03 March 2019
Prague moves from the era of Marx
to the age of Marks and Spencer
This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the start of World War II. Most of us think World War II began on 1 September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, followed by declarations of war by Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand.
But World War II began earlier for the people of Czechoslovakia, 80 years ago on 15 March 1939. Hitler had already annexed Sudetenland the previous October following the appeasement at the Munich Conference. Then, on 15 March 1939, Nazi Germany invaded the remainder of Czechoslovakia, dividing the 20-year-old central European state into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the puppet state of Slovakia.
Hungary annexed much of Slovakia and all of Carpathian Ruthenia. Some months earlier, Poland had occupied Zaolzie, an area with a Polish majority population.
Today, people in Prague and the Czech Republic are marking the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, but they are also remembering the Prague Spring 50 years ago, which included Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 and culminated in the dismissal of Alexander Dubček in April 1969. And they are commemorating the ‘Velvet Revolution’ 30 years ago, which restored democracy in 1989.
Cold War perceptions still linger in western Europe, so that we often think of Prague and the Czech Republic as an Eastern European city and country. But they are very much at the heart of Central Europe, and the two most iconic national figures seen as shaping Czech identity and culture are both religious heroes and saints: ‘Good King Wenceslas’ of Christmas carol fame, and Jan Hus the reformer, who preached a century before the major figures of the Reformation.
In recent weeks, Wenceslas Square has been filled with wreath and candles recalling Jan Palach and the other heroes of the student uprising in Prague in early 1969. But high above these makeshift memorials is the proud statue of King Wenceslas, who looks benignly down on the heart of the city.
Good King Wenceslas
The man we know as ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was actually Vaclav I or Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. He was also known as Vaclav the Good, or Svatý Václav in Czech, and was born about 907. His grandfather was converted to Christianity by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, the missionaries to the Slavs. His mother was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief – although she was baptised before she was married.
When young Vaclav’s father died there was a power vacuum: the young boy’s mother was banished and his grandmother was murdered by assassins – it is said she was strangled with her own veil. Vaclav’s mother ruled Bohemia as regent until Wenceslas reached the age of 18. When he came of age, he banished his mother and divided the country in two with his younger brother, Boleslaus ‘the Cruel.’
However, Boleslaus was not happy with the arrangement, and in September 935 he plotted with a group of noblemen to kill his brother. The three nobles – Tira, Česta, and Hněvsa – stabbed Wenceslas, before his own brother ran him through with a lance.
Wenceslas was regarded as a martyr and saint almost immediately after his death, and within a few decades four biographies of him were in circulation. These biographies influenced mediaeval concepts of the rex Justus or righteous king, so that he was revered as ‘the father of all the wretched.’
Many years later, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously promoted him from being a duke to the title of king. Several centuries later, following his example, Pope Pius II walked barefoot for 15 km in ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.
A 12th-century preacher said: ‘His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty.’
Jan Hus, early Reformer
The other great monument in Prague is the statue of Jan Hus (1369-1415) in the centre of the Old Town Square.
Hus was a Czech theologian, philosopher, teacher and dean, and rector of the Charles University in Prague. He was an early church reformer, a key forerunner of the European Reformations a century later, and the leading figure in the Bohemian Reformation, as well as an important figure in Czech culture and national identity.
After John Wycliffe, Hus is considered the first Church reformer, and lived before Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer. His main centre of preaching was the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, and his demands included received Holy Communion as both bread and wine, using the local language in liturgy and preaching, an end to compulsory clerical celibacy and to rid the Church of ethical abuses.
Hus also introduced improvements into the mediaeval Czech language that continue to influence how it is spelt, printed and pronounced today. His teachings and writings led to the formation of a reformed Bohemian church, and, more than a century later, influenced Luther and the other European reformers.
Hus was burned at the stake in Constance in 1415. It is said that as he was about to die, he cried out his last words, a variant of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on us!’ After his execution, his ashes were scattered on the River Rhine.
His followers, who became known as Hussites, rebelled and defeated five consecutive papal crusades between 1420 and 1431 in the Hussite Wars.
A fresh Hussite revolt began with the Fenestration of Prague on 23 May 1618, when the Hussites threw their opponents out of windows, and leading to the Thirty Years’ War.
Until then, the majority of people in both Bohemia and Moravia remained Hussite. But the Hussite defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain brought the Lands of the Bohemian Crown under Habsburg rule for the next 300 years. The local people were subjected to a campaign of forced conversion and an intense campaign to make Roman Catholicism the Church of the land.
The 27 Hussite martyrs who were executed on the Old Town Square in Prague on 21 June 1621 were the first victims of the sweeping changes after the Battle of the White Mountain and became the first victims of the violence of this phase of the ‘Counter-Reformation.’
The heirs of Hus
The Jan Hus Memorial in the Old Town Square in Prague was unveiled in 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of the martyrdom of Hus. The huge monument depicts victorious Hussite warriors who were forced into exile 200 years after Hus following their defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain during the Thirty Years’ War, and a young mother who symbolises the rebirth of the Czech nation.
The monument was so large that the sculptor Ladislav Šaloun had to design and build his own villa to vary out the work. The memorial was paid for solely by public donations.
The Moravian Church or Unitas Fratrum, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, which was reconstituted in 1918, and the Czechoslovak Hussite Church all see themselves as the spiritual heirs to Hus and his followers.
The Czechoslovak Hussite Church was formed in 1920, two years after Czech independence in 1918, by former Roman Catholic priests who wanted to celebrate the liturgy in Czech, to administer the Eucharist in both kinds, and to abolish compulsory clerical celibacy.
The church uses Sant Nicholas’s Cathedral on the corner of the Old Town Square, near the Jan Hus Memorial. The Church has women priests and bishops. Although it claims to trace its origin to Hus and to be ‘neo-Hussite,’ it contains mixed Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant elements, and shares much with the Anglican and Old Catholic traditions.
War and the Holocaust
The occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by Nazi Germany from March 1939 was one of brutal oppression. The Jewish population of these areas numbered 118,000 in 1930. The walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in the Old Jewish Town in Prague record the names of 77,297 known Bohemian and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The memorial was designed by painters Václav Boštík and Jiří John. The names are arranged by communities where the victims came from and are complemented with the date of birth and death of each individual where these are known.
Despite World War II, most of the significant historical Jewish buildings in Prague were saved from destruction, along with their liturgical and cultural assets. They were preserved, ironically, because the Nazis planned to use them for a ‘Museum of an Extinct Race.’
Today, the Jewish Quarter has six surviving synagogues: the Old-New Synagogue, the High Synagogue, the Maiselov Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue. The other buildings and sites that have survived include the Jewish Town Hall, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. Together, they form the best-preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.
On 3 May 1945, the third US Army of General Patton entered Pilsen from the south west. On 9 May 1945, Soviet Red Army troops entered Prague.
The equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas, surrounded by the other patron saints of Bohemia, looks down the full-length of Wenceslas Square in Prague. It is a popular meeting place in Prague, and was the venue for demonstrations against the Communist regime 50 years ago in 1969 and 30 years ago in 1989.
The balcony where the writer Vaclav Havel addressed the crowd in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution is now part of Marks and Spencer. People in Prague joke: ‘Before 1989, we only had Marx. Now we have Marks and Spencer.’
Havel served as the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992, and then as President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.
In 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed ‘deep regret for the cruel death inflicted’ on Hus. He added ‘deep sorrow’ for Hus’s death and praised his ‘moral courage.’ Jan Hus Day on 6 July, the anniversary of his martyrdom, is a public holiday in the Czech Republic. Hus was voted the greatest hero of the Czech nation in a survey by Czech Radio in 2015.
Saint Wenceslas, whose feast day is 28 September, is buried in Saint Vitus’s cathedral in Prague, and he was recently proclaimed the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
It is said in Prague that if the Czech Republic is in danger this statue in Wenceslas Square will come to life, Good King Wenceslas will raise a sleeping army and he will reveal a legendary sword to bring peace to the land.
This feature was first published in the March 2019 editions of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)