Out the Window

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   November 26, 2020

There are many things we don’t have words for – and if asked, you’d probably never have thought there was a word for throwing somebody out of a window – but there is such a word, and in fact I’ve known it most of my life, although I have never had any pressing occasion to use it. The word is defenestration. It comes from the Latin for window, “fenestra.” But it would probably never have become part of our language, were it not for one celebrated historical incident that occurred 400 years ago, and became known as the Defenestration of Prague.

I learned about this event when I was first studying European history. The historical details are incredibly complicated, but they have to do with the religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants which we now call the Reformation, and which convulsed Central Europe for so long that just the final part is known as the Thirty Years War. The incident I’m telling you about is supposed to have been one of the precipitating events which brought on that war.

So, who got thrown out of what window by whom, and why? As you already know, it happened in Prague, which has been a major city of a region variously known over the centuries as Bohemia, Czechia, Czechoslovakia, and the Czech Republic.

It happened in the Royal Castle, which is still there in Prague, and tourists today are shown the window where in 1618 the famous Defenestration took place. It was then already a century since a German monk named Martin Luther had started the movement known to History as the Protestant Reformation, by publishing a list of 95 “Theses,” protesting against the way the Church was being run.

Until that time, there had, in effect, been only one Church in Europe, with the Pope at its head. But the movement Luther started caused a profound unsettling, with various regions becoming “Protestant” a la Luther, or adhering to the old Catholic setup. Amazing as it may seem to us now, these religious quarrels, among people who all called themselves Christians, persisted for generations, sometimes degenerating into the most frightful violence. What was at stake? Often it was nothing more momentous than some doctrinal issue, such as whether water could be turned into wine, or whether the Holy Trinity was three-in-one or one-in-three.

At times, cooler heads prevailed. In 1555, a settlement was reached, called the Peace of Augsburg. With much of Central Europe then divided into separate little states, it was rather cutely decided that henceforth, the religion of the ruler would determine the religion of whatever particular area he ruled. This worked pretty well in theory, but of course there were many complications, and there had to be many exceptions. That – to put it very simply – is the situation that finally came to a head in Prague in 1618. 

The Protestants of Bohemia thought they had been granted an exemption to practice their religion by their King Ferdinand, who happened to be a very strong Catholic. But Ferdinand didn’t see it that way, and sent some representatives to Prague to make sure that the Protestants weren’t getting out of hand. At particular issue was the matter of some Protestant churches that were then under construction. At a stormy meeting in the Council Chambers of the Castle, the King’s representatives found themselves heavily outnumbered by the angry Protestants – and, when push came to shove, three of the King’s men were tossed out of the window.

It was a 70-foot drop – and why they weren’t killed, or even badly hurt, I can’t tell you. But this was such an incendiary incident that it triggered the almost unbelievably catastrophic conflict which we know today as the 30 Years War. So, if anybody comes up to you in the street and asks what you know about the Defenestration of Prague, you will now no longer be totally at a loss.

But this story has a sad and mysterious modern postscript, concerning another Prague “Defenestration,” which took place in 1948. This time, the victim was a popular Czech leader named Jan Mazaryk, who was found dead in the courtyard beneath his bathroom window in the Foreign Ministry Building. It was the era of the Cold War, and Mazaryk, who was officially Foreign Minister, had been doing a difficult balancing-act between the pro- and anti-Communist forces. To this day, it remains uncertain whether his death was a case of suicide or murder. 


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