Mysterious German Street Names in 21st Century Prague

German street names in Prague are easy to find in the historic centre. But why German names? Let’s start at the beginning. Street having names are so obvious that nobody realizes that these names are a fairly recent invention. Instead of street names house signs were used to indicate an address. Just try to find ‘in the three violins’ or ‘in the white turnip’. Not even Google can help you! You will find both houses in Nerudova street. Street names make finding an address a lot easier than looking for house signs. The names of streets and squares change according to the political climate. It is therefore not surprising that in 1990 many communist street names changed names from one day to the next.

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Street names in Prague

Streets are indicated by:
* Ulice – street: Karlova ulice (Charles Street)
* Třída – avenue: Národní třída (National Avenue)
* Náměstí – square: Náměstí Republiky (Republic Square)
* Nábřeží – embankment: Masarykovo nábřeží (Masaryk Embankment. Masaryk was the first president of Czechoslovakia)
* Trh – market: Ovocný trh (Fruit Market)
* Most – bridge: Palackeho most (named after Frantisek Palacky, politician and historian)

Ulice and třída are always left out. Street names are not translated with the exception of:
Václavské náměstí – Wenceslas Square
Staroměstské náměstí – Old Town Square
Karlův most – Charles Bridge

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House Numbers First, Street Names Later

At the end of the eighteenth century and on the initiative of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, every building in today’s Czech Republic was allotted given a descriptive number (číslo popisné) on a red plaque. Since almost every building was divided into several apartments, finding a particular home was still difficult. A few years later, every apartment, shop and café in a building was given its own reference number (orientační číslo) on a blue plaque. That was quite an improvement, but it was still difficult to find a building or apartment because there were no street names.

Read all about house numbers and the red and blue signs in Prague here.

House Numbers and Street Names

The first street names appeared at the end of the eighteenth century and were bilingual: German and Czech. The current Czech Republic was then part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the official language was German. The names of the streets appeared on corner houses: a white background with black lettering. This old street sign can be found in several places in Prague.

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The current name is Sněmovní in the Malá Strana district. The old name was Fünfkirchen Gasse (in German), Petikostelska ulice (in Czech) and Five Churches Street in English. The street was not named after five churches, but after a noble family who lived here at number 170.

* Neuwelt Gass – Na Novem is now called Nový Svět
* Wälsche Spital Gasse – u Vlašskeho Spitalu is now called Vlašská
* Kreuzherren Gasse – Křížovnická ulice is now called Křížovnická
* Anna Platz – Náměstí u S. Anny is now called Anenske namesti

When walking through the neighborhoods Malá Strana, Staré Mesto and Hradčany, you can still see some of these old names (they are well maintained and painted regularly). During the German occupation in World War II, the old German names were used again.

From 1893 onward, metal street signs are used: white letters on a red background. Below the street name (Dětská) is the name of the neighborhood (Strašnice), followed by Praha and the number of the district (Praha 10)

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Street Names Come and Go

The names of the streets in Prague’s oldest neighborhoods, Malá Strana, Staré Mesto and Hradčany, have not changed much. Most of the names were neutral in nature and did not have to yield to the preferences of the ruling parties or nationalism. From 1860, German-speaking residents began to belong to the minority and German names of the streets gradually disappeared.

1890: Prague municipality intensifies the language campaign and replaces all bilingual names on the street signs with Czech street names.
1918: The First Republic is proclaimed and street names referring to Austro-Hungarian rule are replaced.
1938-1945: During the German occupation, all German street names return.
1948-1989: Communist era, streets change names and now refer to communist ideals and heroes.
1989: End of the communist regime. The street names change again, but now to the old normal.

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Vodičkova Street

Some names have never changed except for a short period when all names were in German. Vodičkova Street has had almost the same name for more than 500 years. The street is named after Jan Vodička, a wealthy butcher who lived in the largest house on this street, now the U Nováků (Novak House). During Maria Theresa’s reign when all street names were in German, the street was called Wasserstraße, which was sometimes translated as Vodní or Vodnická street, a misunderstanding as the name has nothing to do with water or water spirits. Vodičkova is in the Nové Mesto near Wenceslas Square.

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Street Names as Communist Propaganda

Given the communist past, it is not surprising that many names of street that refer to the former regime and can be seen as propaganda. After the Velvet revolution street names changed when the communist name was no longer justified or when it was offensive:

* Leninova ulice (Leninstraat) is now Evropská třída (Europe Avenue)
* Most Klementa Gottwalda (Gottwald Bridge), now Nusle Bridge.

Some names, although introduced by communists with propaganda in mind, were preserved because those names were acceptable: Náměstí Miru (Peace Square), Jugoslavsky partyzanu (Yugoslav Partisan Street) and Revolucni (Revolution Street).

Dvouletký Street, in the Strašnice district, is named after the two-year economic plan (dvouletý hospodářský plán) of 1947-1948. In the same district is Brigadniku Street, a reference to the construction workers who worked temporarily on the project and Solidarity (Solidarity Street). Both names are high in communist content, but unlike the names of communist leaders, these street names are tolerated.

Controversial Communist Street Names

A number of Prague’s streets still bears the names of controversial figures held in high esteem by the communists.

1. Janouškova in Prague 6, named after Antonín Janoušek (1877-1941), labeled a traitor at the time of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia.

2. Koněvova Street has been named after the Russian Marshal Ivan Stepanovich Konev (1897-1973) since 1946. He was one of the liberators of Prague after World War II and is considered a hero in post-war Czechoslovakia. Nothing but good so far.

Yet his role in Prague immediately after the Second World War is not without controversy. He is said to have arrested and deported Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian opponents of the Stalinist regime who had taken refuge in Prague, many of whom had become Czechoslovak citizens. In 1956, he was involved in the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, which resulted in many injuries and deaths on the Hungarian side.

Konev is also associated with the occupation of East Germany in the 1960s. He also played a part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, although some say he only held a ceremonial position. He died in 1973 and is considered a hero in the Soviet Union. It is clear that Konev served more than one master. Residents of the Koněvova street and the district council were considering a name change. However, the name remained and a blue plaque with an explanatory text was added.

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In 2023, Koněvova STREET was changed to Hartigova Street in honoUr of Karel Hartig (1833-1905), the first mayor of Žižkov.

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Explanatory Blue Plaques

You will see blue plaques next to the red street signs in the Staré Město, Josefov, Malá Strana and Hradčany districts. These blue plaques contain historical information about the street names. Who is the street named after? What was the German name? Why have some street names disappeared and others remained? As there is so much to tell about the names of the street, not all information will fit on the blue plaque. That’s why each plaque also has a QR code. When scanned with your phone, you will get the full story.

photos: Marianne Crone

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