On Prague and its Windows

To read about the history of any great city is to behold a window (of sorts) into the past, but that of the Czech Republic’s capital has boasted arguably more spectacular views than many others. An important political and cultural fulcrum of Central Europe since the Middle Ages, the city certainly has a chequered and eventful heritage, and one that continues to provide drama and incident. Among other developments, Brexiteers on both sides of the Irish Sea are looking to Milos Zeman, re-elected to the presidency in January, as a possible ally, given his Eurosceptic credentials, in the ongoing negotiations in Brussels.

View of Prague’s Hradcany Castle and Karlov Most (Charles Bridge) (pic: Beentree)

There are other windows to ponder over, though, when examining Prague and its past – especially when you consider how many times the act of defenestration (throwing people out of windows) has featured in that city. There have been no fewer than three such great Defenestrations, in as many centuries, the most recent of which occurred exactly 70 years ago. The first took place on 30 July 1419, after a demonstration against unjust imprisonment of religious dissidents turned violent. A crowd of followers of the Czech proto-Reformer Jan Hus, after being hit by a stone thrown from a window of the New Town Hall, forced their way into the building, and threw seven men, including the judge and the burgomaster, out of the window to their deaths. This led to the outbreak of the Hussite Wars, which resulted in the Catholic Church eventually allowing the movement a degree of autonomy of worship.

The second Defenestration led to an even bloodier conflict, the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which devastated most of Central Europe. A century after Martin Luther nailed his ideas down (which were, to an extent, a recycling of the ideas both of Hus and the Englishman John Wyclif), many of the Catholic states of the region had, at their own discretion, agreed to tolerate Protestantism and Protestant Churches. Breaking from this convention, in spectacular style, was Ferdinand of Styria, who became King of Bohemia (under the overlordship of the Habsburgs, of course) in 1617. Very much a Counter-Reformationist, Ferdinand persuaded the Emperor in Vienna to ban the building of Protestant places of worship on royal lands, and when the leading Bohemian Protestant figures criticised this move their assembly was shut down. A meeting was then called at the Bohemian Chancellery for 23 May 1918, between the Protestant lords and a Catholic delegation from Ferdinand’s court. A letter had surfaced, purporting to be from Ferdinand, and claiming Protestant ‘lives and honour [to be] already forfeit’, and the Protestants wanted to know whether this was true. The delegation asked to be released so they could find out for sure from their immediate superior, but the lords demanded an immediate answer. Two delegation members were judged to be innocent and so were released, but two others, together with their secretary, not only admitted to authoring the letter but also looked ready to welcome martyrdom. The three men were then thrown out of the window (on the third floor), and miraculously survived (which was made much of in the propaganda pamphlets of the time). Before long, the Kingdom’s leading Catholic and Protestant figures began to arm themselves, and thus ensued a conflict that would suck in much of the rest of the continent and claim an estimated eight million lives.

Jan Masaryk (1886-1948) (right), with other members of the Czech government-in-exile, visiting Northern Ireland during World War II

The third Defenestration proved to be a defining moment in the early years of the Cold War – though at least this time didn’t result in a hot one. Alone out of the countries of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, Stalin had allowed Czechoslovakia to preserve a coalition government rather than a purely Communist one. The leading non-Communist figure in the Cabinet was the country’s Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, son of Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomas Masaryk. He had tried to press on the government the need to retain positive links with both the Soviet Union and the West, but a coup in February 1948, launched by the Communists to avoid near-certain defeat in the upcoming elections, left him isolated in the cabinet. Then, on 10 March, wearing only his pyjamas, he was found dead in the courtyard below the bathroom of his offices in the Cernin Palace. His death was officially ruled suicide, but when Alexander Dubcek later opened the archives during the Prague Spring of 1968 it was proved to have been an act of murder. Masaryk himself considered that he may be doomed anyhow, as he confided to the celebrated American radio reporter Ed Murrow:

Do you think I enjoy what I am doing? But my heart is with my people. I must do what I can. Maybe a corpse but not a refugee.

Few people had believed the suicide story at the time, in any case: one contemporary joke circulating (furtively, of course) went that Masaryk was such a tidy man that he had taken care to shut the window after himself after jumping. This act of assassination left Czechoslovakia as the last country in Eastern Europe to go completely Communist, which it would remain until the Velvet Revolution more than four decades later.

Prague isn’t just a city of dramatic window-based acts of murder or attempted murder, of course. If you through the city’s windows you see not only the streets where terrified citizens watched helplessly as Hitler’s tanks rolled through the city in March 1939, and then Brezhnev’s tanks followed suit in 1968. You also see the sights that inspired some of the most talented people in world history – such as the astronomers Brahe and Kepler, the composers Dvorak and Janacek, tennis legend Martina Navratilova, and the writers Kafka, Werfel and Kundera. One writer, in particular, was so inspired by the city of his birth that he led a peaceful revolution from its streets that ultimately propelled him to his country’s presidency – the late, great Vaclav Havel. As if by way of tribute to the Velvet Revolution and its creators, the owners of Radio Free Europe moved their headquarters to Prague from Munich in 1995.

Doubtless there will be plenty more events and sights in the future for Prague’s windows to reveal to anyone wanting to look through them. One can only hope, though, that nobody else will ever be thrown through them, for whatever reason.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.