Author Peter Demetz: you could be of any nationality and still feel Czechoslovak


Pre-war Prague with its multi-national and multi-cultural environment has inspired many scholars and writers who explore the life of Czechs, Germans and Jews in the city of a hundred spires before it was swept away by the two totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Our guest in this edition of One on One is Professor Peter Demetz, the author of Prague in Black and Gold, Stage: Prague, and other works. Mr Demetz was born in Prague in the 1920s to a German and Jewish family but left the country after the communist takeover of 1948 and later became a professor of German studies and literature at Yale University in the United States. Although Peter Demetz was born in Prague, he actually grew up in Brno, so I first asked him about the differences between the two cities.

Peter Demetz, photo: CTK
“You are asking a very important question but I’m not sure I can really answer it because I was five or six years old and I only have distant memories. I think that life in Brno, the capital of Moravia, was relaxed, I would say. There were conflicts among the various national groups and political parties but they were always conducted, I would even say, in a constitutional manner, more or less politely. The whole situation in Moravia was more relaxed since the 19th century than in Bohemia. The only thing I remember is of course that when I went to the movies, one had a choice between a German movie house, a Czech movie house or a mixed movie house, and you had to make a decision.”

Part of your family was Jewish, another part was German; you went to German and Czech schools. Which mentality or group did you identify with?

“The question is asked from today’s point of view. At that time, you could have an identity as a citizen of the Czechoslovak Republic. There was President Masaryk who to my youthful mind, and even now, represented the best of the Czech liberal and rational tradition. You could be of any nationality and yet profess your belief in the importance of the Czechoslovak Republic which, being surrounded by Germany, Austria and Hungary, was one of the rare cases of a functioning parliamentary democracy, in contrast to many of the neighbours who either had totalitarian or semi-totalitarian regimes.”

A significant scholar, Pavel Eisner, said after the Second World War that “Anglo-Saxons will never understand Germans as much as Czechs do”. Do you think there’s some truth to that, that Czechs have a special insight into the “German soul”?

“They may have a special insight but they also have a particular perspective. They may have been too close to German developments, especially in the 1930s. And that may have, permit me to say, narrowed these perspectives. You remember the famous saying by 19th century Czech historian František Palacký that the meaning of Czech history was in the conflict between the Czechs and Germans, in the tension between them. Though it may be true for many centuries, I think it’s not enough. There were other aspects of the Czech experience – let’s say the difference between Hussitism and Catholicism, and so on.”

I always found it difficult to imagine that after six years of having been occupied by a foreign power, students like you would study the language and culture of the occupiers. How did you feel studying German after the war? Did you first have to forgive them for what they’d done?

February 1948 in Prague
“I tried to oppose them. At that time, when you studied German literature, you studied in a way that was not Nazi-influenced. That means you wanted to rescue something of the German heritage that was untainted by the Nazis. And that was also a requirement when you studied Marxism, for instance. I remember that my professor in 1946 or 47 once asked me and said, well, there is a meeting downtown and we have to talk about the question whether in 46 or 47 it is necessary to study German. And I told him, well, maybe if you are interested in Marx and Engels, you’d better know your German. Because if you want to interpret a sacred text, you have to know what they are saying. And I think that what the few German scholars did at that time outside Germany, was developing a scholarship in opposition to 1933.”

The US ambassador to Prague in 1948, Laurence Steinhardt, wrote after the communist takeover of the country that only a small group of students stood up for the defence of freedom at that time. You were one of those students who marched to Prague Castle to protest against the new developments. What was the atmosphere like?

“It’s funny that you quote Mr Steinhardt because it was the dream of every student to be introduced to his daughter for a dance. But we never made it. But it’s true, I was in the march; it must have been late February 1948, I think the historical number is close to 2,000. We went trough Národní třída, over the bridge to Nerudova ulice, and that’s where the trouble started because we were silly enough to go through a very narrow street and the police was already waiting for us there and started beating us up because in the meantime, while we marched to convince the president not to sign the acceptance of the new government, he had already signed it. Downtown, [communist leader] Gottwald and his people had already began celebrating the new age. I think on the whole, it was a melancholy experience; I remember that when we marched through Národní třída, the people, the shop owners came out of their shops, looked at us, and we called out for them to come out of their shops and join us because it was their cause that we were defending. But they stood there, waved at us, and then carried on as if nothing had happened. That was my experience.”

In the 1950s, you became a professor of German studies at Yale University in the United States. When would you say American students were most interested in studying German?

“I think it was more or less constant. There was always a group trying to study German, either separately or as part of comparative literature. And I think that even today when other languages and cultures at universities suffer a certain decline, German – though declining a bit – has not suffered as much as let’s say French which shows a downward trend unfortunately.”

When you come to Prague today, is there any part of the city that reminds you of the pre-war days when Prague was completely different from now?

“If I may say so, I have an x-ray vision; I can see through the modern architecture, I can still see the old street that is often there and is only hidden by modern shops and palaces. But when I walk through Týnská ulice, where my father lived originally, or when I go to Petrské náměstí, where my mother lived, or when I go to Karlovo náměstí, where I spent much of my school time reading on a bench somewhere, I can still see the old town. But I fully agree with you; by now, Prague’s totally changed and to my mind, it has become a totally chaotic city where one has to find one’s way.”