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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. “National projects” and their regional framework

The Czech question

Tomáš G. Masaryk
Traduction de Peter Kussi

Texte intégral

1Title: Česká otdáka: snahy a tužby národniho obrozeni (The Czech question: The endeavors and yearnings of the national revival)

2Originally published: Prague, Čas, 1895

3Language: Czech
The excerpts used are from: G. J. Kovtun ed. The Spirit of Thomas G. Masaryk (1850–1937). An Anthology’ (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), pp. 61–66, 79–84.

About the author

4Tomáš G. Masaryk [1850, Hodonín (Ger. Göding south Moravia) – 1937, Lány (near Prague)]: the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, sociologist, philosopher and politician. He was born into a family with a mixed ethnic and linguistic background. He attended the German gymnasium in Brno (Ger. Brünn) and later the Academic Gymnasium in Vienna, earning his living as a tutor. In 1876, he graduated from the departments of philosophy and classical philology at the University of Vienna. He spent a year in Leipzig, where he met his future wife Charlotte Garrigue, the daughter of a rich American entrepreneur. They married a year later in the USA and shortly afterwards Masaryk defended his Habituation thesis about suicide as a modern phenomenon. He was appointed professor of philosophy at Prague in 1882, when the university was split into Czech and German parts. He taught history of philosophy, logic, ethics and an introduction to psychology and sociology. His Weltanschauung was formed by Protestantism, a strong adherence to scientific principles, a concern about the crisis of modernity and the emphasis on the ethical-psychological aspects of social processes. He played an important role in the campaign against the Forged Manuscripts in the 1880s, and later against antisemitic prejudices during the notorious trial of Leopold Hilsner for a blood-libel in 1899–1900, when he achieved a reversal of the indictment. He edited the journals Athenaeum (first published in 1883) and later Čas (Time). He was elected to the Reichsrat as a deputy of the liberal nationalist Young Czech Party in 1891, though he resigned in 1893. In 1900, Masaryk established a new political organization, the Czech Popular Party (known as the ‘Realist Party’), which never attracted mass support but had important influence among the intelligentsia. In 1907, he re-entered the Reichsrat as a deputy for the party with considerable support from the Czech social democrats. Masaryk was highly critical of Austrian foreign policy, especially the alliance with Germany and the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and defended the Southern Slavs, who were accused of high treason in the ‘Trial of Zagreb’ in 1909 (see Heinrich FriedjungThe struggle for supremacy in Germany’ 1859–1866). After the outbreak of the First World War, Masaryk, together with a young Edvard Beneš and Milan R. Stefánik, a Slovak, established in Paris the National Council of Czechs and Slovaks and helped to form the Czechoslovak military units in Russia and France. Finally, through the efforts of the exile resistance movement under his leadership, the idea of an independent Czechoslovak state was endorsed first by the American President, Woodrow Wilson, and later by the other Allies. Masaryk served as the first president of Czechoslovakia, from 1918 to 1935, and became a symbol of the democratic republican ideals, which were suppressed during the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia and by the Communist dictatorship. Masaryk is considered the founding father of Czechoslovak democracy and is the most appreciated modern Czech political figure.

5Main works: Der Selbsmord als soziale Massenerscheinung der modernen Zivili-sation [Suicide as a mass social phenomenon of modern civilization] (1881); Zák-ladové konrétni logiky [The foundations of concrete logic] (1885); Česká otázka [The Czech question] (1895); Naše nynějši krize [Our present crisis] (1895); Jan Hus (1896); Karel Havliček (1896); Moderni člověk a náboženstvi [The modern man and religion] (1898); Otázka sociálni [The social question] (1898); Problém malého národa [The problem of a small nation] (1905); Palackého idea národa českého [Palackỳ’s idea of the Czech nation] (1913); Russland und Europa [Russia and Europe] (1913); Nová Evropa. Stanovisko slovansé [New Europe. The Slav standpoint] (1918); Světová revoluce [The world revolution] (1925); Hovory s T. G. Ma-sarykem [published in English as President Masaryk tells his story] (an interview with Masaryk done by Karel Čapek, 1928).


6The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a time of great social and economic upheaval and consequently of political turmoil in the entire Habs-burg Empire. The process of the fundamental restructuring of the political sphere in Bohemia and the growing Czech-German national antagonism led to the radicalization and strengthening of nationalist clashes. At the same time, it initiated a critical reappraisal of the hitherto established political ideologies and national mythologies. In the Czech case, the latter was symbolized by the provocative 1886 essay ‘Our two questions’ by Hubert G. Schauer, which expressed in new terms the old existential dilemma of the Czech national movement. The issue at stake was whether the Czech national project was in itself worthwhile and brought significant cultural contributions to world history or whether it should be abandoned and blended in the stronger and culturally more developed German culture. In the same year, Tomáš G. Masaryk, as professor extraordinarius at the University of Prague, was among the initiators of a controversy over the ancient manuscripts supposedly written in the ninth and thirteenth centuries. For more than five decades, the forgeries, ‘discovered’ in 1817, were considered by most Czech patriots—Frantisek Palacký included—to be the most precious jewels of medieval national literature. A prominent philologist, Jan Gebauer, together with a leading historian, Jaroslav Goll, supported by Masaryk, gathered overwhelming evidence against the alleged authenticity of the two manuscripts and thus—in the name of scholarly truth—put in doubt the prevailing image of ancient Czech history.

7Masaryk became a controversial public figure in this ground-breaking clash over Czech history and, together with Schauer and Goll, he was heavily attacked by the nationalist press. With several other young intellectuals, he formed a politically active group that called themselves the ‘Realists.’ In 1891, Masaryk joined the liberal Young Czech Party together with his Realist friends Josef Kaizl and Karel Kramář. He was elected to the Austrian Parliament, but resigned two years later after many disagreements with the party. During the 1890s, he turned his attention definitively to national problems and wrote several books on principal political, social and cultural questions of contemporary Czech society from a historical and sociological perspective. The agenda common to all of his writings was to challenge the ‘noisy patriotism’ of the ‘Young Czechs’ and to shape national politics on modern, self-reflective and philosophically informed principles. The most influential of these works in terms of identity politics was Česká otázka, an attempt at a broader philosophical reflection on the Czech national revival of the nineteenth century.

8The book contained his principal statements on the main trends of Czech history. Adopting Palacký’s philosophy of history, Masaryk added his concept of humanism or Humanität as a basic moral fundamental of modern politics, a contemporary version of the Christian transcendental anchorage deemed relevant for both the individual and the nation. From this perspective, he understood Czech history as an evolution of moral and religious ideals which found its best expression in the fifteenth century ‘Czech Reformation’ (Hussitism) and appeared again in “our Second Reformation,” that is, the national revival of the nineteenth century. From the historical point of view, the Czech question appeared to Masaryk as a religious rather than a national one, which in modern times also turns into a social question. In this respect Masaryk highlights the political legacy of Karel Havliček and his practical political philosophy, “more progressive, more democratic and more down-to-earth,” than that of Palacký. It is no coincidence that Masaryk had a liking for the Social Democrats who supported his candidacy for the Reichsrat in 1907, even though he—unlike his wife Charlotte—never joined their party, mainly as a matter of principle. In his search to identify the spiritual sources of national history and his endorsement of the Platonic vision of the metaphysical order of ideas, Masaryk’s standpoint had a certain conservative and anti-liberal flavor. The following extracts show his interpretation of the Czech national revival and how, through this interpretation, he articulated his ‘realist’ political program.

9Masaryk did not design this work as a historical analysis, but, as an essay on the contemporary situation and as a draft of political philosophy, where history was “only significant as corroboration of current sociological observations.” The strong presentism in this historical thinking and his views on Czech history were challenged soon after the book came out, at first by the prominent liberal politician and economist, Josef Kaizl. A former friend of Masaryk’s, Kaizl not only opposed his critique of contemporary liberalism, but reproached him for using an ahistorical method and for imposing his constructed vision of historical philosophy at the expense of empirical historical facts. Later, ‘The Czech question’ provided an impetus to the so-called “dispute over the meaning of Czech history” from the 1890s to the 1930s, a crucial and expansive cultural debate in which many of the leading Czech intellectuals took part. In the 1890s, Masaryk’s conception of Czech history played a critical role in social theory and political debate. However, as a historical narrative, it was repudiated by the leading positivist historical school of Jaroslav Goll (see Josef Pekař, The meaning of Czech history). After the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic and its sanctification, as it were, by history, the book became a genuine expression of republican activism and an inevitable part of moderate Czech nationalist ideology. Even though his historical philosophy lost much of its relevance during the twentieth century, the political spirit Masaryk embodied is still invoked and referred to in current Czech public political debates.


The Czech question

11Enlightened, humanity philosophy was in perfect accord with our yearning for progress and education. German philosophy and science thus repaid an old debt. The Czech Reformation movement had spilled over onto German soil and had fertilized it for the growth of new ideas. Thousands upon thousands of Czech exiles, the finest flower of a suppressed people, enriched German blood and German spirit. In its turn, the German philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries repaid its debt to the Czech people and helped our awakeners rouse the nation from its long torpor. In a sense, the German, English, and French Enlightenment was a development and elaboration of the leading ideas of the Czech Reformation.

  • 1 Augustin Smetana (1814–1851): Czech philosopher.

12Czech thinkers after Kollár continued to derive their basic concepts from German philosophy. Palacký was indebted to Kant, Havliček to Bolzano, Augustin Smetana1 and many others to Hegel, and more recently Herbart exerted a key influence.

13In addition to philosophy and science, predominantly adopted from Germany, the study of history played a crucial part in the reestablishment of a national culture from the very beginning of our struggle. It was essential for our awakeners to learn the history of their own people, the role of the Czech people in human development had to be clearly defined.

14Once again, a philosophical underpinning was necessary, and this was formulated most clearly by Kollár, utilising Herder’s philosophy of history. Before Palacký gave us a Czech history, we had a philosophy of world history, naturally once again adopted from the Germans. Palacký’s history of the Czechs was preceded by Safařik’s work on Slavic antiquities. Our national consciousness thus gradually progressed from broad interest in abstract humanity to a sharper focus on Slavdom and finally on our own nation—as represented by the progression from Kollár to Šafařik and finally Palacký. [...]

15Our awakening, set in motion by the European movements of enlightenment and libertarianism, did not at once assume a consciously national form. At this time, particularly in Bohemia, nationality and language could not be regarded as concepts of central cultural significance. Europe had just gone through a social upheaval and a prolonged, materially and spiritually exhausting counterreformation. Under such conditions, fundamental religious and philosophical questions stood in the foreground. This is why the liberties granted by Joseph II and endorsed by the general trend of European thought had such great significance for Dobrovský as well as for our entire people. In view of the crucial importance that the period of reformation had in Czech history, religious freedom was especially significant and welcome to the Czechs. Religious liberty—even though still incomplete—was followed by national and linguistic liberation, in the same way that the reformation was followed by a strengthening of national consciousness and enhanced linguistic development.

16At first, language and nationality were perceived merely as necessary tools of enlightenment. It was only later that the perfection of language and intensification of national awareness came to be regarded as valuable in their own right, as goals worthy of special political commitment.

17The Czech movement that began in the latter part of the eighteenth century, in common with similar movements throughout Europe, was basically progressive, enlightened, and free-thinking in the true sense of the word. Josephinism was the official expression for this ideology in the Austrian lands.

18Dobrovský, the leading figure of our revival, was himself a Josephinist as well as a Freemason. Freemasonry was especially strong among the intellectuals. It is no accident that Dobrovský’s first scholarly publication was concerned with combating superstition. He demonstrated that a fragment of the Gospel of St Mark, donated by Charles IV to the metropolitan cathedral, was not written by Mark himself. Anyone even slightly acquainted with Do-brovský’s writings knows that the entire thrust of his thinking and scholarly work was marked by a passionate, enthusiastic, and thorough love of freedom. This was the source of his exemplary open-mindedness and his broad world outlook, without which his historical and literary work would have had considerably less influence. Dobrovsky is not sufficiently well understood from this philosophy viewpoint. In some ways, he was too robust a spirit even for our awakeners, who found it difficult to free themselves from habitual modes of thought. Dobrovský’s writings came alive only through the strength of his mind.

19It is characteristic of Dobrovský that—like Kollár—he was a freethinking priest. [...] This is understandable, for in those days the clergy was still the major group of the intelligentsia, perhaps the only one; for this reason its contribution to our national movement was significant and beneficial. This contribution looms even larger when we recall that the pulpit was virtually the only school in which the mother tongue was taught.

20This free thinking in Bohemia naturally had its roots in the Czech reformation, in the tradition of the Hussites and the Brethren. Our awakeners had resumed the development at the point where reaction had interrupted it. As soon as the small group of Brethren still remaining in Bohemia was granted tolerance, Komenský’s Labyrint světa (The Labyrinth of the World) was among the first books to be published. The nature of the revival is clearly evident even in such details.

21As we pointed out before, it is no coincidence that the first and the greatest among the leaders of the new Czech literary movement—in addition to the freethinking Dobrovský—were descendants of Bohemian Brethren and their Protestant followers: Kollár, Šafařik Palacký These men were defenders of the liberty of conscience and of other noble traditions inherited from the Reformation, traditions that survived the onslaught of counterreformation Catholicism. Dobrovský, Kollár, Šafařik, Palacký, all proclaimed the ideals of humanity. Palacký revealed to us the true grandeur of our past as practiced by the Bohemian Brethren. [...]

22And now let us face the heart of the matter.

23All the significance of our history is encompassed in this imperative: let us fulfill our humanist goals through moral and intellectual excellence. We most understand with our minds and hearts that pure humanism must not be merely a slogan of national revival but that the striving of Dobrovský, Kollár, and Havliček must become the striving of one and all, that humanism as a goal and national programme m+ost consistently determine our national tactics.

24How are we going to survive as an independent nation? Our history as well as current developments are forcing us to come to a clear understanding of this question: how can a small nation survive and remain independent?

25This question tormented our awakeners. It disturbed Dobrovský. All of Kollar’s labor was directed toward finding the means of overcoming our inherent smallness. Palacký transposed Kollár’s solutions from the realm of culture to that of politics. And of course Palacký could answer the question of how a small nation can survive no more satisfactorily than Kollár; after all, politics, like all practical sciences, depends upon theoretical principles. But if humanism is the ultimate aim of all our thought, it must also be the ultimate goal of our political activity. We will achieve humanism only through humanistic means—enlightened heads and warm hearts.

26Reminders of our numerous historical battles for existence—the uprising ending with the defeat on the White Mountain, our decline, our revival during the French Revolution and eighteenth-century enlightenment, the revolution of 1848, the Polish uprising—all this impels the thoughtful Czech to ponder: violence or nonviolence, the sword or the plough, blood or sweat, death or life?

27Not with violence but with love, not with the sword but with the plough, not with blood but with work, not with death but with life—that is the answer of our Czech genius, the meaning of our history and the heritage of our great ancestors.

28That is our great task. We are on the right path. Palackỳ was still preoccupied by the past, and this gave his politics a conservative character. But Havlíček had already admonished us to turn to the living present and to derive our national strength from a firm grasp of reality. In theory, Palackỳ admitted as much but Havlíček was more thorough and energetic in living up to this principle. His commitment to this principle became evident during his dispute with Kollar. One lively Slavic lad, said Havlíček, is worth more than all the old Slavic divinities who were or will be dug up, cast or will be cast. Havlíček expressed everything in these words; our own lives are more important for future generations, and far nearer, than the lives of our misty ancestors.

29This attitude is relevant not only to politics but also to our entire individual and national existence. It is the philosophical basis of an outlook that may be called ‘realism.’ I tried to formulate it in an abstract and scholarly way in my Konkrétni logika (Concrete Logic). The central imperative of this philosophical approach may be put this way: always strive to understand everything in its concrete reality, by going to its core. The first intellectual requirement is to understand things as they are, rather than to analyze processes of change and development. Naturally, the quality of any phenomenon is affected by its evolution, but attention must not be focused exclusively on historical change per se. Historicism often has an unwholesome effect even on individual personal character. A person lost in the stream of continual change becomes vague and indecisive in responding to the needs of everyday life.

30The past should be subordinated to the present, although the past of course illuminates the present. For example, through a careful study of Kollar we can see our entire past in a meaningful way—the perspective of the present makes the past significant. Ever since I have began to think about the Czech question, I have tried to focus on our actual life and our actual circumstances. Our history and ancient monuments were only significant to me as corroboration of current sociological observations. I have tried to follow my own path in these studies; I turned to others, mainly Havliček and Palacký, only when I needed confirmation of my own findings. In contrast, historical empiricism has no such anchor in present reality; at best, it seeks to derive its convictions from the past and portrays reality as a mosaic of quotations from authorities of the past.

31The two approaches just discussed apply to all intellectual work. The so-called historical influence may be nothing more than a mechanical acceptance of certain historical facts—or it may be a living force that flows organically from meticulous observation and analysis. Otherwise, history is not a teacher but merely a policeman.

The Czech question and the social question

  • 2 Referring to Palacký’s vague formulation, Masaryk understood 1487 as the beginning of the aristocr (...)

32Through a natural process of evolution, we have progressed from a Kollárian concept of humanism, taken in a one-sided, nationalistic sense, to a broader humanism with a greater social emphasis. I have tried to show that the social question was a central one in all the areas of our thought and work—in politics, literature, art, science, and philosophy. This development followed its natural course until today when the social question is in the very foreground of the Czech question. But the social problem of our nation leads us back to the fifteenth century, for it was then that we first attempted to solve it and we did a poor job. We must now expiate the year 1487.2 If we fail to find a just solution to social demands, if we do not proceed in the spirit of our historic ideals, in the spirit of universal human ideals, if we turn from love to violence—then we will return to our grave never to be resurrected again.

33The social question is not merely the problem involving workers, just as 1487 was not merely a problem involving peasants. The social question is not concerned with a particular class or caste, but it affects all of us. Yielding to the pressure of workers and granting universal suffrage constitutes only a partial and negative approach to the problem; the problem must be solved totally and positively, and this means that heads must become more enlightened, hearts must become warmer; it means that spirit must triumph over matter and narrow self-interest must be transcended.

34The social question involves a decision between morality and immorality, between violence and effective humanism. As far as the reproach of internationalism levelled against the workers is concerned, I have come to the conclusion that our bourgeois class is no more ‘national’ than our labour class— rather less so, in fact. The accusations are baseless. In any case, as long as our writers and journalists continue to ignore the intellectual needs of workers, they have no right to level any reproaches whatever. A poor man barely earning his bread by the sweat of his brow can hardly afford to subscribe to a newspaper costing twenty-five florins or to buy expensive books and magazines. This is quite aside from the content—which is often such as to leave the worker’s intellectual hunger unappeased.

35With regard to fundamental principles, I have stated several times that I reject the philosophic and socio logic basis of the social democratic programme. Socialist philosophy has developed from ‘classical’ philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was the origin of the materialistic framework that so-called historical materialism accepted as the philosophical foundation of socialism. In questions dealing with an overall outlook on the world and the ultimate concerns of men, there can, of course, be no compromise. It is not my habit to speak lightly of such matters and to abandon my faith to the mercy of our liberalism and clericalism. I therefore simply repeat that I am decisively opposed to the materialistic view of the world. Nevertheless, I have learned to be tolerant, and I know that a materialist is not necessarily an evil man, nor is an ant materialist a good one. I have had numerous occasions to observe that the philosophical and theological opponents of materialism are far from admirable persons, when judged by their deeds and lives rather than by their creed and words. If we ant materialists truly lived in an ant materialist way, the workers and the social democrats would be forced into the opposite camp.

36I therefore make a distinction between the demands and practical political programmes of social democracy and its philosophical foundations; I try to differentiate between the justified demands of our downtrodden labour and the alien philosophy that was foisted upon it by our unjust society and our apathy.

37On the whole, I find the specific political and social demands made by our workers to be justified, and I have always felt a moral duty to support these demands with all the means at my command. I am not an expert in economics, and I hesitate to make definite statements in this area. However, I think I can say that the critique made by Marx and other socialist thinkers is justified and generally correct, although the underlying theoretical concepts have no greater intrinsic value than other honest, carefully elaborated theories.

38I can understand why social democrats have turned Marx into an untouchable authority, but I am not pleased by this attitude. In any case, I know perfectly well that I have no reason or right to oppose demands for justice or equality, no matter from whom such demands may come or from what principle they originate. “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” And stones are exactly what we are giving our workers day by day—literary, philosophical, theological, political stones.

39Since I see the solution to the social question primarily in terms of moral regeneration, I do not share the view that has been adopted in this matter by the clerical party, although I concede that the clerical concept in this case is superior to that adopted by the liberals. Our clerical leaders, too, have understood the significance of the social question and they have surpassed both the Old Czechs and Young Czechs in this regard. Under the stimulus of a perceptive political leader on the papal throne, Czech Catholics are beginning to follow the road taken by progressive Catholicism in Germany and France.

40If we are to fulfill the ideals of our ancestors and national awakeners, the ideals of universal world humanism so indefatigably proclaimed by Kollar, all segments of our nation must join in dedicated effort. Our aristocracy, in particular, has a great duty to perform; it is surely unnecessary to point out that it is our aristocracy, above all, who must expiate the year 1487.

41But we must not wait for our nobles to take the lead. We all have our tasks to perform, new and old, duties continually growing in scope and number. We must begin at once to help answer the Czech question, and we must continue to answer it—individually and as a nation—every day anew.

42Originally translated by Peter Kussi in ed. Rene Wellek, ‘The meaning of Czech History’ by Thomas Masaryk (Chapell Hil: The University of North Carolina Press, 1974). The excerpts used are from G. J. Kovtun ed. The Spirit of Thomas G. Masaryk (1850–1937). An Anthology (New York: St. Martin’s Press’ 1990), pp. 61–66, 79–84.


1 Augustin Smetana (1814–1851): Czech philosopher.

2 Referring to Palacký’s vague formulation, Masaryk understood 1487 as the beginning of the aristocratic oligarchy based on a new serfdom and thus the final legal defeat of Hussite democratism. The modern historiography of Masaryk’s time dismissed this very date as rather insignificant.


Peter Kussi (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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