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Praque Square's Poignant Role in History

WENCESLAS SQUARE. Over the decades, Czechs have gathered in 600-year-old landmark to witness their most tragic and hopeful moments

CZECHS, at times of great public joy or sorrow, have always gathered on Prague's Wenceslas Square. Just recently they have been there to jubilate over a noncommunist majority government.

And they returned a week later (Dec. 17) to mourn police brutality against students during a human rights rally a month before. This violence proved to have been the catalyst for the momentous events that followed.

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For one who saw so much Czech history first hand - in good times and bad - played out on Wenceslas Square, it has been heartening indeed to watch (this time via TV) as this new Prague Spring in autumn unfolded to bring freedom again to Central and Eastern Europe's oldest democracy.

Vaclavske Namesti ... Wenceslas Square. For any whose acquaintance with Prague is more than a Christmas carol about ``Good King Wenceslas,'' it is a great name.

The square is notable for its grace and symmetry at the heart of one of the world's most beauteous capitals and for the history it has witnessed since its first stones were laid 600 years ago.

In 1918, Czechs and Slovaks rejoiced there at the statehood won from the collapse of that old ``prison of the nations,'' the Austro-Hungarian empire. Unhappily, the new statehood lasted only 20 years.

In September 1938, the children of the crowds of 1918 gathered on the square in bitter grief at the West's sacrifice of their ``distant country of which we know little,'' in the vain belief they were deterring Adolf Hitler's march to war. Six months later, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

Prague, right after World War II's end, was not much damaged. Within moments of liberation, the square was its gay, lively, colorful prewar self.

Shops and stores bloomed overnight with all the display panache of Czech tradition. The famous Caf'e Srobek, was ``home'' just as before to a polyglot collection of intellectuals, journalists, and politicians of every party and hue. The caf'e, alas, was later renamed by the Communists, just as they also rubbed out the name of Tomas Masaryk, the nation's founding father.

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The liberators, the Russians, were popular then. So, too, were the Communists who, in the first postwar free, democratic election, emerged the biggest party, with 36 percent of the vote. Within two years, however, they had destroyed the bourgeois parties and won absolute control.

On those fateful late February crisis days in 1948, Wenceslas Square was as tightly filled as in these recent weeks. The Communists still had their popular following. But only 10 days after the hapless President Eduard Benes accepted a new Communist-dominated government, the death of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk precipitated a fresh crisis.

Masaryk, seeing himself as possibly a moderating influence, had agreed to remain as foreign minister, a prized accomplishment for the Communist government. But the son of Tomas Masaryk had fallen (or been pushed) from a window to his death.

I recall an ashen-faced, shaken Klement Gottwald (the party leader) in the Pantheon behind the Wenceslas statue delivering the funeral oration to ``our Jan.'' As the coffin was borne through the square, there was new tension in the air. One felt anything could happen.

Grim portent of the shape of things that did come was the presence of the Communist factory workers' militia. They stood, every few yards, not presenting their tommy guns in salute as the cortege passed, but nervously facing inward on the anguished sidewalk crowds on the square.

Two decades of increasing repression followed.

January 1968. Enter Alexander Dubcek, to popular relief. In March, Wenceslas Square erupted still more joyfully when Stalinist President Antonin Novotny was finally forced out.

Among many vivid memories of the months that followed is May 1, date of the first spontaneous May Day festival the East bloc had seen.

The Big Five champions of reform - Mr. Dubcek, Ludwig Svoboda, Josef Smrkovsky, Oldrich Cernik, and Husak - walked together, hand-in-hand, the length of the square, cheered all the way.

I recall a young Czech writer friend remarking of the new press freedom: ``When I look at the papers in the morning, I cannot believe my eyes. It is all too good to be true. I wonder,`Will it last?'''

Jiry soon had his answer. On Aug. 21, the square was packed with tanks.

Czechs - anger in their voices but always with typically reasoning Czech restraint - surrounded them demanding of the crews, ``Why are you here?''

An underground press poured out news sheets and picture protests. A photo montage showed a crippled tank outside Prague Radio with one word printed across it - Proc? - and the Russian equivalent, Pochemu? (Why?)

Twenty-one years on the Czechoslovaks are getting an answer - from the Russians, Poles, Hungarians, East Germans, and (almost as its last deed in office) from the Husak regime for which a few months ago the Prague Spring was still ``counterrevolution.''

Intervention, they all say in a monumental understatement, was ``a mistake.''

A costly mistake for my friend Jiri and tens of thousands like him, whose support for reform brought exclusion from their callings through the important middle years of their working lives.

One likes to think that Jiri does not need to be as skeptical this time as in 1968. Maybe not. There is a fundamental difference between Mikhail Gorbachev and Leonid Brezhnev.

And the way the old East-bloc monolith has crumbled, who now is going to be left to invade whom?

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