If a visitor had only a day to spend in Brno they would do well to climb two hills. Specifically, those that are crowned by the city’s most popular tourist attractions. One is topped by a sacred structure, the other by a building with a startling history. These opposites attract over a hundred thousand visitors each year. The first and most famous is also nearly impossible to miss. The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul stretches skyward from the top of Petrov Hill. The looming presence of this Gothic Revival edifice with its twin peaks – two 84 meter high towers – can be felt as soon as one gets close to the Old Town. From a roadway far below, I spied the Cathedral’s slender spires and Gothic girth towering high above the city. The Cathedral is one of Brno’s most famous architectural symbols, nothing else in the city comes close to comparing with its spiritual importance.
The other hilltop structure is more of an acquired taste. Spilberk Castle stands on a rock outcropping northwest of the Cathedral. It was from the Cathedral’s lookout tower that I spotted the castle. Unfortunately, that was as close as I would get to it. It was already mid-afternoon. With the winter daylight dwindling, my wife and I decided to forgo the castle. This was a decision that I would later come to regret. While it does not compare in grandeur or symbolism to the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Spillberk Castle has an extraordinary history. The Castle hearkens all the way back to the Middle Ages. For many decades it was a home for the Margraves of Moravia. Its history was darkened by several periods where it was used as a prison. Such was the castle’s infamy that it became known as the “Dungeon of Nations”. Famous rebels and revolutionaries, political and military prisoners of war who ended up on the wrong side of history were imprisoned at Spilberk. The structure was by turns a castle, fortress, prison, barracks and now acts as the city museum. It offers a fascinating window into the history of Brno as well as that of East-Central Europe. One filled with glorious highs and terrible lows that plumb the depths of human experience.
Brilliance Gone Bad – From The Top Down
Many bad things in history did not start out that way. A select few even began as something brilliant eventually gone bad. Spilberk Castle is illustrative of this rare historical phenomenon. The version of the castle that still stands today on a steep, rocky outcropping seventy meters above the surrounding city, bears little resemblance to its Gothic architectural roots. Only its eastern side provides a rough approximation of the castle during its earliest times. This is not so surprising when one stops to consider that the castle is seven and a half centuries old. It is a wonder that anything survives from this era at all. The castle’s glory days began in the 14th century when it became the seat of the Moravian Margravate. This began a long period when it was the nexus of power for the entire region. Over time, it was transformed from residential seat to a fortress that the power brokers of Central Europe coveted. Czech, Habsburg, Hungarian and Swedish armies all spilled blood and expended treasure trying to take Spilberk. The fortress could not be overlooked and had to be overcome. For the most part, it proved insurmountable.
By far the most famous usage of Spilberk was as a prison. Long before it became known as the “Dungeon of Nations”, the fortress housed a small prison. Over time this role was expanded, most prominently after the famous defeat of Czech forces at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. The Habsburgs used their victory to establish long lasting rule over both the Czech land. Those from the on the losing side from Moravia found themselves imprisoned in dire conditions at Spilberk. This would prove to be just the beginning. In the coming centuries, Spilberk became known as a place of cruel and unusual confinement. By the late 17th century, the Habsburgs were placing some of their fellow Austrians who had betrayed the monarchy in the prison. Some prisoners languished in their cells, while others were forced to perform work on the fortress defenses.
“Dungeon of Nations” – Reversion To The Mean
The most famous Austrian imprisoned at Spilberk was the cruel, courageous and corrupt Baron Franz von der Trenck. Von der Trenck was notorious for allowing his troops to murder civilians and pillage settlements during the War of Austrian Succession. Despite his victorious record, von der Trenck’s actions were impossible to overlook. He was sentenced to life in prison at Spilberk, but the terms of his confinement were relatively mild. The same could not be said for many other famous prisoners which included French revolutionaries, Hungarian insurrectionists and Italian freedom fighters. A poet by the name of Silvio Pellico, who was imprisoned at Spilberk for his anti-Habsburg activities in Italy, brought the prison into the popular consciousness after he penned a book about his imprisonment there. In 1855, Emperor Franz Josef finally decided to close the prison. This supposedly put an end to its usage as an incarceration unit. That was wishful thinking.
Spilberk was soon converted into barracks after the prison was closed. As anyone who has studied the tragic history of 20th century history in Central and Eastern Europe knows, military installations were ripe for conversion by dictatorial regimes into political prisons. Spilberk was no different. After the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia they imprisoned Czech nationalists inside the barracks before transporting them to concentration camps. The Nazis eventually liquidated the prison and retrofitted it as a high end barracks for their own forces. This was in line with Spilberk’s and Brno’s fated history of Germanic dominance. What had started out as a splendid Moravian royal residence had been transformed into a martial and incarceration unit by Germans. World War II was both the apex and the end of this tragic history. The Czechoslovakian Army was the last resident of the castle, finally vacating the area in the late 1950’s.
A Reason To Return – Between The Castle Walls
Today Spilberk Castle is a museum that sees over one hundred thousand visitors a year. Learning its fascinating history has provided me with a reason to return to Brno for another visit. While Petrov Hill and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul gets much of the foreign tourist focus, Spilberk Castle is the place to go for those looking to plumb the depth of Brno’s past. A site of brilliance, conflict and confinement, the entire experience of human history in the area is still being told between its walls.