Revolution: A short history of Prague

“I shall now set forth our plan for all to admire. Ultimate goal: overthrow Austria. First step: take Prague. Modus operandi: seize the citadel and lookout point on the promontory of the Marian Ramparts, thereby capturing the city, and, according to our calculations, forestalling all possibility of bombardment. Clever detail: storm the citadel at noon. Given that all attacks on all strongholds have from time immemorial taken place at midnight and that midnight is therefore the time when the guard is sure to be at its most vigilant, our scheme must be considered devilishly cunning.”

Jan Neruda, “How it Came to Pass that on the Twentieth  Day of August in the Year Eighteen Hundred and Forty-Nine at Half Past Twelve in the Afternoon Austria was not Overthrown,” In Prague Tales, trans. by Michael Henry Heim (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1996), 206.

Jan Neruda’s short story of how Procopius the Great, Procopius the Small, Nicolas of Hus, and Jan Žižka, AKA the four boys Pepík, Frantík, Antonin, and the unnamed narrator of the tale, fail to bring bloody revolution to the streets of Prague is an enjoyable fictional reminder of Prague’s history of revolutions.

On Sunday July 30, 1419, against a background of religious and civil tension, the fiery preacher Jan Želivský  delivered a provocative sermon on a text from St John’s Revelation calling for punishment of the unjust and then, in defiance of the town magistrate’s ban on street demonstrations, led a Hussite procession through the streets of Prague to defend the principle of communion in both kinds. At St Stephen’s the Hussites broke down the door, chased away the priest celebrating Mass, and held their own service. They then marched on the Town Hall to demand the release of prisoners. When the councillors refused to accede to their demands the crowd stormed the building and threw thirteen of them from the windows, killing those who survived the fall. Želivský took over the Novoměstská radnice, summoned the residents to arms, and elected new councillors and four military captains. It was the opening salvo in the Hussite Wars.

Fast forward to May 23, 1618, with tensions running high between the Catholic and Protestant Estates and a group of radical Protestants, led by Count Matthias Thurn and Vàclav Budova seize the staircase and offices of the royal administrators at Prague Castle, their intention to assassinate the leading royal administrators under the pretence of demonstration. Despite the protestations of the administrators that they were not personally responsible for the answer of King Ferdinand II to the grievances raised by the Protestant Estates, two, Jaroslav of Martinic and Vilém Slavata were thrown from the castle window. A royal clerk, Philip Fabricius, was thrown out after them for good measure, all fortuitously surviving the 70 foot fall.

News of the defenestration was met with outbreaks of violence against churches and monasteries while the rift between Protestant and Catholic interests became ever wider. In 1619 the Protestant Estates deposed Ferdinand, now Emperor as well as King of Bohemia, and elected Friedrich V, Elector Palatine, as king. The siege of Plzeň marked the first major conflict of the Thirty Years War. Less than a year later the Bohemian revolution was smashed when Ferdinand’s armies defeated the Protestants at Bílá Hora on November 8, 1620. Ferdinand moved swiftly, arresting forty-seven of the leading insurrectionists. In an echo of the defenestration the magistrate Martin Frühwein threw himself to his death from the window rather than force examination under torture.  In all twenty-seven were executed in the Staroměstské náměstí, while others received lesser punishments:, such as Mikuláš Diviš who was nailed to the gallows by his tongue for two hours for leading a group of people dressed as Hussite peasants to welcome the arrival of King Friedrich.

In 1848 Prague was swept up in the revolutionary fervour that tore across Europe, with news of the demise of the French monarchy reaching the city on February 29. During the first weeks of March the more radical elements formulated a petition to be submitted to the emperor, which was delivered on Monday March 20 by their delegates in Vienna, who, depending on the reports, either engaged in earnest discussion with representatives of liberal and radical opinions, or enjoyed a considerable amount of eating and drinking. Frustrated by the emperor’s evasive response revolutionary fervour in Prague grew apace while the ever present tensions between Czech and German interests undermined Bohemian solidarity. “Jsem Čech rodu slovanského” (I am a Czech of Slavic origins) declared František Palacký, when he refused the invitation of the Frankfurt Assembly to attend a meeting to discuss election procedures for a national German parliament that would include Bohemia. Plans for a representative pan-Slavic gathering were quickly put in place to counter the Frankfurt Assembly and the Slav Congress opened on June 2.

Meanwhile riots, strikes and demonstrations had continued on the streets of Prague. The appointment of Alfred Prince Windisch-Grätz as commander-in-chief of Bohemia’s armed forces only served to increase tensions in a city where he had ruthlessly broken the worker’s demonstrations of 1844. As troops patrolled day and night and reinforcements were brought into Prague from provincial garrisons, calls for Windisch-Grätz’s replacement grew apace. On Whitsun Monday a large crowd celebrated a festive mass in the Horse Market, later Wenceslas Square. Shouts were heard that the crowd should march on the army headquarters on Celetná Street. The mood turned ugly when the crowd caught sight of Windisch-Grätz and the first shots were fired by the army in the vicinity of the headquarters.

The barricades went up quickly but by 6 p.m. Windisch-Grätz’s artillery and grenadiers had blasted their way through and reached the river. During the next two days, while insurgents sought to negotiate, Windisch-Grätz encircled the city and on the night of June 14 withdrew all his forces and artillery to the left bank. At 8 a.m. on June 15 the artillery opened fire, beginning a four hour bombardment. A second bombardment commenced at 9 p.m on June 16. Resistance swiftly collapsed and the mayor announced Prague’s unconditional surrender on June 17.

On May 5, 1945, as Allied forces advanced on all fronts, Czech police officers seized the offices of Prague radio on Vinohradská Street, beginning four days of a popular uprising against the Nazi occupation that ended with German forces streaming out of the city as the Soviets entered. As the police insurgents fought with the Waffen-SS for control of the radio station the announcer, a Czech broadcast the appeal, “Calling all Czechs! Come to our aid immediately! Calling all Czechs!” Czech resistance fighters occupied the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SiPo, barricades were constructed, and by late afternoon Josef Pfitzner, the mayor under the Nazi administration, had declared his allegiance to the Czech National Committee in the Town Hall.

The German counter-attack came on May 6 as they recaptured the radio station and carried out bombing operations. On May 7 Waffen-SS units entered the city supported by air strikes, rapidly overcoming resistance. An escaped Scottish prisoner of war broadcast a message to the Allies appealing for help, “Prague is in great danger. The Germans are attacking with tanks and planes. We are calling urgently our allies to help. Send immediately tanks and aircraft. Help us defend Prague. At present we are broadcasting from the broadcasting station, and outside there is a battle raging.” The Americans had already reached Plzeň, but political expediency required that they could make no further advance in order not to cross the demarcation line agreed with the Soviet Union. Prague appeared doomed to fall under the German assault. In a twist of fate the 1st Infantry Division, Russian Liberation Army, a largely Russian force subordinated to the German High Command, switched allegiance and supported the Prague insurgents against the Germans and halting their progress.

With the Soviet Red Army looming on the horizon the Russian Liberation Army commander, General Andrei Vlasov withdrew his forces and retreated to the west to surrender to the Americans, forcing the insurgents to negotiate with the Germans. On May 8 a ceasefire was agreed in which the insurgents agreed to return control of Prague to the Germans and allow them unhindered movement through the city. On May 9, a day after VE Day the Soviets entered Prague.

The 1976 arrest of the Plastic People of the Universe led to the drafting of Charter 77 which called for the Communist government to uphold the human rights provisions of several agreements, constitutions, and accords it was signatory to. The government’s reaction was repressive and continued throughout the next decade. In 1989, against the background of Solidarność, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, the public funeral of Imre Nagy, and widespread opposition to communist regimes throughout the Soviet bloc, Prague riot police brutally suppressed a student demonstration on November 17, sparking off a series of demonstrations that saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets. On November 24 all members of the ruling Presidium resigned and on November 29, following the general strike of November 27, communist rule in Czechoslovakia was officially ended. Shortly after President Husák swore in an interim government and on December 29 Václav Havel was elected as President. In the space of a few weeks forty years of communist rule was peacefully ended.

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