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Friday, April 2, 2010
Deconstructing the Defenestrations of Prague

"DEFENESTRATION: Sales dive leads to turnover at the top," the online headline said, which prompted me to quiz my lovely and unsuspecting wife (who was also online at a different computer in the same room).  Reading the headline aloud, I asked: “What does defenestration mean?"  Her response: "It seems like I ought to know."

So, now for her and the rest of my reading public, I present a tutorial on defenestrations and their place in history.  With the help of tens of thousands of Wikipedia contributors, let me enlighten us all.

When I think defenestration, I think the Defenestration of Prague.  There were, however, two Defenestrations of Prague, not one as I had previously supposed, and neither led to World War I, as I had thought.  (The event I had conflated was probably the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.)

The Defenestrations of Prague were, in fact, two distinct incidents in the history of Bohemia. (Right off, don't you love any event in the history of Bohemia?)  The first occurred in 1419 and the second in 1618.  The term "Defenestration of Prague" is more commonly used to refer to the latter incident (the one which I remembered vaguely).  Both incidents helped to trigger prolonged conflict within Bohemia and beyond.

But before history, let's do vocabulary.  Defenestration is the act of throwing someone out of a window. Etymologically it does not come directly from German (fenster: window), as I errantly thought, but is from Latin (de: out of, with a downward motion implied; fenestra: window).

The first Defenestration of Prague occurred on July 30, 1419 -- and was not a lot of fun as it involved the killing of seven members of the city council by a crowd of radical Czech Hussites. It marked the turning point between talk and action leading to the prolonged Hussite wars, which lasted until 1436.  (Hussites, you may be interested to know, are lineal predecessors of the Moravians who founded Old Salem and brought us those really tasty thin sugar cookies and gooey sugar cakes.)

The second, more famous, Defenestration of Prague was initiated when some members of the Bohemian aristocracy rebelled following the selection in 1617 of a much earlier Ferdinand, the Catholic Duke of Styria, as King of Bohemia. On May 23, 1618, an assemblage of Protestants led by Count Thurn, whom the Emperor had deprived of his post as Castellan (whatever that is) of Karlstadt, who reacting to an inflammatory letter from the Emperor's principal adviser, Bishop Klesl, exhorted his followers to throw the Regents appointed by the Emperor out the window "as is customary." (Don't you also love Bohemian customs?)

This group proceeded to bribe their way into the Prague Castle where the Regents were meeting.  Many present in the room later claimed that they thought the Regents were only going to be arrested, saying by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late to stop it. The two Regents, along with their secretary, Philip Fabricius, were thrown out the third floor window.  Falling almost 100 feet, the three landed, happily, I guess, on a large pile of manure -- and thus survived.  (I am not making this up.)

Fabricius, when later ennobled by the Emperor, was granted, apparently without tongue in cheek, the title of Baron von Hohenfall (literally meaning "of high fall").  Roman Catholic Imperial officials claimed that the three men survived due to the mercy of angels assisting the righteousness of the Catholic cause.  Protestant pamphleteers asserted that their survival had more to do with the horse excrement in which they landed than the benevolent acts of angels.  In any case, the defenestration was central to the start of the Thirty Years' War.

For those few of you for whom this little history still does not make clear sense, but who are up on their current events, just substitute Democrat for Catholic and Republican for Protestant (or vice versa), it will all become perfectly obvious.


Gary D. Gaddy has walked across the Latin Bridge over the River Miljacka in Sarajevo, Bosnia, near where the later Ferdinand was shot.

A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday April 2, 2010.

Copyright 2010  Gary D. Gaddy

Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 8:01 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 8:57 AM EDT
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