Prague may put Czech noble, Austrian marshal Josef Radecký back on a pedestal

La statue du maréchal Radetzky à Prague

A move is afoot to put nobleman Josef Václav Radecký of Radče – arguably the greatest Czech military commander in history – back on a pedestal. A bronze statue of Radecký, a Bohemian count and Austrian field marshal, took pride of place in Prague’s Lesser Town square for six decades, up until Czechoslovakia declared independence. Ever since, the imposing statue (minus the original stone plinth) has languished in the Lapidarium of the National Museum, alongside scores of others associated with the Habsburg Monarchy, either spontaneously or deliberately removed as the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled.

This July, a little over a century since the Marshal Radecký memorial was dismantled and removed, the local district of Prague 1 adopted a resolution paving the way for its return to Malostranské náměstí, the historic square where it had stood from 1858 until 1919.

Leading the effort to restore the statue – and to commemorate Radecký’s place in Czech history – is architect and preservationist Jan Bárta, who founded an association for that sole purpose back in 2011. In a recent interview, I began by asking Mr Bárta why he feels that reinstalling the Marshal Radecký memorial is so important.

“Well, there are basically two reasons. One is simply that it is a beautiful bronze sculpture, considered by art historians in its day to be the most beautiful monument or statue in Central Europe. It was created by the famous artists Josef and Emanuel Max, brothers from the Bohemian town of Sloup v Čechách. They were German speakers, but at the time, that didn't matter.

Jan Bárta, photo: Martina Schneibergová

“So, one reason is that it is beautiful statute, and it is a pity to have it locked up in the Lapidarium, in a summer palace that few people visit. And also because I think – or rather I am convinced – that it belongs back in the public space, that it should adorn the Lesser Town Square for the pleasure of the people of Prague and tourists.”

The Marshal Radecký memorial was designed by the German painter Christian Ruben, director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in the 1840s. He drew inspiration from a statue on Charles Bridge of St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary depicted holding a cross before a kneeling Hindu prince soon to be baptised. Below them are Chinese, Tartar and Moorish royals he had already converted to the Catholic faith.

In a similar vein, Marshal Radecký is depicted with an Austrian banner in hand, standing on a convex shield held by soldiers from the armies and nations of the monarchy, including an artilleryman (identified with the Czechs), a volunteer from Tyrol, a Hussar, a Polish-Lithuanian light cavalryman, and a South Slavic sergeant. The figures were forged from cannons captured in Lombardy during the First Italian War for Independence.

While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, few would contest Jan Bárta’s assertion that the Marshal Radecký statue is a work of art. It was rather the imperialist message, not the medium, which led a democratic Czechoslovakia first to cover his statue with a giant black tarp after the First World War, and remove it entirely some months later. Architect and preservationist Jan Bárta again:

Marshal Josef Radecký, photo: Public Domain

“From a historical viewpoint, we hear from various sources today the opinion why should we bother to pull out a statue of this already forgotten marshal? Especially, nota bene, an ‘Austrian’! Well, precisely because five generations had been trying hard to erase him from the historical memory.

“Until quite recently, it was official policy to try to erase the fact that Czechs were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that in fact we were a very important part of Austria-Hungary, and that patriots such as František Palacký [a leading figure of the Czech National Revival] believed we should remain part of Austria-Hungary.

“Simply put, my colleagues and I want it remembered that we were part of some larger state entity – because Czech history does not begin with independence in 1918 or after the liberation in 1945 – and certainly not in 1948 [after the Communist takeover].

“The people of this land – and I intentionally do not say ‘nation’, a term that originated in the 19th century – the inhabitants of the Czech Kingdom were always part of a larger state, be it the Holy Roman Empire, Austria or later Austria-Hungary. The fact that we failed to achieve the same status in the empire as the Hungarians, for example, is another question for another time.”

The ’Radetzky March’ – Austria's unofficial national anthem

In Austria, the count from Bohemia is memorialised not just in stone and bronze – but in music. The ‘Radetzky March’, composed in 1848 by Johann Strauss Sr. to celebrate the field marshal’s victory at the Battle of Custoza, is an unofficial Austrian national anthem; the Vienna Philharmonic’s traditional final piece of its New Year's Concert, to which people clap along and stomp their feet.

In his Czech homeland, though, today Marshal Radecký requires some introduction, notes Jan Bárta.

Marshal Radecký's statue in Prague Lapidarium, photo: Czech Television

“Simply put, the second reason why we imagine the return of the Radecký monument is to recall a man who really existed, that Strauss's ‘Radetzky March’ is dedicated to a real person, a real figure, who at the time was quite extraordinary and significant on a European scale. He was a Czech nobleman who, of course, served the Habsburgs, as the critics say. Yes, but frankly, who else was he supposed to serve?”

Jan Josef Václav Antonín František Karel hrabě Radecký z Radče – as a blue blood, the marshal’s full name is a mouthful – was born in 1766 into a Bohemian military family of Czech origin, who steadfastly believed in the idea of a multi-ethnic Habsburg state. Orphaned at an early age and cheated of a modest inheritance by a shiftless uncle, Radecký enlisted in an Austrian cavalry regiment as a private cadet at the age of 17.

He quickly rose up the ranks, after showing great cunning and courage in a baptism of fire in the Russo-Turkish War, which the Danube Monarchy entered in 1788. Ten years later, Radecký made colonel. By the time of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in Russia, he was army Chief of Staff.

A brilliant tactician, he developed guerrilla tactics, like the Hussite warlord Jan Žižka centuries earlier, to attack weak French formations, avoid strong ones and disrupt enemy supply lines, handing Napoleon’s legendary marshals one defeat after another, culminating in the Battle of Leipzig – also called The Battle of the Nations – in October 1813.

Marian column, Old Town Square, Prague, photo: Ian Willoughby

In total, Radecký fought for five Austrian emperors, in 17 campaigns, and served in uniform for 72 years. And while it may seem incongruous today, in the 18th century and first half of the 19th century, few doubted that the Habsburgs were legitimate Czech kings. Like Palacký, you could be a Czech patriot and a monarchist – like Jan Bárta, a member of the Koruna Česká party and its hejtman (regional chairman) for Bohemia from 2014-2018.

Even so, Mr Bárta says he understands why after World War I, Czechs removed symbols of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, filling the Lapidarium to the brim. Others, were destroyed, such as the Marian column – a replica of which, after decades of contentious debate, was recently installed on Prague’s Old Town Square.

“Well, in 1918, it was understandable. That was after four years of war. There was hunger in the background. Many men, Czechs, or people from the Czech lands, fell in battle. Thousands and thousands of soldiers, as noted in monuments that still stand in countless villages.

“So, the Marian Column fell, and a wave of anti-Habsburg and anti-Austrian enthusiasm or euphoria had arisen. I understand it, but I cannot condone it. Other Habsburg and Austrian memorials and statues, were removed, and also Austro-Hungarian emblems, like the two-headed eagles on government buildings and so on.

“As for the works of art, the group that tore down the Marian Column then marched to Charles Bridge and wanted to throw more statues into the Vltava River. The Sokol movement, who were doing some voluntary policing at the time, prevented it. Many statues of St. Jan Nepomucký, who stands, or stood on every bridge, were dismantled or removed. So were statues of Joseph II.”

After Napoleon’s final debacle in 1815, Radecký served as a garrison commander in Olomouc, northern Moravia, before being named commander of Austrian troops in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice, the southwestern tip of the Habsburg Empire, in 1831.

Five years later, “Father Radecký”, as he was known to his troops, was promoted to field marshal. Then came the revolutionary year of 1848, when, as in Hungary, the desire for national self-determination grew also in the Italian regions of the monarchy, leading to armed uprising against the Habsburgs.

Marshal Radecký's grave, photo: PLauppert, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The decision to remove the Marshal Radecký memorial may have stemmed at least in part from objections by Italian diplomats, as reported in the Czech newspapers a century ago – though Jan Bárta and other supporters of its return, say the Kingdom of Italy explicitly denied it.

Whatever the case, Radecký was a man of his times, a Czech patriot loyal to his emperor. He may not have ever dreamed that the Garibaldi redshirts he fought against would one day be worn by members of the Sokol movement, early advocates of an independent Czech nation.

Marshal Radecký died in Milan at the age of 91, in January 1858, before his memorial statue in Prague was erected but after it had been commissioned. He is buried in a grand crypt a few kilometres outside of Vienna, in the so-called Hill of Heroes.