Náměstí Míru, the Peace Movement, Peace & Resistance

The history of the square’s re-naming is symptomatic – why did “peace” occur in the name from 1926-1933 and then again in 1948 after the communist coup? … The sense of the word “peace” in order to have any meaning at all, also needs to cover “resistance”.

náměstí Míru, Prague 2
Public transport:
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{"lat": 50.0758958, "lng": 14.4371636}

This was conceived as the most prominent square in Vinohrady, one of Prague’s better neighborhoods which symbolized the rise of the Czech middle classes. At its foundation in 1884, it bore the name Purkyňovo (Purkyně Square), after the scholar Jan Evangelista Purkyně, before it was renamed Mírové náměstí (Peace Square) in 1926. From 1933–1940 it was called Vinohradské (Vinohrady Square), during the Second World War, the Reich Square, in the years 1945-1948 it reverted to Vinohradské Square and since the spring of 1948 it has been known as Peace Square (náměstí Míru). The history of its re-naming is symptomatic – why did “peace” occur in the name from 1926-1933 and then again in 1948 after the communist coup?

In 1926, when the name changed from Purkyňovo to Mírové, the pacifist movement was at its height in Czechoslovakia and in Europe as a whole. In July 1924, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) held a conference in Moravian Štramberk, in March 1925 the Czechoslovak branch of IFOR was founded and in 1926 the War Resisters’ International published a worldwide manifesto against military service, signed by Albert Einstein, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and Mahatma Gandhi. Czech pacifism and conscientious objectors had two main ambassadors: first was Valentin Bulgakov, an immigrant from Russia, who as a young man worked as secretary to the late Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, and the second was Přemysl Pitter. In 1926, the Bengali humanist, artist, pedagogue and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, lectured at the Culture Palace (Dům Kultury) here in Vinohradské square and these events must have influenced the city in its choice to rename the area Peace Square (Mírové náměstí) in 1926.

James Forman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Harry Belafonte. (UPI/File 1965)

The fact that the name changed back to the neutral, original Vinohradské náměstí (Vinohrady Square) in 1933 is also symptomatic of a clear change of attitude in Czechoslovak society towards the peace movement and indicative of the split among peace activists themselves. The optimism of the twenties was replaced by the economic crisis of the thirties and the rise of authoritarian regimes. In January 1933 Hitler came to power, in the summer of 1933 Albert Einstein left the peace movement, and when Valentin Bulgakov left the Prague headquarters in 1933, the Prague branch of IFOR closed once and for all. Inside the movement, disturbing things were happening, too. Romain Rolland fell in love with Stalinist Russia and the radical pacifist George Lansbury was suddenly impressed in 1937 by Hitler’s kindness and courtesy. The “Practical pacifist” Přemysl Pitter, however, refused this dangerous underestimation of evil on the part of his former co-workers in the peace movement: “Jesus did not rejoice in the devil’s presence, nor was he friends with him, but instead he fought him and cast him out.”

1948 marks the onset of the communist dictatorship, which ideologically abused the word peace. The frequency of its use rose rapidly. In the language of communist ideology, the Soviet influence was “peaceful, joyful and healthy”, unlike that of the “wrathful, decadent, and aggressive” West. Another example of the misuse of this word may be found in the title of the “Peace Movement of the Catholic Clergy” (Mírové hnutí katolického duchovenstva) which existed in Czechoslovakia between 1950 and 1968, headed by so-called “Peace Priests” who cooperated with the Communist regime and claimed to speak for the whole priesthood. However, most priests – for good reasons – rejected the regime which was based on brutal repression and judicial killings and maintained by a network of omnipresent informants working for the secret police (StB).

After 1989, perhaps the name Peace Square remained due to the “semantic perestroika” that Václav Havel spoke of when he received the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association in Frankfurt on October 15, 1989:

I’m finally getting around to that beautiful word “peace.” For forty years now, I have read it on the front of every building and in every shop window in my country. For forty years, an allergy to that beautiful word has been engendered in me as in every one of my fellow citizens because I know what the word has meant here for the past forty years: ever mightier armies ostensibly to defend peace. In spite of that lengthy process of systematically divesting the word “peace” of all meaning—worse than that, investing it instead with quite the opposite meaning to that given in the dictionary—a number of Don Quixotes in Charter 77 and several of their younger colleagues in the Independent Peace Association have managed to rehabilitate the word and restore its original meaning. Naturally, though, they had to pay a price for their “semantic perestroika”—i.e., standing the word “peace” back on its feet again: almost all the youngsters who fronted the Independent Peace Association were obliged to spend a few months inside for their pains. It was worth it, though. One important word has been rescued from total debasement. And it is not just a question of saving a word, as I have been trying to explain throughout my speech. Something far more important is saved. The point is that all important events in the real world—whether admirable or monstrous—are always spearheaded in the realm of words. (1989, translated from Czech by A.G. Brain)

Havel describes the degradation of words, which did not, however, end with the “peaceful” Velvet Revolution of 1989, as there can never be an ideological vacuum. How can we “stand the word back on its feet again” in this time of fake news, trolling, post-truth and “post-history”? More than thirty years have passed since the “semantic perestroika” of the Independent Peace Association as described by Havel, and it seems that the word “peace” is doing worse than it did in 1988 and that it still serves mainly as a cover-up for aggressive action. Perhaps, if we are not to discard the word “peace” completely, we need to unite it with resistance. Let us, then, add a few more examples to that of Havel. One very practical application of the Biblical “Thou shall not kill” and “God created mankind in his own image” can be found in the 17th century among British and American Quakers who faced brutal repression for refusing military service and for their stand against slavery. Later, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) pointed out the systemic use of violence by the state and, as a remedy, he offered non-violent resistance which, too, draws on radical Christian attitudes. In his “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), he described the reasons for his decision not to pay tax to Massachusetts: not only was the United States fighting a war with Mexico, but it deprived African Americans of their basic human right by selling them as property. Thoreau supported his arguments: he showed that the state is made up of people, and it is people, not blind fate, who make choices, so “a change is possible”. Unlike Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) who denied all forms of violent resistance, Thoreau stood up for captain John Brown (the abolitionist immortalized in the song, John Brown’s Body) and his reputation, pointing out that inaction against slavery results in “blood on one´s conscience” which in turn leads to “eternal death”: the loss of humanity, the loss of solidarity with one’s fellow people:

If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do something, resign your office." When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned from office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

(Source: internet)

The sense of the word “peace” – if that word is to have any meaning at all – also needs to cover “resistance”. A peaceful attitude is thus not possible without active non-violent resistance, and this active resistance to injustice – together with the awareness of shared humanity – distinguishes peace from mere appeasement. An actively peaceful attitude – along with possible legal activities such as boycotting certain goods or services, strikes, demonstrations – sometimes forces one to act outside the law, while violence, on the other hand, can sometimes be completely within the law. Or, conversely, it means to fight for constitutional rights – such as those found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms –in order that they are valid not only on paper. An attitude of peace means reflecting on one’s own actions and their hidden benefits, it means being willing to revise one’s attitudes after an encounter with another person with a different story, views and arguments, and then to search together with that person to find a creative point of departure. An attitude of peace cannot exist without awareness of shared humanity, of the indivisibility of freedom and the need to actively fight for it. Propaganda – including current propaganda – has only one, albeit hidden, goal: to create in people an awareness that co-existence of “us” and “them” is – and always will be – impossible.

Resources in English
  • Virtual Prague: http://virtualni.praha.eu/squares/the-peace-square.html
  • Martin Buber: Images of Good and Evil. Routledge & Paul, 1952
  • Martin Luther King jr.: A Testament of Hope. Ed. J. M. Washington. Harper Collins, 1991.
  • IFOR Website http://www.ifor.org/get-involved/#join-ifor
  • Dorothee Sölle: The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. PFortress Press 2001.
  • Henry David Thoreau: . Life without Principle: Three Essays, With a Preface by Henry Miller. Stanford, 1946
  • Václav Havel: “Words on Words”. The New York Review of Books

Where next?

A. On foot, Vyšehrad is about 30-40 minutes from Náměstí Míru. Walk down Belgická, turn right at the end, after fifty meters turn left down the stairs of Nuselské Schody. Go straight down the hill, following the road - the names of the street will change, but not its direction. You will pass Pod Nuselskými schody, Fričova, Na Folimance, Jaromírova and directly under Nuselský Most (Nusle Bridge), you make a sharp right turn, pass under the railway line and walk about 100 meters on the diagonal path to the right to Krokova. At the end of Krokova, you walk a further hundred meters on Lumírova, and then turn right again to reach the medieval Táborská Brána (Tabor Gate). Walk through it and on the left side of V Pevnosti stands the Jedlička Institute.

B. If you want to rest your legs, walk about two hundred meters along the tram tracks to I. P. Pavlova Metro C station. From here, it is only one stop to Vyšehrad metro station. From there, follow the signs towards “Vyšehrad”. The enormous building of the Kongresové centrum (Congress Center) will be on your right. Walk under the Táborská brána (Tabor Gate), follow V Pevnosti street and soon you will reach Jedlička Institute on your left.