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The Magic of Bohemia

Exactly 150 years ago, Europe had just experienced its first continent-wide revolutions. The intense unrest of 1848, surfacing simultaneously in so many states, brought with it a new political slogan which has since proved the most powerful known to man. What happened in 1848 was called the “springtime of nations.”

But what is a nation? We can identify two basic senses of the term, one older in origin, on the whole, and the other younger. On the one hand, a nation is a community bound together by residence in a given territory. On the other, it is a community bound together by ties of language, tradition, religion, or culture in general. The first kind of nation defines itself through citizenship, the second through ethnicity. In 1848, these two principles first confronted each other directly. Patriotism, allegiance to one’s country, found itself outflanked by nationalism, allegiance to one’s ethnic kin. From that time on, nationalism progressively became the dominant motive force, threatening the breakup of existing states, forcing strategists of the prevailing political order to take on board its own weapons.

We have rich evidence for that clash in the career of one of the prominent leaders of 1848, the Czech Frantiså?ek Palackyå«. The best symbol of all may be found in a decision of Palackyå«’s made just before revolution broke out. Having labored for decades on a multi-volume German-language Geschichte von Böhmen, or History of Bohemia, commissioned by the noble estates of his native realm, he resolved to issue the work henceforth in Czech, and to designate it Deå?jiny národu cå?eského v å?Cechách…, or History of the Czech People in Bohemia...1 In this form it first reached the public in March 1848. Within a matter of days, Palackyå« found himself leader of the Czech revolutionary movement.

The new books by Peter Demetz and Derek Sayer are not intended to commemorate either 1848 or Palackyå« as such. Yet both have plenty about it and him; and together they address the great issue of nationality in that dual form in which it presented itself to Palackyå« before and after the revolution. They offer complementary approaches, neither of which—by contrast with Palackyå«’s studious gesture—is quite as advertised by its title. Demetz, ostensibly treating Prague alone, actually tells us much about Bohemia as a whole, in a broadly territorial sense. Sayer, ostensibly writing on Bohemia as a whole, actually deals mostly with the Czechs as an ethnic group. Collectively they tell a rich and intricate story. As we shall see, their accounts are spiced with an attractive—not obsessive—degree of personal involvement in the region about which they write.

No other historic country of Europe has been so dominated by its capital as Bohemia. Demetz exploits this for his series of tableaux of Prague as a European metropolis. He deftly tells the legends of the city’s origin, associated with the fabled prophetess Libuså?e, or Libussa, “who, after she married the peasant lad Prå?emysl (father of future Czech kings), in one of her trances guided the people to a place in the forest where the castle and the city of Prague…were founded.” He examines how the thirteenth-century King Prå?emysl Ottakar II and then fourteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV raised Prague and Bohemia to great heights of power and splendor in medieval Europe; and how bitter conflicts over the teachings of Jan Hus, the Church reformer, involved the city and the kingdom in protracted civil strife in the fifteenth century. Demetz goes on to evoke the Renaissance age of Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), another peak of cultural achievement, which was likewise directly followed by another revolt, this time the opening phase of the Thirty Years War.

Passing more lightly over the next two centuries of Prague’s comparative obscurity, Demetz places special emphasis on the city’s famous welcome for Mozart and his operas (an episode recently featured too by Norman Davies in Europe: A History2 ). It is a pity that he devotes little attention, here or later, to the city’s relations with Bohemia’s native composers. Then follows a sketch of the nineteenth-century revival, which is spirited about the epoch-making events of 1848 but perfunctory about the succeeding age of bourgeois values, economic progress, and political emancipation. Demetz sees the modern era as encapsulated in another leader: Tomáså? G. Masaryk, chief creator and first president of independent Czechoslovakia. An account of Masaryk’s funeral, on September 21, 1937, which Demetz saw as a youth, ends his narrative.

In all this Prague is shown to have been a unifying force. Yet the city itself consisted through most of its history of five, even six, separate municipalities, each with a distinctive flavor as well as a large degree of administrative autonomy. In that diversity rests much of Prague’s charm, however little the tourists who now flock there may be conscious of it. On one hill stood the castle precinct, Hradcå?any, consisting of a fortress as vast as perhaps any in the world and its attendant domestic buildings. At the opposite end of the urban complex (a full two miles away, so huge is the historic city core), was another and at times rival citadel, Vyså?ehrad.

Between the two lay the Old Town (Staré Meå?sto, or Altstadt in German), the heart of commercial and artisan activity, protected by its ditches and by the bend of the river Vltava/ Moldau. On the same side of the river, a New Town (Nové Meå?sto/Neustadt), founded by Charles IV, gradually surrounded the Old; while across the river stretched the Little Side (Malá Strana/Kleinseite—Demetz calls it “Minor Town” and indeed humanists had earlier dubbed it “Micro-Praga”), an immensely picturesque quarter between the islanded west bank and the steep slopes of Hradcå?any. Finally, in the very center, there was Josefov/ Josefstadt, as it came to be known, an enclave within an enclave: the location of Europe’s largest historic Jewish community, which possessed its own Statuta Judaeorum, or Jewish legal code, as early as 1262.

Geographical diversity overlapped with ethnic diversity. Since the age of Libuså?e, the Czechs, speakers of a Slavic language, always made up a majority in Bohemia, and probably in Prague too. Many Germans, however, settled from earliest times, especially as patricians and artisans, but also as priests and nobles. They were strongest in the Old Town, though they could be found throughout the city—hence the propriety of those bilingual designations which I have just employed. Besides Czech-language literature, already well developed by the fourteenth century, even before the Hussites’ dramatic assertion of the vernacular,3 German writers thus left their mark, from medieval Minnesänger, or troubadours, through historical epics of the Romantic period and beyond. And other groups attained prominence at times: Demetz notes a longstanding Italian presence, but above all the presence of Jews.

Whereas Bohemian Jewry had its shtetls, Prague was always its center. One of the strengths of Demetz’s book is to chronicle the city’s Jewish past with real insight into its learned achievements—and not just the wondrous Rabbi Loew, who created the golem out of clay—as well as its commercial or financial ones. It is a story of extraordinary continuity, despite the fiercest challenges, that of a community long largely separate from its Christian neighbors, but never wholly so. Demetz deals shrewdly with some of their intriguing contacts. They culminated in the remarkably productive cross-fertilization with German culture in the writing of Franz Kafka, whose shade remains much in evidence here.

Demetz’s Prague is a city—as he rather quaintly puts it, borrowing the old schwarzgelb Habsburg colors for his purpose—“in black and gold.” The “hues of proud power and creative glory” take second place to a dark tincture of “suffering and the victims’ silence.” He deliberately avoids the sanitized and prettified guidebook approach to Prague in favor of a more somber register which acknowledges that conflicts were never far beneath the surface and could explode in the most brutal forms. Periodic pogroms led to more generalized anti-Semitism in some quarters; the atrocities associated with the Hussite wars exhibited precocious evidence of ethnic strife; class tensions overlapped with religious ones; the modern age added industrial blight and some hideous suburbs. Finally there came the purges by which Prague and Bohemia lost their German and Jewish citizenry en masse. Demetz does not address that directly: he just alludes to his own experiences on the way into exile.

Alongside this catalog of horrors we might be surprised that Demetz reserves his deepest animus for an altogether less vicious tradition: the mysterious world of Praga Magica. He rails against those who have represented Prague as an age-old capital of the occult arts. Its ghetto, he argues, harbored no more cabalists than others, and the fable of the golem supposedly animated by Rabbi Loew is a recent invention. So is the idea that the quaint “Golden Street” (Zlatá ulicå?ka) within Hradcå?any harbored hundreds of alchemists who pandered to the whims of the great magus Rudolf II. These are sober historical judgments, though Demetz never quite explains the somewhat different findings of such writers as Angelo Maria Ripellino, who have themselves delved learnedly into this field.4 Nor, while he claims the legends to have been fabricated by nineteenth-century travelers and then appropriated by fin-de-siècle novelists, does he quite clarify why that should have been so. I shall return to this point in due course.

Sayer’s book, as I have already hinted, shares much common ground with that by Demetz. They treat some of the same themes (not just the events of 1848). They highlight some of the same people (not just Palackyå«). They favor a broadly similar kind of approach, acutely sensitive to the use and abuse of the historical record by ensuing generations. Finally, both have familial links with Prague and Bohemia, although Sayer’s emotional bond is more vicarious than Demetz’s, being established through a Czech wife and some in-laws whose strong qualities shine through his pages (as in fact do those of Demetz’s forebears).

The crucial difference is that Sayer writes about an ethnic nation (in Czech, národ) rather than a national territory (vlast); his subject is the vicissitudes of Czechness, of being and feeling Czech. His sections on earlier history—everything before the 1848 springtime of nations, in fact—are rather perfunctory, their function being to establish a pedigree for the forms of identity in the modern period, which he then subtly delineates. It is telling that he uses the word “Czech” for “Bohemian” in contexts where it appears distinctly premature.5

Czechness was determined by a range of ethnic characteristics, but above all, and in the first instance, by language. A central figure—alongside Palackyå«—was the grammarian and lexicographer Josef Jungmann (1773-1847), a self-appointed but extremely effective arbiter in the reconstruction of a real Czech literary language. Initially there was not much else to go on, since Czech culture, at least among the educated, was otherwise very much a replica of the provincial German intellectual habits of the day. Even the language itself could not be fully purified of its Germanisms, and some of its distinguished speakers retained foreign patterns of thought.

  1. 1

    Palackyå«’s title also includes the sister-province of Moravia, contained historically within the Bohemian Crown though administered separately; but for simplicity I have omitted it here.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 664-674.

  3. 3

    Anne’s Bohemia: Czech Literature and Society, 1310-1420 (University of Minnesota Press, 1998), by Alfred Thomas, is a learned survey, the first available in English, of this pioneering creativity in a Slavonic language.

  4. 4

    Ripellino’s Praga Magica first appeared in Turin in 1973. It is available in English as Magic Prague, translated by David Newton Marinelli, and edited by Michael Henry Heim (University of California Press, 1993). Some of the appeal of this work must be accounted for by its own outrageously arcane and allusive style.

  5. 5

    Thus he writes about the Czech lands, Czech kingdom, Czech flora, Czech antiquities, Czech chancellor, and so on. The Czech language can make no distinction. The country, Bohemia, is Cå?echy, its inhabitants Cå?eså?i or Cå?echové (but in the accusative case likewise Cå?echy); the adjective referring alike to country and people is cå?eskyå«. Thus the growing use of Czech in historiography automatically rebaptized actors in the past, Mormon-style, in a way which was linguistically innocent, though pregnant with meaning. The outside world long made no distinction either: it regarded all such matters as “Bohemian”; but confusion has been compounded by the tendency—another nineteenth-century coinage—to apply that word, through its secondary and quite separate sense of “gypsy,” to social nonconformists, especially artists.

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