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…

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