Only on my last day in this hilly, river-spliced city, with such beguiling old world charm and art nouveau elegance that unless you’re Kafka a strenuous effort is required to maintain fury or gloom, did I understand why Czechs who disagree with American foreign policy are in sympathy with some of its goals and can muster sadness but not Western European indignation over the war in Iraq.
It was a gray morning as I walked around the city beneath the spires, steeples, cupolas and turrets, walked through history, really, with intermittent rain and fog as conduits to the past. Prague is a lesson. My attention turned from the great kings and queens, courtiers and ladies-in-waiting decked in their finery, and from the suffering, patient peasantry that supported them for so long, to the sieges, wars, brutality, boiling in oil, quartering–the manifold violence that Prague has endured.
Czechs shake their heads, not their fists, at us. “You don’t understand the progression,” a 65-year-old teacher named Benes said to me. “Iraq had a monster in Saddam, and you removed him. Liberators. The trouble is, what then? We had our monster in Hitler. I remember the Russians entering Prague in ’45. Liberators. I cheered their tanks. But liberators who stay become oppressors. The next time Russian tanks came, in ’68, I did not cheer.”
Far longer ago than the British, Czechs had their wars of conquest as well as internecine affairs when Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other. But they have only a folk, not a familial, memory of all this. It is going on 700 years since Charles IV of Prague was King of Bohemia and later Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Tempers have cooled a bit.
The Czech Republic has a small contingent of troops in Iraq, but on the eve of the war all of them were told they could go home if they wished, and a dozen or so did. A poll taken at that time found only 12 percent of Czechs in favor of a war without the backing of the UN Security Council. The first Czech to die in Iraq, a petrochemical specialist, was killed in an accident this spring.
Along Golden Lane, a diminutive street named for its trade in precious metals, Franz Kafka lived and wrote for a while. Upstairs, the second floors of a number of these small houses–including Kafka’s–have been connected to form a long, narrow corridor featuring a display of early Bohemian and Czech weaponry. I stopped after counting 200 variations of swords, spears, pikes, battle-axes, daggers, dirks, halberds and other devices used to kill in the name of faith and ideology, with simple greed always lurking in the background. Some of the rapiers had primitive pistols mounted on their hilts, as if a knight might ask someone he was about to finish off, “OK, which way do you want to go?” I was shown some of Prague’s sights by an educated young man named Slavek, who in the spirit of the times hopes to go either into the foreign ministry or the tourist business. Like other Czechs who have living memories of struggling under tyranny, Slavek genuinely sympathizes with a war to remove a dictator. “Absolutely, Saddam Hussein had to be overthrown, and the Iraqis couldn’t do it by themselves,” he said. “But the plans were bad. You went to war in too much haste and should have included Muslim countries. But if you pull out now the civil war to come will be much worse than life under Saddam. At least he had stability.”
Leading me around the massive St. Vitus cathedral, Slavek pointed to a scene in the stained glass depicting a fratricide, to another where a noblewoman stabbed her daughter-in-law while she prayed, and then to another where a king was being killed by a pretender to the throne. “You can change a regime virtually overnight,” he said, “but it can take ages to make a democracy. It took a long time for the West to evolve from the medieval days of torture–go look at an old torture chamber while you’re here, but eat first. Afterward you won’t have an appetite.”
Slavek said most Czechs are easygoing about their beliefs. “It’s lovely to have all these beautiful churches,” he said, “but Czechs go to church only for hatching, matching and dispatching–the rest of the time they’re agnostic. At some point there will be more churches than Christians.” A wonderful country.
I took Slavek’s advice and did not visit a Prague torture chamber until after lunch. Upstairs from Cafe Kafka and down the corridor from the swords in Golden Lane was a miniature Abu Ghraib. A small room offered eye-gougers, pliers for tearing off ears, a necklace of nails, an infernal machine for sawing people, racks for stretching those who dissented or even questioned, a spiked mace, an iron collar for garroting and other devices to make what Mel Gibson did to Christ seem like massage therapy. The Czech hero and martyr, St. Vitus, was boiled in oil and then, in case the suggestion needed underlining, drawn and quartered. Good King Wenceslaus himself, the patron saint of Bohemia, forgot to look out one day and was done in by his own brother.
At the other end of the corridor is a hands-on–i.e., virtual–highlight. Tourists shoot a crossbow at the mannequin of a knight in shabby armor with a target taped to its chest. The visor is drawn down so you can’t see that no one is inside. There are no carnival prizes, only the thrill of a medieval method of killing. Three Americans, two men and a woman, were taking turns. How long before we have our own mock-up of GIs in Bradleys and Humvees battling “natives” with RPGs?
And yet. I was still in Prague, after all. A few steps down Golden Lane from the relics of violence was an exhibit of antique musical instruments. Czechs are proud of having lionized Mozart when he came to Prague and wrote the last part of Don Giovanni, playing to greater acclaim than he received in Salzburg or Vienna. A constellation of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, harps and accordions was on display, along with almost as many varieties of stringed instruments as there had been of swords upstairs. Prague is a museum of the beauty and the beast in all of us.
The city works its charms on most visitors. Even Serge, a Frenchman, went a little easy on the United States in the salutary envelope of Prague. “Leaving oil aside,” he said, “the motive of helping Iraq be free was a sympathetic one, the installation of a democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. The beginning was something like the French mission civilisatrice, but it got messed up, just as we did in Indochina and eventually Algeria.” Serge shrugged, ruffling a hand through his unruly brown hair. “The ‘old Europe’ you disdain learned not to fight colonial wars anymore. You can’t win a colonial war, and that’s what you’re in.”
The more noxious fumes from Washington do not reach Prague. It is a city whose existence is a judgment on us and, perhaps, a distant prophecy. The Czechs killed and burned and lanced and cut and tortured and boiled until it was just all out of them and they stopped. They live free of the constant hope we suffer from. Their capital city has become a disinterested aristocracy of tastes and values, with some longing for the leveling effects of Soviet socialism but none for its suppression of expression. Indeed, expressiveness is what blooms and thrives on the ancient stones of Prague. Catch it now. Soon it could be flattened into EU homogeneity. As for the citizens, they have less anger than pity for us. The pity is not for our being pinned down in a land we cannot understand but for the final act in our conversion to a warrior state. Czechs know. They’ve been there.