, the possibility of a pan-Slavism that downplays Muscovy and Orthodoxy and highlights the commitment to erudition (the Slavs had a Bible in their vernacular four hundred yeas before England), and passivity. No longer part of this Empire, or tha Bloc, Prague and the Czech Republic are at the centre of their own universe. The ease with which they have joined the Visegrad group of four, welcome the US President for a speech on missile defence and comfortably admit thousands of Russian tourists tells a story worth listening to.