Zdenek David was born in Blatná, South Bohemia, in May 1931. He moved to Prague at age seven, however, when his father Václav (a judge) was appointed to the capital’s circuit court. Zdenek spent most of WWII in Prague and remembers his schooling changing under German occupation. He says students at his gymnázium on Husova Street were taught no history during the War and were expected to learn subjects such as mathematics in German. Zdenek remained in the capital at the time of liberation and remembers ‘chaos’ as reprisals were inflicted upon ethnic Germans and those suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. Zdenek left Czechoslovakia for the United States in 1947, when he gained a one-year American Field Service scholarship to complete his secondary education at the Putney School in Vermont. When the Communist takeover happened in 1948, his parents urged him not to return home in light of the political climate.
Zdenek enrolled at Wesleyan University to study a bachelor’s degree in politics and philosophy. Upon graduating in 1952, he was accepted at Harvard, where he gained both his master’s and doctoral degrees. As a professor of Russian history at the University of Michigan in 1964, Zdenek was awarded a one-year scholarship to conduct research in Finland. It is here that he saw his parents Julie and Václav again for the first time in 17 years. After nearly a decade at Princeton University, Zdenek moved to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He works there to this day, now as a senior scholar at the center. A frequent visitor back to the Czech Republic, Zdenek says the Velvet Revolution in 1989 ‘inspired’ him to conduct more scholarly research on Czech topics. In 2003 he brought out a book about Czech religious group the Utraquists, titled Finding the Middle Way: The Utraquists’ Liberal Challenge to Rome and Luther. He published a new work focusing on 18th-century Czech history called Realism, Tolerance, and Liberalism in the Czech National Awakening. In September 2009, he was awarded the Palacký Medal for social sciences by the Czech Academy of Sciences. A longtime member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU), Zdenek is now the organization’s secretary general.
Schooling & WWII
“We could sort of tell that something very unusual and very unlucky was happening to us. At the beginning of the next school year in 1939, we were asked to cut out the pictures of Presidents Masaryk and Beneš from our textbooks, and we got new students coming in, especially those who were expelled from Slovakia, or [who] left Slovakia in a very difficult position. Among them was a young man who became my good friend, whose father was a dentist in Bratislava and also had to leave.”
Trouble with Nazis
“There was that one unfortunate, well, peculiar incident just one year before I went to gymnázium when I was on the street with a couple of my friends and one of them was eating, I think it was plums, and was spitting the pits out into the street. And suddenly a German who had a swastika attached to the fender of his car stopped and seized us, claiming that we were desecrating the German flag. And he called a policeman who then went and took us to the police station. And our parents had to come and take us out. It seems as if the matter was somehow settled without any further consequences, but needless to say we were very scared by the whole event.”
“One of them happened right under our windows where, in 1939, I saw the coming of the German tanks. This time, a large procession of German prisoners was being taken up the street, and occasionally one of the guards would shoot one of these Germans, about four or five during the time we watched, and I remember my mother got very upset about it and thought this was really bestial behavior. And the other one, even more gruesome, event which I witnessed, was the burning of two presumably Germans on Wenceslas Square, about two or three days after the Russians came in. And these two victims were hanging by their feet, with their heads down, in an arch which I think was used for advertising where Vodičkova ulice comes into Václavské náměstí [Wenceslas Square]. There were Soviet tanks close and it looked like both Soviet soldiers and members of these Revolutionary Guards were pouring gasoline over these bodies, which were still squirming and alive, and setting them on fire. So that was very shocking, but it was kind of in a way overshadowed by the rejoicing over liberation.”
“My mother actually did take on employment after essentially working at home after the Communist seizure of power. Women were supposed to, everyone was supposed to, work. And she found an interesting job for herself with a fashion magazine which also was designing knitting patterns, and that was one of her great hobbies. That was something she got some training in when she was going to the art school. So she continued there, and she enjoyed the people she worked with.”
“My mentor James Billington became the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1973, and a year later he brought me to the center to be on the staff. And it seemed particularly fitting that it should be an institution honoring Woodrow Wilson since Woodrow Wilson was so intimately involved in the creation, independence of Czechoslovakia and therefore also the Czech Republic. So I started working at the center, involved again in building up the library resources and, more importantly, surveying resources for the study of certain foreign areas available in Washington, D.C. And that resulted in a series of some 14 volumes discussing the resources in Washington for the study of various major areas of the world, such as the Soviet Union, China, the Near East, Africa and Latin America.”
“Because of my work on the Bohemian Reformation, especially for my book, I was awarded the Palacký medal for social sciences, which is given, I believe it’s annually, to a scholar who is to be honored for his contribution to Czech history. This happened in [September] 2009.”