Prague: The Glorious Moment

Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347–1437

Catalog of the exhibitionedited by Barbara Drake Boehm and Jirí Fajt
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 20, 2005–January 3, 2006
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 366 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)

In 1933, Willy Haas came back to Prague from Berlin. The editor of one of the great Weimar periodicals, Die literarische Welt (The Literary World), Haas had flourished in the Twenties, publishing major work by Kafka, Cocteau, Benjamin, and others. Driven out of Berlin by the Nazis, he came home, and used his citizenship and his native knowledge of the Czech language to rebuild his life. Many of his German friends came too: the brothers Magnus Herzfelde and John Heartfield, the publishers of the Weltbühne, even Thomas Mann, who took advantage of his honorary citizenship of Czechoslovakia to hold a public lecture after Germany had stripped him of citizenship and fortune.

This was the last, artificial flowering of something like the Prague in which Haas had grown up—a magnificently cosmopolitan society. Jewish families like his, Haas recalled in later life, spoke German and were Austrian patriots. High officials spoke “a completely denaturalized, sterile, grotesque, imperial Czech-German.” The nobles in their mysterious palaces in the old city “spoke French and belonged not to a nation, but to the Holy Roman Empire, which hadn’t existed for a century.” Haas’s nurse, his governess, and the family’s cook and maid spoke Czech. Only when he reached the age of six and went to school “was it decided that I would be a German and Austrian.” Somehow, the whole city functioned beautifully, its respectable, half-respectable, and totally unrespectable neighborhoods all proudly conscious of their places in society and quite distinct from one another—so long as no one “scratched the lacquer hard enough to show that they were all of the same wood.” No one—not Haas, nor his eminently bourgeois family and teachers, nor his playmate Franz Werfel, nor his slightly older neighbor Max Brod—had ever dreamt that the social labyrinths of their beloved city could become whispering galleries in which informers lurked and Sudeten Germans threatened. But in the weeks after Munich, Haas and his remaining friends sat in their cafes in deathly silence, death in their hearts, knowing that they must leave or perish.1

The period between the Munich treaty and the occupation of Prague in 1939 was ghastly: but it was not the first time that this drama played in Prague. For centuries, the city had been Europe’s capital of cosmopolitan dreams—a magnificent Utopia in stone, the symbol of a politics that transcended national and linguistic divisions. For centuries, Prague was not a strange and wonderful place hidden in the East, but the center of European culture—the on-again, off-again capital of the Holy Roman Empire, a city of scientists, poets, and professors. And more than once before, the dreams had metamorphosed, seemingly without warning, into nightmares of civil and religious strife. Under the great cathedral and the Hradcany castle, reason slept and innocent blood ran in the streets. An extraordinary current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum takes us back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the historical moment when Prague first took on the cosmopolitan cultural role and the imperial aspirations that it…

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