LONG READ: Czechs reassess their Habsburg legacy

LONG READ: Czechs reassess their Habsburg legacy
The Marian Column was originally built to celebrate the Catholic Habsburg reconquest of Prague from the Protestant Swedes in the Thirty Years War.
By Robert Anderson in Prague February 21, 2021

Czechs have become embroiled in their own version of the “statue wars” that have raged in Europe and the US in the past year over historical monuments, but with two important differences: the statues are of foreign oppressors rather than slave owners, and while the Russian ones are being pulled down, the Habsburg ones are being re-erected.

A largely Catholic civic group has placed a copy of a column topped by the Virgin Mary back in Old Town Square – originally built to celebrate the Catholic Habsburg reconquest of Prague from the Protestant Swedes in the Thirty Years War, it was pulled down by the newly independent Czechs in 1918. A Prague borough has also built a statue of Empress Maria Theresa near the remains of the city’s Habsburg fortifications, and another borough plans to bring a statue of Habsburg Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky – subject of Johan Strauss’ famous March – out of a museum and put it back in the Little Quarter Square under the Castle. Meanwhile, amid a media storm, Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev’s statue has been removed from its plinth in the capital, and its fate is still unclear.

The differing reactions to these Austrian and Russian monuments explain a lot both about Czechs’ complicated attitude to their long history of foreign oppression, and also about the different texture of Czech nationalism compared to their Central European neighbours.

Once again this demonstrates that statues are not just neutral historical or artistic artefacts – they have a contemporary message that should be explored and debated. “Czechs are not exceptional in ignoring statues – the statues don’t exist unless there is a controversy about them,” says historian Petr Roubal.

The Czech view of the Habsburg Empire was initially black and white. When Czechoslovakia first won independence in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, most of the imperial monuments were torn down to mark the end of what was called “300 years of darkness”.  This was how Czech nationalists referred to the repression of the Bohemian lands after the Habsburg Empire retook control of the kingdom after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620.

After this victory, the Habsburgs executed 27 of the leading Czech Protestant nobles and burghers in Prague’s Old Town Square, displaying their heads on Charles Bridge for 10 years. Some 150,000 Czechs, including a quarter of the nobility, fled the country, and three quarters of the country’s land was redistributed among loyal Czech and foreign Catholic nobles. The Czech Diet was neutered, Protestant churches were suppressed, and German was made the dominant language in the realm.  

Even during the Czech National Revival in the 19th century, when the Bohemian lands had become the most industrialised part of the empire, Emperor Franz Joseph refused to raise the kingdom’s status level with that of rural Hungary and never bothered to have himself crowned King of Bohemia. Despite this, in the First World War, one million Czechs still fought on the Austrian side (and 150,000 were killed) amid great mistrust of their loyalty by the incompetent Habsburg military.

After independence, Tomas Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president, followed a “de-Austrianisation” policy that helped to alienate the country’s large ethnic German minority. Much of the land and property owned by Austrian aristocrats and the Catholic Church was expropriated, and noble titles were abolished. A state-backed Protestant Hussite church was also established, inspired by the 15th century Czech theologian Jan Hus who had been martyred by the Catholic Church.

During the First Republic, the old empire was ridiculed for being absurd, reactionary, stifling, repressive, corrupt and incompetent, most famously in Jaroslav Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk”, where the eponymous hero outwits the Austrian authorities and evades combat in the First World War through dumb insolence.

This stance continued after the Communist takeover in 1948, and merged with wider hostility towards Germans in general because of the Nazi wartime occupation of Bohemia. Some two and a half million ethnic Germans were expelled from the country after the war, each taking only one suitcase with them, and their property was nationalised or handed to Czechs. Following the coup, the Catholic Church was persecuted, while the Hussite Church was tolerated, and beautiful Habsburg buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair or deliberately vandalised.

Nostalgia for the empire

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the First Republic ­ – the only interwar democracy in Central Europe – was depicted as a golden age, but the Czech view of their Habsburg past also shifted markedly. Partly this was simply an allergic reaction to all things Communist but it also reflects a continuing reappraisal of the Habsburg Empire and the Czech role in it.

Some historians now see the multinational Habsburg Empire as a kind of precursor of the European Union and sympathise with its struggles to balance the competing demands of its various nationalities. Austria is also now a close ally of the Czech Republic, and is seen as very separate from Germany (towards which Communists and the far right still try to whip up resentment).

For many, the empire’s stability and glitter now also looks much more attractive, given the horrors that the 20th century were to rain down on the small, weak countries that rose from its ashes. To some Czechs, the humiliating capitulation of the First Republic to Hitler in 1938, the following 50 years of Nazi and Soviet occupation, and then the inglorious 30 years since the Velvet Revolution have made the Habsburg period look like another golden era.

In a famous 1984 essay in the New York Review, self-exiled Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote: “They [the Austrian Empire] did not succeed in building a federation of equal nations and their failure has been the misfortune of the whole of Europe. Dissatisfied, the other nations of Central Europe blew apart their empire in 1918 without realising that, in spite of its inadequacies, it was irreplaceable.”

The Czech role in the empire has also come more into focus. The Habsburgs were also kings of Bohemia, and Rudolph II, patron of art and occult sciences, even made Prague his capital in the 16th century, bequeathing to the city glorious Baroque palaces and churches that have made it the biggest draw for tourists in Central Europe. Czechs such as Radetzky rose to high positions in the empire, and the economy and culture flourished, with world famous composers such as Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak.

“The Habsburgs are no longer seen as occupiers, the empire is more and more seen as an entity that helped the Czechs culturally and economically,” says political analyst Jiri Pehe.

For some, this nostalgia includes affection for the former nobility, many of whom have won their castles back in restitution, and who add some glamour to the country’s otherwise classless commonality. Czech architect and monarchist Jan Barta, who is one of the backers to re-erect the Radetzky statue, believes that Czechs should be proud of their Habsburg history. “Simply put, my colleagues and I want it remembered that we were part of some larger state entity – because Czech history does not begin with independence in 1918 or after the liberation in 1945 – and certainly not in 1948 [after the Communist coup],” he told Prague International Radio.

And yet it is still jarring that the triumphalist Habsburg Marian Column was placed facing the monument to the proto-Protestant Czech martyr Jan Hus in Old Town Square, in the very place where the cream of the Bohemian nobility was executed – and on the 400th anniversary too! The statue of Maria Theresa may be less controversial, because it is minimalist and out of the centre, but it is hard to justify naming a park and monument to the Austrian empress in Prague simply because she was the only Czech queen. As for Radetzky, though he was at least Czech, he is also questionable because he crushed the liberal 1848 revolutions across the empire.

(Photo BNE)

In reality, the rehabilitation of the Habsburgs is being pushed by local rightwing politicians in Prague, with little public debate. The Catholic Church has also played a behind the scenes role – the pillar was blessed by conservative Archbishop Dominik Duka – demonstrating that its influence is growing, as shown by the way it regained much of its former wealth in a 2012 church restitution law. Nevertheless, the church is still neither as reactionary nor as powerful as in neighbouring countries such as Poland because Czechs are mostly atheist.

Habsburg supporters have been able to restore the monuments with incredible ease because of popular indifference. Even though Prague’s Pirate mayor Zdenek Hrib said the erection of the Marian Column would be like rebuilding the huge monument on Letna hill to Josef Stalin, he never bothered to mount a real campaign against the pillar.

The city assembly’s decision to permit the column surprised even its backers, says Prague representative Martin Benda, a member of the city’s ruling centre-right coalition. Benda says he had pushed instead for a contemporary ecumenical monument that would be an act of healing and mutual respect, rather than something that “really looks like a monument of Catholic triumph”.

“Some of my colleagues voted for it as it looks quite nice, pretty much disregarding the meaning of it,” he says. “But statues are not just a matter of beauty or aesthetics, they are a political message too. They are saying something to the passersby.”

Self-confident nation

By contrast, the removal of the statue of Soviet general Ivan Konev, who liberated Prague in 1945, was accompanied by a public furore, threats against the mayor of the local Prague borough and official Russian complaints. The marshal had survived the purge of Soviet monuments after the Velvet Revolution but had become the target of anti-Russian vandalism. Critics said that, like Radetzky, he may have been a great general but he also helped crush the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet empire.

(Photo Gampe)

The pulling down of Konev’s statue was meant to end the debate over the meaning of his monument, which had become too violent and troubling. Meanwhile, the building or rebuilding of the Habsburg monuments barely aroused any debate, because Czech national identity is now based much less on the historical struggle for independence against the Austrian empire, and much more on that against the Soviet one.

“Czechs are a self-confident nation that does not need this quite unconvincing fairy tale of the struggle against the Habsburgs,” says Roubal.

He argues that anti-communism is now the guiding spirit of Czech patriotism, at least among the Prague establishment, which is reflected in the country’s foreign policy. “It has become an essential part of Czech ID,” says Roubal. “It is impossible to underestimate how important this is and it shapes everything.”

But like the previous anti-Habsburg drive, this is also a contested area. The Communist Party was the largest party after the war, with one million members, and among older Czechs there is still some nostalgia for that period (and significant, though diminishing, support for the hardline rump of the party).

The opposition to removing Konev’s statue fits into a pattern of conflicts over how to remember the period. The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which holds the secret police files, has been fought over between left and right, with the right claiming the institute has now been neutered by leftwingers, who for their part claim the right just wanted to weaponise it against them. Significantly, in contrast to its neighbours, a Museum of Twentieth Century Memory has only just been created (by Prague City Council), and it is still awaiting a new government before it is properly launched (and funded).

Yet, according to Roubal, though there may be divisions over the Communist past, there is little real debate that the Velvet Revolution ended the Communist period. Unlike Poland or Hungary, few believe that the revolution was ‘stolen’ or ‘unfinished’ and he argues that the fact that there was no museum of totalitarianism shows that the political elite did not think it was necessary to propagate an official narrative. “The need is not there to make a political statement on this,” he says.

Czech patriotism therefore is no longer rooted in liberation from the Habsburgs, though is it not yet entirely firmly based on freedom from the USSR. It does not look back at a glorious past, so much as at a history of oppression that the Czechs have had to endure, something that explains their continuing suspicion of authority and arguably their introspection or provincialism.

This “Svejkism” was something that former dissident and president Vaclav Havel berated his countrymen for. But it appears far less tragic when compared with the historical mythmaking and bitter divisions in neighbouring Poland and Hungary over not just their communist past and its alleged continuing influence, but also over their interwar authoritarian regimes and their anti-Semitic legacy. These debates have poisoned their politics and led to the rise of the current radical rightwing governments that are dismantling their democracies.

And though it looks weaker, Czech patriotism’s quiet strength is that it can laugh at itself, despite the country’s tortured history. When Czechs were surveyed in 2005 on their greatest forebears, the winner (later disqualified) was Jara Cimrman, a fictitious comic polymath. The cult anti-hero, a patriot battling (at least in his own mind) Habsburg oppression, is said to be the original author of many of the world’s greatest creations, but he was simply ignored by the rest of the world because he was just a little Czech.