Prague, Czech Republic – “From obscure Christian sects and mainstream fundamentalists, to Talmudic mysticism, Islamic invasion and the ever-present hidden hand of paganism, this region is where east meets west.”
Journalist Paul Christian’s latest book Dark Secrets of Central Europe: A Tale of Three Cities explores the contradictions and curiosities of Central Europe by looking at the obscure and often gruesome stories that haunt the streets of Prague, Vienna and Budapest.
We had the chance to chat with him about his fascination for the obscure and our region’s dark, but captivating history.
You say your book came about after an odyssey to Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Can you tell us a bit more about what brought you there?
The trip, which took place in 2019, was with two traveling companions and was done via a flight to Prague and a pre-booked return flight from Budapest five days later. There was no other plan, which made for a real adventure. We could just wake up in whatever hastily-booked accommodation we’d spent the night in, pack up our modest luggage and go somewhere else, so long as we were making up the kilometres closer to our Budapest extraction point.
Is that when you got the idea of writing your book?
I already had in mind that I should document the trip somehow either as a YouTube video on my Hidden History channel or a blog post, but as we explored the cities and I kept finding out more and more places of historical curiosity and/or tragedy, I knew there was enough material to write a book. I first went to Prague a decade ago and so was keen to go back and I have been to Budapest a number of times. I would go so far as to say it is my favourite city in Europe.
You call it “a bubbling cauldron of ideas and beliefs”, but what makes Central Europe, and Central European history in particular, so fascinating to you?
The history of Central Europe is unique, it is where east meets west, but more than that it has been home to many ideological and religious battles too. It is where synthesis has taken place between different cultures and faiths and where, beneath the monotheistic order, there are signs, everywhere, of pagan rites or traditions that persist to this day.
Whether these are from Slavic folklore to shamanic beliefs from the Steppes, they are all around for those who know where to look. The region is also where one of the most significant events in European and, indeed, world history began in the Thirty Years War. This is a conflict that shaped a continent.
At the heart of the Habsburg Empire for centuries, the region has indeed undoubtedly been influenced by the chaotic nature of European politics. But you also mention Iran and even India?
The influence from Iran and India mentioned in the book refers to shared practices and beliefs, especially in the origin story and pre-Christian religion of the Magyars. The shamanic practices of the then-Steppe nomads was heavily influenced by Tengrism in common with their Turkic and Mongol neighbours.
Tengrism was complex and based on the older Indo-European worship of a “sky-father” or Dyeus Pater. The ancient Greeks eventually adopted this deity as Zeus and the proto-Italic peoples and subsequently the Romans, as Jupiter. But Tengrism was also influenced by eastern creeds like Zoroastrianism, from the Persians in modern-day Iran and Hinduism and Buddhism from India. The Turul bird origin myth for the Hungarian people also has similarities with those of the Central Asian Huns and Scythians.
You write about vampires, brutal killings, wars, plagues… do you think the region is particularly prone to having such dark and gruesome “curiosities”, as you call them?
I think the unique and fascinating ideological, cultural and ethnic mix of the Central European region does mean it is prone to these things. Stories and traditions merge with one another and, through syncretism they become embedded. The fluidity of borders and travel through the strategically-important region over the centuries has also added to this rich tapestry. I also think the instability, superstition and internal contradictions of the Habsburg empire added to the volatility of the region and made for a tragic, but fascinating history.
What kind of internal contradictions?
The vastness of the empire and the lack of religious toleration of Hussites and, later, Protestants and Jews. Also the repression of national self-determination, which ultimately led to the First World War and the demise of the empire. But one could also highlight the shocking inbreeding of the ruling dynasty that led to all kinds of problems with mental health and physical deformities.
You’ve also written books about Jack the Ripper and mermaids. Where does your fascination for the mystic and the obscure come from?
I have a keen interest in the extremes of human behaviour and belief. I spent many years as a journalist and covered a number of high-profile court cases, including several murders. These cases were awful, but fascinating, insights into the darker side of the human condition.
This is brought into sharp focus in the still unsolved Jack the Ripper case from London in 1888. I am also very interested in psychology, belief systems and mythology and mermaids are one of the oldest representations of this alongside vampires, which I have covered in this book and plan to delve deeper into later.
If you had to pick one, what would be the darkest of all secrets present in your book?
The killing of St John of Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge in Prague is a very dark chapter in Central European history, but even more gruesome was the nature of the punishments meted out to the religious heretics, such as Prague’s Old Town Square execution when 27 rebellious Czechs were rounded up and put to death, including prominent knights and burghers.
Any gruesome details you could share?
The philosopher Jan Jesenius has his tongue cut out before his execution, by beheading and quartering, because he’d had the audacity to write a treatise questioning whether tyrants can be overthrown by their people. Continuing the tongue theme; Mikulas Divis, the city clerk, was nailed to the gallows by his tongue for an hour for welcoming the exiled Frederick V of the Palatinate, the so-called “Winter King” to Prague. The heads of 12 of the executed men were later displayed in iron baskets on the Old Town Bridge Tower.
What’s next for you then?
My next project, currently underway, centres around a tragic unexplained event in the Soviet Union, but there are several strands in this volume which can be expanded and I may yet do so, especially with my intention to explore vampire lore further.
Any plans to come back to Central Europe?
I will be back in Central Europe as soon as is humanly possible. With the way things sadly are in the world right now, I have not been able to travel as much as I usually do and I can’t wait to get back to the region, with Bratislava, Brno and another trip to Budapest definitely on the bucket list.