A study in red.
1938. what is the color of betrayal? four allies meet to discuss the nature of
promises. the fifth chair was empty, just like those promises
turned out to be. partnerships turned sour by a pact made in Munich,
letting the Czechoslovaks fade to
at their borders.
what is the color of resistance?
does not define this nation,
Jan decided. Jan was twenty one. he studied history.
he noticed the people in the streets,
the way they had all dimmed.
spring had wilted into dead summer
from the heat and pressure of
voices that once sprung forth in ferocity,
eyes that once sparked with spirit,
would not consume this nation,
in Václavské náměstí he stood and
sought out the spark,
the one that would call them to move.
he burned up his body
to bring light back to the people,
to wash the
out of their eyes. 1989.
what is the color of revolution? velvet is not a color, but a feeling
that hangs in the air over the square.
it is the feeling of Czech flags unfurled,
finally, over years and years of
the red was spilt blood,
dissidents engulfed by flames,
parents afraid to sign charters
for the good of their children —
but what good is a future full of
Vaclav stood proud in this square
shadowed by St. Wenceslas
where so much happened —
42 days of protest until
the regime burst
leaving everywhere the scraps of
to pick up the pieces
from fire and velvet,
from spirit and blood,
the foundations of democracy
to carry them to a future
that is many things —
confused, emerging from struggle,
learning, growing —
but the one thing it is no longer is
Following the Prague Spring (1968), a time in which censorship was abolished and the grip of the Soviet Union was loosened, the Czech people faced in return a new and brutal period of communist rule. This time became known as “normalization”. The activities of citizens were monitored by Secret Police and informants, systematic persecution kept people in a constant state of terror, and uprisings/protests were repressed (Miklová). Many people did not fight back because, in some ways, if you followed the regime and stayed out of political discourse, you could lead a decent life. And the alternative, speaking out, would risk not only your life but the life of your children, your family, and your friends. A metaphor I found striking in explaining the feeling of petrification and immobility of this time was that the Czech Republic was under a thick layer of ice - totally frozen, but appearing at first glance somewhat ‘normal’. In Global Orientation class we looked at some photographs from this time where people seemed so cold and removed, walking to work, going through the motions. It truly did appear to me, at least in these photographs, that there was a sense of complete coldness, removal from life, petrification. I was interested in this metaphor and looked a little deeper to draw some parallels for my own understanding. I found that there is a permanently frozen body of water in Antarctica called ‘Lake Untersee’. It gains its name from the clear glassy ice that allows you to look straight through the surface. An article by Alexandra Witze of Wired Magazine writes that they have remarkably discovered of life at the very bottom of this seemingly in-habitable lake. She writes “understanding what makes Untersee different would help scientists better figure out the limits on life, both today and in the long-distant past” (Witze). This reminded me so much of what we have learned about the history of resistance here in Prague. The people that were brave enough to risk it all and fight against the communist regime can teach us a lesson on what it means to live. Looking into this not so distant history brings up the question of the values of freedom and mobility, and on what we should be willing to risk for truth and free-will to expand the impressed limits on life. Personally, I have been drawn to question what the word ‘freedom’ really means to me. I feel in some ways the current political climate in the United States abuses the word freedom. From where I stand, the place of privilege I have grown up with, I do not know that I am qualified to really understand the levity of freedom, and I fear many of the loud voices in the US that throw the word around as if it could mean anything, that use it to justify hatred and bigotry, do not understand the levity of it either. I am so much more sensitive to this now after beginning to learn what it really means to lose it and to fight for it. I explore my understanding of the metaphor by writing a song titled ‘Lake Untersee’. It is still a work in progress. I hope it demonstrates my respect and admiration for those, such as Václav Havel and many, many others, that put their lives on the line for the sake of truth and human rights - for those who encouraged a world, seemingly permanently frozen under water, to come up for air. Lake Untersee 5
50 feet below
Its murmuring Underneath,
Silenced by the layers
Just to move - to speak of some truth
The hands to reach for, tremble cold blue
A little heat, what does it take?
It risks it all
To whisper: Come up, come up, come up for air
Come up, come up, come up for air.
If someone says you’re living
But you can’t breath
Do you believe?
The word free
Twisted and abused
Across the sea
But what it means -
Not sure I know, not sure I can
There is a need I won’t understand
To start a fire, to look at the end
And risk it all
Come up, come up, come up for air
Come up, come up, come up for air
Come up, come up, come up for air
Come up, come up, come up for air.
Ember in Ashes
Whether Pole, Czech, Hungarian,
Whether Slovak, whether tainted by the past,
All synced in spirit and culture.
Yet uncertain in identity.
Caught between the West and the East,
At once both. At once neither.
The dilemma of Central Europe.
For with it thrives the culture of Western Europe,
But politically, stained by Eastern power.
In the words of Milan Kundera:
“A West…kidnapped, displaced, and brainwashed”.
Slowly chipping away…
Time and war has eroded its essence.
The cost of conflict is not only in blood,
But the tragedy of a broken identity.
Invisible to loved ones,
The remnants of rusted chains cling,
Branding the valiantly resistant nations,
With the scars of its oppressors.
Even in this haze of uncertainty,
Even faced with a threat to existence,
A small ember survives,
Viciously protected at all cost.
It is the flame of knowledge, of culture, of tradition.
It is the heart of Central Europe, for which it could not exist without.
Charred cities, persecution, and war cannot harm the spirit of the people,
As long as hope perseveres, as long as this flame survives.
These nations who felt most acutely the consequences of oppression,
Thus know of Europe’s vulnerability best.
Wandering through darkness,
It is easy to lose identity.
But with the flame of culture,
Even in times of darkness,
This identity will be revealed.
And the spirit of Europe thrives.
Prompt 3: The Historical Trauma of Czech Identity
At the cross-roads of a sanctimonious battle between an appropriated and forged identity, the inhabitants of the Czech Republic struggled through a traumatic history of invasion by foreign entities, perpetually submissive to external forces and influence. In search of a solidified national identity, the Czechs victimized themselves under the “politics of cultural despair,” a phenomenon coined by Fritz Stern that classifies the turbulent instability reducing the Czech national identity to language, an enemy complex and a sense of belonging to an elusive force. With the cultural uprooting plaguing the Czech Republic, its citizens were deprived of the opportunity and collective willpower necessary to cultivate a decisive national identity defined by common morality and shared values. From the industrialization of Prague to the World Wars to the Communist takeover, the Czechs rode on the coattails of imperialist pursuits initiated by the major world powers, who envisioned a future for Central Europe beyond the consent of the citizens occupying the area. Therefore, inherently vulnerable by central geographic location, the Czech Republic endured repression of their national identity and submitted to a wave of transformation as political turmoil surrounded the country on all fronts. Innately ambiguous, the concept of “nationalism” pertains to an implicit belonging to a community with a common language and moral entrenchments. However, the disappearance of communicators in Czechoslovakia – individuals who integrated the community through a common language – impeded the development of statehood and any collective moral compass. As a preexisting condition for nationalism, statehood serves as the internal framework for an outward identity. Thus, in the absence of statehood, the potential for nationalization collapses. Traumatizing its citizens with a fallible history, the tendency for the Czech Republic to remove reminders of control by external powers – whether by renaming a street sign or destroying a statue of Stalin – represents one of the nation’s most disturbing obstacles to identity: the preference to cope with national suffering through suppression of facts rather than acceptance of tragedy. As an alternative coping mechanism, this cyclical blame-game of shifting accountability to an imminent threat rather than accepting personal responsibility for historical failures, cultivates a xenophobic culture lacking moral nationalism. By rejoicing through the notion of a common enemy, the Czech citizens united under false pretenses and patience rather than a genuine and urgent positive cause. After a history of deferred action and submissiveness, the Czech citizens reclaimed authority in 1989 over their political destiny during the Velvet Revolution. Although the promise of revolution and eliminating communism appeared as a solution to the Czech identity crisis, the nation’s citizens remained attached to the self-victimization and sentiment of undirected blame haunting their history. As Vaclav Havel proposed for a post-totalitarian recovery, the welfare of the community and national identity may be restored through personal accountability; however, without a collective consciousness, the eradication of communism and promise of a newly forged identity is futile against a stagnated attitude. Plagued by cultural uprooting and tragic invasions, the city of Prague endures a deep rooted, historical trauma from past to present. Evidenced by a prevailing, irretrievable morale and a continuous search for belonging, the Czechs’ internalized battle to cultivate a national identity represents the country’s greatest historical trauma. Although collective action and the promise of revolution offers a glimpse of optimism for national identity in the future, the ongoing battle for solidarity in spirit and a decisive democratic vision persists.
this is not the story about prague
nor is it about germany
or the ussr
this is a story about the people
the people of prague
the forgotten ones
This is a story about the old ladies who sit on the trams with no smile. It is about what is
forgotten after the war. The trauma and memories that torture the insides of their soul.
Buildings can be restored, trees can be replanted, but lives cannot be repaired. The dead are dead.
Yes, nobody is bleeding out anymore, they're all just bleeding internally asking god, what on earth did i do to deserve this hell. What did i do to deserve the greatest injustice in the history of the world?
he answers so I ask for you, i ask what did the people due to deserve eternal hell? He answers
so I answer for you Nothing. Last year, I traveled to cambodia and witnessed what it felt to be in love with a country. Was it the massive soccer game we played half drunk against the local 10 year old boys team for 500 riel or the rich culture found deep in the jungles of Angkor Wat. I’m sure it was a bit of both, I remember telling my friend over our morning iced coffee, everyone seems so happy here. it is pretty remarkable considering the country lost almost half of its 8.5 million citizens in one of the most heinous genocides in the history of the world. What's even crazier is I had only just heard of this genocide when I came to Cambodia. Why wasn't this taught to me in highschool? Where were the cries for justice here? #asianlivesmatter
Anyways back to the point, everyone seemed so happy…
What i did not see were the old people, the people who lived through seeing their babies beaten on trees, the people who lived through seeing there pregnant wife raped, then butchered at the neck with repeated clubs from the blunt knife. Because they were forgotten, they are lost
Almost 8 months later I would go on to meet a ngo worker from germany at Sara's Gur Camb, 50 km outside Ulaanbaatar. I told her profusely about my love for Cambodia and the happy spirit carried by its citizens. She replied with, PTSD you can not see.
While the world, the country, and the culture moves on, PTSD do not. PTSD is one of the most severe mental diseases in the world as there’s truly no escape. You become a prisoner in your own mind, trapped to this image of the world crumbling in front of you. Whether it's your best friend being an undercover informant or your classmate burning in front of you, it can happen to anyone. Where is the treatment for the people? Where is the mass camps for mental disease treatment? We ignore the problem at hand, and instead try to move on and forgot, leaving behind the ones who can not.
so i put a Pilsner up in the sky as a write this and say to the people of Prague
You Are Not Forgotten.
History inevitably shapes the future of a country’s culture. These events, or even moments, change how people act, speak, and think as society adapts to the situation. These adaptations that a society makes – by choice or by force – become engraved in the culture as the change becomes the norm.
The traumatic event, or rather period, that shaped Czech culture was the communist era of Czechoslovakia. This era of Czech history was a scary and restricting time. Fears of prosecution led people to become conscious about everything they did and said. Censorship shut down the spread of free thought in the media while the fear of Communist spies shut down the spread of free communication among the people. The Czech voice was silenced. People kept their thoughts within tight groups, often just family, and private information become very personal.
It is no surprise that one of the most noticeable differences between Czech culture and American culture is the comfort level of sharing personal information. Things like how you are and what you are doing later, questions that are common courtesies in the US, are more private and sensitive in Czech culture. This cultural difference can no doubt be traced back to the Communist era of Czechoslovakia and the cultural toll that the communist lifestyle left.
However, these cultural shifts driven by traumatic events are in no way permanent. As time goes on, generational shifts begin to break down the cultural adaptations from traumatic events in history. These new generations reject the culture because they are not emotionally tied to the historic events that created the culture.
In Czech history, the generation of young university students rejected the lifestyle of the Communist era. They grew up during the time of tight restrictions and wanted more. Unlike the older generations, whom adapted to preserve their current livelihood, the younger generation wanted to form a better future for themselves. Without fear, young university students broke through the cultural barrier that was beginning to form which led to events like the Velvet Revolution and the eventual liberation of Czechoslovakia.
This generation transformation is still happening today. New people to the Czech Republic are told to always be careful about asking questions may be common in other cultures but are too personal to ask in Czech culture. At the same time, having spent time with many young Czechs on a local club ultimate Frisbee team, it seems the perception of Czech people being closed is being broken down by the younger generation. Everyone was very open to talk about their personal life and about their interests, even within minutes of meeting me. It was a pleasant surprise that also revealed that culture, although greatly shaped by history, is a transformational construct. As generations pass, the culture shifts. Traumatic events are forgotten and habits are erased. Although Czech history and the road to Czech freedom will never be forgotten, no longer are Czechs living under the shroud of their communist era selves.
Conflict of Ideas
A society whose population in border areas once included minorities with diverse cultural backgrounds, geographically trapped and homogenized by global conflict, the Czech Republic continues to battle internal and external ideals that define a true Czech identity. Throughout the first week of school we were immersed in Czech history and modernity. I felt a sense of dissonance between academic idealism and current polling results.
We learned about the atrocities committed by the elected communist party and the regime imposed by Russia in following years. Then we looked at the modern political climate and noticed an increase in communist nostalgia and the current placement of the communist party in the Czech Republic as the third contender. We learned about the Jewish and Roma holocaust, followed by a modern analysis of an increasing sense of anti-semitism, FEAR OF ROMA and xenophobia in the Czech Republic. A country whose astounding progress lies in the hands of its connections to the West yet also has the highest EU disapproval rate (even higher than Britain).
The picture above shows a piece by the controversial Chinese deportee Ai Weiwei. It consists of a rubber boat with dozens of rubber replicas of refugees. For the last decade, Ai Weiwei has been raising awareness about the refugee crisis. He chose to display this piece in the Czech Republic because of the Czech complete refusal to host to refugees despite EU pressure. Ai Weiwei makes the point that during times of crisis in the Czech Republic, whether it be during World War II or the communist oppression, there were always allies in the west and overseas who were willing to provide refuge for Czech political fugitives. But now that crisis has struck elsewhere in the world, a sense of radical nationalism is rising, and the country is shutting itself off from the outside world. Economically the Czech Republic depends on immigrants, whether they are from Vietnam or nearby former Soviet countries. Cities like Prague have a rapidly growing economy with thousands of job openings that remain unfilled every year. The country has the potential to speed up the rate of construction projects that would increase infrastructure and households, but the country does not have enough people. Similar political developments have been seen around the world in the last couple of years: the United States' neo-conservative uprise, Britain's Brexit. This has slowly been shutting down life- changing opportunities that hundreds of thousands of displaced individuals would have had otherwise. There's the question: can we realistically change such an ideology? I'd like to believe so. Ai Weiwei does a terrific job in the telling of individual refugee stories that evokes a sense of empathy from the audience. On the other hand the National Art Gallery, where the boat is displayed, remains half empty day after day. An artist that has otherwise gotten great amounts of public and press attention is going under the covers, unnoticed by many. I am sure that this stage in history is not permanent, as nothing is, but me and many others remain hopeful that an ideological change may come soon.