The Jail/Chapter I

I.

 

TAILOR: Hi! hist! hi, neighbour, a word with you!

CARPENTER: Go your way, and leave me in peace.

TAILOR: Only a word. Is there nothing new?

CARPENTER: Nothing except that it is forbidden to speak of anything new.

TAILOR: How is that?

CARPENTER: Step up to this house. Take care! Straightway upon his arrival the Duke of Alba had an order issued by which two or three who speak together in the street are declared guilty of high treason without a trial.

TAILOR: Alas, preserve us!

CARPENTER: Under pain of life-long imprisonment it is forbidden to speak of affairs of state.

TAILOR: Alas for our liberty!

CARPENTER: And under pain of death nobody shall say aught against the actions of the Government.

TAILOR: Alas for our lives!

CARPENTER: And fathers, mothers, children, relatives, friends and servants are invited with a promise of great things to divulge to a specially established court what goes on within the very household.

TAILOR: Let us get home.

CARPENTER: And the obedient are promised that they shall suffer no injury either to body, or honour, or possesions.

TAILOR: How merciful! Why I supposed—etc. etc. According to Goethe's "Egmont" this scene was enacted at Brussels in the year 1567, but it was enacted in reality on countless occasions in the lands of the Bohemian crown in the years 1915 to 1916.

It can safely be asserted that time after time in the course of the last 300 years our nation was afflicted by persecutions as other countries by earthquakes. A very thorough-going persecution fell to our lot immediately after the battle of the White Mountain; it was a persecution which might be called an imperial one. It was aimed at the rebellious lords, but the Czech nation almost breathed its last as a result of it. And it was the first misfortune,—not for us, since nations always outlive their dynasties,—but for those who carried it out. A river of blood began to flow between them and us,—and such blood never dries up. The persecution which followed it was also interesting, and might be called a religious one. It is interesting because it has been described with considerable vividness by Jirásek[1] in his magnificent work entitled "Temno" (Gloom). Its victims were books and people whose confession of faith was different from that prescribed by the holy Roman Catholic Church; and this again was a misfortune for the Church—the Hussite spirit had always smouldered amongst us under the ashes.—the holy Church made efforts to keep it smouldering. The subsequent persecution which might be compared with a continual earthquake, because it lasted long over a hundred years, was a persecution by the lords, and was directed against the serfs. Jirásek, Svátek[2] and others have also written interesting accounts of it. It is true that it did not fall upon the nation as a whole, but on the other hand, an enormous number of individuals were its victims. The persecution by Metternich was one of the mildest. It was directed not only against us Czechs, but against all the nations in Austria, and indeed, against a large part of Europe. It was milder because it allowed people freedom of movement; they were permitted to eat, drink, sleep, keep awake, dance, swim, walk, skate etc.—but to make up for this their spirits were enclosed in a dark room where windows and doors were blocked up so as to prevent light and fresh air from getting in. That is the reason why the wretched literature of our renaissance is so tame, and our revivalists such timid creatures. The soul needed neither to see nor to hear,—it's only desire had to be: To be a good subject of its overlord. After the year 1848 began the political persecution which brought Havlíček[3] to Brixen, dismissed inconvenient officials and teachers. Confiscated books, suppressed newspapers, locked up editors, sent strict governors to Prague, brought Czech people before German judges and also continued for a respectable number of years, proceeding sometimes more severely, sometimes only leniently, sometimes vanishing for a period after which, having rested, it immediately began afresh. And so we experienced the persecution in the years 1915—1916, which might be designated as a military persecution.

It is certain that the human spirit which contrives to expound accurately all the periods of ancient Roman history, and bears in mind the dynasties of ancient Egypt, will very easily forget the events of those preceding years. And that is a mistake, for "this year" grows out of "last year", and those who have forgotten last year, can easily form a thoroughly false idea of the present year. It is therefore desirable that everything in our memories should be continually kept fresh so that it cannot be forgotten. And in the first place we, who have a little to do with it, must speak, we must make known our impressions for the purpose of supplying reliable material for the history of these two years. Yes, provisions must be made for our historians.

The frame-work is something like this: At the outbreak of war the late Emperor surrendered a part of his authority as a ruler to the military staff, whose main representatives, in addition to the commander-in-chief, Archduke Friedrich, were Conrad von Hötzendorf, Marshal Metzger and Colonels Slameczka and Gregori. The general staff applied its watchful eye not only to the enemy outside, but, as is of course natural, also to the mischief-makers within. And then was made that tragic error which had far-reaching results. On the erroneous assumption that, when war was declared against the only three foreign Slav states, Austria-Hungary, a group of States with a majority of Slav races, would not meet with assent to, and appropriate enthusiasm for war among its Slav majority,—when war was declared against the only three foreign Slav States, although that majority, as the mobilisation showed, loyally rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, the general staff began to look with mistrust upon the Slav nationalities, later also upon its Italian subjects and later still upon the Roumanians, and blaming the former civilian administration,—it existed only in name, having become the obedient helper of the military authorities during the war,—for lax patriotic training, defectively inculcated Austrianism, tolerated particularism, careless lenience in dynastic and religious affairs, blindness towards all kinds of centrifugal tendencies, it undertook this training itself, and desired to carry it out in the military manner,—quickly and thoroughly. Certainly, one other circumstance was very significant in its eyes. In the German Reichstag, Bethmann-Hollweg made a speech in which he referred to "the reckoning between the Germanic and Slavonic race", a phrase to which no contradiction was forthcoming from Austria, with its Slav majority. The three Counts, Tisza, Berchtold and Stürgkh were silent; silent too were the nationalities fighting beneath the two-headed eagle against the Russians, Serbs and Montenegrins,—and this silence must have been noticed by the military authorities,—again, an erroneous assumption which accentuated the tragic error; the leading Counts had probably overlooked the Chancellor's remark, and the Austrian nations could not become articulate,—there was no Parliament, there was no public platform. But this silence was regarded as malice and a token of secret hostility towards the position of the Empire.

And so the patriotic training began. In the kingdom of Bohemia, in Galicia, in Croatia, Dalmatia,—everywhere the military showed the civilian administration what it had neglected, and how things ought to be done. A new spirit was introduced into the schools and among the teachers. Reading books which contained a reference to the kingdom of Bohemia were confiscated; the emblems of the territories of the Bohemia crown,—confiscated; national colours, whether on clothes, on match-boxes, on bags of confectionery,—forbidden; popular tunes and national songs, as ancient and innocent as the live-long day, were forbidden; collections of songs were seized, books, old miscellanies, verse, prose were also seized; newspapers appeared full of blank spaces, and published articles supplied to them by the police; they had to publish them too,in a prominent spot under pain of immediate suppression; and they appeared, only to be suppressed in the end after all; suspicious people,—oh, the gallant governors, the gendarmes and the Government police had a tremendous amount of work to do then!—were taken away and interned in concentration camps; recruits had a Uriah-like p. v. (politisch verdächtig)[4] inscribed on their military papers and these two letters ensured their bearers a continual strict control and other agreeable attentions upon all battle-fronts, whether in Russia, in Serbia, in Romania, in Italy; people of all classes and ranks lived under continual police observation: taverns, cafés, theatres, public places swarmed with police spies, and espionage penetrated even into families; there was a deluge of anonymous accusations on all sides, and as a result of them, cross-examinations, domiciliary searches, arrests and imprisonments took place; childish leaflets were, heaven alone knows how, circulated among the peaceful population, and it fared ill with anyone of whom it could be proved that he had possessed, read or even only looked at anything of the kind; all civilian rights were suspended, there were no personal liberties, there were no constitutional libertie, there were only military tribunals and they worked as they were obliged to work; Czech people were tried and sentenced by judges who did not know a single word of Czech; nobody was safe either by day or night, there was a deluge of halters, life-long terms of imprisonment, hundreds and hundreds of years of jail, confiscation of property; those who were locked up included women, students, female clerks, authors, members of parliament, bank managers, officials of the most diverse branches, grocers, workmen, journalists, clergymen of all denominations,—everybody was under suspicion, the whole nation was under suspicion. Thus literally as at Brussels in the year 1567.

A sultry stillness settled upon the whole kingdom of Bohemia. Cowards began to accommodate themselves to the prevailing conditions, and met the rule of terror halfway. People with firm back-bones repeated the words of Talleyrand: Everything in the world can be proved by means of bayonets, but it is impossible to sit on them. Let us believe and hope that this will pass. At Prague anecdotes and jokes came into being, and with the rapidity of light they sped through Bohemia and Moravia, evoking smiles from the faces of a nation which had become unaccustomed to mirth. Slowly but firmly there developed a feeling of national solidarity, an instinct for national honour and national justice, and joyous hopes grew like wisps of fresh grass underneath a heavy boulder.

But all this took place quietly and in secret. Outwardly, it was burdensome to breathe, the atmosphere was full of horrible uncertainty. If anyone counted upon the enforced outbreak of a revolt, after which it would have been possible to have recourse to still more violent measures, those who so counted, suffered a disappointment. The nation held its peace.

No persecution since that following the battle of the White Mountain was more cruel than this military one carried out in the kingdom of Bohemia in the years 1915-1916; both of them are worthy of each other, and in fact our persecution is a new epitome of all persecutions to which we have been subjected during the last 300 years.

Today we hope that it was the last persecution, just as that in Brussels in the year 1567. Errors in policy are a crime, and every crime brings a fearful revenge in its wake.[5]

 

  1. Alois Jirásek (born 1851), a prominent Czech writer whose historical novels are particularly famous.
  2. Josef Svátek (1835—1897), a Czech historical novelist.
  3. Karel Havlíček (1821—1856), a famous Czech political and satirical author, both in prose and verse. In 1851 he was arrested by the Austrian Government, and interned at Brixen in Tyrol where he remained until the year before his death.
  4. Politically suspicious.
  5. The greater part of this chapter having been deleted by the censor, the author was induced to write the following chapter.