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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 war between Czechs and Germans

Emanuel Rádl
Traduction de Anna Bryson

Texte intégral

1Title: Válka Čechů s Němci (The war between Czechs and Germans)

2Originally published: Prague, Čin, 1928

3Language: Czech

4The excerpts used are from Válka Čechů s Němci (Prague: Melantrich 1993), pp. 117–122 and 178–182.

About the author

5Emanuel Rádl [1873, Pyšely (central Bohemia) – 1942, Prague]: Czech biologist and philosopher. He came from a merchant family. After studying at grammar schools in Benešov and Domažlice (Ger. Taus), he spent two years in the novitiate of the Augustinian cloister after which he became a Protestant. He studied biology at the Czech branch of Prague University where he was influenced by the lectures of Tomáš G. Masaryk. After graduation, he taught at various secondary schools, and in 1904 he became a private docent in the physiology and the history of biological sciences at the University of Prague. At the beginning of the century, he published extensively on various biological topics from general anatomy and morphology to experimental etiology and the history of biological theories, becoming internationally known in his field after publishing the monumental Geschichte der biologischen Theorien (History of biological theories). After the establishment of Czechoslovakia he became professor of methodology in the natural sciences at Charles University in Prague. Simultaneously, as a civic and religious activists he took part in many political and cultural controversies of his time. Together with J. L. Hromádka he founded the Prague branch of the YMCA and the philosophical-theological journal Křesťanská revue (Christian revue) and he co-founded the Czechoslovak League for Human Rights. He was also an editor of the political-cultural journal Nové Atheneum (New Athenaeum) and of the leading philosophical journal Česká mysl (Czech mind) starting in 1932 and, together with Zdeněk Tobolka, the founder of the main republican encyclopedia Masarykův slovník naučný (Masaryk’s educational dictionary, 1925– 1933). He was a long-serving chairman of the Philosophical Association as well as of the VIII International Philosophical Congress held in Prague in 1934. A year later, a serious illness forced him to retire from public life until his death in 1942. His individualist and religiously based democratic ideals made him a persona non grata after 1938 under Nazi control and hampered his image later under communist rule. As a theorist of nationalism and democracy, he was rediscovered first by the anti-communist dissidents and, after the changes of 1989, by the broader Czech public. Most recently, his biological work, above all, his history of biological theories, was published in its first full critical Czech edition in 2006, attracting considerable attention.

6Main works: Untersuchungen über den Phototropismus der Tiere [Analyses of animal phototropism] (1902); Geschichte der biologischen Theorien [A history of biological theories] (1905, 1909, 1913); Dějiny vývojových teorií v biologii devatenáctého století [A history of evolutionary theories in nineteenth-century biology] (1909); Neue Lehre vom zentralen Nervensystem [New teachings on the central nervous system] (1912); Úvahy vědecké a filosofické [Scientific and philosophical considerations] (1914); Romantická věda [Romantic science] (1918); Náboženství a politika [Religion and politics] (1921); Západ a východ [West and east] (1925); Moderní věda [Modern science] (1926); Válka Čechů s Němci [The war between Czechs and Germans] (1928); Národnost jako vědecký problem [Nationality as a scientific problem] (1929); Dějiny filosofie [History of philosophy] (1932–33); O německé revoluci [On the German revolution] (1933); Útěcha z filozofie [Consolations of philosophy] (1946).


7The young generation of Czech intellectuals, who entered political and cultural life after the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, was deeply affected by Masaryk’s thought and political activism. Many members of the ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘pragmatic’ generation (such as Ferdinand Peroutka, Karel Čapek, and František Langer), nevertheless, understood Masaryk’s work as inspirational rather than canonical. They emphasized his work ethos, political engagement and moral resoluteness, but they were rather critical of his philosophy of history and metaphysical concepts. Instead of seeking the ‘meaning’ of Czech history, they were interested in establishing functioning democratic institutions, the creation of a ‘democratic mentality’ in Czechoslovak society and the reform of classic liberalism in order to make it more responsive to social justice. These intellectuals contributed to what is called the ‘Castle’ politics. This refers to politics based on the informal authority and charismatic personality of President Masaryk and his adherents, performed through the agency of personal influence on political parties and institutions.

8Emanuel Rádl counted himself among Masaryk’s disciples, although he differed in many respects from the ‘pragmatic’ generation. He studied biology and was a partisan of Bergsonian vitalism and Hans Driesch’s biological entelechy, which led him to introduce the term ‘organic purpose’ for explaining natural processes. In his view, this was the ultimate goal which oriented the life and creation of organisms, which, however, stood beyond time and space. Rádl also applied this conception to his theories of humankind and civilization, but he kept the methods of natural and human sciences strictly separate. He also argued that human existence had a final goal. However, the organic purpose in this case, stood for a rational and task-achieving behavior. For him, people “know what they are doing,” they clarify their opinions in the process of critical discussion, they assert and fight for their goals.

9Rádl also used his dualistic and Platonic conceptions in his writings on nationalism. In his view, there were two basic conceptions of the nation. In the first one, the nation is understood as a natural fact, a tribe or an organic community. In the second one, the nation is understood as a ‘community of free choice,’ in which every member decides for the explicit program of the community, through rational discussion. His notion of democracy was based on a resolute defense of the self-reflective, rational and morally aware individual against all forms of collectivism, populism or etatism.

10Imbued with elements of both value conservatism and ethical socialism, Rádl’s book Válka Čechů s Němci is probably the most radical critique of the first Czechoslovak Republic from a decisively modernist and democratic position. In the field of political thinking, Rádl drew up a polarity of national and civic principles and demonstrated that the national principle engendered by German Romanticism reigns in the whole region from the Rhine eastwards, informing the entire modern Czech political tradition. The Czech definition of the nation, a definition which also left its mark on the Czechoslovak constitution, derives from an organic understanding of nation and society. This applies to the would-be political concept of the Czechoslovak nation excluding all other nationalities apart from Czechs and Slovaks and revealing in fact an organic genealogy, which potentially, as Rádl prophetically declared in 1928, threatened to destroy the young Republic. Against the organic concept, Rádl promoted the model of contractual democracy that—far from being fully realized—developed in the Anglo-Saxon context out of the medieval institute of privileges. This model relied on ‘ethical liberalism,’ where the justice and the moral consciousness of the individual was considered to be above the state and the people. Ethical liberalism, in contrast to economic liberalism, was not supposed to be indifferent to religious needs but was supposed to respect the right of every individual to retain his or her own convictions and to assert them publicly.

11Rádl’s book caused a sensation, but his radical criticism was generally rejected. Historians such as Josef Pekař reproached him for alleged ‘amateurism’ in history, while others, contrary to Rádl’s radical doubts, defended the political concept of a Czechoslovak nation. Rádl’s intellectual legacy, nevertheless, proved to have long-term impact. As a philosopher and theorist of democracy, he was highly appreciated by Jan Patočka, the most original Czech philosopher of the twentieth century, who considered Rádl the most original of Masaryk’s followers for two reasons. First, like Masaryk, Rádl was deeply engaged in moral and religious problems and understood the modern crisis as a product of the loss of religious dimension in life. Second, he was convinced that to follow Masaryk meant to go beyond his teachings and to assume a critical stance towards him. Rádl’s critique of nationalism and his democratic individualism resonated with the anti-communist democratic opposition in the 1970s and 1980s. As such, he was ‘rediscovered’ in Czech cultural and political discourse after 1989, with several of his books being republished; of which Válka Čechů s Němci had by far the greatest, albeit contested, intellectual impact.


The war between Czechs and Germans

13In the political life of the modern age, three types of democracy are being applied, although in practice they overlap and intermingle. These are the organic or German type, the majority type (democracy in the narrower sense) and the contractual or liberalistic. I shall clarify their essential features in the interpretations given below.

14The organic concept of the people, nation, state, government, Church and other social formations seems to be the natural product of a primitively organized society. Here the individual has not yet become conscious of the idea of sovereignty over his own destiny. Here the individual is the slave either of fate, the monarchy, the state or the people. In this sense, the organic theory is the unconscious foundation of public life of the Orient and still prevails even in Europe in places where tribal feelings have not yet been overcome by the awareness of self-conscious individuals. Clan organization, the zadruga, and the blood feud are expressions of this mode of thinking. […]

15It is crucial to realize that the intellectual fathers of both socialism and Central European nationalism were Rousseau and Herder, and that Pan- Slavism, Pan-Germanism and Marxism share a common fundamental idea, namely, faith in the “people” as a natural force and suspicion of the power of the responsible individual. At several points in Herder’s Ideen there are attacks on private property, the exploitation of the working people and expressions of faith in the creative originality of people. These are not chance comments, but represent a tendency in Herder’s treatise to elevate uncivilized Slavdom above the civilized West and to accord more importance to the “working people” than to the “lords.” […]

  • 1 Jan Žižka z Trocnova (c. 1360–1424): Czech Hussite military leader.

16What is the “Czechoslovak people” or perhaps more often the “Czechoslovak nation” in the terminology of our politicians? It does not consist simply of the present Czech and Slovak-speaking inhabitants of Czechoslovakia, but also includes past Czechs and Slovaks starting with Ur-father Čech and generations yet to come. It is not just a matter of the aggregate wills of these people, which might ultimately be ascertained in some statistical form, but of the unconscious of the Czech and Slovak people, defined as “national consciousness,” “the legacy of Žižka”1, “the spirit of the Czech nation’” and so forth. The “Czech people” understood in this way stand against “Germans,” “Hungarians,” “immigrants” and so on, and against individual Czechs who “have betrayed the nation.” Democracy is then considered to be the “rule of the people” thus defined.

17This mystical concept of the people belongs to the tradition of organic thought. Herder, Fichte, Kollár, Jungmann, the Slavophiles, Pan-Germanism, Pan-Slavism and “national consciousness” are various expressions of this ideology, whose father is Herder, a German philosopher, the prophet of Slav patriotism but also the predecessor of Fichte, the ideological father of Pan- Germanism. We cannot remind ourselves too often that modern Czech and German patriotism were children of the same German father. The “Czechoslovak nation” (lid československý) and the deutsches Volk (that is to say, what today is understood by these terms) are brothers, whose birthplace was the cloudy plateau of German mysticism. “That which speaks the same language, was already connected by a host of invisible ties by Nature herself, before the emergence of human arts. It understands itself, and its selfunderstanding will grow. It belongs together, is naturally united and forms an indivisible whole. No people of foreign origin and foreign speech may be incorporated into it, or be mixed with it …” So wrote Fichte on the “German folk,” stressing its purity in opposition to the French and English people, and our Romantics learned from Fichte.

18It is on this organic concept of the state that today’s Central European nationalism is built. According to this form of nationalism, the nation—as a mystical force ruling down the ages—is a power to which all must submit; the state is the culmination of the national idea, and religion, science, industry and social organization are only important as the means by which a nation expresses and asserts itself. After the war our entire public was gripped by this ideology. […]

19Overall it can be said that the Anglo-Saxon countries hold to the contractual concept, while the Roman Catholic states on the European Continent tend towards the organic concept moderated in the West by knightly chivalrous ideas, and in France by the ideology of the Revolution as well. East of the Rhine the organic concept becomes even more powerful. In Italy it is today the ruling theory. In the states of Central Europe it is the unconscious driving force of politics. In Orthodox countries politics is based on the mysticism derived from this form of faith. The ideology of Soviet Russia is built on organic theories. The Orient knows no other concept of society at all. […]

20The Czechoslovak state was founded as the state of Czechs and Slovaks but including large German and Hungarian minorities; there are in fact a third more Germans than Slovaks, and they are economically and culturally much stronger, while there are about half as many Hungarians as Slovaks. This quantitative ratio has, however, no importance within the tribal conception of the Czechoslovak state, according to which Czechs and Slovaks are the one and only tribe (‘nation’ in domestic terminology), since both belong to the northern branch of the Western Slavs and are similar in language and culture. This similarity is said to have been disrupted by the fact that for a thousand years, the two tribes developed apart from each other, with political separation and the influence of Germans on Czechs and of Hungarians on Slovaks causing a spiritual alienation. The new state theoretically recombines the two tribes in their original natural unity.

21The organization of the Czechoslovak state is built on this ideology. The state is tribal (“national”) being the state of a single tribe of “Czechoslovaks,” that is, united Czechs and Slovaks; this tribe is the “state-forming nation”; its “Czechoslovak” language is the state language. The names “Czechoslovak Republic” and “Czechoslovak nation” designate both the state and tribal organization of these united Czechs and Slovaks. In the framework of this concept it is clear to every Czech and Slovak (and German) that a German is not a “Czechoslovak,” nor a member of the “Czechoslovak nation,” but is a member of a minority living on the territory of the republic. In all the official and unofficial acts of our state, the “Czechoslovak nation” means only and exclusively Czechs and Slovaks.

22This concept of Czechoslovakism, essentially based on race, has nonetheless run into problems in recent political developments. This is because the Czechoslovak state did not emerge organically, as Herder’s theory requires. [...] Czechs and Slovaks are held together by a constitution, laws, a government and authorities, but not by instincts—and supporters of the Romantic concept of the nation are revolting against this government of reason. In Bohemia the tribal concept of the nation has been rapidly overcome, at least in the sense that here the “Czechoslovak nation” is now considered to be not just an instinct but an ideal, a program for the future, and that the nation remains to be created by purposeful cooperation between Czechs and Slovaks. The Slovaks, however, regard this purposive approach as violence; they are insisting on the nation in the Herderian sense; they are demanding that the Slovak and Czech nations be distinguished from each other; they are pointing out the great differences in language, culture and religion between Czechs and Slovaks, and as a result they are fighting for Slovak autonomy. […]

23The ideology of “minorities” has thus led to the following conception: a single nation, which is the ruler of the Czechoslovak Republic, is to be created out of Czechs and Slovaks; the members of the nation are “Czechoslovaks.” Living alongside them in the state are “German and Hungarian-speaking inhabitants, inhabitants of Jewish nationality” and so forth. It is clear that Herder’s concept of the state as the culmination of tribal consciousness lies at the basis of this conception, but it is also clear that the conscious combination of Czechs and Slovaks in a single “nation” goes beyond the limits of the Herderian idea. The question then arises: if it is advantageous to combine Czechs and Slovaks in one nation, a political nation, why not go the whole way and combine all the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia in one political nation? If the Czechoslovak nation ensures the cultural individuality of Czechs and Slovaks, as an entity raised above the differences between them, why not raise it a degree higher and thus also secure the cultural individuality of Germans and Hungarians?

24The example of the “Czechoslovak language” may be used to show that this consequence is not as paradoxical as it appears to a reader used to the Central European concept of the nation. Our constitution lays down that “the Czechoslovak language is the state language of the Republic,” but the constitutional commission had difficulty in saying which language that was. “The Constitutional Commission expressly declares that by using the term it in no way intended to take up a standpoint in relation to the literary and philosophical dispute on whether Czech and Slovak are different languages...,” that is to say, our state has two state languages and it is expressly declared that whether they are languages or dialects is a secondary issue, in other words: there is no “special Czechoslovak language,” and the Slovaks rightly protest against such a designation. It would be more correct to talk about “Czechoslovak languages” in the constitution, but the attempt to paper over differences between Slovaks and Czechs as far as possible and to create one nation has led to a terminology that does not fit reality. If, then, a “Czechoslovak nation” which has two state-recognized languages is possible, why would it not be possible to have a Czechoslovak nation with three or four languages? As is clear, multilingualism is not in conflict with the concept of the nation. […]

25If we can create a Czechoslovak nation out of Czechs and Slovaks, why not to create it from Germans and Hungarians as well? If in this Czechoslovak nation, the language of 2,000,000 Slovaks, not always fully developed, enjoys the same rights as Czech, what prevents the Czechoslovak nation from being trilingual? Czechs do not understand this argument; the Slovaks accuse them of not being genuinely committed to the equality of Slovak with Czech and of actually thinking only of Czech, which it is hoped will swallow Slovak in time. If, however, we put ourselves in the shoes of a Slovak who wants genuine equality of Slovak with Czech, then we must ask on what grounds such a Slovak could then democratically justify the inequality of German? […]


1 Jan Žižka z Trocnova (c. 1360–1424): Czech Hussite military leader.


Anna Bryson (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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