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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balazs Trencsenyi
Michal Kopecek

Chapter I. Historicizing the Nation: Images of the Past, Continuity into the Present

History of the Czech nation in bohemia and Moravia

František Palacký
Traduction de Derek Paton

Texte intégral

1Title: Dějiny národu českého v Čechách a v Moravě (History of the Czech nation in Bohemia and Moravia)

2Originally published: First published in, Prague, J. G. Kalve, 1848–67

3Language: Czech

4The excerpts used are from František Palacký, Dějiny národu českého v Čechách a v Moravě, 3rd ed., compiled and edited by Josef Kalousek, approved by Palacký [considered the definitive version of this work] (Prague: 1876, F. Tempský) vol. I., pp. 9–15.

About the author

5František Palacký [1798, Hodslavice (Ger. Hotzendorf, Northern Moravia) – 1876, Prague]: politician and historian. He came from a traditional Protestant (Czech Brethren) family from Moravia. He studied at the Lutheran Latin school in Trencsén (Slo. Trenčín, present-day Slovakia) and the Lutheran lyceum in Pressburg (Hun. Pozsony; Slo. Prešporok; today Bratislava). Here, he became acquainted with the ideas of Czech patriotism and Slav reciprocity. Among his friends were Ján Benedikti, Pavel Josef Šafařík and Ján Kollár. After 1818, he was tutor to a couple of Hungarian noble families and was concerned principally with aesthetics. In 1823 he went to Prague with the intention of studying Czech history. He was employed as a genealogist for the aristocratic Sternberg family and studied historical methods under the tutelage of Josef Dobrovský. In 1829, the Estates appointed Palacký as historian of the Bohemian Kingdom. At the time he was instrumental in providing Czech patriots with a firm institutional background for their endeavors. He started the Časopis Českého museum (Journal of the Czech Museum) in 1827, the most important Czech scholarly journal of this period. He also made important contributions to the Matice česká foundation, which supported the publication of books written in Czech. As a secretary of the Patriotic Museum Society, he proposed in 1841 that the main task of the Museum should be the scholarly representation of the Bohemian Lands and turned it into an important center of ‘national academic life’. Palacký entered politics in 1848 as a member of the National Committee, and became a deputy of the Imperial Diet (Reichsrat) and president of the Pan-Slav Congress in Prague. He was a delegate to the Constituent Assembly of 1848–49. Palacký formulated a liberal bourgeois political program, and later became the unchallenged intellectual leader of the Czech liberal National Party and remained so until the end of his life. He retired from active politics in the neo-absolutist period of the 1850s but resumed his involvement in the 1860s after the renewal of the constitutional order. He was a deputy to the Bohemian Diet and, in 1861, became the only Czech ever elected to the upper chamber of the Reichsrat. In subsequent years Palacký was one of the chief opponents of dualism and later supported the historical ‘state-rights’ (Staatsrecht) arrangement of the Empire as opposed to the Austro-Hungarian ‘Ausgleich’ (compromise) of 1867. After 1871 he concentrated on publishing collections of his articles on politics, aesthetics, history, and literature, and also worked to complete his history of the Czech nation. Palacký was a leading personality in the Czech national movement for more than fifty years. In the Czech national historical canon he used to be referred to as the ‘father of the nation’; for his academic work he has been dubbed the ‘founder’ of modern Czech historiography.

6Main works: Počátkové českého básnictví, obzvláště prozódie [The beginnings of Czech poetry, especially of prosody] with P. J. Šafařík (1818); Staří letopisové čeští [Old Bohemian annals] (1829); Archiv český [Czech Archive, an edition of sources] 6 vols., (1840–72); Würdigung der alten böhmischen Geschichtsschreiber [An appreciation of old Bohemian historians] (1830); Geschichte von Böhmen [History of Bohemia] 5 vols., (1836–67); Dějiny národu českého v Čechách a v Moravě [History of the Czech nation in Bohemia and Moravia] 5 vols., (1848–67); Idea státu rakouského [The idea of the Austrian State] (1865); Radhost. Sbírka z oboru řeči a literatury české, krásovědy, historie a politiky [Radhost: A collection from the fields of Czech language and literature, aesthetics, history, and politics] 3 vols., (1871–73); Gedenkblätter. Auswahl von Denkschriften, Aufsätzen und Briefen aus den letzten fünfzig Jahren [Commemorative papers: A selection of memoirs, articles and letters from the last fifty years] (1874).


7At the beginning of the nineteenth century the paradigm of historical science in Europe shifted from Enlightenment universalism towards the individuality of historical phenomena and the Herderian Geist of the nations. At the same time, historical writings reached the growing bourgeois public and turned into an important tool for social emancipation and national mobilization. With a certain time lag, the basic principles of methodological historicism and Romantic ideas about history found fertile soil in Bohemia as well. Whereas the previous generations of scholars concentrated on the history of the country, matching it with the enlightened Landespatriotismus, the new generation of Czech patriots turned towards the historical individuality of the Czech nation. The devising of an expedient interpretation of the national past anchored in world history was understood to be the natural concluding phase of the historian’s research.

8František Palacký was the chief representative of the new approach to history in the Czech context. In the 1820s he worked on a genealogy of the house of Sternberg, which in turn provided him with access to academic institutions (the Royal Bohemian Learned Society and the Patriotic Museum). Later, as the official Bohemian historiographer commissioned by the Bohemian Estates, he was entrusted with continuing the Chronologische Geschichte Böhmens, initiated by his predecessor, František Pubička, in the 1770s. Palacký, however, decided to write a completely new history based on a much larger collection of sources and scholarly literature than Pubička’s. The first result of this great effort (accompanied by many critical articles and studies as well as editions of documents) was the first volume of the Geschichte von Böhmen, published in 1836. In 1848, however, he began the publication of a Czech edition, which was factually and ideologically modified. The last volume, treating events up to the Battle of Mohács in 1526, was published in 1867. In the early 1870s Palacký published a revised narrative of the Hussite period in three volumes. Between 1876 and 1878 the third and final version of the whole series was published.

9Whereas in the German version Palacký took the geographical and constitutional perspective (‘Böhmen’) as the basic criterion, in the Czech version the leitmotif is the Czech nation now understood ethnically. He also added some philosophical meditations (inspired especially by Herder and Hegel) on both history and his own religious and national convictions. He argued that ‘historical truth’ should be the historiographer’s leading principle, though at the same time the basic purpose of historical writings should be to serve the nation. Palacký devised a new interpretation of the history of the Bohemian Lands, which he saw as a constant, dialectical struggle between the Germanic and Slavic elements. The prevalently ‘democratic’ order of Slavs, he argues, reigned in Bohemia until the thirteenth century, before being replaced by the ‘feudal’ German order that came with medieval colonization. The Hussite movement and the Czech Brethren embodied the Slavic element once again. Hussitism was for Palacký the last great rise of Slavic democracy and also the first European Reformation and democratic revolution. What, however, ensued was the Battle of the White Mountain (1620), where the Bohemian Protestants were defeated, followed by the Habsburg Counter-Reformation, which brought a new form of feudalism, a political order of ultimately Germanic origin. The democratic, national movement in the nineteenth century thus became the antithesis of this German feudal order. In Palacký’s conception, however, the struggle between the Germanic and Slavic principles was not necessarily a detrimental one; rather, it also involved positive cultural exchange and, at a deeper level, it was a part of an ontological move towards humanity and progress.

10Palacký’s influence on later Czech politicians and thinkers can hardly be overstated. As much as he defined the political discourse of Czech national liberalism in his political writings and activity, he also set out the basic field for interpretations of Czech national history in his opus magnum, entitled ‘History of the Czech nation in Bohemia and Moravia.’ Every subsequent historical school or thinker had to come to terms with his interpretation. Whereas his line of argument was in one way or another adopted by national liberals of all sorts, including Tomáš G. Masaryk, and later, in a more deformed way, also by the Communists, it tended to be contested by the positivist Jaroslav Goll and his school of historiography (from the 1890s), as well as Roman Catholic and pro-Habsburg historical narratives. (See Tomáš G. Masaryk, The Czech question and Josef Pekař, The meaning of Czech history)


History of the Czech nation in Bohemia and Moravia



13The history of the Czech nation is in numerous respects more instructive and more interesting than the history of many other nations. As the Bohemian Lands are located in the center, the heart of Europe, the Czech nation has for many centuries been the central point where elements and principles of national, State, and Church life in modern Europe have, not without a struggle, been in contact. The long conflict as well as the intermingling of Roman, German and Slav elements in Europe is particularly evident here.

14No historical report tells us how the human race, being one and the same in nature and origin, had nevertheless split up into so many races, tribes, nations and branches, which are different in physical stature and color, temperament and language, manners and customs. At the very beginning of the historical age we can observe not only the breaking up of all humanity into innumerable nations great and small, languages and dialects, communities and states, different from each other and independent of each other, but also an evident tendency of all history to the reduction of this diversity, the mingling and uniting of clans and races, the vanishing of some and the rise of others. The weak perished in contact with the strong, and the strong submitted to the even stronger; but, ultimately, spiritual and moral strength triumphed over physical strength. Yet, as nothing in the material world perishes completely, when one being decomposes it becomes the embryo of another being; and as races always become stronger and more refined with mixing, as orchards do with grafting, the mingling and merging of various nations is ultimately to the benefit of mankind, setting in motion the human spirit, making it more flexible, constantly fertilizing it with new elements. […]

15The most important, noble result and phenomenon of the whole distant past was the perfect joining and uniting of the religion of Christ with the culture of Greece in a world ruled by Rome. If this union had not been broken at the very beginning owing to divine fate, the whole world would have perforce eventually become Roman; but God, who in his infinite wisdom did not make even two grains of sand absolutely alike, wanted far less mere uniformity in his most noble creature, which he had, to a degree, made in his own image. Imperial Rome may have cultivated the art of ruling and governing to the highest level of perfection, but since it always had more shortcomings than virtues it eventually became the model of a government that should not be. Concentrating all political power and will in one head, it ultimately stifled all independent development of the spirit, all independent action and initiative, both of individual persons and of whole communities and nations. […]

16Upon the ruins of Roman world-rule the German world set its own scepter. With the Germans’ tearing of the nets that had from above long stifled all initiative in the nations, man regained his rights; personal energy, which had been destroyed by the policies of the Caesars, again made its way to the summit, and again began to give laws to the world. It is, however, no secret that this change, no matter how beneficial in itself, had as a consequence new vices. The fact is that the German broke Roman rule apart for his own benefit, not for the general prosperity of the various nations. The desire for property and power, not a feeling or a need for freedom, powerfully armed him and stirred him to search for his happiness abroad. Consequently, he did not abolish oppression in Europe, nor did he wish to; he only changed an enfeebled autarchy into a rampant oligarchy. With that change, however, his own national life began to diversify. Soon, as if by escheat, the principles of German spirit, energy and industry were joined to everything vital that remained of the Roman world. The zealotry of the Christian faith and the art of government began to cultivate a new centralism, which, though divided between the empire and the papacy, was in harmony at least for many centuries.

17As soon as the German, by conquest, took over the great legacy of ancient Rome, the peaceful Slav, who had been quietly advancing behind him, settled down beside him. Together with him a new national element entered European life, no less noble, but no less blemished. Freedom and equality of all citizens, like sons of the same family, were the principal features of ancient Slav society; if only harmony had also been joined to them! Had their sundry nations, like individual persons under the aegis of a higher power, been given the opportunity to be spared all the extraordinary tempests and disasters, their patriarchal manners and customs might perhaps have been enough to ensure their welfare. The Slav’s piety, simplicity and gentleness did not rid him of all his intransigence. Not wanting either dominion or a state, but only communities, he refused both national unity and the strong bonds of regimen and government; wanting the same rights and freedoms for all at home, he demanded that everybody keep to the same path of the old customs; not permitting either estates or privileges, he did not accept the influence of outstanding figures or the rapid development of higher education; not longing for conquest, he hardly knew how to defend himself in his own territory; seeking to enjoy the fruits of his fields in peace, all the more often was he subject to the dictates of foreigners. If he was not to die out once and for all, the Slav had perforce over the centuries to change his ways and mix Roman and German elements into the life of his nation.

18The principal matter and the basic feature of all Bohemian-Moravian history are therefore, as we have seen, continuous contact and conflict between the Slav, Roman and German characters. But because the Roman character does not touch the Czechs directly but almost solely through Germandom, it can also be said that Czech history is in general based mainly on conflict with Germandom, in other words, on the Czechs’ acceptance or rejection of German manners and regimen. It may be true that this contact between both elements also occurred among other Slav tribes, but it was either less diverse, lively and penetrating, for example, as between the Poles and Russians, or it ended long ago with the extinction of Slav nationality, as amongst the former Lusatian Sorbs, Obodrites and other Polabians. The Czech nation, affiliating itself with the German nation as an equal, and entering into the closest unions with it for more than a thousand years, has to the present day defended its nationality. And no matter how many German things it has adopted and experienced spiritually, it has not on that account ceased to be a Slav nation. Even today it has the same historic role, owing both to its history and its geographical position—namely, to serve as a bridge between Germandom and Slavdom, and also between the East and West of Europe in general.

19When interpreting the history of the Czech nation we shall therefore ex-plain what phenomena became visible as a result of this ancient conflict and struggle in our country—a struggle carried out not only on the frontiers of the Bohemian Lands but also within them, not only against foreigners but also against locals, not only with the shield and the sword but also with word and spirit, institutions and customs, openly and covertly, with distinguished zeal and blind passion, and not only for victory or subjugation but also for reconciliation. We shall demonstrate how a nation small in number was nevertheless able sometimes to achieve a great name, and how it could also fall so low that it was denied that name. We can see how being tossed about by tempests from East and West, abroad and at home, it several times abandoned the hope that it could preserve its existence, and yet has to this day never lost hope in the future. […]

20Observing the chief differences in Czech history, without difficulty we can note at first glance three ages—namely, the early, middle and modern. The middle age is marked by the religious skirmishes that entered Czech public life with the start of Hussitism in 1403 and ended with the expulsion of all Utraquists from the country in 1627. In that age our nation reached the zenith of its historical importance. What preceded it and what followed must be considered part of early and modern history, respectively. […]


Derek Paton (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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