Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City

Table of Contents
I love and hate my hometown, and my warring sentiments have not been assuaged by recurrent returns to Prague in the years since the takeover of 1989, sometimes poetically called the Velvet Revolution. My happy memories of long walks among the chestnut trees in May or diving into the Vltava River from the rafts under the National Theater were accompanied by other, more disturbing images. I recall the daily lists of Czech citizens, summarily executed after the Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich had been ambushed, on May 27, 1942, on his way to Hrad
any Castle by a commando of Czechoslovak parachutists flown in from London, and I recall an aging woman with sturdy shoes and a full rucksack (my mother) riding a shabby tramcar of the No. 7 line to the assembly hall from which Jews were transported to the camps, never to return; three years later, when Prague had been liberated, German women, children, and old men were taken from their apartments, herded into old cinema halls and sports stadia, and, ultimately, expelled from the city and Czechoslovakia. Many of my European colleagues who like to write about Bohemian affairs have an easier time, unburdened by memories that make the heart ache and the stomach turn; the many coffee-table books now offered in Prague bookshops to tourists do not do much harm, permitting the travelers to come and go, their preconceptions unchanged. In one of his rare lyrical poems, Franz Kafka speaks of walking across the Charles Bridge and softly resting his hands on the old stones,
“die Hände auf alten Steinen.”
I always believed that he tried in that gentle gesture to keep the blood of many brutal battles from oozing out.
I am not foolish enough to believe that I can offer a Prague history as it
happened, but I hope to counter some of the traditional narratives
with other stories that do not hide my polemical intentions. I wish to sketch a few selected chapters of a paradoxical history in which the golden hues of proud power and creative glory, of emperors, artists and scholars, and restive people, are not untouched with the black of suffering and the victims’ silence. I have learned a good deal from Czech historiography over the last forty years, but my joys of exploration have been diminished by memories of Charles University in the spring of 1948, when I was a student and could not help watching, immediately after the Communist putsch, some of my most admired teachers instantly revise their ideas rather than risk an honorable place among the hapless opposition. Each of the many learned books published under the party regime has its own story to tell—of eager servitude, of compromise, of self-humiliation, and sometimes of rare resistance.
Multiethnicity, or a livable society made of many different societies, has become a fundamental commitment in political life and in academic studies, at least in the United States. It is sad to see that in the Old World many places of multiethnic traditions have, in the past generation or so, turned to the more solid enjoyments of a single national culture characterized by policies of exclusion and a dash of xenophobia. In this particular moment it may not be useless to explore the history of a European city built over many centuries by Czechs, Germans, Jews, and Italians—though many of the national historians would like to diminish the contributions of one or the other group and often agree only in their efforts to ignore the people of the Jewish Town. Prague has a long history of mass murder, whether triggered by street mobs or organized by bureaucrats, and religious and ethnic “cleansings” that invariably dirtied the hands that “cleansed.” Prague had the pogrom of 1389, in which three thousand Jews were killed, Maria Theresa’s expulsion of the Jews from their ancient town in 1744, and the Shoah of 1940—45, the transports to Theresienstadt (Terezin) and to the killing camps; Prague historians know the story of the forced expatriation of all Evangelicals, Czech and German, after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, and the expulsion of nearly all Germans, whether culpable or not, after May 1945.
Yet there were many moments when Prague societies lived with each other, or at least next to each other, and the names of those who attempted to guide different people to tolerance and sympathy with each other deserve new respect today, whether they are famous or known only to the happy few. I am thinking of the philosopher Bernard Bolzano, of President T. G. Masaryk, his disciple Emanuel Rádl, and the German ministers who served Masaryk’s republic loyally in the shared government of 1926-38.
I also think of Franz Kafka’s onetime friend Milena Jesenská, who at the time of Munich described, in a series of compassionate essays addressed to her Czech compatriots, the personal and political tragedy of the German Socialists and liberals in the Sudetenland, or the philosopher Jan Pato
ka, whose lectures I attended before I left Prague and succeeded in crossing the border in the thick of the Bohemian forest. Prague can be proud of these thoughtful citizens.
There is yet another favored narrative that blocks the view of the fullness of Prague history. It has its rather recent origins in the idea that Prague harbors more secrets of the magic, or mystical, kind than any other city in Europe; the new travel industry lovingly cherishes the mystical aura for market reasons. International tourists arrive with images in their minds of the golem, of Franz Kafka (rather simplified), and of alchemists, but they hear little and know less about the mathematicians at the court of Rudolf II, the pedagogical reforms of the stern moralist Rabbi Loew, or the sober philosophy of T. G. Masaryk, and they are led by their guides through the ancient quarters of the city and never set foot in the old proletarian suburbs of Karl
n or Smichov. It is difficult to discover any sustained traces of Prague’s alleged mystical ideas in historical documents (though a few may be found by the searching scholar), and it is only fair to assume that stories about “magic Prague” must be ascribed to an early wave of international travelers, mostly from the Protestant countries, who came to Prague and Bohemia in the early and mid-nineteenth century and were struck by its many ancient churches and by the old Jewish quarter. I hope to show, at least briefly, that the images of mystical Prague, created by English, German, and American travelers only a few decades before the Prague city government began in 1895/96 to raze the timeworn Jewish Town and the adjacent Baroque corners, were eagerly developed by Prague Czech and German “decadents” of the
fin de siècle
(among them young René Rilke, as he was called in his youth) and, after the first German golem movie (1914), were amply used by eclectic German writers of varying talents and inclinations, in World War I and later, not by Czechs. Gustav Meyrink’s
(1915), an international best-seller, was not the first to shift the old gothic novel to Prague, but Meyrink combined its conventions with those of early whodunits in a highly effective but kitschy melodrama.
Strangely enough, “magic Prague” and its conventions were brought to new life in the early 1960s when challenging questions of social and cultural importance were asked again in Prague. The idea of “magic Prague” was seized upon by the dissident left, both in Prague and elsewhere,
in its protest against the decaying prescriptions of socialist realism, and in an intricate ideological process linked the late-nineteenth-century idea with the revolutionary pleasures of French surrealists, great friends of alchemy. These combinations were codified in the Italian scholar Angelo Maria Ripellino’s
Praga Magica
(1973), which aimed to resuscitate the city as an eerie place of mystics and specters, madmen and alchemists,
and soothsayers of occult powers—all in legitimate protest against the boring world of state planning and against the wooden and mercurial apparatchiks who feared change and spontaneity. The new left myth of magic Prague was more productive within the neo-Stalinist regime than after its demise. Before 1989 it helped to undermine an official construction of life and literature, but in the new parliamentary democracy it runs the danger of prolonging yesterday’s protest (long turned into a tourist commodity) into a kind of romantic anticapitalism. It is not much of a surprise that Ripellino’s
Praga Magica
has been translated into many languages while Karel Krej
Praha legend a skute
Prague: Legend and Reality
, 1967) has not found many readers beyond the family of his Czech contemporaries. Krej
, of course, tries to circumscribe the amplitude of Prague’s royal, imperial, bourgeois, and plebeian past, and carefully avoids imaginative simplifications. In my own views I find myself closer to Krej
than to Ripellino, but I have to confess that I have felt most encouraged if not inspired by Ilsa Barea’s
(1966), which I have often assigned in my undergraduate courses. Ilsa Barea (née Pollak, from Vienna, later married to a general of the Spanish Republican Army) shows with greater precision and yet closer sympathy than anybody else what the traditional versions the history of Vienna hide and obfuscate, and I only hope that I was at least partly able to follow her admirable example.

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