Where the Czechs Came From

Czechia (Bohemia) is a small country, but it was not always so. When, after the defeat of the Protestants at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, Jan Ámos Komenský took refuge in Leszno in Greater Poland, it was situated all of ten kilometers from the then Czech border. At that time, Silesia, together with Wrocław, belonged to the crown lands of St Wenceslas. The famous pedagogue hoped to return to his homeland soon, but Emperor Ferdinand II Habsburg banished the Protestants forever and distributed their property among foreign mercenaries. Prague became a German city for almost 300 years. 

Czech authors of nineteenth century historical novels presented the Habsburg era as a Catholic ‘dark age’, an era of lethargy which one must shake off. But how to do it? The Czechs were indeed a historical nation, they once had their own kings and state, just like the Poles or the Hungarians, but all that was a distant past. After White Mounta, they became a nation of peasants – they could not count on a cosmopolitan nobility, nor on the Church hierarchy connected to Vienna, nor even on the domestic bourgeoisie, because up until the second half of the nineteenth century they had none. In addition, one third of the Czech population was German, who dominated virtually all the cities, including Prague. So how did the Czechs manage to remain Czechs? 

They did not start futile uprisings, that is for sure. And they were quite fortunate. The Habsburgs emancipated the peasants as early as the end of the eighteenth century, and after losing the richest provinces of the empire, Silesia and Lombardy, they made Bohemia, with its ancient traditions of crafts and mining, the industrial base of the monarchy. In 1795, compulsory schooling meant that many of the rural population could read and write, which did much to further the national cause. In the cities, they were awaited by “wake-up callers”, social and national activists, mostly of plebeian origin, who helped them unite around their mother tongue and shared traditions. In the favorable atmosphere of Austrian political culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Czechs created the most egalitarian nation in Central Europe. And in 1918, they seized the opportunity, awarded them by history, and won their own state – the only democratic state in the region in the entire inter-war period.

The fascinating history of the Czechs, from the dawn of time right up to the present day, has recently been brought closer to Polish readers by Petr Jokeš, a long-time professor at Wrocław and Jagiellonian Universities, and educator of a whole galaxy of female translators to whom we owe many translations of the latest Czech literature. In his book The Czechs: A Guide to the History of the Nation and the State,  the author focuses, as in every good historical synthesis, on the issues that proved to be crucial from the point of view of contemporary times. He devotes much attention to the formation of the Medieval Czech state and its special relations with the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (and Germany in general); and Hussitism with its role in the creation of the modern Czech national identity. More than a third of the book deals with the twentieth century, i.e. the time of the Czechoslovak state. All this is told in a competent and accessible manner. The author does not shrink from anecdotes and has an excellent understanding of the expectations of foreign readers. Profiles of the most important figures, boxes on key events, maps and illustrations are also very helpful. 

It would be great if this book was also published in English.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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