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Prague 1938

Author: Dara Kavanagh

Cover design: Marie Lane  


Old Meisel

1938 is a catastrophic date in the history of the Czech people, a people who have never lacked for catastrophic dates. It was a pivotal moment for all of Europe, a year during which the course of history might have gone any number of directions. For the house on Nerudova St, too, it was a time of unlooked-for change. As the bells of Our Lady of Týn rang in the New Year, and the crowds in the Old Town Square embraced one another with apprehensive smiles, we had little real idea of just how bad things would get before the year was out.

All through spring, the Marconi wireless was turned far less to music, as it always had been. In previous years, the main battleground had been whether to tune into Munich or Prague or Vienna, to classical or jazz, to Italian opera or Django Reinhart or Smetana's Ma Vlast. Now, bulletins and political broadcasts were the order of the day. 'That machine,' declared Fr Kaufmann, rather more sententiously than was his wont, 'is the tabernacle in everyone's home. And we must be careful, or demagogues of the stamp of Dr Goebbels are like to become the new household gods.'



Throughout that long summer of '38, I led a double life. It was a long hot summer for Czechoslovakia too, a time when the future hung perilously in the balance. We were a small country surrounded by enemies. Not just the German Reich, with its growing demands for the Sudeten Mountains, Poland was eyeing up the territory around Cesky Tesin, Hungary had an appetite for great swathes of Slovakia, the Ruthenians to the east were making separatist noises, even the Slovaks were restless. Who could Benes look to, with so many wolves circling? Romania was weak. Daladier was miles away, sitting pretty behind his Maginot line. The Soviets? But could Russian wolves be trusted any more than German wolves? As for Mr Chamberlain, he’d dispatched a sheep named Runciman to council Benes to simply allow the wolves into the fold.

It was a time of anxiety. The dread was palpable. Every news broadcast deepened the sense of ineluctable disaster. And yet there was a sort of recklessness abroad. Life should go on as though that future might never arrive. There was a defiant gaiety or a gay defiance, the hysterical jauntiness of the condemned prisoner. Papa determined that the U Cerneho Slunce summer catalogue should be the thickest yet, though who in their right mind buys art with a catastrophe looming? Gold, perhaps, but contemporary Czech painting? In Nerudova St, preparations continued apace for the society wedding of Lt Niklaus Hayek, or Mikulas as he now styled himself, to Eva Spotakova that was to take place in September. Both families agreed that the shouting of Henlein's SdP ruffians should not be allowed drown out the big day. Quite the opposite! The wedding should be all the more opulent in the face of impending disaster. It was a patriotic duty.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 280

Publication date: 14.05.2021

ISBN numbers:
978 1 912868 51 3
978 1 912868 52 0