Czech Communism & the Nuclear Bunker

As a child growing up in the 70’s, I heard vague rumblings about “those Commie bastards.” I think most of them came from Archie Bunker on All in the Family, but it was a backdrop of the times whether my family talked politics or not. I can’t say I ever knew what any of it meant, or why we were enemies. We just were.

So I was very curious to explore a little bit about communism while visiting the Czech Republic. I was invited to participate in Prague Special Tours’ Communism & Nuclear Bunker Tour. It seemed like my big chance to understand what all the fuss had been about.

Going down into the bunker

Going down into the bunker

First, we got a walking tour and explanation of the history of communism in Czechoslovakia, and I have to say, it was enlightening. I highly recommend others take this tour to ground themselves in the history of this beautiful city before they set out to see all the sights.

Statue of a hanging man that can be viewed from the Communist headquarters. The man is supposed to represent Sigmund Freud.

Statue of a hanging man that can be viewed from the Communist headquarters. The man is supposed to represent Sigmund Freud.

Our tour guide, Jacob, melded a fabulous blend of information, facts, personal stories, and humor. I quickly realized that I was correct — I knew next to nothing about the rise of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1948.

As Jacob talked, I could imagine it through my own American frame of reference as a child. The Red Army and the ‘Commies’ seemed like such a distant and yet ever-present threat in the 1970’s, not to mention the 50’s and 60’s. It was interesting to be on the other side of things in Prague and get glimpses of how anti-American they were at the time.

And yet — as Jacob explained it, it made sense that Czechoslovakia would choose this path. It seemed to work for them. In fact, it worked so well without turmoil that the Red Army stepped in again in 1968 and decided that the Czechs were doing it wrong. Owning business and opening borders just wasn’t the Communist way, so the Red Army set them back a few decades and “normalized” them again. Suddenly, their style of life reverted back to the way it was in 1948, which was more more restrictive than they’d become accustomed to being.

I won’t go into many details. You really need to hear it for yourself as you stand on the streets of Prague where so many monumental events took place. Like Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1968 in Wenceslas Square. As it happened, I was here on January 19th which is the anniversary of the day this young man set himself on fire publicly. There is a monument honoring him on the Square and people brought flowers and lit candles to remember him.

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Jacob also took us to the small monument that memorializes the Velvet Revolution, so named because there was no bloodshed when communism was overthrown in 1989 shortly after the Berlin Wall came down.

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After we toured spots in the city, we took a tram and stood before a wall covered with street art. This was the entrance to a nuclear bunker meant for 2500 people, guarding against attack with a heavy lead door.

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We walked down a few flights of stairs into a bunker that would have never really protected people from a nuclear attack. We entered the narrow museum displays where Jacob gave us an overview of the propaganda of the time. Most of it was absurd: like the idea that placing your baby in this makeshift box and pumping air in every 3 minutes would keep your baby safe and alive, or that in the event of a nuclear attack, it was advised to get under a desk or table and cover your head. (Same thing American children were taught, too.)

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It was a fascinating glimpse into history and then we had the chance to don Czech military jackets and hats and pose for pictures with hand grenades and rifles if we wanted to. Of course I wanted to. (You’re coming to learn that I’m a master of ridiculous posing.)

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Goofy pictures aside, this tour was the prefect blend of fact and fun, personal experience and propaganda, oppresion  and revolution. I felt like I had a better understanding of communism and it’s place in Czech history and then its ultimate demise as the world moved forward. Stepping inside a nuclear bunker was something I never thought I’d have the chance to do and I was fascinated by the stories Jacob shared. It was a uniquely Czech experience and one I highly recommend.

 Is communism a side of Prague you’d like to explore?

12 responses to “Czech Communism & the Nuclear Bunker

  1. Looks like a great trip, and I love that last shot! When we were in Prague, Bea was sick, so I spent most of the time in our flat nursing her back to health, but we didn’t get to study much about the Communist history. It was there we learned about defenestration, one of my favorite words now. When in Gdansk, Poland, we went to the Solidarity Museum and learned a little about the history of communism and Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic’s part. The have an interesting history and I think that history has really affected the national character. I really do want to go back.

  2. We went into a bunker in Verdun France. It wasn’t a nuclear bunker though. That was the highlight of my Eurotrip. Love your adventures 🙂

    • Thanks, Cindy. 🙂 It’s interesting to step back into time and think of what it must have been like during these recent time periods, isn’t it? I went underground in Manchester, England, too, and got to imagine what it was like to go down into the air raid bunkers. Like this tour, it brought history to life.

  3. The Cold War has left us some sites that are great travel destinations, in retrospect. The Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam and the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona are two of my favorites … so this is exactly the sort of thing I’d like to do. I’m pretty sure I’ll get to Prague at some point, so I’ll remember this post when the time comes!

  4. Look out, she’s got a grenade and she’s not afraid to use it! Cute pic.

    This tour is so neat and was not around when I visited many moons ago. Otherwise, I would have been on that in a second. Because of my Czech ancestry, I specialized in Eastern Europe in college, and that was where I really got into the Cold War. Before that I never understood it fully. It wasn’t as black and white as the previous two wars.

    I visited the Museum of Communism, which I loved. Even included it in Everything’s Not Bigger. 🙂

    • You would love this, Britt. It’s such a fun and informative tour. I can only imagine how much richer it would be with even more background information. Sounds like you’ll have to go back. Call it research for the sequel to Everything’s Not Bigger. 🙂

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