Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule/Why Bohemia Deserves Freedom

3616497Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule — Why Bohemia Deserves Freedom1915Bohumil Shimek



By Professor B. Šimek of the State University of Iowa[1]

IN the present European crisis several nations hoping for a betterment of their political fortunes. Among these not the least hopeful are the Bohemians in the historic Kingdom of Bohemia, now annexed to the Austrian Empire.

Many who are unfamiliar with the situation will probably ask: Why should the Bohemians seek independence? Are they not more secure as a part of a large empire? It is in anticipation of, and in response to such questions that the following facts are presented.

Bohemia has not received just treatment at the hands of the Austrian Government. Her national spirit has been offended or ignored, her people have been oppressed, her schools are not adequately maintained, and the scant support which they now receive has been wrung from the government only by tremendous effort, and in times of great political stress. Even now the people are compelled to maintain schools in some parts of the kingdom by voluntary contributions. The government has done nothing for Bohemia either politically, intellectually, or industrially, excepting under compulsion. Therefore there is no reason for a grateful desire to perpetuate the present relation. Bohemia has heretofore been loyal to Austria only because she faced a greater danger from German absorption.

The grounds on which the Bohemians ask the right to shape their own destinies as a nation are chiefly the following:

1. The historic right.—The House of Hapsburg was called to the throne of Bohemia by voluntary election. The first Hapsburg to attempt to rule Bohemia was Rudolph (1306–1307), who was forced upon the country for a short time by the German Emperor, and who attempted to secure the color of a right to rule by marrying the widow of the last Bohemian King of the Přemysl line. His right to rule was contested, and upon his death the Bohemians selected several kings from other ruling houses, and it was not until 1437 that another Hapsburg, Albrecht, was again voluntarily elected King of Bohemia. But after a brief rule of two years, during which he violated his oath and his pledges to the Bohemian people, he was again succeeded by a line of kings elected from various ruling houses, and the greatest of them, George of Poděbrad, the Protestant king who ruled from 1458 to 1471, from among their own nobility.

It was not until 1526 that another Hapsburg, Ferdinand I., was elected king by the Bohemian Diet, but he soon destroyed the old charter in accordance with which he was recognized as a king by election, and usurped the power which the House of Hapsburg continued to exercise for some time. But in 1619 the Bohemians reasserted their right to elect their kings and chose Frederick of the Palatinate, thus precipitating the Thirty Years’ War. But notwithstanding the reverses which the Bohemians suffered, Ferdinand II, of Hapsburg, who ascended the throne, was obliged to take oath “to maintain the privileges and liberties of the kingdom” and to “govern the kingdom according to the laws and usages of the kings, his predecessors, and especially Charles IV.

During the long dark night which followed the deep tragedy of the Thirty Years’ War, the Hapsburgs ruled over Bohemia, but the nation never conceded them the right to incorporate their country in any other, and in 1868 formally declared that “the Kingdom of Bohemia is attached to the empire by a purely personal tie,”—that is, through the person of the king who was also Emperor of Austria. Francis Josef himself soon after recognized this right and promised to be crowned King of Bohemia, but this promise was broken.

For the reasons here given the Bohemians claim that their kingdom is still a distinct political entity.

2. Their political capacity.—Time and again the Bohemians have demonstrated their loyalty to high political ideals and their capacity for self-government. They never recognized the “divine right” of kings to rule,—unlike their German neighbors, most of whom recognize the “right” to-day. They elected their own kings, who were bound by what was practically equivalent to our modern constitution, and they sometimes chose these kings from their own midst; before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War they were seriously contemplating a form of government not unlike that of our own country; and to-day they are hoping for a republic, or at least for a monarchy as liberal and innocuous as that of England. Indeed, for several centuries their political ideals have approached nearer to those of England than of any other of the greater European nations.

3. Their intellectual power.—A nation claiming the right of self-government is usually expected to show competent intellectual capacity. This the Bohemians have demonstrated beyond a doubt. When we consider the great odds against which they contended when they struggled to re-establish their schools and their intellectual life, the progress which they have made in the past century is astonishing. The city of Prague is to-day one of the greatest publishing centres in Europe. The growth of Bohemian literature in all its branches has been stupendous, and to-day Bohemia leads the Empire of Austria with the smallest percentage of illiterates and is one of the leaders of Europe in this respect!

Nor are these educational and intellectual ideals a gift of the Germans, as has been asserted in certain prejudiced quarters. Bohemia had a great university, that of Prague, before a single institution of the kind had been established within the limits either of the present German Empire or any other part of the present Empire of Austria. This has been claimed repeatedly as a German university, but it was established in 1348 by Charles IV., whose mother was a Bohemian, and whose sentiments were wholly Bohemian. He was educated in the University of Paris, and that institution furnished the model for his new university. Following the Paris plan he gave two votes to the German nations in the management of the university (a courtesy which they have never been inclined to imitate), but like all other institutions of that period the university was Latin, and not in any sense German. Fifty years later it passed wholly under the control of the Bohemians and developed into one of the greatest universities of Europe, sharing this honor with Paris and Oxford, and for more than two centuries it continued to be one of the world’s great centres of intellectual activity and inspiration. The Thirty Years’ War overwhelmed it, and transformed it into a German institution for a long time, but a third of a century ago it was re-established as a Bohemian institution, and has now far outstripped its German rival in the same city which was forced upon the nation in the effort to Germanize it.

It is also a matter of historic interest that as early as 1294 a King of Bohemia, Václav II., attempted to establish a university at Prague, but the plan failed because of dissensions between the ecclesiastics and the nobility.

The Bohemian people have abundant intellectual traditions of their own, and their devotion to their educational interests has been tested repeatedly and found not wanting.

4. The moral and ethical right.—Why should any other nation rule Bohemia? The Bohemian people are intellectual, with high political ideals and splendid traditions, and they are industrially progressive. They are competent to direct their own affairs, and it is only the insolent usurper who can assume to lay claim to the right to rule over them. Bohemia is a fertile country blessed with boundless riches which should be employed to sustain a happy, busy, progressive nation, and not a usurping military power, and that nation has a right to be free!

This briefly is the Bill of Rights of the Bohemian nation. Whatsoever may be the form of the government which will come to liberated Bohemia, all lovers of freedom will join in the hope of the realization of the spirit of the prophecy of Doctor John Jesenský of Jesen, one of the martyr leaders of the Bohernians who were executed at Prague in 1621, who proclaimed from the scaffold: “It is vain that Ferdinand gluts his rage for blood; a king elected by us shall again ascend the throne of Bohemia!”

  1. The writer is a representative type of the sturdy settler of Bohernian ancestry who helped to build up the Northwest. He sojourned in the birthland of his parents when the war broke out.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 86 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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