Terror Then and Now: Three Glittering European Cities Illustrate the Thin Line between Normality and Chaos

By Young, Cathy | Reason, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Terror Then and Now: Three Glittering European Cities Illustrate the Thin Line between Normality and Chaos


Young, Cathy, Reason


IT WASN'T UNTIL after I got to Prague on August 12, on a vacation, that I realized I had obliquely witnessed a small skirmish in the War on Terror. "Look at that," my mother said, pointing to the departures screen as we changed planes in Brussels. "The flight to London's been canceled--that's strange."

A few hours later, watching Sky News at our hotel, my family and I learned that all hell had broken loose over a reported plot to bomb U.S.-bound airliners. Had we flown via London, we might have spent our vacation sleeping on the floor at Heathrow airport.

It was ironic that this brush with the international struggle against Islamist terror came as we were on our way to visit three Central European cities that witnessed some of the worst struggles of 20th-century totalitarianism. While those struggles seem almost ancient today, it is fascinating to compare the total conflict of the past with the lower-impact fight that absorbs us now.

In the Czech Republic today, the memory of communism and its victims is not what it was when I visited Prague for the first time in 1990, only months after the Velvet Revolution. Back then, most Czechs pretended not to know Russian, which they had been force-fed in the state schools--which created real problems, since most of them also quite genuinely didn't speak English. The hostility toward the Russians was muted but present.

Today, Russian is spoken readily and cheerfully, and the Russians in the Czech Republic are mostly of two varieties: tourists who spend money here, including the nouveau riche who spend quite a lot of it, and guest workers who, after the misery of Russian or Ukrainian provinces, are content with even menial jobs.

Among the Czechs I've spoken with on this and three previous trips in the past five years, none were nostalgic for communism, and all seemed more concerned with the present, with its opportunities and problems, than with the past. Prague, once grim and bare-shelved despite the varied beauty of its architecture, now rivals any other great European city in the abundance of restaurants, souvenir shops, and goods and services; the only major communist relic in everyday life is the lingering tendency to rip off customers in some areas of the service sector. Posters advertising "The Museum of Communism" show a Russian nesting doll with a snarl of pointy teeth.

Yet there are stark reminders that Communist totalitarianism was about murder, not just kitsch. A public art project called "Sculpture Grande '06" is on display in the city; Wenceslas Square is dominated by a genuinely striking piece titled "Kaddish."

The sculpture, by Ales Vesely, looks like a combination of a skeleton, a giant emaciated crow and a crown of thorns or barbed wire; it was, the inscription explained, "symbolically placed above the memorial of Jan Palach and Jan Zajic," two students who immolated themselves in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the destruction of the Prague Spring. The modest memorial itself has a granite slab with images of the two young men, an inscription, "In memory of the victims of communism," and a small wooden cross with a barbed-wire wreath.

Our other two major stops, Dresden and Vienna, were full of 20th-century history of a different kind. If World War II and post-World War II memories have a resonance in Vienna, they have a particular poignancy in Dresden, the city firebombed by the Allies in one of the most controversial chapters of "the Good War."

They also have a particular relevance to the global war on terror: Recently, the bombing of Dresden has been cited by some hawks (such as New York Post columnist John Podhoretz) as an example of the kind of resolve on the part of the Allies that the West lacks today in its confrontation with Islamism. The hawks say the resolve to reduce enemy cities to rubble and inflict massive civilian casualties may be a necessary precondition to victory. …

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