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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

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

Our national rebirth

Jakub Malý
Traduction de Derek Paton

Texte intégral

1Title: Naše znovuzrození (Our national rebirth)

2Originally published: Prague, Otto, 1880–84, 6 vols.

3Language: Czech

4Excerpts taken from the preface, ‘Všeobecné úvahy’ [General considerations], in Naše znovuzrození, vol. 1. (Prague: Otto, 1880–84), pp. 1–14.

About the author

5Jakub Josef Dominik Malý [1811, Prague – 1885, Prague]: writer, translator and journalist. Born into a bourgeois family, he read philosophy and law at Prague. During his life Malý worked as an editor on various newspapers and journals and in publishing houses. He devoted himself to the popularization of Czech history and literature and to translations from European languages. He promoted the study of English (to balance the German predominance) and was the first to begin the systematic translation of Shakespeare into Czech. He was well known for his controversy with the liberal politician and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský in the early 1850s, and later for a debate with the so-called ‘Máj-generation’ in literature (particularly with Jan Neruda and Vítězslav Hálek), the most forward-looking Czech literary movement of its time. Malý continued to promote the ideals of national literature as formulated by Josef Jungmann. He defended metrical prosody, regarded folksongs as the ultimate model for poetry, and stated that the work of art should have a ‘national content.’ He was involved in almost all the important encyclopaedic undertakings of his time. He collaborated with Jungmann on the Czech-German dictionary project; later he was engaged as an editor of Rieger’s encyclopaedia. In 1884, together with the publisher Jan Otto, he initiated the largest Czech encyclopaedia, the twenty-eight-volume Ottův slovník naučný. Malý was one of the main representatives of the conservative branch of the national movement. As such he was criticized by younger generations of national liberals as well as artists. He never belonged to the upper echelons of the national movement’s pantheon.

6Main works: Národní české pohádky a pověsti [Czech national folktales and legends] (1838); Nástin slovesnosti [An outline of literature] (1848); František Ladislav Čelakovský (1852); Amerika od času svého odkrytí [America since its discovery] (1853–1857); Vzpomínky a úvahy starého vlastence [The recollections and meditations of an old patriot] (1872); Jan Erazim Vocel (1872); Shakespeare a jeho dílo [Shakespeare and his works] (1873); Život a působení Jiřího Melantricha z Aventina [The life and work of Jiří Melantrich of Aventinum] (1880); Naše znovuzrození [Our national rebirth] 6 vols., (1880–1884).


7In the 1860s two factions emerged in the Czech liberal nationalist camp: a conservative one, and a liberal one with more radical nationalist rhetoric. The latter established itself institutionally in 1874, breaking off from the ‘Old Czech Party’ (the National Party) and founding the new ‘Young Czech Party’ (officially, the National Liberal Party). Led by František Ladislav Rieger, the Old Czech Party resumed its activity in the Imperial Diet in October 1879 after renouncing the politics of ‘passive resistance.’ They joined ‘the Iron Circle of the Right’ of Prime Minister Eduard Taaffe and followed the politics of ‘gradual gains.’ Some of the most important measures taken by this group were the new language statutes (the codification of the usage of Czech and German as the official languages in the Bohemian Lands) and the division of the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague into a German part and a Czech part.

8Malý belonged to the Old Czechs. He disagreed publicly with the journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský, who radically defended national and democratic principles against Viennese neo-absolutism in the early 1850s. He proposed a change in conservative patriotic politics in the late 1850s, suggesting his own definition of the nation, which was rooted in the basic Romantic topoi. Whereas his initial notion was a rather essentialist understanding of the nation as an eternal being, in later writings it became a more dynamic concept, through which he attributed an active role to every nation in the world. It was the very creativity of a nation that justified and warranted its place among other nations. Malý therefore proposed the concept of the “organic unity of patriotism and cosmopolitanism.” At the same time, however, he fought against the young literary generation grouped around the almanac Máj (Jan Neruda, Vítězslav Hálek, Adolf Heyduk, Karolína Světlá). They set out to create a new style of writing that elaborated on the literary legacy of Karek Hynek Mácha (1810–1836), the greatest Czech Romantic poet, the title of whose major work is Máj (May). Malý accused them of breaking with Czech literary tradition and of using a “mere descriptive realism” without referring to any ideal values. Whereas they exalted the Romantic poetry of Mácha, Malý insisted that the whole generation of the 1830s, including Ján Kollár and F. L. Čelakovský, with their concepts of Slav reciprocity and national literature, should be taken into account.

9Malý substantially influenced the conservative branch of Czech liberalism, of which he was a representative. In the last two decades of his life he summed up his ideas and convictions in two major works which constitute the first comprehensive accounts of the ‘Czech national awakening’—Vzpomínky a úvahy starého vlastence (The recollections and meditations of an old patriot) (1872) and Naše znovuzrození (Our national rebirth) (1880–84). In the preface to the latter Malý gives an account of what constitutes the Czech nation and its place among other European nations, together with its main features. He reminded his readers of the supposedly pre-eminent position of the Czechs in the Middle Ages. The most important geographical factor was their proximity to the ‘hostile’ Germans. What saved Czechs from being Germanized, however, was their “indefatigable life-force,” which was evident in the language and above all in the literary rebirth of the nineteenth century. He considered the gains of the “national resurgence” to be of great importance, though he noticed that not all the identified goals had been reached.

10In Malý’s text we find all the important elements of the ‘legend’ of national rebirth. Following the political split in 1874, the emphasis and meaning of these elements (anti-German resentment, stereotypical self-victimization, and the myth of rebirth) became—divergences in political strategy notwithstanding—a key point of contention between the conservative-liberal nationalism of the Old Czechs and the more radical nationalism of the Young Czechs. While both groups generally used the same cultural, historical, and intellectual references, in the latter’s vision national particularism prevailed over the universalism supported by the older generation. While the Old Czechs lost their political significance in the last decade of the century, the dominance of the ‘Young Czechs’ was soon challenged by new emerging political forces that advanced very different political and cultural discourses.


Our national rebirth

12We are fully entitled to call the awakening of our nation to new activity after many centuries of sleep its ‘rebirth,’ because it is no meaningless cliché to say that it was almost laid in its grave, over which its enemies, with scarcely concealed glee in their hearts, were about to sing in full chorus the celebrated ‘De profundis.’

13The Czech nation is, without exaggeration, both by nature and by experience, the sole example of this process in Europe, and this needs to be firmly fixed in our consciousness for a thorough knowledge of ourselves and as a les-son that will save us. Our nation has outstanding aspects, praiseworthy and not praiseworthy, and it is from those, in connection with its geographical location and the special external relations stemming from this, that its history, which is without question an essential part of the cultural history of Europe, developed.

  • 1 From Greek: above all, especially.

14Our nation is a nation of culture kat’exochen,1 which it demonstrated in each field of human endeavor: the oldest treasures of its literature, for which one would be hard pressed to find an equal, are characteristic of this; it proved itself as such with its state-building power, suddenly uniting various elements into a powerful political whole at a time when other homogeneous tribes were perishing as a result of dispersal and in-fighting; it demonstrated this during the whole period of its independence, always moving at the fore-front of progress and holding high the torch of enlightenment, though pitch black was still spreading all round, veiling everything in darkness. These things, I believe, do not need to be demonstrated, for they are truly known the world over, only blind national hatred can deny them. The Czechs as a nation never served reactionary tendencies!

15But it was not only with weapons of the spirit that our brave forebears knew how to rule. They were also always ready to draw the sword for their convictions, not counting their enemies, to stake their property and lives for the idea they were enthusiastic about, to defend to the death freedom of action and thought, as true knights of freedom. Europe experienced not only the fighting spirit of their weapons but also, after the decline of the nation as a consequence of exhaustion, the beneficial cultural activity of its dispersed exiles.

16Yes, our nation fell from exhaustion, and, being small in number, had from the very beginning, owing to an unfavorable twist of fate, more enemies than any other nation had. In the first place it is fitting to recall the long-standing, almost naturally ingrained, sworn enmity of the Germans towards all Slavdom, which was directed against the Czechs with an even greater obstinacy when the Czechs, of all the western Slavs whom they had closer relations with, put up such a stubborn resistance to their efforts to subjugate that it would not have taken much more for them to obtain hegemony in the German Empire itself. The German hatred of the Czechs then passed, traditionally and unconsciously so to say, to other European nations, as the Slav element was till recently considered by the Western world to lie outside the area of European civilization, and the Slav race was considered the lowest among the nations of culture. […]

17Yet, to be fair, we cannot conceal the fact that our nation fell so far into decline essentially also because of flaws inherent to it: excessive high spirits, carelessness, partisanship, adversity, a fondness for foreign things, self-denigration, an insufficient sense of community, and our becoming too rapidly dispirited in misfortune, which results in languor and apathy. These flaws are without a doubt the legacy of the whole Slav race, and stand in more than one respect in opposition to the excellent characteristics of the Czech nation, so that in the course of history this very same people sometimes appears to have been outright exchanged for some other. […]

18But, in greatest decline, in deepest humiliation, when to all appearances it already seemed that the Czech nation was to be expunged forever from the ranks of European nations, lo and behold, here, beyond all expectations, its most powerful characteristic proved itself – namely, an undying vital force, which did not allow it to perish. The Czech nation in the true sense of the word rose from the dead. […]

  • 2 In the Battle of White Mountain (Cz. Bílá hora) near Prague, on 8 November 1620, the Bohemian Esta (...)

19It happened by a resurrection of the Czech language, which had during the deplorable years after the Battle of the White Mountain2 gradually vanished from the public offices, from the intercourse of the upper classes, from the families of nobles and wealthier burgers, from literature and ultimately also from schools, into which German had been introduced, even in the villages. Everything was heading towards the ultimate Germanization of the nation, and things had truly gone so far that no properly attired person would have readily dared to speak Czech in public in the larger towns. Czech survived mainly in country huts alone, being called a peasant language and in the towns the speech of the lowest rabble. […]

20And it was only literature, having grown up from such small beginnings, which brought about that unparalleled wonder that a nation which had declined as much as the Czech, and had been so close to its own extinction, came to life again, and in a relatively short time came upon the world stage as a sprightly youth, in order to claim its right and, with redoubled efforts making up for the period it had slept through, took its place among the civilized nations, a place that, although not always previously outstanding, was honest and dignified.

21And our nation achieved that, too. The fact that not all its desires and demands have yet been met, the fact that all its justified claims have not yet come into force, is not through its own fault, but through the fault of unfavorable circumstances and, mainly, the fault of the national hatred that has for ages affected us Czechs more than any other nation. […]

22The extent of what we have truly achieved as a result of the political revolution of 1848, if it is to be judged fairly, can be assessed not according to what we demanded and what we continue to strive for with all means possible, but according to what we formerly had, or better said, did not have. If we compare our national and political situation from before 1848 with the way it is now, we must, if we want to be unbiased, admit that enormous, unanticipated, far-reaching, progress has been made, tremendously affecting all areas of life, and, in its consequences, of a truly extraordinary impact. […]

23The Czech language has by law now achieved equality with the German language in all areas of the civil service. Our mother tongue allows a young Czech man to acquire a well-rounded education, both a general and a specialized education; he is given an opportunity to do so not only by the numerous middle schools but also by having a Czech chair at Prague University. The national consciousness, which was previously limited to a modest handful of ‘patriots,’ has seized the whole Czech people and penetrated into classes and circles which had long ago seemed to be lost to the nation. Literary activity comprises all areas of writing. More than seventy periodicals serve the widest range of interests of public and social life, scholarship, industry and entertainment. Poetry has cast off the shackles of narrow individualism and boldly entered the international field; soaring higher it celebrates triumphs in previously uncustomary spheres. Czech scholars no longer merely reproduce the results of research done by others; rather they enrich science independently with their own research. Literary productivity has in general become so comprehensive that almost a new language has emerged unobserved for the countless new requirements. […]

24And what of the prolific development of the life of clubs, which with joint forces has in almost every field achieved success which individuals would not have been able to achieve even with the greatest of effort. Everywhere we look we have superb evidence of how great are the results achieved in this area. […]

25The most important achievement of political freedom, however, is the self-government of the provinces and the municipalities that we enjoy, if not to the extent we would like, but always with such a profound reach that the common weal is to a large extent in our own hands, and it only depends on how much we try to use the power granted to us most beneficially for the good of the country and the nation. […]

  • 3 Reference to the meeting of Prague’s burghers in mid-March 1848 in St. Wenceslas’ bath which was t (...)

26And by what means has all of this been achieved? We have only one answer: through literature, the work of a handful of men inflamed with love for the country and the nation, who with unprecedented sacrifice devoted their strength and lives to the lofty task, no matter how thankless it seemed, of reviving the spirit of the nation, by taking care of its neglected and scorned language. With the renewal of literature the people were attracted to reading, and by reading they educated themselves, became acquainted with the past of their country and their nation and with their present state, as well as the situation of foreign nations, from which they gained political awareness and in general acquired useful knowledge of all kinds; in this way they matured intellectually, and became ripe for the time when the expected turn-around in the political constellation of Europe called them to new activity. Thus it happened that the year 1848, as was thoroughly demonstrated later, found our nation completely prepared, and it immediately oriented itself in the new situation, and clearly expressed, in the well-known petition to the Government, which came out of the St. Wenceslas meeting,3 the same program that it insists on today. If this had not happened, if the men who had at that time placed themselves at the head of national events had then not immediately had a definite program that the whole nation accepted as its own, the fate of the Czech nation would have been sealed, for, without a defense, it would have fallen into servility to the Germans, who would not have neglected to use the political turnaround, as always, exclusively for themselves, which would obviously mean for our extinction (in Moravia and Silesia as well).

27That that did not happen is only thanks to literature, and it is well to bear this in mind. Literature was able to awaken an almost dying nation to new life; consequently there must be some sort of miraculous power in it, which is able to perform such wonders. That is why if we wish to trace the course of our national revival we must above all turn our gaze to literature and its development, from its humble beginnings to its gathering into that force which, though without clamor, has influenced the heart and mind of the nation. […]


1 From Greek: above all, especially.

2 In the Battle of White Mountain (Cz. Bílá hora) near Prague, on 8 November 1620, the Bohemian Estates were defeated by the combined armies of Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, and of the Catholic League. The battle had far-reaching consequences for the Bohemian Kingdom, including recatholicization and emigration of part of the country’s Protestant population.

3 Reference to the meeting of Prague’s burghers in mid-March 1848 in St. Wenceslas’ bath which was the beginning of the revolutionary events in Bohemia. The result of the meeting was a petition to the Emperor demanding democratic rights, national equality of Czechs and Germans and legal unification of the lands of the Bohemian Crown.


Derek Paton (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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