Senate exhibition maps life and times of 19th and early 20th century parliamentarians

16-11-2006

The Senate is currently mapping the life and times of 19th and early 20th century parliamentarians with a new exhibition. "Parliament in the reflection of time" - this new exhibition documents the life of Czech politicians one hundred years ago...the important events they witnessed, the lives they led, the causes they defended, and the decisions they made from the 1800s up to the 1930s.

Petr Kostka is the Senate's spokesman:

"At this exhibition, visitors can find original documents of members of Parliament and little things that they used. These include their pens, notes, and diaries. There is also something on election campaigns, pre-election posters and so on."

Among the highlights are the ID card of Edvard Benes, who later became the second Czechoslovak President, a paperweight and inkbottle that belonged to Frantisek Palacky - the nineteenth century historian and politician who is often called the Father of the Czech Nation, and the armchair of a parliament land marshal, representing the Kingdom of Bohemia.

One of the most fascinating documents exhibited is the Prague Petition of 1848. Its signatories called on the Emperor to allow for Czech to be given equal status to German and to grant autonomy to Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. The 1918 Washington declaration of Czechoslovak independence and the original Constitution of 1920 on which today's constitution is based are also on display.

"In the 19th century, the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia were a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so the parties that were represented in parliament were nationalist parties with nationalist programmes. Some of them wanted to gain independence immediately and others were willing to negotiate and remain part of the empire but with some form of independence."

Modern Czech parliamentarianism was born out of the revolutionary events of 1848-1849. Historian Lubos Velek specialises in 19th century and early 20th century politics:

"The 1880s begin witnessing this political rivalry with the birth of two parties that start to compete against each other. These are the Party of the Young Bohemians and the Party of the Old Bohemians. Although the Social Democratic Party already existed at the time, it did not have a candidate in the elections. It concentrated on factory and manual workers, the poorest class in society with no voting rights, so its chances of getting elected were non-existent. The early 1900s brought about real change with the birth of a modern society with a wide spectrum of interests. New political parties were formed including the Agrarian Party, a number of manual labourers' parties, conservative religious parties, the National Socialists, and intellectual parties such as Masaryk's Realists. All that competition naturally led to vicious election campaigning..."

...and rather unusual obstructions of parliamentary proceedings. The original metal cymbal used by an MP from the Vienna Parliament in 1900 during his June 8th concert to interrupt proceedings is just one example on display at the Senate. There is also the stone that a crowd threw into the chamber of MP Frantisek Ladislav Rieger, a senior member of the Party of Old Bohemians. And a letter in rather vulgar language and a noose sent to the Prague Lord Mayor Jan Podlipny, an MP for the Party of Young Bohemians in the Bohemian land parliament are also on display.

And, as we heard earlier, part of the exhibition also focuses on election campaigns. Historian Lubos Velek:

"Election campaigns started turning ugly in the 1890s. There was no radio and no television so the pre-election campaign was limited to the printed press, which was the only medium in the 19th century. Another form of campaigning was during pre-election meetings. Since only a limited few had voting rights - several hundred but no more than a thousand in one electoral district, political candidates had the opportunity to get to know each voter personally and stay in contact with him."

Besides aggressive slogans on posters and billboards discrediting rival candidates, parties also commissioned groups to interrupt their rival's pre-election meetings with voters:

"The Agrarians did that quite frequently. They would pay stable boys and send them, armed with shovels, to the meetings of the Young Bohemians, which would often end in bloodshed. Women, who didn't even have the right to vote at the time, would often show up at the meetings too, with the simple aim of breaking them up. Of course, once the fights broke out the police rushed in to restore order."

Walking through the impressive Wallenstein Palace, my attention is caught by a glass case exhibiting an old-fashioned coat and a pair of trousers. I'm told it used to be the attire of a servant a century ago. Back then MPs had servants; today, as Petr Kostka says jokingly, they are called assistants...

"Today they are called assistants and they have no uniform [he laughs] but in principle their work is the same. They [servants] helped senators with law proceedings, meetings with guests, and so on."

"Parliament in the reflection of time" is open to the public every weekend until January 12.

16-11-2006