Lessons: We need compassionate and caring leadership

Source: Livingston County News / www.thelcn.com / By Bill Cook /

Tonight I walked again through Wenceslas Square in Prague. It is not a particularly beautiful square, certainly no match for the nearby Old Town Square. It is hardly a square at all, but rather a half-mile long street that had been a horse market in the Middle Ages, and now has a monumental building at one end.

It is the heart of Prague and in the heart of all Czech patriots. It provided the setting for Czechoslovakia’s creation out of the ruin of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Just 20 years later, the tanks of the Third Reich rolled through the Square following the disastrous “deal” between Hitler and Britain’s Neville Chamberlain. In 1968, Soviet tanks entered Wenceslas Square to put down the movement to liberalize Czechoslovakia, symbolized by the cultural activities of Prague Spring in 1968.

The next year a young student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire at the top of the square, near a large equestrian statue of King Wenceslas I. A month later, the office of the Russian airline Aeroflot was sacked by Czechs celebrating a victory over the Soviet Union’s soccer team; this was more than sports looting but another protest to the Soviet occupation.

In 1989, with hundreds of thousands of people in the Square, Vaclav Havel, a leading dissident who spent time in prison after the Soviet invasion in 1968, announced the freedom of Czechoslovakia and was soon named the country’s first president.

Every freedom lover ought to get goose bumps walking through the square. I get more than most people because I lived in Prague just a couple of blocks away in 1969 and walked through this space countless times then and in a dozen visits to Prague since.

The statue at the top is indeed King Wenceslas I, aka Good King Wenceslas. He is still a great national hero. He was a good and holy king. As you may know, on the day after Christmas one year, he and his page took food to a poor man who lived quite a distance from the center.

Today, mounted on the base of the statue is a photo of Havel, the hero of what became known as the Velvet Revolution because of the peaceful transition from Soviet-dominated tyranny to democracy 29 years ago. In the Czech language, “Wenceslas” and “Vaclav” are the same name, the former being an English translation of the latter.

About 20 meters in front of the statue is a small monument to Jan Palach, who chose to set himself on fire as an act of defiance rather than to live in Soviet bondage. He is a Czech hero along with the two great men named Wenceslas/Vaclav. There are always flowers and messages on the monument to Palach.

Near these places is the building from which Havel proclaimed freedom from Soviet tyranny. I remember watching his speech on television, and a few years before his death I had the privilege and honor of meeting him and hearing him speak about democracy.

A bit further down the square is the old Aeroflot office, now a store. Although I do not condone vandalism, the sack of that facility in February 1969 probably belongs in the category of civil disobedience. Nothing was stolen, and no one was hurt. The motivation was more righteous indignation than wrath.

This history for the Czechs is important now because most citizens do not remember these events. They must be memorialized and celebrated and, most important, imitated. The Czechs should not ignore many injustices in their history, but they must celebrate and learn from the best of their ancestors. Their politics today is nasty and partisan and jingoistic; they need examples to follow, people willing to sacrifice everything for justice and freedom.

The United States has its heroes and high points. We need them just as the Czechs need Wenceslas, Palach, and Havel — each one quite different from the others. We, too, are living at a time of nastiness, partisanship, and jingoism. We need leaders of compassion, courage, and self-sacrifice. I hope we need no martyrs like Palach. We do need compassionate and courageous and self-sacrificing leaders like Good King Wenceslas and Vaclav Havel.

Bill Cook is a distinguished teaching professor and emeritus professor of history at SUNY Geneseo. He has been a member of the Geneseo faculty since 1970. His research areas of interest include medieval and Renaissance Europe and church history.