Prague history mirrors 20th century Europe, says professor Derek Sayer

Derek Sayer, photo: Yoke-Sum Wong

More than a decade ago Derek Sayer, a professor of history at Lancaster University, published an immensely popular book entitle The Coasts of Bohemia, which covers Czech history and culture from the mythical past all the way until early twentieth century. Its readers have been eagerly awaiting a continuation of the accessible and highly detailed work that opened up Czech history to a wider audience. This year, professor Sayer published a new work - ‘Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History’, which focuses in on the Czech capital and the tumultuous last century.

Derek Sayer,  photo: Yoke-Sum Wong
I had a chance to speak to professor Sayer on his recent visit to Prague. We began by talking about the strong statement that the title of the book makes about the Czech capital.

“In a nutshell, it sounds absurd, and that’s in a way a part of it. The title is taken from the German writer Walter Benjamin, who left Nazi Germany and went to Paris in the 1930’s. He wrote a large book that wasn’t actually published until years after his death, which looks at Paris as the capital of the 19th century. And what he argues is that you can find expressed in the architecture, the material culture and so on, really the dreams of the 19th century. Paris was not the most important city of the 19th century, commercially for example London was – but from a cultural point of you it was.”

So, how would one determine the capital of the 20th century then?

“Now, if you ask what would be an equivalent for the 20th century. The most obvious answer would be New York City, for all sorts of very obvious reasons. You then dig a bit further and say, in what sense does New York actually typify the experience of the 20th century. Well, it hasn’t experience fascism, hasn’t experienced communism, in fact it hasn’t experienced a hell of a lot that much of the rest of the world has experienced and that the century was actually defined by. Even though, it was undoubtedly the commercial capital of the world and after World War Two became the artistic capital of the world.

“What’s interesting about Prague is that the history of the city over that period – 1900 to the end of the century – really crystallizes so much of what actually defined that century. If you about the fact that at the start of the century it was a provincial town in a larger empire, engaged in what later would come to be called national liberation struggles. It achieves independence in 1918.

Photo: Princeton University Press
“In the interwar period, which what I concentrate on in particular in the book, it was a real hotbed of modernism. There were attempts to be build a new, modern, up-to-date western-facing state, and for 20 years it really flourished. But there were also tensions – ethnic tensions, class tensions and so on – going on at the time. ”

Prague lived through world war two, although it did escape the terrible destruction that many other European capitals faced. What makes it the reflection of contemporary history in that period?

“The Munich Agreement could have been seen as one of the defining features of the 20th century, not just for the Czechs. That effectively brought the democratic Czechoslovakia to an end. The city was then the longest to be occupied by the Germans of any European capital, with the exception of Vienna.

“After the end of the war, I think I’m right in saying that Czechoslovakia was the only country that actually elected into power the government led by the Communist Party. Then as we all know two year later there is a coup d’état and then 40 years of communism.

“The Czech experience of communism in some peculiar way also seems to crystallize everybody’s experience. They had the nastiness of the gulag and the show trials in the beginning of the 1950’s. They had probably the most advanced reform movement and cultural thaw in the 1960’s, leading to the events of ’68. And then they were occupied again.

“And for the next 20 years, while other countries in the rest of the Eastern Bloc were gradually liberalizing, this place remained in a deep-freeze for the best part of those 20 years. And then the Velvet Revolution. Now, I forgot to mention the ethnic cleansing at the end of World War Two when they kicked out three million Germans.

“If you put all of that together, it crystallizes, I would argue, much that defines the 20th century, in particular the battle of the three great potential social systems – communism, fascism and liberal democracy. And that is reflected in the culture of the city, or the culture that the city has produced – both the popular culture and the literary and artistic culture. So that’s the territory that the book explores, but it doesn’t do it by advancing a grand argument.”

In terms of the dynamism of the age, of course the First Republic was incredibly dynamic culturally and politically it was very unique in the region. But some would argue that after ’48, some would argue that culture here just stood still except for the brief period of the Prague Spring. Wouldn’t that take Prague out of the running?

“No, it takes Prague out of the running only if you consider history as something that is always going forward. On, I think, second to last page of the book, I actually say that it’s pretty clear by now that Prague is not a place in which history runs in straight lines. It is a place where the past can unexpectedly return in all sorts of ways. In the 1950’s, which was the high point of Stalinist communism, was also a point when they were very busily reviving 19th century artists, writers, and so on.

“One of the things that I think makes Prague much more interesting to study than most Western capitals is precisely this complexity. I say in the book that it is a place where the great dreams of progress, whether they’re western-liberal type dreams or Marxist-communist dreams, have again and again come apart, have unraveled.

Prague,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“And to your point. I used the term deep-freeze a few minutes ago, and in many ways it was. Yet, bubbling away in all sorts of odd places, much of it after ’68 and in samizdat, was quite a lot of cultural ferment. And I think it’s no accident that Prague was one place where the Surrealist movement actually lasted in the underground, and is now probably the strongest surrealist group in the world. That had something to do with the political conditions of the time and what one could and couldn’t do.

“So what we have is actually have here is rather sophisticated social and political theorizing, which possibly ought to be put side by side with people like Foucault or whoever is studied degree programs in Britain or the States. So, I think that the huge question mark of whether you can say that there was anything progressive about the experience of communism, but to say that nothing came out of the experience and the reflections on that experience, I think, would be utterly wrong.

“Some of the darkest and funniest fiction by people like Bohumil Hrabal – there is no way that could have been written were he not living in absurdistan.”

And what do you make of Milan Kundera’s wish, which he expressed in 1984, that Czechoslovakia will one day re-enter Europe? Do you think that Havel, Kundera and Hrabal will eventually not be looked at as parallel Central-Eastern European writers but as just European writers?

“I don’t know. I’d like some of the to be simply seen as world writers. Certainly, Kundera, I would put in that rank. With Hrabal it is more difficult. For one thing, he is very difficult to translate well into English.

Milan Kundera,  photo: Jan Šmíd
“It’s been argued that Kundera and others operated with a somewhat romanticized conception of Western culture. And that 1989 was in a lot of ways a god-awful shock, because the Europe they went back into was actually just like Karlová ulice, which is a street I used to love when I lived here, and it is now one of the tackiest streets in the world. And that happened very quickly. I think now it’s not as bad as it was in the mid-90’s, but it’s still bad.

“So there is an issue over the terms on which you come back into Europe. But I am as interested in the other side of it, which is how does Europe think of itself when it suddenly has to take in once again once a part that it’s tried to forget about for half a century and more. And that’s interesting in a whole range of areas.”