The truth about a city can’t be gauged from the lines on a street map. And yet how can the idea of Prague exist, except as a kind of diagram of itself, the fractured geometry of an alchemist’s necronomicon, the figura mentis, figura intellectus, figura amoris…
May 1945. Edvard Beneš, the man who would come to enjoy the “doubtful distinction of having signed away his country twice,” stood at his window up in Prague Castle surveying the city below. Prague had just been “liberated” by the Red Army after six years as a de facto SS statelet. During that time 345,000 Czechs (263,000 of them Jews) had been killed by the Nazis, Lidice had been razed and its inhabitants murdered, and the Czech armaments industry had fed Hitler’s leviathan. The state-of-the-art Barandov film studios had meanwhile made Prague the jewel in Goebbels’ propaganda crown, safely out of range of allied bombers for the majority of the war. The Nazis had arrived in Prague on the ides of March, 1939, following the capitulation at Munich—the “Munich Betrayal” (Mnichovská zrada) as it’s known in Czech, blamed on the appeasement policies of Daladier and Chamberlain, those self-styled architects of “peace in our time.” When they finally departed, harried by the Red Army in the East and Vlassov’s ROA divisions, the retreating SS commanders intended to leave only ruins in their wake (it was to be their Last Stand, going out in a blaze of glory), but plans to demolish the city with explosives were abandoned in exchange for promises (unreliable as it turned out) of safe conduct to the American lines at Plzeň. For four days there was fighting led by resistance and partisan units centred around the Old Town Square and Masaryk Station, but at the end of it Prague, the last Nazi-occupied European capital, remained standing. So it was upon a view familiar to anyone who has ever seen a postcard of the city that the man who’d allowed himself to be railroaded into signing the Munich Agreement gazed at war’s end (having been exiled in Buckinghamshire for the duration), and of which he remarked smugly, idiotically, incomprehensibly: “Is it not beautiful? The only central European city not destroyed. And all my doing.”
Perhaps a mere six years of enslavement to the likes of Heydrich and his ilk could be considered a fair price for having saved this Hapsburg meringue from the Luftwaffe. Beneš didn’t have to pay it. Nor, for the first three of those years, did the card-carrying communists who (at Moscow’s bidding) slavishly accommodated Hitler’s interests and kept the entire Czech industrial complex operating smoothly right up until Operation Barbarossa, and for all that time were the highest paid workers in Europe (including Germany). At the end of the war, led by Klem Gottwald, Moscow’s most loyal stooge, they were on hand to do the honours of “liberating” a city the Nazis couldn’t get out of fast enough. A few years later, having tossed Masaryk’s son out a Foreign Ministry window, Comrade Klem staged a putsch—the communist’s hadn’t missed any of Hitler’s tricks and even invented one or two of their own. A series of show trials ensued: democrats and former resistance members like Milada Horáková (et al.), in 1950; old party faithful like Rudolf Slánský (et al.)—a Jew, part of a broader wave of anti-Semitism—in 1953. Slánský and Horáková were both hanged in the courtyard of Pankrác Prison, in the same spot SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Herman Frank and Acting Reichsprotektor Kurt Daluege (architects of the Lidice massacre) were hanged in 1946. The Nazis, for their part, had beheaded members of the Czech Resistance there during the war. It was a popular spot.
Commissioned in 1889 as “The Emperor-King’s Prison for Men in Prague,” Pankrác Prison was advanced for its time, with central heating even for solitary confinement cells: it had a lecture hall, a gymnasium, twenty-two workshops, six exercise yards, a Catholic church, an Evangelical chapel, and a “house of prayer for believers of the Israeli confession.” The first execution to occur there, by hanging, took place on 6 December 1930 of convicted murderer František Lukšík. During the war the prison was run by the Waffen SS, whose chief executioner Alois Weiss guillotined a total of 1,079 men and women. The communists hanged 234 political prisoners there. The last execution at Pankrác took place in 1989, just before the 17 November “Velvet Revolution” brought communism in Czechoslovakia to an end. The last political prisoner subsequently to be released from Prague’s equivalent of the Bastille (though it continues to operate) was the art historian and poet Ivan (“Magor”) Jirous.
Born under the Nazi “Protectorate” in 1944, Jirous (who died in 2011) was the artistic director of the dissident rock band The Plastic People of the Universe and principle advocate of the concept of a “Parallel Polis” or “Second Culture” (conceived in a 1974 manifesto as a “living in truth,” by which artistic expression was proposed as a direct means of subverting the communist totalitarian system). Jirous met future president Václav Havel in 1976 and when he was arrested a few days afterwards, along with nineteen other members of the musical underground, Havel initiated an international campaign to seek his (and their) release—including the famous “Open Letter” published in the New York Times through the agency of The Fugs’s Ed Sanders. It was this campaign that led directly to the foundation of the civil rights movement Charta 77, with Jirous’s “Parallel Polis” as the inspiration for the movement’s seminal statement, Havel’s essay (circulated throughout this period in samizdat) “The Power of the Powerless.” The “charter,” which called upon the government of the time to abide by its commitments to UN covenants on political, civil, economic and cultural rights (to which it had formally signed up), was first published on 6 January 1977, along with a list of 242 signatories, many of whom were subsequently arrested (tellingly, by the time of the “Velvet Revolution” a total of only 1,900 signatures had been added). Further publication of the text itself was declared illegal and its signatories described in the state-controlled media as “traitors and renegades” and “agents of imperialism” (an “anti-charter” was also created by the communist authorities in one of its typically bizarre propaganda efforts, among whose members was the singer—profitably rehabilitated after the ’89 revolution—Karel Gott).
Among the founders of Charta 77 and one of its three initial spokesmen (alongside Havel and Jíři Hájek), was the philosopher Jan Patočka. Patočka, a former student of both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, was the principle inheritor of an intellectual tradition in Prague stemming from (and also critical of) the ideas of TG Masaryk (Czechoslovakia’s founding president, one time student of Franz Brentano and briefly a mentor to Husserl). His 1936 essay “Of Two Manners to Conceive of the Meaning of Philosophy” expressed many of the ideas of Jirous’s “Parallel Polis” by other means and provided the germ of an argument for his later political involvement in Charta 77. What’s remarkable about Patočka’s biography, however, is that throughout the Nazi occupation and thirty years of communism, he made virtually no political statements: “like” Heidegger, he mostly maintained a puzzling silence, except to observe, in the abstract, “the fundamental irrationality of an autonomous technical rationality” (being the operations, among other things, of totalitarian bureaucracy), and to pass a handful of remarks on the function of ideology (again in the abstract) following the Nazi occupation and in light of Soviet domination of all aspects of civic life. Patočka’s ideas were enough, however, to get him barred from teaching by the communist authorities after the ’48 putsch. His status outside official academic circles required Patočka not only to consider the role of philosophy in the lived world, but to live (as it were) philosophically. If Charta 77 became the expression of this idea it was because the conclusion he ultimately reached was “that there are things for which it is worthwhile to suffer” and that “the things for which we might have to suffer are those which make life worthwhile”—just as “a theoretical construct that is not grounded in lived experience is empty, vain, a cunningly devised fable of men” (the socialist utopia, e.g.).
Like Jirous’s “living in truth,” Patočka “lived in the idea,” an act of subversion for which he was arrested by the StB (secret police) and subjected to eleven hours of interrogation in a cell on Bartolomějská Street, resulting in his death from a brain haemorrhage on 13 March 1977 at the age of 69. It was in response to this and other actions by the communist regime directed at signatories of Charta 77 that VONS (the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted) was founded. Its leaders—including Havel—were in turn accused of “criminal subversion of the republic in collusion with foreign agents” in October 1979 and imprisoned after a series of further show trials. Charta and VONS were not vanished utopian experiments, like some pre-dawn revolutionary avant-garde or the state socialism they sought to call to account, but a “soft pragmatics”: “soft” in the “passive-aggressive” “non-confrontational” way that has characterised the genesis of almost every political upheaval in the city since the Thirty Years War (and throughout the long Hapsburg proxy rule: Prague as the ghost of Vienna—followed by Prague as the ghost of Berlin, of Moscow, of Washington too perhaps). A sort of passive-aggression that has been called Kafka-esque: after all, how does one oppose “unjust prosecution” from within what is effectively already a penal colony? Or from within a ghetto, for that matter?
For neither Charta nor VONS were revolutionary movements: neither was the Velvet Revolution which in retrospect they predicted really a “revolution” at all. Like the impetus behind the Prague Spring, they were all forms of unmasking-by-way-of-appropriation—of the same species as a “Socialism with a Human Face” (in the sense that Charta and VONS called not for the overthrow of the state, but rather for its legal adjustment, requiring the communist régime “simply” to abide by its own constitution etc.). Neither Charta nor VONS (unlike the “Manifesto of Czech Anarchists” of 1896) made an explicit claim upon the idea of “freedom”—other than that which the letter of the law already provided. Indeed, it is instructive that the movement ostensibly led by Havel never openly called into question the legitimacy of the state itself, but only its manifestation in the (illegal) actions of the régime of the moment. And it was more than merely symbolic that when, on 23 November 1989, Havel (who had only recently been released from ten months’ imprisonment) addressed the crowd on Wenceslas Square from the balcony of the Svobodné Slovo newspaper offices, standing beside him was Alexander Dubček, the former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia who’d been deposed in 1969 as a result of the Soviet invasion which ended the Prague Spring. After ’89 Dubček was in fact “rehabilitated” as Chairman of the federal Czechoslovak parliament.
These lineaments of the “perennial city” in its temporal manifestation infuse a social, cultural, political topography with a forcefeedback of “quotidian mobility” and “perennial flux,” which might be seen as almost some sort of autonomous agent driving the city’s “evolutionary machinery”—like a “system” of competing entropies abolishing any sense of a singularly defined territory, the “consolatory faith” in a progression towards that X which marks our ultimate locatedness in the “scheme of things” (the fabled clean break from communism, the “liberation” from the Nazis, independence from the Hapsburg bureaucratic miasma, etc.). In that palimpsest of “grey theories” and “dead principles,” there is always the alibi of obfuscation. Destinies always come and go. The beacon on the hill is whatever it can be made to seem to be.
Already in 1896 the Czech anarchists were warning against the “rigid dogmas of state Marxist socialism.” What they couldn’t have envisaged was the ruthless efficiency of its grab for power. Equally they warned against the seductions of “liberal democracy.” But nor could they have envisaged the ruthless efficiency of capitalism in its infiltration of all aspects of life. After the “Velvet Revolution” had settled into the “Velvet Divorce” and then into the cynicism and complacency of the “Voucher Privatisation” years, corruption, mediocrity, xenophobia exhausted whatever faith there might’ve been in the idea of a miraculous transformation to a Civil Society presided over by a Philosopher King (a playwright president would do). The largest post-revolution manifestation was prompted by the Czech Republic’s ice hockey gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics (this high point of national accomplishment was immortalised as an opera by Martin Smolka and Jaroslav Dušek).
By September 2000, however (after Y2K had failed to bring the history to an end—just as liberal democracy had failed to do it in 1989 and the Cold War had failed to do it during any of the preceding forty-odd years, though not for a lack of trying), they crowds in Wenceslas Square would be lobbing Molotov cocktails at Czech riot police in protest against rampant global capitalism in the form of the World Bank and IMF. Unlike in ’89, cobblestones would be ripped from the pavement and hurled from barricades. Whereas after the “Velvet Revolution” people queued outside the first McDonalds to open (at Vodičková 15, the location of Akademická Café, which in the 1920s was one of the homes of Prague’s literary avant-garde), in 2000 they smashed every McDonald storefront in town. It was the logical conclusion of a critique that forms part of a parallel polis within the “Parallel Polis,” and was perhaps most forcefully articulated in the last decade of communist normalisation in Robert Kalivoda’s “Emancipation and Utopia,” published in German in 1982. The “formulation of the emancipation ideal,” wrote Kalivoda, “must pass into a far more concrete, not easily attainable sphere. At this level it is mostly a matter of life and death… it is no longer just a wish” (though the only notable example of armed anti-communist resistance in Prague didn’t come from te anarchist quarter but from a group centred around two brothers, Josef and Ctirad Mašín, encouraged during the 1950s by the seeming promise, circulated through “Radio Free Europe” and “Voice of America,” of an immanent US-led invasion).
Instructed by successive forms of “revolutionary terrorism,” anarchism sought the outright negation of the authority of the state and the removal of private ownership in the social domain. Anarchist Prague would constitute, and constituted by, a series of porous “autonomous zones” in which ideas of the “commune” and the fluidity of urban drift and drifting might mesh to produce a critical entity: meaning, that the city itself would be the manifest political agent in this drama of social conversion (what Hakim Bey calls the “psychotopography of everyday life”). In reply to the “criminality” of the state, the city (the “polis”) would be the seemingly paradoxical counter-argument that (as Masaryk’s critics in the drive for Czechoslovak independence from Vienna argued) “it has hardly ever been possible by a legal path… to achieve anything really valuable.” But while the city has undergone some of those processes of Haussmann-esque rationalisation whereby Power asserts itself through urban organisation and control (the abolition of the Jewish ghetto, the construction of the city’s motorway system by the communists), these processes have sometimes served contrary ends. During the “Days of Rage” anti-globalisation protests, delegates to the World Bank/IMF summit held at Prague’s communist-era monstrocity, the so-called “Palace of Culture” in Vyšehrad, needed to be evacuated by police, despite efforts to cordon off the entire district (and despite the efforts of politicians to encourage “law abiding citizens” to visit their cottages in the country for the weekend). While the protests descended into running battles between demonstrators and police throughout the centre of Prague, defying attempts by the authorities at a general lockdown, the city itself seemed to author a kind of parallel universe scenario in time-delay of the protest march of 17 November 1989, which began at Vyšehrad and converged on the National Theatre, signalling the start of the “Velvet Revolution.”
17 November was the date first observed in 1941 for International Students’ Day. It began with a funeral procession on November 15th, 1939, for the murdered Czech medical student Jan Opletal, who was shot during a march in celebration of the anniversary of Czechoslovak Independence (28 October 1918), which had quickly become a protest against Nazi occupation. In the event, the funeral procession also transformed into an anti-Nazi rally. Among the retaliatory measures taken by the Nazis was the forced closure of all Czech universities for the duration of the war, the deportation of 1,200 students to Sachsenhausen, and the execution—on November 17th—of nine student leaders and professors. In 1989, the Socialist Union of Youth and a group of independent student leaders organised a mass rally to mark the 50th anniversary of these executions and to voice their opposition to what, by that time, was already a moribund régime, headed by Gustáv Husák (who himself had escaped a grievous hanging in ’53 as the third most prominent defendant at the Slánský trial). It was already eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to estimations, about 15,000 people took part in the rally which was eventually broken up by riot police on Národní Street in front of the National Theatre. The brutality of the crackdown provided a catalyst for the “Velvet Revolution” proper, additionally fuelled by one extremely bizarre event which seemed to take on a significance out of all relation to the probable intent behind it. This was the alleged “murder” of Milan Růžička, supposedly a student at the Mining University in Ostrava, whose body was left lying on the street after security forces withdrew from a baton-charge on protestors. Video recordings of the event exist and news of the “dead student” quickly circulated. This “dead student,” however, transpired to be an SNB lieutenant called Ludvík Zifčák, who was attached as senior officer to Department 2, Section II of the Prague StB directorate (ID 216868). Zifčák had been commissioned to “directly penetrate the ‘enemy’ environment of the opposition and student movements.” His role in as the “dead student” was eventually exposed in January 1990, although the purpose of the stunt has never been fully clarified.
When the Communist Party abandoned power on November 28, 1989, Husák—who held on to the presidency until December 10—ended up, in yet another bizarre episode, officiating over the appointment of the new non-communist government. Husák, the architect of post-’68 “Normalisation” and “Hero of the Soviet Union,” died barely two years later, virtually forgotten. It wouldn’t be until 1991, however, that Soviet troops finally left the city (to his credit, Husák personally lobbied for their withdrawal already in the early ’70s). After the “August Coup” (in which the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, was kidnapped by Party hardliners—the “Gang of Eight”), Prague residents routinely harboured suspicions that the Russian tanks would soon be back. Meanwhile, on the night of 23 April 1991, artist David Černý, along with a group of friends (the “Neostunners”), launched a guerrilla action against the “Monument to the Soviet Tank Crews” located on Kinský Square, painting the tank pink and erected a large middle finger on its turret. Černý was subsequently arrested under pre-existing “public disturbance” laws and the tank was repainted green. In response, 15 members of the new democratically elected parliament, making use of their immunity from prosecution, took it upon themselves to paint the tank pink again. With the resulting controversy, Černý was released, the monument was stripped of its status and, after being repainted green and pink several more times by competing groups, the tank was eventually removed to a military museum.
When real tanks finally did return to the centre of Prague, taking up positions at the top of Wenceslas Square almost identical to those occupied by the Soviets in 1968, they weren’t Russian but part of the Czech Republic’s NATO contingent, put there along with a system of concrete barriers in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in NY (2001). As a new American vassal state, the Czech tanks had been sent to defend “Radio Free Europe,” based in the former Federal Parliament building (nestled between two communist-era motorways beside the iconic Natural Sciences Museum), from immanent “terrorist” attack. A leftover from the Cold War, “RFE” finally relocated out of Prague’s centre only in February 2009: for the intervening years the tanks and barriers remained in place, as if Prague were once again an occupied city. And while the 9/11 crackdown on civil liberties across the American sphere brought an end to the anti-globalisation movement that peeked in 2000, a new series of grievances began to arise under the shadow of the Bush years—first with the local rejection of the US front-line radar system that was planned to be built on Czech territory and widely perceived as a direct provocation to Russia (fomenting a type of micro-Cuban-Missile-Crisis), then with the burgeoning “Occupy Movement” and its local cognates, spurred on by widespread public rejection of right-wing “austerity rhetoric” in the wake of the “GEC” (the Global Economic Crisis of 2007-8).
On 5 April 2009, US President Barack Obama stood at a specially erected podium outside the gates of Prague Castle and gave his audience a utopian vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. He told Praguers that America, as the only nation ever to’ve dropped the A-bomb, bore the moral responsibility for launching a new era of disarmament. Where once there’d been the Brezhnev Doctrine there was now the Prague Doctrine, and very soon the world would be a better place. But Obama’s speech wasn’t directed at the Soviets (the Soviet Union had ceased to exist in ’91), but to the adventurists who’d occupied the White House in the eight years since. Standing a short way across the Square from Obama’s podium was the diminutive statue of Czechoslovakia’s founder, TG Masaryk (a caricature of the Great Man known as the Masaryk “memorial”). It was erected in 2000 to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth: it’d only taken the free city eleven years to honour the Republic’s founder with a public monument.
A hop step and a jump from there, past the Summer Palace to the sprawling Letná Plain, the giant “metronome” lay immobile on one side, testimony to the changing times. The “metronome,” visible from much of Prague, is a type of consolation prize for a city that once hosted the world’s largest monument to Stalin on the same spot. Prague’s pet Stalin was unveiled in 1955, measuring 15.5 metres in height—a dead man’s folly made out of concrete and granite that also comprised a random selection of heroes of the Workers’ Paradise (including a female partisan unfortunately groping the crotch of a soldier standing behind her—the product of an economising effort by the authorities who demanded Stalin’s retinue be “foreshortened” to save on materials and currency). It was locally referred to as “Stalin and the Meat Queue” (even then, nobody had enough of anything). At the time it was the largest group statue in Europe. Following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Uncle Joe in ’56 the whole thing was messily demolished with the aid of 800kg of high explosive (though only in 1962). At least one bystander was killed by flying debris. The monument’s architect, Otakar Švec, had already had enough decency to commit suicide the day before its unveiling. Thirty-four years later an 11-metre tall statue of Michael Jackson was erected on the same spot, as a promotional stunt for Jackson’s European “HIStory” tour.
Originally Stalin’s plinth also housed a bunker, of which there are dozens throughout Prague. After the Revolution, this bunker was converted into a pirate radio station, known as Radio Stalin, and later into a rock club. The Thatcherite and frequently megalomaniac prime minister (under Havel; but later also president himself), Václav Klaus, saw no good reason not to mount an enormous billboard of himself atop the plinth during the 1998 general elections. It wasn’t popular outrage that resulted in the billboard being torn down, but high winds. The winds not of “change” so much as of the goddess “Irony.” Megalomania and gigantism have not always been contented bedfellows. Centuries of colonisation meant that Prague’s imperial ambitions remained circumscribed by the Renaissance, the rest belonged more to the Kafka-esque bureaucratic variety. There are exceptions. One-Eyed Žižka and his horse on Vítkov Hill (the “National Monument”): the third largest bronze equestrian statue in the world. Overtly, it honours the victory in 1420 of the rebel Jan Žižka over the armies of the Holy Roman Empire on that site (Žižka was fabled as the original inventor of the “tank”). Symbolically it stood as a memorial to the Czechoslovak legionaries. Constructed between 1928 and 1938, it served as a focus of state ideology for successive régimes, and after the death of the founder of the Communist Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald, it served as a mausoleum for his embalmed remains (along with the cremated ones of twenty other senior communist figures), until the abolition of Gottwald’s personality cult in 1962 (the embalming process had been botched in any case).
In the opposite direction from Prague Castle, behind the faux Eiffel Tower, mirror maze and planetarium atop Petřín Hill, surrounded by brutalist dormitory buildings, stands Strahov Stadium. Completed in 1926, the stadium was (and remained throughout its use as a sports venue) the largest stadium in the world, housing 9 grass football pitches and accommodating up to 250,000 spectators. The Rolling Stones played there in 1990, soon after the Revolution, with Havel in the audience (as he was at Lou Reed’s miserable concert at the Lucerna Ballroom ten years later). During the ’30s Strahov Stadium was known as Masaryk Stadium and was used for military reviews and as a venue for Sokol’s large scale gymnastics performances—a use to which it was returned (in 1955) under the communist régime with its quinquennial “Spartakiáda” (a fetishistic, mass synchronized gymnastics extravaganza named in honour of the leader of the Roman slave uprising, Spartacus, though designed to celebrate the Red Army’s “liberation” of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis). During the 1960 Spartakiáda some 750,000 gymnasts from across the country took part (participation for soldiers and students was compulsory). The Strahov Stadium made even Soviet gigantism seem paltry. Its uses no doubt went far beyond its architects’ expectations: after the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, thousands of refugees were temporarily housed there. While after the “liberation” in ’45, it was the turn of the German-speaking population, thousands of whom were herded into the stadium as a transit camp on their way to expulsion from Czechoslovakia—under the auspices of the so-called Beneš Decrees of October 28, 1945 (prompted by the Potsdam Conference), which sought to legalise a process that had already been going on since the end of the war.
In these “decrees,” Beneš called for a “final solution to the German question” (konečné řešení německé otázky): namely the forced deportation all ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. A sense of intent can be gleaned from one of Beneš’s London radio broadcasts on 27 October 1943: “The end of the war will be written in blood… Germans will be paid back, mercilessly and manifold, all they’ve perpetrated in our lands since ’38… There won’t be a single Czechoslovak not participating in this righteous revenge for the nations tribulations.” Standing in the Old Town Square on the May 16 1945, soon after the “liberation,” and echoing words that might easily (with obvious substitutions) have been spoken by Adolf Eichmann on the occasion of the establishment of the Office of Jew Emigration in Prague in July 1939 (a first step in the expediting of a “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”), Beneš proposed “a new political formation” which would be necessary in order “to liquidate, uncompromisingly, Germans in the Czech lands and Hungarians in Slovakia.” Not having been a man of any distinguished sense of irony, we can only take him at his word.
Beneš’s “final solution” impacted upon whole communities irrespective of their political affiliation with Nazism, and included members of the anti-fascist movements, Social Democrats, and even Jews, a significant number of whom had only just returned from concentration camps and were now made to wear the letter “N” to mark them as being German (“Němec”). Along with Strahov Stadium there were some 1,215 internment camps, as well as 846 forced labour and “disciplinary centres” (among them the former Nazi concentration camp at Terezín). Beneš’s “final solution,” which was primarily administered by, and played most into the hands of, the communist “partisan” units, effected an approximate 3.3 million Sudetendeutsch (based on a 1938 census), out of a total pre-war Czechoslovak population that included, in addition, 6 million Czechs, 2 million Slovaks and 700,000 Hungarians. An estimated 30,000 people died in the process.
Accounts of the post-war expulsions continue to be controversial, and frequently unverifiable. Photographs, however, attest to the truth of some of them. There are the “human candles” on Wenceslas Square—German soldiers, some of whom were reportedly taken from hospital beds, strung upside-down from lampposts and set ablaze by the mob. It is easy to dispute the horrific nature of such accounts, coming as they do from “Germans” and reduced to a certain level of banality after years of Nazi atrocities (few historians seem to have had the stomach for levelling accusations of “crimes against humanity” during this period of retribution, actively encouraged by the governments of the USA and USSR). If such reports are to be believed, the Vltava river was virtually choked with corpses for weeks after the “liberation,” while Strahov (“Masaryk”) Stadium was an “Inferno” of Bruegel-esque tortures, rapes and murders. One apparent survivor of Strahov, Josefine Waimann, is repeatedly quoted in the literature circulated to expose this Sudeten “holocaust” (an account which is entirely unverifiable): “I most vividly remember a young pregnant woman; young Czechs in uniform slit her belly open, tore out the embryo and, howling with glee, stuffed a dachshund into the torn body of the woman, who was screaming horribly.” To give the “Czechs” their due, Waimann does claim that it was the Red Army who did the raping, the “Czechs” were merely their sadistic lackeys. An uncomfortable version of this narrative forms the backdrop of Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99’s “Alois Nebel” trilogy of graphic novels, adapted for the screen in 2011, in which Czechs stooging for the Soviets are shown as the principle culprits in the Sudeten “evacuation.”
Havel made a point of acknowledging the excesses committed during the expulsion of the Sudetens soon after gaining office, and expressed regret at the Beneš Decrees for providing a legal framework for both arbitrary and systematic acts of revenge, as well as outright theft, and for preventing the prosecution of those involved (though similar amnesties provided to officers of the Chilean Junta managed to be overturned retrospectively, yet the Beneš Decrees—themselves retroactively ratified by an interim Czechoslovak National assembly on 6 March 1946 [to cover its tracks]—continue to remain a stumbling block to the national conscience). And while ’89 “restitution” laws provided for the return of property seized by the communists, neither Czechoslovakia, nor its successor state the Czech Republic, ever provided compensation for Sudeten “Germans” (nor any right of return: compensation was paid to Austria and Hungary, though).
Ironically, after ’48, the communist régime in Prague was faced with a dilemma, since the advent of socialist East Germany meant that Germans, too, had now to be considered “comrade brothers.” And so the deportations ended. Not so the general narrative of deferred blame: the responsibility for all atrocities during the war fell squarely on the shoulders of the “fascists.” Thus the entire question of “Czech” collaboration with the Nazis was airbrushed out of history. During the ’90s, the question resurfaced in especially dramatic fashion out of the revelations surrounding Lety concentration camp, located 68km south of Prague—a camp specifically for “people avoiding work and living off crime,” but intended after July 1942 exclusively for the local Roma population. The order to construct the camp was in fact given two weeks before the Nazi occupation and was put into effect on 17 July 1939. Both the commandant, Josef Janovský (later Štefan Blahynka), and the guards were Czech and remained so throughout the period of the Protectorate. 10% of prisoners died in the camp while a total of 4,831 Romani were transported to Auschwitz. During the 1970s an industrial-scale pig farm was built on the site of the Lety camp. A European Parliament resolution of 2005 required that the Czech government remove the farm, but to date the government has declined to do so.
One prominent campaigner against racism and for Romani rights was Jakub Polák, a prominent Czech anarchist active from the time of the Prague Spring. He was a cofounder of the 1989 strike committee that contributed to the Velvet Revolution and afterwards founded and edited A-Kontra magazine, the central mouthpiece of the Czech anarchist movement. During the nineties he was particularly active in the fight against the neo-Nazi resurgence in Central Europe and was a founder of Prague’s first post-Revolution squat in 1990 (on Podplukovníka Sochora Street in Holešovice, close to Vltavská metro and to Bubny train station: the central deportation point during the war for Prague’s Jews, organised into transports by the local Jewish “authorities”). During the ’90s a number of squats in the city flourished, including one adjacent to the Old Town side of Charles Bridge—yet whilst many prominently located buildings owned by property developers have been allowed to remain vacant and in most cases derelict (some for more than twenty years), the Prague authorities have maintained a general hostility to squatters and attracted accusations in the late ’90s of complicity with neo-Nazi groups involved in violent attacks on squats in Prague and elsewhere. Some squats, like the one coordinated by artists Igor Tchai in the Vršovice district, served as ad hoc artist-run exhibition and performance centres. But though initiatives aimed at promoting public art in neglected “private” spaces were supported by the likes of the Soros Foundation, nothing of the character of “Kunsthaus” Tacheles, the famous squat in Berlin-Mitte that operated until 2012 was ever permitted to develop in Prague. Perhaps the closest approximation was the Villa Milada, a dilapidated pre-war house flanked by communist-era highrise dormitories across the river from the recently re-designated “Franz Kafka” train station, which acquired soon after its occupation on the 1st of May 1998 a reputation as the centre of Prague’s independent underground scene. By June 2009 it was the city’s last remaining squat, when council authorities moved in to evict its inhabitants. Three years later, the building (originally slated for demolition, but still standing) was temporarily reoccupied by a group of some 30 people before riot police immediately intervened.
The Villa Milada’s location was once an exclusive zone for the city’s bourgeoisie. The communists wreaked their revenge by demolishing most of the villas in the area to make way for a degraded Le Corbusier-style system of college dormitories, a kind of student satellite city. The régime had already performed a similar “cleansing” operation to the city’s south, where the Barrandov Bridge and the massive flyovers on the Braník side of the river, along with a motorway through the heart of Barrandov, left a key landmark of the First Republic—the Barrandov Terraces, a complex of buildings designed by architect Max Urban and constructed by Václav M. Havel (father of the future president) on the hillside overlooking the river, including a famous riverside swimming complex—isolated and in ruins. The once-fashionable terraces had been frequented before the war by artists and writers like Nezval and members of the film industry (Barrandov Studios is close by), and during the war by the likes of Goebbels, Lída Baarová, and members of the collaborationist government. Having been nationalised by the communists, today the pool, hidden by overgrowth and half-demolished, is filled with the debris of a disappeared homeless colony, while the restaurant, with its characteristic lighthouse-beacon tower, has been boarded up for over thirty years: the view from the dilapidated terraces now nothing but an expanse of multilane traffic.
While the “Terraces” remain in redevelopment limbo, the case of Villa Milada is even stranger, since in official documentation it doesn’t actually exist. While communist and some post-communist efforts to wreck the city or profit from its “modernisation” have produced a copious number of dead zones that barely appear on any map (the entire area stretching north along the curve of the river from Villa Milada is a case in point), the villa itself represents a virtual black hole. Having been slated for demolition, it was officially deleted from the property register before the entire “student city” project came grinding to a halt and the régime imploded. It might’ve been a scenario invented by that arch ironist, Kafka. But neither the communists nor the beneficiaries of the ’89 revolution were averse to inventing similar scenarios when it suited them: throughout the process of “Restitution,” for example, a nebulous and on-going system of sales and deed-transfers among subsidiary state institutions (and later private ones) was used to obfuscate the question of legal ownership of expropriated or “nationalised” properties—such transfers were even known to happen during restitution hearings, like some game of pass the potato.
These paper trails and erasures and bureaucratic black holes describe another kind of map, a map of a city conceived as a psycho-legalistic melodrama, an ideological carny ride, a mirror maze for invisible men. Redevelopment has created swathes of erasures around the old periphery of the city, which itself has extended into a “great wall” of prefab highrise projects (paneláky)—nowadays re-branded as luxury apartment complexes—comprising the outlying “sídliště.” Zones such as the former docklands, the demolished shipyards and old workers’ “garden colonies” of Libeňský Island, the container terminal at Rohanský Island (both now annexed to the northern side of the river by landfill and converted to condos and glass-house corporate highrises—one of which featured in the opening sequence of the 2006 instalment in the James Bond Franchise, Casino Royale [later in the film, Prague’s Václav Havel International Airport stands in for Miami Dade]) have all been altered beyond recognition in the cause of the necessary advance of “capital.” Closer to the centre, the former barracks building in which J.K. Tyl penned the words to the Czech national anthem 180 years ago has been converted into a mega-mall to rival the “incomprehensible” postmodernism of John C. Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel.
But the mallification of “Magic Prague” has perhaps proceeded nowhere quite as dramatically as in the suburb of Pankrác (extending south from Vyšehrad and synonymous for much of the twentieth century with Pankrác Prison) where corporate highrises have gradually been clustering since the 1970s, but in which they have proliferated in recent years, transforming an area named after the Romanesque church of St Pancras (part of a World Heritage site) into a sprawling submetropolis of 21st-century commercial “arcades” such as Arkády Pankrác, the huge “modern shopping and social centre” which has taken the place of a civic “hub.” The entire district has, by virtue of its vertical extension, become as prominent on Prague’s skyline as the “Syringe” (the Žižkov TV tower, with its one-room hotel located at the top). In seventy years the place has been transformed almost as much as it might’ve been if the Luftwaffe had been permitted to make a few passes (rather than just a few USAF pilots who couldn’t find Dresden in broad daylight). Perhaps the city’s avant-gardists, like Karel Teige (friend of Le Corbusier and author of “The Minimal Dwelling”) really foresaw it all: as the disillusionment of what once upon a time must’ve actually seemed like a glowing futuristic vision. And as for Beneš, when he looked down from his Castle window in 1945, beside his ego projected onto a jumble of architecture, what did he really see? The idea of freedom (for a price)? The realisable utopia? All the bubbling tomorrows of the human community in microcosm, like goldfish in a bowl (the “Golden City” so-called) and himself holding the little fish-food shaker?
Published by Equus Press.
Reprinted from ABOLISHING PRAGUE: ESSAYS & INTERVENTIONS, ed. Louis Armand (Prague: Charles University/Litteraria Pragensia, 2014).
published: 16. 11. 2014