The Czech Nation and Its Past and Present Identity

Prague CastleThe purpose of this short work is to give the reader a brief exposure to the issues that are at stake in the problematic of correctly understanding and using the past by the modern nation-state. It approaches this subject by examining the case of the Czech Republic, as one of the nation-states of the post-Soviet ‘new Europe,’ by comparing its contemporary idea of the “Czechness” to the self-understanding of the Czech people in the period before the emergence of nationalist movements in Europe (up to the late 18th century). In doing so it is argued that the modern concept of homogeneous nation to which the contemporary Czechs subscribe is, notwithstanding the belief of the Czechs to the contrary, exactly that – a modern ‘invention’ that cannot stand up to a more closer historical scrutiny.

More precisely, the purpose here is not to proceed in the steps of Ernest Gellner or Benedict Anderson by alleging that the 19th and 20th century ‘awakeners’ of the Czech nation are guilty of a deliberate attempt to construct a new historical entity,[1] but to show that the critical understanding of the past is always to some extent limited by the (tacit) understanding, traditions and problems of the present. It will be therefore claimed that the 19th century group of Czech thinkers, who in the so-called period of National Revival set as their task to avert the progressing germanisation of the Czech crown lands, were trapped in what Martin Heidegger called ‘metaphysics of subjectivity,’[2] as they believed that the Czech identity they were defending was an atemporal and ahistorical entity. In other words, this nationalist movement was implicitly positivist in its assumptions about historical objectivity, in a similar way as the Marxist historiography of the French Annales school in the 20th century.[3] The nation was for them adopted as the unit of analysing the past. The historicity and timeliness of the concept of nation was denied, and the whole history was reinterpreted according to its prism, without acknowledging that in the past the Czech identity might had been perceived differently. This essay thus both briefly overviews how the modern concept of the Czech national identity and then counterpoises it to an older, more territorial and political, and less ethnic understanding of the “Czechness.” By making such comparison it thus also shows the limits to the efforts to critically perceive history through the (narrow) scope of nation and nation-state.

The Czech Identity: Ancient and Modern

Czechoslovakia, the first independent political community of the Czechs since their absorption into the Habsburg monarchy in 1526, came to the existence on 28 October 1918 as a unitary state created out of several split-up territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.[4] Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the newly elected president of the republic, based the arguments supporting the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia on the principle of national self-determination of two Slavic nations; the Czechs and Slovaks. By doing so, any national political rights of the Germans living in Bohemia (by 1914, the formed 38% of the population, that is, 3.5 million inhabitants) and Moravia (30% of the population, 1.6 million) to the same soil were denied.[5] The same treatment applied to minority ethnicities such Hungarians, or Poles.

The same understanding of their national identity predominates in the contemporary Czech Republic. The International Social Survey Programme conducted in 1995 in the Czech Republic found out that the people consider the primary factor in determining the Czech nationality the ability to speak the language together with the feeling of belonging.[6] The latter in practice translates in the minds of the Czech public to the requirement of being born in the Czech Republic to a parent or parents who are considered to be Czech.[7] This leads to the conclusion that the Czechness is still very much perceived solely in terms of ‘blood’ and does not distinguish between Czech ‘political’ identity and Czech ethnic or national identity. That means, as Alena Nedomová and Tomáš Kostelecký note, that

a member of an ethnic minority born in the Czech Republic, having Czech citizenship, speaking only Czech and having lived in the Czech Republic for his/her entire life could not be considered as a ‘truly Czech’ person if his/her way of life is too different from what is commonly accepted as the norm.[8]

The principle of national self-determination on which Masaryk based the claims for the full Czech sovereignty rights over Bohemia and Moravia are in Czech society thus still very much alive. This national idea Masaryk had at the time of the founding of Czechoslovakia on mind was for the first time elaborated in 1806, by one of the most prominent representatives of the Czech ‘National Revival’ movement, Josef Jungmann. Jungmann based the definition of the Czech nation on the idea of a linguistic community historically living on the same territory and thus having full political rights over its soil.[9]

In fact, however, the problematic of the identity of Czech-speaking people in Bohemia and Moravia has been much more complex than Jungmann and other national awakeners were prepared to allow. By the turn of the 18th century, the Czech-speaking population lived in the Bohemian crownlands together with the Germans already for several centuries. German settlers came there initially in a peaceful manner at the invitation of the Bohemian Premyslid dynasty in the 13th century,[10] and then in the second wave throughout the course of the 16th century, after Martin Luther renewed a closer bond between Czechs and Protestant Germans by publicly acknowledging his debt to the famous Church reformer Jan Hus.[11] The Czech aristocracy, although it later on paid some lip service to Czech nationalists, predominantly identified themselves with the newly acquired ‘Austrian’ imperial identity.[12] On the other hand, before the mid-18th century, while the Czech-speaking peasantry and bourgeoisie were aware of their distinct ethnic identity, this did not prevent them in identifying with the German Bohemians when preserving their shared interests in the province, as Hroch notes

The social structure, the “Stand”, was still decisive … the Czech- and German-speaking peasants participated side by side in the great peasant war in northeast Bohemia and there is no evidence of any relevant conflict between insurgents from these two etnies.[13]

Thus, the awareness of ethnic differences at this time coexisted with the commitment to a larger, political and territorial Bohemian identity shared between the two ethnies. The identity conceptualised in this way could be called in terms of J. H. Elliott a ‘composite monarchy’,[14] i.e. a mosaic of two different ethnic identities forming a higher political identity in their unity under the Bohemian crown. In consequence, the emerging nationalism of the 19th century national revivalists following Jungmann had to deny these deep historical roots of the coexistence with the Germans on the same territory, which they embarked on to claim solely for the Czech ethnie. This fact was also manifested in the clash of Jungmann’s linguistic nationalism with one other patriotism that emerged at the same period.[15] This ‘regionalist’ patriotism tried to preserve and intellectually underpin the above mentioned political and regional identity of Bohemia by basing its patriotism on the commitment to this historical region, without regard to ethnic borders, perceiving respective ethnic identities as ‘features’ of the region.

In the end it was Jungmann with his concept of linguistic nationalism, however, who ultimately triumphed over more ‘nostalgic’ and perhaps less ‘Enlightened’ regionalist patriotism. This thus laid down the essential foundations for the Czech nationalist struggle of the 19th century and modern conception of the Czechness as it is preserved until the present time. In consequence, this led to the elevation of the idea that the only ‘true’ inhabitants of Bohemian crownlands are the ethnic Czechs. As it was briefly discussed, this was however both historically inaccurate and, consequently, also politically unfortunate, as the tragic history of both the Czechs and Germans in the first half of the twentieth century shows.

Conclusion

As Ernest Gellner noted, the contemporary conceptualisation of national identity with its accompanying political claims to national self-determination and sovereignty conflates the ethnic and political identity, giving rise to nationalism as

a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones, and in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state … should not separate the power-holders from the rest.[16]

The Czech nationalists were unable to acknowledge that their history was more complex than the one they perceived through their concept of nation. Considering the political circumstances of the time with the increasingly more and more aggressive nationalism of the Bohemian Germans themselves, the Czech nationalism thus might have been an ‘inevitable’ historical outcome. Nevertheless, this does not justify its denial of a historically more complex network of identities in which the Czech-speaking population of Bohemia and Moravia was embroiled. One might speculate that a more critical approach to history might have perhaps led to a more peaceful coexistence of the Czech and German people in the 19th and 20th century. Therefore, so far as it is possible to make a generalised assumption based on the Czech case, it must be concluded that a critical use of the past by modern nations and nations-states is limited.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

International Social Survey Programme: National Identity (Ann Arbor, MI, 1995).

Secondary Sources  – Books

Agnew, H. L., The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Stanford, Cal., 2004).

Dowling, M., Czechoslovakia (London, 2002).

Fawn, R., The Czech Republic: A Nation of Velvet (Amsterdam, 2000).

Gellner, G.,Nations and Nationalism, Second ed. (Oxford, 2006).

Iggers, G. G., Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity (Hanover and London, 1997).

Kolb, D., The Critique of Pure Modernity: Hegel, Heidegger, and After (Chicago and London, 1991).

Le Goff, J., History and Memory (New York, 1992).

Sahlins, P., Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Oxford, 1991).

Taylor, A. J. P., The Habsburg Monarchy 1809-1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary (London, 1948).

Secondary Sources – Articles

Elliott, J. H.,  ‘A Europe of Composite Monarchies’, Past and Present, 137 (1992), pp. 48-71.

Hroch, M., ‘From Ethnic Group toward the Modern Nation: the Czech Case,’ in History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and its Critics, eds. M. Guibernau and J. Hutchinson (Oxford, 2004), pp. 95-107.

Koenigsberger, H. G., ‘Dominium Regale or Dominium Politicum et Regale’, in Politicians and Virtuosi: Essays in Early Modern History, ed. H. G. Koenigsberger (London and Ronceverte, 1986)pp. 1-26.

Nedomová , A., and Kostelecký, T., ‘The Czech National Identity: Basic Results of the 1995 National Survey’, Czech Sociological Review, 5:1 (1997), pp. 79-92.

Scales, L. E., ‘At the Margin of Community: Germans in Pre-Hussite Bohemia’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9 (1999), pp. 327-352.

Smith, A. D. ‘The Nation: Invented, Imagined, Reconstructed?’, Millenium, 20:3 (1991), pp. 353-368.

Wellek, R., ‘Germans and Czechs in Bohemia’, German Life and Letters, 2 (1937), pp. 14-24.


[1] Anthony D. Smith has opposed both Gellner and Anderson by arguing that nations were not wilfully constructed out of thin air, but based on earlier ethnic traditions, see Anthony D. Smith, ‘The Nation: Invented, Imagined, Reconstructed?’, Millenium, 20:3 (1991), pp. 353-368.

[2] For a short overview of Heidegger’s argument see for instance David Kolb, The Critique of Pure Modernity: Hegel, Heidegger, and After (Chicago and London, 1991), pp. 137-144.

[3] For an overview of the French Annales and Marxist Historiography see Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity (Hanover and London, 1997), pp. 51-64, 78-94.

[4] For an overview of the Czech history see for instance Maria Dowling, Czechoslovakia (London, 2002), for the period between 1918-1989 and for the development since the 1989 Velvet Revolution Rick Fawn, The Czech Republic: A Nation of Velvet (Amsterdam, 2000).

[5] A. J. P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy 1809-1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary (London, 1948), p. 267.

[6] International Social Survey Programme: National Identity (Ann Arbor, MI, 1995).

[7] Alena Nedomová and Tomáš Kostelecký, ‘The Czech National Identity: Basic Results of the 1995 National Survey’, Czech Sociological Review, 5:1 (1997), p. 84.

[8] Ibid., pp. 84-85.

[9] Hugh LeCaine Agnew, The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Stanford, Cal., 2004), p. 112.

[10] Leonard E. Scales, ‘At the Margin of Community: Germans in Pre-Hussite Bohemia’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9 (1999), pp. 327-352.

[11] René Wellek, ‘Germans and Czechs in Bohemia’, German Life and Letters, 2 (1937), p. 17.

[12] Miroslav Hroch, ‘From Ethnic Group toward the Modern Nation: the Czech Case,’ in History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and its Critics, eds. M. Guibernau and J. Hutchinson (Oxford, 2004), p. 96.

[13] Ibid., p. 97.

[14] J. H. Elliott, ‘A Europe of Composite Monarchies’, Past and Present, 137 (1992), pp. 48-71. The term ‘composite monarchy’ is credited to H. G. Koenigsberger, ‘Dominium Regale or Dominium Politicum et Regale’, in Politicians and Virtuosi: Essays in Early Modern History, ed. H. G. Koenigsberger (London and Ronceverte, 1986)pp. 1-26.

[15] Ibid., p. 103. Also see Agnew, The Czechs, pp. 110-116.

[16] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Second ed. (Oxford, 2006), p. 1.

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2 Responses to The Czech Nation and Its Past and Present Identity

  1. Leonard F. Cremona says:

    My daughter and I are in the process of searching our ancestry and preparing a tree. My mother,Libuse(Senor)Cremona’s parents are from Bohemia. Their names and birth dates are Emil Senor (1865) and Bertha(?)Senor. We know they left Austria-Hungary after WW-I and before 1922, but we can’t find any more specific information.

    I am writing with the hope that you could direct us on a more productive path. We do not know of the port from which they emigrated and a search of the Ellis Island records has not been helpful.

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