Com­pelling trek across a cen­tre of history

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic Miriam Cosic is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor.

By Richard Fi­dler ABC Books, 580pp, $39.99 (HB)

Prague was one of the cities that tourists flocked to af­ter the fall of the Soviet bloc, and still did be­fore the pan­demic-driven travel lock­down: as cheap and sto­ried, and al­most as cool, as Ber­lin.

Its history in Cen­tral Europe, how­ever, is far less well known than Ber­lin’s, thanks to the two world wars in which Ger­many loomed large and af­ter the fall of the epony­mous wall came to sym­bol­ise the dra­matic end of the Cold War.

Yet Prague’s history is a mael­strom of the key turn­ing points in Euro­pean history: from Bo­hemia’s es­tab­lish­ment as a mi­nor power to its con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity, to the rise of Protes­tantism and its place in the re­li­gious wars that en­sued, its ab­sorp­tion into the Haps­burg Em­pire and the DNA-dis­till­ing in­ter­mar­riages of the royal dy­nas­ties that over­lapped there, its shock­ing anti-Semitic pogroms, the rise of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, of mod­ernism and the peaks of satir­i­cal mod­ernist art and lit­er­a­ture that flour­ished in re­sponse to oc­cu­pa­tion by the Nazis and in­cor­po­ra­tion in the Soviet arena.

It is no ac­ci­dent that those great satirists, Franz Kafka (The Trial, The Cas­tle and Meta­mor­pho­sis) and Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Sol­dier Sch­weik), were both Czech.

What’s more, since the Hus­site re­bel­lion in the 16th cen­tury, the Bo­hemi­ans, with Prague as their cap­i­tal, al­ways had a lib­eral streak de­spite their re­li­gious fer­vour. Cze­choslo­vakia was the only coun­try to rat­ify the Mi­nori­ties Treaty, drafted af­ter World War I by the League of Na­tions to pro­tect mil­lions of refugees who were criss­cross­ing Cen­tral Europe seek­ing safety.

Nor could it shrug off Cze­choslo­vak leader Alexan­der Dubcek’s re­forms af­ter Nikita Krushchev, who rolled back some of the ex­tremes of Stal­in­ism, was re­placed by the doc­tri­naire Leonid Brezh­nev. Prague’s ob­sti­nacy in the re­bel­lious eu­pho­ria of the 1960s led to the only in­va­sion by the Sovi­ets (with Pol­ish, Hun­gar­ian and Bul­gar­ian re­in­force­ments) of an­other War­saw Pact coun­try.

The an­chor of ABC Ra­dio’s In Con­ver­sa­tion pro­gram, Richard Fi­dler, has pub­lished a new history of Prague. Fi­dler has an eye for de­tail, in­clud­ing ir­re­sistible gos­sip and in­trigu­ing geopo­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions that span cen­turies. He has writ­ten two other best­selling books, a history of Con­stantino­ple and the other about a jour­ney with his friend and col­league Kari Gis­la­son through the lat­ter’s Ice­landic home­land.

Like his pre­vi­ous books, The Golden Maze: A Bi­og­ra­phy of Prague be­gins with a per­sonal im­pulse. Fi­dler was liv­ing in Lon­don with mu­s­ic­com­edy trio the Doug An­thony All­stars, of which he was a mem­ber, in 1989 when the Ber­lin Wall came down. He chose Prague in which to ob­serve the eu­phoric mo­ment. The ex­pe­ri­ence never left him.

“I was twenty-five years old at the time,” he writes, “and this was Europe’s sea­son of mir­a­cles. Over the pre­ced­ing six months, a wave of mass protests had rolled across the po­lice states of cen­tral and eastern Europe and ex­pelled their fail­ing gov­ern­ments one by one. First Poland, then Hun­gary, East Ger­many and now Cze­choslo­vakia. The regimes, foisted on those na­tions by Stalin at the end of the Sec­ond World War, had been sus­tained by the or­gans of state se­cu­rity and, in the last re­sort, by Soviet mil­i­tary power.” Cze­choslo­vakia’s Vel­vet Revo­lu­tion, too, swept all be­fore it. “The masses of pro­test­ers were led by stu­dents, mu­si­cians, work­ers, artists, ac­tors and, above all, writ­ers,” Fi­dler writes of Prague. Dis­si­dent play­wright Va­clav Havel, a stal­wart of the demo­cratic Char­ter 77 move­ment, was even­tu­ally elected pres­i­dent. “It was my first time in Prague,” Fi­dler writes, “and we were struck at once by the city’s fa­bled love­li­ness, the ab­sence of ad­ver­tis­ing and the car­ni­val at­mos­phere in the streets, bars and cafes.”

The book be­gins with a de­scrip­tion of the Slavs who came to Bo­hemia to live peace­fully along­side the Ger­manic tribes that had ar­rived in the time of Julius Cae­sar. The Slavs had es­tab­lished thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties by 800. Al­though Prague is far­ther west than Vi­enna, Czech is a Slavic lan­guage, more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with eastern Europe. In 805, Charle­magne, who had been crowned Holy Ro­man Em­peror by the Pope, ab­sorbed the Bo­hemian Slavs into his em­pire, or­der­ing them to be­come Chris­tian in the process.

They were slow to obey. Bo­hemian queen Libussa — who fought with women in her army — could do lit­tle to re­verse it. With her hus­band Prem­syl, who was the tit­u­lar prince, how­ever, Libussa es­tab­lished the first Bo­hemian dy­nasty, the Pre­mys­lids. The first duke, Borivoj, self-de­clared in 867, was still a pa­gan but con­verted when it put him at a dis­ad­van­tage with sur­round­ing no­bles. The Glagolitic script was for­malised in his time, in­tended to in­tro­duce Chris­tian scrip­ture and writ­ten law to the lo­cals.

“Good King Wences­las”, as he was known — not a king at all but a duke — was a pi­ous Chris­tian and be­gan the greater in­flux of Ger­mans and the Ger­man lan­guage. Not so pop­u­lar with his Slavic no­bles, the Ger­man in­flu­ence deep­ened and took root, in­ten­si­fied over the cen­turies by Bo­hemia’s en­gage­ment with the Holy Ro­man Em­pire and Haps­burg rule. In­tel­lec­tu­als

such as Kafka were still writ­ing in Ger­man in the 20th cen­tury, though more na­tion­al­is­tic artists spurned it: com­poser An­tonin Dvo­rak en­sured his li­bret­tos were writ­ten in Czech.

So Prague pro­gressed through the cen­turies, al­ter­nat­ing with Vi­enna as the seat of the Hab­s­burg Em­pire, even­tu­ally known as the Aus­troHun­gar­ian Em­pire un­til it was dis­man­tled af­ter World War I. What had be­come Cze­choslo­vakia was dis­sected at the 1938 Mu­nich con­fer­ence by Bri­tain, France, Ger­many and Italy — in its ab­sence. Its Ger­man-speak­ing re­gions, Sude­ten­land, which in­cluded 800,000 eth­nic Czechs, were handed to Ger­many in what his­to­rian Nor­man Davies has de­scribed as an agree­ment “un­der pres­sure from the ruth­less, the clue­less com­bined with the spine­less to achieve the worth­less”.

Af­ter World War II ended, Cze­choslo­vakia was ab­sorbed into the Soviet sphere de­spite some des­per­ate ma­noeu­vring to have Amer­i­can troops en­ter Prague first. Then came 1989 and the Vel­vet Revo­lu­tion. And, at the be­gin­ning of 1993, Cze­choslo­vakia split into two na­tions, the Czech Repub­lic and Slo­vakia, in what be­came known the Vel­vet Divorce

At­tempt­ing to en­cap­su­late such a long and vivid history in a gen­er­al­ist book leads to el­lipses and con­tro­ver­sial em­phases. But the sec­ond half of the book, de­voted to the 20th-cen­tury, is ex­haus­tive. Fi­dler’s nar­ra­tive is com­pelling. He writes in short sec­tions, arch­ing across time, and com­par­ing and con­trast­ing the pol­i­tics, re­li­gion and art of dif­fer­ent eras. The en­tire jour­ney is pro­pelled by the same com­bi­na­tion of widerang­ing gen­eral knowl­edge, in­tel­lec­tual rigour and the ease of ex­pres­sion of an ex­pe­ri­enced jour­nal­ist that makes him such an in­trigu­ing ra­dio host.

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