I recall a visit to Prague in the mid-1980s when, apparently spontaneously, locals began to place flowers at the steps of the statue of King Wenceslas. The symbolism of the act did not go unnoticed. According to legend, the patron saint of the Czechs maintained an army of knights hidden inside a mountain ready to be awakened to fight for the Czech people in times of extreme danger. The bouquets piled up, until communist officials removed them and placed a fence around the monument at the heart of the city’s iconic square.
Atop Wenceslas Square there’s a small plaque remembering Jan Palach, the Charles University student who lit himself afire in January 1969 as protest against the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Two months after Palach’s selfimmolation, when their national ice hockey team defeated their Soviet counterparts in the World Ice Hockey Championships, elated Czechs — by some estimates as many as 150,000 people — flooded
Wenceslas Square to celebrate; until secret police provoked an attack on the local Soviet Aeroflot office, giving authorities pretext for crackdown.
These are recollections of a struggle for freedom, dignity, and sovereignty. Can it really be that today in Central Europe — and increasingly in a number of countries across the West —some become bored with democracy, and succumb to new authoritarian impulses? It’s chilling, the saying, that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
Jeffrey Gedmin (1958) was President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty in Prague, 2007-2011.