Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

prague + bratislava = 100 years of peaceful protest

One hundred years ago this month, Czechoslovakia was born. Prague and Bratislava, two incredible cities at the heart of the country, and the centres of steady, strong, peaceful voices.

Old Town - Bratislava

Over the past month, citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Czechoslovakia. You might think this odd considering the country split on January 1st, 1993, but actually it’s anything but. Slovaks and Czechs experienced what Gwyneth might call, a ‚conscious uncoupling‘, or what others have called ‚a velvet divorce‘.

Either way, the stories of these two states, their marriage, life together, and subsequent divorce, has inspired me on my several visits to both Bratislava and Prague.

Charles Bridge, Prague

In this day and age, or really just in this past month, I feel like we (the global collective = we) can learn a lot from the examples of Czechs and Slovaks. From what I have gathered speaking to locals in both cities, even amidst significant differences between the cultures and the states, from the beginning, or even before the beginning, they have focused for the most part on their similarities, working together, living harmoniously, and splitting peacefully.

A wedding - Bratislava

What has intrigued me most of all are the tales of courageous, yet non-violent, protest against some of the most horrific events in modern history. In my opinion, these are the role models we should be learning from.

Graffiti in Prague...tell me everything

Of course, I’m not suggesting that all Czechoslovakians were angels for 100 years, nor that there weren’t problems. But, one notable example is that the country was the only one in Europe to seperate without bloodshed after the fall of communism in 1989.

Some say the relationship between Slovaks and Czechs is something akin to siblings, who eventually decided to live in seperate houses, but in the same neigbourhood, sharing some vital industries and traditions, and basically understanding and respecting each other. This is surely a simplified descripition of their present relationship...and maybe I'm completely wrong.



But, what about the 100 years of togetherness? Here is where one truly gets to know the character of this particular family, in my opinion. From all I've heard and read, during the century Czechoslovakians responded and revolted, gathered together, took a stand, spoke out against tyranny, injustice, inequality...with courage and determination and non-violence.

In 1918, Czechs and Slovaks decided to band together to create their own state after the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled. Czechoslavia was formed and what followed was almost two decades of a strong, thriving democracy.

Primate's Palace - Bratislava

Possibly there are cues as to what provided the people of Czechoslovakia with the foothold necessary to persevere with peaceful dissidence, patient protest, and solidarity through the decades of darkness, which like a burdensome black cloak would soon cover them.

Bratislava

The Arts.

Jazz took root in the the 20’s and 30’s and continued clandestinely throughout the Nazi regime. Even later, during communism, jazz musicians and their fans persevered to keep the music alive and playing.

One incredible story is of Bedrich Weiss, a Czech-Jewish musician who, even while imprisoned in the Terezin Concentration Camp, created the Weiss Quintet and played in the camp’s cafeteria. Many jazz and, possibly surprising, dixieland bands which carried on during the difficult communist years, such as the Jazz Fiddlers, are still going strong in Prague today.

National House of Vinohrady Concert Hall - Prague

Literature, idealistic prose, satirical plays and lyrical poetry flourished in the teen-age years of Czechoslovakia. Even after WWII, many writers managed to gain international attention throughout the '50's and '60's, revered for their honest and dramatic stories.

Clementinum Library - Prague

Milan Kundera...a name most of us know. Kundera was a prominent member of the non-violent Prague Spring of 1968, and wrote „The Unbearable Lightness of Being“ in homage to this turbulent time. Throughout the uprising he encouraged his fellow citizens to remain calm, predicting that the consequences of the spring will be felt in the Prague Autumn. Little did he know that it would take just a wee bit longer.

Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti) - Pragu

Václav Havel. Did you know that Havel was a Czech playwright, who together with Kundera, was part of the group who initiated the Prague Spring...this fleeting moment of liberalization in the country? The group, whose goal was to reform the communist party, to guarantee civil rights and move towards democracy,  was violently quashed by the Soviet army. Havel remained in the country, was imprisoned repeatedly, persevered with his beliefs, and eventually became interim president of Czechoslovakia after the peaceful ‚Velvet Revolution‘ in 1989.

As the country then split a few years later, which Havel was opposed to, he was elected for two consecutive terms as the Czech Republic’s president. Now, he is writing again.

Kundera, meanwhile, had fled to France in the mid-70’s after his books were banned and he was kicked out of the party for a second time. He was stripped of citizenship, and since then has demanded to be known as a French writer, and insists his books be deemed French literature. He’s a fascinating man, without a doubt.

Old Town - Bratislava

Taking to the Streets...a few poignant examples of peaceful revolt:

Prague Spring (1968) - Alexander Dubcek, the so-called leader of the Prague Spring, wanted a peaceful reform of the communist party.."'socialism with a human face," he proclaimed. When the Soviet tanks finally rolled into Czechoslovakia, to quash a months-long movement towards liberalization and an end to censorshop, the military received no resistance. Photos circulated around the world of peaceful protestors argueing their point with tank commanders.

Candle Revolution (1988) - An underground clergy movement, which had begun in the 1950's, led to the first major step towards bringing down the communist regime. This was the Candle Revolution in Bratislava in March 1988. The mass demonstration was organized by Catholic dissident groups, and helped by the Vatican. Over 10 000 people took to the streets, with only candles in their hands, until the police began attacking the protesters with water cannons, batons and sticks.

Velvet (or 'Gentle') Revolution (1989) - A series of demostrations in November 1989, including a massive 2-hour strike where every citizen in Czechoslovakia stopped working (can you imagine the impact?), which  led to the end of 41 years of communist rule. 500 000 people took to the streets for weeks of non-violent protests...eventually they couldn't be ignored any longer. 500 000 people!

I don't want to sugar-coat history, not at all, but there are some good examples of what the power of good can do. People can take a stand and make changes, without weapons. The first is definitely to go and vote....wherever you are. If you live in a country where you can vote, then do it. Don't take it for granted. Second, believe that you can make a difference. If enough people believe it, then eventually, with determination and perseverance change can sometimes be made.

In the Czech Republic, Slovakia and many other countries throughout Europe, and into the Americas, there is a current way of populism threatening to destroy the belief of 'together is better'. I'm not sure why, but I think it is the undercurrent feeling of fear leading the way, while a clever few stir the pot in their quest for power. Unfortunately, it works.

I hope that we (all of us) can be inspired by peaceful, united actions that brought change in the past...and that we will be motivated to act. Let's do it. And if all else fails, travel and meet people from other countries, hear their stories and learn from them. What I know for sure...this inspires me.


If you go:

Bratislava - an easy 45-minute trip by car from Vienna's Schwechat Intl. Airport. Take a Danube Cruise from Vienna to Budapest and stop in Bratislava, which is half-way between both cities. It's a pretty, but small, city with great food and drink.

Prague - an easy road trip from Munich, with most of the city easy to discover by tram or subway. Great beer, lots of tourists, and good food which is still less expensive than the countries to the west. If you want to photograph the Charles Bridge, do it early in the morning...you won't regret it. Early = less people :)

If you go...try trdelník!

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