Bohemian Section at the Austrian Exhibition, Earl's Court London 1906/Position of the Bohemian Nation in Austria

2935594Bohemian Section at the Austrian Exhibition, Earl's Court London 1906 — Position of the Bohemian Nation in Austria1906František Lützow



Of the extensive and manifold realms ruled by the house of Habsburg no part is perhaps less known in England than the ancient kingdom of Bohemia It is indeed only quite recently that it has been possible for Englishmen to acquire any knowledge of Bohemia from other than German sources; and as racial warfare between the Slav and the Teuton is the keynote of Bohemian history, information dérived from hostile sources would be—as was recently wittly written— as useful as a biography of the great duke Wellington written by a Frenchman!

Modern research has proved that at least part of Bohemia has had a Slavic population almost from the earliest historical period. This as is known is equally true of a large, adjacent part of Northern Germany, whose ancient Slavic population has long been Germanised.

That similar frequent attempts have in Bohemia been unsuccessful is no doubt largelly due to the geographical position of my country. As no less a man than Göthe wrote: Bohemia is a continent within the European continent. If the word may be used geographically, Bohemia has an inviduality of its own. I have written much on the history and literature of my country and wish here to limit myself to a few brief remarks.

Bohemia is not only geographically but historically also a country, that cannot be considered as a dependency of any other, and we must be grateful to the skill and energy of Dr. L. Jeřábek, to whom it is due, that at least a considerable part of our exhibits appear in a special, Bohemian section.

Of the earlier times of Bohemia’s history the bestknown part is the period of the Hussite wars. This is the period of Bohemia’s greatness and it is also the period, when the links between Bohemia and England are frequent and strong. Wycliffe’s importance was indeed greater in Bohemia than even in his own country.

Though Bohemia was for two centuries a mainly Hussite—I had almost written protestant—country, only one of its sovereigns was of the predominant religion of the land over which he ruled. This was the great George of Poděbrad, one of Bohemia’s greatest kings and one, whose memory is still cherished by the Bohemian people. The earlier part of his reign was the more prosperous one. Towards the end of his life and after king George had been excommunicated by pope Paul II, the Romanist Bohemian nobles, some of whom had already risen in arms against him, proclamed Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, as king of Bohemia. Warfare between the rival sovereigns continued up to the death of King George in 1471. The successors of king George were the Polish prince Wladislaus and then his son Louis. After the death of the latter at the battle of Moháč in Hungary in 1526, the Bohemian crown again became vacant, for it was only after the year 1620. that the Bohemian crown became hereditary. The Estates of Bohemia—this was the name given to the Nobles and knights and to the representatives of the Bohemian towns, who jointly elected the king—chose as their ruler the archduke Ferdinand of Austria. The year 1526 marks the beginnings of the rule of the house of Austria over Bohemia but that event was by no means considered as denoting a change in the constitution of the country.

The most important year for Bohemia during Ferdinand’s reign is the year 1547. In the previous year hostilities have broken out in Germany between the emperor Charles V and the German protestants. Ferdinand of Bohemia called on his subjects to raise a force in aid of his brother. The Bohemian Estates, among whom the members of the so-called „Unity of the Bohemian Brethren“ were then very powerful, were unwilling to do this. In 1547. the attitude of the Bohemians became more decidedly opposed to Ferdinand and they raised a force, which was, though not openly, favourable to the cause of the German protestants. The defeat of the protestants at Mühlberg (April 14th 1547) put the Bohemians in a very difficult position and they submitted unconditionally to the king, whom they had offended. Ferdinand pardoned the nobles and knights, but he largely curtailed the formerly very extensive autonomy of the Bohemian cities. This largely contributed to the downfall of Bohemia, particularly as the formerly free peasantry of Bohemia—from whose ranks sprang most of the heroes of Hussite wars—had previously, in 1487, already become subject to bondage.

I do not attempt to sketch here the fascinating and touching history of Bohemia. I have already attempted to do so elsewhere. I wish howerer briefly to refer to the events of 1618. to 1620., which entirely changed the status of country There had been for some time in Bohemia complaints of the partiality of the Romanist officials of king Matthias then the ruler of Bohemia. During an interview, which took place at the Hradčany castle between the Austrian officials and the prominent Bohemian nobles on May 23d 1618, three of the officials were by the Bohemians thrown from the windows of the castle—an event known in history as the defenestration of Prague. War—as was inevitable—immediately broke out; and continued after the death of Matthias. The Bohemians, who had chosen Frederick elector Palatine, husband of the English princess Elisabeth, daughter of James I, as their king, were decisively defeated at the battle of the „White Mountain“ (Bílá Hora) on November 8th 1620.

This defeat and the executions of the Bohemian leaders which took place in the following year, mark an epoch in the history of Bohemia. The ancient constitution of the country which was in many respects not unlike that of England at the same period, was suppressed; almost the whole of the landed property in the country was confiscated and foreign owners, Germans, Spaniards and Italians, took the places of the ancient Bohemian nobles. As these men were mostly ignorant of the national language, the use of German became wide-spread, for a time almost general, in Bohemia.

The history of the country has henceforth but little interest up to a comparatively recent time. Bohemia continued in a lethargic state up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, but after the restoration of European peace in 1815. a movement in favour of a national revival began. This movement was at first merely literary, as was indeed impossible to be otherwise under the absolutist government of prince Metternich. In 1845 however the Estates of Bohemia, who continued to meet, though their legislative powers were very limited, assumed an attitude, that was strongly opposed to the government of Vienna. They maintained the right of voting the taxes of the country—a right of which they had never been formally deprived even after the year 1620. To obtain the support of the wider classes of the population, the nobles determined in 1847 that they would at the meeting of the Estates, that was to take place in the following year, demand, that the representation of the Bohemian towns should be largely increased and that the Estates should in future have a more efficient control over the taxation of the country. They also demanded, that the Bohemian language should be introduced into all the higher schools of the country. The revolutionary outbreak of 1848 prevented the meeting of the Estates in that year. When the news of the Paris revolution of February reached Prague, the excitement there was very great. On March 11th a vast public meeting voted a petition to the government of Vienna, which demanded, that the Bohemian language should be granted equal rights as the German one in all the government offices in Bohemia, that a general diet consisting of representatives of all the Bohemian lands should be summoned, and that numerous liberal reforms should be introduced.

The deputation, which presented these demands in Vienna, received a somewhat equivocal answer. In reply, however, to a second deputation the emperor Ferdinand of Austria declared on April 8th, that equal rights would be granted to the two nationalities in Bohemia, that the question of the reunion of Moravia and Silesia with Bohemia should be left to a general meeting of representatives of all parts of the Austrian empire. It was further stated in the imperial message, that a new meeting of the Estates of Bohemia, which would include representatives of the principal towns, would shortly be summoned. This assembly, which was to have full powers to elaborate a new constitution, never met, though the election of its members took place on May 17th. In consequence of the universal national movement, so characteristic of the year 1848. it was decided to hold at Prague a Slavic congress, to which Slavs from all parts of the Austrian empire, as well as many belonging to other countries were invited. The deliberations were interrupted by serious riots, that broke out in the streets of Prague. They were repressed after prolonged fighting and considerable bloodshed. The Austrian commander prince Windischgrätz bombarded Prague and the city finally capitulated unconditionally.

The nationalist and liberal movement in Bohemia thus came to a sudden end, though the Bohemians took part in the Austrian constituant assembly, that met at Vienna and was afterwards transferred to Kroměříž (in German: Kremsier). By the end of the year 1849. all constitutional government had ceased in Bohemia as in al the other parts of the Habsburg empire. The reaction that now ensued was felt more heavily in Bohemia than in many other parts of the empire; not only were al attempts to obtain liberty and selfgovernment ruthlessly suppressed, but a determined attempt was made to exterminate the national language. The German language was again exclusively used in the schools and government-offices; all Bohemian newspapers were suppressed, and even the society of the Bohemian museum—a society of Bohemian noblemen and scholars—was for a time only allowed to hold its meetings under the supervision of the police.

The Italian compaign of 1859 rendered impossible the continuation of absolutist government in the Austrian empire. The authorities now attempted to establish a constitutional system, which, while maintaining to a certain extent the unity of the empire, would yet recognise the ancient constitutional rights of some of the countries united under the rule of the house of Habsburg. A decree published on October 20th 1860 established diets with limited powers. The composition of these parliamentary assemblies was to a considerable extent modelled on that of the ancient diets of Bohemia and other parts of the empire.

This decree was favorably received in Bohemia but the hopes, which it raised in the country fell, when a new imperial decree was published on February 26th 1861. This new decree established a central parliament at Vienna, to which were given very extensive powers and which was based on an electoral system, that was in every way partial to the German minority of the population of Bohemia. The Bohemians indeed consented to send their representatives to Vienna, but they left the parliament in 1863 stating that that assembly had encroached on the power, which constitutionally belonged to the diet of Prague.

Two years later the central parliament of Vienna was suspended and on the following year—1866—the Austro-Prussian war produced a complete change in the constitutional position of Bohemia. The congress of Vienna had in 1815 declared that Bohemia formed part of the Germanic federation which was now established; this was done without consulting the estates of the country, as had been customary even after the battle of the White Mountain on the occasion of important constitutional changes. The treaty with Prussia concluded at Prague on August 23th, excluded from Germany all the lands ruled by the house of Habsburg. As a natural result German influence has since that period declined in Austria, and in Bohemia in particular. While Hungary now obtained almost complete independance, the new constitution of 1867, which applied only to the German and Slavic parts of the Habsburg empire, was based on a system of centralism and its purpose was to maintain the waning German predominance. The Bohemians energetically opposed the new constitution and declined to send their representatives to Vienna. In 1871. it seemed probable for a moment, that the wishes of the Bohemians—who desire, that their ancient constitution should be reestablished in a modernised, form would be realised. The new Austrian prime-minister Count Charles Hohenwart took office with the firm intention of effecting an agreement between Bohemia and the other parts of the Habsburg empire. Prolonged negotiations ensued to establish a constitutional system, which while satisfying the claims of the Bohemians would yet have firmly connected them with the other lands ruled by the house of Habsburg. An Imperial message, addressed to the diet od Prague on September 14th 1871, stated, that the sovereign in consideration of the former constitutional position of Bohemia, and remembering the power and glory, which its crown had conferred on his ancestors, and the constant fidelity of its population, gladly recognised the rights of the kingdom of Bohemia, and was willing to confirm this assurance by taking the coronation-oath. Various influences contributed to the failure of this attempt to effect a reconciliation between Bohemia and Austria. In 1872 a government of pronounced German tendency took office in Vienna and the Bohemians for a time again refused to attend the parliamentary assemblies of Vienna and Prague. In 1879. Count Edward Taafe—an Austrian of Irish origin—became Austrian prime-minister, and he succeeded in persuading the representatives of Bohemia to take part in the deliberations of the parliament of Vienna. They did so after stating, that they took this step without prejudice to their view, that Bohemia with Moravia and Silesia constituted a separate state under the rule of the same sovereign as Austria and Hungary. The government of Count Taafe, in recognition of this concession made by the Bohemians, consented to remove some of the grossest anomalies connected with the electoral system of Bohemia, which had hitherto been most unfairly partial to the German minority of the population. The government of Count Taafe also consented to the foundation of a Bohemian university in Prague, which in the few years of its existence has already contributed largely to the intellectual development of Bohemia.

On the fall of the government of Count Taafe, prince Alfred Windischgrätz became prime minister. The policy of his shortlived government was hostile to Bohemia; he was soon replaced by Count Badeni. This statesman again attempted to conciliate Bohemia. He did not indeed consider it possible to reopen the question of the autonomy of Bohemia but he endeavoured to remedy some of the most serious grievances of the country. In the beginning of the year 1897. Count Badeni issued a decree, which stated, that after a certain date all government officials, who wished to be employed in Bohemia, would have to prove a certain knowledge of the Bohemian, as well of the German language. This decree met with violent opposition on the part of the German inhabitants of Austria and caused the fall of the cabinet of Count Badeni in the autumn of 1897. After a brief interval he was succeded by Count Thun and then by Count Clary, whose government repealed the decree that had to a certain extent granted equal rights to the Bohemian language. In consequence troubles broke out in Prague, that were severely repressed by the Austrian government. During the subsequent governments of Körber, Gautsch, Prince Hohenlohe and Beck the Bohemians have generally opposed the central government of Vienna, though they have sometimes taken up an opportunist attitude, when this appeared to be in the interest of their country.

Francis Count Lützow
Lit. D. Oxon. et Ph. D. Prag.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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