In Prague, at one point in the mid-1980s, locals began to place flowers at the steps of the great statue of King Wenceslas. According to legend, the patron saint of the Czechs maintained an army of knights hidden inside a mountain ready to be awakened to fight for the Czech people in times of extreme danger. There was a bouquet or two at first, but then they started piling up. Communist officials got the point. They removed all the flowers and placed a fence around the monument at the heart of the city’s iconic square.
I thought of the story recently when a colleague suggested to me that, in the case of Vladimir Putin’s police state, we need to affirm and amplify every small act of independence, opposition, and liberal dissent. There’s something very Havelian about this. In his iconic Cold War essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Václav Havel argued for the importance of small gestures as opportunities for resistance in totalitarianism. Havel used the example of the greengrocer who obligingly displayed in the window the sign “Workers of the world, unite!” The restoration of a free society, Havel believed, starts when the individual refuses to submit to empty slogans, forced rituals, and the little lies that destroy dignity and empower the oppressor.
Arturo Toscanini loved Wagner—and hated Nazis. He wept at seventeen during a performance of Lohengrin, kept a death mask of Hitler’s favorite composer by his piano, and chose an all-Wagner program for the final performance of his career. He left Mussolini’s Italy, where he declined to have his orchestras play the fascist anthem “Giovinezza,” and refused to perform in countries where authoritarians ruled.
The other great conductor of the time, Wilhelm Furtwängler, chose to stay in Germany through Nazism and the war. He performed before Hitler. But Furtwängler refused to perform the Hitler salute and declined to sign letters with “Heil Hitler.” Goebbels, who needed him for propaganda, hated him for this.
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History is filled with examples of music as political gesture and symbol of resistance. Is there political change otherwise? Victor Jara’s 1971 song “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” became a Chilean cry of resistance against Pinochet. In Hong Kong, “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Misérables became a refrain in 2019 protests. Alexander Galich was a playwright who became known for his dissident songwriting in the Soviet Union. Banned by censors and harassed by the KGB, Galich left in 1974 for the West, where after some months in Norway he joined Radio Liberty in Munich. In Russia today, his music is back. Russian and Ukrainian colleagues at RFE/RL in Prague are preparing a joint program on Galich’s life and work.
During the Third Reich, Jews in Theresienstadt—today’s Terezín, an hour by car from Prague—sang Verdi’s Requiem to the Nazis, accompanied by piano. The Nazis saw a chance to show the world how well the Jews were treated. In fact, one camp survivor recounted, “We sang to the Nazis what we could not say to them.” In Verdi’s Requiem, as part of the Dies Irae sequence, are the words, “from the ashes, the guilty man will be judged.” Here’s (Opens in a new window) the explosive section with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting.
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I’m writing this on Wednesday August 2 in Prague, where on the first Wednesday of every month sirens are heard across the city, an emergency test at noon for 140 seconds. In this part of Europe, history and proximity to war and repression focus the mind. Slovakia shares a border with Ukraine. The sirens here in Prague were canceled from March to May in 2022 to prevent panic among Ukrainian refugees.
At the top of Wenceslas Square there’s a small plaque on the pavement remembering Jan Palach, the Charles University student who lit himself afire after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Friends said Palach wanted to shake fellow citizens who had become apathetic and acquiescent.
Note: This weekly column resumes in September when American Purpose returns after a break.