THE BROKEN MEN of Prague lurch down Petřín hill toward Malá Strana, their hunger as clear as the hollow iron torsos where their bellies used to be. The man leading the march looks whole, more or less, but visitors can see his followers slowly dissolve behind him ... a gash here, a missing arm there, until, at the top of the stairs, only a foot where a whole man used to be.
To capture a human in the process of breaking apart requires attention. It’s immediately clear that the sculptor of these Broken Men, Olbram Zoubek, was intimately familiar with the process. Prague’s Soviet occupiers also knew something about decay, which the monument commemorates with grim precision—at the feet of the statues is a thin bronze line marking the numbers of Czechs affected by Soviet-era communism: 170,938 forced into exile ... 327 shot trying to escape ... 4,500 dead in prison. But the numbers are but a footnote to the decaying bodies on the hill. The long, grinding erosion of civil society is a personal trauma all its own.
The monument seems out of sorts with its surroundings. To our right is Prague Castle; behind us is the sparkling Vltava with its riverboats, charming ice cream stalls, and tourists flocking over the Charles Bridge for another Pilsner or trdelník. The Czech Republic is one of the fastest-growing economies in the European Union, and its capital is regularly named the most beautiful city in the world. Prague, and the world’s associations with it, have moved on.
But this monument holds particular curiosity for the American traveler in the summer of 2017. Europe’s communism of the 1960s through the ’80s was less bloody than its dictators of the 1930s and ’40s, but it was equally ruinous. I’ve come to Prague to consider how our participation in political systems, or our abdication of them, shapes our bodies and spirits.
The Soviet occupation of Prague was a system built to last long after its original perpetrators had moved on. Its success relied on a narrative of inevitability—“this is how things are now”—that separated people from society as they had known it. As journalism, public assembly, and free exchange of ideas became subjects of state suspicion, civic life became private worlds, drawn smaller and smaller and thoroughly drained of hope.
Milan Kundera, Czech-turned-French novelist and exile from Soviet Czechoslovakia, writes in Ignorance: “After the Russian invasion, since they had no inkling of Communism’s eventual end, [the Czechs] believed they were inhabiting an infinity, and it was not the pain of their current life but the vacuity of the future that sucked dry their energies, stifled their courage, and made that ... 20-year span so craven, so wretched.”
Americans have little appreciation for the mundanities of evil. We’ll say we’ll be first in line to volunteer as tribute in The Resistance, whatever that means, or deny, passionately, that our current president is anything like European dictators of the past—whatever our position, we assume it is a thrilling one. In the process, we forget to ask the pedestrian questions: What is the work required to participate in upholding our own civil society in this time? And what has the current administration indicated it will do to those who try?
Correcting our country’s course will not be a sexy, sensational fight, however fervently we might dream of it. The revolutionary thing for Americans will be to renounce our own instincts toward individualism that encourage a retreat from civic life—to instead insist on our civic power and our collective vision.
For Kundera, ignorance of what the future held was once an agent of despair for his compatriots, but at another time, equally one of hope: “The Czechs believed that their republic had all of infinity ahead of it. They had it wrong, but precisely because they were wrong, they lived those years in a state of joy that led their arts to flourish as never before.”
An accelerating erosion of our civil society is afoot, one that already carries a deep trauma. In these times, hope is a healing act.