PRAGUE — A week of flawless Indian summer weather diverts this bittersweet land of liberty from events and conditions auguring a long, anxious autumn. November will mark 20 years since the Velvet Revolution ended the Communist dictatorship, but the celebration is likely to be tempered by Czechs’ disillusionment with the half-hearted promises of democracy and self-government, mutual security in military alliance with the United States, and the blessings of European unity.
Though it is supposed to be a showcase of democracy, with a constitution fine-tuned by the world’s most erudite legal scholars comfortably compensated by the wealthiest foreign-aid bureaucracies, strictly speaking the Czech Republic does not have an elected government. A previous electoral stalemate resulted in a caretaker government of unelected bureaucrats. Parliament voted to dissolve itself and called early elections, and a national campaign began. Then the high court ruled this process unconstitutional. Today this city — the breast that nursed Kafka — is plastered with publicly-financed candidates’ posters for an election that will not happen.
Two days after cancellation of the national elections, Czech politicians from across the spectrum managed to sound a note of unity protesting, as one of their milder expressions put it, “betrayal” by the United States. Such is the intensity of their response to President Obama’s abrupt cancellation of American ballistic missile defense systems in the Czech Republic. If there is any justification for this decision in terms of the solemn commitments for mutual security between the two nations, it has not been explained to the Czech public and political establishment, which had submitted itself to wrenching internal debates and negotiations in order to agree to the American missile defense program in the first place.
Meanwhile a sign of hope is that the President of the Czech Republic, weak in executive power but forceful in the bully pulpit, is a lonely voice against the many manifestations of what Clare Boothe Luce called “globaloney,” including the European Union’s bureaucratic tendencies to curb freedom.
If there is sense to be made of things this Prague Autumn, a way to begin may be reflection upon four heads of state figuring in Czech memory and imagination. Each is named Václav.
The most mythic is St. Václav. As Czechs are among the least religious people in contemporary Europe, normally the annual feast of this national patron would not be an occasion for spiritual revival or conspicuous public worship. This year will be something of a difference, as the rites will be led by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope will visit the Czech Republic later this week, September 26-28, celebrating Mass in two provincial cities but not in the capital. Here he will preside at a vespers service and deliver a lecture at Prague Castle to an invited audience of university heads and other leading academicians.
The papal visit will focus the nation’s attention on the life and legacy of St. Václav, whose actual title was Duke of Bohemia but is better known in Anglophone lore as Good King Wenceslaus. Václav was murdered by his usurping brother after a reign renowned for rectitude and solicitude for the poor. The Prague Castle’s lecture topic remains something of a mystery. Will the pope engage his academic audience with an extension of his famous Regensburg lecture on faith and reason? Perhaps instead he will give an exposition of themes from his recent “social encyclical” whose title is a tight summary of St. Václav’s Christian witness: Caritas in Veritatem.
Another Václav, King Václav IV, figures ignominiously in Czech history. He is remembered for treacherous behavior towards Prague’s martyred proto-Protestant leader, Jan Hus. He was a villain to counter-Reformation Catholics too for ordering the murder of the priest, St. John Nepomuk.
Václav IV is universally scorned by Czechs for having squandered the achievements of his father, Emperor Charles IV. Charles established centers of learning and culture and placed Prague at the core not only of Europe’s geography but also of its civilization. He brought the power and prestige of the capital of the medieval Holy Roman Empire to Prague only to have his dissolute son forfeit the imperial crown. The story tells how much can be lost in just one generation of indolence.
Our next Václav needs no introduction. The first Czech president after the fall of Communism, Václav Havel, is venerated worldwide as a secular saint. A celebrated playwright and cultural figure in his country, he suffered repeated imprisonment in order to remind his country that “living in truth” is essential for gaining and retaining freedom. Thanks to his example, Prague has changed in 20 years from a gloomy Stalinist dungeon into a lively place for gustatory as well as intellectual enjoyment.
Locals and tourists alike have much to learn from the Museum of Communism here, and the educational exhibits, not allowed during the Communist period, at the lovingly restored synagogues of the old Jewish quarter. History and culture in Prague are inseparable from eating and drinking well. Good places for food are innumerable, but it is worth mentioning Café Louvre. Today at this hallowed coffeehouse, one can come to one’s senses seated along the same windows where once visiting professors Einstein and Hayek, and local literati Brod and Kafka, caffeinated their prodigious brains. Most poignant about this venerable place is that the Communist dictatorship in 1948 forced its closure and gutted its interior. Only since the Velvet Revolution has the café been restored and reopened.
And whatever problems there may be in the Czech-American political relationship, one must marvel at the cultural breakthrough by the Prague franchisees of McDonald’s. Here, where toddlers have their McNuggets, their parents may quaff Mencken’s much-loved Pilsner Urquell : happy meals for all ages!
Both post-Communist presidents in Prague have been public intellectuals with minimal authority over government administration but significant cultural influence.
The current president, Václav Klaus, is a free-market economist who relishes in standing alone against the bureaucracies of the United Nations and the European Union. He is president-as-intellectual-gadfly. One day last week found him in Bavaria in a colloquium on “European identity” with Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna. Today President Klaus is in Washington delivering a major address at one of his favorite venues, the libertarian Cato Institute. Next he will take his seat at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he will tilt furiously against every form of environmentalist political correctness, not excluding windmills.
Notwithstanding the significant concerns about international security and political relations, visitors to the Czech capital this autumn will find a lively intellectual culture of liberty, kindred in many ways to the American conservative-libertarian movement of the 1950s in which exiles from central Europe played such an important part. One worthy institution is Prague’s Civic Institute, a think-tank and youth education program led by Roman Joch, a member of the Philadelphia Society. Another institution known to readers of this journal, The Fund for American Studies, hosts an annual summer program at Charles University, teaching politics and economics with a solid philosophical grounding to undergraduates from central and eastern Europe.
Last week CEVRO Institute, a private university specializing in economics and politics, installed a new rector, Josef Ŝima. He points with pride to the early 20th century involvement of Prague with the work of “Austrian” economists Hayek and Mises. He wants the movement known as the “Czech-Austrian” school of economic thought. Given his altogether rational exuberance, and the contrarianism of the two most recent Václavs presiding at Prague Castle, one may be sure that Czechs will emerge from this autumn with the vital integrity that issues from the love of freedom.