History

Zizkov - where it got its name

Jan 23, 12:05 Filed under history

Jan Zizka A relatively young part of Prague, traditionally an area of working-class livelihoods and a place of the symbolic conflict between the old crown city and the new urbanist one. Originally a plain hill which was later turned into a vineyard, Zizkov had to wait for its status of a town until 1881. The hill is called Vitkov and it was the place of a major 1420 battle between the Hussit warlord Jan Zizka and the king’s armies. The successful warlord’s name is the basis of the name of the whole quarter and the hill is dominated by a monument of his.

The Hussit movement, called after Jan Hus, a Czech priest burned alive for his critique of the Catholic Church in 1415, is still a controversial part of the Czech history. On one hand an act of courage and a will to go against the rich and powerful Church elite, on the other a massive rampage, which drowned its modern thoughts in blood.

It played a major role in the 19th Century, mainly its second half, as the Czech nationalists (patriots we would say today) used it often as an argument of the nation’s potential, as the Czechs, between 1419 and 1434, were able to frighten the elites of the whole Europe. On the other hand and sentiments aside, the Hussits and especially Zizka, were also responsible for numerous atrocities and unjustifiable cruelty, mainly towards monks and nuns of the conquered monasteries. The movement also brought sheer destruction to what we would today call “cultural heritage” and there are historians who claim it actually postponed the reformatory process. By being so brutal and radical the Hussits prepared fertile ground for the conservatives. All the anti- reformists had to do was point at the horrors of the berserk rebel armies and used it to discredit the movement altogether. The ideas of a church close to the common man, of the elites having to strengthen ties with the people, of some amount of religious freedom, could hardly have been rejected as easily.

In my opinion the key question lies on the same level as in the case of other revolutionary movements of the past centuries: the great difference between the ethos and the realization, the question whether such a cruel and remorseless chain of events could at all be seen positively. However a different case that is, I think the moral problem is in many ways similar to that of the French Revolution.

Prague Between the World Wars

Jan 5, 10:08 Filed under history

After 1918 Prague became the centre of political power and this changed its position regarding the attention, prestige, money etc. The position of Prague mayor became a prestigious one and it was given to high- profile political personalities, just like it happens in the case of the other European capitals.

Although Masaryk was a very authoritative figure, the Prague mayor was to great extent independent. This was well apparent in the case of K. Baxa, the second mayor or Prague. His conduct was increasingly anti- Roma and even anti- Semitic, showing support for the Prague anti- Jewish manifestations of 1930, organized by supporters of the Czech fascist leader Radola Gajda. No matter the pressure that arose, it was impossible to get rid of him because of his party’s strong backing, thus he remained in the position until 1937.

The main tendency was the creation of an agglomeration, said in modern terms. Suburban parts and villages were to be integrated and turned into city quarters- Vinohrady, Karlín, Smíchov, Zizkov to name the largest ones, later more remote parts like Stodulky, Hostivar or Hloubetin. The emergence of “The Great Prague” is dated to January 1, 1922, when its legislature was done. It consisted of 37 districts and tensions soon were felt- there were substantial socio- economic differences between the new quarters and this was all the more visible with the Economic Crisis which came later.

The main task was, however, solving the problems, which remained as an outcome of the World War. The key problem was unemployment and this was dealt with setting public works by the City Hall. There was massive migration into the capital and a growth in birth rate in the first half of the 1920s. The German population, after some decline just after 1918, also grew and had, in average, good jobs and high rate of education. The Jewish population experienced some growth, but it was not substantial in the context of the city as a whole.
There was a notable rise in atheism and certain decline in the interest in church schools.

Speaking of architecture, the dominating style was cubism with round modifications, represented mainly by Josef Gocar. That was followed by a wave of functionalism, an example of its early stage being Veletrzní palace (The National Gallery) by Oldrich Tyl and Josef Fuchs, soon followed by many more, often built for big insurance companies, banks etc.

Neo- historism also had some impact, mainly on many newly built university buildings and the many monuments built during the period. There were major projects in the suburban areas too: the large area of Thomayer Hospital in Prague 4 for example.

The face of the centre was changing, multi-storey buildings were replacing the old fashioned houses, there were new banks, embassies, passages… Attention slowly shifted from Na porici street to Wenceslas Square, which became the new social and commercial centre.

Many important restoration works were also taking place. Notably there was the large project of re-construction of several parts of the Prague castle, including the completion of St Vitus Cathedral.

The Czechoslovakia Divided

Dec 9, 13:26 Filed under history

czechoslovakia map Czechoslovakia as a state unit was in many aspects uneven. The centre was always in Prague, the power concentrated in the Czech part. In the communist regime, the Czechoslovak unity was very much proclaimed, but, on the other hand there were terms like “Slovakian nationalism” without any such Czech equivalent. It was even used in a large trial which resulted into harsh sentences for the Slovaks who opposed the new regime’s wrongdoings. It is sort of an irony that one of those sentenced was Gustáv Husák, who became the main figure of the normalization period nearly thirty years later.

While the majority of both ethnicities have been in favor of the federation, there were strong radical groups in its opposition, mainly in Slovakia. It might have been unfair to remind of Josef Tiso’s pro- facist Slovak State during the WWII years, weren’t this the moment in our history that the Slovakian nationalists always hailed as the finest moment of their nation. The anti- Czech sentiments were strong after the Communist regime collapsed. Husák was Slovak all right, but the system itself was widely identified with the Czechs. Not without logic: the first decades of the regime were not even federative, the Czech part clearly dominated. The well- known 1946 election, which helped the Party to get close to power, was a victory in the Czech part, but not the Slovakian. This fact was overlooked by the Czech Party leaders, as if Slovakia didn’t count. And this attitude prevailed for quite some time. It was somewhat logical that both countries’ politicians decided to get rid of the burden and start the new road to market economy and liberal democracy as two separate states. But was it political wisdom or cowardice?

When Czechoslovakia was founded the shared view was that our cultures and our history made us so close, bound together, that it would be irrational to be separated. No matter how great the tensions were at the beginning of the 1990s, there is something irresponsible about the split. It may be that the Czech idea of Czechoslovakia was too patronizing, too unbalanced, but that doesn’t mean a sharp and probably irreversible division was the answer. Many of those who spent most of their life in the previous state say, that it was the split that resulted more differences, though the envy is gone. Everyone used to know both languages, the cultural sphere was very much interlinked etc. Czechoslovakia was an artificial product of years of policy making, that connection of two nations, it sure was. But is it better now that my generation has problems with Slovakian language and a trip to Tatry is often seen as a voyage to a foreign country?

The City Transformation in the Modern Age

Nov 22, 13:19 Filed under history

Many of the changes were of course results of wars. At this moment I wish to point out the major changes done decisively and coordinated from the centre of power or those dictated by an immediate need.

Firstly, many changes were politically motivated and ordered by the ruler or his administration. Many churches were abolished during the reign of Joseph II . The king was an enlightened, rational person and his overall record is fairly good. Unfortunately, his radicalism resulted into the fact that many churches and monasteries were closed down, turned into storages etc. About sixty monasteries and chapels were abolished in Prague alone. The fact that a church building lost its status often led to its decline, since problems with its funding and its purpose arose. This became easier over the years, as historicist sentiments gained in strength and old buildings, no matter whether useful or not, were suddenly considered valuable. It is this tendency to keep the old unchanged as a carrier of the place’s history that saved many buildings, which could have been considered useless from a strictly functional point of view.

The other kind comes form the simple fact that Prague was changing as an organism. It was expanding and it needed more facilities. Until this process started there were many parts of the centre which were quite empty and there was no organized shape of the river bank area. Every unused spot was to be occupied by a building, a road, a tower; bridges were built. The houses grew higher, balconies got attached.

It was notably the nineteenth century which brought a major growth of the city, often as a result of speculation and massive interest in building and enlarging. The end of the century was the worst: during some twenty years, the face of the Old town was changed as much as possible. There was the demolition of the Jewish quarter and some streets in the center.

It were actually these several decades that motivated the birth of a number of civil organizations. Supported by architects and other cultural workers, the organizations, which could be, in contemporary language, called NGOs, started an ever going fight with the radical projects in historical Prague. How much was needed and how much was plain stubborn conservatism is always hard to distinguish.

More about Jewish Town

Oct 25, 12:27 Filed under history

The old Jewish cemetery is the only reminder of old Prague Jewish Town, otherwise cleared away during “the asanation” (the demolition) in the 19th Century. Since its founding (the 15th Century), the limited grounds gave rest to thousands. The most visited tomb is that of Rabbi Jehuda Löw, the „inventor” of Golem, the legendary clay giant. Never mind this story, Löw was without a doubt a very educated man of many virtues, with interest in alchemy and possibly magic but that’s hard to say, since anything having to do with chemistry and physics was seen as magic at the time.

The town covered one tenth of the present size of Old Town, which means it was quite overcrowded as the population grew with centuries. Six gates separated it from the rest of the city, gates which were locked all day and night during the Easter. That was the tiniest of acts of oppression towards the minority. The pogroms did occur and reasons were various: the city was struck by cholera or some other illnesses, explainable as a punishment from (Christian) God by anti- Semite radicals. One of the gravest pogroms took place in 1389, during the reign of Wenceslas IV, the son of Charles IV. A catholic priest was wounded while walking through the quarter. The fanaticized crown stormed the ghetto, burning down houses and killing whoever got into its reach. Majority of the then- current Jewish population (which is thought to have been about three thousand), fell victim to the rampage that was probably encouraged by the clergy.

The modern times of the Jewish quarter, now called Josefov, brought little progress to the town. The new quarter remained poor and was damaged by high crime rate and an unfriendly stance of the city majority. In literature, the area was traditionally a setting for dark mysteries and horror tales. Jan Neruda was possibly the first Czech author to write objective reports on the state of living of the Prague Jews, so opening the door for more young writers to approach the community as a serious problem (meaning their social situation) and not an object of fear and/or hatred.

Contemporary population consists of an estimated 1,700 Prague Jews. The community conducts a kinder garden, a home for the elderly, various seminars and, of course, religious services in the synagogues.

The Jewish Town got into the daily news recently, as the magistrates finally forbade neo- Nazi groups from having a march on the anniversary of Kristallnacht (the extremists feebly tried to argue it’s just a coincidence). A right decision, for any kind of celebration or even renaissance of the European majority’s former conduct towards the community would be, in my opinion, extremely shameful.

Devil's Bible: Codex Gigas in Klementinum

Oct 12, 13:06 Filed under history

Very precious and unique old Czech manuscript is to be seen in Prague Klementinum – the National Library of the Czech Republic – from 20th September to 6th January.

Codex Gigas, which is in possession of the Swedish National Library in Stockholm, is the biggest manuscript in the world. It measures approximately 90×50 centimeters and weights about 75 kilos! This wonderful thick book is also known under names Gigas Librorum, Liber Pergandis or the Devil’s Bible. It was created in the first half of the 13th century, most probably in 1229, in the Benedictine convent in Podlazice, close to town of Chrudim. But nothing is sure about the author or reasons why and for whom was this huge manuscript originally made. Historians suggest, that this amazing book, which was considered as a world miracle in the middle ages, may have been created by one person, who dedicated maybe even 20 years of his life to its creation.

There is a legend explaining the creation of this amazing work of 624 pages. It says that there lived a monk in the Podlazice monastery, who was for his evil crime sentenced to immuring alive. To avoid a punishment, he promised to write the biggest book in the whole world during one single night – and this would not be possible without a help of the devil. As an act of gratitude, the monk painted the devil’s picture in the book. And this drawing, full page and colorful picture, is the most noticeable part of the whole opus.

The book is composed from different texts: the Bible, precepts for priests, magical formulas and so on, but especially there is the Chronica Bohemorum – The Czech Chronicle. Although created in the Podlazice monastery, by the time the book became possession of other different Czech monasteries, later ended up in the collections of the emperor Rudolf II. and from there Swedish army stole it during the 30 years war. Klementinum now offers possibility to see it again back in Czech. Especially because of this exhibit was even built a special safe depository room here.
Exhibition, which presents not only the book itself, but also details of its fate and history, is probably one of the most important Prague events of this fall for all history lovers.

Five years ago…

Sep 13, 17:37 Filed under history

Do you remember the summer of 2002? I usually don’t remember any dates. However, this particular summer I remember quite well. Actually, everybody in Prague remembers it. It has been five years already but it still feels live. In August 2002, the Czech Republic was struck by the biggest flood in its history. They called it a 1,000-year flood and its results can be seen till today.

Floods in Prague Five years ago. That’s a history you may say. But I remember very well how I felt just as if it happened yesterday. I was awakened by sirens. I panicked since it wasn’t the first Wednesday of a month and it wasn’t noon. You can’t imagine the horror of mine! I immediately felt so powerless. Flood was coming to Prague…

We knew what was coming for some days. It had been raining heavily for quite a time. Other cities in the Czech Republic were having serious problems already. But flood in Prague?

People were being evacuated, leaving their homes in a hurry because nobody really expected this would go so far. We just didn’t want to believe the news and the weather forecast. But then the nightmare had turned into reality and the terrible question appeared: What about the Charles Bridge? Will it survive? And what about the historical parts of Prague?

Hurriedly, mobile walls were erected on the right bank of Vltava River, protecting the precious Old Town. No protection, however, was built on the left bank of the Vltava River, leaving the beautiful Lesser Town of Prague and Kampa Island on its own. Prague inhabitants as well as tourists were holding their breaths. It was like in some catastrophic movie from Hollywood. Except for the fact that this was too damn real.

Untypical image of Prague... Prague's floods The traffic network in Prague was near collapse for many weeks since Prague underground was damaged as well.

The most severely hit parts of Prague turned out to be the Prague district Karlin and Prague Zoo. In Karlin, there is still a hole after one collapsed building. Yes, even five years after the terrible floods. It is right opposite the subway station Florenc (yellow line B and green red line C), trams 8 and 24.

Prague Zoo experienced not only material losses due to the floods, but had also lost hundreds of animals.

Maybe thanks to the eggs added to the mortar, as the legend says, the Charles Bridge has survived. Nevertheless, in order to survive more, a huge reconstruction of the Charles Bridge is now in progress.

Legends of the Charles Bridge – Jan Nepomucky

Sep 12, 17:21 Filed under history

Charles Bridge in the centre of Prague Just few weeks ago it was 650 years, when the fundamental stone of the most famous Prague monument – the Charles Bridge – was laid down. It happened exactly on 9 July 1357,
at 5:31 AM, during the early morning cockerow.

It´s founder and „father“, our most liberal sovereign Charles IV, Czech and Roman king, would be „in“ in our times. He believed that the exact time of birth is important for the whole destiny of the subject, it´s character and influence on the other world. He let the court astrologers count the best moment of the whole year. And a new bridge for Prague was really necessary, the former Judita´s bridge served out and was taken away by the flash flood.

This construction is connected with many legends, myths and stories, for which one whole library would not be enough. This time I would like to introduce you one legend related to the oldest sculpture of Jan Nepomucky.

This saint man was dropped in a wooden basket from the Charles Bridge into the Vltava river where he drowned just because he refused to give away a confessional secret. One of the king Charles´s wives was mistrusted of having a secret lover. She was going to Jan to the Brevnov monastery for a regular confessions, but he never revealed any secret he had heard in the confession. After his death it was possible to see five stars on the water level. These stars are now decorating his sculpture.

The statue of Jan Nepomucky on the Charles Bridge in Prague To give honour to his heroic act a white metal crucifix is situated on the bridge, on which visitors and tourists put their hands. They believe this place has a special power for those who touch it. You can try it as well !

This bridge (not only for the legends) has it´s soul. If you are wondering what it means for this construction full of stone to have a soul, try to go there at early morning, for example after your busy night in Prague. The best time to visit it is at about 6 or 7 AM, walk across the bridge, when the city is still sleeping, let the cool morning appeal on you,listen to splashing water and smell the crimpy scent of the river.

The bridge will talk to you silently, about his history and about the whole history of Prague, about the human power and the energy to pass the obstructions during the eternal history. The bridge has a deep soul…Charles IV made his choice well…

Story about Petrin observatory tower in Prague

Sep 8, 17:54 Filed under history

Recently I came across a book called “A book about old Prague” which was written by PhDr. Jiri Horak. It is a book full of short stories from history of Prague and it is so interesting that I decided to translate some of the stories for you. This one is about Petrin observatory.

In 1826 -1843 Count Karel Chotek had a position of the highest Czech burgrave and we can call him a good spirit of Prague. He made a lot of praiseworthy deeds for modernization and development of Prague. One of these deeds had seemed initially trivial, but future showed how its realization was lucky. In 1839 Prague municipality bought not a big space on the top of the hill Petrin near by the church of St. Laurence from St. Vitus’ canonry. They kept a hill of soil piled up so a big hummock appeared. The place was chosen clever and everyone who visited Petrin wanted to see a view of Prague. However the hill seemed to be too low all the same.

The Club of Czech Tourists

Petrin Observation Tower In 1888, Vojta Naprstek established the Club of Czech tourists. In the second year of club’s working, they visited Paris. In that time, just finished the Eiffel Tower was the biggest sensation, its height was 321 metres. Participants of the tour were excited. Club’s clear profit from this tour was 1031 golds and 86 kreutzers and they decided that this profit would be the basic deposit for a building similar observatory tower in Prague. They did not solve the place where the observatory should have been, it was clear that it would be on Petrin hill, but they solved the height. 60 metres high observatory with basis 197 metres above surface of Vltava river and 334 metres above surface of German Ocean should have been higher by 34 metres than St. Vitus‘ Cathedral. So the observatory tower started to be built.

The whole construction weighed 175 tons and was made of malleable iron from Kladno and Bohemian and Moravian machine factory in Liben constructed it according to engineers Frantisek Soucek and Julio Soucek. Petrin observatory was opened on 20 August, 1891. It became the most visited place in Prague, mostly by school trips. Under the observatory in Czech tourists‘ pavilion, there were built mirror labyrinth and panoramic picture illustrating fight of Swedes in the Charles Bridge in 1648. Some people, mostly modern poets of the twentieth century, liked the new observatory and belauded it, but on the other hand some people did not like it. For example the director of the National Museum Subert said thet it was the biggest abhorrence built on head of Prague and the professor Ruth, expert at history of Prague and the author of Chronicle Royal Prague said that observatory was not suitable to character of whole surroundings.

Black Friday

But the observatory had its Black Friday. It was on Tuesday 5 July, 1938 when the fire started. The whole wooden covering of upper walkway burnt off. It happened due to electric short-circuit. Petrin observatory was repaired fast but one year after on Thursday 16 March 1939, imperial chancellor Adolf Hitler looked from the window of Prague Castle of prostrate city. Just appointed state secretary of Bohemia and Moravia Karl Hermann Frank stood one step behind him. Hitler’s eyes stopped at Petrin observatory. “Iron construction has to disappear,” said Führer. “It disturbs. The magnificent construction have to be built here which corresponds to significancy of this city.”

But everything was in quite a different way. In 1953 Czech crown disappeared from the top of the observatory and was changed by 20 metres high antenna of the first television programme. First floor was not for public, because there were operators who supported transmission of television signal. But trial period finished in 1990 and television transmitters were moved to a new tower in Mahler gardens in Zizkov. Then Petrin observatory was reconstructed and from 1993 it is available to the public.

What happened on August 21, 1968?

Aug 22, 08:54 Filed under history

Every year on August 21, the Czech Republic commemorates a sad anniversary. In 1968, the back then Czechoslovakia was invaded. The unthinkable became reality. It was a shock of such a dimension that many could not believe it. Heck, we were being occupied by our liberator!

At the end of the World War II, Prague was liberated by the Soviets, although some other parts of the Czechoslovakia were liberated by the Americans. People were grateful. The Soviet Union, therefore, became a close friend of Czechoslovakia and soon afterwards Czechs had found themselves under the control of the USSR.

Prague Spring

In the late sixties, however, there was a worldwide feeling that the tension between the Soviets and Americans was easing, generally known as the time of détente. In the Czechoslovakia, this feeling led to a slight change in government, electing Alexander Dubcek as a leader of the Communist Party in January 1968. What had followed is now being called Prague Spring because of its origins in spring months.

Dubcek was a man, who wanted to reform the communist system. Many reforms had been introduced since January 1968. Among the most significant, the increased freedom of the press and more democratic multi-party government.

It is to say, however, that Dubcek never intended to change the government into democratic one. He only wanted to reform the unpopular system and turn it into “Socialism with human face”. But people wanted more reforms, asking for further liberalization and democratization of the system. Moscow was watching all this with a great fear.

Invasion

In order not to permit Czechoslovakia to step out of the eastern block and fuel other nations to follow, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies (except for Romania) invaded the country. People in the Czechoslovakia woke up on August 21, 1968, and could not believe their eyes. Their celebrated liberator and “friend forever” came to crush the liberalizing reforms with 200,000 troops and 5,000 tanks. There was a tank in almost every street. How can you fight this back?

Under these circumstances, with no one who would help, there was nothing else to do but to give up all the reforms which were adopted during the Prague Spring. All politicians involved in Prague Spring were put aside, but not only politicians. Many people fled the country.

The Czech nation had to wait for its true liberalization until 1989.

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