The world remembers Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 as just one of the many events that led to World War II. But for the Czech and Slovak peoples the event marked the end of their 20-year-old free and democratic republic, and the beginning of a five-decade-long nightmare of foreign occupation.
In 1941, as if to erase any memory of freedom, the Nazis destroyed a monument symbolizing Czech independence that had stood in Prague since 1928. Today, seventy years after its destruction, that monument has been rebuilt.
Yet few Americans know that the monument being unveiled today honors President Woodrow Wilson, who in 1918 supported the Czech and Slovak bid for independence in the aftermath of World War I.
In fact, the Czech people so revere Wilson’s role in securing their freedom that the monument erected to his memory stood – and now stands again – in front of Prague’s main train station, which is named after Wilson.
As Chairman of the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR), I have the honor of participating in the Woodrow Wilson Monument rededication events taking place this week in Prague.
For several years, AFoCR, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the relationship between the United States and the Czech Republic, has worked side-by-side with the Czech authorities and Prague officials to ensure that this day would come.
I am proud to be joined by former Czech President Václav Havel, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Prague, and U.S. Ambassador Norman Eisen.
The story of the Wilson Monument, its destruction and resurrection, is the story of a friendship between two nations that has lasted for nearly 100 years.
It began with Wilson and the support he gave at the end of World War I to Czech patriot Tomáš Masaryk. During the war, Masaryk traveled throughout the United States and spoke before thousands in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, urging Americans to support a Czechoslovak state. During his U.S. tour, the future president of a free and democratic Czechoslovakia convinced Wilson to put the full support of the United States behind his people’s aspiration for independence.
Students of history will know Wilson’s ambition of leading a war-weary Europe still shocked at the degree of death and destruction from War World I. His grandest idea – the League of Nations – failed to save the world from war once again, although it led to the establishment of the United Nations. But his first and most immediate impact was the support he gave to Masaryk and the founding of a new Czech-Slovak state.
Indeed, Masaryk modeled the new Czechoslovak constitution after the U.S. Constitution. In 1918, he said, “We accept the American principles as laid down by President Wilson: the principles of liberated mankind, of the actual equality of nations, and of governments deriving all their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Unfortunately, the new republic found itself consumed by the great totalitarian states of the 20th Century, first the Nazis then the Soviet Union, crushing the fledgling democracy.
Since its liberation from behind the Iron Curtain, the Czech Republic has reemerged as a staunch ally of the United States. Czech soldiers have followed their American counterparts into both Afghanistan and Iraq, just as their exiled forebears fought beside Allied soldiers in World War II.
Today, Prague is one of the most prosperous, beautiful capitals in the world, thanks to the Czech Republic’s embrace of free-market principles.
Indeed, the resurgence of the Czech people following decades of oppressive rule is once more symbolized by today’s rededication of the Woodrow Wilson Monument. After all the hardship and suffering that the Czechs have endured, they have never forgotten the role the United States and its president played in securing their freedom.
Fred Malek is the chairman of the board of the American Friends of the Czech Republic. He served as an adviser to Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.