Letter from Prague Bridges over troubled water
Jostled between nation states and ideologies for the best part of two centuries, traces of an ever changing Czech identity crisis sit subtly in the foreground of the Prague we know today. Whatever rule Bohemia or Czechoslovakia was under - whether it be the Hapsburg Monarchy in the eighteenth century, National Socialism in the 1940s or Communism until 1989; the bridges over the Vltava have seen and lived through it all. A closer look at two of Pragues busiest bridges unveils a history not so distant in Prague’s past.
Travelling to Anděl over the Palacký Bridge (Palackého most) one may not realise the sheer symbolic importance the bridge had for the burgeoning Czech nation. As the third bridge to span the Vltava, Palackého most was completed in 1876 and connected the newly industrialised Smícov with the Nové město. The bridge, named after the Czech national revivalist František Palacký, paid homage to his role in reviving the Czech language and national identity. In a time of increasing Czech national awakening after a long period of Austrian domination, the bridge- which employed red, blue and white stone reflecting the colours of the Czech flag- proudly adorned statues of Czech mythical legends such as Josef Václav Myslbek: thus counteracting the dynastic Catholic pomp of the Charles Bridge (Karlův Most).
As a revived tide of Germanisation swept Prague in 1938- this time, however, arriving with the onslaught of National Socialism, the bridge was dually rechristened as the Mozart Bridge so as to play down the importance of the Czech national consciousness. Only after the defeat of National Socialism and the liberation of Prague in 1945 did the bridge revert back to its original name, Palackého most.
There is, however, one bridge in particular which reveals the most about the cities past identity struggle. Connecting Národní třída, Střelecký ostrov and Újezd, the bridge we know today as Most legií actually sits on the very same spot where the Most císaře Františka I once stood. Built in 1841 and named after the Austrian ruler, the bridge hailed from a time when the idea of a Czech nation was barely in its infancy. The stone bridge standing in its place today was opened with a lavish ceremony by Franz Joseph I of Austria to replace the questionably designed original.
The bridge would soon, however, shed its imperial past with the dissolution of the Hapsburg monarchy and the creation of the first Czechoslovak republic in 1919. The new name of the bridge, most Legií, honoured the first Czechoslovak legion which fought in the First World War, and consolidated the surge of Czech national sentiment at the time. Unlike the Palackého most which was Germanised during the protectorate, interestingly, Most Legií was renamed as the Smetanův most after the Czech nationalist composer Bedřich Smetana, a figure widely regarded as the father of Czech music.
When the communist epoch arrived in full force in which streets, stations and just about everything else were given names with socialist relevance, the bridge- rebranded as most 1. Máje- was named after the international labour day movement. Only after the fall of communism in 1989 did the bridge revert back to its original name, Most Legií.
If there’s a lesson to take away from all this, it’s this: although in the last two centuries countless regimes, ideologies and nations have attempted to impose their mark; the only thing that ultimately withstood the test of time were the bridges themselves. The longest living inhabitants of Prague- her bridges, buildings and monuments - serve as a pertinent reminder of the volatility of its temporary inhabitants- us.