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Bringing Down the Walls - A Historical Perspective

Josef Stehlik, MD, MPH
University of Utah

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The ISHLT meeting in Prague this year was not only a very successful annual meeting, but it was also the first time that our Society's meeting site ventured beyond the old Iron Curtain. To highlight this fact, Dr. Stuart Sweet and Dr. Lori West introduced a non-traditional plenary session, where Drs Pirk and Klepetko discussed the new collaborations in the region that were facilitated by the critical changes in Eastern Europe 20 years ago, and Dr. Krauss explored the influences of politics on scientific advancement.

My presentation focused on the Czech history. Some of you asked for a summary of my talk, and Dr. Valentine suggested the Links would be the way to get it to you. I would like to disclose that I was born and grew up in Prague, and I live and work in the United States—which makes me pleasantly biased and non-objective; however, this did not dissuade me from preparing this presentation. Of course, the history review had to be super-condensed, and I had to omit a number of important events; nevertheless, I have tried to select important milestones relevant to the topic assigned.

The region where Czech Republic is located today has been inhabited for a few thousand years. The Slavic people arrived here in the 9th century and founded a state first called Great Moravia. One of the prominent first kings was Wenceslas (later sanctified), who is considered to be the main patron of the Czechs. While you might think you first encountered him on horseback on the statue at the top of Wenceslas square, you have probably already heard about him through a popular Christmas Carol 'Good King Wenceslas'. Great Moravia later became the Czech Kingdom ruled by the Premyslid Dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries. A number of battles in which the kings used to personally partake (in clear distinction to today's conflicts) resulted in demise of all the male Premyslid heirs. A new royal dynasty has then arrived at the Czech throne through the marriage of Elisabeth of Bohemia (a Premyslid) and John of Luxemburg (a Luxemburg). John still spent a fair amount of time in battles, but death on a battlefield did not reach him until relatively late (he had a chance to save his life, but his last words, 'Czech King will never be seen running from a fight,' sealed his fate).

By the time John died, his son and heir - Charles IV (1316-1378) - was 30 years old. He received education in France and spoke Czech, Latin, German, French and Italian fluently. The steps he took after becoming king lead to an unprecedented advancement in the Czech Kingdom. He started the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral, achieved papal appointment of an archbishop to Prague, founded New Town (Nove Mesto) and connected the banks of the Vltava river with a modern stone bridge—yes, it was the still-so-admired Charles Bridge. Maybe the most important event, however, was the founding of Universitas Carolina Pragensis - the Charles University, in 1348. This was the first university in central and eastern Europe. In the 1350's there were over 30,000 students at Charles University, many of them coming from far away (<20% of the students were ethnic Czechs).

Medicine was one of the 3 advanced degrees offered at the University, the others being Law and Theology. One of the prominent theologians (also a dean at the University) was Jan Hus, who is considered the first Catholic Church reformist (lived 100 years before Luther and Calvin). Jan Hus was burnt at the stake for heresy in Konstanz in1415. His teachings, however, started a large reformist Husite movement that swept through the Czech lands and surrounding areas, influencing many political events in the region for almost 200 years. Counter-reformation prevailed in the 17th century, and many of the lands in the region became part of the Austrian and later Austro-Hungarian empires. Religious and national freedoms were suppressed during these times. Czech cities flourished, however, with many baroque, renaissance, neo-gothic and art-nouveau buildings in Prague and other Czech cities bearing witness to those times to date.

Music was also omnipresent. Mozart chose Prague to premiere his Le Figaro; Bedrich Smetana (My Country) and Antonin Dvorak (From the New World) became well known Czech composers. Charles University continued to attract prominent scientists. Johannes Purkinje was a physician and physiologist who advanced our understanding of the heart conduction system (Purkinje fibers). Albert Einstein was recruited from University of Zurich to Prague and awarded his first tenure as professor of Physics. His early works on Theory of Relativity were conceived and published while he was in Prague.

World War I (1914-1918) brought big changes to eastern Europe, and a number of national states, including Czechoslovakia, were formed as the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated in 1918. In the twenty years that followed, Czechoslovakia was a democratic and prospering republic, but this was interrupted by the events leading to World War II, with the country being invaded by Nazi Forces. A large anti-Nazi demonstration in Prague organized by medical students in November of 1938 was brutally suppressed - Jan Opletal was fatally shot during the demonstration, an additional 9 students and faculty were executed in the following days, and 1,200 were deported to concentration camps. All Czech colleges and universities were shut and did not reopen till 1945 when WWII ended.

Czechoslovakia was liberated by Soviet and American forces in the spring of 1945; however, pre-war democracy did not return. Instead, the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, exemplified by the rising Berlin Wall, were the new reality. Totalitarian regimes were gradually installed in all eastern European countries. Hungarians were the first nation to mount a coordinated resistance to the new order. An uprising in 1956 toppled the government; however, Hungary was subsequently invaded by Soviet troops and a pro-Soviet government reinstated. In Czechoslovakia, calls for reform became louder during the 1960's in the so-called Prague Spring. A reformist wing, led by Alexander Dubcek, formed within the ruling Communist Party, and the hope was that substantial reforms could be implemented within the existing governing structures. However, these changes were felt to be destabilizing by the political leadership in the Soviet Union, and were halted through a massive air and land invasion of the country by Warsaw Pact military forces in August of 1968. A pro-Soviet government formed in exile was put in power and the Soviet military forces were to remain in Czechoslovakia for more than 20 years.

Through these events, two realities became painfully apparent: 1. The totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe could not be reformed: only a qualitative change of governance would bring freedom to the region, and 2. The massive disillusionment in Czechoslovakia indicated that it would take a different generation to again attempt a large-scale change.

In the 1980's, unrest started in Poland, lead by a Solidarity trade union leader Lech Walesa (later to become a president of free Poland). This movement was also suppressed, but the fact that the government had to use martial law to stop the demonstrations indicated matters were serious. By the late 1980's, unrest was starting even in East Germany. As stringent control in this country prevented a coordinated dissent, the East Germans started to defect to the West in large numbers using other Eastern European countries. In November 1989, thousands of East Germans who entered Czechoslovakia as tourists climbed over the fence of the West German Embassy where they sought asylum and repatriation to West Germany. East German vehicles, abandoned by those who did not plan to use them again, suffocated Prague streets surrounding the Embassy. The situation became so destabilizing for the Czechoslovak establishment that its government petitioned East Germany to deal with the situation internally and, if needed, allow departure of its citizens to Western Germany directly. Ultimately, East Germany announced that arrangements would be made for opening of border crossings to West Berlin. At that point the Germans, East and West, were not going to wait for the details. They stormed the Wall, forcing the border crossings open, and soon took down large parts of the physical structure.

Back in Prague, the government was determined to stop overt signs of dissent. So when a student demonstration on November 17, 1989, organized to commemorate the 1938 anti-Nazi events, turned into an anti-government protest, the demonstrators were brutally beaten by anti-riot police. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back - the nation came out into the streets and swept away the autocratic government in what became to be known as the Velvet Revolution, named such for its non-violent character. Vaclav Havel, a playwright and a political prisoner, became the leader of this movement, and later the first president of the free country.

In 1993, the two republics in the Czechoslovak federation agreed to part ways. In 1994, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia became full members of the European Union. Today, Czech Republic is part of, and surrounded by, the Schengen area countries—EU countries that only maintain the EU perimeter borders. As such, Czech Republic has literally no border crossings with its neighbors, a stark contrast with times past, and has become a favorite destination of many.

The ISHLT annual meeting was a success. The science was excellent and cultural experiences abounded. I propose we come to Prague again. Do I have a second?

Disclosure Statement: The author has no financial relationships to disclose.