While the US tears itself apart over Confederate monuments, I decided to take a communist tour of Prague. Because like the dark confederate history of the US, the Czech Republic has spent less time out of communist rule than under it.
Communism in the Czech Republic
While the Czech Republic was still known as Czechoslovakia, the country was governed by the Communist Party under tight Soviet control. The people that were against communist rule faced persecution. Writers, playwrights and other artists were put in prison or forced to leave the country. The media was state-controlled and was a tool for communist propaganda. And like all communist regimes, what the population lacked in basic necessities, the government misused on giant displays of power. In 1955, the largest statue of Joseph Stalin was erected in Prague’s Letná Park.
The losers of the past
So what did Prague do with the giant representation of the Soviet leader? They blew it up. Just like the US army blew up the giant swastika atop the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg. Before communism was even eradicated in Czechoslovakia, the Czech communists wanted to distance themselves from Stalinism. So in 1962, the monument was decimated by over 1,500 pounds of dynamite. Because losers don’t deserve to be honored. In place of the monstrous statue in Letná Park now sits a giant metronome, which was erected in 1991. It’s thought of by some Czechs as the tick of democracy in the Czech Republic. You won’t find any statues of the leaders of the communist era. That’s not how Prague remembers this time in history.
Celebrating the heroes of the communist era
Old communists, Czech or otherwise, are not revered in any kind of way. Instead, Prague honors those that deserve to be remembered.
In front of the National Museum in Wenceslas Square there is a bronze cross that protrudes from the earth as though trying to rise up from the ground. This is where student Jan Palach set himself on fire in response to Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He didn’t do it in protest of the occupation itself but in protest of the fact that Czech people were giving in to the Soviet forces without a fight. Instead of bearing the name of old communist leaders, streets and squares all over the Czech Republic are named after Palach.
It’s oddly fitting that a writer became the first president of the Czech Republic after the fall of communism. In the 1960s, his absurdist plays subtly critiqued the communist regime. And because of his anti-communist activities, he was imprisoned for 4 years. Immediately after communism fell in Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution, Havel was made president. When the Czech Republic split from Slovakia, he ran again and won in the country’s first democratic elections in over four decades. The Prague airport is named after Havel, and a library of his writings sits in the center of Prague. He’s so popular that US Congress erected a bust of him for the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
Prague’s beloved Lennon Wall has origins in anti-communist protests in the late 80s. Students clashed with authorities who described them as sociopaths representing Western capitalism. But no matter how many times the wall was repainted, the poems and messages and Beatles lyrics would re-appear causing further aggravation to the communist regime. It still stands to this day as a symbol of hope and love, and occasional silliness.
Isn’t that rewriting history?
History isn’t in Prague’s statues. History is in books, in old photos, in the stories of grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s in the giant hideous concrete blocks on the outskirts of Prague that passed for housing during the communist era. Taking down self-serving symbols of a violent, outdated regime on the wrong side of history isn’t going to erase the communist era. All a giant stone statue of Stalin would ever do is bestow an honor and reverence that the man doesn’t deserve.
So Prague honors the real heroes of communism: the citizens that gave their life and their freedom to protect and defend their country from the people who brought nothing but suffering to the Czechs. Not the Hitlers or Stalins of the world, but the Jan Palachs and Heather Heyers: the people that died standing up for what was right and good.
Annual memorial event
On August 21, Prague holds a memorial event in Wenceslas Square on the anniversary of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by four nations of the Warsaw Pact – the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland. This was the occupation that led to Jan Palach’s self-immolation in protest. The event is held to honor the people killed in opposition to the occupation and to highlight the danger of these fanatical ideologies. It’s a periodic reminder of what happens when people don’t act against the forces of evil.
So what can the US learn from the Czechs?
When white supremacists rally to protect statues of Robert E. Lee and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, they’re fighting to preserve a hateful and dangerous ideology. We have to come to terms with something: none of these people represent ideals that are admirable or honorable. These people seceded from the United States and disavowed the Constitution to fight for their right to own other human beings. That’s not a history we should be proud to extol; it’s a history we should be deeply ashamed of.
Germany doesn’t need statues of Hitler or giant marble swastikas to remember the Holocaust. Prague doesn’t need a tyrant watching over the city to remember the horrors of communism in their country. So the US sure as fuck doesn’t need any statues commemorating old dead bigoted losers on a horse.