Oct 272016


Milan Kundera begins The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by telling the story of the pictures above:

In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.

Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.

I had a Czech student decades ago who told me the story of how her mother, a schoolgirl at the time, again in Prague, I think, performed this act of historical revision. Her teacher instructed the class to open their books, pull out their pencils, and erase one of the men. Except by mistake she told them to erase Gottwald, not Clementis. So they had to go back and erase Clementis as well. Then no one was on the podium. There wasn’t even a hat.

My student was bright and beautiful, as her mother must have been.

Gary Garvin

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