Why the National Theater burned down

Published on in category History
Why the National Theater burned down

The National Theater in Prague is the most famous Czech theater and is one of the most important symbols of Czech patriotism. The reason why we all remember it so well is perhaps the fact that on August 12, 1881, just two months after the grand opening, it burned down. But what caused the fire in the first place?

The construction of the National Theater was preceded by almost 25 years of discussions and preparations. The theater was funded by collections involving the Austrian Empire and the high nobility, as well as some cities, scientists, artists as well as ordinary citizens. In 1862, the construction of the so-called Provisional Theater began, which was completed in just six months. On May 16, 1868, the foundation stone was laid. 11. June 1881, the theater was first opened during the premiere of Smetana's Libuše. After several more performances, the theater was closed again, due to the need for finishing work.[1]

The theater began burning on August 12, 1881, and the fire was spotted relatively quickly. However, a number of unfortunate events followed, which significantly worsened the situation. The first report came independently of two people and the signal was interrupted. So the firefighters arrived too late. The first people to rush to the fire started all the hydrants and sprinklers, which caused the water pressure to drop, which soon stopped flowing. The water level itself was already so low due to a fault in the supply pipe the day before the fire. It was not even possible to close the iron curtain that separated the stage from the auditorium. In addition, a very strong wind was blowing that day. Unfortunately, the Prague fire brigade could not even arrive and those who arrived did not have sufficient equipment.[2]

Two German plumbers, who allegedly did not extinguish the coal while working with a soldering iron on the roof of the building, were indicted for causing the fire. However, this version was unofficially questioned, because at that time there was also friction between the Czechs and the Germans in Prague, which culminated in a violent clash. One hundred years later, the expertise refuted the plumbers' error, but it could not find out with certainty the exact cause of the fire. So it's even possible that the fire was started intentionally.[2]