During the past two decades since the Velvet Revolution, numerous North Country and Williamsburg, Va. residents have visited Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic. I have talked with many of them, and most have returned home delighted by their experience.
They cherished the opportunity to sample the fruits of the cultural and political history of a city that existed for 1,100 years and flourished under Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance eras. Prague is also one of the very few capital cities in Central Europe that survived almost intact the violence and destruction of the 20th- centrury. It features cultural attractions such as the Prague Castle, the hundreds-of-years old Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter and numerous other places.
What makes the Czech Republic so fascinating to Americans is that the democratic Czechoslovak Republic, after World War I, was created in the image of the United States. Then, Nazi occupation and decades of Communist rule reversed it all. Finally, in 1989, under the leadership of Vaclav Havel, who became the first president of free Czechoslovakia, democracy returned to the land.
In a global poll of the world's top 100 intellectuals, Havel was voted the fourth and celebrated for his lifelong adherence to humanitarian values. He wrote more than 20 plays and numerous non-fiction works that have been translated internationally.
As president, he surrounded himself with advisers who had intellectual heft. One of them, Karel Schwarzenberg, was formerly known as the 12th Prince Schwarzenberg and the Duke of Krumlov. He was the head of the House of Schwarzenberg, a leading family of the Habsburg realm. He was born in the Czechoslovak Republic, but after the 1948 Communist takeover, he immigrated to Austria. There he got involved in politics, becoming a noted critic of human rights violations in the Eastern Block.
Following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, he returned to Czechoslovakia and served as Havel's chancellor. In 2007, Schwarzenberg, in a coalition government, became minister of foreign affairs of the Czech Republic. It didn't please President Vaclav Klaus, the head of the largest center-right political party. He stated that Schwarzenberg's strong links to Austria would make him unsuitable to defend Czech national interest. This episode may have been the source of the current political upheaval in Prague.
During the 2013 presidential election, when Schwarzenberg was running for the office to replace the outgoing Klaus, and against former Prime Minister Milos Zeman, Klaus' wife, Livia, declared, she would loath to see that after her "a lady should occupy the Prague Castle who will speak only German."
It was in reference to Schwarzenberg's wife, Therese Countess zu Hardegg auf Glatz und im Maclande. This remark may have been the reason that Schwarzenberg lost the presidential election to former Prime Minister Zeman by a small margin.
It didn't take long for the Czech press to unearth some background information about Klaus' wife. She was born during World War II in independent Slovakia, an ally of Nazi Germany. It turned out that her father was a fairly high-ranking official in the ministry of propaganda of the Slovak fascist regime. At one point, he was in charge of disposing of the confiscated property of Jews deported to Nazi extermination camps.
During all those years that Livia Klaus presided over the Prague Castle, as first lady, she pleaded ignorance about her father's wartime activities. Now, all this tumbled down on her.
After decades of dictatorship, it seems, Czech politicians must learn that in a democracy, if you live in a glass house, don't throw stones at others.
Milos Zeman, the new president, in turn, is still angry at former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
"Albright had promised that there would be no bombardment of civilians during the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia," Zeman said. "She made a promise, and she didn't keep the promise. Since then, I don't like her."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.