The View from Prague

By Davis, Peter | The Nation, May 31, 2004 | Go to article overview

The View from Prague


Davis, Peter, The Nation


Only on my last day in this hilly, river-spliced city, with such beguiling old world charm and art nouveau elegance that unless you're Kafka a strenuous effort is required to maintain fury or gloom, did I understand why Czechs who disagree with American foreign policy are in sympathy with some of its goals and can muster sadness but not Western European indignation over the war in Iraq.

It was a gray morning as I walked around the city beneath the spires, steeples, cupolas and turrets, walked through history, really, with intermittent rain and fog as conduits to the past. Prague is a lesson. My attention turned from the great kings and queens, courtiers and ladies-in-waiting decked in their finery, and from the suffering, patient peasantry that supported them for so long, to the sieges, wars, brutality, boiling in oil, quartering--the manifold violence that Prague has endured.

Czechs shake their heads, not their fists, at us. "You don't understand the progression," a 65-year-old teacher named Benes said to me. "Iraq had a monster in Saddam, and you removed him. Liberators. The trouble is, what then? We had our monster in Hitler. I remember the Russians entering Prague in '45. Liberators. I cheered their tanks. But liberators who stay become oppressors. The next time Russian tanks came, in '68, I did not cheer."

Far longer ago than the British, Czechs had their wars of conquest as well as internecine affairs when Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other. But they have only a folk, not a familial, memory of all this. It is going on 700 years since Charles IV of Prague was King of Bohemia and later Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Tempers have cooled a bit.

The Czech Republic has a small contingent of troops in Iraq, but on the eve of the war all of them were told they could go home if they wished, and a dozen or so did. A poll taken at that time found only 12 percent of Czechs in favor of a war without the backing of the UN Security Council. The first Czech to die in Iraq, a petrochemical specialist, was killed in an accident this spring.

Along Golden Lane, a diminutive street named for its trade in precious metals, Franz Kafka lived and wrote for a while. Upstairs, the second floors of a number of these small houses--including Kafka's--have been connected to form a long, narrow corridor featuring a display of early Bohemian and Czech weaponry. I stopped after counting 200 variations of swords, spears, pikes, battle-axes, daggers, dirks, halberds and other devices used to kill in the name of faith and ideology, with simple greed always lurking in the background. Some of the rapiers had primitive pistols mounted on their hilts, as if a knight might ask someone he was about to finish off, "OK, which way do you want to go?"

I was shown some of Prague's sights by an educated young man named Slavek, who in the spirit of the times hopes to go either into the foreign ministry or the tourist business. Like other Czechs who have living memories of struggling under tyranny, Slavek genuinely sympathizes with a war to remove a dictator. "Absolutely, Saddam Hussein had to be overthrown, and the Iraqis couldn't do it by themselves," he said. "But the plans were bad. You went to war in too much haste and should have included Muslim countries. But if you pull out now the civil war to come will be much worse than life under Saddam. At least he had stability."

Leading me around the massive St. Vitus cathedral, Slavek pointed to a scene in the stained glass depicting a fratricide, to another where a noblewoman stabbed her daughter-in-law while she prayed, and then to another where a king was being killed by a pretender to the throne. "You can change a regime virtually overnight," he said, "but it can take ages to make a democracy. It took a long time for the West to evolve from the medieval days of torture--go look at an old torture chamber while you're here, but eat first. …

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