The 19th Century in Us

Does it make sense to read Czech authors of the 19th century? Do their names survive in our historical and literary consciousness only as vague memories from school textbooks, or are their texts and ideas more a part of everyone's identity than we are willing to admit?

The formation of modern European nations in the early 19th century brought with it the need to forge a new relationship with the past. The young Czech nation, defined by a common language, saw in the past a justification for its own existence. Reassurance in historicism gave rise to a number of stereotypes and myths that continue to survive. A myth appears to be an authentic image of seemingly well-known and tried-and-true values. Faith in it solidifies a community’s sense of unity and emphasizes its difference from others. To what extent do these ideas now predetermine how we think about ourselves and the world around us? Are the images and interpretations constructed two hundred years ago in a context completely different from that of the present supposed to relate to our identity today? We need to understand why the myth originated, what it contains and how it was transmitted. This will make it easier for us to understand whether we are held captive by it or not.

Jan Bouček



The construction of pantheons commemorating the nation’s great figures was firmly linked to the culture and practice of remembering in the 19th century. They represent the symbolically present national community of the dead and living through a visualisation of the collective memory and a personification of national virtues. Those who have, through their lives, work or struggles, sacrificed themselves for this community, turn their deaths into immortality and become the immortal body of the nation and the guarantee of its future existence. Respect for them, for their work and legacy, is not unlike that for Christian saints. Sacred relics in the form of bodily remains, or objects that they touched during their lives, have sanctifying power. Writings and everyday objects of representatives of the canonized Czech literary heaven, locks of hair, bone fragments and even their organs were viewed similarly for most of the 19th century.

Heirs of White Mountain

“So you take an interest in our history,” I exclaimed with joy. “I do indeed,” the newt replied. “Especially the three centuries of subjugation that followed the Battle of White Mountain and the Thirty Years War. I have read a great deal on the matter in this book. I’m sure you must be very proud of your three centuries of subjugation. It was a great era for the Czech people.”
Karel Čapek, The War with the Newts, 1935

What associations does the phrase “White Mountain” evoke? Forced abandonment of the country, the burning of Czech books, foreign predatory nobility, the persecution of non-Catholics, darkness, subjugation or the decline of the Czech language? The moment in which the Czech nation found itself in profound agony, from which it first needed to awake and then make up for the consequences of the involuntary fall? The myth of the nation’s death and rebirth is an integral part of the collectively shared ideas of the past that endures regardless of historical knowledge. It provides the impression of an unquestionable historical given, a fact that everyone knows, and which must therefore be true. Ideas about the tragic consequences of the Battle of White Mountain date back to the 19th century. They were created and fulfilled their purpose within the context of forming the Czech nation in that period – a context that has already passed. So why do the words and images associated with them still maintain an emotional charge today?

The Slavic dilemma

In short, I will say with national pride: “I am Czech”, but never “I am Slavic”.
Karel Havlíček Borovský, the daily Prague News, 1846

Slavic mutuality and an awareness of the existence of a large Slavic ethnic group served as support for the emerging non-independent Slavic nations. They saw the patronage of Tsarist Russia, practically unknown to them at the time, but which viewed its help as an instrument of its imperial policy and a way to penetrate Europe. Karel Havlíček was one of few Czech patriots who went to Russia. During his stay, he began to radically alter his initial views imbued with pan-Slavism. Based on his own experiences in Russia, he warned of the dangers of pan-Slavic madness that threatened the very existence of the Czech nation. Although most of the Czech political representation ultimately embarked on the path of Austro-Slavism, i.e., the cooperation of the Slavs within the Austrian monarchy, the idea of an all-Slavic state led by the Russian Tsar kept re-emerging.

What remained from The Manuscripts

The honour of a nation requires the defence, or knowledge, of the truth, nothing more, and greater is the morality and valour which acknowledges error than the defence of an error which the entire nation might share.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the monthly Athenaeum, 1886

Material cultural artefacts, which took on the character of modern sacred relics, played a role in shaping the consciousness of national belonging, as was the case in the Manuscripts of Dvůr Králové and Zelená Hora. Belief in their authenticity, meant to confirm the image of Czech antiquity and maturity, was for a long time a fixed part of the national identity and justification of national existence itself. Challenging the authenticity of the Manuscripts in the 1880s provoked a lengthy dispute over the meaning of Czech history which, in its heated form, proved that not only the literary-historical texts were questioned, but also the cornerstones of national identity. The long wholly indispensable, suddenly discredited and empty myth based on fabricated notions of one’s history ceased to fulfil its function. A renunciation of a deeply rooted ideological stereotype and its de-mythification could not be quick or painless, but it was complete.

A peasant cottage in the heart of the nation

Between the Arcadia of folk art and us lies a history of dramatic social changes. All those bridges that the Czech Romantics built to the flowering banks of the old folk village are merely unstable constructions of remembrance given the physical weight of our presence. We are much too heavy.
Karel Čapek, the monthly Free Directions, 1913

Around the turn of the 19th century, the nobility and traditional social elites did not become part of the newly formed Czech nation. Czech patriots therefore had to seek another social group that would be a source of pride, tradition and a guarantee of the nation’s continued existence. This they found in Czech peasants, in the rural people whose emblem was the simple cottage in which the nation was (re)born. Enchantment with simplicity and folksiness led the urban patriotic society to create the image of a pure rural idyll, a harmonious Arcadia, a space of happiness where one can take refuge from the burden and commotion of the urban world. This rural image was thus carefully constructed, consisting of authentic expressions of folklore that were modified, and the everyday reality of the Czech village filled with idealised human types, so that nothing would disrupt the idea of the unspoiled peasantry – the sole source of the nation’s strength, its natural wisdom and the purity of its character.

The nation of Hus and Žižka

The fact that we are the children of Žižka is something completely irrelevant in light of the serious and sensational fact that we are the children of respectable citizens from the reign of Franz Josef.
Ferdinand Peroutka, What We Are Like, 1924

Hussitism began to be understood in the Czech historical consciousness as the pinnacle of Czech history, from which one can deduce its entire meaning, owing much to the historical concept constructed by František Palacký. Emphasis also shifted by developing and simplifying his ideas – the social, political and economic dimensions prevailed over the religious elements in the legacy of Jan Hus and Hussitism. If we speak today of Jan Hus and his sacrifice for the truth, which Hus do we mean – the theologian, the reformer, the national martyr and patriot, the social revolutionary, the fighter for freedom and against the authorities, or something else?

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