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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. The “Critical turns”: Subverting the Romantic narratives

The meaning of Czech history

Josef Pekař
Traduction de Derek Paton

Texte intégral

1Title: Smysl českých dějin (The meaning of Czech history)

2Originally published: lecture delivered on November 5, 1928, published by Josef Pekař at his own expenses in Prague, 1929

3Language: Czech

4The excerpts used are from Josef Pekař, O smyslu českých dějin (Prague: Rozmluvy 1990), pp. 383–405.

About the author

5Josef Pekař [1870, Malý Rohozec (near Turnov, Ger. Turnau, north Bohemia) – 1937 Prague]: historian. Born into a farming family, he studied at a grammar school in Mladá Boleslav. Later, he studied history and geography at Charles University in Prague. In 1897, he became a private docent with his work on the history of the Wallenstein conspiracy. In 1905, he became a professor. Later, he also served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and between 1931 and 1932, as the rector of Charles University. For thirty years he was an editor of the prestigious Český časopis historický (Czech historical journal) and founder of several publications and bibliographic projects. Pekař was a pupil of Antonín Rezek and Jaroslav Goll and became one of the leading positivist historians in the first third of the twentieth century. He was also an influential teacher of several generations of historians. He critically reexamined František Palacký’s historical work and offered a reinterpretation, particularly on the earlier period of the Bohemian state, the fifteenth-century Hussites and the era following the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Though critical of integral nationalism, Pekař supported the state right policies as an argument for Bohemian political autonomy, while warning against the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire. On account of his criticism of the nationality and social policies in interwar Czechoslovakia and his stress on the importance of German and aristocratic culture in Bohemian history, his work was also appreciated by some Sudeten German intellectuals and was later appropriated for pro-Nazi propaganda. For this reason and for his conservatism, recognition of the Church’s cultural importance in history and critical views on the Hussite revolution, Pekař was completely rejected by the postwar political establishment, and consequently re-assessed as a source of alternative historical thinking by some dissident intellectuals of the 1980s. Immediately after the changes of 1989, some of his books and studies were republished and he has since been recognized as one of the greatest Czech historians.

6Main works: Dějiny Valdštejnského spiknutí 1630–1634 [The history of the Wallenstein conspiracy] (1895); Nejstarší kronika česká [The oldest Czech chronicle] (1903); Kniha o Kosti, 2 vols. [A book about Kost] (1909, 1911); Masarykova česká filosofie [Masaryk’s Czech philosophy] (1912); František Palacký (1912); České katastry 1654–1789 [Czech cadastres, 1654–1789] (1913–1915) Bílá Hora, její příčiny a následky [The White Mountain, its causes and consequences] (1921); Dějiny československé [Czechoslovak history] (1921); Tři kapitoly z boje o sv. Jana Nepomuckého [Three chapters from the struggle over St. John Nepomucene] (1921); Žižka a jeho doba, 4 vols. [Žižka and his time] (1927–1933); Smysl českých dějin [The meaning of Czech history] (1929); Valdštejn [Wallenstein] (1933).


7On account of growing social and political tensions in various parts of the Habsburg Monarchy at the end of the nineteenth century, the upcoming generation of Czech political activists felt the need to reformulate the foundations of Czech politics. This had been clearly expressed in Česká otázka by Tomáš G. Masaryk and some of his other books from 1895–96, all of which provoked lively debate. At first the reactions came from political quarters. The most important was that of Josef Kaizl, Masaryk’s former colleague in the Young Czech Party. In a short book, České myšlenky (Czech thoughts) from 1896, Kaizl, in contrast to Masaryk, argued that it was the national idea rather than a religious one that was the formative element of Czech historical development. The major figures of the national awakening of the early nineteenth century were enlighteners and liberals in the tradition of the French Enlightenment and not followers of the Reformation. The debate between Masaryk and Kaizl was a prelude to the whole ‘dispute over the meaning of Czech history’ that reflected the rapid modernization of Czech society in the first third of the twentieth century. The most important positions in this debate were reflected in the works of Tomáš G. Masaryk on the one hand, and Josef Pekař on the other.

8At first, there was no immediate reaction on the part of the mainstream Czech historians at the time of Masaryk’s book. Jaroslav Goll, the leader of the ‘positivist’ school and Masaryk’s colleague, shared with him the ‘realist’ political stance while rejecting the validity of Masaryk’s claim that one particular factor or idea (such as the idea of Humanität) could exercise a decisive influence over several historical eras. It was only in 1912, after attacks by some of Masaryk’s followers against the ‘school of Goll,’ that Josef Pekař, the most prominent member of the school, decided to reply 17 years after the publication of Masaryk’s ‘Czech Question.’ In an article entitled Masarykova česká filosofie, Pekař profoundly disagrees with Masaryk that the religious concept precedes national consciousness. He sees Masaryk as a philosophical thinker who introduced unacceptable mythical and teleological concepts into history. Exactly at the moment when modern historiography was born, Pekař writes, the teleological approach applied by Masaryk had been abandoned for good.

9The dispute continued in the subsequent years, preoccupying historians through the emergence of Czechoslovakia in late 1918, in which democratic culture and the quest for legitimacy fuelled cultural and ideological differentiation. Generally supporting Czechoslovak democracy as a legitimate expression of Czech statehood, Pekař still criticized many of its features from a conservative historicist position. In his lecture Smysl českých dějin, from 1928, he develops his concept of a “national axis of Czech history” that was dominated by the steady influence of West European culture mediated above all by Germans. According to Pekař, this was not a dialectical process of mutual enrichment between the German and Slavic elements, as Palacký insisted, but much more a process of receiving, imitating, and yielding to Western models and patterns. The unifying principle of Czech history was not a universal “ideal of humanity” but a “national consciousness.” Although this consciousness had changed over the course of time, there were some stable elements—namely, the geographical position of the Czech nation surrounded by Germans, as well as the particularly Czech historical traditions (the bearers of continuity), which gave Czech history its unique character. Against Palacký’s and Masaryk’s ‘Protestant-humanistic’ interpretation of Czech history, Pekař offered an alternative historical narrative based on the sense of national belonging. In his books and articles he stresses the medieval character of the Hussite movement, appreciates the Roman Catholic traditions of St. Wenceslas (a patron saint of Bohemia) and St. John Nepomucene (a symbol of the re-Catholicization of the Bohemian Lands), and offers an alternative and, in the end, a more positive interpretation of Baroque culture and, in general, of Habsburg rule in the Bohemian Lands after 1526.

10‘The Meaning of Czech History’ was the subject of lively discussions throughout the whole inter-war period, in which a number of prominent intellectuals, in addition to Masaryk and Pekař, were involved. Despite the basic geopolitical shift in the area and the changed political perspectives after the Second World War, intellectual impulses provided by the dispute were still tangible and relevant to the key political debates during the 1968 Prague Spring and even more to the subsequent dissidents’ movement. With the democratic changes beginning in late 1989, the ideas of both Masaryk and Pekař could not serve as direct points of reference for current political discussions. Nevertheless, they are understood as genuine and historically relevant configurations of modern Czech political and historical thought.


The meaning of Czech history

12My book does not understand Czech history as a work essentially of autonomous Czech development. Instead, it demonstrates that the nature of this development is determined mainly by the influences, model, efforts and spirit of Western Europe. The idea that Czech history is a component, part, or expression of European life or a variation on it, seems today perhaps to be an everyday, ordinary truth—indeed, the idea grew and became stronger from the knowledge that it was necessary to fight against the ideas of Palacký and his day. […] In the views held in the last century, known also from Palacký’s conception of our history, the Czech, as Slavs, were from the very beginning of their history bearers of a high culture, yes, a culture higher than that of their Germanic neighbors to the West. To Palacký, as is known, our history clearly seemed to be essentially a struggle, the contact and conflict of two worlds, the world of freedom, good and peace, that is to say, the world of democracy on the Slavic side and the world of dominion, force, oppression, that is to say, the world of feudalism on the Germanic side: to him, the White Mountain was an expression of the ultimate defeat of original, early Czech culture.[…] The point of view of today’s generation of historians on this question is fundamentally different: we do not believe in any original high culture of the ancient Slavs (what was here in the beginning of our history was given by the Goths and, in particular, Byzantium) and we place the emphasis on the fact that perhaps everything we include under the term ‘culture’ was brought into Bohemia at the beginning of its existence as a state from the outside world. […] But the model of foreign lands affected, I repeat, all aspects of life and all its manifestations, creating—depending on its cultural period—ever new situations and forms, from the farmer’s implements to the ideas of the religious reformer and political leader and even the visions of the poet. In other words, it is not only contact and conflict (Palacký’s formula) but also a continuous receiving, submitting and being saturated with a model of life and with ideas of our more forward-looking neighbors in the Germanic and Romance world, which constitute the most powerful and by far the most important facts and factors of our history. […]

13I touched upon the idea that in our homeland, this work of Europe had by nature different periods. This idea contains my view of historical development. […] In my book I cover these phases with the periods known in art history: the Romanesque, the Gothic (from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century), the Renaissance and the Baroque. The period of Enlightenment and revolution, which I trace in my book, I would now, seen as a whole, call the Classical and Romantic period; only the last period, the ‘period of Francis Joseph,’ lacks an adequate name which, in a single word, would convey the spiritual character ascribed to it by a periodization based on an alternation of both artistic and spiritual styles. (That fact is, by the way, itself testimony to the spiritually disunited and unoriginal character of the period we are discussing.) The spiritual essence of the period is surely to be seen in art, which is, precisely because of its non-intellectual nature, the most visible; the idea to use the terms, for example, Gothic or Renaissance to name the character of a whole period is, of course, old, and I am not the first to use it for the periodization of the past. […]

  • 1 By 1403, Pekař is denoting the beginning of Jan Hus’ preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel, Prague. 16 (...)

14With this conception and its perspective of periodization we are absolutely, however, moving away from Palacký, in whose conception, even though it is not clearly expressed, the Czech nation has, from its beginning to the seventeenth century, been the bearer of one and the same program—the idea of democracy –, whose periodization revolves round the years 1403 and 1618, or perhaps 1627.1 In my understanding of development, the aims change and the meaning of Czech national cultural endeavors change according to the ideals that were introduced into Czech life by the spiritual landmarks of the individual European periods. Not only public and private life assumes other forms and natures depending on the extent of their influence; the spiritual orientation of the individual and the nation also changes according to them. The Czech of the fourteenth or fifteenth century has a different “mentality” than the Czech of the sixteenth and seventeenth century or of the nineteenth or twentieth. […]

15As in any scheme that oversimplifies the complexity of life, this conception, too, certainly has its shortcomings and is certainly not sufficient alone and at all times; it is permeated and mixed with other contexts, some of which we have perhaps not yet perceived. But its basic idea, namely, that the autonomy of Czech development is limited essentially by the spiritual influence and commands of Europe and that this influence changed its “meaning,” its nature, through the centuries, counters, I believe, all objections. The decisive influence of Europe in contexts and interpreted modalities is, I would conclude, the main and by far the most important factor in our history, and the main author of our fate. [...]

16A second factor of immense, history-making consequence is our geographical position among nations, particularly our position among the Germans. It has had an influence in several senses; we shall touch upon the most important of these. Mainly it was the Germans, through whom and in whose garb various kinds of progress, models and spiritual guidelines of Europe came to our country. […] From the beginning of our history we were also dependent on German power politically—although the skill (including military skill) of our tribe, the protected position of the country and the good policy of our rulers managed to defeat the danger of this dependency and finally to give the Czech state a leading, privileged position in the Empire, to put the power of the [Holy] Roman emperors into the hands of Czech kings. But none of this could have happened without the considerable Germanization of the royal family and society at the court, and by accepting the fact that our lands became de facto lands settled by two nations, the Czech and the German, that we were threatened with the same fate as Silesia or as the Polabian Slavs: the loss of their homeland and, what’s more, of their own existence. […] In our history, the effect of this threat to our very nationality, how it made and fostered Czech nationalism with a zeal and force that are unparalleled by any other nation, are sufficiently well-known facts. An anxiety about the threatened heritage of our forebears and the attempt to regain the half-lost primacy on our own soil were undercurrents of the Hussite revolution, and these essentially changed the country in terms of nationality, just as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Romanticism fostered the idea of national revival to struggle against the second and third wave of alien German manners. […]

17But it must be said, if we are talking about the German influence as a factor in Czech history, that this influence did not mean only an education in anti-German nationalism, nor did it cause only Czech–Polish friendship in the fifteenth century, or the Slavic idea and hope in Russia, our great uncle to the East, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. This influence as analyzed here, which introduces Europe to us, has done much that is great and blessed in our country. It is adapting our country—in cooperation, I repeat, with the direct influence of the rest of Western Europe—to higher forms of life in spiritual and material culture, in legal and social relations and in the economy. An enumeration of what the Germans have done on our soil, of what they have taught us, would be very long; the building of towns and civil administration, resulting in the cultural and material boom of the late Middle Ages (recall the silver mines) and an increase in the wealth of the country, for example, was in essence their work, as was the building of big industry in the nineteenth century in the poorest regions, which the Czechs had not cared about from the beginning and where German colonists managed to make a living out of the worst soil. And the education in nationalism we have been talking about need not be understood only in the sense that the Germans made us into enemies of the Germans, but also in the sense that they forced us to imitate them, compete with them and attempt to become equal to their progress, know-how, wealth and power—and in that sense, our fateful position between the Germans had a very beneficial influence on us; if we are further than other East European nations in economic and industrial ability, administration, discipline, and hard work, we can thank mainly German upbringing. Even more important than this, it must be said, is that over the centuries, we mixed many times with the Germans, took much German blood into our veins, changed our nature, even racially. If a quarter of the Czechs in Bohemia today have German names, that is a record not of Germanization but of Czechicization, evidence of how much perhaps the Germans had their nationality taken from them in this historic Czecho-German arena. That fact, too, has of course had an immense effect on the extent of our power of resistance to the Germans and on our attempts to become their equals—the Germans have partly become Czechicized linguistically, we have become Germanized in personality traits and abilities […]

18Last, but not least in the whole series of factors that form our history is, ultimately, our history itself. I will touch upon a topic here, which would in itself take up a whole lecture. Suffice it to say, for example, that were it not for Hussitism, we would not have fallen to Protestantism in the sixteenth century, and would not thus, in spite one of the basic facts of our history, have, by our own choice, become one of the fellow-travelers of the ethnically- German world. Were it not for the centuries of our independence as a state, we would not have freed ourselves out of Austrian captivity in the World War. The idea of historical state rights was a sturdy pillar of our so-called awakening and, in the half-century before the World War, the main source of the anti-Austrian determination that armed our Legion. […]

19The fact that it was love, anxiety, zeal or national interest—or an interest that was considered national—which suddenly exerted a powerful influence on the interpretation of history and consequently on education and the spirit of whole generations and, indirectly, then, on the content and direction of historical development, returns our thoughts back to the question of what role national awareness, the national idea, played, and what position it holds, in our history. […] And if we recapitulate everything that was said about the changing spiritual nature and orientation, about the changing aims and ideals of the Czech man on the journey of generations through the dissimilar cultural landscapes through which he has been passing for centuries, we cannot but emphasize the fact that only one bond connects these mutually dissimilar intellectual worlds and represents an unbroken continuity of life and will over the centuries—namely, national consciousness. It is only where we hear its voice of hope, fear, prayer or anger from the distances of the past, that we understand and sense all the sons of the national family and that we are spiritually united with the generations of our forebears long dead. Only there do we realize fully and without difference that we are part of a spiritual collective which lives and wanders from the centuries of the past to the centuries of the future with the same basic aim—namely, to preserve, strengthen and ennoble its own individuality among nations. […] Only the consciousness that we are members of the same tribe, of the same national family, which has for centuries been bound not only by language and soil, by a physical homeland, but also by a homeland of historical tradition, by a bond of shared fates, the awareness that it is up to each generation to solve—under conditions that have changed yet are in essence the same—problems, which assigned to our forebears the concern for the preservation of its own existence, is the unchangeable basis that permeates our history and in fact carries it. Can one therefore say that the national idea is the meaning of our history? I would reply that it is, or that, in fact, the national idea is even more: the national idea is the precondition of the meaning of our history, it is its reason, the blood pulsating through its beating heart. We surely could not talk about the meaning of Czech history if it were not Czech history.


1 By 1403, Pekař is denoting the beginning of Jan Hus’ preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel, Prague. 1618 stands for the beginning of the Bohemian Estates’ revolt against Ferdinand II Habsburg that became the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War. 1627 marks the introduction of the absolutist royal power (the so-called Obnovené zřízení zemské) into defeated Bohemia and Moravia.


Derek Paton (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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