The 1848 Prague Uprising (Travels in revolutionary Mitteleuropa, from the Rhine to the Danube/6)

Standing on the arch Čech Bridge on the Moldau in Prague, I can see Wenceslas Square, where one of the most important revolutions between March 1948-November 1849 against the Hapsburg Empire took place.

Starting on June 2, 1848, the Czechs convened in Prague a Pan-Slavic Congress, the first occasion when all Slavic populations under the Hapsburg monarchy were represented in the same meeting to advance their civil and cultural rights.  On June 12, while the Congress was continuing, enthusiastic radical Czech students, with the March Vienna Uprising fresh on their minds, organized a “Slavic” mass in Wenceslas Square, and afterwards demonstrated with workers peacefully but clashed with the Austrian garrison when it opened fire. After six days of street fighting and over one hundred people dead, the reactionary Austrian commander of Prague imposed martial law, took control of the city, and dissolved the unfinished Slavic Congress.  This was the first counter-revolutionary victory in the Empire.

Looking in the direction of Wenceslas Square, I also recall a very special figure in that uprising.  As was the case with almost every European revolutionary fermentation those days, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) was there.  Having experienced in Paris the political exhilaration over the February 1848 revolution, the radical Hegelian Pan-Slavist had turned his attention again to the prospects of a revolution in Eastern Europe, hoping to use “nationalist passions towards revolutionary ends” (Jean-Christophe Angaut:  “Revolution, Socialism, and the Slavic Question:  1848 and Michael Bakunin,” in Moggash & Stedman Jones, eds.:  The 1848 Revolutions and European Political Thought, 2018, p. 413).  When he heard about the forthcoming Slavic Congress, which promised to be similar to the May 1848 German National Assembly, he went to Prague to attend, and contributed his manifesto “Fundamental Principles of the New Slav Politics.”  “Bakunin considered the Slavs to be at once the most oppressed national group and the one whose particular liberation necessarily would signal the emancipation of all other peoples” (413).  Although he advised against it, he participated actively in the subsequent uprising, and was indicted for it by the Austrian authorities in 1850.  Following the defeat, Bakunin went back to Germany and published his Appeal to the Slavs by a Russian Patriot(1848) while staying in touch with Czech democrats who were planning another uprising in Prague.  Their conspiracy was discovered by the police, which imposed a state of siege that lasted until August 1853.  However, Bakunin was able to draw on his June 1848 experience in Prague when in May 1849 he was actively involved as a military advisor in the Dresden Uprising.

Standing on the bridge and marveling at the majestic Moldau, I reflect on the tremendous revolutionary network that in the years 1848-49 connected the stops of my Mitteleuropa journey (Konstanz, Dresden, Prague, Vienna) as well as many other cities across the continent.

Public announcements at the busy train station in Prague are preceded by a musical theme.  When I first hear it, it rings a bell but I cannot place it, so I carry it with me throughout my short stay in the city.  Back to the station to catch the train to Vienna, it hits me:  But of course, the theme preceding the announcements is the arpeggios of the harps opening Vyšehrad(1874-75) opening Smetana’sMa Vlast!  My prefigurative encounter with the Czech mythical bard playing his lyre fills me with joy since in ten days’ time I will be in Chicago, listening with Daphne and Michael vander Roest, my daughter and son-in-law, to the Symphony perform Smetana’s entire cycle under Daniel Barenboim!

In fact, before coming back to the station, I just saw the historic fortress Vyšehrad on a hill on the right bank of the Moldau, a legendary symbol of the Czech struggle for freedom.  It reminded me of the Battle of Vyšehrad (1420) during the Hussite Revolution (1419-34), the wars between the followers of the Bohemian Reformation and joint Catholic forces and crusaders (as well as among Hussite factions) that raged soon after the execution of the Czech reformer Jan Hus in Konstanz in 1415.  As the train is leaving Prague, I am humming the 15th-century Hussite war song that opens “Blaník” (1879), the last tone poem of Smetana’s cycle.

November 21, 2018

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