Category Archives: Bohemia

Sudetenland, Ireland, and Rand Uitlanders

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 346-347:

The term Sudetenland was not much used before the 1930s. At the end of the First World War an attempt had been made to associate the predominantly Germanophone periphery of Bohemia and Moravia with the new post-imperial Austria by constituting Sudetenland as a new Austrian province, but this had come to nothing. The Germans who found themselves under Czechoslovakian rule after the First World War – they accounted for over a fifth of the population, not counting the mainly German-speaking Jews – had at no time been citizens of the Reich of which Hitler was Chancellor. They were first and foremost Bohemians. The role of Bohemia in the evolution of National Socialism had nevertheless been seminal. It had been there that, before the First World War, German workers for the first time defined themselves as both nationalists and socialists in response to mounting competition from Czech migrants from the countryside. It had been in Bohemia that some of the most bitter political battles in the history of inter-war Czechoslovakia had been fought, over issues like language and education. The industrial regions where German settlement was concentrated were hard hit by the Depression; Germans were over-represented among the unemployed, just as they were under-represented in government employment. On the other hand, Czechoslovakia was unusual in Central and Eastern Europe. It was the only one of the ‘successor states’ that had arisen from the ruins of the Habsburg Empire that was still a democracy in 1938. It also occupied a strategically vital position as a kind of wedge jutting into Germany, dividing Saxony and Silesia from Austria. Its politics and its location made Czechoslovakia the pivot around which inter-war Europe turned.

The first and greatest weakness of Chamberlain’s foreign policy was that by accepting the legitimacy of ‘self-determination’ for the Sudeten Germans, it implicitly accepted the legitimacy of Hitler’s goal of a Greater Germany. Chamberlain’s aim was not to prevent the transfer of the Sudeten Germans and their lands to Germany, but merely to prevent Hitler’s achieving it by force.* ‘I don’t see why we shouldn’t say to Germany,’ so Chamberlain reasoned, ‘give us satisfactory assurances that you won’t use force to deal with the Austrians and Czecho-Slovakians and we will give you similar assurances that we won’t use force to prevent the changes you want if you can get them by peaceful means.’ His comparison with the English settlers in the Transvaal on the eve of the Boer War said it all; Chamberlain did not mean to imply that a war was likely, but that the German demands for the Sudetenlanders were as legitimate as his father’s had been for the Uitlanders. To use a different analogy, it had taken generations for British Conservatives to reconcile themselves to the idea of Home Rule for the Irish; they conceded the Sudeten Germans’ right to it in a trice. Since Versailles, Germany had been aggrieved. The transfer of the Sudetenland was intended to redress her grievances in what Chamberlain hoped would be a full and final settlement.

* The ‘Uitlanders’ (Afrikaans for ‘foreigners’) were the British settlers who had been drawn to the Transvaal by the discovery of gold. They were treated by the Boers as aliens, furnishing the British government with a pretext for intervention in the region. Joseph Chamberlain, the arch-enemy of Home Rule for Ireland, demanded ‘Home Rule for the Rand’, meaning that the Uitlanders should be granted the vote after five years’ residence.

POSTSCRIPT, pp. 367-368:

What was more, Hitler gained immediately from Munich. With Czechoslovakia emasculated, Germany’s eastern frontier was significantly less vulnerable. Moreover, in occupying the Sudetenland, the Germans acquired at a stroke 1.5 million rifles, 750 aircraft, 600 tanks and 2,000 field guns, all of which were to prove useful in the months to come. Indeed, more than one in ten of the tanks used by the Germans in their Western offensive of 1940 were Czech-built. The industrial resources of Western Bohemia further strengthened Germany’s war machine, just as the Anschluss had significantly added to Germany’s supplies of labour, hard currency and steel. As Churchill put it, the belief that ‘security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves’ was ‘a fatal delusion’: ‘The war potential of Germany will increase in a short time more rapidly than it will be possible for France and Great Britain to complete the measures necessary for their defence.’ ‘Buying time’ at Munich in fact meant widening, not narrowing, the gap that Britain and France desperately needed to close. To put it another way: it would prove much harder to fight Germany in 1939 than it would have proved in 1938.

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Kakania or Russia as “Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs”

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 13-15:

Czechs in particular chafed at their second-class status in Bohemia, and were able to give more forthright political expression to their grievances after the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1907. But schemes for some kind of Habsburg federalism never got off the ground. The alternative of Germanization was not an option for the fragile linguistic patchwork that was Austria; the most that could be achieved was to maintain German as the language of command for the army, though with results lampooned hilariously by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek in The Good Soldier Švejk. By contrast, the sustained Hungarian campaign to ‘Magyarize’ their kingdom’s non-Hungarians, who accounted for nearly half the population, merely inflamed nationalist sentiment. If the trend of the age had been towards multi-culturalism, then Vienna would have been the envy of the world; from psychoanalysis to the Secession, its cultural scene at the turn of the century was a wonderful advertisement for the benefits of ethnic cross-fertilization. But if the trend of the age was towards the homogeneous nation state, the future prospects of the Dual Monarchy were bleak indeed. When the satirist Karl Kraus called Austria-Hungary a ‘laboratory of world destruction’ (Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs), he had in mind precisely the mounting tension between a multi-tiered polity – summed up by Kraus as an ‘aristodemoplutobarokratischen Mischmasch’ – and a multi-ethnic society. This I was what Musil was getting at when he described Austria-Hungary as ‘nothing but a particularly clear-cut case of the modern world’: for ‘in that country … every human being’s dislike of every other human being’s attempts to get on … [had] crystallized earlier’. Reverence for the aged Emperor Francis Joseph was not enough to hold this delicate edifice together. It might even end up blowing it apart.

If Austria-Hungary was stable but weak, Russia was strong but unstable. ‘There’s an invisible thread, like a spider’s web, and it comes right out of his Imperial Majesty Alexander the Third’s heart. And there’s another which goes through all the ministers, through His Exellency the Governor and down through the ranks until it reaches me and even the lowest soldier,’ the policeman Nikiforych explained to the young Maxim Gorky. ‘Everything is linked and bound together by this thread … with its invisible power.’ As centralized as Austria-Hungary was decentralized, Russia seemed equal to the task of maintaining military parity with the West European powers. Moreover, Russia exercised the option of ‘Russification’, aggressively imposing the Russian language on the other ethnic minorities in its vast imperium. This was an ambitious strategy given the numerical predominance of non-Russians, who accounted for around 56 per cent of the total population of the empire. It was Russia’s economy that nevertheless seemed to pose the biggest challenge to the Tsar and his ministers. Despite the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s, the country’s agricultural system remained communal in its organization – closer, it might be said, to India than to Prussia. But the bid to build up a new class of thrifty peasant proprietors – sometimes known as kulaks, after their supposedly tight fists – achieved only limited success. From a narrowly economic perspective, the strategy of financing industrialization by boosting agricultural production and exports was a success. Between 1870 and 1913 the Russian economy grew at an average annual rate of around 2.4 per cent, faster than the British, French and Italian and only a little behind the German (2.8 per cent). Between 1898 and 1913, pig iron production more than doubled, raw cotton consumption rose by 80 per cent and the railway network grew by more than 50 per cent. Militarily, too, state-led industrialization seemed to be working; Russia was more than matching the expenditures of the other European empires on their armies and navies. Small wonder the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg worried that ‘Russia’s growing claims and enormous power to advance in a few years, will simply be impossible to fend off’. Nevertheless, the prioritization of grain exports (to service Russia’s rapidly growing external debt) and rapid population growth limited the material benefits felt by ordinary Russians, four-fifths of whom lived in the countryside. The hope that they would gain land as well as freedom aroused among peasants by the abolition of serfdom had been disappointed. Though living standards were almost certainly rising (if the revenues from excise duties are any guide), this was no cure for a pervasive sense of grievance, as any student of the French ancien regime could have explained. A disgruntled peasantry, a sclerotic aristocracy, a radicalized but impotent intelligentsia and a capital city with a large and volatile populace: these were precisely the combustible ingredients the historian Alexis de Tocqueville had identified in 1780s France. A Russian revolution of rising expectations was in the making – a revolution Nikiforych vainly warned Gorky to keep out of.

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Judt on Favored Czechs, Disfavored Slovaks

From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 659-660:

Czechs and Slovaks, however indistinguishable they might appear to perplexed outsiders, had markedly different pasts. Bohemia and Moravia—the historical territories comprising the Czech lands—could boast not merely a remarkable medieval and Renaissance past at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire but also a pre-eminent share of the industrialization of central Europe. Within the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire Czechs enjoyed growing autonomy and a marked prosperity. Their major city, Prague—one of the aesthetic glories of the continent—was by 1914 a significant center of modernism in the visual arts and literature.

Slovaks, by contrast, had little to boast about. Ruled for centuries from Budapest they lacked any distinctive national story—within the Hungarian half of the Empire they were regarded not as ‘Slovaks’ but as slav-language-speaking peasants of rural northern Hungary. The urban inhabitants of the Slovak region were predominantly Germans, Hungarians or Jews: it was not by chance that the largest town in the area, an unprepossessing conurbation on the Danube a few kilometres east of Vienna, was variously known as Pressburg (to German-speaking Austrians) or Pozsony (to Hungarians). Only with the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and the Slovaks’ somewhat reluctant incorporation therein, did it become the second city of the new state under the name Bratislava.

The inter-war Republic of Czechoslovakia was democratic and liberal by prevailing regional standards, but its centralized institutions strongly favored the Czechs, who occupied almost all positions of power and influence. Slovakia was a mere province and a poor and rather disfavored one at that. The same impulse that led many of the country’s three million German-speaking citizens to listen to pro-Nazi separatists thus also drove a certain number of Czechoslovakia’s two and a half million Slovaks to look with sympathy upon Slovak populists demanding autonomy and even independence. In March 1939, when Hitler absorbed the Czech regions into the ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, an authoritarian, clericalist Slovak puppet state was established under Father Józef Tiso. The first ever independent state of Slovakia thus emerged at Hitler’s behest and over the corpse of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Just how popular Slovakia’s wartime ‘independence’ ever was is hard to know after the fact. In the post-war years it was discredited both by its own record (Slovakia deported to death camps virtually all of its 140,000 pre-war Jewish population) and by its intimate dependence upon its Nazi patron. After its liberation, Czechoslovakia was re-established as a single state and expressions of Slovak nationalism were frowned upon. Indeed in the early Stalinist years, ‘Slovak bourgeois nationalism’ was one of the accusations levied at putative defendants in the show trials then being prepared—Gustav Husák spent six years in prison on the charge.

Dumneazu‘s recent travel report on Slovak Diglossia offers a fairly optimistic assessment of Slovakia’s economy these days.

Today Slovakia boasts East Europe’s fastest growing economy. During the first ten post communist years the country stagnated under the government of communist-turned-nationalist Vladimir Meciar. When Meciar left office a new generation of Slovak leadership – educated in the west and up on the latest economic theories – took the reins. A combination of smart economists, flat taxes (in a small country) and generous benefits for foreign investors has suddenly trust Slovakia from the backwater of the post 1989 East European changes to the forefront. Unemployment is expected to disappear in three years, forcing the importation of labor. Towns that were once dusty backwaters, like my beloved Ruzemberok, are becoming smart regional investment centers, and tidying up their downtown areas.

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Bohemia Un-Czeched and Counter-Reformed, 1619-1919

[By the 1600s] the Kingdom of Bohemia had for practical purposes already lost its independence, and its internal struggles could not be isolated from the religious and political conflicts engulfing Europe as a whole. It was no longer either in representation or in reality a matter of Czechs “against all.” Bohemia was a pawn in a Continental game. Where the Hussite Wars had been integrally and obviously national, the conflicts of the seventeenth century were only secondarily so. Their result, nonetheless, was to jeopardize the very existence of a Czech nation.

Dissension came to a head in the Rising of the Czech Estates, which triggered the Thirty Years’ War. Appropriately enough, the rebellion began with a second defenestration of Prague, 199 years after the first. On 21 May 1618 Protestant nobles convened a General Diet, and two days later a mob turfed three Catholic imperial officials (who survived the experience) from the windows of Prague Castle. In August of the next year a General Diet of all the lands of the Czech kingdom formally repudiated the Habsburg succession and offered the throne to Frederick, the protestant elector of the Palatinate, son-in-law of King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Frederick was crowned and moved into Hradcany on 4 November 1619. The “Winter King” reigned for just a year and four days. Despite some initial military successes, the rebellion was decisively crushed by the troops of Emperor Ferdinand II (1619-37), Matyas’s legitimate Habsburg successor, at the battle of Bila hora–the White Mountain [cf. Serbian Cerna Gora (= Montenegro) and Czech Bila Rus ‘White Russia’]–on the western outskirts of Prague on 8 November 1620. Frederick and his court immediately fled the city, leaving it defenseless before Ferdinand’s army. Bila hora settled the fate of the Kingdom of Bohemia for the next three centuries; it was without any doubt the most cataclysmic event in modern Czech history.

Ferdinand’s revenge was swift, brutal, and overwhelming. On Monday 21 June 1621, between five and nine in the morning, twenty-seven Czech aristocrats and burghers were publicly executed in Prague’s Old Town Square, Staromestske namesti. The executioner dealt with Jan Jesensky (Jessenius), the rector of Prague University, particularly cruelly; his tongue was cut out and nailed to the block before he was beheaded. The heads of twelve of the executed were displayed on the tower of Charles Bridge for ten years until, during the brief occupation of Prague by a Saxon Protestant army in 1631, they were ceremonially buried in the Tyn Cathedral. Literal was followed by social decapitation: the indigenous Protestant nobility, burgher estate, and intelligentsia were to all intents and purposes destroyed. The estates of Protestant lords were confiscated on a grand scale, and gifted or sold cheaply to Catholic loyalists. Over three-quarters of the land in the kingdom, Church and crown estates excepted, changed hands in the 1620s. Out of this a largely new–and often foreign–aristocracy emerged, even if some of the biggest beneficiaries, like Albrecht z Valdstejna, creator of the Valdstejn (Waldstein) Palace in Prague, were Czechs….

By the later eighteenth century the overwhelming majority of Czechs, from nobility to peasants, were once again Roman Catholics. Lusatia and most of Silesia were gone, and Bohemia and Moravia had been Habsburg possessions since time out of mind. Prague was little more than a provincial backwater. The upper classes, whether in origin Czech or foreign, had little organic connection to the Czech past, and oriented themselves mainly to Vienna. Like much of the urban population, they spoke German. Many town dwellers, particularly in the capital, were German incomers; Czech-speakers preponderated in Prague only among the lower classes. For the most part Czech had ceased to be a language of either learning or (higher) administration; the rich Czech literary heritage of the past had been mostly erased or forgotten. Where it was kept alive, ironically enough, it was Catholic priests who were mainly to be thanked. Bohemia’s sociolinguistic splits were reproduced in the Church; while the episcopal hierarchy was German-speaking, most ordinary parish priests were the sons of Czech peasants. Contrary to some later assertions, the Czech language as such was by no means close to death. But it had retreated to the fields, the stables, and the kitchens. It was a badge not of nationality but of ignorance, the rude tongue of the common folk. Language no longer unified or divided nations, as it had for the Hussites, but merely social classes. It was as a written language that Czech so catastrophically declined after Bila hora. The most characteristic cultural monuments of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Bohemia are visual, rather than literary. The art of the baroque is a feast that appeals to the eye, not the intellect; its architecture is an architecture of sensuous power, designed to impress and intimidate. All those resplendent baroque palaces, churches, and burgher mansions that do so much to define Prague as “the magical metropolis of old Europe” (as Andre Breton once called it) are testaments to the destruction of the Hussite and Protestant Bohemia on whose ruins they were erected; and a goodly proportion of them were designed by foreigners rather than Czechs….

Had there been no medieval Bohemian state, there might very possibly have been no modern Czech nation either. But this modern nation is not so much rooted in that medieval experience as retrospectively reconstructed out of it. Bila hora fractured Czech history and identity; the links to the past were severed.

SOURCE: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, by Derek Sayer (Princeton U. Press, 1998), pp. 45, 50, 52

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