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.

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