One of the historical themes of the Early Modern Era in Central and Eastern Europe is definition of identity. Who comprises the Polish nation? Who is a Magyar/Hungarian? What does it mean to be a Bohemian? Since only the people who had political status counted as members of the nation, only the nobility bothered with the idea until 1792 and the rise of Romantic nationalism. Until then, us and them were the more important distinctions.
To Slavs, “we” were the people who spoke intelligible languages. “They” did not speak, and to this day the word used to mean a German once meant someone who could not speak—just like the ancient Greeks and “barbarians.” Over time, especially once the Ottomans and Tatar Hordes became major threats, “we” also included Russian Orthodox Christians (Russia) and Roman Catholics (Poles). Germans had Catholicism, a tradition of having been mentioned in Roman writings, and not being Franks or Slavs or Vikings. For the bulk of the population before 1792, that was pretty much what mattered.
Romantic nationalism is one of those things I like to blame Napoleon for, although Rousseau and his contemporaries should get credit for developing the ideas that Napoleon inadvertently spread. As part of defining themselves as “not French,”—and in some cases “not Habsburg”—members of the nobility and new middle class in Poland, Bohemia and Moravia, and Hungary, as well as Germans (see the Brothers Grimm and Co.) began studying peasant languages and collecting folk tales and legends, and going back to medieval sources. From these they developed national legends, like that of the pagan priestess and Princess Libuse of the ancient Czechs, and her vision of a plowman (Premysl) who would found a dynasty. She married the plowman and they founded the first recorded royal dynasty of Bohemia, the Premyslid. Some of these legends had been recorded in the Middle Ages, but had not been popularized, and certainly not invoked as heavily for political reasons.
If each nation—as defined by language, religion, common (legendary?) heritage, and location—was separate but equal, then all nations deserved to have their own states. Except by 1789, Poland had been partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Bohemia had been inherited by the Austrians and then lost some territory to Prussia, Slovakia had been absorbed by the Hungarians since 925 or so, and the Hungarians were yoked to the Austrians through inheritance. And who was a German, anyway? Were Tyrolians German? What about people from Hamburg?
How each group came to define itself is fascinating and messy, but the big thing that struck me this year is that while the Poles and Hungarians use a positive definition—all Poles are X, Y, and Z, and Poland is this place with this history, Hungary likewise—the Czechs seem to have defined themselves negatively. They were not Habsburg, not Roman Catholic, not Lutheran (because that was the Prussian state religion), not Germanic, not Polish (because the Poles had tried to conquer Bohemia a few times, and the Bohemians had returned the compliment), were not peasants. Yes, there are some positives – language, literary culture, sense of humor, medieval identity as the Kingdom of Bohemia and Moravia.
The Poles are very Catholic, although not as much as under Communism. One historian I heard described it as “practicing non-believers.” Even people who did not believe in G-d or the church attended mass, sent their children to church functions and schools, participated in church activities and so on because it was a way to preserve their identity and to stick one in the eye of the Communists. The down side was that to be “truly Polish” meant Catholic, with all that implied for Calvinists, Jews, Lutherans, and others. Uniates got a by, since they acknowledged the pope, and since the Soviets and Russian Orthodox had beaten up on them, too.
The Czechs are among the least, if not the least, religious group in Europe. There are individual believers, and Moravia is more devout than Bohemia, but over all church is something historical, a museum, and where you go at Christmas and Easter. You get baptized, less often married, but that’s pretty much it. By defining themselves as anti-Habsburg, and anti-Prussian, the Czechs were anti-clerical in all forms. I suspect this goes all the way back to the Hussite Wars, then the 30 Years War started the downhill slide. “If the rulers are for organized religion, then we’re against it, even though we believe in G-d.” The aggressive Lutheranism of the Prussians did not help. [Insert Alma lecture about the dangers to the Church when the state combines with the Church.]
Austrians are pretty devout, although a few scandals have not helped. Hungarians and Slovaks are very devout, in part because they again see themselves as defending Europe against barbarian hordes. Poles likewise. The Austrians are starting to take that approach, too.
Ever since my first visit to the Czech Republic in 2005, I’ve had trouble sussing out exactly what it means to be Czech. How do you define Czech culture, what can you point to and say, ‘This, this, and this are Czech-ness?” German, Austrian, others are easier to define, especially if you go below national level to regions. Bavarians will tell you what it means to be a Bavarian, especially if you imply that all Germans are alike. Poles happily elucidate Polishness. I get a feeling that the Czechs are much more complicated and harder to put into words.
Now, I could be heavily misreading things. I do not speak or read Czech with any sort of fluency. And Bohemian history is often told through the Habsburg Imperial story, or it seems to stop after 1640 and only reappears in the 1870s. Czech nationalism tended to be upper class, upper middle class, and urban, which left a lot of the country really unconcerned with lost national glory. And for the nobles and some of the middle class, peasants were either foreign creatures or simple souls of the soil who held the ideal “Czechness” inside them. Ditto Polishness, although the Ruthenian peasants in 1846 had very firm ideas to the contrary. They quite preferred the Habsburgs to the Poles, thank you, and showed it in a rather bloody and dramatic fashion.
Negative definitions of “nation” are still a definition, and one that seems to have served the Czechs well in the 20th Century, helping them preserve themselves against Nazi and Soviet domination. But it seems to have left an odd hollow, something I feel more than I can articulate clearly. The Poles, Hungarians, and others used a more positive definition, easier to elucidate and explain. All are fascinating, all have rich cultures and histories, all are places I’d like to return to. I wonder, though, if the Czechs will start developing more positive definitions of themselves in the near future.