Every country has their grandiose monuments and memorials. Some are internationally famous like the Statue of Liberty in New York City, or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The few like these come to symbolize their country as a whole, however incomplete or inadequately.
Many monuments fail to remain relevant. The Lion’s Mound at Waterloo probably fails to evoke awe from its visitors for its original purpose – to commemorate the Prince of Orange being shot in the shoulder and falling from his horse during the Battle of Waterloo. Condensing history, I can write he eventually got up; his dad built him that monument, and he became King of the Netherlands.
Did anyone’s pulse rate rise after reading that paragraph? Many monuments fail to remain relevant.
But most monuments end up being more or less attractive clues to more or less relevant histories. They reveal the values of their creators, evince those of the viewer, and maybe even inspire reflection about the present day. This is often the case in my small host country of the Czech Republic where many of the memorials don’t make any sense until I do a little research and ask a few questions. Then the stone and metal statues shudder a bit with story and life. Maybe the figures never had a palpable effect upon me growing up American, but I can understand why the country commemorates them.
And so, enter this guy: Father of the Nation, František Palacký.
Dour, stiff – what did he do, and why should I care?
Short History Lesson
Palacký assembled the most comprehensive histories, in some centuries, of the Czech Lands. He did so at a time (early- to mid-19th century) when the Lands (Bohemia, Moravia, and a little of Silesia) were contemplating their identity within Europe, and imagining an existence independent of the Habsburg Empire. His histories celebrated the dominant eras of the Czechs, and ended in 1526, just a few years after Bohemia had capitulated to the Habsburgs and ceased to be an independent kingdom. They did not extend beyond 1526 because, in Palacký’s words, he, “would have to lie.” The period between 1526 and the late 18th-century also saw the decline of Czech influence in greater Europe and a withering of the Czech language, reduced to being the uneducated tongue of peasants.
By celebrating more influential and independent eras and the Czechs’ Slavic roots, Palacký, with other compatriots, was able to advance a revitalization of Czech national identity. (Ironically, he achieved much of this with German. He wrote in German initially, later in Czech, but spoke German at home). But this identity became a threat to the Habsburg Empire, whose Germanic seat was experiencing unrest from other national awakenings in Hungary, Italy, and Croatia. To protect and represent the Czechs, the historian had to become a politician.
As a politician he was effective. On bringing about an independent or federal state from/of Austria, he failed; but on bringing about a land that was proud to speak and write about its own history in its own language – creating a national identity – he was a great success. His most celebrated quote verbalizes a laconic, upstart quality, an attitude I feel reflected by many Czechs today; Palacký was refusing an invitation to the Frankfurt Parliament of the German Empire in 1848 and wrote to it, “I am not a German, at least I don’t feel like one…”
The above quote finishes, “… I am a Czech of Slavonic stock.” This phrase summarized much activity of his remaining 20-plus years. While continuing to edit Czech journals and write articles from Prague, his political career took him to Austria and a panslavic congress in Russia. He died in 1876.
So that’s what Palacký did. But why should I care? Well, I live here. He did more than any other to weave the strong web upon which Czech identity stands, and with which I interact every day. Even if some guy on the street can’t recite Palacký’s bio, he speaks the language the historian encouraged. A Czech in the East CZ and one in the West have common cultural touchstones, formed in a large part by Palacký’s histories. His great actions trickle down, influencing citizens in countless ways. The beautiful smile that comes when some Czech women sing a folk song, that might be a bit of Palacký’s doing too.
Palacký was well respected. Given the burgeoning nationalism, a monument to him was inevitable. In 1901, respected sculptor Satinslav Suchard started the monument, finally finishing it in 1912. close to the Benedictine abbey of Emmaus. While Palacký is seated, hewn from the granite around him, various bronze entities and spirits swirl about him. The ugly, two-headed figure (seen above) crushing a person beneath it to Palacký’s right symbolizes the oppression suffered by the Czech people.
Above and around him the voices of the (I will say) Czech past and people call to him and to the viewer. particularly evocative is the old woman in her kroj, a traditional dress.
To the Father of the Nation’s left, are two young men reawakening from a deep slumber. And the words beneath them complete the phrase started on the other side under the two-headed beast: “From fainting oppression… to new life reawaken the people.”
Nowadays, the statue presides over a green park to its left, and a stone plaza in front of it. Thousands of people stroll by each day catching trams and metros, and it’s common to see people drinking at the monument’s pedestal. Maybe the ignoble situation is that some people leave their litter there, forgetting that they owe much to the granite man, calm as the culture swirls around him.
An interesting fact by which to finish the post: This statue represented enough national pride that the during World War II the Nazi had it taken down. Fortunately, those that disassembled it disobeyed civilly, and hid the bronze pieces in an overgrown area. They were then reassembled after the war ended.