John Lennon's ideals for peace thrived under totalitarianism at Prague's 'Lennon Wall' and helped inspire the non-violent "Velvet Revolution" that led to the fall of Communism in the former Czechoslovakia.
by Ron Synovitz
Czech Republic; Dec. 8, 1998 -- The "John Lennon Peace Wall" stands in a quiet square amidst the baroque architecture of Prague's diplomatic quarter. Though Lennon never visited the Bohemian capital, he was a pacifist hero for the Czech subculture during the totalitarian era. In the decade following the collapse of Communism, the Lennon Wall came to represent not only a memorial to Lennon and his ideas, but also a monument to free speech and the non-violent rebellion of Czech youth against the repressions of neo-Stalinism.
Shortly after Lennon's death in 1980, under the ever watchful eyes of the Communist secret police, an anonymous group of Prague youth set up a mock grave for the ex-Beatle. The event was spontaneous, much in the same way that fans in New York City had gathered at Central Park upon hearing of Lennon's death. But unlike the gathering in New York, mourners in Prague risked prison for what authorities called "subversive activities against the state."
Prague's mock tombstone was, in fact, a recess within a garden wall that forms the backside of a 14th century churchyard. At the time of Lennon's death, western pop songs were banned by Communist authorities and some Czech musicians who played the music were sent to jail for the offense.
But the threat of prison couldn't keep people from slipping into the square at night to scrawl graffiti epitaphs in honor of their underground hero. The Communist police tried repeatedly to whitewash over the graffiti but they could never manage to keep the wall clean. Paintings of Lennon began to appear along with lyrics of his songs. The wall quickly took on a political focus and, inevitably, developed into a forum for grievances against the Communist state. Even the installation of surveillance cameras and the posting of an overnight guard couldn't stop the opinions from being expressed. Lennon marches also started to take place each year on Dec. 8. Those marches ultimately became linked to dissident protests on International Human Rights Day -- December 10. Participants in those early marches say they were channeled through a gauntlet of uniformed and plain-clothes police. Many were jailed or beaten for joining the marches.
Some of the writing on the Lennon wall during the 1980s was inane but much of it was quite profound. A running battle developed between the police whitewashers and dissident graffiti writers until November, 1989 when Communism collapsed in the former Czechoslovakia's non-violent "Velvet Revolution."
It has been reported that the French ambassador, whose office looks directly upon the colorful wall, telephoned Prague's municipal authorities late in 1989 and asked them not to paint over or interfere with the graffiti. Long after the Velvet Revolution, new writing continued to turn up regularly. The potent political messages of the 1980s became buried under lightweight graffiti, much of it written by western tourists, and the layers of paint continued to thicken with thousands of tourists visiting the site each year.
In 1998, the local "John Lennon Peace Club" and the restituted owners of the wall -- a religious order dating from the 11th century called the Knights of the Maltese Cross -- worked together to reconstruct its crumbling facade. There has been much criticism of the work. The stone recess that had formed Lennon's original mock grave was covered by a larger cement "tombstone" with the painted words: "John Winston Lennon: October 9 1940 - Dec. 8, 1980." The wall's original plaster, which was being picked off in chunks by souvenir-hunting tourists, was replaced by a solid white surface, and a "happening" was organized where young Czechs and western backpackers added new messages -- none of them as powerful as the scrawlings of dissidents in the days of neo-Stalinism.
James, a long-time expatriate American who lived near the wall during the July, 1998 "happening," described the event as retro nostalgia. "I saw all these wanna be hippies," he said. "Some of them weren't even alive in the 70s, much less the 60s. They were trying to be a part of a time that they'll never be able to understand. They were painting flowers and butterflies and lame clichés with brushes they'd been handed by the (Maltese) church. And they were all using from the same paint!!! I thought, 'Where are the punks? Where are the anarchists'?" James concluded that it will merely be a matter of time before "real" graffiti covers the sanitized wall so that it regains its original spirit.
But others question whether this will happen. The Maltese Knights have already taken steps to paint over slogans that they've deemed to be too large, or expressions that their order doesn't approve of. That has many concerned that the Lennon Wall will no longer be a venue for free speech.
There are several explanations as to why this particular spot at Velkoprevorske Namesti became a spontaneous memorial in the first place. The tombstone shape of the original gothic recess must have played an important role. There also is a centuries-old connection to the square and the name "John." The original name of the Maltese Knights, founded at the time of the First Holy Crusade, was "The Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem." Also, in Maltese Square, just around the corner from the Lennon Wall, there stands a baroque statue of St. John the Baptist. But most importantly, the Lennon Wall is just a footbridge away from Kampa Park, a place that has long been a popular gathering place for Prague youth. One western journalist living in Prague since the 1970s suggests that the Lennon Wall had been a kind of "counter culture wailing wall" even before Lennon's death, with poems written by teens about friends who had died in a car accident or suffered from a drug overdose.
In the post-totalitarian era, on any day of the year when it is not raining or freezing, a dozen circles of young Czechs and foreign travelers can be found scattered across Kampa Park strumming guitars, tapping out rhythms on African drums or just enjoying the sun. This serene setting, with the park's ground level view of the gothic Charles Bridge, makes it difficult to imagine the not-so-distant past when young people risked prison for singing Lennon's music.
Timeline: Prague's "Velvet Revolution"
Bagism's Virtual Lennon Wall
Text by Ron Synovitz / Graphics by Miriam J Allen
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Last updated on Dec 8, 1998