Returning to a city you once loved is always a perilous experience, for it is so easy to be disappointed—as happened to me several years ago when I returned to Venice, a seaborne city I had not seen for more than 40 years. How can anyone be disappointed by Venice? My answer had little to do with Venice, whose enchantment, so long as it remains afloat, is timeless; it had to do with the raggle-taggle, blue-jean-and-T-shirt-clad mob of invaders I found myself having to battle every time I stepped out of the hotel and ventured on to the Piazza San Marco or tried to circle the lagoon along the Riva dei Schiavoni. And this in what I had innocently fancied was the “off-season” tourist month of October!
Having learned from this bitter experience when not to travel, when not to ruin a fond memory, I decided to take no chances in returning to Bohemia. I therefore chose one of the very coldest moments of the year—late January—to revisit what, ever since I first beheld it during the summer of 1945, was and has remained the lovely, the breathtakingly beautiful, uniquely baroco-Gothic or Gothico-baroque city of Prague. How right I was! For I found the old town, with its plethora of red-tiled rooftops, cupolas, and spires, its buttressed bridge with its quaintly gesticulating saints and bishops and its three medieval watchtowers, its long, rambling castle, and its towering four-spired cathedral softly powdered with fresh snow.
Ah, the snows of January, the not yet totally vanished snows of yesteryear, and, let us hope, tomorrow! Those wintry snows that were once familiar to the inhabitants of Dickens’ London and of Balzac’s Paris, but which are still well known to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. I am not a poet, but I could easily write an ode in praise of this wintry gift, unknown to most of the inhabitants of California. Snow, the great cleanser, capable of embellishing even the darkest, dirtiest of buildings. Snow, the incomparable landscape softener! Snow, able to enliven the dullest, sulkiest, most leaden-heavy overcast with the contrasting whiteness of its soft, silent mantle—as was recognized long ago by Currier & Ives, and by Maurice Utrillo, with his streaky, gray-white townscapes of Montmartre.
The world is a strange place, filled with strange creatures. Since almost everything is possible, there may well exist tourists who come to Prague and are not impressed. I can sincerely say, however, that I have yet to meet such a person, and I hope I never will.
Nothing is more difficult than to sum up the beauties of a city in a few words. If I had to explain to an inhabitant of Paris, internationally a far more “familiar” city, in just what way Prague is so special, however, I would probably end up saying something like this. “You see that hill over there?”—pointing to Montmartre—“well, instead of all those nondescript houses crawling up its slopes, just imagine the finest hôtels particuliers, the finest 17th- and 18th-century townhouses being moved out of the seventh arrondissement and piled up the slope, one almost on top of the other, but far more extravagantly baroque, with more curves and stuccoed in friendly ochre, caramel, pale, and even dark-brown, carmine-red, pistachio-green, and even zebra-gray hues, climbing up the mountainside, with, crowning the summit, an entire palace, almost as large as the Louvre, and, inside it, instead of that bleached monstrosity known as the Sacré Coeur—what Alexander Calder once aptly called an ‘upside down cow’—a four-spired version of Notre Dame.” But even that would not suffice. For one would have, in addition, to take the oldest bridge in Paris, the absurdly named Pont Neuf, and move it, along with a twice-widened river Seine, a good kilometer northward, so that it circled around the lower slopes of Montmartre, and then adorn its two extremities with Gothic towers, such as one can still find in provincial French towns, but which were long ago removed from the less “backward,” the more “up-to-date” and “modern” capital of France.
It is precisely this glorious congestion, this being hemmed in between the steep hill of the Malá Strana (or “little side”) and the broad waters of the Vltava (or Moldau, as the less expertly tongue-twisting Germans prefer to call it) that makes Prague so unique. I know of no other European city—not even arch-baroque Salzburg, or the Oriental, neo-Gothic extravaganza of Venice—in which the Gothic and the baroque are so perfectly blended. And the Czechs, thank Heaven, have shown no hasty desire, not even under Klement Gottwald and his communist successor, Gustav Husak, to alter this architectural status quo. The tiny cobblestones on which you walk when you cross the Karluv Most (the 14th-century bridge that Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, originally a Luxemburger, had built in the 1360’s and where, next to the patronizing statues of friendly saints and bishops, contemporary artists and assorted vendors peddle their sketches, watercolors, gouaches) continue on under the Gothic archway and right up the steep streets as far as the summit. Although trams now circulate on both sides of the Moldau, the two oldest parts of the city—the Malá Strana (where houses, palaces, churches, chapels, and gardens are hemmed in against the mountainside) and the flatter Staré Mesto (Old Town) to the east, with its town-hall square and the astronomical clock, whose quaint figures sally forth in rotation at the 12 strokes of midday, have remained essentially cobblestone areas for pedestrians.
In 1945, when, as a member of a Russian-liaison team based in western Bohemia, I first drove into Prague in a U.S. Army jeep, the dazed, helpless city was still in a state of shock, having been miraculously saved from the destruction of SS fanatics by the unexpected intervention of an anti-Soviet Vlassov division, only to be ruthlessly occupied a second time by a conquering Soviet army. Its inhabitants—and, particularly, its womenfolk, so vulnerable to rape—were understandably nervous, fearful of a future in which, despite the reassuring presence of their president (Eduard Bene), they knew that, for the time being, they were the helpless pawns of foreign powers. In a word, they were anything but happy. Still, for the lucky few of us who had been granted three-language passes (Czech, Russian, English), it was always a delight to escape once or twice a week from the camouflaged Luftwaffe barracks where we were garrisoned in the grim, proletarian, and already communist-dominated city of Pilsen to the entrancing, enticing capital of Bohemia.
Yes, how unbelievably lucky we were! There was, as I recall, only one riverfront restaurant where we could obtain a meager meal without ration tickets, but what did it matter! We could always bring provisions, including oranges, chocolate, coveted cigarettes, bottles of Kentucky Bourbon, and even slivovice, the plum brandy beloved of the Slavs from Danzig to Belgrade and Sofia, which we could obtain in exchange for rarer gasoline. I was able to befriend two families inhabiting the Malá Strana, and thus could, from the heights of the Hradcany, admire the incomparable sunsets of “hundred-towered Prague” during that magic moment of the day when the reflecting windows blaze like golden lockets under the molten rooftops and the placid Moldau turns the color of liquid bronze. I was even taught to dance the polka and the less well-known beseda by a charming young lady named Ludmilla. Yes, how utterly unreal, how irresponsible were those giddy moments that, for me, at least, might have ended in disaster, when, one day, Ludmilla’s crazy brother—who had suddenly chosen to become a communist!—took control of the steering wheel and was only prevented in extremis from driving our jeep to certain destruction . . . down the steep steps leading from the heights of the Hradcany into the maze of narrow streets below!
A disaster of far greater magnitude awaited us—which is to say the soon-to-be-“disoccupied” Czechs and their American “protectors”—when General Eisenhower came to Prague and signed a formal agreement with President Bene whereby all of Czechoslovakia was to be evacuated by the two occupying armies. Since the area being evacuated by the Red Army forces of the 5th Russian Guards was four-to-five times as large as the tiny zone that the U.S. Army’s 22nd Corps had been occupying around Marienbad, Pilsen, and Klatovy, this could be interpreted as a diplomatic victory for Uncle Sam.
This was indeed the interpretation given to this momentous meeting by the U.S. ambassador, Lawrence Steinhart, a diplomatic “ace” who was credited with having outwitted Hitler’s ambassador, Franz von Papen, during his four years in Ankara, by keeping Turkey from joining the Axis. In fact, the handwriting was already on the wall of Central Europe and had been there since January of 1945, when Bene had been browbeaten by Stalin into accepting the establishment, in the first “liberated” Slovak town of Koice, of a 12-man government, in which the most powerful ministries—Interior, Army, Agriculture (for future kolzhozes), Justice (future trials of “enemies of the People”), and Education (brainwashing of the young)—had been placed in the hands of confirmed communists. This did not keep our lighthearted ambassador, who at that moment was busy courting one of Prague’s most attractive hostesses, from repeatedly declaring, “Don’t worry! Once the Russians have left Czechoslovakia, all will be well!”
Close to 20 years later, when I made a second visit to Prague in the summer of 1964, the Cold War was on in earnest. With the more-royalist-than-the-king fanaticism that “disciples” so often display, Klement Gottwald’s successors had decided to make their proletarian dislike of Uncle Sam’s capitalism clearly felt by imposing a kind of blockade around the U.S. embassy, to keep Czech cooks and charwomen from working for a humiliated diplomatic staff forced to busy themselves with the most menial domestic chores. There was a depressing drabness about almost everything, since individuality of any kind was frowned upon and even the simplest decisions—like the kind of wallpaper or decorative trimmings needed to brighten a shop window—had to be made by a communist-controlled committee.
This time I came, not as a jeep-conveyed G.I., but as a tourist traveling in a French Dauphine. After being refused accommodation in Prague’s “swankiest” establishment—the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs, a gray-white “masterpiece” of Art Déco architecture dating from the 1920’s, when France was still regarded as a great power and French the language of diplomacy—I finally found accommodations in a seedy hostellery called the Hybernia, located not far from the old Powder Gate, above whose Gothic archway gunpowder used to be stored in the late Middle Ages. It was a second-rate hostellery catering to second-class Soviet citizens, who already then were flooding into Prague in well-regimented droves. (Today, they are no longer regimented, but the droves are thicker than ever.)
Drab though communized Prague undoubtedly was, the first stirrings of revolt—the one that surfaced four years later with Alexander Dubcek—could be clearly felt: most patently manifested by the extraordinary number of blue jeans and T-shirts everywhere to be seen and by the extraordinary popularity of “Big Beat” music imported into bars and cafés from the decadent West. There were even Czechs—like the celebrated actor Jan Werich—who were prepared to talk with an almost total lack of inhibition to a foreigner. In the course of a conversation held in his upstairs apartment on the Kampa—a charming “island” near the Charles Bridge linked to the “mainland” by a mill wheel, which still obstinately turns (but which, alas, was devastated by the floodwaters of last autumn)—Werich said to me: “We know little about God, except that He isn’t a communist.” Not wishing to get him into trouble, I excluded this comment from the published version of this interview—only to regret it for, after receiving a copy of my typescript through a cooperative French diplomat, he wrote to say that he would not have minded at all if I had left the comment in.
Today, of course, no Czech actor or writer needs to trouble himself with questions of this kind. Censorship has disappeared along with the omnipresence and omnipotence of secret agents: those whom an up-and-coming playwright named Václav Havel had had the singular courage to denounce as the gravediggers of the comradely spirit supposedly underlying socialism in a masterpiece of penetrating analysis boldly entitled “Open Letter to Comrade Husak.” Simultaneously published in Leopold Labedz’s Soviet Survey and Melvin Lasky’s Encounter in the autumn of 1975, this magnificent Cold War document can be regarded as the opening round fired in the movement of intellectual protest launched two years later as “Charter ’77.”
And so, slowly and, perhaps, unsurely, we come to January 2003. This time, through no merit of my own, I ended up in a magnificent baroque palazzo. For I must confess that I was not present in August and early September 1989 when Václav Havel, Alexander Dubcek, and several hundred thousand cheering and demonstrating Czechs and Slovaks staged their “velvet revolution” on the Václavské Námstí: Prague’s biggest and most oblong square, which carries the saintly name of the “good King Wenceslas” whom we used to honor with a charming Christmas carol, when, on the Feast of Saint Stephen (the day after Christmas), he gazed out from his turreted window and saw the snow lying roundabout, deep, and crisp, and even. What few Americans—or, for that matter, Europeans—realize is that this kindhearted monarch, who invited a poor, half-frozen peasant to join him by a blazing fire for a warming meal of gruel, in reality met a grizzly end. For, having sought to convert the Bohemians to Christianity during the first half of the tenth century, he was murdered by his brother Boleslaw at the instigation of their pagan mother; his faith, however, which was that of his grandmother Ludmilla, whose saintly memory is equally venerated by the Czechs, won out in the end—as it did in nearby Hungary under the aegis of his fellow saint, King Stephen of Buda.
Yes, this time (which is to say, last January), I ended up in an enormous baroque palace, even grander and more loftily situated on the flank of the Malá Strana than the Schönborn Palace, which now houses the U.S. embassy. To reach it, our taxi had to undergo inspection opposite the embassy’s ornate gateway by two solidly upholstered watchmen armed with electronic instruments, whose present duty it is not to keep Czechs from entering the no longer suspect building but to keep the Schönborn Palace from being blown apart by anti-American terrorists.
Inside the even grander edifice of the Lobkowicz Palace, to which a friend of mine had had me invited and which now houses the German ambassador and his entire staff, we found ourselves climbing an elegantly carpeted grand staircase, the surrounding walls of which were adorned not with solemn portraits but with framed photographs: photographs of German refugees from East Germany using ladders or the shoulders of relatives or friends to pull themselves up and over the walls and railings surrounding the palace grounds; photographs of the extraordinary tent city that, during those tense weeks of August and September 1989, covered the lawns and gravel-ways of the palace’s baroque gardens, right up to the fence separating it from the even grassier expanse of the neighboring Strachow monastery (which houses the finest collection of Christian holy books and manuscripts to be found anywhere outside the Vatican); photographs of the triple and quadruple tiers of bunks that had to be installed in every bedchamber, hall, corridor, and office of the huge building, as the human tide kept relentlessly rising toward a daily total of 4,000 to 5,000, only to ebb in the nick of time, before dysentery set in. Few embassies in the world have ever had to face such a crisis—precipitated by a sudden, strange collective impulse, by a contagious realization on the part of thousands of East Germans that the Soviet Powers That Be were now Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, not Stalin, Molotov, and Klement Gottwald; that Erich Honnecker was a paper tiger; and that they could count on the passive cooperation of demoralized and even sympathetic Czech policemen in being allowed to storm the West German embassy—which is to say, their embassy—in Prague, as the most dramatic way of internationally publicizing their plight as captive citizens of a police state.
Later, a less harassed German diplomat than the sleep-starved ambassador who had to deal with the crisis undertook to bring out a lavishly illustrated book, duly prefaced by President Václav Havel, commemorating these extraordinary events. Dedicated to the “Palais Lobkowicz,” it carries the subtitle: “A Spot of German History in Prague.” In fact, however, it was not German or even Czecho-German history that was thus being made; it was Central European and even European history that was being made by anticommunist elements in every country of the rapidly disintegrating Soviet bloc, as was made clear by the final collapse, on November 9, 1989, of its most pathetic symbol, the shameful Wall—more exactly, a mined “death-strip” extending along the east bank of the Elbe, from the outskirts of Hamburg to Magdeburg, and on southward to the Saxon-Czech border.
As ill luck would have it, the Sternberg Palace, which houses the finest paintings in Prague, was closed for repairs at the time of my visit. Determined nevertheless to see what else the city had to offer in this field, I climbed the slope to the Hradcany—“Fortress-Castle” would probably be the best translation—where the stiff, goose-stepping automatons who used to guard the ornate gateposts (Herculean heroes clubbing their grounded foes) in the days of the Gottwald-Husak police state have fortunately been replaced by human sentries, warmly uniformed, bescarfed, and wool-capped against the cold. Beyond the presidential offices and chambers to the right, where President Havel (shortly before resigning) still resided, I entered the magnificently vaulted Vladislav Hall, now rarely used, since the parliamentary sessions of the lower house and Senate take place in two buildings located on the other side of the Moldau in the Staré Msto area. Adjoining the Vladislav Hall are two small chambers where, on the fateful 23rd of May, 1618, a number of Czech Protestant “patriots,” aroused to a fever pitch by a systematic Jesuit campaign to suppress Lutheranism (which, by this time, encompassed two thirds of Bohemia), boldly heaved two of the Habsburg emperor’s Catholic regents—Jaroslav of Martinitz and Count William Slavata—through a casement window. The drop, more than 50 feet, looks murderously vertiginous, but the fall was less than lethal, for the two unfortunates fell into heaps of refuse and dung that had accumulated in the castle’s moat. The indignity thus inflicted on the emperor’s representatives by this forcible “defenestration” was such that it reverberated over the length and breadth of the continent, sparking a devastating war that lasted 30 years and so ravaged Germany that it effectively stifled what might have been a belated Renaissance.
One consequence of the initial 1620 battle of bila hora—of the so-called “White Mountain,” which was less than white, nor snow-covered (as I long innocently believed), still less a mountain, being little more than a chalky hill located southwest of Prague—was made dramatically clear to me when I visited the Prague Castle Gallery, tucked away in one corner of St. Vitus’s cathedral square. Its 300-odd paintings (third-rate Tintoretto’s, Veronese’s, Guido Reni’s, etc.) were quite obviously leftovers from what was once a magnificent collection—indeed, one of the finest, if not for a while the finest, in all of Europe. The collector was a morose, idiosyncratic Habsburg named Rudolph (II, 1552-1612), who was more interested in artworks, chemistry, alchemy, astronomy—he was the enlightened patron of Tycho Brahe and Kepler—than in the day-to-day administration of his restive, Turk-threatened empire. Not the least of his “crimes” in the eyes of certain of his relatives was his casual flouting of family tradition. Abandoning low-lying Vienna, he followed Emperor Charles IV’s example by establishing his capital in more “mountainous” Prague. After his death in 1612, his numerous artworks, known as the Rodolphine collection, were inherited by his ailing, short-lived brother Mathias (1612-19), whose absence of male heirs permitted the Jesuit-trained arch-Catholics of Austria and Bavaria to lay claim to the administration of the empire. The first to help himself to choice pieces of the Rodolphine collection was the principal victor of the Battle of the White Mountain, Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. The second, as a pathetic but eye-opening plaque placed near the entrance to the Castle Gallery indicates, were Gustavus Adolphus’s momentarily victorious Swedes, who helped themselves to more treasures in 1632, duly followed by the Saxons in 1648.
Following this decisive battle, the Germanization of Bohemia was pushed with unprecedented vigor. German became the official language of administration and polite society, Czech being reduced to the status of a vernacular used by peasants and domestic servants. Thirty thousand Czech nobles and burghers went into exile—a foretaste of the hemorrhage that later overtook Catholic France in 1685, when Louis XIV rashly revoked the tolerant Edict of Nantes. One fourth of Bohemia’s land changed hands, and a new aristocracy, mostly of mercenary origin (part German, part Walloon, part Spanish), was imposed on the country. The result was what one could call the Catholic colonization of Central Europe. The same colonizing energy that went into the founding of Williamsburg and Charleston, Georgetown and Beacon Hill, was now expended on Prague—with the curiously parallel result that, just as America is richer than England in 18th century mansions and churches, so Prague is richer than Vienna or Salzburg in the profusion of its baroque palaces and churches.
Today, these religious rivalries are, on the whole, relics of the past. The Czech Republic is an emphatically secular state, as it already was under Thomas Mazaryk. There is now general agreement that the “casting off” of largely Catholic Slovakia, though opposed by Havel but finally accepted by his more pragmatic prime minister, Václav Klaus, has greatly improved the once tense relations between Prague and Bratislava.
The forced Catholicization of Bohemia was never a conspicuous success, and its failure was already apparent in the late 18th century, when Mozart was snubbed by the Austrian emperor and Vienna’s straitlaced aristocracy for having dared to make an opera out of Beaumarchais’ subversive play, Le Mariage de Figaro. Virtually forced into exile, he found a haven in Prague and was welcomed by a more tolerant high society, ready to acclaim the licentious temerities of Don Giovanni, on its memorable premiere of October 29, 1787.
Prague, like any truly living city, has, of course, changed, and not always for the better. On the once gray and austere but now kaleidoscopically disparate Václavské Námstí, I could not help noticing the bright, red-and-yellow presence of a McDonald’s next to a hotel boasting the proud name of Zlato Husu (Golden Goose) and not far from the externally unchanged Hôtel des Ambassadeurs (now often used for conventions and symposia of all kinds). On a side street not far from the famous square, I was staggered by a bold, shop-front proclamation that this was a “super-sex” “hot-spot” for eni—which is to say, lesbians. And next to the many taverns and vinarnas (where, as the name suggests, good white wines are served along with the world-famous beers of Pilsen and Ceské Budejovice, whence our Budweiser) and interspersed among the many shops selling Russian wooden dolls, suverniry, or Bohemia’s famous “crystal,” every second booth or niche-in-the-wall behind the round-arched arcades seemed to be occupied by a money-changing agent, glibly proclaiming a “zero commission” (cleverly negated by an unannounced state tax).
Someone had told me that Prague, though a tourist mecca, received six million foreign tourists every year, roughly one eighth of the number who visit Paris. When I questioned this figure, a Czech economist confirmed it, adding, however, that Bohemia and Moravia together now receive no fewer than 103 million “visitors” every year. When I asked the difference between a tourist and a “visitor,” I was flabbergasted to learn that the “visitor” is someone who, entering from neighboring Austria, Bavaria, Silesia, or Poland, stages a kind of hit-and-grab raid without actually spending the night on Czech or Moravian territory—not unlike the English who cross the Channel in droves to loot the cheap liquor stores and pastry shops of Boulogne and Calais.
No wonder the amount of foreign earnings brought in by the Czech Republic’s “thriving tourist trade” barely amounts to five percent of the country’s Gross National Product. I am not one to lament this misfortune, however. In the cold, crisp nights of January 2003, it seemed to me more like a godsend. Enchanted by the soft golden glow of Prague’s globular streetlamps, strung like chainless necklaces across the statue-haunted Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) and on up the narrow streets of the Malá Strana as far as the dramatically floodlit gray-white façade of the Hradcany, I could selfishly thank my lucky stars that there were few tourists and even fewer “visitors” to disturb my fond nostalgia, my undisappointed peace of mind.