While visiting Prague I was able to take advantage of the free tours led by guides who provide an intriguing introduction to the city’s history and culture free of charge. Participants can give tips at the end of a tour if they feel the experience was worth it. In my experience, the tours were always worth it. The guides were engaging, sometimes humorous, and always personable. Prague has such a wealth of history that several area specific free tours were on offer. I was able to take tours of both the Old Town and the Castle District (Hradcany) on separate days. Among the highlights of the Old Town tour was the guide. Teo was a young man from the Netherlands who had moved to Prague to be with his Czech girlfriend. She was the love of his life. Giving tours must have been a close second for Teo. He was an excellent guide due to his gregariously animated nature. He came to life while telling stories. He knew his facts, but the delivery set Teo apart. It was done with such charisma that I began to wish that there were Teos in every Eastern European city.
Throwing Down – Going Out The Window
Teo knew how to drive home a historical point with a telling anecdote. This was never truer than when he told our group about the three famous defenestrations that occurred in Prague. He recounted these stories with unforgettable zest while standing in Charles Square at the heart of the Old Town (Stare Mesto) near where the victims crash landed. He used the English slang term, “chuck”, when referring to the defenestration of seven city councilors being thrown (“chucked”) out the window of the Town Hall in 1419 by a mob of Czech Hussites, inaugurating one of the great religious rebellions in European history. In 1483, the same thing happened again in a rebellion against the ruling authorities. On both occasions, Prague’s burgomeister (mayor) fell victim to mob violence.
The third defenestration was the most famous and well known of these “accidents” of history. It happened when an angry group of Bohemian aristocrats became incensed at the Catholic ruling authorities for halting the construction of Protestant churches. They proceeded to storm the City Hall and toss Catholic officials out the window. Miraculously, all three of the victims managed to survive the 21 meter fall, but the uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics did not. The incident was the spark that lit the powder keg which exploded into the Thirty Years’ War, one of the worst conflicts in European history. This incident was reenacted with zest by Teo. His animated body language included acting like he was tossing the victims out the window by himself. This led to many chuckles from the tour group. His telling of the defenestrations was so memorable that I have never forgotten them.
When I showed up to go on a tour of the Castle District several days later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Teo would once again be leading our group. Despite bone chilling cold, grim skies, and an icy wind, Teo was in fine form as he took our group on a multi-hour tour of the district. This time we heard many memorable stories, but nothing else about the defenestrations. That was not surprising since the first three occurred in the Old Town. Only later did I learn about what some have termed the fourth defenestration of Prague. It occurred in the Castle District on an early morning in 1948. There was only one victim, but that man represented one of the last bastions of democracy and integrity. He was all that stood in the way of a communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. Perhaps Teo did not tell us about the so called Fourth Defenestration because the history was rather recent. Even today, there are still questions about who killed Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomas Masaryk. Jan was the post-World War II Foreign Minister when he was literally toppled from power. His death is still an open wound in Czech history.
The Czernin Palace – A Fall From Grace
The free tour of the Castle District took us from one splendid structure to the next. All the architectural eye candy was a sight to soothe the eyes. With so much to see, we were bound to miss some impressive places. Perhaps that is why we did not make our way over to the Czernin Palace. This Baroque confection is the longest palace in Prague, measuring 150 meters in length across both its front and back. The palace has been home to the Foreign Ministry since the 1930’s. It also acted as the residence of the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Reichsprotector of Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Heydrich would end up getting assassinated by the Czechs. Fortunately, Jan Masaryk was not in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. If he had been, there is little doubt that the Nazis would have had him arrested and likely worse. Instead, Masaryk spent the war in Great Britain where he did radio broadcasts that were transmitted to his occupied homeland. When the war ended, Masaryk retained the foreign ministry post he had held before the Nazi occupation. He held the position as part of the postwar National Front government.
Masaryk was an outlier in a government dominated by communists. Masaryk’s support for the Marshall Plan where the United States would provide financial assistance to rebuild Europe put him in the crosshairs of the communist government. The communists were working hard to marginalize anyone who disagreed with hardline Stalinism. To them, Masaryk was a dangerous man, especially since the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder was respected throughout the country. The communists needed him out of the way if they were going to impose communism on the country. Because of Masaryk’s lineage, dispensing with him would be difficult, but not impossible. Masaryk was too ardent an advocate for an independent and free Czechoslovakia, he was not going to go quietly if he went at all. The situation between Masaryk and the communist government was tense and adversarial. Soon it would be much worse.