Our Vantage Points

Refueled by one more copious breakfast at The Drei Kreuz Hotel in Salzburg, we headed northeast on European Highway E55.   At Linz, Austria, E55 leaves the autobahn then eventually becomes a simple, but very adequate, 2-lane highway heading straight north to the Czech Republic border, then on to Prague, the Czech capital city. The Czech Republic covers an area of about 30,450 square miles, not quite as large as the state of Indiana.

Just 14 years prior to this, in 1991, a virtually impenetrable barrier stood at this Czech border. Winston Churchill, in 1946, called it an "Iron Curtain" reaching from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea.   This barrier, consisting of fences, towers and walls was an unconscionable attempt by Russia and its Union of Soviet Socialists Republics to "protect" their captive peoples from the distracting influences of Western Europe.   This barrier had existed for 45 years. It was a very tense period not only for Europeans, but also for Americans.   ICBM's (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) with nuclear warheads were aimed at targets in the USA and the USSR. This stand off was known as the "Cold War."

In the later years of the Cold War, some American tourists were allowed to travel behind the Iron Curtain and into the Soviet Union under restricted itineraries.   But we accepted the idea that such a visit behind the Iron Curtain was out of the question. Though curious, such a venture was relegated to our European fantasy.

But today, Saturday, October 15, 2005, after a brief, friendly chat with a Czech Customs agent, we were free to wander through this simple, but attractive Bohemian countryside as the distinctive scent of beet fields filled the air mile after mile.   More importantly, the sweet fragrance of freedom now pervades the Czech Republic after enduring Hitler's mad schemes of World War II only to be followed by the repressive communistic rule of the Soviets during the longer "Cold War."

-  Looking west across the Vltava from House of Artists  -
Sitting under the trees along the river by the House of Artists, this scene (above) will captivate you.
The Prague Castle Complex is on the hill top.  St. Vitus Cathedral is towering above.

To map of Prague
House of Artists
The House of Artists
St. Vitus Cathedral
St. Vitus Cathedral

Also called the Rudolfinum, this building is a fine example of neo-Renaissance style. It contains the Dvorák Hall, honoring the Bohemian composer, Antonin Dvorák, famous for his "New World Symphony."

Construction began in the mid 14th century on the site of earlier churches. The cathedral we see now was completed in 1929 after 600 years of meticulous labor.

Artists atop the House of Artists

The Fame of Prague

pparently someone wandering around in the backyard of Europe discovered Prague and thought he needed some way to quickly describe this city.   So he's been saying that "Prague is the Paris of the East."   Sadly, It's caught on.   I've seen that description several times while browsing the internet.   Despite the error, I shall try to be magnanimous by reminding everyone that it was meant as a compliment.  But the fact is that Prague can stand on its own merit without being compared to a dubiously superior city.

More and more travelers are exploring this backyard.   Just recently, a consortium of astronomers from around the world met here to bat around a few things of common interest.   One was to decide whether to remove the title "Planet" from Pluto.   Pluto doesn't meet certain orbital criteria.   In a vote, Pluto was demoted.   Some think they did it with dubious authority and are calling: "Foul!"   Other planets have similar orbital characteristics.

Prague garnered a little notoriety, if not fame, from this shenanigan.   But then neither does Paris have a pure slate, with vehicles burning in the streets and such.

The Beauty of Prague  

St. George's Basilica
rague's beauty excels that of most cities, though we haven't quite finished our poll of all beholders' eyes.  Nor who can enumerate the reasons why artisans are attracted here?   It may be Prague's natural setting: its verdant hills and green zones, its Vltava River, molding the city into a graceful form, or its climate, that intensifies the mood and the colors of each season.   Whatever it is, Prague is filled to overflowing with lavish expressions of art in many styles.  

Every work of art is unique, but the experts are wont to classify these works into groups such as Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, neo-Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, Historicism, functionalism, art nouveau, etc. Of course all must be organized for the curricula of art appreciation courses.  These classifications and more are represented here in Prague.   Available brochures identify the style classification of many significant buildings.

No one can spend even a day or so walking through these worn streets, as we did, and come away unaffected by the detailed aesthetic expressions of architects, sculptors, painters and musicians that have contributed and are still contributing to the beauty of Prague.   Even street musicians and artists are appreciated by the teeming tourists as adding to the charm of what's already here in brick and stone.

Familiar Faces on the Charles Bridge

Musicians of every stripe perform on the Charles Bridge

The Miracle of Prague  

These creative human expressions, these ornate buildings, statues and frescoes, have eluded the damage wrought by acts of war.   It seems to be a miracle that only "scratches" were inflicted on these treasures during the 50-odd years of German, then Soviet occupation. We are told that during those years things became quite dingy and discolored by the pall of coal smoke.   But all of that has been cleaned up.   Most buildings appear bright and clean.

Stare Mesto Tower, East end of Charles Bridge
Yet just 70 miles up the road, Dresden, Germany, was demolished by fire bombs in the late months of World War II.   Dresden, that city of fine Dresden china, precision optical equipment and state-of-the-art medical and scientific apparatus, suffered great damage to its Saxon State Opera House, its Zwinger Palace and several ornate churches and other buildings.   Yet Prague gets off Scott free.

Perhaps a little review of history can shed some light on this apparent miracle.

At the end of World War I, in October, 1918, the Federation of Czechoslovakia was created out of Austria-Hungary Habsburg Domains.   The area involved was roughly today's Czech Republic and Slovakia.   It soon became obvious that the peoples brought into this federation were so diverse and without common interests, that unification was extremely difficult.   Observing all of this, Adolf Hitler, their neighbor, began plotting to take advantage of their difficulty.

At the same time, France and Britain, trying to avoid war with Hitler's Germany, inadvertently played into his scheme by agreeing to let Germany annex Sudetenland, assuming Germany would stop at that.   The agreement known as the Munich Pact was signed on September 30, 1938 by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini representing Germany and Italy, and by Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, representing France and Britain.   Czechoslovakia was not represented.   Chamberlain enjoyed momentary acclaim in Britain for bringing "Peace in our time."

Edvard Beneš, President of Czechoslovakia, had no option but to cede Sudetenland to Germany, then to resign. Within a month after the signing of the Munich Pact, he showed up in London to set up a Czechoslovakian government in exile, planning to return to his home country after the war.

Deserted and on their own, the Czech remnant could not prevent Hitler from occupying their land.   Some say Hitler actually would have preferred a shooting war with Czechoslovakia.   What a nut-case!   It's probably true.

The Prague Castle Guard
But for some unknown reason he waited nearly six months to make his next move.   On March 14, 1939, the Germans moved in to occupy Czechoslovakia.   More than likely, the delay was to let Britain, France and the United States dream on for a bit.   Had they been riled, Hitler could have lost his whole scheme right then and there.

Meanwhile the Slovak people, already unhappy with their menial position in the Federation of Czechoslovakia, were working on a way to make their region more autonomous.   Knowing this, Adolf Hitler offered Father Jozef Tiso, a Slovak leader and Catholic priest, the protection of Germany if he would simply declare the Slovak territory an independent republic.   Doing this gave Germany full control of all of Czechoslovakia, while the powers in the west were still snoozing.

It turns out then, that what we are calling the "Miracle of Prague" is no miracle at all, but a wistful construction of our European fantasy.  This error is a good illustration of our propensity to desire the easy course of passivity.  We thus make the futile case that evil will go away if we turn our back to it.  By celebrating the "Miracle of Prague" we are whitewashing the evil of Hitler, calling it a benefit.  We must not do this.  If we do, we unwittingly cultivate indifference to the likes of Hitler that still engulf us today.  Terrorists are busy. Genocide continues in pockets around the world where certain groups of people are considered a nuisance to those with power.  Genocide and most other repression can be stopped only with force by unselfish, responsible people willing to sacrifice and risk themselves.

When France and Britain and the United States heard that Hitler was ensconced here in Prague, it still didn't seem so bad.  It was just a small pity for a small country far away.

Yes.  All the buildings, statues and frescoes of Prague were safe.... Yet you can be sure that when Hitler marched in, the Charles Bridge was not teeming with tourists as it is now. The terrible truth was that, with the Germans in charge, life in Prague suddenly became very grim, very tragic.

Rather than celebrate this "miracle of Prague,"  we can appreciate these buildings, statues and frescoes as a solemn Memorial to the people who suffered oppression to save them.

The Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) and Malá Strana

A prior bridge, the Judith Bridge, was built here in 1172.  At its east end, the old town, (Staré Mesto) was founded in 1231.  The lesser town (Mala Strana) was founded in 1257 across the bridge on the left bank of the Vltava River.  After standing for 170 years, the Judith bridge collapsed in the flood of 1342.

In 1346, Charles IV came to power in Prague, initiating a period of prosperity, a golden age for the city. Charles had already begun construction of the St. Vitus Cathedral (1344).  In 1348 he is credited as establishing the first university in Central Europe known as Charles University.

In 1355 Charles became the Holy Roman Emperor, establishing Prague as its new capital.

In 1357 construction of the Charles Bridge began.  The Charles Bridge was completed in the early 1400's during the reign of Wenceslas IV, son of Charles IV. This Wenceslas was a drunkard and a complete disaster.  He would have been a total embarrassment to his father and to the real Duke Wenceslas who lived here 500 years earlier.

Today this bridge is a focus that attracts nearly every tourist who visits Prague. Vendors and performers line the way along with about 30 statues.  Most of the statues were placed here during the eight-year interval of 1706 - 1714.

The Tragedy of Prague

Nearly all significant events of history have a timing element.  In this case, Hitler was in control of Prague after methodically working up to it for nearly 20 years.   Looking back on it all now, we see that, early on, Hitler had a scheme far beyond Czechoslovakia.  When he brought Japan into play, it was finally clear to us that his agenda included conquest of the United States.

But having gained Czechoslovakia, Hitler was now in a position to begin his task of ridding Europe of Jews, that hindrance to the Aryan master race and all of the "master's" plans.  Prague had one of the major Jewish ghettos of Europe.    It was called Josefov in honor of Habsburg Emperor Joseph II who removed the ghetto walls in the late 18th century and gave the Jewish Quarter a little more dignity.  His religious reforms were aimed also towards the improvement of tolerance toward Protestants.

After the day Hitler moved in, March 14, 1939, more than 100,000 Czechoslovakian Jews, including 77,297 now named on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, began to be systematically whisked away to death camps in Czechoslovakia and in Poland.  Most of their neighbors thought they had been moved to a special place for Jews.  They didn't know for sure and didn't really want to find out.  After all, even the folks not moved were living in Hitler's bondage themselves.  Self preservation was enough, I suppose.

Word is going around that Hitler himself ordered certain Jewish relics in Prague to be spared in order to preserve the evidence of an extinct race.  For Hitler this was important.  How else do we remember that a race was destroyed if no one remembers it ever existed?

From the Fire into the Frying Pan

When Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered on April 30, 1945, the repression of Czechoslovakia was passed to the Soviets.  ... not much improvement.

After another 23 years of "winter" (repression), there came what is commonly referred to as the "Prague Spring." But rather than a gentle warming followed by summer flowers, it was more like a warm promise of relief followed by a devastating tornado.   It was 1968 when local intellectuals began discussing how Soviet communism could be redefined into a more palatable version befitting the free thinkers of Prague, indeed all Czechoslovakians.   Alexander Dubcek, communist leader of Czechoslovakia, saw this as an opportunity to bring the people into meaningful participation in the communist system.

Warsaw Pact Tanks in Wenceslas Square, August 29, 1968
But Soviet leaders in Moscow were "watching."  During the night of August 28, 1968, Warsaw Pact armies invaded Prague.  Dubcek and others were taken to Moscow and forced to sign on to a permanent occupation of Czechoslovakia.  All that the "Prague spring" proved is that the Soviet system, in order to survive, requires a heavy repressive hand on the populace.

The Soviets clamped down very hard and purged hundreds of thousands from their choice jobs.  But the revived desire for freedom could not be squelched.  In January 1969, Jan Palach, a student, publicly burned himself to death on the steps of the National Museum in Wenceslas Square, an example of the desperation of the people.  Riots occurred at sporting events showing clear opposition to the Soviets.

Wenceslas Square & The National Museum

It was here that Warsaw Pact tanks merged in 1968 to put an end to this dangerous nonsense of enlightened communism.  It was here that Jan Palach martyred himself in desperation for a little freedom.  He did it on the steps of the National Museum at the far end of this street.  It was here that in the 80's demonstrators met frequently and chanted that the time has come for communist rule to end. In 1989 it did, without a shot.  The timing was right.  The long-suffering patience of these people was finally rewarded.

The dream of freedom for Prague went underground in the 70's but began to flourish again in the 80's, this time to fruition.

In June of 1987, President Reagan made a circuit of Rome, Venice and finally Berlin.  Mikhail Gorbachev had been spouting promises of glasnost (openness) and perestroika, (economic reform) Standing at the Berlin Wall, Reagan made a speech.   He gave immense encouragement to anti-Soviet movements with his challenge: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  And, yes, it was a period when the Soviet strength was already waning.  Before the speech was delivered, there had been a debate among White House aides, concerned that the wall comment could be a diplomatic mistake.  Reagan liked what had been written and decided it was time to voice the challenge.

It turns out that his "ultimatum" wasn't a mistake.  In 1989 Wenceslas Square was the site of a number of anti-communist demonstrations.  Finally, one morning the Soviet regime was gone.  In 1990, a free election proclaimed Vaclav Havel the new president of a free Czechoslovakia.  It was the culmination of what has been called the Velvet Revolution.  Velvet because the protests were well timed.  The Soviets had been "Czech mated" into a corner with no viable moves.  The patient, persistent people of Czechoslovakia finally gained their well-deserved freedom.   The desire of some to deny President Reagan any credit for the fall of communism is left moot.   Yet his remark at the wall has as much to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union as anything else anyone can point toward.

What we saw in Prague was clear evidence that repression is gone.   The old sections of the city were teeming with tourists feeding the coffers of hotels, restaurants, gift shops, tour operators and many support industries.

But new found freedom can also give rise to a binge, creating serious problems.   It is said that crimes such as theft and money laundering are common in Prague.  At the auto rental desk in Frankfurt, we needed to report that we would be taking the car into the Czech Republic.   Our order was quickly changed from a Volkswagen Polo to an Opel Corsca which is apparently less attractive to thieves.   Prostitution is so blatant that Prague is being called "The Amsterdam of the East."   Prostitution is not yet legal, but it continues to give Prague a poor reputation.   Like most of Europe, the cause for morality gets precious little consideration, apparently even less than in America.

The Influence of Traditional Christianity

We cannot walk around Prague without noticing the many churches and synagogues.  Prague has been called "The City of a Hundred Towers."  I didn't count them, but I'm convinced that 90% percent are church bell towers and clock towers.  Many churches in Europe have both separately.  And who knows how many spires there are in Prague?  Several spires appear on most towers whether they are church towers or historic watchtowers.  But I'm wandering from my point.

Puppets Tell the Ledgends
I'm observing that countries in Europe often have "Christian" beginnings, handing down their Christian heritage via vague legends.  In France an example was Charlemagne with his ritualized military campaigns.   Later, Joan of Arc, leading French troops against the English, was tried by the English for heresy and sentenced to life in jail, but re-tried by a secular court and burned at the stake.  Posthumously, the Roman Catholic Church re-tried Joan of Arc, finding her innocent, canonizing her as a saint.   In Venice an example is the remains of St. Mark that were smuggled, purchased or stolen.  Who knows? But somehow they were acquired from Egypt just so that Saint Mark could be the prestigious patron saint of Venice.

Here in the Czech Republic, it's the legend of St. Wenceslas.  You probably have heard the Christmas carol that originated in England:

"Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.
While the snow lay round about, cool and crisp and...."
Sorry, my voice is cracking.  But you know the song.

Anyway, Anna, the daughter of Prague's Charles IV, ended up in England by marrying Richard II.  She persuaded the English that Saint Wenceslas would intercede.  The tradition was obviously strong in her childhood because her derelict brother had been Christened "Wenceslas."  Obviously Charles IV had great respect for the name.

The mortal remains of Wenceslas were entombed in the prior church where St. Vitus Cathedral now stands and were not disturbed during the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral.  They are still there, but the skull has been gold plated to accompany the crown of Charles IV. (Weird stuff...)

The story of Saint Wenceslas is very moving.  I will condense it greatly:

In the 8th century A.D., Wenceslas' grandfather and grandmother, Duke Borivoj and Ludmila, were converted to Christianity by the missionaries to the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius from Thessalonica.  A son of Duke Borivoj was Ratislav who married Drahomira, the daughter of a pagan tribal chief.  Out of this marriage came Wenceslas, born about 907 A.D.

The lad was greatly influenced toward Christianity by not only his father, but greatly by his grandmother, Ludmila.

When Wenceslas was a lad only 13 years old, his father, Duke Ratislav, died and Wenceslas became Duke.  But because he was too young to serve, Drahomira, his pagan mother, served as regent and young Wenceslas was placed in the custody of his Grandmother, Ludmila.  This lasted until Ludmila was found strangled at the Tetin Castle near Beroun.  Who done it??  Legend implies it was ordered by Drahomira.  Her name even sounds sinister.  Drahomira resumed her effort to raise Wenceslas as a pagan, but it obviously failed.

I prefer this version to another which claims Drahomira herself was a Christian and raised Wenceslas as a Christian.  It does not compute with the rest of the story.

But it's a matter of historical record: Saint Ludmila was martyred on September 15, 921.  This is her feast day.

Wenceslas assumed his Ducal duties at age 18.  He reportedly was a very kind and benevolent human being, caring for the needy and advocating for the accused.  Legend seems to provide super human abilities along these lines.

In Wenceslas Square, directly in front of the National Museum, stands the imposing and proudly inspiring statue of St. Wenceslas on his horse, going forth to lift the fallen, help the poor and protect his nation.  This sculpture was done by J.V. Myslbek in 1913.  There Wenceslas has "looked out" not only on the Feast of Stephen (December 26) but on every day of the year for almost 100 years now.  He was there when Hitler rolled into town.  He was there when the Soviet tanks came in 1968.  He was there when Jan Polach cremated himself on the steps and he was there "chanting" when the crowds chanted, "It's time to go" to the Soviet leaders.  And he still sits there on his steed, ready for the next Czech crisis.

Wenceslas on his horse is flanked by statues of four Czech saints: Prokop, Anezka, Vojtech and Ludmila, his beloved Grandmother.

The feast day for St. Wenceslas is September 28, the day he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav.  I would guess that Boleslav was too influenced by his pagan mother.  Legends place the death of Wenceslas at 929, but analysis of his remains would indicate that he was not that young when he died.  This evidence places his death at 935 or later.

September 28, is also celebrated as Statehood day for the Czech Republic.  The point of beginning for the Czech people is blurry.  But Wenceslas' martyrdom is as good as any event to mark the beginning of the Czech people on this lovely plateau of rolling hills surrounded by mountain ranges.   But one thing is clear: Statehood of Bohemia/Czech Republic in the minds of the Czechs is bonded with the death of their most beloved citizen, an examplar of basic Christian behavior.

The only day that might be better is the birth of my mother, September 27.  But then she was not Czech.

These quasi-Christian legends and traditions have survived the centuries.  Some of them can indeed minister to the soul.  One thing they often do is to remind folk of one important Christian principle, that of being concerned for the welfare of others, above one's self.

From the time of Charlemagne when the "Holy Roman Empire" began (Christmas Day, A.D.800), the Roman Catholic Church and various governing entities began to vie together and against each other, for power.  We all know that power tends to corrupt.  But during this period one could wonder: "Who is more corrupt, the Church, claiming to be catholic (universal), or the Emperor claiming to be supreme?  The question is moot.  Actually, both had the same earthly and temporal tendencies.

Finally, after about 6 centuries, isolated people within the Roman Catholic Church began to heroically challenge some common practices of the Church.

In 1400, a young man in Prague was ordained as priest in the Roman Catholic Church.  He was 29-year-old, John Huss (Jan Hus), already Professor of Theology at Prague's Charles University.  Though now an influential figure in the Roman Catholic Church, he certainly was not content to simply espouse the doctrines of the Church or accept them at face value.  Huss had been reading and cogitating on many of the concerns that John Wycliffe in England had regarding the Catholic Church. There were a number of practices and doctrines of the Church that also troubled Huss.  One was the practice of offering the bread while denying the wine to believers coming for communion.  Another was the practice of worshipping saints rather than God directly.  And another was that the office of the pope was not really God's idea, but man's.

This concern about the Papal office really came into focus for him when he observed a contemporary situation with regard to the Papal office.

A French Pope had died, and somehow two replacements were simultaneously selected. Oops!  A serious meeting to be known henceforth as the Council of Constance was called in order to settle the matter.

When one of the Papal claimants offered indulgences (spiritual benefits) in return for money to fight his opposer, John Huss was appalled and let his views be known.

Perhaps to quell the nuisance of Huss, he was "invited" to Constance.  Huss pretty much knew what might happen, but his Emperor, flakey King Wenceslas IV, Son of Charles, encouraged Huss to go, promising to guarantee his safe return.

At the Council of Constance, Huss was questioned on his criticisms of Church practice and theology, but was largely mis-understood.  Rhetoric was useless.  To the cardinals, Huss was simply in the way.

John Huss was not released.  On July 6, 1415, He was burned at the stake; the charge was "heresy."

But his influence did not die.  Followers, called Hussites, rose up in Bohemia and Moravia causing quite a stir.  Even wars resulted and the Hussites ended up divided theologically.  It is doubtful that all of this was intended by Huss.  Certain Protestant churches, notably the Moravians and Brethran were later organized, having adopted some of the tenets of Huss.  Certainly, Huss helped pave the way for church reforms and for the Protestant movement.

Yes.  Many churches, lavishly beautiful inside and out, greet tourists coming to Prague.  But something is wrong....

A US State Department opinion poll in the Czech Republic reveals that only 5% of the population (of 10 million) attend Catholic services regularly.  About 1% attend Protestant services.  About 38% believe in God, and 52% claim to be atheists.  About 50% see no value in having churches in the country.

Similar surveys in other European countries are a little better, helping us attribute the high acceptance of atheism in the Czech Republic to the long sojourn with the atheistic Soviet rule.  A surge of interest in Christianity occurred after the Velvet Revolution, but has gradually declined since then.

It appears that modern Czechs have forsaken their Christian heritage of Ludmila and Wenceslas whose beautiful statues adorn Wenceslas Square.  But we don't intend to be the "pot calling the kettle black."  Americans are forsaking their Christian heritage as well.

Internet references for this section:

U.S. State department polls:

Other information about Czech Christianity:

One Piece of the Prague Pie

This view from the Prague Castle covers about 36 degrees, one tenth of the "Prague Pie."  It identifies a few of the historically significant landmarks of Prague.

The Castle Steps Hotel, where we lodged, is just under the lower right corner of the picture.


Lengthening shadows bring our last view of Prague to an end.
This view is looking east from the main castle gates.   The
church directly in the center is St. Nicholas of Mala Strana.

In this tour we've now sampled six large European cities: Frankfurt, Paris, Bern, Venice, Salzburg and Prague. I believe Prague is the epitome of that sampling, both in representing European history and demonstrating the vital nature of Europe. Prague, without having the strength of other cities, has demonstrated the supreme patience and undying resilience of the human spirit when confronted with long periods of dire circumstances. It has stood the tests. Its many churches and its historic efforts to find theological truth, testify that its people have a rich heritage of faith. Hopefully the self-sufficient intellectuals of today will review their history and pick up where Huss and his followers left off, but without the misguided violence.

And so we now leave this pleasant place, but we are taking away some fond memories to ponder and to treasure....

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