[Note: This essay was originally written a few years ago , but thanks to some conversation today I have decided to expand on it a little and provide some additional explanations about my favorite form of social protest.]
As should be obvious from the title, this short paper will look at the three defenestrations of Prague, their likely biblical antecedents, and reflect on the result and importance of such an unusual habit of defenestration. For those who don’t know, defenestration means tossing someone out of a window, and it comes from the Latin. To my knowledge, defenestration seems almost a uniquely Czech form of political protest, except for its lone example in the Bible. To set the context of the habit, therefore, we will look first at the Bible.
Biblical Origin of Defenestrations
The first known example of defenestration occurs in 2 Kings 9:30-37, and is quoted here in full: “Now when Jehu had come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it, and she put paint on her eyes and adorned her head, and looked through a window. Then, as Jehu entered at the gate, she said, “Is it peace, Zimri, murder of your master?” And he looked up at the window, and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” So two or three eunuchs looked out at him. Then he said, “throw her down.” So they threw her done, and some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses; and he trampled her underfoot. And when he had gone in, he ate and drank. Then he said, “Go now, see to this accursed woman, and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.” So they went to bury her, but they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. Therefore they came back to him. And he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which He spoke by His servant Elijah the Tisbite, saying, ‘On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as refuse on the surface of the field, in the plot at Jezreel, so that they shall not say, “Here lies Jezebel.”
While time and space do not permit a close exegesis of the passage, it is clear that defenestration came about as a divinely ordained form of punishment for tyrants. As such its uses are strictly limited and should be infrequent. After all, tyrants should not be common, even if it appears that way sometimes. Perhaps just as strange as the fact that this ever became a habit of the Czechs is that no one else appears to have taken this passage all that seriously. If I were a tyrant, I wouldn’t want to be near a window for very long, not in any freedom loving area, that’s for sure.
In the Bible, windows have a notable political meaning . Looking out a window appears three times, and each of those times it signifies rejecting the political will of God. In two of those occasions (Jezebel’s defenestration and the case of Sisera’s mother) the incident ends in death and military defeat. In the third (that of Michal) it ends up in barrenness as her attitude leads her to be rejected by King David. It is not precisely clear why windows are so important politically and religiously speaking, except that somehow biblical history considered looking out of the window as possessing some sort of evil motives that included a rejection of God’s sovereign will. In this sense, defenestration can be seen as an act that turns the “all seeing eyes” of tyrants against them by providing the means by which the windows of a castle looking down on the people become the weapon used to overthrow tyrants. The irony of the punishment of tyrannicide in the case of defenestration is that a weapon of the tyrant becomes a weapon of overthrowing tyranny, a remarkable and pleasant reversal.
The First Defenestration of Prague
The first defenestration of Prague occurred on July 30, 1419, when some 30 radical Hussites threw seven members of the Prague Town Council out of the window of the New Town Hall, sending them to their deaths on the pikes of the Hussite Army below. The shock of the news caused the Czech king, Wenceslas IV, to die of a heart attack. King Wenceslas IV, part of the House of Luxemburg, had no children and was known as a fairly weak monarch whose attempts to gain power in the Holy Roman Empire were opposed both within Germany and Bohemia by powerful towns and armies like the Swabian League as well as the Hussites .
Well, the defenestration went well enough, but the consequences for it were rather severe. Huss was burned at the stake after being betrayed with a safe conduct, setting up the tension for Luther a century later under similar circumstances. After that, the rest of Europe fought a “crusade” against the Hussites, who managed to fight them off for twenty years before suffering some military defeats (partly due to diplomatic reasons, as some of the Hussites’ more moderate allies were turned off by extremism from “Taborites”) and the remaining Hussites agreeid to a compromise solution that ended up setting up an Utraquist rite that helped portend the Protestant Reformation and led to a complex religious situation in Bohemia. The First Defenestration of Prague can be considered a qualified success, showing the powerlessness of the Luxemburg dynasty and giving the Bohemian nobility significant freedom of religion, though short of the total liberty that many of them wanted.
The Second Defenestration of Prague
The second defenestration Prague, the most famous of the three Czech defenestrations, occurred almost exactly two centuries later, on May 23, 1618, when a popular nationalist revolt ended up with two vice-regents of the Bohemian throne (ruled by the Austrian Hapsburg emperor in remote Vienna) and some governors of Czech lands (also German Catholics) tossed into the moat after they delivered a letter that sought to remove the religious freedoms of Protestant Czech nobles. They were, however, mostly unharmed, though undoubtedly shocked. It is said that they survived due to landing on manure, but Catholics attributed it to a divine miracle, as they are wont to do. The revolt was the spark that started the Thirty Year’s War.
Well, if you know anything about the Thirty Year’s War, you know that this didn’t end up well at all. Germany as a whole lost about a third of its population, and Bohemia lost about half (or more) of its population, its middle class and lower nobility was crushed, and it was turned into a hereditary possession of the Hapsburg monarchs rather than the advanced elective monarchy it was before. Also, the Protestants were crushed and Catholicism was re-established. It’s obvious why defenestration lost a great deal of popularity after this disaster. It took the Czech people three centuries to regain their losses from the Thirty Year’s War. After all, the Hapsburg dynasty was far more powerful and ruthless than the Luxemburg dynasty that had been held off for two decades by the Hussites.
The Assassination of Jan Masaryk: The Third Defenestration of Prague
The third defenestration of Prague occurred on March 10, 1948, when Communists assassinated Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, and the son of the nation’s first president. Despite widespread suspicion at the time, and thereafter, that the death was an assassination, at the time the Communists claimed it was a suicide. The circumstances of the death are still puzzling, especially since, unlike the other two defenestrations, Jan Masaryk was not a tyrant at all, nor did he represent any tyrants .
Well, since the facts of the case are in dispute, it is difficult to tell why the Soviets behaved as they did when they assassinated a true freedom lover in the manner of a tyrant. I think they wanted to get the best of both words—discredit Masaryk as a suicide in the eyes of non-Czech non-Communist liberals while indicating that to the Communists Masaryk was a bourgeois tyrant. In short, it was a coded act that was meant as a defenestration without the openness of the act. Did it succeed? Well, Masaryk was a martyr of democracy and the Czech and Slovak republics are now free of dictatorial Communist rule. If defenestration lost popularity due to a marked lack of political success (see above), this sneaky and underhanded assassination seriously discredited the Communists, as if that was necessary.
It’s difficult to tell why the Czechs chose such an obscure form of protest as tossing people out of the window (there are much easier forms of assassination and much less drastic forms of protest), but it appears to be a reasonably consistent Czech political phenomenon. The example of Jezebel seems important. As the two legitimate defenestrations were made by bible-reading Protestants, it appears as if the habit was in conscious imitation of the biblical example. Certainly the Czechs are one of my favorite “little peoples” of Europe, and their use of a biblical form of tyrannicide is much to be appreciated. After all, the Bible is meant to be imitated and used for historical lessons by the rest of us, even if the means are sometimes less than pleasant. When the tradition is used without the moral justification of resisting tyrants (a sacred right given to humanity), it takes on a barbaric tone. But as far as a way of dealing with tyrants, sic semper tyrannis (in Latin, “thus always to tyrants,” the state motto of Virginia, it should be noted).
It was clear that part of the value of defenestration was the shock value of the act. Not only was the goal the death of tyranny (though it is significant that only advisers to rulers were thrown out of windows–none of the defenestrations of Prague involved heads of state), but there was also a clear revolutionary intent with the three defenestrations. Two of the defenestrations were rejections of the pretensions of German monarchs and the declaration of Czech freedom. The third, more shadowy defenestration, was the revolutionary overthrow of a free Czech and Slovak government and the imposition of Communist oppression. Ironically enough, none of the defenestrations was ultimately successful in gaining its purpose. The first defenestration was a qualified success–leading to increased freedoms, but still requiring a German monarch as a titular elected monarch. The second defenestration was a total failure, leading to Austrian Hapsburg oppression and the destruction of Czech freedom for three centuries until freedom was restored after World War I. And the third defenestration was a cowardly assassination of a brave patriot, and the resulting Communist regime lasted only a little more than forty years (with severe conflicts, including the Prague Spring in 1968) before being tossed out of the window itself onto the dustbin of history. All too often the shock of defenestration served to embolden the enemies of the revolutionaries as much as the allies of the revolutionaries themselves.
While this paper is admittedly short, and much longer works could be written about the nature of defenestration, hopefully this has whetted your appetite for a further look at the Bible’s consistent stand against tyranny, as well as the fascinating subject of Czech political history. The Bible condemns tyrants and authorizes their removal by any means necessary when they oppress God’s people (and when God has chosen a successor, as was the case with Jehu). Of course, tyranny is a high crime against God, since it is a failure to recognize the creation of mankind (and not just the rulers of mankind) in the very image and likeness of God. However, defenestration is a drastic action, and often has serious consequences. Assassinating tyrants is not to be done lightly, as the results are usually some form of ugly and nasty and lengthy conflict between the tyrants and would-be revolutionaries. However, it remains a legitimate option if one needs to invoke the sacred right of revolution against those who oppress mankind.