“Historians have taken the 1618 Defenestration of Prague as marking the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that raged ferociously, mostly across Bohemia and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire, from 1618 to 1648, drawing in the armies of most of the European powers of the day. It was the most murderous war that Europe had known, and the Thirty Years’ War continued to hold that dubious honour until the even more deadly wars of the twentieth century.”

Four hundred years ago, on 23 May 1618, three men were thrown from a window in Prague Castle. Until moments before their defenestration they had been working in the Old Royal Palace, in the Catholic administration of the Habsburg Emperor. Those who threw them out of the window were members of the Bohemian Estates – the parliament of the day – Protestants increasingly concerned by the persecution of Protestants throughout Habsburg realms, and the erosion of religious and political liberties.

Historians have taken the 1618 Defenestration of Prague as marking the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that raged ferociously, mostly across Bohemia and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire, from 1618 to 1648, drawing in the armies of most of the European powers of the day. It was the most murderous war that Europe had known, and the Thirty Years’ War continued to hold that dubious honour until the even more deadly wars of the twentieth century.

The centrepiece of the Old Royal Palace in Prague Castle is the massive ceremonial Vladislav Hall, with its splendid vaulted Gothic ceiling. A doorway in the corner of the Hall takes you into the former working offices of the Bohemian Chancellery. In one of the rooms there the guides point out the rather ordinary Renaissance window from which Vilém Slavata of Chlum, Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice and their secretary, Fabricius, were thrown in 1618. This is perhaps the most significant window in the world.

The 1618 Defenestration is not the only anniversary being marked in Prague in 2018. There are a number of more recent – twentieth-century – anniversaries that fall this year as well:

– Czechoslovakia was founded on 28 October 1918. One hundred years ago, and three hundred years after the Defenestration, the Czechoslovak Republic was declared in the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House. The Municipal House is probably Prague’s finest Art Nouveau building, built between 1906 and 1912 with the involvement of numerous Czech artists. It sits on the site of the Royal Court, the medieval palace of the Kings of Bohemia.

– Eighty years ago, in 1938, the notorious Munich Agreement signalled the (temporary) end of the then twenty-year-old state at the beginning of the Second World War.

– Seventy years ago, February 1948 (“Victorious February” to the Communists) marked the beginning of Communist rule that was to last for nearly 42 years in Czechoslovakia. The country’s new rulers saw the year of their ascension to power in the light of yet another anniversary. One of the many slogans of a slogan- happy régime was “1848 – 1948”. Although 1848 was not as momentous a year in Prague as it was in Hungary, or indeed in Vienna, it did mark the final emancipation of serfs (from forced unpaid labour – robota in Czech, robot in Hungarian, from which the English word robot derives). 1848 was also the date of the first pan-Slavic Conference, held in Prague, and, given the Moscow- orientation of the new régime, that may have been the 100-year anniversary that they had in mind. In the previous few years the Germans had killed the Jews of Prague’s ancient Jewish community, and then the Czechs had expelled the Germans. The Prague of the Communists had become a more exclusively Slavic town than it had been since the times of the early Přemyslid kings.

– Fifty years ago, 1968 brought the Prague Spring, the softening of harsh Communist rule under the leadership of Alexander Dubček, followed by the Soviet invasion on 21 August 1968 that brought the experiment of “socialism with a human face” to an end. Anniversary graffiti that appeared on the walls read “1938 – 1968”. On 21 August 2018 a concert was held in Wenceslas Square marking 50 years since the invading Russian tanks arrived. It culminated with Marta Kubišová singing A Prayer for Marta, a song she had first sung in 1968, when it had become the covert anthem of that turbulent year in Prague. The song was of course banned by Czechoslovakia’s post-1968 rulers, and she was only able to sing it again in public, from a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square, when Communist power collapsed in 1989. One of the song’s lines – “Now when the once lost government of your affairs returns to you, people” – harks back to earlier times. It comes from a prayer of Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius) who left Bohemia for a wandering exile in 1627. Tomáš Masaryk used Comenius’ line to begin his first speech as the first President of Czechoslovakia in 1918. On 1 January 1990, Václav Havel, in his first speech as post-Communist President of the country, ended with this quote from Comenius’ prayer. The currents of history run deep in Prague.e

In the 1618 Defenestration of Prague representatives of the Protestant-dominated Bohemian 
Estates threw the Imperial governors from the window on the left. 
Photo by Gordon McKechnie


I am just old enough to remember 1968. An outdoor exhibition in Jungmannovo Square this past summer of photographs taken by a young American (Paul Goldsmith), who happened to be passing through Prague on 21 August 1968, and an indoor exhibition of photos by Josef Koudelka at the Veletržní Palace in Holešovice, brought back memories of those black-and-white days, not just of what the newspapers told us was happening in Prague but of that entire heady year. To a wide-eyed teenager, it seemed that during 1968 the world revolved around three places – Berkeley (named, incidentally, for an Irish bishop in whose philosophy nothing really existed), Paris and Prague.

By the autumn of the year, however, reality – “normalisation” as it came to be called in Prague – had been restored. Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4 April. Robert Kennedy was killed on 5 June. Richard Nixon was elected American President in November. The Vietnam War ground on. In France, after student demonstrations and workers’ strikes in May, de Gaulle’s party – the party of the Establishment – won an increased majority in the legislative elections at the end of June. People went to the beaches for the summer. Students went back to class in the autumn. In Czechoslovakia, 137 people died as the Soviet-led invasion occupied the country with tanks and soldiers to impose Moscow’s stern face of socialism. Dubček was spirited off to Russia. He returned a broken man. It was 21 years until he appeared, alongside Václav Havel, to wave to the crowds below from a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square..

1948 painting by Eduard Stavinoha in the Veletržní Palace collection – Listening to the Speech by Klement Gottwald, 21 February 48. The Communist Party emerged as the largest party in Czechoslovakia after the war. A current of pan-Slavism during the Czech National Revival, disillusion with the Western liberal democracies after Munich and the Red Army’s role as liberators from the Nazis helped ease its passage to power.

Although it was all over, Peter Huber (later a Senior Fellow of the Manhattan Institute) and I decided to go to Prague. But while our passports and visa applications were lodged hopefully in the Czechoslovak Embassy, Jan Palach burnt himself to death in protest at the Soviet occupation. Our visas, of course, were declined. We went to Budapest instead.

Over the following years I looked across the border into Czechoslovakia – across the Danube from Esztergom in Hungary, through the trees of the Böhmerwald in Bavaria to barbed wire and machine-gun towers on the hillside across a wooded valley. In Toronto in the 1970s I met some of those who had gone into exile following the 1968 invasion. Two of them, Joe Jenikov and Milton Spidla, were valued colleagues. At the centre of the Czech community in Toronto then was a publishing house, founded and run by Josef Škvorecký, for Czech and Slovak books that would not pass the censors in Prague. Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in Czech there. It was an outlet for Václav Havel’s works, also banned in his own country..

Photograph by Josef Koudelka in a 50-year anniversary exhibition of his 1968 photographs. The Russian soldiers had been told they were going into Czechoslovakia as liberators and were totally unprepared for the passive resistance they met on the streets of Prague.

But it was only 21 years after my visa was refused, in the early weeks of 1990, that I actually made it to Prague. The “Velvet Revolution” had taken place the previous November. Václav Havel was President. But it was still a very grey Communist city. Once elegant Baroque façades were crumbling. Rows of identical dull metal dustbins stood guard outside them. Shop windows were painted to avoid showing what was or was not inside. While the beer was wonderful, the food available in restaurants was poor and the service surly. There was a Soviet tank on a pedestal in a square named after it. Ubiquitous policemen stood idly on street corners not knowing which laws remained enforceable. Workmen with beer bellies hanging over their belts sauntered out of Smíchov pubs at ten in the morning. In the cold north wind, Charles Bridge was deserted. Franz Kafka might have appeared at any moment scurrying furtively along the endless corridors of the Ministry of Something-or-Other where, in the absence of thermostats and a pricing mechanism for fuel, heating was regulated on warm spring days by opening the windows.

Over the following few years, Prague became my second home. Change came rapidly to the city during that time. Even on my first visit, a makeshift memorial to Jan Palach, whose memory had been suppressed by the authorities for 21 years, had sprung up in Wenceslas Square where he had fallen. Buildings were refurbished. Whole areas, such as the Týn Courtyard (where I briefly, at the turn of the Millennium, had an office), that had been closed off with wooden props and rickety scaffolding, were repaired and re-opened. Buildings were restored to their pre-1948 owners or their heirs. Members of the Communist Party, including many who had joined for totally non-ideological reasons, lost their jobs. Late one afternoon I watched from a respectful distance as a grave in the Vyšehrad cemetery – necropolis of the great and the good of the Czech nation – was re-opened and bones removed. Along with “Lustration” – letting the light shine in – tourists arrived, and with them hotels, restaurants and shops selling tourist tat began to open. Money changers colonised the old Royal Route from the Municipal House to Charles Bridge. McDonalds opened in March 1992. The building with the balcony from which Václav Havel addressed the 1989 crowds in Wenceslas Square, and from which Marta Kubišová had sung, became an outpost of Marks & Spencer. The price of an opera ticket rose dramatically, pricing out many local opera lovers. Prostitutes openly touted for business. At Christmas 1990, those who plied their trade on Pařižská, between the Old-New Synagogue and the Intercontinental Hotel, dressed up in red-and-white Santa Claus costumes. Street names were changed. Soviet Army surplus appeared for sale from pop-up stalls beside the statue of Charles IV at the Old Town end of the bridge that bears his name. It was said that you could buy equipment far heavier than a Russian great coat or a fur hat with a shiny hammer-and-sickle pinned to it. The Soviet tank in a Malá Strana square was painted pink and then taken away to a museum.


The Czechs are the farthest west of Europe’s Slavic-language speakers. As the medieval German Ostsiedlung advanced, the Czech-speaking population came to be surrounded on three sides by Germans and an integral part of the German- dominated Holy Roman Empire, of which the King of Bohemia became one of the seven electors. The greatest king of the native Czech Přemyslid dynasty was Ottokar II who reigned from 1253 to 1278. Yet, he does not feature prominently in the canon of Czech historical imagination, possibly because he invited German- speaking tradespeople to settle at the foot of the Castle in Prague, moving native Czechs to make way for them.

The Přemyslid dynasty gave way to the Luxembourgs in 1310 with King John. His son, Charles IV, is a rare king of Bohemia to be accorded a place of honour in the otherwise rather populist historical consciousness of Prague. Charles IV was not only King of Bohemia but also Holy Roman Emperor. His mother was a Czech princess of the Přemyslid dynasty, and throughout his reign he favoured Prague over the many other cities of his Empire (though he also had a soft spot for Lucca). Prague became the imperial capital.

To Charles IV, Prague owes many of its most famous monuments. In 1344, under pressure from Charles, the Pope raised Prague, hitherto a bishopric dependent on Mainz, to an Archbishopric and the foundation stone of the great Gothic cathedral of St Vitus was laid.

The Gothic St Wenceslas Chapel in St Vitus Cathedral, built by the architect Peter Parler in the reign of Charles IV in memory of one of Bohemia’s early Czech rulers. Photo by Gordon McKechnie

The building proceeded under Matthias of Arras and Peter Parler whom Charles brought in from Cologne. In the ambulatory of the Cathedral today you find the tombs of the kings and saints of Czech history – St Wenceslas (“Good King Wenceslas” of the English Christmas carol), St Adalbert (St Vojtĕch in Czech, the missionary bishop from Prague who is said to have baptised St Stephen, the first Christian King of the Hungarians), King Ottokar II, Charles IV himself, St John Nepomuk (of whom more later)…

Zlatá ulička (Golden Lane) in 1990. By 2018 the 16th century cottages had become homes to boutiques, and admission to the tourist-filled lane was by ticket only. Photo by Gordon McKechnie

Peter Parler was also responsible for the Gothic bridge over the Vltava that has borne Charles’ name since 1870. In 1348 Charles founded the Prague university that also bears his name. In the same busy year he founded New Town which vastly increased the size of the city and, at a time when Malá Strana and Old Town were dominated by German speakers, became home to an almost entirely Czech-speaking citizenry. Vyšehrad, the old Přemyslid citadel, was restored and incorporated into New Town.

A photo from 1990 of the towers at the Malá Strana end of the Charles Bridge. A Velvet Revolution banner reading “Havel President” still hangs from the taller tower. Photo by Gordon McKechnie

There arose at this time too a current of social and political discontent, in large part directed against the Church which was seen as unacceptably wealthy, morally corrupt and distant from the original principles of Christianity. The Great Schism of 1378, following which there were two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, did little to enhance the Church’s standing. Voices (Waldhauser the preacher, Milič the mystic, Matĕj the theologian…) arose in Prague demanding a return to the purity and poverty of the early Church. They were at first encouraged by both king and archbishop. Around 1380, the Bible was translated into Czech, and in 1389 the decision was taken to build Bethlehem Chapel to further both reform and preaching in Czech so that, as with the translation of the Bible, the people could understand the Gospel. The archbishop laid the chapel’s foundation stone.

Bethlehem Chapel developed close links with the reformist “Bohemian nation” of Charles University, and in 1402 Jan Hus, one of the University’s masters and later its Rector (1409–10), was appointed preacher at Bethlehem. By this time the old home-grown Bohemian reform movement was being supplemented by John Wycliff’s more radical ideas, brought back from Oxford by Bohemians who had gone there to study.

Theologically, Hus does not seem to have been a thoroughgoing Wycliffite. He believed in Christ as the true head of the Church, in the return to poverty and early church values, and in Scripture as the sole basis for Church life; but he did not follow Wycliff in rejecting transubstantiation. Nor did he practise giving communion in both kinds (sub utraque specie), the practice that gave rise to the movement’s name (“Utraquist”) and to the chalice as its symbol – the symbol of the equality of all Christians before God. That first happened in late 1414, when Hus was in prison in Constance, at the little Church of St Martin in the Wall, under the direction of Hus’s colleague Jakoubek of Stříbo.

Hus’ break with the Catholic Bohemian establishment came gradually, but by 1412 it was complete. One Pope, to raise money to fight his rival, launched the sale of indulgences. Jan Hus and others in Prague condemned the practice. Some of the protesters were arrested and beheaded, and the Pope put Prague under interdict. With loyal priests thus unable to perform their functions, the reformers stepped up their preaching.

The Council of Constance was called in 1415 chiefly to resolve the scandal of the, by-now-threefold, Papal schism, but Jan Hus (and the teaching of the heretic John Wycliff) was on the agenda. Hus travelled to Constance under a safe-conduct pass from the Emperor, to defend his ideas. But there he was imprisoned, refused to recant his views, and was burnt at the stake as a Wycliffite heretic on 6 July 1415.

Hus’ execution caused outrage in Bohemia, and over the following years, the Hussite armies, singing hymns, flying the banner of the chalice and under the military genius Jan Žižka, defied and defeated successive waves of Catholic armies sent in to bring the heretics of the Czech lands back into the fold of European political correctness as it was then defined. The last of the many failed Crusades against Bohemia was in 1431, but by then the country was exhausted. Splits in the Hussite movement came to the fore between the moderate Utraquists and the radical Hussites, known as “Taborites” after their stronghold, Tábor, to the south of Prague. The moderates joined with the Catholics and defeated the Taborites at the battle of Lipany in 1434. Among the many dead on the field was Prokop Holý, Žižka’s successor as military leader of the Radicals.

Following the 1436 Compact of Basel the Catholic Church tolerated moderate Utraquists celebrating communion in both kinds, but things began to change again in the early years of the 16th century. Lutheran ideas seeped into the country. While the Hussite movement, both Utraquist and Radical, had largely been popular among the Czech-speaking population, Luther’s reformation appealed also to Bohemia’s German-speakers. By the time of the 1618 Defenestration of Prague, a significant majority (85 per cent, some say 95 per cent) of Bohemia was non-Catholic. The Protestants dominated too the Bohemian Estates. After the death of Emperor Rudolf in 1612, the new Emperor, Matthias, moved the imperial court back to Vienna from Prague, and through the influence of his nominated successor, Ferdinand II, power was consolidated through Catholic imperial officials who refused to confirm religious liberties to non-Catholics, underwritten as recently as Rudolf’s 1609 “Letter of Majesty”. The Bohemian Protestants also knew of the brutal treatment of their fellow Protestants in other Habsburg realms such as Hungary and Styria.

Theoretically, the Crown of Bohemia, like that of Hungary, was elective. So after the representatives of the Bohemian Estates threw the officials of the Habsburg régime from the window they elected, as their new monarch, the Protestant Frederick of the Palatinate who was married to Elizabeth, daughter of King James VI of Scotland and I of England.

Elizabeth has gone down in history as “The Winter Queen”, because she and Frederick did not last long in Prague. The Protestant army was defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain (Bílá Hora in Czech) on 8 November 1620, and Frederick and Elizabeth fled the city.

The farm track that leads to the simple cairn erected in 1920 to mark 300 years since the Battle of White Mountain. Photo by Gordon McKechnie

Today’s British Royal Family is descended in direct line from this brief King and Queen of Bohemia. At the time of the British Act of Succession 1701, the only one of Frederick and Elizabeth’s children still living was Sophia, by then Electress of Hanover, and on her the crowns of Scotland and England were settled. Sophia died shortly before Queen Anne in 1714, and later that year her son became King George I of Great Britain.


We took tram no. 22 to its terminus on the height of ground to the west of Prague that is still known as Bílá Hora. We walked through pleasant suburban streets and then along a rough farm track across a field where the maize had been harvested not long before. To our right, on the next hill, stands the white- washed star-shaped hunting lodge of Archduke Ferdinand. Built between 1555 and 1565, it stood there when the armies met at Bílá Hora in 1620. The farm track leads to a small mound with a seemingly insignificant cairn on top of it. The cairn was erected in 1920 to mark 300 years since the Battle of White Mountain took place here.

To be continued


1 Source: PNG.

2 Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Princeton, 1998, p. 100.

3 Sayer, op. cit., p. 15.

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