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Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, a Surrealist History

Derek Sayer


Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, two pistol shots that started the race to finish off whatever remained of old Eu­rope, very late indeed in the long nineteenth-century day.

Milena came home from the old imperial capital to the new national capi­tal in 1925, the year after Kafka's death, having finally divorced the philander­ing Pollak. Much as she was irritated by Prague's provincialism, she could not help but be seduced once more by the city's legendary charms. "Nowhere abroad does such a light shine as over Prague," she gushed in the winter of 1926. "I had not seen it for years, and when I saw it again, it seemed to me as if I had found something I had lost…..By the National Theater the night fog is like the thick top of milk, and through the creamy crust blue and brilliant lights shine suddenly, and golden lamplight streams clear." Earning a pre­carious living from journalism she hung out in jazz clubs; partied with Teige, Nezval, and the other young radicals of the Devetsil group; married the ar­chitect Jaromir Krejcar; had an affair with the dashing journalist Julius Fucik; gave birth to a daughter, Jana, whom she called by the male diminutive Honza; got hooked on morphine; joined the KSC and hid its fugitive leader Klement Gottwald for a time in her flat in the Little Quarter. She divorced Krejcar, who had fallen in love with another woman while working with Moshe Ginzburg in the Soviet Union in 1934-35, and left the party again over the Moscow trials—when not for the first time in modern history a dec­laration of the rights of man metamorphosed into Tricoteuses knitting and purling in the shadow of the guillotine. Krejcar went on to design the func­tionalist pavilion with which Czechoslovakia was represented at the 1937 Ex­position internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne in Paris, a structure the architectural historian Kenneth Frampton judges to be "as sem­inal ... as the significant pavilions designed for the same occasion by Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Junzo Sakakura." This was the same world exhibi­tion for which Picasso painted Guernica and Albert Speer's Nazi pavilion and Boris Iofan's Soviet pavilion stared each other down in monumental pomposity across the mall that led to the Eiffel Tower—a metaphor for the century, should we want one. Disillusioned with communism after his expe­riences in the Soviet Union and afraid for his Russian wife, Riva Holcova, Krejcar fled Czechoslovakia after Victorious February. He died a year later in London, where he had been given a professorship at the Architects' Associa­tion School.

In July 1938, just three years after Breton and Eluard's visit to the magic capital, three months before Chamberlain and Daladier sat down with Hit­ler and Mussolini to carve the cake in Munich, Milena was approached by.......