June Update: Kafka and Nationalist Monuments in Prague

Although Kafka may have been reticent to openly identify Prague in his stories, his diaries and letters to friends and family contain references to his life in the Bohemian capital. I have finally come across an instance in which he provides his personal sentiments towards two of the city’s notable monuments conceived and installed by Czech nationalists, those to Jan Hus and Frantisek Palacky.

In Kafka’s lifetime, Jan Hus and Frantisek Palacky had grown into revered figures among Czech nationalists. The former’s teachings inspired Hussitism, the progenitor of Protestantism and, among the Czechs, viewed as the culmination of a golden age in “Czech” history. As Czechs more and more understood themselves as a linguistically-defined cultural nation, Hus’ decision to preach in the vernacular Czech was evaluated as critical for the development of the Czech language, and thus nation. His death at the stake and the ensuing centuries-long suppression of Protestantism and the Czech language by Catholic Habsburg forces became interpreted by the 19th and 20th century nationalists as the beginnings of a nightmarish Germanization of the Bohemian lands. In the collective memory of Czechs, Hus emerged as an icon of Czech national identity, necessitated by anti-German sentiment. Even in the 1912 monument to Hus, Šaloun deliberately played with the anti-German attitudes his memory represented: the wide, horizontal memorial in Prague’s Old Town Square contrasted sharply with the elongated verticality of the Habsburg Marian Column.

The latter Palacky, through his historiographies of Bohemia, was one of the major Czech historians responsible for disseminating this view of Hus into the public discourse. Such an interpretation was critical for accepting the so-called eternal struggle between Czechs and Germans in Bohemian history, propagated by nationalist historiographies such as Palacky’s. The monument, whose figural program depicts both tragedy and triumph in Bohemian history, was positioned across from the Palacky bridge, which deployed Czech national colors and statues of Slavic mythic figures. Both the Hus and Palacky monuments were part of an attempt to further re-code Prague from an ethnically indifferent city to one embracing and ossifying a Czech national identity.

Kafka’s remarks to Brod offers a guide to understanding his own thinking about these changes wrought to public space as well as his motivations in constructing a literary public space. To his longtime friend Max Brod, he wrote:

“Wenn es möglich wäre diese Schande and mutwillig-sinnlose Verarmung Prags und Böhmens zu beseitigen, dass mittelmäßige Arbeiten wie der Hus von Šaloun oder miserable wie der Palacky von Sucharda ehrenvoll aufgestellt werden […].”

“If it would be possible to remove this disgrace and willfully-senseless impoverishment of Prague and Bohemia, that mediocre works such as the Hus by Šaloun or absymal [ones] such as the Palacky by Sucharda are honorably erected […].”

The emotional impact of the monuments was clearly lost on Kafka. However, his outright disapproval should not be interpreted as any confession of pro-German sentiments, although his judgment on the pieces was likely shared by German nationalists in Prague. Other diary and letters reveal that Kafka had a more complex relationship with his German identity, speaking German fluently, appreciating its cultural achievements, yet feeling prohibited from “Germanness” due to his Jewish background. Any feelings of German nationalism are additionally unlikely as Kafka was also fluent in Czech, raised in a household with Czech maids, and maintained friendships and even romance with native Czech-speakers. However, as a victim of both German and especially Czech anti-Semitism, Kafka would not have felt as though he belonged particularly securely to either national camp. What was then so disgraceful about the Hus and Palacky statues, enhancing Prague’s “impoverishment,” was precisely their nationalist orientation and the means by which they sought to re-make Prague as distinctly Czech.

When reading Kafka’s literary creations of public space, one must understand him as a critic of nationalizing public space, as opposed to a mere passive observer of the changes it brings.

Jan Hus Memorial in Prague’s Old Town Square

Frantisek Palacky Memorial in Prague

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