OK, you have your statue of the Good King Winceslas (they insist on calling him Vaclav here), at the top of the main drag here in Prague. There’s Charles this and Charles that, named for a king who pretty much kicked Europe’s ass. Only they didn’t call it Europe then.
Those guys were a long time ago, however, and the Czechs, as far as I can tell, don’t really think of them as being Czech. Who are the Czech heroes?
It should be noted that the Czechs aren’t that big on the whole hero thing, except now the tabloids are trying to change that. There are sports heroes here, built up to be torn down just like anywhere else with a ‘free press’. But we will ignore that unpleasantness for a while.
I’ve lived here for a couple of years now, and I’ve come across two modern military heroes. George Patton is one, the liberator of Plzn and a man who really wanted to get to Prague first but the politicians stopped him. The czechs like to imagine what things would be like had be been given freedom to roll. Obviously he is not a Czech military hero, but people here revere the man.
Then there’s the Good Soldier Svejk (rhymes with ache). I saw a movie about him just the other day. During the brutal battles of World War I, Svejk had one goal, and that was to stay alive. He was lazy, sneaky, conniving, and insubordinate. He recognized that war is the absolute last place where you want to go to the head of the class. I would not be surprised if What’s-Her-Name at the Little Café could not name another twentieth-century Czech military figure.
The second hero I stumbled upon by chance. Last summer, during the World Lying-On-the-Grass-Holding-Your-Ankle contest (some people call it ‘Soccer’ and others ‘Football’, but as for the World Cup I think I’m being charitable here), there was a break between games. Česke Telecom announced they would be showing a documentary. When they announced it would be about the life of Jára Cimrman, the low-key folks at the Little Café cheered. “Turn it up!” one girl called. The national hero was on TV, in scratchy black and white.
In a high-profile nationwide poll, Jára Cimrman was voted the greatest man in Czech history. In the documentary I watched a reenactment of a meeting between him and Gustave Eiffel, while a local scholar told us about modifications to the design of the Eiffel Tower. Without Cimrman, it seems, that tower really would have sucked. A true Czech hero, Cimrman’s greatest accomplishment was never getting credit for his accomplishments.
This country’s favorite modern military hero and the man voted by the nation as the Greatest Czech Ever have one thing in common. They are fiction.
Knowing that, it’s time to visit Vyšehrad. It’s quiet there, but not sombre. It doesn’t take long to see a trend. You are walking among musicians, artists, writers. Names you’ve known for a long time, but seeing those names on tombstones is a bit of a shock. Only now do you realize they were human enough to die. Somehow those names seemed above that.
I am sure that among the memorials lie military heroes, and the Czechs value bravery (well, stubbornness) as the highest virtue. In the cemetery lie the greatest of the czechs who did not simply vanish under totalitarian hands. The Czech pilots who came home after helping win the battle of Britain might have been made heroes but instead were sent to labor camps for sympathizing with the west.
The Czechs had a revolution a few years back, and still didn’t get a war hero out of it; the revolution was peaceful and led by writers and musicians. The Czech national anthem, “Where is my Home?” is frightfully beautiful, and not even remotely militaristic. It was part of the score for a comedy called Fidlovačka, Or No Anger and No Brawl. That their only modern war hero is fiction, and (intentionally) horribly bad at war, makes sense. War is ridiculous, and the Czechs have the writers to prove it.