On an autumn afternoon staring into the waters of the Vltava from the 700-year-old Charles Bridge and imagining the history of Prague, its Old Town, the Lesser Town, the Old Jewish Ghetto, the confluence of its religions, its politics and literature.
“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
So wrote Franz Kafka, a Czech Jew, who died in 1924, aged just 41, sounding life-affirmative in contrast to the usual depression and existentialist alienation he displayed in life and in his posthumously published novels.
Had he lived he would probably have been murdered by the Nazis who annexed Czechoslovakia in 1939, and ultimately put 80,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia to death. You can see their names inscribed on the interior of Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue, alongside drawings made by the children prisoners in Terezin concentration camp who thought they were moving to a new town.
Kafka’s best book is ‘The Trial’, where a man called Joseph K, a bank official, is arrested on suspicion. Suspicion of what? He and we never know. It is an unnerving book. One warder tells him that the authorities “must be quite well informed about the reasons for his arrest,” and he goes along with the assumption. He goes along with the assumption because underneath everything we all feel guilty about something and nothing. The things we are truly guilty of we can do something about: that is accept, reject or make amends. The things we are impalpably guilty of are of a different order. They menace us forever. There is no resolution of this human condition.
And so Joseph K (almost a representative of the Jews, historically subject to especially Christian persecution) accepts the futility of resistance and eventually goes submissively with his killers to a quarry where they stab him to death.
Kafkaesque has entered the lexicon as a state of affairs which are nightmarishly complex, bizarre or of an illogical quality. Enter SS-General Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler’s closest and most ruthless loyal lieutenants and principle planner of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. He chaired the secret Wannsee conference in 1942 to coordinate the massive efforts required to kill on an industrial scale Europe’s estimated 11,000,000 Jews.
He was chillingly portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in one of the best depictions of evil on film, ‘Conspiracy’. At the meeting of fifteen high-ranking members of the Nazi government – military representatives, economists, administrators and lawyers – Heydrich systematically recruits and intimidates the very small number of waverers.
“From Lapland to Libya, from Vladivostok to Belfast, no Jews. Not one,” smirks Heydrich.
“Look at the world and tell me the pleasures of sanity,” said the madman, who took cynical delight in forcing the Jews themselves to partially organize, administer, and finance the Final Solution.
Hitler appointed Heydrich Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (Czechoslovakia). Heydrich regularly drove to his headquarters in Prague in an open top Mercedes without an armed escort, confident that he had cowed the people. But in 1942 British-trained Czech partisans attacked him with firearms and a grenade. He survived the assassination bid only to die a few days later of septicaemia from fragments of the car’s leather upholstery which lodged in his spleen. The partisans were later tracked down to a nearby church in Prague and after a gunbattle they committed suicide to avoid arrest. The Nazis retaliated by razing the villages of Lidice and Lezaky and murdering the entire male population of both.
During the last days of the war the Czech uprising ended with the arrival of the victorious Red Army, followed in 1948 by the communist takeover of power.
The dramatist Vaclav Havel, was chairman of the Writers’ Union in 1968 when Russia invaded to crush reformist elements within the Czech communist party led by Alexander Dubcek. Havel was imprisoned several times because his work was considered to be subversive. But after the overthrow of communism (the Velvet Revolution in 1989) he was reluctantly propelled into politics and became President of Czechoslovakia from 1990-1993.
When he was an essayist Vaclav Havel described Czechoslovakia’s lucrative arms-exporting industry as simple ‘blood money’ which should be rejected. But when he became president he realized that ending the arms industry would produce high levels of unemployment, particularly in Slovakia and this would only strengthen the hand of the separatist movement and threaten the unity of the state. So, he quietly agreed to sales of tanks to Syria and Iran.
But Slovakia still broke away. The Czech Republic is now a member of NATO.
Havel features prominently in the Museum of Communism in Prague. The museum is, from beginning-to-end, a dedicated, unrelenting attack on the values and failures of communism. It is situated, probably deliberately, above a McDonald’s takeaway and on the same floor as a casino. At the museum they sell candle busts of Lenin and Stalin.
The various rooms are called, ‘Dream’, ‘Reality’ and ‘Nightmare’, and it makes you consider if all dreams, all attempts at utopia, all altruistic projects, are ultimately doomed to founder because of the corruptive nature of humankind.
I found myself thinking the same when I stood in the voluptuous surroundings of St Vitus Cathedral in the grounds of Prague Castle. This building, begun in the 10th century, has a rich exterior mosaic made up of one million glass and stone chunks. You enter through the Golden Portal. Inside, it is vast and beautiful and magnificently decorated.
The cathedral is filled with marble chapels and naves and large stain glass windows. Huge gold and silver tabernacles hang from the ceilings. The Bohemian crown jewels are stored within the cathedral. One crypt contains a 3,700 pound silver tomb, surrounded by angels and cherubim. There are wooden reliefs. There are busts of royalty and royalty’s contemporary VIPs.
I have been overwhelmed by many cathedrals. The haunting bareness and vastness of Cologne took my breath away. All of them, especially the more ornate, required huge labour, dedication, diligence, creativity, the availability of vast wealth but essentially an authoritarian power for direction. The same applies to the architectural tributes to the Gods of other religions.
But at the end of the day, in relation to Christianity at least, there remains the predominant question: what have these temples to do with the Man from Nazareth and his simple message in the New Testament about loving one’s neighbour as oneself and not killing? The Sistine Chapel, I understand, is also beautiful. But even though it (and similar marvels) was designed by ingenious and creative architects, those who sponsored it did it for their own glory rather than for the glory of God. Why would God need proof of God’s glory when – if God exists – the glory of God’s creation (the universe) is everywhere and felt most acutely in the mystery of life?
Once the Christian religion (like many others) flourished and became established it became institutionalised and took on another life over and above the spiritual. It entered into the life of politics: its popes, cardinals and bishops becoming earthly governors. It entered into trade and commerce. It aggrandised wealth. It became oligarchic, expansionist, imperialist, sectarian and intolerant. It became paranoid, ruthless and corrupt. In the old town square of Prague there is a statue to Jan Hus who in the fifteenth century became the pope’s enemy by calling for communicants to be allowed to share the wine in the chalice with the priest.
Hus was also influenced by the writings of John Wyclif, an English theologian critical of the papacy. Wyclif’s books were ordered burned by the authorities and his body was ordered to be dug up and cast out of consecrated grounds. Wyclif and Hus believed that no pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the church. The ‘main’ pope (there were two other rivals at this time) ordered that Hus’s church, Bethlehem chapel, be destroyed, that ‘free’ preaching be banned and Hus be arrested and charged with heresy. He was found guilty and burnt at the stake in 1415. His ashes were thrown into the Rhine.
In December 1999 Pope John Paul II apologized for the execution of Jan Hus, in whose theological footsteps Martin Luther was to follow and usher in the Reformation, followed later again by the fairly smooth conversion of Catholic England to Protestantism.
What a Kafkaesque world this surely is.