Prague, the ancient “City of a Thousand Spires,” is known for its landscape filled with churches and red terra-cotta roofs … its subterranean pivovars (beer cellars) … its connection to such great legends as the Golem … and architecture that seems lifted straight from a child’s fairy tale. Prague also cultivates a rich creative life, from black-light theater to puppet shows, underground music clubs and a late-night energy that rivals any other city in the world.
But for many, Prague also conjures images of a war-torn Czechoslovakia—and it may be hard to reconcile the dark and often violent 20th-century history of the Czech capital with the colorful and friendly city that stands today. The two, however, are actually closely intertwined. Czech art and culture is closely connected to Czech history, and these resilient people have long used their history as inspiration for some of their most iconic artworks.
A Historic City of Conflict
Prague was, luckily or unluckily, spared from destruction in World War II when Hitler, using the Munich Agreement, officially annexed the regions containing the most ethnic Germans and renamed them the Sudetenland after the nearby Sudetes Mountains.
Even after the fall of the Nazis, the pain of war would reenter Prague with the Warsaw Pact of 1955, under which the Soviets occupied the entire region that was then Czechoslovakia. The Pact was designed to strengthen the Communist countries’ ability to defend themselves against a potential Western invasion. But for the Czechs and Slovaks, the Warsaw Pact was an unwelcome intrusion onto their sovereignty, and it met with deep resistance. Residents refused all aid to the Soviet military, which they viewed as another invader on their land.
In 1968, the Soviet Union launched a full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia to put an end to a series of liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring. The leader of these reforms, Alexander Dubcek, was taken into Soviet custody. A year later, a university student named Jan Palach self-immolated in protest in the middle of Wenceslaus Square. This tragedy was in many ways a reflection of the larger attitude about the occupation: Rather than commit violence against the invaders, the residents of Prague turned their sorrow inwards.
Twenty years later, a series of anti-communist demonstrations in Palach’s memory became known as “Palach Week.” These gatherings became so large that the police began to beat people and use water cannons and other violence to suppress the groundswell of opposition. But the Czechs had had enough. Within a year, the Velvet Revolution, so named because of its lack of violent action, ended the Soviet regime in Prague.
Language as a tool for freedom
Despite—or perhaps because of—years of having communication monitored and regulated, the use of language has always been important to the Czech sense of identity, as evidenced by a prolific literary scene. After World War II and throughout the Soviet occupation, Czech literature became sharply divided into three different segments: literature written and published domestically, literature published illegally during the war, and literature produced by exiles and expatriates. There was always a deep emphasis on communicating identity and solidarity, and novels focused more and more on psychology, and how the individual fit into the group.
One writer who has examined these themes deeply is Milan Kundera, who was exiled in 1975 and since then has lived in France. His works began as pro-Communist pieces, as Kundera himself was a member of the Communist Party, but over time—as he was kicked out of the party, and then readmitted, only to be kicked out again—his writing began to show signs of disillusionment. Now, he rejects his earliest writings totally, and his subsequent novels examined both the humorous and tragic aspects of Communism. Today he is seen as an anti-totalitarian figure, having himself gone through the same evolution as his homeland, from occupation to freedom, from inherited dogma to creative exploration.
Though his writings may be less famous on the world stage, Vaclav Havel personifies the struggle for freedom of expression in the Czech Republic. Havel was no stranger to the power of language, as he began his career as an acclaimed playwright. Branded a dissident during the Warsaw Pact invasion for his opinionated radio programming, and banned from the theater following the Prague Spring, he continued to write essays about the plight of modern man when expression is curtailed. The political situation of the time deeply influenced his work, epitomized by his essay “The Power of the Powerless.” His passionate viewpoints—and the eloquence with which he expressed them—were at the heart of the Velvet Revolution, and he was elected the first president of the Czech Republic after its split from the Slovaks.
Painting for peace
This same creative spirit buoyed those still living in Prague during the Soviet occupation. In 1988, while the Soviet forces still retained a tight grip on all media, graffiti of any kind was banned as an uncontrolled means of communication. But one morning, on a wall in the Mala Strana (Lesser Town) neighborhood, there appeared a painting of John Lennon. The story goes that the Soviets immediately painted over the portrait. But the next day, it was back.
The soldiers painted over it time and again, and each time it came back—along with more and more graffiti speaking to freedom and nonviolent resistance, as well as poems and flowers. The graffiti writers ironically espoused “Lennonism” as the antidote to decades of foreign occupation and the erasure of free speech. Nowadays, the wall is still there, but there are many, many layers that conceal the original paintings. The people of Prague and its many visitors have continued to add messages of peace and tolerance over the years, an enduring symbol of the Czechs’ strength of will.
A building’s, and a people’s, changing identities
Part of this strength undoubtedly came from the curious blend of tradition and mutability that is to be found in Czech culture, and nowhere is this clearer than the Prague State Opera.
Originally founded in 1883 as the New German Theatre, this institution in central Prague was conceived as a German-speaking complement to the Czech-speaking National Theatre. There were a significant number of German-speaking residents in what is now the Czech Republic, since at that time the land was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The debut performance was a Wagner opera, to celebrate Germany’s artistic heritage.
As the Nazi influence spread in the 1930s, the New German Theatre welcomed artists who were leaving Germany, and provided them with a safe place to continue working. However, a combination of financial problems and the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938 caused the theater to shut down. The Nazis assumed control of the building once they invaded the city. They renamed it the German Opera House, and used it for political assemblies and propaganda.
In 1945, the theater was renamed the Theatre of the Fifth of May, after the date of the Prague uprising that ousted the remaining Nazis. It became a center for Czech opera—marking the first time since its founding that the building hosted performances in a language other than German. The first piece performed under the new ownership was Brandenburgers in Bohemia, an opera by Bedrich Smetana and an obvious reference to the departed Nazi forces. Smetana’s nationalist musical style became intertwined with Czech sentiment—so much so, in fact, that the Czech Communist Party renamed the opera house Smetana Theater in 1949.
But this building still had one transformation left. When the Soviets left the Czech Republic in 1989, the city of Prague was ready to refresh and distance itself from the severe policies of Communist governance. The theater was renamed the Prague State Opera, and it has been a stronghold for creative efforts in this city ever since. In stark contrast to its much-politicized history, now the space is often used for charity events and shows works from artists of all nationalities.
Art in unlikely circumstances
The people of Prague have known for generations the importance of maintaining their culture and traditions, even when harsh circumstances force it underground. It is this spirit of preservation and innovation that visitors to Prague can still see today: a city where a Baroque building and a Gothic building sit side by side … where the same plaza that once housed massive student protests now hosts shoppers and diners … and where authors, activists, and even theaters have had to transform themselves to survive the changing times.
But Alan Levy, the American writer and expat to Prague, perhaps said it best: “For some of us, Prague is Second Chance City; for others a new frontier where anything goes, everything goes, and, often enough, nothing works. Yesterday is long gone, today is nebulous, and who knows about tomorrow, but, somewhere within each of us, we all know that we are living in a historic place at a historic time.”