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Prague Autumn

The Czechs escaped Soviet domination only to face a new tyranny

For most of us, Prague is an idea before it is a city. Mention of the name calls up a series of monochrome images, most of them violent and distressing, boding little good for those involved. Imperial delegates are hurled from a high window into a dungheap and the Thirty Years War begins. Women weep as the German army tramps by in the March gloom. Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s personal favorite, is assassinated on a street corner (the first killer’s gun jams, but the second hurls a hand grenade), and hundreds have to die or suffer horribly in the furious retaliation. Jan Masaryk, a liberal who tried to work with Stalin, is pushed to his death from yet another window, his fingernails scrabbling on the sill as he discovers for certain that democracy is incompatible with Communism, or was it the other way round? Rudolf Slansky and Vlada Clementis, guilty of being Jewish at a time when Stalin was displeased with Jews, are hanged by their revolutionary comrades, swiftly cremated, and their ashes spitefully used to grit the snowy roads. Russian tanks crawl through sullen crowds, their crews puzzled because they had expected to be welcomed. The affronted people hold up signs, in good, grammatical Russian, saying politely, “Go Home.” When this fails, they try Molotov cocktails, and Jan Palach burns himself to death.

After too much of this, enormous peaceful multitudes demand and achieve the return of their lost liberty. It is a happy ending, though too late for several million people unlucky enough to live and die in all the unhappy eras. We have heard and read Prague’s name in ancient newsreels and history books. We know it as the scene of Franz Kafka’s hopeless Trial and perhaps as the home of the Good Soldier Schweik, who responds to authority by having another drink. Like Rome or Jerusalem, its name sounds in the mind like a bell or a snatch of music, plangent and melancholy.

So it is, in any case, for me. Prague the city is as mysterious and somber as you might expect, if not more so. Something about this dark bend on the Vltava River seems to attract melodrama and woe and inspire people to futile but admirable acts of resistance to historical inevitability.

I was advised to travel there more than three decades ago by someone who had been a courier for Stalin’s Comintern in the years before 1939. This wife of a prominent British labor union leader had carried messages to Moscow and gold to London, often passing through the Czech capital on her secret travels, lodged in the best hotels, clad in couture clothes and provided with the smartest luggage, for in those less egalitarian days rich voyagers attracted less attention from customs men than the shabby poor. Thanks to her continuing sympathies with the Soviet empire, she had been back since.

In those days, Eastern and Central Europe were barely visited by British people. They did not, she said, know what they were missing. “Go now,” she urged. “There is nowhere in Europe where you can still feel and see what the Continent was like before the Second World War.”

So it proved. There were no guidebooks or reliable street plans to be found. The official railroad map of Europe ended at the Iron Curtain. The booking clerks had to unearth special procedures to obtain our tickets. Our passports were sent off to Prague to be unstitched, reassembled, and photocopied by the Secret Police. But we persisted. The train, once it had crawled past the dragon’s teeth and barbed wire coils of the frontier, slowed to the pace of half a century ago. Through the somnolent afternoon, elderly waiters in the dining car served a weighty lunch of pork, dumplings, and beer as we wound past decayed spas and sad, dispossessed castles. We fell at last into the dark gravitational pull of Moscow, passing dispirited industrial cities hung with red banners and then, in the Prague suburbs, vast sidings full of Soviet rolling stock marked with the hammer and sickle. Then we were there.  

The stone crown of Central Europe was improbably lovely but also black and cold, unspoiled only because nobody could afford to spoil it, unbombed only because it had been handed over captive. Even so, it was all still there, though much of it was prevented from falling down only by large baulks of dirty timber jammed against sagging walls. It was full of genuine fear, something the Western visitor could selfishly enjoy, much as one enjoys a good ghost story because he knows that the evil is contained within secure borders. There were no tourists, only perplexed North Korean exchange students, their hair massacred in the style later indissolubly associated with Kim Jong Il, gaping at the sooty spires and mad, triumphalist Baroque churches of the Old Town. I even acquired a personal Secret Police escort, who took me out to meals and drove me around in the mistaken belief that I was more than I seemed to be and would somehow reveal myself if given enough Pilsner beer. I was approached on trams by sad men who thanked me (as if I were responsible) for the BBC Czech service, their only source of truth. I was approached in hotels by Anglophile black Cuban students who wanted to drink rum with an Englishman.

But Englishmen have a special difficulty with Prague, the place we merrily betrayed in 1938, hoping to save our own bacon by cooking the Czechs’ goose. In a way, we betrayed it again in 1948 and 1968, when we peaceably abided by the unspoken agreement that we could live as we pleased in Western Europe if we let the Russians do what they liked in the East.

I went back again and again while Prague languished under the stupid rule of the Communist Party, until the astonishing week when all that stopped. 

Then I didn’t return for almost 20 years. I could not quite bear to. After the impossible sweetness of November 1989, when the forces of good just for once appeared to triumph completely over the forces of wickedness, I thought it could never be any better. I was swept along the great streets in the snow, under icy blue skies, in a great triumphal festival of the newly liberated, and it seemed as if Christmas had arrived early.

I heard in the years afterward that it had not been quite so sweet, that the KGB themselves might have had a hand in the all-too-easy overthrow of Communism. It was even revealed that the student whose death we had all been protesting so righteously hadn’t actually died or even been seriously hurt. Vaclav Havel, like so many revolutionaries, gradually transformed himself from a tribune of liberty into a slightly tiresome figure of woolly, modish liberalism.

Parties of British youths, attracted by cheap beer, infested the ancient city, yelling and spewing among the monuments. The previously untouched facades began to wear the universal livery of global branding. Czechoslovakia itself fell apart. Both segments were gobbled up by the European Union.   

I went back, a little reluctantly, by the route Adolf Hitler liked to take from Berlin down to Dresden, now living proof that you can put the clock back, as its lovely domes and towers rise again from the wreckage of bombing and the grimy neglect of socialism. The journey is a poignant one, past the glum fortress towers of Pirna where the Third Reich pioneered the slaughter of the mentally handicapped (“we do it in the womb and so get away with it”) and then along the melodramatic gorge of the Elbe, not unlike the Potomac as seen from Harpers Ferry. Like Hitler, I had no need to pause at the Czech frontier. Along with all the borders of continental Europe, it has ceased to exist, smashed not by tanks but by the mighty decrees of the European Commission.

The Vienna Express roars on regardless, and the traveler must look closely at inn signs and such things to make out that he has passed from Germany into the Czech lands. Or has he? For this is the very Sudetenland that provided the pretext for the Munich crisis, in those days a German minority enclave in the invented state of Czechoslovakia. It is now ostensibly restored to Czech rule, but the Czech Republic is only a feeble vassal of the mighty European Union, which differs from all previous empires in not having an emperor—at least not yet.

How odd it is, as we roll past the plainly Germanic towns and churches, to realize that so many of the Third Reich’s objectives in Europe seem to have been achieved by other means. From Calais on the English Channel to Brest-Litovsk on the River Bug, there is hardly a frontier post still standing, thanks to the astonishingly important but little known Schengen Agreement, which prevents a score of formerly sovereign nations from guarding their boundaries with passport controls or customs posts. If you no longer have such things to decide where your laws begin and end, are you a nation or a province?

The Czechs and the Slovaks are separated once again, more politely than they were in 1940 but also more permanently. The Balkans are, well, Balkanized. Germany does not stretch, as stated in the suppressed first verse of the old national anthem, “Von der Maas bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt,” which would carry it north into Denmark, east to Lithuania, and some way south of the Alps. But its current eastern frontier on the Oder certainly does not contain either its economic power or its political and diplomatic influence, which cover the entire European Union from Ireland’s Atlantic shores to the furthest corner of Romania. Within that zone, almost all the great Wilsonian creations of the Versailles Treaty have either ceased to exist or have had all the blood drained out of them.

But in Prague, futile but noble resistance to the spirit of the age survives. It is a minor survival, but an important one. The Czechs and Slovaks were barely independent before they were dependent again. They passed with amazing rapidity from the Soviet sphere of influence to rule from Brussels. Even so, there are still some Czechs who wonder if this is quite the liberation they had hoped for.

One such is Vaclav Klaus, a modern conservative hero, president of the republic. In 2003, Klaus succeeded his semi-namesake Vaclav Havel, who has taken a sort of vengeance by writing a play in which a wicked conservative president, Vlastik Klein—note the initials—takes over from a civilized liberal and cruelly tries to drive him from his official residence.

But Klaus, an economist and political conservative, the only major European political figure who doubts the evidence for manmade global warming, has bigger opponents. Despite the general collapse of the major political parties (including his own Civic Democrats) into the arms of the EU project, he has so far managed to keep the Czech Republic from converting to the euro, the EU single currency that has robbed member countries of their independent fiscal policies. He refuses to fly the European Union’s blue and yellow flag from his residence, Prague’s Hradcany Castle, preferring his splendid personal standard, emblazoned with the fine motto “The Truth Prevails.” He has also so far refused to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, the founding constitution of the planned European superstate in all but name, which will transform the EU from a collection of formally independent nations into a “legal personality,” a nation on its own account able to take initiatives, with an executive president, a foreign minister, and a defense minister. This is perhaps the most important political development of our age, but is little discussed because so few professional politicians dare oppose it.

Their peoples do. Given the chance to vote on the first draft, the French and the Dutch both rejected it. A new, almost identical version was then prepared, which they were not allowed to vote on, in case they said “no” again. But it was still not over. Thanks to an excellent, rigorous constitution, the people of Ireland were permitted a say and—to the bilious rage of the EU establishment—declined quite loudly. It is because of this vote that President Klaus is not under any immediate pressure to give in and sign. But Ireland, devastated by the financial crisis and suddenly anxious to cling to its rich European nurse, is unlikely to hold out much longer and will—sometime this fall—hold another referendum in which it will most likely come up with the “right” answer. All referendums in the EU are like this: “no” votes are temporary, “yes” votes are permanent.

Once that has happened, Prague Castle will once again stand alone and isolated in a hostile Europe, almost the last outpost of old-fashioned national independence on a continent that has opted to sacrifice sovereignty for a dubious security. The world’s first postmodern empire is being born. Nobody really knows if Klaus can be made to cave in. It may yet be that he can single-handedly prevent the thing from proceeding. His constitutional position is unclear and much disputed by experts. 

Prague recently saw a very telling drama—Havel might have scripted it—in which the two forces of European integration and national independence came face to face. A member of the EU’s feeble Supreme Soviet-like Chamber of Deputies, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, came to Prague to lecture Klaus on his duties. It was an astonishing confrontation, overturning accepted wisdom about the nature of Left and Right. The Left, who claim to be the romantic rebels and lovers of liberty, revealed themselves as the dogmatic and autocratic spokesmen of remote power. The Right, derided for decades as supporters of dictatorship and closet fascists, showed themselves to be the modern world’s true revolutionaries and romantics.

Look at the principal characters. Klaus, born in 1941, and Cohn-Bendit, born in 1945, have startlingly different pasts, though they are men of roughly the same generation. In 1968, the beginning of our modern era, Klaus was experiencing the towering hope of the Prague Spring—a brief dash for freedom—and the miserable disappointment and fear that followed its extinction by genuine, iron-bound killer tyrants.

Cohn-Bendit was a rather mature student, leading the fun revolutionaries of Paris in calls for easier access to the girls’ dormitories. For all his cries of repression, he never risked anything serious or understood what it meant to live in a police state.

Cohn-Bendit, once called “Danny the Red,” has remained in the forefront of radical chic. He is now a Green rather than a Red, an intolerant zealot of the manmade-climate-change lobby, a supporter of liberal wars, and a keen Europhile. Flanked by an Irish Euro MP embarrassed by his countrymen’s rejection of Lisbon, Cohn-Bendit addressed Klaus as if the president of the Czech Republic were a disobedient subordinate. He also rudely thrust an EU flag across the president’s desk.

But he was taken aback by the robust response. Having first lectured the president on how he was wrong about global warming, Cohn-Bendit began explaining to him what his presidential obligations were, that he would have to sign the Lisbon Treaty if the Czech Parliament approved it, which is almost certainly incorrect. Then, amazingly, he told the head of state, “I don’t care about your opinions on [the treaty].”

Czechs have a special reason to dislike being ordered around by foreign politicians. They all know how Hitler screamed so wildly at poor President Emil Hacha in 1939 that the aged professor collapsed and had to be revived by injections. They also know how Stalin ordered them to reject American Marshall Aid and how Leonid Brezhnev instructed Alexander Dubcek to strangle the Prague Spring and kidnapped him when he would not comply.

Klaus, not intimidated, retaliated. “This is incredible,” he spat back. He compared Cohn-Bendit’s dictatorial lecture to the past behavior of the Kremlin. “I did not think anything like this was possible. I have not experienced anything like this for the past 19 years [since the Soviets left]. I thought it was a matter of the past, that we live in a democracy.” Then he added these inflammatory words, which the EU would much rather nobody had uttered: “But it is post-democracy, really, that rules the EU.”

And so it is. The new monolith, gradually taking shape in the concrete halls of the Low Countries, is too bureaucratic to be frightening, too slow and devious to cause alarm. Ponderously, deliberately, tediously, it gathers power. It jeers at its opponents for exaggerating its ambitions. Then, when these opponents turn out to have been right, it says that more people should have protested at the time, and it is too late to go back now. Its mighty volumes of treaties and rules are more unalterable than the Laws of the Medes and the Persians—and probably a good deal harder to interpret. It never abandons an objective, merely repeats the attempt in a subtly different way until it succeeds.

Franz Kafka would have recognized it immediately: a malevolent and unresponsive bureaucracy, convinced of its own benevolence, against which there is no appeal and from which there is no escape. You might as well try to cut fog with a sword. Perhaps that is why Europe’s last stand against this nebulous monster is likely to take place amid the melancholy towers of Prague, where they understand these things better than the rest of us. 

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday and blogs at https://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk.

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