THEY have been there before, these crowds massed in Wenceslas Square in Prague. We see their demonstrations for democracy in Czechoslovakia on the nightly newscasts and on the front pages of the morning newspapers. The marches are news, and yet part of something not new. The crowds of Prague are in a tradition of 20th-century democracy that has burned on like a fire not ever quite put out, not even by Soviet tanks in 1968.
Wenceslas Square - and yes, that's Wenceslas as in ``Good King,'' of Christmas carol fame - is where the crowds gathered to cheer the declaration of Czechoslovakia as a sovereign republic after the First World War.
Prague, the splendid baroque ``city of a hundred spires,'' often seems to have been asleep for centuries under a fairy-tale spell. And yet the painful struggle for democracy is part of this century, not an awakening so much as a reawakening.
The Czechoslovak Republic of the interwar years was a product of the breaking up of the old empires vanquished during the war. The peace-loving idealism of the American president, Woodrow Wilson, also played no small part in establishing the new nation.
Americans watching events in Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe should be wondering what role there is for late 20th-century American idealism in this part of the world.
But one has to wonder, do we ahistorical Americans have enough of a sense of history to understand what's going on in the transforming East bloc? The issue may be less names and dates than a sense of general historical context - a sense of the story of history, with its plot lines and heroes. Or to use another metaphor, a sense of the melody line of history.
One American political scientist observes, ``As an educator, I've felt that if we've failed, it's in providing a historical context and understanding. The problem is not a lack of current facts - if the students don't have them, we can provide them. But without a context, it's hard to get through.''
Prague is a city of haunting, even tragic silences - think of Kafka's brooding mysteries. Or think of John Nepomuk, confessor to a 14th-century empress. A patron saint of silence, he was drowned in the Moldau on orders of the emperor, the story goes, when he wouldn't reveal what he may or may not have known about the empress's fidelity.
And yet the counterbalance of those silences is a great musicality. Mozart loved Prague, as the guidebooks are keen to point out. Its people ``understand me,'' he said; he had a country home outside Prague, and he chose the city for the debut of ``Don Giovanni.''
The Mozart connection no less than the Woodrow Wilson connection ties Czechoslovakia to the West. And the musical metaphor is a good one for describing how people internalize democratic ideals. One may know nothing of the musical theory of leading tones and resolutions to the tonic. But anyone with any musical sensibility who has grown up within the Western musical tradition knows when a Mozart melody has reached its logical conclusion, has reached ``home.''
There has been something of that same sense of resolution in events in Eastern Europe of late. This week's denunciation of the Warsaw Pact's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, issued by the successors to the leadership who launched that invasion, demonstrates that the East bloc is not completely tone-deaf when it comes to matters of liberty and the human spirit.
And yet however hopeful are the signs from the East, American presidential scholar Tom Cronin worries that Americans fail to appreciate ``how fragile democracy is - and how difficult it is.'' He also points out that that we shouldn't expect to see an American-style two-party system evolving anywhere in East Europe. The model is more likely to be a multiparty system, with a prominent role for the state in health and social welfare, as in Austria or Scandinavia.
``There's a lot of joy right now, but there will be a lot of hard work ahead,'' he adds. Regular elections, institutionalized political parties, and other hallmarks of stable democracy are not just around the corner in Eastern Europe, he notes.
Nor are the economic institutions of a free society going to spring up overnight. Troubled East-bloc economies may be eager to drop the straitjacket of central planning and other inefficiencies, but they may be less eager to explore the phenomena of unemployment and free-market prices.
Americans ``are thrilled at what's going on - but they need to be reminded of history,'' says Cronin, all the more so if they are to support, morally and financially, positive changes in the East.
Western, and specifically American, understanding of the democratic ideal in its universality and its particulars is critical to the defense of that ideal.
And we should aspire to get to the point where democracy is a melody that anyone can whistle.