Arise, O Prague


The Memories, and the Lessons, of the Past Are Still Alive in Prague

In September 1989 I was learning the vocative case in Czech, which my textbook illustrated with Praho – “O Prague!” I was skeptical about its utility. But only a few weeks later, I witnessed students marching through the streets, chanting “Vstan Praho!” [Arise, O Prague]. So It did, and communism fell.

Now Prague is showing its spine again. The mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, recently incurred Chinese ire with his firm stance on human rights and friendly attitude to Taiwan. His city, he says, is not bound by the “one China” policy imposed by the mainland regime. The authorities in Beijing, with characteristic thin-skinnedness, have retaliated with sanctions on any company or entity with the word “Prague” in its name. That has not deterred the splendid Mr. Hřib, but it has dismayed some Czechs who have been trying hard to improve trade and investment ties with the communist country.

Now the authorities in Prague's municipal district 6 are taking on Russia. They have long been bothered by the presence of a large and ugly statue, built in 1980, commemorating Marshal Ivan Konev. Czechs have mixed feelings about him. Marshal Konev’s forces did enter Prague in May 1945. But they did not actually liberate it. What actually happened was that on May 5 a Czech uprising started attacking the Germans. They were quickly joined by the Russian Liberation Army under General Andrei Vlasov. This had been formed by the Nazis from Soviet POWs and émigré White Russians, to fight (or in their eyes liberate) the Soviet Union. On May 8th, the Czech and German leaders signed a ceasefire allowing the German forces to withdraw. The Red Army under Marshal Konev arrived on May 9th. Vlasov and most of his forces were captured and tried as traitors.

If history had gone only a little differently, the statue would be to George Patton, whose U.S. Third Army was just across the border in Austria. But General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander ordered him not to help the Czech insurgents. That dented Western credibility in post-war Czechoslovakia. But the experience of Soviet occupation outweighed any resentment. Konev in particular is a controversial figure. He helped crush the 1956 Hungarian uprising and to build the Berlin Wall. Some Czech historians say he also played a role in preparing the Soviet-led invasion of 1968.

The statue has been repeatedly defaced. This summer the local mayor in Prague 6, Ondřej Kolář, ordered that it be covered with tarps. His district council has voted to remove it to a museum. Mr. Kolář wants a new memorial, designed by the winner of a public competition, commemorating Soviet sacrifices in the fight against Hitler in general, and the liberation of Prague in particular.

That seems, to me, more than fair. But Russia is furious. The episode has echoes of the “Bronze Soldier” furor in 2007, when the Estonian authorities moved the statue of a Soviet soldier from the center of Tallinn to a military cemetery. That prompted a venomous reaction, including a cyber-attack.

Dignified treatment of war graves is one thing. But accepting an occupying power’s monumental legacy is another. The authorities in Lviv have quite rightly removed a Soviet-era monument. A similar edifice in Bulgaria is at the center of controversy too.

Oddly, nobody in France, the Netherlands, or Belgium objects to allied war memorials, despite the many mistakes made during the liberation, and the huge cost paid by civilians. The real question for the Kremlin should be this: if you truly liberated Eastern and Central Europe, why are these countries so ungrateful? Was there perhaps something else you did?

September 17, 2019