I was shocked by the old worldly beauty of Prague when I first arrived in the Czech capital, which not too long ago stood helpless and sheltered under the firm clutches of the Iron Fist. If I’ve learned anything from my recent adventures around the former Eastern bloc, it’s that austere, severe architecture is what always prevails in Soviet infrastructure- but this is far from the truth in this charming city home to a myriad of beautiful old cathedrals and palaces.
If your memory of learning about Czech history in school is somewhat fuzzy, or if you never learned about it at all, I would highly recommend taking the Sandemans Walking Tour. These tours are generally lead by engaging and entertaining locals who know their facts and won’t hesitate to tell you where the best spots to eat and drink are.
Our guide started the tour off by giving us a brief synopsis of the history of Czechoslovakia. The first people to ever settle in the Czech lands were a Celtic tribe called the Boii who were dominant during Celtic Roman times. The neighbouring Germans referred to their land as ‘Boii heim’ (home of the Boii) and it was from this that the name ‘Bohemia’ was derived. In the 9th Century, Christian missionaries arrived and by the 14th century, King Charles IV had brought prestige and power to the Kingdom.
On one side of the Old Town Square, the Jan Huss monument memorial towers proudly above passers-by, featuring a statue of Jan Huss and his Protestant followers standing defiantly in front of the Cathedral before them. According to our tour guide, Huss began the Reformation a full century before Martin Luther did by openly criticizing the moral decay of the Catholic Church in his works. Huss spoke out against the sale of indulgences and believed that mass should be given in the vernacular. He was subsequently executed and burned at the stake in 1415 for heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church. What hindered Huss greatly was that he began his writings before the printing press had been invented and so could not spread his beliefs as widely as he would have liked. This was something that Luther had at his disposal a century later. That said, Huss had a huge impact on Western States. Following his execution, his followers, also known as Hussites, rebelled against their Roman Catholic rulers and defeated five consecutive papal crusades between 1420 and 1431 in what became known as the Hussite Wars. A century later, 90% of Czech inhabitants were Hussite.
However, that is no longer the case, as our tour guide pointed out to us. Nowadays, only 1% of the Czech population are Protestant, 10% are Catholic and as many as 60% are atheist. A lot of this aversion to religion is probably due to historical reasons such as the persecution of Protestants by the Catholic Hagsburgs and the restrictions placed on religion during Communist rule. What Czechs really want is to be left in peace- eschewing religious beliefs probably isn’t a bad way of doing this.
Throughout history, the Czech nation established a reputation for their passive nature and unwillingness to use violence. Their pacifist response toward events in the twentieth century are probably the most well-known. Czechoslovakia has always had the misfortune of being a small nation bordered by more powerful, ambitious states: Germany to the west, the Austro Hungarian Empire to the south and Russia to the east. In September 1938 the Munich Conference was signed in which the leaders of Britain, Italy and France agreed to appease Hitler in his request to take control of the Sudetenland in an attempt to prevent war. This was an area in Czechoslovakia with a considerable amount of German natives and industrial resources. The Czech prime minister wasn’t even allowed to participate in the conference however and native Czechs had no choice but to begrudgingly accept the Nazi takeover of their land. Needless to say, Czechoslovakia was then invaded by Germany in March 1939 and the invasion of Poland in September of that year marked the beginning of the Second World War.
During the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, a liberal leader named Dubcek was elected as First Secretary of the Communist Party and he soon set about introducing many reforms such as the freedom of speech and the loosening of restrictions on the media and on travel. This period of reform was known as the ‘Prague Spring’ and lasted from January to August 1968. Fearing that these reforms would jeopardize the Soviet Union’s power, the Soviets sent over 600,000 armed troops to occupy the country in August 1968. The troops were ordered not to enter the country before 12am in order to prevent knowledge of the occupation from spreading. However, the troops mistakenly arrived at 11pm, at which time radio broadcasts were still being aired. News of the invasion spread like wildfire. As is typical of the Czechs, a spirited non-violent approach swept across the nation involving methods such as painting over and switching street signs. Determined to confuse the invading troops, the people of a village on the outskirts of Prague painted over the sign which bore their village name and wrote ‘Dubcek’. When the troops asked them how to get to Prague, the locals gave them a vague reply. In many of the other towns the Soviets reached on their quest to find the capital, they encountered the same sign again bearing Dubcek’s name, thus being led to believe that they were going around in circles. Just because the Czechs weren’t armed didn’t mean that they didn’t want to put up a fight!
Czech resistance lasted for eight long months during which time there were sporadic acts of violence and a wave of suicides by self-immolation. The history and politics student Jan Palach decided to set himself on fire in protest to the invasion. His funeral turned into a massive protest against the occupation and his suicide by self-immolation started a trend which others would follow in subsequent months, such as Jan Zajic.
Czechoslovakia remained Soviet controlled until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution ended Soviet rule peacefully. The non-violent resistance of the Czechs is an example of civilian based defence and is iconic to the nation.
The next stop on our tour is the Jewish Quarter of the city, The Josefov as it is known by the locals. Nowadays, it is a lively and affluent area with high end designer shops and trendy bars and restaurants. This is ironic given the fact that it was always one of the poorest areas of the city with ghettos and slums commonplace. Established in the 13th century, it is steeped in history and a really interesting district to explore, offering six different synagogues, Gothic architecture and a museum called the ‘Jewish Museum in Prague’. It seems remarkable that so many old Jewish monuments did not fall prey to the bombings from the Luftwaffe during the Second World War- but this is no accident. Chillingly, Hitler intended to preserve this area so that it could be used as a “Museum of an extinct Race” in the future. He also gave specific orders that the army not destroy any of the buildings or monuments in the city, as he intended for Prague to become the artistic and cultural capital of the Third Reich. The only building in Prague destroyed by the Nazis was the Old Town Hall, the remains of which can still be seen on the Old Town Square to this day.