Last week I promised some recordings from Radio Prague in the early 1990s, but I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a break in our chronological journey through the archives, to play a recording that has special relevance this week. On Monday Pope Benedict visited the town of Stará Boleslav just outside Prague, famous for its links with the early days of Christianity in the Czech Lands. During his stay he prayed at an extremely rare medieval icon of the Virgin and Child, cast in metal and said to date back to the days of Princess Ludmila in the 10th century. The icon, known as the “Palladium” traditionally protects the Czech nation from danger.
On September 10 1938, just three weeks before Hitler marched into the Sudetenland, the Palladium was paraded through the centre of Prague. Tens of thousands of people joined the procession, which took place on the same day as a speech by President Edvard Beneš, in which he tried in vain to adopt a tone of reconciliation with the Sudeten German minority, by now whipped up by Nazi propaganda. Here is a unique recording of a British journalist - whose name is given in the archive as W. Robinson - capturing the atmosphere of that moment 71 years ago:
“Last Saturday was a day of emotion. At half past six everybody listened to the president’s appeal for calm, after which the national anthems were played – the sweet and gentle Czech hymn and the rugged stirring hymn of the Slovaks. I watched in a crowded café the close attention given to the speech, and then I went out into the pouring rain and premature darkness to see the procession of the Palladium. This was the sacred picture of Our Lady, Patroness of Bohemia, deposited three hundred years ago at the church in Stará Boleslav, which had been brought for several days to Prague and was carried in a procession before its return home. Roman Catholic ‘Sokols’ [members of the Sokol patriotic athletic movement], church choirs, monks, nuns, priests, the Cardinal Archbishop in golden cope and mitre, passed between lines of spectators holding up umbrellas. The procession became a national act of intercession by a people in deadly peril.
“The fearful tension, long drawn out ever since the Austrian Anschluss, but intensified in the last week or two, is imposing an unbearable strain upon a highly civilized and sensitive people. They buy papers at intervals throughout the day, then discuss the latest news or rumours. When the tension becomes unbearable, they relieve their nerves with witty stories and hearty laughter. I don’t come across hatred of the Germans, only an absolute conviction that death is better than slavery and that nobody can enjoy peace while the menace remains of Hitler’s ‘Drang nach Osten’.
“… In spite of everything, people go about their ordinary lives and occupations, merely laying in extra supplies of food. One sometimes sees somebody walking about with a grey cylindrical tin hung about him. He’s been getting a new gas mask. But nobody stares or thinks it remarkable. Occasionally an office is short-handed because some of the staff have been called to the colours. But there is no panic, no violent explosion of hate, only a deep gnawing anxiety. If we have to fight, we could not desire as brothers in arms a people more determined, more reliable, more sympathetic in spirit to ourselves, or more like ourselves in their language of reasonable argument and their love of democracy and freedom.”
That was the British journalist, W. Robinson, in Prague in September 1938. There is more than a little symbolism in the fact that it was Benedict XVI, a Pope of German origin, who on Monday prayed in Stará Boleslav, seven decades after that recording was made. Perhaps we should not underestimate the powers of the “Palladium”.
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