A special edition of 'Letter from Prague'

14-09-2001

Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty is phrased in clear and simple terms. It states that an armed attack against one or several members will be considered as an attack against all. In the wake of Tuesday's horrific terrorist attacks in the United States Czech politicians on the left and right have fully endorsed that principle. But the sense of Tuesday's events being an "attack against all" is not just a question of political or military solidarity. Here in the Czech Republic this sense is shared by ordinary citizens, even those who perhaps have little sympathy with the Czech Republic's membership of NATO. The horrors of New York and Washington have been experienced here as something close by, as an "attack against all" in a very real gut sense. People have responded spontaneously, they placed flowers outside the American Embassy in Prague, the bell's of Prague's churches rang out in mourning, hundreds gathered in the city centre and lit candles beneath the statue of Saint Wenceslas, the strongest symbol of the Czech nation. For three days now, the atmosphere in Prague has been subdued. There are still several dozen Czech citizens unaccounted for in the United States - some perhaps are lying beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As in cities throughout the world, there is a strong sense that it could have happened here.

There have been many events in Czech 20th century history that have reinforced the feelings of solidarity that Czechs have felt with the American people this week, but I would like to mention two in particular.

One place where many people have gathered to express their sorrow and sympathy is in the city of Pilsen. Literally hundreds of candles have been lit at the base of the memorial commemorating the liberation of the city by General Patton's 3rd Army in 1945 that ended six years of Nazi occupation. The memorial honours the memory of young, ordinary Americans who sacrificed their lives to help Czechs win their liberty.

Prague's main railway station is named after the American President Woodrow Wilson. He was one of the architects of Czech and Slovak independence from Austria in 1918. The first Czechoslovak President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who himself was married to an American, formulated his ideas for an independent state while in the United States during the First World War. His vision of Czechoslovakia was permeated with the democratic principles laid down in the American Constitution. He won the sympathies and friendship of President Wilson, and when the great powers carved up Europe after the war, it would probably be no exaggeration to say that Czechoslovakia owed its very existence to the United States. Throughout the inter-war period American democracy remained a strong model in Masaryk's Czechoslovakia, even under the pressure of fanatical nationalism brewing in neighbouring Germany.

The American way of life in all its aspects may not appeal to everyone. Like all Europeans, Czechs complain about third-rate American movies and junk culture, many express fears about globalization and the influence of American multinationals. But this is irrelevant to this week's events. The basic principles of freedom and democracy have deeper roots. The United States' role in the foundation of Czechoslovakia over 80 years ago and the liberation of Pilsen in 1945 are just two powerful reminders of the bond between the Czech and American peoples and the link between the two nations' fates. An attack against one is an attack against all.

14-09-2001