The best of times, the worst of times
in Prague and Dresden then and now

By The Reverend Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

How many times have I heard these words used by high school valedictorians as they attempt to sum up their four to five years at some institution of learning.

Charles Dickens began his historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, standard literary fare of English Literature courses, with these words.  As I am about to embark on a brief trip to two cities, albeit not the ones that Dickens wrote about, I preface this article with his words. Indeed, as you read, possibly Friday and Saturday, May 2 and 3, I will be visiting Prague and later Dresden.

I have seen the beautiful city of Prague that straddles the Moldau river, both at the best and worst of times. Undoubtedly the worst was in November 1938.  The 11th month of the year is, at least to my taste, never the most pleasant month, but 1938 undoubtedly made it more than doubly “worst” for the fledgling republic of Czechoslovakia.

On September 30 Hitler’s forces riding on a diplomatic victory had crossed what even his generals had judged to be an impregnable barrier guarded by probably the best-trained and equipped military in Europe. It was a natural border running along the height of land in the mountains that separated Czechoslovakia from Germany. 

The Treaty of Versailles, 1919, had carved this small country, sometimes referred to as the “Heart of Europe,” out of the defeated Austria-Hungary Empire. While most of the population was Czech there were also significant ethic minorities within its new borders: Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans. The latter provided the excuse for Hitler to make demands for the acquisition of the Sudetenland, the predominantly German ethnic enclave in the country. A new boundary was drawn well within the republic that deprived it of its natural boundary and left it open and vulnerable. A few months later Hitler who hated the Czechs with a passion, broke his promise of peace and occupied the remaining country. 

Prague was a sad place, flooded with unwelcome refugees. The Czechs felt betrayed by their western friends. Britain and France had signed the Munich Agreement, (remember PM Chamberlain), and were abandoned by their eastern ally the USSR. Hopelessness was written large on every face. It was, indeed, the worst of times.

But I also saw it in the best of times. I first returned to Prague in what came to be known as the Prague Spring of 1968. Alexander Dubcek, the new president, was endeavouring to give communism a human face.  After 20 years of hard line communism, hope sprung as with the buds of spring. The dour faces of 1938 now broke into broad smiles. It was short lived as in the summer the tanks of the USSR closed in. While it lasted, barely six months, it was the best of times. Of course, the 1990 Velvet Revolution when Vaclav Havel’s government came to power, liberated its people.

This coming Monday, I shall be in the second city. Dresden is only 2 1/2 hours by rail through the valley of the Elbe River, past that ”impregnable” border and through the Saxonian Alps to Germany.

Although I did not know prewar Dresden my parents did. They often visited this baroque gem where we had relatives. They visited the famous Semper Opera, the Zwinger Art Museum, the many wonderful churches and palaces.

I got to know Dresden much later, after the worst of times. In February of 1945 fire and death rained from the sky for 48 hours and when it was over the city was a smoldering ruin with casualties in the thousands. I find it hard to understand that Canadian veterans can object to the wording in Ottawa’s War Museum that describe this holocaust and pressured to have it changed. It was an atrocity much like the German bombardment of Coventry, indeed those two cities twinned after the war. 

While in Dresden, I hope to visit the recently restored Church of our Lady (Frauen Kirche). When I first saw it 20 years after the war it resembled the remains of a badly broken and decayed tooth. Now its tower is topped by a golden cross, the gift of Coventry as a sign and symbol of reconciliation.

I shall be visiting my 97-year-old aunt who through her lifetime has experienced the worst of times and the best of times. Growing up in Dresden she and her sister experienced the Zimbabwean inflation of the 20s, the rise of fascism, the war that had left their city largely untouched until the last months. She had given birth to a son just as her husband was felled by a sniper bullet. She experienced the communist regime living in two rooms and sharing a kitchen and bathroom with another family. Her original home had disappeared in the bombing.  

She saw better times as communism collapsed. The Germanys were reunified but unemployment took over. Dresden has been rebuilt and is beautiful once again. Now she lives in a small but comfortable seniors apartment while her much devoted son lives conveniently across the street. It is the best of times.

The worst of times and the best of times, we have all experienced them to some degree, some more dramatically than others. I do believe that those who have known both have a better appreciation of the latter. Those who,  fortunately, know only a smooth topography must rely on accounts such as Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and on more recent accounts of troubled times to open their eyes to the depths and heights of human existence, and then to strive  for “peace and justice and for the integrity of creation.”