Turned around

In Martha Gellhorn’s novel A Stricken Field (1940), a young journalist named Mary Douglas arrives in Prague just after the Munich Pact—that is, just after the West has agreed to let Hitler have the northwest strip of Czechoslovakia known in German as the Sudetenland and in Czech as the pohraničí. Gellhorn was herself a reporter, and A Stricken Field is a reporter’s novel, designed to bring to emotional life facts that the democracies weren’t yet ready to face. The facts matter, in other words, so I stopped for some time over a detail that confused me in the following passage. Mary and a fellow reporter named Tom Lambert have rented a car in order to drive out to former president Edvard Beneš’s country home, to see if they can get an interview:

Tom paid for the gasoline and they started off at twenty miles an hour, Tom saying that until they left town she was not to speak to him, so that he could concentrate without emotion on the Prague traffic.

"The Wenceslaus Square beats all," he said. "How’s a man supposed to know which side to drive on? Besides those street cars racing to and fro in the middle and people ambling about like damned chickens and me with no driver’s license."

"Take it easy," she said. "You go down town on the left."

But you go down town on the right in Wenceslas Square these days. In fact, you drive on the right everywhere in the Czech Republic. The detail matters, in Gellhorn’s plot, because Tom, a little bewildered by the traffic patterns, ends up hitting a pedestrian, and the police insist on taking the reporters and their victim into the precinct headquarters, despite the pedestrian’s somewhat desperate insistence that he’s fine and has no wish to file a complaint. As it turns out, the pedestrian is an ethnic German from the Sudetenland, who’s become a refugee because of his politics (he’s a democrat), and the sooner the Prague police take note of him, the sooner he’ll be returned to his former home, where he’ll probably be killed.

A week or so after this puzzled me, my bewilderment was remedied by a map of worldwide driving patterns on the blog Strange Maps. Apparently people used to drive on the left in Czechoslovakia, and it was the Nazis who switched the country to right-side-of-the-road driving. At the moment of Gellhorn’s novel, the Gestapo are already operating freely in Prague, but the government is still in Czech hands.

While I’m on the subject, there’s another period detail that might confuse a contemporary reader. Gellhorn never explains that the Nazis are the villains of her story. She assumes that the reader will understand that they are, because she portrays them arresting people extralegally in a foreign country and then torturing them in order to extract information.