Guns of August, Books of August: The Iconography of a Gravestone in Prague

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, 1999. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Cick on image to enlarge.

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, Autumn, 1998. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Digital scan of black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In the late 1990s, work on a series of projects for Dutch and Czech national telephone companies took me regularly to Prague. My workdays were long and pressured but, evenings and weekends, while many of my expatriate colleagues drank beer, I took to the streets of Prague with camera, light-meter, film, and tripod.

The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life-s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.  At the upper left of the tableau, a stylized two-dimensional Jugendstil angel leads a fallen officer away to another realm.  At the right, the officer’s pleading, grieving mother is restrained and comforted by no less a person than Kaiser Franz Josef I himself.  The focus is more on the emotions of the living than on the sad fate of dead.  The soldier, who no doubt died in agony, is portrayed as physically intact and unmarked by his miserable end.  The Kaiser is is portrayed as fatherly and gentle.  The only emotion to be seen is in the griefcontorted face of the mother.  The entire ensemble portrays a social structure and value system that would collapse by war’s end, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell victim to military defeat from without and economic collapse and nationalist demands for ethnic geopolitical autonomy from within.

Guns of August/Books of August

This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the tense and, in retrospect, gruesomely euphoric weeks of mobilization prior to the outbreak of World War I, the weeks that Barbara Tuchman documented in her now-classic book, The Guns of August.  This month been a stiflingly hot one in southeast Europe, and the high temperatures led me to restrict my movement, limit my work, and increase my reading.  By seeming chance, I turned to books portraying life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or by writers marked by the sensibilities of the Empire or by its implosion and aftermath.

I began with Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Post Office Girl and continued with Joseph Roth’s proud and moving portrayal of the westward migration of Eastern European Jews, The Wandering Jews, followed by his epic novels Radetzky March and The Emporer’s Tomb and his Kafkaesque Hotel Savoy.  I then turned to The Burning of the World, the newly published early-World War I memoir by the minor Hungarian artist Bela Zambary-Moldovan.  I am now in the middle of Martin Pollack’s German-language Kaiser von Amerika: Die große Flucht aus Galizien, a book that strips away sentimental idealizations of the lives of Jews and Christians in the the poorest and eastern-most province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and shines that light on the economic manipulation that empoverished Galizia and on the deliberate exploitation that characterized the emigration “industry” of the time.

The Wandering Jews, The Emperor’s Tomb, The Burning of the World, and Kaiser von Amerika touched me particularly close to home.  Three of my four  grandparents were Galizian Jews who arrived in New York in the decades prior to World War I.  The Emporer’s Tomb gives ample attention to the wartime lives and travails of Galizian Jews and Christians.  The battles and wartime devastation described by Zambary-Moldovan took place in and between Rawa Ruska, Hroniec Zdroy, and Lubaczow (towns straddling the present-day border of Poland and Ukraine) the very area from which my maternal grandfather hailed and where his parents, brothers, and sisters somehow survived the carnage of World War I only to be murdered by Germans and their local helpers a quarter century later.

Afterthought: For more on the theme of wartime devastation of civilian life, see another title in my August reading list,  The Gallery, by John Horne Burns, a thinly fictionalized eye-witness indictment of the callousness of the American occupation of Naples during the final years of World War II, an antidote to sentimental tear-jerking pap about America’s World War II soldiers being “the greatest generation” and to  exultation of the volunteer soldiers of “The War on Terror” as “warriors” and “heroes.”

4 comments
    • Time to read is an advantage of stifling summer heat and spending the month of August in Sofia, where the majority locals have abandoned the baking city for the overcrowded beaches of Bulgaria’s Black Sea shore and Aegean Greece. Having all these books at my finger tips is the benefit of the ebook lending program of the Brooklyn Public Library.

  1. Sibel said:

    I loved the gravestone photo and your article ” the emotions of the living”. One can see the photo in a different angle. Like a short drama film. Eye opener.
    Books ; Glad I start reading the blog in second half of September. Your choice of books would have increased my temperature in August …too tense:) Still thanks for book comments. Can start with “The Gallery” for autumn.

  2. Thanks Sibel. The Gallery is a good choice and autumn is a wonderful time for reading. As to the gravestone as a short film … yes, I see what you mean; thinking back, I imagine how I could have portrayed the grave in video, telling a larger story through treatment of details. This is a good challenge for the future.

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