[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Urban]: Huebner on Sayer, 'Prague: Crossroads of Europe'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sat Jul 20 20:51:03 MDT 2019

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Andrew Stewart 
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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: July 20, 2019 at 9:47:54 PM EDT
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Urban]:  Huebner on Sayer, 'Prague: Crossroads of Europe'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Derek Sayer.  Prague: Crossroads of Europe.  London  Reaktion Books, 
> 2019.  280 pp.  $22.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78914-009-5.
> Reviewed by Karla Huebner (Wright State University)
> Published on H-Urban (July, 2019)
> Commissioned by Alexander Vari
> In the years since the Velvet Revolution, Prague--for forty years a 
> near-mystery behind the Iron Curtain--has become one of Europe's most 
> visited cities. Praised in the early 1990s as an expat destination 
> rivaling Paris of the 1920s, then infested in the 2000s by drunken 
> British stag parties, Prague has nonetheless remained a site too 
> little understood by most of its visitors, many of whom have very 
> little awareness of its complex history. 
> Derek Sayer's _Prague: Crossroads of Europe_ should help travelers 
> gain a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the city and its 
> context. Part of Reaktion's Cityscapes series (other titles address 
> Beijing, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Chicago, New York, Paris, and San 
> Francisco), it combines history with travel guide. Titles in this 
> series are written "by authors with intimate knowledge of the 
> cities," provide "a unique overview of a city's past as well as a 
> focused eye on its present," and offer "essential cultural companions 
> to the world's greatest cities." To accomplish this, the usual 
> travel-guide format is reversed: instead of a short overview of the 
> city followed by endless listings of sights, lodgings, restaurants, 
> and shops, here we have 226 illustrated pages of urban and national 
> history followed by twenty pages of listings, five pages of 
> chronology, fifteen pages of citations for quoted material and 
> additional sources, two pages of suggested reading and viewing, and a 
> ten-page index. 
> As a scholar who often writes about Prague and the Czech lands 
> (notably, the prize-winning books _The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech 
> History_ [1998] and _Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A 
> Surrealist History_ [2013]), Sayer is an appropriately knowledgeable 
> author for this title. His background as a sociologist, combined with 
> decades of research on Czech cultural history, gives him an unusually 
> broad basis from which to prepare a guide for the intelligent, 
> nonspecialist traveler. He writes in an accessible, jargon-free style 
> and has a fine eye for the telling detail and illuminating anecdote. 
> But as this book is a travel guide, we may reasonably ask whether it 
> is useful beyond that specific purpose. What does it offer scholars 
> of urban history, or for that matter scholars in general who may or 
> may not be planning trips to Prague? 
> _Prague: Crossroads of Europe_ is, actually, a worthwhile addition to 
> the urban historian's library. While it is not conceived as an 
> analytical text and (unsurprisingly) does not offer detailed accounts 
> of population shifts, annexations of suburbs, construction of sewers, 
> waterworks, or electrical grids, nor maps of the city's growth, 
> fortifications, or metro, Sayer is nonetheless alert to such matters 
> and weaves them into his text. The meat of the book consists of an 
> informative prologue, twelve chapters of history, and seven essays 
> about aspects of the city today. The twelve historical chapters take 
> us from the legendary birth of the city up to a brief look at the 
> Velvet Revolution and its aftermath. 
> Against this larger backdrop of the history of Bohemia and Moravia 
> (necessary to properly understand the history of Prague), much 
> material of interest to the urban historian can be found. For 
> instance, the second chapter, "Přemyslid Prague," overviews 
> developments from the ninth through the thirteenth century, with 
> information on the establishment of churches, monasteries, and 
> synagogues, as well as notes on markets, bridges, fortifications, and 
> flooding. This chapter also points out that with a population 
> estimated at around 3,500 in 1200, Jews, Germans, and Italians as 
> well as Czechs were part of the city from very early (Prague's first 
> pogrom occurred in 1096 and the earliest mention of a synagogue dates 
> to 1124). In chapter 3, "The Golden Age of Charles IV," Sayer focuses 
> on urban developments under the celebrated fourteenth-century ruler, 
> such as street paving, contracts for street cleaning and waste 
> disposal in 1340, the foundation of Charles University, and ethnic 
> and social differences between Old Town and New Town. Chapter 4, 
> "Against All!" gives background on the fourteenth and fifteenth 
> centuries, during which religious conflict was particularly 
> significant for the city and for Bohemia more generally. Chapter 5, 
> "A Poisoned Chalice," similarly highlights religious conflict during 
> the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but also provides information 
> on architectural changes, such as work on  the Old Town Hall and New 
> Town Hall, the foundation of the Jesuit Clementinum (now the National 
> Library), Renaissance additions to the Lesser Town and elsewhere, the 
> flourishing Jewish community of the turn of the seventeenth century, 
> and Emperor Rudolf's proclamations against dirty streets and rising 
> crime. Chapter 6, "The White Mountain," looks at seventeenth- and 
> eighteenth-century developments, many of which relate to the 
> re-Catholicization of the city after the Battle of White Mountain in 
> 1620, such as the expulsion of non-Catholic clergy and "the choice of 
> conversion or banishment" for nobles and burghers (p. 88). The shift 
> to German as language of state, literature and learning, and polite 
> society, and the devastations of the Thirty Years War and plague are 
> also noted, as well as the baroque construction boom, which involved 
> the building of numerous churches, aristocratic palaces, and burgher 
> townhouses; information on the subsequent lives of many of these 
> buildings is provided as well. 
> Chapter 7, "The Homeland and the Muses," moves on to the 
> Enlightenment, with the beginnings of religious toleration; the rise 
> in land patriotism (versus linguistic/ethnic nationalism); the 
> establishment of purpose-built theaters; and the construction of 
> highways, sewers, paved streets, parks, and bridges and embankments, 
> not to mention the arrival of industrialization. Chapter 8, "Golden 
> Slavonic Prague," addresses the nineteenth-century growth in 
> population and Czech nationalism, with attention to census 
> self-identification and linguistic geography in the city, as well as 
> rising Czech-language education, literature, and societies. The 
> continued growth of industry; the departure of Jews from the ghetto 
> and slum clearance there; the construction of railways, bridges, 
> waterworks, the Negrelli Viaduct, and also the city's first gasworks, 
> electric lighting, and telephone network as well as major public 
> buildings, a stock exchange, and important new churches; and the rise 
> of art nouveau architecture are also outlined. Chapter 9, "At the 
> Crossroads," focuses on the First Republic (1918-38) and the 
> establishment of Greater Prague, which annexed thirty-eight largely 
> Czech suburbs to the city, shifting its demographics; the retitling 
> of German and Habsburg place names is also mentioned. The 
> contributions of modernist architects are noted, as are developments 
> in industry, transit, social housing, garden city suburbs, department 
> stores, and traffic lights. Chapter 10, "Into the Shadows," covers 
> the Nazi occupation of 1938-45, extermination of the Jews, and the 
> postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans. Chapter 11, "Prague Moves East," 
> addresses the city under Communism and includes discussion of 
> monuments; the massive construction of suburban prefab housing; the 
> development of the metro and other improvements in transportation; 
> the construction of Stalinist and Brutalist hotels, department 
> stores, theaters, and the TV tower; and efforts relating to 
> architectural conservation. Chapter 12, "Back into Europe," primarily 
> summarizes the Velvet Revolution, then mentions a few aspects of the 
> shift back to capitalism. 
> The section "The City Today" provides essays on the Prague coffee 
> house, beer, Cubism, modernity, the Karlín district, Little Hanoi, 
> and the Dancing House. These provide looks at aspects of the 
> present-day city that include much political, ethnic, artistic, 
> literary, and historical information. They do not attempt to give an 
> account of the entire metropolitan area, but rather use specific 
> topics to convey important aspects of the city that include which 
> cafes were frequented by particular famous figures, and the 
> relationship between traditional pubs and wine bars to the likes of 
> new Irish pubs and craft brewing. Czech modernist architecture from 
> Cubism to Functionalism benefits from two essays; changes in 
> neighborhoods are the topic of "Karlín Redux" (gentrification from a 
> working-class and Roma district to a yuppie and hipster enclave); 
> "Little Hanoi" addresses the city's large Vietnamese population by 
> introducing the reader to a huge market complex on the southern 
> outskirts and the voices of some Vietnamese Praguers. The Dancing 
> House essay looks at recent Czech-Western interconnections such as 
> Frank Gehry and Vlado Miluniċ's famous "Fred and Ginger" plus rock 
> music and Prague anglophone literature. 
> While _Prague: Crossroads of Europe_ is not a substitute for a 
> scholarly text on the urban history of Prague, overall it provides a 
> remarkably useful and very readable short history that will certainly 
> be welcomed by scholars visiting the city; it can also be used as a 
> quick reference. Sayer sprinkles information about numerous 
> historical periods and topics into his chapters, which makes for a 
> more engaging read but means the index is vital for readers who want 
> to know specifics about particular structures or topics. Also, while 
> quotations are cited and general sources are given, scholarly readers 
> will have to hunt for sources of some of the information (such as 
> data on street paving or electrification). Here, additional "Further 
> Reading" titles would have been helpful. But so long as the reader 
> recognizes the overarching purpose of the book, which is to give the 
> traveler a historically focused introduction to the city, scholars as 
> well as the general public should find this a worthy volume. In fact, 
> it could also serve as a textbook for a course on the city, if 
> supplemented with suitable additional readings. 
> Citation: Karla Huebner. Review of Sayer, Derek, _Prague: Crossroads 
> of Europe_. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54231
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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