Compelling trek across a centre of history
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.