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.

Nevertheless the word reconstruction needs to be stressed: standard Czech, written as well as spoken, was a genuinely old tongue, albeit not as ancient as two famous early medieval manuscripts proclaimed it to be—manuscripts that were later discovered to have been forged in the early nineteenth century by the first librarian of the Bohemian National Museum, Václav Hanka. The Czech language proved a thoroughly malleable instrument for the needs of a modernizing state and society.6

The bases of Czech identity swiftly broadened in the nineteenth century. There was abundant literary creativity, making sophisticated and joyous use of the liberated vernacular: poets from Mácha to Vrchlickyå« did so, as did novelists like Neå?mcová, Neruda, and especially Alois Jirásek, who popularized a range of patriotic topics. Derek Sayer is especially good at showing how Czech national themes, suitably embellished, were transmitted to an ever wider audience through book illustrations and paintings, magazines, posters and exhibitions, cultural groups and associations, music and theater, through promotion of folk customs, dress, and so forth, and not least through applied scholarship, which brings us back to Palackyå« and his epigones, purveyors of a distinctively Czech version of the past.

By the turn of the century, as the národ came to embrace and incorporate the people (lid), an entire national community, self-contained politically and to some extent economically too, stood ready to complete its progress toward independent statehood. When this was achieved, after 1918, it gained a panoply of street names, monuments, buildings, even banknotes and postage stamps to match.

The unity of that national community was, however, also—and increasingly—contested: neither the Czechs nor anyone else succeeded for long in building a single harmonious ethnic society. Once secured against the outside world, their culture was riven by controversy. It erupted first in dramatic fashion over Hanka’s manuscripts in the 1880s, when the young Masaryk led the way in exposing the fraudulence of those national totems. More thoroughly dissident was a movement which ironically coincided with the Czech path to national political fulfillment from the 1890s on: literary and artistic modernism. This too had its connection to Masaryk, who emphasized “humanity” as a higher value than mere nationality; but it was far more iconoclastic—Masaryk after all still reckoned that the Czechs were providentially ordained to be humanitarian.

The modernists felt themselves to be cosmopolitans, and were open to all the latest forms of foreign cultural experimentation. By the same token they despised tradition, above all the flatulent provincial rhetoric of the national cause. Was not Czechoslovakia after 1918, as a “new” state, particularly suited as a forum for radical change? The Czech avant-garde, a smaller but not inferior pendant to Germany’s during the Weimar Republic, deserves greater recognition than it has had, and Sayer presses the case for the avant-garde groups called Osma and Deveå?tsil, for the waspish critics Så?alda and S.K. Neumann, and for modernist artists and writers like Gutfreund, Teige, Så?tyrskå«y, and Josef Cå?apek, a painter, art critic, and novelist who collaborated with his younger brother, Karel Cå?apek, on stories and plays. He also evokes the cult cabaret of Voskovec and Werich (V+W, as they were habitually known) and fringe talents like Kafka’s friend Milena Jesenská. The same mood was symbolized by the futuristic townscape at Zlín, the utopian vision of the management of Bat’a, then the world’s largest shoe factory; and, in a minor key, by Jaroslav Haså?ek and his antihero, the Good Soldier Så?vejk.

Yet the nation soon reentered by the side door. Even Så?vejk was appreciated in his homeland (and elsewhere) not as an apostle for the peace movement but as an endearingly Czech kind of subversive. The painter Alfons Mucha returned from triumphs in Paris as the darling of art nouveau to undertake a cycle of epic patriotic canvases. Perhaps the most versatile and accomplished of all Czech artists, Max Så?vabinskå«y, straddled the worlds of old and new, as, in his highly individual way, did the composer Leoså? Janácå?ek. In developing this theme Sayer has a larger point to make. Czech modernism was largely snuffed out by the Nazi takeover in 1939. But not just by the Nazis, for the subsequent Stalinist regime was equally hostile to it, despite the strongly leftist leanings of Deveå?tsil and other avant-garde groups between the wars as well as the Communists’ own proclamation of solidarity with international movements, at least of a proletarian kind.

Sayer is at his best in showing how the culture of the Communists in Czechoslovakia became a kind of summation and recapitulation of the Czech national movement. Its totalitarian program sought comprehensive legitimation in the Czech past: it called for a new ethnic awakening, though with a progressivist spin, such that the národ was henceforth identified with, even subordinated to, the lid (and encompassed the whole vlast too, since Germans and Jews had now been almost completely eliminated from Bohemia). Sayer brings together evidence from exhibitions, theater programs, and the like, and above all from the censorship files, now opened for inspection.

He concludes with the quaintly old- world cultural dictator, Zdeneå?k Nejedlyå«, Czechoslovakia’s Zhdanov. Nejedlyå«, who became the all-powerful minister of education and “national enlightenment” (a revealing designation) after 1945, left few patriotic causes unmentioned over a long academic career and in his own publications, whose list stretched back to before 1900 and was almost four thousand items long by the end.7 Nejedlyå«’s real expertise lay in the history of music. How bizarre, and yet how strangely apposite, that the Czech nation, whose native composers—Smetana, Dvorå?ák, Janácå?ek, among others—had done so much to inspire its modern resurgence, should find itselfin thrall to a musicologist.

Nejedlyå« died in 1962. Like Demetz, Sayer is chary of bringing his story up to date. We may attribute this to a very reasonable reserve: having written so much about the misuse of history for self-interested purposes, he does not want to attempt any premature judgment on current events. The decision involves, however, one major drawback. Leaving the Czech past in the hands of its neo-Stalinist expositors, circa 1960, seems to confirm the total relativism of all interpretations of it.

A reader could hardly guess from Sayer’s account that Czech historiography, as a discipline, has scrupulous professional traditions, at least as old as those in Britain or the US. Overwhelmed at times by popular vulgarization or political fiat, the Czech historians were never wholly subdued. Their exposure of Communist falsifications of history helped to precipitate the reform movement we remember as the Prague Spring of 1968. When that government was suppressed, historians remained prominent in the passive intellectual resistance of the 1970s and 1980s. With the events of 1989, Czech history has gained more symbols, more contested narratives, yet also more testimony to that Masarykian motto, so trite yet so invincibly valid: pravda zvíteå?zí, truth will conquer.

One of the truths now being recovered concerns the overall Czech-German relationship in Bohemia.8 It was not just a matter of conflict, as Palackyå« and his disciples argued, in their elaboration of a self-fulfilling perception. Parts of the record—especially recent parts—are certainly black, but there were long golden stretches too. Indeed, an entire submerged heritage even within the modern experience of the Czech people is very largely ignored by Sayer. His duality of “national” versus “cosmopolitan” allows little scope for the wider, though still regional, kinds of cooperation that took place, not just with local Germans, but through the Habsburg Monarchy at large, to which Bohemia belonged for four centuries until 1918.

This was broadly a Catholic tradition, with for its icon the martyr John of Nepomuk, a vicar general of Bohemia who, according to tradition, was said to have been tortured and killed in 1393 for opposing the orders of King Wenceslaus. He was not merely a “fabricated saint,” as Sayer here claims, but equally a manifestation of Bohemian folk piety. The cult of Nepomuk spread throughout the Austrian lands in the eighteenth century. So did the Czechs themselves, forming a vital bureaucratic resource for the consolidation of Habsburg rule, and providing economic skills which underpinned the rising prosperity of the monarchy. Until the end of the nineteenth century, almost as many of them made careers in Vienna as in Prague, and some were very successful. Loyalty to the empire, never divorced from enlightened self-interest, constituted an important political creed, too, among Czechs who stayed at home: witness Palackyå«’s own most famous remark, made during the 1848 revolution, that if the Austrian monarchy did not already exist, it would be necessary to invent it. His pupil Václav Vladivoj Tomek, Demetz’s guide through the annals of Prague and one of the central figures of Czech cultural life in the decades before 1900, compiled a much-read official textbook about the making of the Austrian dynastic state.

Such sentiment might become gradually attenuated and fraught with disillusion (as in the case of the aged Palackyå«); but it remained a legitimate part of Czech identity and of Czechs’ interpretation of the past, as the work of Josef Pekarå?, greatest of their professional historians, demonstrates. Pekarå? took issue with both nationalism and modernism, especially as they were combined in the ideas of Masaryk, with whom he loved to quarrel (yet he cherished his adversary too, and it seems fitting that they died in the same year). Not surprisingly, as Sayer reminds us, Pekarå? subsequently became persona ingratissima to the Communist authorities. Yet his scholarly legacy, with its subtle evocation of the multinational heritage of Bohemia within central Europe as a whole, lives on as a valid construction of Czech history.

Of course tensions were growing, long before the end of the monarchy, even if Czechs’ alienation from Habsburg institutions proceeded more slowly than their alienation from German and Jewish fellow citizens in Bohemia. Is it altogether fanciful to see in such tensions the puzzling roots of Praga Magica, the vogue for occult traditions? First, perhaps, the sense of a Czech difference gave an exotic dimension to the city; and this seems to have impinged all the more on foreign observers once the Slavonic element asserted or reasserted itself there from the mid-nineteenth century. And then the vogue for the occult may have acted as a psychological mechanism by which Germans and Jews could retain a place in earlier Bohemian history once Czech predominance, and with it Czech views of the past, became established. That would explain why Czech writers never made much of the phenomenon, Karel Cå?apek being only an apparent exception. Cå?apek’s Makropulos Case, which has entered the international canon through Janácå?ek’s opera, is, after all, essentially satirical in mode, like the updated golems for which, in his play RUR, he first coined the word “robot.”

Still, it does appear at least mildly paranormal that the pair of excellent works by Demetz and Sayer, which together make up the most stimulating introduction to their subject available in English, or, it could be argued, in any other language, should appear almost simultaneously.9 Hardly less so that their publication should coincide with the anniversary of Palackyå«’s démarche as leader of the Czech revolutionary movement. Mindful of that anniversary, however, the reviewer should conclude with a caution. The revolution of 1848, while it accomplished the transformation of Bohemian patriotism into Czech nationalism, yielded much else besides in Central Europe. Not for nothing have Germans and Austrians, Poles and Ukrainians, Hungarians and Romanians, Croats, Slovenes, and the rest all found something to celebrate 150 years later. National causes throughout the region and beyond were set in motion in strikingly similar ways. For all their mutual conflicts, for all their differences in size of population or political and social power, they thenceforth proceeded to develop in parallel.

It was ironically an essential part of their parallel evolution that each national group should consider itself unique. Such perception of uniqueness is part of the stock in trade of national feeling. Neither Demetz nor Sayer would dispute this, yet the incautious reader of their books may easily forget the wider setting in which the history they describe needs to be understood. Precisely because Demetz evokes Prague’s couleur locale so seductively, we should remember that Bohemia has shared much black as well as much gold with its neighbors. Even more so, Sayer’s anatomy of Czechness suggests a model for national exclusivity in the region as a whole. Throughout both books there is a subtle dialogue between boundaries on the ground, territorial divisions, and boundaries in the mind, ethnic frontiers. With the emergence of the nation-state, the two tend more and more to coincide. Shakespeare’s reference to the “coasts of Bohemia,” which he etched into landlocked Central Europe with notorious disregard for the facts of geography, may be reckoned a remarkable piece of psychological prescience.

This Issue

October 21, 1999