History is impossible to remove from the minds of inhabitants, especially an entire nation’s past. It reminds them of everything they, or those before them, fought for and eventually lost. The hardship and torment can be seen in the very architecture, and if walls could talk, they’d surely cry out. Regular buildings no longer hold their innocence as every physical object takes on a new negative connotation.
Countries like Germany have dealt with this positively, owning up to the war crimes their ancestors committed. The Czech Republic, however, has not.
The capital city of Prague is a metropolis that, despite its newfound cultural optimism, has been beaten down by tyranny and existed under the boot of powers much larger than their own.
Yet, there is a previously unknown demographic of travelers that would be ecstatic to uncover the darker sides of the nation’s history. These individuals travel the world, specifically visiting the strangest and most infamous tourist attractions offered ‒ and sometimes restricted ‒ on the map. Visiting historical sites closely connected to death or tragedy is known as “Dark Tourism.”
Dark tourists get engrossed in the past in the oddest ways possible, whether on a stroll through the highly irradiated city of Chernobyl or a drive past the assassination spot of President John F. Kennedy. When death and tragedy strike, you can be sure a dark tourist will be there a few hundred years later, Geiger Counter and a digital camera in-hand.
Despite being highly criticized as yet another way to desecrate or exploit a historical area and the dead associated with it, the popularity of Dark Tourism has risen in the last decade.
With the popularization of shows like the Netflix Original “Dark Tourist,” hosted by a New Zealander journalist, David Farrier, a whole new generation of dark tourists have emerged. Those who have seen Farrier’s excursions have witnessed an exponential amount of dark, thrilling, and outright controversial historical sites and experiences.
This is not your family’s average summer trip up to Mount Rushmore. In the show, Farrier meets Pablo Escobar’s charismatic enforcer, Popeye, in Columbia, and is guided through Escobar’s former apartment by the drug lord’s sister-in-law. David then witnesses an exorcism in Mexico and participates in a faux illegal border crossing. That is just the first episode. Viewers see the danger and the controversy as appealing elements to this strange take on a traditional getaway.
The popularity of dark tourism has brought light to areas otherwise forgotten by society. Along with the extension of tourism, there is a necessity to address these events as something that has indeed happened and impossible to be neglected further. Cue the Czech Republic.
Under the site of what was once a 14,200-ton statue of the international icon of tyranny, Joseph Stalin, lives Prague’s newest and most innovative dark tourism hotspot. Organized by “Post Bellum,” an organization preserving Czech historical memory, this new exhibit opened to touch all recent modern cases of threatened life in the Czech Republic.
The exhibit offers a truly immersive look into Czech oppression of the 20th century. A dark, narrow-gated hallway with the only sunlight intruding from the doorway behind, leads visitors’ way to the viewing room. As the gate stops further down, ominous spotlights greet you.
From there you are thrown straight into a memorable experience filled with artificial gunfire, neon lighting, and even a secret police interrogation similar to those done to political prisoners in the early 1950s. A projector lights up the floor with planes bombing the terrain. The room paints a grim moving picture of Czech Jews being herded into concentration camps, like unsuspecting cattle to the slaughter.
You are then transported into the crypt of St. Cyril and St. Methodius Cathedral, where the paratroopers sent to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking German Nazi official, are killed by overwhelming German forces. The room begins flooding and gunfire ricochets off the cement walls. Though only a simulation, the threat of danger seems real.
Dark tourists will immediately be intrigued by the immersive experience of reliving central Europe’s most gruesome moments. However, the purpose of this exhibit is not to purely glorify violence.
The experience is meaningfully disorientating, revealing a fraction of what the country has had to go through to shape itself into what we know it today. It is no coincidence that this exhibit correlates with the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s establishment, as it was designed to illustrate the long process of forming a cultural identity.
There is a separate portion of the exhibit with an enclosed screening room where you can hear actual testimonials by those who lived in the eras of outright oppression. Jewish concentration camp survivors, former Communist party members, and victims of the vast oppression have all been recorded to give an oral first-person report of what transpired. This puts a face to the chaos and gives you an opportunity to sympathize.
Prague has limited museums covering this era, and none of them offer this intense look into almost a century of oppression and hardship. Presenting this narrative using particular lighting and audio arrangements convey the point well, simultaneously attracting dark tourists. That is what may just normalize the nation’s dark history: a darker form of tourism.
Photo credit: Peter O’Neill