By Nicholas Watson of bne
A simmering row over a memorial in Prague to the Czechoslovaks who served in the Royal Air Force during World War 2 may have been diffused with the Czech Ministry of Culture’s decision to intervene on May 30. However, the whole brouhaha has highlighted planning issues that property developers in Prague have been complaining about for years.
On May 30, the minister of culture, Daniel Herman, expressed his support for the Winged Lion Memorial, a private intitiative by the British community in Prague, to build a memorial to the roughly 2,500 Czechoslovak airmen who served with distinction in the RAF during WW2.
Herman’s decision to throw his weight behind the memorial came after the Czech National Heritage Institute (národní památkový ústav, or NPU) on May 22 turned down the Prague 1 planning application to locate the memorial in Klárov, a square beside Mánes Bridge whose grassed area already hosts a memorial to those who resisted the Nazi occupation in 1938-1945.
The culture ministry’s intervention was timely, because the memorial, an impressive bronze-cast Winged Lion designed at considerable cost by the British sculptor Colin Spofforth, is due to be unveiled at a grand event on June 17 to coincide with the British Embassy’s annual garden party, which will include an RAF band at Prague castle and a flyby of a Spitfire. Dignitaries planning to attend include Nicholas Soames MP, Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff. A plaque commemorating the airmen in the Slovak capital of Bratislava has been waved through and will be unveiled on June 18.
“As the Minister of Culture, I warmly welcome the initiative of the British Community to raise funds to present a monument to the Czech people as a statement of its gratitude to the Czechoslovak airmen who served in the RAF during the Second World War. Their service is a chapter of our national history about which we are all deeply proud,” Herman said in a statement. “It is understood that procedural delays have slowed the issuing of a building permit. However, the events planned for 17 June must not be threatened by administration. Therefore, due to pressing time constraints, I believe that Prague 1 in cooperation with Prague City Hall and other authorities will do everything for not to endanger the memorial ceremony event.”
There was palpable relief from the organisers of the project that a solution had been found. Said Euan Edworthy, an initiator of the Winged Lion project: “The Winged Lion Appeal welcomes the Ministry of Culture’s decision. This initiative is all about the veterans. This is one of those projects which have no commercial, political or economic purpose – it just felt like the right thing to do from the word go. What is especially heart-warming is that so many people share this sentiment, both in their corporate capacity and as private individuals. It has been a privilege to work with them, and I would like to thank the Ministry of Culture and to Prague 1 for their support.”
For many in Prague, the whole affair has refocused attention on fundamental problems with the city’s planning system.
The reasons the National Heritage Institute (NPU) gave for turning down the application was that the Winged Lion Memorial was “inappropriate and incompatible” with this part of the historical centre of Prague, which is a conservation area on Unesco’s World Heritage List. This piece of public art was also not chosen in a competition, unlike the 1938-1945 War Memorial, which it claimed was won by Vladimir Preclik. However, controversial Czech artist David Cerny points out that he actually won the competition, though a political row meant it ended up being awarded to Preclik.
Ondřej Šefců, director of the NPU, in a statement detailing the reasons for turning down the application, referred to other more suitable locations for the memorial, “which were rejected without giving any coherent reasons.” This is probably a reference to a site offered in the Prague suburb of Zizkov, whose cemetery contains the remains of top communists such as Klement Gottwald, president of Czechoslovakia in 1948–1953. This was not thought appropriate given that the ex-RAF airmen were treated abominably by the communists, who peevishly stripped some of their jobs, apartments and welfare payments, forcing them into menial jobs and sending others to jail or forced labour camps, because they wanted to maintain the narrative that it was the Soviet Union alone that liberated Czechoslovakia.
Sources in Prague point out this was a strange statement to make by Šefců and show the muddled thinking at the NPU, because the Prague 1 planning application was about this site, not any others, so it seemed odd for alternative sites to be brought up.
Critics of the NPU says it’s par for the course. An ultraconservative and faction-ridden body, the NPU is seen as often bandying together with other like-minded groups such as the Club for Old Prague (KZSP) to fight any developments in Prague, using the country’s pretty woeful legal system to delay and halt projects. “The NPU’s default position is that they don’t like change and it’s hard to understand why some things get approved and some things don’t,” says one developer speaking on condition of anonymity. “Other World Heritage cities like Rome manage to achieve sensitive development while at the same time remain really quite beautiful.”
To some extent the NPU and KZSP are part of a growing public backlash against what is regarded as a string of terrible developments in Prague since the Velvet Revolution, in which historical buildings have been bulldozed in favour of shopping malls and glass office buildings. Too often, say critics, Prague’s main City Council has bowed to the wishes of developers, while the country lacks the sort of legislation typical in other European countries that sanction developers or councils for not protecting historical buildings. This being the Czech Republic, there are also mutterings of corruption in the granting of planning permissions.
However, developers complain that the planning system is broken, allowing shady individuals and other unaccountable groups to hold up developments that have already been approved. The system is an open invitation to bribery and blackmail, sighs one foreign developer. “Because everything takes so long, the incentive is there to pay bribes,” he says.
Take Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí). It holds an almost mythical place in foreigners’ minds as the centre of the Velvet Revolution, yet visitors today can’t hide their disappointment at the mix of mediocre shops, casinos, drug dealers, prostitutes and sex clubs that blight this iconic square. Repeated attempts to restore the square to its former glory have been thwarted by a mix of corruption, nimbyism and resistance to change.
The upshot of all the legal and procedural uncertainty, worry some, is that Prague will no longer attract the type of investment that has made it today one of Europe’s premier capitals. There are still many derelict buildings in the centre that remain tied up in legal problems, while investment that might improve the centre and keep it vibrant and dynamic is starting to flow to the outskirts where planning permissions are treated in a more transparent and timely way.
However, all this is of little concern to the few remaining Czechoslovak ex-RAF pilots still alive and their relatives, who might rightly feel that they their service in liberating their country was once again dishonoured by becoming embroiled in an unseemly spat.