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The Spirit of Wenceslas

`GOOD King Wenceslas went out, on the Feast of Stephen....'' In the days ahead, millions of English-speaking Christians will sing the familiar Christmas carol about a 10th-century Bohemian king who humbles himself in service to a pauper. It seems especially fitting that the historical and political vectors producing the remarkable changes in Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, are converging in Prague's Wenceslas Square, beneath the giant statue of the ``good king'' - the liege who subordinated his crown to kindness - at Christmastime.

They have become familiar in recent weeks, those photographs of the crowds packing Wenceslas Square, demanding reform. All the momentous changes in the East bloc this year have been dramatic: the freest elections in Soviet history; the takeover in Poland of a Solidarity-led government; the breach of the Berlin Wall. But the events in Czechoslovakia have been distinguished by their suddenness.

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Just weeks ago Czechoslovakia, where the communist grip has been fiercely tight ever since the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968, was being lumped with Romania as a hard-line, holdout state unaffected by the ferment in many of its East-bloc neighbors. Then, abruptly, the dam broke.

Last weekend Czechoslovakia got its first Cabinet in 41 years without a Communist Party majority. The new prime minister, though a communist, has pledged to prepare for free democratic elections for Parliament by June.

After swearing in the new Cabinet, Gustav Husak, who was ushered into the presidency by Russian tanks, resigned. His successor may well be Vaclav Havel, the playwright, dissident, and leader of Civic Forum, the main opposition group. ``Vaclav,'' by the way, means Wenceslas.

King, later Saint, Wenceslas - who was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Bohemia - is revered more as a spiritual leader than a political one. The tale told by the 19th-century carol may be apocryphal. No matter. It embodies Czechs' belief that the state kneels to its people. That spirit is gloriously alive in Czechoslovakia this Christmas season.

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