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Posted on 29 Oct 2020 in Non-Fiction |

RICHARD FIDLER The Golden Maze: A biography of Prague. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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The Golden Maze offers a broad sweep of Prague’s history and a clear warning against totalitarianism.

Richard Fidler is a broadcaster and host of Conversations on ABC Radio. In an earlier life he was part of the comedy trio the Doug Anthony All Stars. In late 1989, the All Stars were doing a gig in London as the Velvet Revolution brought about an end to communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Fidler decided to travel to Prague to be part of the zeitgeist. He writes:

The Origins Of This Book [Fidler’s capitals] can be traced to the Velvet Revolution, when I found myself among the happiest people in Europe, reveling in the peaceful overthrow of a decrepit police state. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

Fidler dedicates The Golden Maze to the students of 1989 who participated in this magical moment of Czech history. He quotes 19-year-old Franz Kafka, who said ‘Prague doesn’t let go…This little mother has claws.’ Mother Prague sank its claws into Richard Fidler, and he returned in 1991 and discovered The Grand Hotel Evropa, where he had stayed two years earlier, had prostitutes roaming its lobby where previously there had been agents of the secret police. Family and career held him in their respective grips for the next quarter of a century. He returned to Prague in 2018 and again in 2019, when he spent two months researching Prague and Czech history.

Despite its title, this is more a book about the history of the Czechs in Central Europe than Prague per se. Czechoslovakia as such only existed in the period 1918 to 1992; on 1 January 1993 it separated into the Czech and Slovak republics. Fidler set himself the task of providing a history, what he calls a biography, of a Czech geographic area in Central Europe. His focus is on broad sweeps of history, important historical political figures, cultural and intellectual developments and changes to the landscape, including the erection of buildings and monuments in Prague.

His history is one of domination, death, rampage, rape, destruction and despair juxtaposed against resistance and quests for freedom. The Czechs have found themselves caught in crossfires between rival royals – often from within the same family – struggling to maintain or obtain power; religious struggles between and within Catholic and Protestant groups (and Fidler does not shy away from the pogroms against the Jews over the millennia); tensions between the Austrian Habsburg empire and Germany; domination by first Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia; and attempts to escape Soviet domination in the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

The Golden Maze is essentially in two parts, in that Fidler employs two different approaches to his material. The first five chapters cover lengthy periods (Prehistory to 1378, 1378–1550, 1550–1619, 1620–1815, 1815–1935). In these chapters Fidler employs a descriptive approach, which amounts to little more than a collection of facts, lacking any general conceptual theme or direction.

As a result, the material jumps around among seemingly unconnected issues. Fidler employs an inherent Great Man/Woman view of history, mainly focussing on the lives of royals, religious leaders and dissidents. It is consistent with what is sometimes described as writing history ‘from above’ – i.e. from the perspective of the winners. Part of the reason for this could be simply that these Great Men and Women, especially the royals, were the only ones that generated readily available source material.

The second half of the book deals with the period from 1935 to the present. It covers Czechoslovakia’s abandonment by the Allies prior to World War II and takeover by Nazi Germany; the Nazi occupation, the end of the war and consequent Communist Party domination in 1948; Czechoslovakia under communist rule and the emergence of a reform movement, which was thwarted by an invasion by Soviet Russia in 1968; a second reform movement lead by intellectuals, playwrights and musicians from 1968 to 1988; events associated with the Velvet Revolution and the toppling of communism from 1998 to 1990; and developments post-1990.

These chapters have a clearer and more consistent focus than the first half of The Golden Maze. Here Fidler moves away from a narrow Great Man/Woman view to a broader approach concerned with political, social and cultural developments. It is also more consistent with an approach where history is written from ‘below’ – by its victims and ‘losers’.

An accessible book written by someone with a high public profile such as Richard Fidler can help introduce readers to history who might be put off by an academic approach. There are, however, two problems that may hamper this in The Golden Maze. First, the book is too long. It would have benefited from less descriptive material and a more conceptual approach highlighting key themes. Second, the best part of the book begins on page 264. Readers may give up before they reach it.

Can history help us learn from our mistakes or are we doomed to repeat them? Richard Fidler is an optimist and hopes that the freedom afforded to Czechs after centuries of oppression will enable ‘people to listen to the better angels of their nature’. He also tells us that:

The story of Prague offers a stark warning against the totalitarian urge, if we care to hear it. I once imagined that totalitarianism was a peculiar problem of the twentieth century. But Prague bears the scars of earlier murderous crusades that set out to win souls for heaven, led by men who dreamt they could straighten the crooked timber of humanity by striking it hard with a hammer.

The material Richard Fidler provides concerning the devastation wrought by different variants of totalitarianism on and in this city in Central Europe has equivalents, sadly, not only in many other cities (and countries) of Europe, but in other parts of the globe. It is in his account of campaigns against totalitarianism, in its various mutating forms, that The Golden Maze makes an important contribution. 

Richard Fidler The Golden Maze: A biography of Prague ABC Books 2020 HB 592pp $39.95.

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations and sport. He recently completed a history of the Rugby League Players’ Association.

You can buy The Golden Maze from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.