Britain and Bohemia: Five-and-a-Half Stories Celebrating the Czechoslovak Centenary (over Seven Hundred Years) by Rupert Brow
“And what brings an Englishman to Jablonec?” asks Eva Koranova of the Educa Language School. I mention that my wife is originally from the town. That after twelve years in England it will be nice for her to be closer to her parents. That we can swap a three bedroom semi for more freedom in the Czech countryside. The usual jokes about Brexit. Earnest stuff about the most beneficial environment for our hybrid son.
“And,” I add. “According to the Czech Tourism website, Czech is the Land of Stories.”
Eva smiles back. “Isn’t everywhere?”
We proceed to discuss the ways in which we may be able to work together. It’s only later I find out she’s Slovakian.
In the late 1300s the Oxford scholar John Wycliffe questioned the authority of Church teachings, asking whether the way to save a human soul could ever be through the guidance of an errant Church?
In 1402, two years after being ordained a priest, Jan Hus became rector of Prague University. The University had been founded fifty years earlier during the reign of Charles IV. Under Charles, Prague had been transformed into the new capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The elevation bound Hus to Rome, but when Wycliffe’s words reached Bohemia from England, his destiny was cast in flame.
Hus agreed with Wycliffe, that the Pope and Church could hold absolute power only through actions mirroring the purity of Christ. He set about challenging the Pope’s authority, criticising the wealth of the Church, the great profits gleaned from indulgences. Like the Englishman, Hus supported the Bible’s translation into vernacular language to reach its widest audience.
Schism like this could not be ignored. In 1415 Hus was summoned by Church officials to the Council of Constance. Did he anticipate his fate? He was promised safe passage but wrote his will before leaving. Christians, he declared before the Council, should seek God not in sacrament or ritual, but Scripture. An incensed Vatican tried to force him into recanting, but recant Hus would not.
Thus on July 6th the iconoclast priest was seized by a strong-armed guard. A paper hat was rammed on his head, the word Haeresiarcha scrawled across. Hus was led to a place beyond the city walls and knelt, a squat man, not the dashing romantic of the engraver’s burin. He spread his arms and prayed aloud. A man in a black hood stripped him, bound his hands behind his back and clamped his neck in an iron brace. He was shuffled to a stake, where wood and straw were piled up to his chin. The hooded man had trouble stoking the fire. An old woman approached, casting a handful of brushwood on the flames. “Svata prostota!” Hus cried in his agony, (‘Holy simplicity’), a Czech phrase for daftness and naivety still used to this day.
Aged forty three, through Christ-like suffering, Hus was transcended. His was a sign of the future, wars would wage in his name, Prague’s first defenestrations follow in his wake. A century later, ninety percent of people in the Czech lands identified as Hussites.
A single sacrifice paved the way for Reformation. Six hundred years after Wycliffe’s words found an echo in his heart, Hus remains a martyr to his conscience, a hero to his nation.
When the Habsburg Rudolf II became Holy Roman Emperor in 1576 he moved court from Vienna to Prague. Bohemia, again, became the focal point of a Continent. With sixty thousand inhabitants, Prague, City of Spires, was the largest metropolis in Central Europe. Czechs began to travel abroad, and the great capital became a tourist hub in turn.
The eccentric Rudolf devoted his time to the arts, sciences and the occult. Halls brimmed with ancient sculptures, modern paintings, natural and not-so natural curiosities.
Onto this strange stage trouped colourful support. Johannes Kepler, Rabbi Loew, Tycho Brahe (indulging Rudolf with horoscope readings for his lion cub Otaker). Elizabethan astrologist, alchemist and magician John Dee arrived with shady sidekick, Edward Kelly. Considering the Emperor’s penchant for the dark arts, his reception of the Englishmen was frosty. Were they agents of the far-off Virgin Queen?
Her Majesty’s namesake Elizabeth Jane Weston came to Prague in 1584. Elizabeth was the stepdaughter of Kelly, whose love-hate career serving Rudolf led to his eventual downfall and unexplained death in 1597.
When Kelly’s amassed fortune was seized on his passing, Elizabeth used storytelling talent to recover her mother’s property and social standing. Her poetry increasingly popular, in court she became known respectfully as Westonia. She married in 1603, bore seven children and died in childbirth aged thirty. She is buried in the city’s Mala Strana:
A dove who was greatly thirsting from excessive heat
had seen a panel hanging on the wall,
on which a water-pot had been painted with vivid colour,
and liquid with cheating appearance, a visual fraud.
By the mid 1800s a new literary output was empowering the movement for Czech identity. Two Slovak writers would also play their part. Jan Kollar’s Daughter Of Slavia, inspired by Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, introduced a new kind of hero, tormented by desire and the constraints of his surrounds. Pavel Josef Safarik’s work also nodded towards England, his poems featuring Janosik, the Slavic Robin Hood.
Bozena Nemcova and Karel Jaromir Erben drew on folkloric traditions and popular storytelling narratives, creating a line to the later classics of Hasek, Kafka, Hrabal and Kundera.
In echoes of Dickens and George Eliot, the Maj Group of artists showed how the revival could accomodate new sociopolitical realities, labour reforms and women’s rights.
Czechs regard Karel Hynek Macha as their greatest poet. Maj was written in 1836 when Macha was twenty five. He was inspired by the works of Shelley and Keats. In its lyrical twists of seduction, revenge and patricide Maj, too, acknowledges a debt to Byron.
Macha’s influences were the Romantics and his future lay before him. Three days before his wedding to Eleonora Somkova, Macha worked himself to exhaustion helping put out a fire. Faithful to the legends of Shelley (29) and Byron (36), he joined Keats in the pantheon, dead at twenty five:
At the rock’s rim she glimmers whitely,
A silken standard flies her gown,
In evening zephyrs fluttering lightly,
Her eyes in distance fix and frown.
On October 7th each year wreaths are laid at a monument outside the Frantisek family home in Moravia. Josef Frantisek, son of a carpenter, was born here in 1913. Apprenticed as a locksmith, he joined the Czechoslovak Air Force where his breathtaking ability was matched by a reckless streak.
When twenty years after its inception Czechoslovakia was invaded by Nazi Germany, Frantisek escaped across the border. On the flip of a coin, rather than board a steamship bound for Sweden, Frantisek joined the Polish Air Force. Decorated by his adopted country, when Poland fell he made his way to France and finally, as France was swallowed up, to England, the Croix de Guerre to his name.
Frantisek may have been ungovernable, but with the Battle of Britain at its height, such brilliance was priceless. In compromise to his genius, RAF Squadron Leader Kellett gave Frantisek a Hurricane to fly however he chose, alongside Empire airmen and fellow Czechs and Poles, in the dogfights above the Southern English fields.
They flew for their brothers. They flew for honour. They flew for the memory of a grandmother and the smile of a pretty girl. They flew with raging indignity at their pillaged homelands. They stood for millions, oblivion a glass screen away.
To the invading Luftwaffe, too, a black angel awaited. In a four week frenzy in September 1940, Frantisek raced, soared, calculated, risked, evaded, hunted, spun and unleashed hell. In twenty eight days he downed ten Messerschmitts, six Heinkels and a Junkers 88. He was one of the top scoring Allies in the Battle of Britain, the highest ranking foreign pilot in the RAF.
On September 20th he received the Distinguished Flying Medal from King George. On the morning of 8th October Frantisek rose as usual, washed and donned the grey-blue uniform to which a bar had been added. On the way back from patrol, his Hurricane corkscrewed into the Surrey countryside. Was he showboating for a girlfriend or, at twenty six, simply spent?
Frantisek was buried at RAF Northwood alongside his brothers-in-arms. Later that month the Luftwaffe was repelled. The Allied effort continued.
Of the Battle’s eighty eight Czechoslovak airmen, Vice-Marshall Janousek remembered Frantisek as ‘the greatest of all, perhaps one of the greatest pilots of all time’.
Like the British-trained Slovak Josef Gabcík and Czech Jan Kubis, audacious assassins of Reichsprotektor Heydrich in Prague two years later, Frantisek’s name is synonymous with the heroism of a bygone age.
In a moment when the hopes of the free world were hanging by a thread, did anyone give so much with such abandon as Josef Frantisek?
Of Churchill’s fabled Few, he was perhaps the rarest of all.
Story Five (and a half*)
“He was the ultimate storyteller,” says filmmaker Werner Herzog of Bruce Chatwin. “One of the truly great writers of our time.”
Chatwin visited Czechoslovakia three times and was enthralled. His 1988 novel Utz, inspired by the illness which would kill him, is based on the story of Czech factory owner Rudolf Just. Chatwin met Just during his first trip in 1967, shortly after leaving work as an evaluation expert at Sotheby’s in London.
During their meeting, Just displayed his world-class collection of Meissen porcelain figures acquired before the war. After the Germans arrived, Just was sent to a concentration camp, managed to escape, and returned to Prague, where he died in 1972.
In the book, Utz destroys the ceramic collection before his death. In reality, it was discovered in Bratislava in 2000, selling at Sotheby’s the following year for one and a half million pounds.
Chatwin’s novel is the story of a man lurking in the shadow of an oppressive regime, creating a child-like world of possessions. Chatwin encapsulates Communist Prague in all its absurdity and mystique. Perhaps his greatest achievement is to lift the veil revealing the authentic Czech psyche in a way no other Western writer of the period managed:
‘The true heroes of this impossible situation were people who wouldn’t raise a murmur against the Party or State – yet who seemed to carry the sum of Western Civilisation in their heads. With their silence they inflict a final insult on the State, by pretending it does not exist.’
“I would say that Utz is certainly the best book,” says Professor Martin Hilsky of Charles University, quoted in Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography Bruce Chatwin. “And the only one that captures the essence of Prague by an English [language] writer. He has penetrated into the atmosphere of the city.”
Prague, too, had long since got under Chatwin’s skin. “One of the most curious places in the world,” he wrote in 1967. “The whole place is utterly bourgeois and obviously always was. Communism sits in a most uneasy way, and I would say cannot last long.”
A year after Utz’s publication, Chatwin succumbed to the illness which propelled him to write it. He was forty eight and Britain mourned the loss of a great storyteller.
It was 1989 and new life breathed into Central Europe. Borders were opening and fresh chapters, collective and individual – my future wife’s and my own included, though we could hardly know it yet* – were about to be written.
The ever-evolving lands of the Czechs and the Slovaks could reconnect with the greater Continent. Their resilient citizens could feel part of it. Feel on the edge of it. Feel central to it. Feel disassociated with it.
A bit like Britain, in a way.
The rest, as they say, is history.
© Rupert Brow