Prague, Crossroads of Europe


by Karla Huebner

Prague: Crossroads of Europe,
Derek Sayer,
London: Reaktion Books, 2019. 280 pp.

In the years since the Velvet Revolution, Prague—for forty years a near-mystery behind the Iron Curtain—has become one of Europe’s most visited cities. Praised in the early 1990s as an expat destination rivaling Paris of the 1920s, then infested in the 2000s by drunken British stag parties, Prague has nonetheless remained a site too little understood by most of its visitors, many of whom have very little awareness of its complex history.

Derek Sayer’s Prague: Crossroads of Europe should help travelers gain a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the city and its context. Part of Reaktion’s Cityscapes series (other titles address Beijing, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Chicago, New York, Paris, and San Francisco), it combines history with travel guide. Titles in this series are written “by authors with intimate knowledge of the cities,” provide “a unique overview of a city’s past as well as a focused eye on its present,” and offer “essential cultural companions to the world’s greatest cities.” To accomplish this, the usual travel-guide format is reversed: instead of a short overview of the city followed by endless listings of sights, lodgings, restaurants, and shops, here we have 226 illustrated pages of urban and national history followed by twenty pages of listings, five pages of chronology, fifteen pages of citations for quoted material and additional sources, two pages of suggested reading and viewing, and a ten-page index.

As a scholar who often writes about Prague and the Czech lands (notably, the prize-winning books The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History [1998] and Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History [2013]), Sayer is an appropriately knowledgeable author for this title. His background as a sociologist, combined with decades of research on Czech cultural history, gives him an unusually broad basis from which to prepare a guide for the intelligent, nonspecialist traveler. He writes in an accessible, jargon-free style and has a fine eye for the telling detail and illuminating anecdote.

But as this book is a travel guide, we may reasonably ask whether it is useful beyond that specific purpose. What does it offer scholars of urban history, or for that matter scholars in general who may or may not be planning trips to Prague?

Prague: Crossroads of Europe is, actually, a worthwhile addition to the urban historian’s library. While it is not conceived as an analytical text and (unsurprisingly) does not offer detailed accounts of population shifts, annexations of suburbs, construction of sewers, waterworks, or electrical grids, nor maps of the city’s growth, fortifications, or metro, Sayer is nonetheless alert to such matters and weaves them into his text. The meat of the book consists of an informative prologue, twelve chapters of history, and seven essays about aspects of the city today. The twelve historical chapters take us from the legendary birth of the city up to a brief look at the Velvet Revolution and its aftermath.

Against this larger backdrop of the history of Bohemia and Moravia (necessary to properly understand the history of Prague), much material of interest to the urban historian can be found. For instance, the second chapter, “Přemyslid Prague,” overviews developments from the ninth through the thirteenth century, with information on the establishment of churches, monasteries, and synagogues, as well as notes on markets, bridges, fortifications, and flooding. This chapter also points out that with a population estimated at around 3,500 in 1200, Jews, Germans, and Italians as well as Czechs were part of the city from very early (Prague’s first pogrom occurred in 1096 and the earliest mention of a synagogue dates to 1124). In chapter 3, “The Golden Age of Charles IV,” Sayer focuses on urban developments under the celebrated fourteenth-century ruler, such as street paving, contracts for street cleaning and waste disposal in 1340, the foundation of Charles University, and ethnic and social differences between Old Town and New Town. Chapter 4, “Against All!” gives background on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which religious conflict was particularly significant for the city and for Bohemia more generally. Chapter 5, “A Poisoned Chalice,” similarly highlights religious conflict during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but also provides information on architectural changes, such as work on  the Old Town Hall and New Town Hall, the foundation of the Jesuit Clementinum (now the National Library), Renaissance additions to the Lesser Town and elsewhere, the flourishing Jewish community of the turn of the seventeenth century, and Emperor Rudolf’s proclamations against dirty streets and rising crime. Chapter 6, “The White Mountain,” looks at seventeenth- and eighteenth-century developments, many of which relate to the re-Catholicization of the city after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, such as the expulsion of non-Catholic clergy and “the choice of conversion or banishment” for nobles and burghers (p. 88). The shift to German as language of state, literature and learning, and polite society, and the devastations of the Thirty Years War and plague are also noted, as well as the baroque construction boom, which involved the building of numerous churches, aristocratic palaces, and burgher townhouses; information on the subsequent lives of many of these buildings is provided as well.

Chapter 7, “The Homeland and the Muses,” moves on to the Enlightenment, with the beginnings of religious toleration; the rise in land patriotism (versus linguistic/ethnic nationalism); the establishment of purpose-built theaters; and the construction of highways, sewers, paved streets, parks, and bridges and embankments, not to mention the arrival of industrialization. Chapter 8, “Golden Slavonic Prague,” addresses the nineteenth-century growth in population and Czech nationalism, with attention to census self-identification and linguistic geography in the city, as well as rising Czech-language education, literature, and societies. The continued growth of industry; the departure of Jews from the ghetto and slum clearance there; the construction of railways, bridges, waterworks, the Negrelli Viaduct, and also the city’s first gasworks, electric lighting, and telephone network as well as major public buildings, a stock exchange, and important new churches; and the rise of art nouveau architecture are also outlined. Chapter 9, “At the Crossroads,” focuses on the First Republic (1918-38) and the establishment of Greater Prague, which annexed thirty-eight largely Czech suburbs to the city, shifting its demographics; the retitling of German and Habsburg place names is also mentioned. The contributions of modernist architects are noted, as are developments in industry, transit, social housing, garden city suburbs, department stores, and traffic lights. Chapter 10, “Into the Shadows,” covers the Nazi occupation of 1938-45, extermination of the Jews, and the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans. Chapter 11, “Prague Moves East,” addresses the city under Communism and includes discussion of monuments; the massive construction of suburban prefab housing; the development of the metro and other improvements in transportation; the construction of Stalinist and Brutalist hotels, department stores, theaters, and the TV tower; and efforts relating to architectural conservation. Chapter 12, “Back into Europe,” primarily summarizes the Velvet Revolution, then mentions a few aspects of the shift back to capitalism.

The section “The City Today” provides essays on the Prague coffee house, beer, Cubism, modernity, the Karlín district, Little Hanoi, and the Dancing House. These provide looks at aspects of the present-day city that include much political, ethnic, artistic, literary, and historical information. They do not attempt to give an account of the entire metropolitan area, but rather use specific topics to convey important aspects of the city that include which cafes were frequented by particular famous figures, and the relationship between traditional pubs and wine bars to the likes of new Irish pubs and craft brewing. Czech modernist architecture from Cubism to Functionalism benefits from two essays; changes in neighborhoods are the topic of “Karlín Redux” (gentrification from a working-class and Roma district to a yuppie and hipster enclave); “Little Hanoi” addresses the city’s large Vietnamese population by introducing the reader to a huge market complex on the southern outskirts and the voices of some Vietnamese Praguers. The Dancing House essay looks at recent Czech-Western interconnections such as Frank Gehry and Vlado Miluniċ’s famous “Fred and Ginger” plus rock music and Prague anglophone literature.

While Prague: Crossroads of Europe is not a substitute for a scholarly text on the urban history of Prague, overall it provides a remarkably useful and very readable short history that will certainly be welcomed by scholars visiting the city; it can also be used as a quick reference. Sayer sprinkles information about numerous historical periods and topics into his chapters, which makes for a more engaging read but means the index is vital for readers who want to know specifics about particular structures or topics. Also, while quotations are cited and general sources are given, scholarly readers will have to hunt for sources of some of the information (such as data on street paving or electrification). Here, additional “Further Reading” titles would have been helpful. But so long as the reader recognizes the overarching purpose of the book, which is to give the traveler a historically focused introduction to the city, scholars as well as the general public should find this a worthy volume. In fact, it could also serve as a textbook for a course on the city, if supplemented with suitable additional readings.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.