Bohemia's claim for freedom/Short survey of Bohemian history

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BOHEMIA, forming part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, has had a glorious past. It is inhabited by the Czech branch of the great Slavonic race, and for fifteen hundred years has contributed largely to European culture. The fact that the Bohemians have not succumbed to strenuous efforts on the part of the Austrians to Germanise them speaks well for their individuality. That they have preserved their nationality and evolved their own civilisation augurs well for the brilliant future which lies before them.

Bohemia is situated in the centre of the continent of Europe, and is divided by chains of mountains from the German countries—Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, and Austria.

Count Lutzoff has remarked that the struggle of the Czechs to resist the attempts of German princes to Germanise them forms a leading feature in the history of Bohemia. The modern Bohemian historians, Palacký and Tomek, consider that the Czechs settled in Bohemia about the second half of the fifth century (451), and that the collision between them and the neighbouring Germanic tribes began almost at once.

The early political institutions of the Czechs were of a representative cliaracter, even their princes were elected and all their national affairs were discussed in a Diet.

Later on there were signs of German efforts at centralisation, and the princes, by the aid of the Germans, gained some amount of autocratic power. Even the national Diet lost its influence for a time, but by the twelfth century this became less marked, and it was settled that the ruling princes could not make new laws without the consent of the Diet, and that they must also obtain its consent to a declaration of war, unless it were one exclusively for the purposes of defence. But even during the period when the influence of the sovereign was most felt, the princes had to submit to considerable restraint from the nobles who formed the Supreme Council.

Professor Liubavsky of Moscow University has given a most vivid description of the growth of representative power amongst the Czech landed aristocracy. He also shows us the gradual formation of a municipal autonomy, established to combine local interests with those of the larger districts corresponding to tlie English counties. "District Assemblies" were created, usually sitting during the session of the Courts, and these date as far back as the eleventh century. That century also saw the approaching realisasion of the national aspirations of the Czechs under Bretislau I (1037-1055), whom Palacky calls the restorer of Bohemia. Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and Poland were united under one ruler, and as Count Lützoff remarks, "The idea of a West Slav Empire seemed on the point of being realised, but Germany stepped in to prevent the formation of a powerful Slav State on her borders."

Germany, however, realised that she would never make her influence paramount by sheer force of arms, so she adopted other methods. She resolved to foment the quarrels and petty jealousies which were rife amongst the aspirants to the throne of Bohemia, and in the soil ready to her hand she sowed the seed of discord and unrest. She even went so far as to aid by force of arms in the struggles between rival princes or between a prince and his nobles, thus laying the foundation of that policy "divide et impera," which has ever since been so faithfully followed by the Austrian monarchs.

Beside this the Germans endeavoured to strengthen their influence by marrying their princesses to Bohemian princes, a rôle which has been played by them in Slavonic countries right down to the present day, and has caused no little internal dissension, and partly accounts for the collision which was the forerunner of the present war.

Says Count Lützoff: "These princesses often brought in their train German chaplains and other dependants, and the Bohemian nobles also acquired the German language, and to a certain extent it became the language of the Bohemian Court, the German princesses naturally teaching their native tongue to their children from their infancy."

The height of this influence was reached in 1256, when the Czech king, Przemysl II, took the German name of Ottokar, and when he married the Austrian Duchess Margarite.

This was the first attempt to combine the Crowns of Austria and Bohemia, but then, as now, this attempt was doomed to failure from the absence of any national basis for the combination. But the failure has not been without a good influence, for it turned the Czech mind definitely towards the traditions of the great national Princes Svatopluk, Boleslav, and Bretislaw, and made them realise the danger of any attempt at combination with the German nation, and showed them at the same time that their salvation lay in the development of their own national characteristics and the preservation of the Slavonic spirit.

This national awakening of Bohemia, which was increasingly manifest in subsequent years, showed that the Czechs as a nation had adopted the wisest course, and it culminated in 1310, when King John was induced to grant a great number of popular privileges, very much like Magna Charta, thus resigning all right to foster German influence in his country. King John will be remembered in England as the blind warrior who died at Crécy.

The crowning manifestation of the national spirit in politics and the golden age in Bohemian history came with the advent to the throne of King Charles I (1346-1378). He had been educated in France and spoke the French, German, and Bohemian languages with equal facility, though he preferred Bohemian.

His principal qualification for the throne was his complete grasp of the part that Bohemia ought to play in the history of the world, and the importance of the retention of her own language in the attainment of her national ideals. He allowed both German and Bohemian to be spoken in the town councils, but steadily refused to countenance the giving of official appointments to Germans who could not speak the national language. He insisted that the children of Germans settling in Bohemia should be taught the native language and obtained the Pope's permission to use it in all church services, and in numerous other ways gave an impetus to the development of the Bohemian language and literature.

Early in his reign (1348) he founded the University of Prague, which preceded that of the German University by more than fifty vears and was the first institution of its kind in that part of Europe.

In 1356 Charles, as Emperor, published his famous "Golden Bull" in which were set forth rules and regulations for the election of future German Emperors. A very important part of this edict was that defining the future relations of Bohemia to the German Empire. This reaffirmed the independence of Bohemia as a kingdom and placed it on a different footing from the other possessions of the German Crown. One of the principal differences was that in case of the failure of an heir to the throne, Bohemia was not to become a German subject State, enabling the German emperors to bestow it as a fief, as in the case of some other principalities under Germany, but it was to have the right, through its Diet, to elect a king. The King of Bohemia was to be absolute sovereign in all the internal affairs of the country, and the German Emperor was to have no authority whatever in them; there could be no appeal to him from any of the subjects of the Bohemian king, as there was with other dependent principalities.

This complete autonomy was not infringed by Charles I's successors and the kings of Bohemia had even a right to declare war and conclude treaties.

Professor Liubavsky points out that the fifteenth century saw the last tie broken between the kings of Germany and the kings of Bohemia. King Wenceslas IV {1378-1419), who in 1400 was deprived of his title of King of the Romans, took no oath of allegiance to Germany, neither did Sigismund nor his successors, King Albert and Ladislas Posthumus (1439-1457).

The next elected King of Bohemia, George of Podebrad, received a Charter from Frederick III of Germany in which were confirmed all the ancient privileges of Bohemia, including those contained in the Golden Bull.

In another Charter granted in 1462 the independence and autonomy of Bohemia were still further emphasised. By it was established the rule that the King of Bohemia should be invested with all his kingly dignities inside his own frontiers. Many other privileges were mentioned with regard to the Army and the rights of the Emperor over Bohemia.

In 1500 and 1512 the entire German Empire was divided into ten circuits, two Lord-lieutenants being placed at the head of each, whose duty it was to see that the decisions of the Imperial Court were duly carried out, to collect the Imperial taxes, and to undertake recruiting for the Army. It is worthy of note that Bohemia never formed any part of these circuits, and was never in any way put under the jurisdiction of the German Imperial Court nor under the authority of the Lord-lieutenants.

Louis I (1516-1526), the last Bohemian king to come to the throne before the advent of the Hapsburgs, never made any request for investiture by the German Emperor.

Charles V of Hapsburg acceded to the wish of his brother Ferdinand and issued an edict by which he confirmed all the ancient liberties and privileges of Bohemia. Thus, as Professor Liubavsky rightly remarks, Bohemia came under the sceptre of the Hapsburgs as an independent and autonomous kingdom. Later on, as is well known, this was denied by the Hapsburgs.

The importance of the Act of 1310 and of the Golden Bull for the future development of Bohemia cannot be over-estimated. It shows us that a constitutional regime was firmly established at a time of the absolute reign of autocracy in Germany. It also shows to what a high degree of political consciousness the people had attained: and all this at a time when the most complete slavery was in force in the German-speaking countries; the constitution in Germany as we know it being granted as late as 1848, and that of Austria in 1849.


ONE very potent factor in the situation was the German attempt to subjugate Bohemia by the influence of the Church. The first attempt to introduce Christianity was made as far back as the ninth century, but the political aims of German missionaries were so evident that all their efforts were frustrated.

Christianity was introduced by Borivoj and his wife Ludmila. They were in Moravia, where Cyril and Methodius propagated the Gospel, having been sent for that purpose from Constantinople. As the services were conducted in the Slavonic language, the new religion soon became popular amongst the masses; but in the reign of Boleslav II, the Pope extended his influence to Bohemia, Prague became a bishopric, and the Slavonic liturgy was superseded by the Latin. "This was strongly resented by the people, and was a bone of contention for centuries, finally leading to the Hussite movement and subsequent wars."

The hero and the first martyr of this movement was John Hus.

Count Lützoff rightly remarks: "It is probable that the national and religious aspirations of Bohemia would not have attained the world-wide importance they now possess had it not been for John Hus, who is without doubt the most prominent representative of the Czecho-Slav race in the whole of history."

Dr. W . N. Schwarze, in a monograph on Hus which has just appeared, puts the date of the birth of this great Czech reformer at 1369 or 1373, Count Lützoff and others as 1373 or 1375. He was born in the village of Husinec near Prachatice in the southern part of Bohemia and close to the Bavarian border.

"The place of his birth," says Schwarze, "is deserving of notice in that the racial strife which plays so great a part in Bohemian history always raged most fiercely where the domains of Germany and Bohemia meet." So from his early youth John Hus was, so to say, in the middle of the struggle, and his keen intelligence, early awakened, must have been busy with the thought how best to oppose German influence. He took his inspiration from the people.

After completing his elementary and secondary studies in the provincial schools he repaired to Prague, where he took his Master's degree in the University in 1396. Bohemian histories are silent as to the cause which led John Hus to select the faculty of theology for his study. But there seems
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to be little doubt that he understood well that the spiritual freedom of the nation must form the basis of her political freedom. This was surely also the main cause which led him to embrace the doctrine of Wycliffe, which was the pure exposition of the rights of the individual towards the Church. Subsequent events in the University confirmed him in the necessity of reforms. The Germans tried their best to make their influence bear upon the life and character of the University.

At that time the administration of the University was entrusted to officials selected by representatives of the four nations into which students and teachers were divided. Each nation had one vote—an arrangement which made it easy for the foreigners to combine and defeat the wishes of the Bohemians.

As early as 1385 the Bohemians had attacked
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the policy of appointing foreigners to the chief offices of the University, but the crisis came in 1409, when King Wenceslas, yielding to the National Party, by the decree of Kutna Hora, changed the system of voting; henceforth the Bohemians were given three votes and the combined foreign nations only one. Thereupon five thousand German students with their professors left in a body and founded the University of Leipzig.

That John Hus played an important part in bringing about this change is confirmed by the fact that at that time he was a Confessor of Queen Sophia, wife of Wenceslas, and was elected rector of Prague University immediately after the crisis. At this time the personality of Hus was shaped in that form which ever afterwards won the admiration even of his enemies. "Meanly born, but of no mean spirit" was the characterisation of John Hus by one of his opponents.

Speaking on Hus at this time, Mr. W . N. Schwarze writes:—

"Hus searched for truth, and the truth as he found it in the Bible was the foundation on which he built. So long as he saw no difference between the teaching of the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church, he did not antagonise the latter. He was willing to give up any opinion he held whenever he met with a sounder opinion. His abilities and personal force were soon recognised by the Bohemian doctors at the University. A distinguished circle gathered around him."

In this respect John Hus is closely related to the great truth-seeker of our own times, Leo Tolstoi. It is a remarkable fact that both were Slavs and both strove to free the people from the bonds of the Church and to establish a life and social institutions founded on the principles laid down in the Gospel.

As a preacher, John Hus's activity is intimately connected with the Bethlehem Chapel. In all the other churches of Prague the immense encumbrance of Roman rites and ceremonies left no sufficient opportunity for preaching the Gospel. The amazing success of his ministry was not, however, merely the result of extraordinary eloquence, but was largely due to the practical advice as to the affairs of everyday life with which his sermons abounded.

About this time the burden of taxation in Bohemia became almost intolerable, and, to quote Mr. Ernest F. Henderson, "no church office or benefice, no exemption or dispensation, no hope of future preferment, not even the forgiveness of sins could be won without a cash payment. The Court of Rome gave nothing without payment; the very gifts of the Holy Ghost were for sale." The movement against these abuses began as a spiritual one, and as such was greatly favoured by the Royal Family and the Court, who felt keenly the necessity of national emancipation from German influence as propagated by the Roman Church. As time went on the agitation became more democratic, with a distinctly expressed tendency towards social reorganisation, a kind of precursor of Christian Socialism.

It goes without saying that such an impulse could not continue for long imchallenged by the dominating Church. The relations between Hus and Rome became especially strained when, by order of the Pope, Wycliffe's writings were publicly burned and soon afterwards Hus, who continued to preach, was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Prague.

The climax was reached, however, when the envoys of Pope John XXIII, who came to Bohemia in order to sell indulgences and to collect funds required by the Pope for the war against King Ladislas of Naples, were publicly denounced by John Hus. The city of Prague was laid under an interdict, and the churches closed. Hoping by his own voluntary retirement to settle the conflict, Hus left Prague, and this was really the beginning of the end for him. During his exile of twenty months he wrote fifteen books in the Czech language; he purified the language and gave it fixed rules of etymology, he also invented a new system of orthography.

Meanwhile the German Emperor, Sigismund, managed to induce the Church authorities to call a Council at Constance to settle the question of the Great Schism, and at tlie same time he re- solved to put an end to the movement of emancipation in Bohemia. Hus was summoned to appear before the Council to justify his conduct. Relying upon the Emperor's promise of a safe conduct, a fair hearing, and a free return to Bohemia, Hus answered the summons and appeared before the Council; but immediately upon his arrival in Constance he was cast into prison and ordered to make a general recantation of all heretical doctrines taught by him. This he indignantly refused, as to do so would have been been to act against his conscience. Whereupon he was solemnly excommunicated, and after a long weary trial was burnt at the stake on the 6th of July, 1415.

So much for the Emperor Sigismund's "safe conduct." It would thus appear that treating a written promise as merely "a scrap of paper" was by no means initiated by the present Emperor of Germany!

John Hus died as nobly as he lived. "The executioner's torch," says W. Schwarze," kindled a conflagration in Bohemia." The King died of rage, leaving no heir to the throne, his brother Sigismund being rejected for his known German sympathies and for the stain of having been privy to the murder of Hus.

"Nothing could induce us," was the decision of the Bohemians," to recognise as king the man who had put to death our saint and hero!"

In the struggle which followed the Bohemian people rallied as one man round their leaders, and the military exploits of Zizka, Prokop the Great, and Prokop the Little were handed down in the history of Bohemia as the most brilliant testimony to the invincibility of a nation fighting for its ideals.

Even the army of crusaders called together by the Pope and consisting of Germans, Hungarians, Croatians, Dalmatians, Bulgarians, Wallachians, Saxons, Austrians, Bavarians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Poles, and a few Englishmen, was unable to conquer the Czechs, and finally, after seventeen years of struggle, Sigismund had to give way and to beg Pope Martin V to concede the principal demands of Bohemia.

The Utraquists, so-named from their demand that the Holy Communion should be administered in both kinds, and comprised of the Czech nobility and the more Conservative Nationalists, carried the day against "Taborites," sometimes called the Extreme Reform Party, who demanded the reconstruction of society on the principles laid down in the Gospel. These two parties formed the nucleus of the two modern political parties in Bohemia.

The next period of Czech history is marked by a series of conflicts between the people and the German kings, the latter backed by the popes endeavouring to force Bohemia back into the Catholic Church. All these attempts were defeated by the invincible will of the nation. At length peace was restored by the election of King George of Podebrad, under whom Bohemia prospered as she had done under Charles IV. To quote Count Lützoff:—

"King George has always dwelt in the minds of the Bohemian nation as the king, next to Charles IV, whose memory the Czechs treasure most. But, nevertheless, the fate of Bohemia was sealed. She could not sustain a struggle of indefinite duration against almost the whole of Europe, and her power of resistance was for the time weakened.

"At the battle of the White Mountain (1620), between the Catholic King of Germany, Ferdinand, and Frederic, the elected King of Bohemia, the latter was crushed and the party in Bohemia which had struggled so long for religious liberty suffered a defeat, and for three hundred years Bohemia was removed from the list of independent nations and had to suffer under the German yoke. Twenty-seven of the leading nobles of Bohemia who had not fled the country after this conclusive battle were executed in the market-place of Prague."

Gindely, a Roman Catholic historian, says of this event: "These melancholy executions mark

the end of the old and . . . independent Bohemia. Members of the most prominent families of the land, eminent citizens, in fact all the representatives of Bohemian culture died here, and with them their land. The history of the country henceforth was in the hands of foreigners who had neither comprehension of nor sympathy with its former institutions."

The population of the country, which had numbered four millions, was speedily reduced to less than eight hundred thousand. Some were executed, many thrown into lifelong imprisonment, and, according to Slavata, thirty thousand Czech women wandered into exile. "The lands of the executed and exiled Protestants were confiscated and given to foreigners. The schools were closed, the national language suppressed, and the once famous University degenerated into a Jesuit college."

"Almost all the literature of Bohemia subsequent to Hus," remarks Count Lützoff, "was imbued with the spirit of that great reformer and patriot. All this was therefore doomed to destruction. If we except the classical literature, there is none which boasts so many books the existence of which can be proved with certainty, yet of which all traces are lost, as the older Bohemian writings. Jesuits, accompanied by soldiery, were empowered to search for heretical books in all Bohemian dwellings, from the castle of the nobleman to the hut of the peasant."

At the same time Ferdinand proceeded to alter the constitution of Bohemia in order that it might coincide with his own intolerant and autocratic religious and political notions. The Bohemian Crown was declared to be not elective, but hereditary in the Hapsburg line. The Germanising of the country was taken well in hand, and proceeded under the successors of Ferdinand for the next three hundred years.

But the national spirit of the Czechs could not be entirely crushed even by Hapsburgs and Jesuits. Notwithstanding the most ruthless suppression of all attempts to revive the national language and the national rights, we see at the present time the Slavonic idea again rising triumphant over the whole of the country, and possibly we may soon witness the restoration of the independence of the kingdom of Bohemia.


THE end of the Thirty Years' War saw the end of Protestantism in Bohemia. But notwithstanding all the efforts of Rome and the Jesuits, five generations had not sufficed to make them real Roman Catholics, though officially belonging to the Catholic Church. In the depths of their hearts the people remain Protestant.

But the closer union between all classes of the Czechs, as the result of the oppression after the battle of the White Mountain, proved a great advantage to the nation and contributed greatly to the Bohemian renaissance.

In the period subsequent to the life and death of Hus the antagonism between the nobles, the townsmen, and the peasantry became very marked, to the great satisfaction of the German ruling class, who made use of these internal dissensions to strengthen their hold and further subjugate the people.

The Junkerism by which in our day Germany is endeavouring to rule the world is by no means a modern idea. Four hundred years ago, first the German emperors and then the Austrian emperors of German origin tried to elevate the nobles by granting them special privileges to reduce the peasants to absolute serfdom and to abrogate the freedom of the townsmen. Thus the antagonism between the classes was encouraged, and the rule over the entire kingdom of Bohemia much facilitated.

But the oppression that has always distinguished the Hapsburg rule had the effect of changing this class antagonism into a very close union. During the latter part of this struggle for independence the Austrian police were given power to expel from any town those who were not resident there or were unable to prove that they had sufficient means of livelihood; thus the poorest of the patriots who came to Prague from other parts of the Empire were exposed to constant persecution. Then it was, according to Count Lützoff, that "Several patriotic noblemen assured the safety of the young enthusiasts by conferring upon them appointments as librarians or as tutors in their own families."

In a word the upper class was alive to the fact that in order to win for their country freedom from the foreign yoke, they must foster the love of freedom and try to develop it in individuals. Naturally, this meant the abolition of the serfdom introduced by Germany and never experienced in Bohemia before the influence of Germany became too strong. It also meant a rapprochement between the educated class and the masses, the real source of national aspirations and national strength.

After three centuries of German oppression the Czech language has remained as it was in the seventeenth century. But since that time science, art, literature, have developed, new ideas have sprung up, new terminology come into existence, and it has become impossible to clothe the new ideas and discoveries in the old language, which is lacking in the right expressions.

Here again the vital force of the Czech language has been put to the test, and incidentally proved Bohemia's right to take her place among the nations. A language which does not admit of development is a dead language, and the nation to which that language belongs is doomed to decay and death. The Czech language stood this severest of tests in the most triumphant manner. The discovery in 1817 of the Kralodworsky Manuscript—although it was lately proved that this Manuscript is a literary forgery— gave a great impetus to the revival of Czech literature.

The following year saw the opening of the National Czech Museum, which, under the supervision of its first librarian M. Hanka, played a most important part in the further development of the language.

In 1830 the work of renaissance was crowned by the inauguration of the "Czeska Matice" Czech Fund, which is used to encourage the spread of the Czech language by the publication of the works of the best Czech writers.

This process of enlightenment received its finishing touch on the 3rd of June, 1848, at the historical congress at Prague, attended by three hundred and forty delegates sent by the various Slavonic nations. A resolution was adopted claiming freedom for the citizens and independence for every nationality. The bayonets of the Austrian soldiers who dispersed the Congress were Germany's answer to these aspirations; but, notwithstanding the ruthless persecution and oppression which followed, the nation pursued the task to which it had set itself, and at the present day it is stronger and more vital than ever before.

The utter impossibility of suppressing the Czech genius with the aid of bayonets, the only force which the German-speaking world could oppose to this national upheaval, is best shown by the tenacity with which the Czech people through centuries of German influence have preserved their artistic tastes. The peasants' huts, the peasants' furniture, the peasants' dress, all bear the mark of national genius.

With touching fidelity this people has preserved from ancient times its poetry, its songs, and up to our own time it still preserves the style of national dress worn by its ancestors. In "The Czech Peasant" Renata Tyrsova and Henry Hantich reproduce a fine specimen of the Czech peasant art, which proves more than any words can do the high culture attained by the Bohemian people at a time when the art of the conglomeration of nations which now call themselves Germans and Austrians were still in their infancy.

There is no doubt that Czech art suffered a good deal from the Germanisation of the country. In the centuries following the battle of the White Mountain, Czech national art only survived in its architecture, and even this was looked upon with contempt by the Austrian rulers.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century and up to the time of the Seven Years' War their architecture received splendid impetus, and the most beautiful buildings of Prague date from that period.

But towards the end of the eighteenth century, under the pressure of the German influence which was especially dominant in the reigns of Joseph II and Maria Theresa, Czech art was ruthlessly destroyed. Yet even now Prague is, perhaps, the most beautiful of all the capitals of the Slavonic races.

The revival of Czech painting dates from the foundation, in 1796, of the "National Society of Friends of Arts," and though at first traces of foreign influence might be detected, it soon developed on lines of its own and became a distinctly original national art.

These are in brief the achievements of the Czech nation, which is rightly claiming that at the conclusion of the war it shall form an independent State and become completely master of its own destinies.

Reading this short survey of her brilliant history and her wonderful struggle for independence, we think there can be very little doubt as to her justification for these claims.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).