lagerland

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Plzeň is ground zero of the global lager explosion – it was invented here in the 1830s (ever wondered what the Ur in Pilsner Urquell stood for?) So much to answer for…

There’s a museum dedicated to General George S. Patton, commander of one of the three mighty Allied army groups that smashed across the Rhine into Germany in early 1945. It was one of his units that fought their way across the mountains from Germany into Bohemia in early May and liberated Plzeň. Apparently as the GIs came into town they swapped chocolate for beer. When profusely thanked by the citizens for their arrival, they responded by saying “you’re welcome! it’s OK! never mind!”

Patten then got himself into trouble for publicly suggesting that, now the Germans were sorted, the Allies should take the war straight to the USSR. That’s a big historical what if, and could well have been disastrous, but when you consider that Plzeň was handed straight over to the Soviets and had to deal with that for 44 more years (including the distortion and suppression of the American role in its liberation), you can see why the people here might have admired him enough to establish a museum in his honor.

There’s another synagogue too:

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apparently the third biggest in the world, after one in Jerusalem and the one I visited last year in Budapest. Of course that made sense back in the 19th century, but now it seems awfully large, and much of the lushly patterned painted decoration has peeled off the ceiling, leaving the brickwork exposed. There are still bullet marks near the altar from 1945. I wonder if the people who fired those shots imagined their traces would still be showing 67 years later?

Also a church, with a tower from which the photo at the top of this post was taken:

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Even my Czech was good enough to read the sign warning people not to climb under the influence of alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs.

There was a beer museum too, but it was really boring.

Lager town two: České Budějovice is probably better known by its German name of Budweis – after which the American brew, the Big Mac of fizzy beers, was named. Even though the Budweiser name had been in use for centuries in Bohemia, Anheuser-Busch, with the sense of arrogant entitlement that American corporations muster so well, spent over a decade after the Velvet Revolution trying to sue the Czech minnow’s ass over use of the name it had itself pilfered back in the 19th century. In Europe, fortunately, it lost.

Anyhow, it too has a nice town square:

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and a sense of civic humour:

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Strangely, though, it had been invaded by Falun Gong, white hippies meditating cross-legged in the street while an Asian woman handed out leaflets about persecution and human rights.

They were doing the same – why this part of Bohemia? – in Český Krumlov, a tiny place with a completely intact Renaissance centre and castle (the latter with an infectiously enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide), and a small brewery, Eggenberg, making tastier beer than its more famous counterparts.

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The Viennese painter Egon Schiele lived here for three months in 1910, until the townsfolk slung him out for his, erm, Bohemian lifestyle and for painting pre-pubescent girls. Naturally today one of the town’s main draw cards is a museum bearing his name. This is what Český Krumlov looked like to him:

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Prague: the Jewish quarter

It only takes so long looking at the pretty face of central Europe before you are bound to end up staring at the screaming, searing wound gouged across it: the treatment of the Jews. It was bad enough before the 20th century: this graveyard was for centuries the only plot of land they were allowed to bury their dead in, so they had to stack them up to ten deep:

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But then came Hitler. Here in Prague there is a beautiful 13th century synagogue with a high Gothic ceiling and wooden pews arranged all around the outside:

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what can you say, what can you think, when you sit in one of those pews and know that most of the people who sat in them in the 1930s were murdered?

It gets worse: entering the 19th century Pinkas synagogue, which consists of a hall and several rooms, you are greeted with wall upon wall upon wall covered floor to ceiling with painted names, not much bigger than regular handwriting:

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These are the names of the Czech Jews who died in the camps; the number, I am told, is 80,000, but whatever the number it’s overwhelming. It’s like the Menin gate at Ypres; of course you can’t rank atrocities, but at least the 55,000 named on the Menin gate died fighting for King and Country, not just murdered in cold blood.

Upstairs there is a room whose walls are lined with pictures (stuffed in a suitcase and hidden away by one of their teachers when the time came) painted by small Jewish children interpreting their circumstances in the Terezin camp, which the Nazis allowed the Jewish community to run – for a while – and cynically presented as a model of humanitarianism. Many of them show colourful hopes for the future, but there was no future: almost none of them survived the death camps where they were subsequently sent.

These were children. Does the blood boil or does it freeze? Every time I read about these things, or walk into one of these museums, I find myself shouting curses under my breath. But no reaction can be adequate. I am reminded of the reflection of one of those who witnessed the execution of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz: you can extinguish that one life, but how can you possibly place that in the balance against the lives of the hundreds of thousands who died? How can that possibly make good?

These places have exhibitions of Jewish life down the centuries: the charters, the artifacts, the photos. It’s touching, as would be any exhibition about the life of any community, but I carry no particular torch for them; I have had good Jewish friends to whom I owe a lot, but as a culture it has never interested me especially. So what? These people made a contribution to the societies they lived in, and deserved the right to live in peace on their own terms and be who they wanted to be. Largely, in Europe, now, they do – those who remain. There are dark times ahead, no doubt; but surely, what happened then, never again – not even close?

In the donation boxes in the synagogues, the notes are mostly Czech crowns or US dollars, barely any euros; but it is heartening that whenever I overhear anyone telling the terrible stories, the protagonists are not “Germans” but “Nazis”…

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Prague: two Sarajevo moments

somwehere in an old building at Prague castle, to my surprise, there was a window with a notice on it saying: this is where the Defenestration of Prague happened.

The what?

Took me back to when I was 17 and doing A-level history. Long story short: Prague was an important part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by Catholics, but the local people were Protestants. The Holy Roman Emperor decided in 1618 that he was going to take away Protestant rights; the Protestant leaders didn’t like it, walked into the castle and put the Emperor’s envoys on spontaneous trial, after which they sentenced them to death and, by way of implementation, chucked them out of this window:

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Looked at from the bottom – the window is the one on the top floor – that’s a fair way to fall:

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but they all survived. The Catholics put this down to divine intervention, while the Protestants claimed they had landed in a dung heap. Either way, the Emperor mobilized his armies, one thing led to another and that led to the next thing, and before you know it the whole of Europe is involved, the crops are ravaged from the land, and a quarter of the population of Germany is dead. The repercussions of this one defenestration ran to three decades of bloodletting, famine, disease and death: the Thirty Years War.

If that rings a more recent bell, it’s one that tolls 30km down the road amid gorgeous forests at the Bohemian castle of Konopiste. For the last 20 years of his life, this was the home of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Ferdinand:

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That’s the one who was assassinated by Balkan nationalists at Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. And Austria invaded the Balkans, and one mobilization led to another, and so to the trenches of Flanders and the Somme and poison gas and the Russian revolution and Versailles and hyperinflation and depression and Hitler and Stalingrad and Dresden and Auschwitz and the gulags, and what percentage of Europe dead? And even after those thirty (one) years it wasn’t really finished because of Stalin and his successors, and by the time it was finally all over in 1989 there had been, for some, 75 years of it…

Franz Ferdinand’s palace is as impossible as his moustache. Can you imagine a world where people built stuff like this in all seriousness?

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But at least that was benevolent. Inside the palace there are rooms and rooms full of armaments, and corridors and galleries and staircases bristling with trophy kills of wildlife, each one tagged with the place and date it died. The guide let drop the statistic that, during his life, Franz Ferdinand shot almost 275,000 animals, each one recorded and numbered. Do the maths on that. He died at 50; let’s assume he started at age five, and never took a day off. Put like that, he killed, every single day, an average of 15 animals, almost one per waking hour. That’s a murder rate almost worthy of the Nazis; in fact it makes you wonder where they got their models from. And this one-man animal genocide was the heir to the throne of one of the great European empires. It seems entirely appropriate that he was hunted to death by Balkan nationalists around the streets of Sarajevo like some kind of exotic big game.

If only the consequences hadn’t been so awful, for so long…

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Prague: beaten track

what is it with Prague?

On paper it ought to be the most attractive big city in Central Europe, out-beautifying Budapest and even Vienna. If those three cities had been goddesses and Paris only cast his eyes above two metres off the ground, Prague would win the apple hands down – it has an unbeatable richness and variety of beautiful buildings from medieval times right up to the 20th century (amazing that it survived the 20th century). It’s below the two-metre line that’s the problem, though.

Of course it’s unfair to judge a city by its tourist quarters – could you sum up London by talking about Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square? – but here there is something shockingly voracious and blatant that nowhere else seems to have quite so badly, from the cheesy sketch artists on the Charles Bridge to the basement museums of medieval torture instruments to the posters for Hooters (roger Houston – but in Bohemia?) to the ubiquitous Euro-American tourist babe uniform of extreme hot pants (do they save them especially for here? there are nowhere near as many in London or Paris or Vienna) to the 12-year old Italians taking photos of Franz Kafka’s birthplace as though Kafka were Bono or Lady Gaga (or do your parents really never explain their impenetrable decisions to you?), to the sheer density of numbers toting cameras. As in this picture of the interior of St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague Castle (could even Florence or Rome be this swamped?):

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It didn’t help that my hotel room was on the first floor directly above one of the noisiest tram junctions in Prague (the building shook every 15 seconds), or that the reception staff vied with each other to see who could be least friendly, or that considerable effort seemed to have gone into getting the details of the room exactly wrong (bedside tables and lights on the opposite side of the room from the beds, for example). But then what did I expect for €49 a night in central Prague? Call it false economy, or just bad judgement. But I dutifully did the tourist things this year that I hadn’t done last year, and quite impressive they all were in their way: the cute medieval Old Town Square, the freakish astronomical clock, the largest castle in the world (sez Guinness), the delightfully art nouveau (almost to the point of kitsch) Municipal House. Yet somehow it all seemed slathered with too much Prague-o-Disney…

Not fair to Prague; that faraway people of whom we once knew nothing have every right to make as much money out of us as they can in whatever way they see fit; they’re just making up time for that piece of paper, and all the other pieces of paper signed by the Big Three at Yalta etc. that cost them another 44 years of Soviet deep freeze. But it would be nice to get a sense of the soul (is there a soul?) Down in the back streets near the medieval Convent of St. Agnes came close, as did the Czech Cubism exhibit (some amazing stuff there from a cool hundred years ago, like the one below by Bohumil Kubista – this wasn’t on display, but I can’t get images of similar ones that were). I feel like I ought to owe Prague more time, but I can’t ever see myself coming back…

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back on the main line

On the train from Dresden to Prague, making its way from Berlin to Vienna, I got a shock: plugged back into the high voltage European backpacker circuit, every compartment filled with people half my age in big groups doing it because that’s what you do when you’re that age. There was no space at all, so I made for the restaurant car, fortunately in time to get a seat; within ten minutes it was filling with backpacker overflow. Ahead of me Americans, playing cards (because “scrabble is boring”); to my left, Spanish, playing cards and good-naturedly drinking beer; to my right, English, drinking beer and effing and blinding; behind me, Germans, discussing and analysing. I have to say I love it, even if I dread what kind of circus Prague is going to be…

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Dresden: new masters

Maybe it’s just me, but starting from about 200 years ago – around JMW Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, then the Impressionists – painting starts to make much more sense than most of the stuff I was writing about in the Alte Meister. Why? I’ve thought about that, and I really don’t know the answer. I guess I’ll have to think some more…

But then again, so does a lot of the art of the ancient world, even as far back as the Assyrians. Those Assyrians again – they seem to be following me around Europe (or is it the other way around?) Four more in Dresden, with their larger-than-life profile poses and their wings, just as spectacular as in Paris or London…

Here in the Neue Meister, a fair amount of the older stuff, and then suddenly that lift in the middle of the 19th century: some really interesting portraits and a lot of gorgeous landscape painting, the standout once again being the cool serenity of Friedrich himself:

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This is a portrait by Ferdinand Von Rayski of a Saxon government official, more honest and less flattering than you’d expect for the middle of the 19th century:

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War, by Otto Dix:

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A sculpture called Stack by the German-resident Liverpool artist Tony Cragg (which had me suggesting to Allison that we sell for display some of the neat piles of mess she has positioned around the house):

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And a couple of very recent pieces by the aging Dresden artist Gerhard Richter, Strip and Aladdin (both multi-part pieces, these just examples):

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Dresden: old masters

The Alte Meister art museum is apparently one of Europe’s most significant. It’s chocka with gut-busting Rubens numbers and superbly executed but entirely standard portraits of forgettable – and forgotten – 18th century wigs, along with stacks of alternately – even simultaneously – overdramatized and lifeless religious and mythological scenes, featuring people pointing and gesticulating in all directions at shocking supernatural happenings. No shortage of dramatically exposed female breast either; I suppose the sight of this must have been really quite something in the days before we were continually drenched with ubiquitous advertising images verging on soft porn. All of this is the European canon, full of technical and creative brilliance, thunderous in its depth and range, yet somehow adding up to what an artist friend of mine in London used to derisively call “faaaart”. It sometimes seems like so much dead plankton dropping silently to the floors of ancient seas, where it comes to form one compressed, inert mass.

And yet, of course, every such museum has its showstoppers. Like Holbein on the French ambassador to London (a lot in the hands here too):

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or Titian’s knowing Christ (render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s):

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or, among the dramatisers, the clarity of Botticelli:

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or the lighting in this Correggio, which somehow captures the force of the moment when so many others fail:

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some sumptuous but understated Venice-scapes by the various Canalettos:

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and a self-portrait by the 18th century portraitist Anton Graff:

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