A very interesting overview of key periods in the four- millennia-old history of central Europe's great "gateway" city (one of the meanings of the Czech Praha), which has also served as a bridge between the Slavic region to the east and the Germanic and Latin areas to the west.
A Prague-born and -raised literary and intellectual historian, Demetz traces the enormous changes the city underwent between the Middle Ages and the eve of WW II. (Strangely, he does not extend his story to encompass either the brief "Prague Spring" of 1968 or the "velvet revolution" of 1989 that, with amazing swiftness, brought about communism's collapse.) Demetz is particularly interesting on the revolt led by followers of the martyred Jan Hus, a precursor to Luther, in the early 15th century, and on how the city affected, and sometimes dazzled, the host of literary and other creative figures who lived there or passed through, from Goethe to André Breton. He also captures repeated moments of tension, and rather more uncommon ones of harmony, between the city's two large ethnic communities: Germans and Czechs. Both groups periodically turned violently against the city's third great community, the Jews, who also provided a disproportionate share of cultural and scientific leadership. Demetz's style is both richly anecdotal and well grounded in a wide range of secondary sources, and he does an excellent job of balancing political and cultural history. (As a city "insider," Demetz seems particularly knowledgeable about Prague's neighborhoods and architecture.) However, he does have a propensity to overwhelm the reader with myriad names and, on occasion, to become bogged down in narrative details.
In general, however, this is a fine introduction to a city that, like Rome or Jerusalem, has equally compelling legendary and actual histories.
“Demetz focuses on the dark and disturbing aspects of the city's history, as well as on its golden glories...With great erudition and profound engagement, [he] has made it possible for us to come closer to understanding Prague.” Larry Wolff, The New York Times Book Review
“Demetz seems to reveal in the multifariousness of his native ground...[and] gives the flowering of that diversity its full due...A fluid chronicle.” Frederic Morton, Los Angeles Times Book Review