Chad Bryant. Prague: Belonging in the Modern City. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021. 352pp, $29.95.
Historian Chad Bryant has produced a moving and deeply informative book in Prague: Belonging in the Modern City. The book’s structure, consisting chiefly of five mini-biographies of illustrative, but not very well known, Praguers from the 1800s to the present day, also treats the evolving city itself as a main character. Each chapter illustrates a particular period in the city’s life via its subject, underscoring the symbiosis between Prague and its people.
The theme of Prague is the resistance of these five subjects to the reigning, overbearing ideological conception of the city in their time. They are people who don’t quite fit; a Czech in German Prague, a Jew in Czech Prague, a Vietnamese-born woman in a Prague now global and capitalist, but still largely defined by its historical ethnic identities.
Their manners of resistance and their ways of finding belonging in a city that is theirs on the ground but not quite in the general imagination are unique, and sometimes contradictory. Travel writer Karel Vladislav Zap resists German cultural hegemony in determining Prague’s essential character, by emphasizing Czech culture and landmarks in his writing. The Jewish, German-speaking journalist Egon Erwin Kisch carves out some space apart from the increasing Czech hegemony that fulfilled Zap’s vision. Working-class carpenter Vojtech Berger builds Communism through mass politics and Party social events in a city where Communists are suspect. Actress Hana Frejková resists Communism and the “socialist city” with the limited freedom of theater. Vietnamese-born blogger Duong Nguyen Jiraskova struggles “with a sense of belonging in a nation-state that implied a national homogeneity that was racially coded.”
These five subjects all sought to circumvent marginalization and exclusion while still making and calling Prague their home. “Their stories follow the rise of nationalism,” Bryant writes, “while exposing tensions between homogenizing national imaginations and the persistence of urban diversity.”
At times, Bryant seems hostile not only to nationalism but even to the symbols that help give it form. Nations are “conjured into existence,” he writes, expressing a common academic view. But he also speaks of the difficulty of fitting in “for those inhabiting an environment thick with symbolic reminders of their otherness.” Has Bryant penned an entire book about a historic city, only to suggest that the actually existing city, slowly and incrementally built up, is somehow offensive, or inferior to an abstract ideological conception of it? Is Prague only an idea?
Not so fast.
Bryant’s views are not left or right as much as anti-authoritarian, complemented by a particularly urbanist understanding that cities are complex, diverse places that by their very nature resist appropriation by any one particular community or historical understanding. This does not mean, as conservatives sometimes allege, that cities are mere assemblages of atomized, autonomous individuals. Rather, they’re home to many overlapping communities, but not particularly defined by any one of them. And, as Bryant admits as he winds down the book, “national imaginations are also a form of belonging”; there is more in a city than in anyone’s philosophy. It is this continuous evolution and interplay between the old and the new that makes cities tick. The irony, perhaps, is that nationalists could turn even blood and soil into abstractions.
Bryant does not deny the realness or goodness of the city as it actually exists on the ground. Quite the opposite; he argues convincingly that it is ideology, whether nationalism or Communism, which denies actually existing diversity. In fact, he speaks of “recasting Prague,” from a narrow ideological symbol to “a particular city characterized by extraordinary differences and immense changes over time.” He juxtaposes national treasures and local customs. The change, as much as the constancy, is a fundamental part of the city’s fabric and reality. He writes of migrants, for example, that they are “there but not acknowledged as being there.”
Change and continuity wind together throughout the book. In one bit of continuity, Berger’s Communist May Day parades — described by the lovely Czech word manifestace, meaning bodily demonstration — resembled Bohemia’s old religious pilgrimages and coronation processions, reinvented as an expression of mass politics.
In matters of change, street signs changed languages. Prague’s squares and roads — always the same actual places — took on over the centuries the names of Habsburgs, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Communists, and dissidents. In addition to name changes, various regimes erected and demolished statues and monuments, seeking to bend the irreducible, irrepressible complexity of the city’s civic life and urban form to their own inflexible ideologies.
Along with these broad narratives, we learn quite a bit in the way of anecdotes about Prague and its people over the centuries. For example, Prague’s famous night theater and cabaret culture were made possible by widespread and reliable urban lighting. Walking around the city, or “strolling,” at one time considered the province of the poor, became by the early 1800s a form of leisure for the middle class, with its own “surprisingly strict rules and customs.” This cultural shift was largely enabled by road improvements and the decline of robbery along outlying roads.
Praguers, even many without that much money, frequently had country homes where they sometimes escaped the crowds and noise of the city. (The Communists tolerated this terribly borgeous habit, because they understood fewer people in the city center to mean a lower likelihood of protest or civil unrest breaking out.) Urban renewal targeted the disfavored Jewish Town district; debates over development versus green space occurred centuries ago. The details are unfamiliar and at times confusing, but the broad strokes are ancient.
We also learn about the city’s social life and class distinctions. Prague, like most of Europe, was home to much anti-Semitism, and complicating the position of Jews was the fact that Germanness and Jewishness overlapped in Prague, in a way that was rare in Europe. The Czech Karel Zap, in fact, viewed Jews and Germans as “rootless cosmopolitans.” (Of course, none of this mattered when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia).
The jobs open to the working poor in 1800s Prague weren’t so different from today’s gig economy. They cut and sold ice from frozen rivers, or delivered goods to wealthy households. The same issues of class and ethnicity affect Prague’s Vietnamese population today, profiled in the final chapter, especially the “1.5” (born in Vietnam, raised in the Czech Republic) or second generation. They find themselves more Czech than their parents, but not Czech enough for the city’s old guard.
At heart, Bryant’s project is both humble and vicariously patriotic. It embodies a localism and civic spirit that is not necessarily hostile or indifferent to the nation, or to the city’s symbolic meaning, but which sees the city primarily as home rather than symbol. Globalization and nationalism alike will remain a major part of politics, but we can hope that such a groundedness in home might precede them.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.