In every nation, there is a continuing debate about what is the essence of the culture. This is certainly true of the Czechs, who today can see themselves alternately or collectively as part of the West Slavic language group, of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or of the European Economic Community. The debate about what being Czech means is not an idle matter for idle intellectuals but one that concerns the heart and soul of a people with whom outsiders are familiar but whom they seldom know. Derek Sayer’s The Coasts of Bohemia examines this ongoing debate in a thorough and compelling fashion.
The history of the Czechs is that of a people who allowed immigrants into their country and have repented of it ever since. The Czechs were immigrants themselves, coming west in that vast migration of Slavs that pushed Germans across the Elbe and out of Bohemia and Moravia. However, in the days when there were still vacant lands to be filled with farmers and towns begging for artisans and merchants, when rulers were accustomed to having a splendid variety of multicultural subjects, the kings of Bohemia invited Germans to take up poor lands in the mountains, open businesses in the towns, and become priests in the churches. They intermarried with powerful German dynasties; eventually one of these, the Luxemburgs, inherited the throne and made Bohemia into the most powerful and important state in the Holy Roman Empire.
It appeared that in the course of time the Czechs would be absorbed into the larger and culturally and technologically more advanced Germans or isolated into pockets of quaint rural poverty, as had happened to small Slavic and Baltic peoples elsewhere on the eastern frontier of the German-speaking world (or to the west on the Celtic fringe). Just before 1400, however, a religious revival that stressed preaching to the common people in Czech led to a massive confrontation with the dominant German minority. In the course of this confrontation—the Hussite wars—the inspired Czechs beat back seemingly overwhelming numbers of Germans and Hungarians and won for themselves religious liberty and a sense of Czech nationhood.
This triumph was negated in one day in 1620 at the Battle of White Mountain. Czech Protestantism was suppressed, and the Czech nobility was dispossessed of its lands. The Germans were in control, and they remained so until the nineteenth century. This was not altogether a loss, in that the Czech people became increasingly Western European and less Eastern European, but it was not an ideal method of national progress.
When the nationalist movement swept Europe in the post- Napoleonic period, it seemed that the Czechs would not be affected. The governing class, the educated classes, the mercantile class, and the Church were all composed of Germans or German-speaking Jews. It was said at one time that if the ceiling of a small meeting room were to collapse, all the members of the Czech national revival would be killed. This explains to a great degree Western ignorance of Czech history and culture (one of William Shakespeare’s plays, for example, contains a reference to the “coasts of Bohemia”). The rest is the result of distance from the English-speaking world, the difficulty of learning Slavic languages, and politics. The cost of this ignorance was high: Neville Chamberlain dismissed Czechoslovakia in 1938 at Munich as “a faraway country” inhabited by quarreling peoples “of whom we know nothing.”
Chamberlain was wrong, but he was not misinformed. At the turn of the century, when he was educated, the Western world knew the Czechs largely through the poster art of Alfons Mucha, who was living in Paris. When Mucha returned to his home to paint a cycle of patriotic canvases, he was forgotten by the Western public, scorned by contemporary artists, and discouraged by the German- speaking political elite. Czech was not yet a literary language. In fact, its peasant roots had only recently received the artificial grafts that allowed it to function as a means of educated discourse and elegant creativity. The first novels, the first Czech language histories, and the national theater bloomed at the same time that a national school system began to educate the entire Czech-speaking population. This, together with a population explosion at the end of the nineteenth century and the growth of commerce and industry, soon gave Czechs an absolute majority in all the cities and most of the towns of Bohemia and Moravia.
František Palack made these newly literate masses aware of their legacy and potential. A Pan-Slavist, Palack organized the Pan-Slavic Congress in 1848, which was disrupted by the revolution of that year. It is significant that Palack was called “the father of the nation” (Otec národa) rather than “the father of the homeland” (Otec vlasti), because the...
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