A new monument to the enlightened sovereign was unveiled in 2020, but it sparked nationalist controversy. The petition of the Czech nationalists is available here.

One of the good things that happened in the last year was the completion of the new monument to Maria Theresia in Prague. However, this achievement was not an easy one, and the controversies  relating to it reveal changes in the attitude of the Czech public to the Enlightenment.

When I was writing about the positive changes unleashed by the 300th anniversary of Maria Theresia in 2017, I was not aware of the controversy that would be sparked by the plan to build a new monument in her honor in a new park in Prague 6. The survey of commemorative events relating to the anniversary of 2017 was published in Opera historica 2018, Nr. 2. As I explained in the article, the Czech public has traditionally commemorated Maria Theresia at the beginning of every school year, for she is venerated for having introduced  compulsory schooling. During the anniversary, the public also learned to appreciate the culture of the Enlightenment that led to this achievement.

The monument was planned by Prague 6, which announced a public art competition for the project in 2013. It was not until 2017 that the mayor of Prague 6, Ondřej Kolář, declared the winner of the competition and organized a ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone. After that, the local organization of the Czech Association of  Freedom Fighters (which is a former Communist organization called ‘ The Association of Antifascist Fighters’) drafted a petition in which they opposed the project and sought to reassess Maria Theresia’s historical legacy.

The ‘Antifascist Petition’

The document is entitled ‘Petition of Citizens against the Project of Establishing a Monument to Maria Theresia below Prague Castle’, and  was submitted to the Municipal Office of Prague 6 in February 2019. The text itself is not available anywhere on the internet, just a press release. For this reason it is worth publishing it here as a historical document and summing up the content in English.

The authors argue that monuments used to be erected during the National Revival, but only to disinterested self-sacrificing persons. After 1989, only monuments to oppressors (Franz Joseph I) and high-flyers (Albrecht of Wallenstein) were erected. They then go on to assess the significance of the Habsburgs. They were oppressors of the Czech nation, and Maria Theresia was a stepmother of the nation who centralized the monarchy and continued to oppress the serfs, murder evangelicals and practice torture. The school reform introducing compulsory schooling was carried out only in the interests of her power. Erecting monuments to oppressors weakens the negotiating position of the nation and undermines its strength. The place where the monument was planned should have been consecrated to Captain Morávek who was killed there by the Nazis during the occupation.

The Controversies

In March 2019, the organizers were invited by the Czech Public Broadcasting (ČRo Plus) to discuss the issue with Ivo Cerman, the historian of the Enlightenment and co-editor of Opera historica. Finally, their views were represented by Zdeněk Zacpal, a former dissident, who argued that Maria Theresia was a mass murderer and her school reform should not be overrated because the scholarly culture in Bohemia had been better before the White Mountain. The moderators then summed up the discussion in a very unfortunate written summary on the ČRo website, in which they repeated the claim about the insignificance of the school reform. The discussion can be seen at youtube.

The controversy in the media then focused on the question as to whether there should be a monument to Maria Theresia or to the antifascist resistance fighter Morávek. The fact is that the park U prašného mostu, which is next to an exit from a tunnel, is also the place where Václav Morávek was ambushed and killed by the Gestapo on March 21, 1942. He was the last member of the legendary resistance group The Three Kings. The critics were joined by Jiří Padevět, the director of the publishing house Academia, who writes  travel books about places relating to the German Occupation. However, Padevět later terminated his involvement in the campaign saying that his proposal was rejected and the action did not have any further goal. A monument to Morávek actually already exists on the other side of the park, but is a very small one.

The Monument in Art History

The monument was completed in October 2020, but due to the lockdown, the public event introducing the new monument had to be canceled. It is located in an attractive place next to the remains of the northern city walls and overlooking Dejvice below. It is near the Metro station Hradčanská and tram station Prašný most. The statue has been nicknamed ‚the chess piece‘ because it does not have any arms, legs or face. The intention of the sculptor Jan Kovařík was that the elegant shape should express the essence of the values for which it stood.  Its modern appearance repulsed monarchists who were looking forward to a Habsburg monument but then complained on the internet that the statue was ‚not beautiful‘. It is, however, situated in a very good location, from where you can obtain a splendid  view. It is also near the place from which the Prussians were bombarding Prague in 1757.

It is actually one of the few monuments ever built to Maria Theresia in the Bohemian lands.  In contrast to Emperor Joseph II, she was not a frequent subject of public monuments. One monument was planned by Johann Rudolph Count Chotek in the park of the château of Veltrusy , but he only built a pavilion honoring her name. The new monument is certainly worth seeing.

Ivo Cerman

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