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II

When I was asked to go to the Conference I confess that my knowledge of Czecho-Slovakia was limited. I was aware that it was one of the Republics that came into existence after the Great War and that it was carved out of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire. I knew it on the map as a long, narrow country running east and west for some six hundred and fifty miles in Central Europe. At its widest part the breadth is one hundred and eighty miles, whilst it narrows in places to no more than forty miles. It has Germany and Poland on its northern boundaries, and Austria, Hungary and Roumania on its southern. Reference books that I consulted told me that the population was 14,750,000, of whom 8,760,000 were Czechs and Slovaks, representing, as both peoples do, a Western migration of the Slavonic race. Amongst the rest of the population there were 3,100,000 Germans and 750,000 Magyars.

After I had spent some weeks in May and June in Czecho-Slovakia and meeting many of the residents, including most of its leading men, it did not follow that I knew much about the country, but I got some vivid impressions. These impressions are of a fertile,


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picturesque country; a country of hospitable people; a country with extensive supplies of coal and iron, of valuable mineral wealth and thermal springs; a country thirty-three per cent. forest and possessed of enormous timber resources; a country of factories and hydro-electric stations; a country of considerable industrial activity and hard-working inhabitants. Furthermore, my impressions are associated with many fine cities, historic buildings, wonderful churches, splendid palaces and picturesque castles. The impressions also include rural scenery of great beauty—primeval woods, pine-clad and snow-topped mountains, romantic-looking valleys, noble rivers and a healthy-looking, robust peasantry wearing brilliantly coloured native costumes. Yet a visitor hears much that is disturbing, much that indicates that racial animosities, though slumbering, are still alive, that there is powder about, and any day the flames of war may break out despite the League of Nations.

I travelled with the delegation from the Imperial Parliament, and the route followed was via Dover to Ostend and so through Brussels to Prague. No one can travel by rail or road through Belgium, Germany and Central Europe and not be impressed by the numerous evidences of intense cultivation in the agricultural areas and by the patient industry of the people. No land is wasted by fences, walls or ditches; stock is herded, and even each flock of geese is watched carefully, usually by a girl. Men and women with bent backs toiling in the fields are notable features of the landscape. A discussion arose amidst our party as to whether the women working in the open air with their husbands and brothers were not


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better off and happier than girls working in the factories of crowded cities.

Prague, the capital of Czecho-Slovakia, is truly beautiful. Like Rome, it is built on seven hills. Passing through it is a wide and noble river, the Moldau. There are several wooded islands in the river. It is spanned by handsome bridges. The city has numerous historic and, in an architectural sense, highly attractive buildings. The skyline is crowded with spires, domes and turrets, whilst towering above all is the royal palace and the cathedral.

A resident of Prague intensely interested in antiquarian lore showed me round the city. He told me that it was founded in 754 by a semi-mythical duchess, Libusa, who took a peasant, Premysl, for her husband. They established the first ruling dynasty of Bohemia. There was also much that he had to say about the good King Wenceslas, who ruled about one thousand years ago. He is to Bohemian history what King Alfred is to English. The good king was ill-rewarded in this life, for I was shown the door of a chapel with a great sanctuary knocker to which he clung when he was murdered by his wicked brother. The murderer succeeded to the throne, and, though he earned the title of Boleslav the Cruel, reigned for nearly forty years.

The famous Charles Bridge, which was built some six hundred years ago, is guarded at the ends by magnificent towers. More than once the structure has been the scene of bloody contests. We were told that the waters below were red with blood in the fierce fighting for its possession in 1744, when the Prussians were driven out of the city.

The buttresses of the bridge are adorned with thirty


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statues and groups, chiefly of saints. Prominence is given to the patron saint of Bohemia, John of Neponic, who in 1383 was flung into the Moldau below the bridge. My guide asserted that until his body was taken out of the water five brilliant stars shone above where it lay.

One statue was pointed out of a man who in his day was popular, but a generation or so after it was erected a party opposed to his views coming into power, the figure was converted into a representation of Saint John of Neponic by means of a few alterations and the addition of the saint's characteristic halo of five stars.

All visitors are attracted by a beautiful, graceful group of statuary about the centre of the bridge. The leading figure is that of Christ on the Cross. On it are inscriptions in Hebrew which we were informed testify to the truth of Christianity. It is known as “The Jew's Calvary,” and it was erected in 1606 out of a fine levied on a Jew for reviling the cross. He was sentenced to death, but he was a wealthy man and was offered his life if he paid a fine sufficient to erect a group of statuary representative of the death of our Lord. Subsequently, when the statue was completed out of the fine that was paid, the unfortunate man was so distressed at the sight of it that he threw himself over the bridge and was drowned.

In 1618 ministers who gave unpopular advice to the king were dealt with in a drastic way. To-day they would be thrown out of office. Then they were thrown out of a window of their office. A window a considerable height from the ground from which two


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imperial chancellors were thrown that year was pointed out to me. The event was of far-reaching importance to Europe. It occasioned the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War.

I was also shown a curious feature of Prague. It is a picturesque fifteenth-century tower which has a huge clock that strikes the hours, one to twenty-four. There are several quaint figures, including the Twelve Apostles. All of these figures move when the clock strikes, and one of them, the gruesome figure of a skeleton, pulls a rope for each strike.

We were told with pride that the University of Prague, founded in 1348, is one of the oldest in Europe. The city itself is famous for its sieges and battles. It was taken by the Austrians in 1620, by the Swedes in 1648, by the French in 1741, by the Prussians in 1744 and by the French in 1806. It was the scene of an insurrection in 1848, and it was there in 1879 a treaty of peace was signed between Austria and Prussia. All these and numbers of other events have left their marks on Prague.

We were not long in Prague before we discovered that there was something like a language strike on. Most of the Czechs can speak German, but they refuse to speak it. It seems that in pre-war days endeavours were made to Germanise the country. The German language was encouraged, and with success. Now that the German power has been broken and the country is a republic, the Government does what it can to restore the Czech language and discourage the use of German. Hence many Czechs when addressed in German


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pretend they cannot speak it. To them their own language is the symbol of nationality. Unfortunately, the Czech language is one of the most difficult of European tongues to understand.

It may be mentioned that when it was to the advantage of the Czechs to speak German—for example, when members of our party were shopping and spoke in German—it was amazing how readily a knowledge of the language came to those who were behind the counter.

Whilst the country has great advantages it has one disadvantage. It has no seaport, though it has rivers that give access to the sea. Shakespeare, in “The Winter's Tale,” gives Bohemia a seaport, and Ben Jonson severely criticises him for the incorrectness of his geography. When we mentioned this to Prague residents they said that during the thirteenth century the kingdom of Bohemia included provinces on the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Since its establishment as a republic, the country has advanced in industrial activity and in prosperity as well as in population. It is not surprising that that should occur. The Peace Treaty gave to Czecho-Slovakia about eighty per cent. of the industry of the former Austrian Empire. In addition, the indebtedness of Czecho-Slovakia is not great. Though in foodstuffs the country is not self-supporting, it is well farmed. It has extensive engineering and iron works. The manufacture of chemicals is a big industry. Pilsner beer goes to every part of the world. Both in machinery and modern equipment, the factories are as efficient as any in Europe. Radium, gold, silver, iron and graphite are all mined, and there are valuable deposits


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of clay, kaolin and sand. Bohemian glass was known throughout the world in the seventeenth century, and it is still an important industrial art. Next best known are the ceramic products, both fine porcelain and decorated folk pottery. Illiteracy is almost unknown; in fact the people have a passion for education, and workmen are industrious and highly skilled.

It is difficult to feel that the boundaries are other than artificial of a country containing several races speaking different languages, a country that was carved out of the ruins of a great empire. There must be generations of work ahead to bring the jarring elements together and build a homogeneous nation. Still, the impression conveyed to most of us was that in the short time the republic has been in existence wonders have been effected by those who have had charge of its affairs. We met most of the members of the Government, including the then President, Dr. Masaryk. He received us at the Palace of Prague, which was one of the homes of the Hapsburgs, and there was about the reception not less state and dignity than there would have been about a reception by King George at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle.

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