Almost a century after his election, Woodrow Wilson may not be the most-remembered former U.S. president in his native land. Sure, there’s a Woodrow Wilson presidential museum in Northwest Washington, and an international center for scholars, and even a bridge, downtown. But ask the average person on the street to tell you something, anything, about Wilson, and you may not get much.
In the Czech Republic, however, Wilson is a rock star.
In Prague on Wednesday, a monument of Wilson, one of the few statues of an American president on foreign soil, was dedicated at the main train station, which is also named after him. The ceremony was part of a week-long series of events in Prague commemorating Wilson.
Two Washingtonians and a D.C.-based organization spurred the rebuilding of the Wilson monument and got the project off the ground for the Czechs.
Why? Wilson was once considered the foster father of Czechoslovakia for championing its independence after World War I. “The admiration of the people for him amounts almost to hero worship,” Tomas Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president, said years later.
The statue was raised Sept. 8, and Wednesday’s unveiling was a major national event, featuring former Czech president Vaclav Havel, former U.S. secretary of state and Prague native Madeleine K. Albright and current Czech President Vaclav Klaus, among others.
“I’m not saying Wilson is omnipresent these days, but the United Sates and the Czech Republic have a very strong bond,” said Petr Gandalovic, the Czech ambassador to the United States. “Of course, this is a landmark of Czech American relations. It’s an opportunity to commemorate the importance of the United States of America in the creation of independent Czechoslovakia.”
During World War I, Wilson, a scholarly son of Staunton, Va., recognized Masaryk’s government in exile. Masaryk had lobbied for the recognition, pointing out to Wilson, a former history professor, the influence of the Declaration of Independence on Czechoslovakia’s founding document. When the war ended, Wilson advocated for the establishment of “small states” from the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In gratitude, Prague’s art nouveau train station was named for him in 1919. Albin Polasek, a Czech immigrant who led the sculpture department at the Art Institute of Chicago for almost 30 years, created an 11-foot-tall bronze statue of Wilson on a 14-foot-high granite pedestal. It was erected just outside the train station’s entrance on July 4, 1928. On its base were inscribed his words: “The world must be made safe for democracy,” in English and Czech.
Wilson’s statue greeted passersby for 13 years, his hands extended in what the sculptor called a “Protestant blessing,” palms held lower than Catholics do. It was modeled on his appearance at the 1919 Versailles peace conference, symbolically blessing the new Czech democracy.
In 1941, following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the statue was destroyed on the orders of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the principal planners of the Holocaust. The Germans also changed the name of the train station from Wilson Station to Main Station, although Czechs with long memories sometimes used the former name. Wilson Station was fading into history, however, until 1990, when it was restored.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Robert Doubek was casting around for a project. He had co-founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and was working for real estate development companies before he joined the State Department. Doubek, a Berwyn, Ill.-born son of Bohemian parents whose homeland had been absorbed into Czechoslovakia, was enthused at the news that his ancestors’ home had just split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He met the new Czech president at the dedication of the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the president asked Doubek for help getting the country into NATO.
Doubek and Phil Kasik formed the American Friends of the Czech Republic to fulfill that request. That led to the creation of a statue of Masaryk in Washington, at Massachusetts and Florida avenues NW, which led to the idea of a sister statue to cement the friendship between the nations. Working with the local and national governments in Prague, the group staged a design competition and hired Czech artisans to recreate the historic statue.
“We literally pieced together how the statue was created and how it looked,” Kasik said.
Because the Nazis had destroyed and melted down most of the statue, there was little hope of working with anything but the few photos that could be found. But in the country’s national museum warehouse, researchers found the only remaining piece of the original plaster model — Wilson’s head and shoulders. With that, the artists set to work and calculated the proportions of the original statue.
The Nazis’ effort to destroy history wasn’t entirely successful, even in the 1940s. When World War II ended, Czech citizens dedicated a marker on a small pedestal on Wilson Street (Wilsonova Ulice). That marker also was destroyed, this time by communists, but its existence had been recorded.
“It said ‘Here once stood a statue to Woodrow Wilson, and someday it will be rebuilt by Americans of Czech descent,’ ” Doubek said. “I didn’t know this existed until we were halfway through the project.”