Who Are You?

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.

22 thoughts on “Who Are You?

  1. Very interesting, and I begin to understand why many Europeans consider “Nationalism” as a curse. As an American I’ve always considered myself a nationalist not in the jingoistic sense, but rather in sense that I consider myself lucky to have been born here and willing to do what I can to make my country better. Clearly “nationalism” has different meanings depending on the side of the Atlantic that one lives on.

    • It really depends on how the nation defines itself.
      If we defined “We kill savages. And Germans.” as a foundational principle of our nation, other peoples would have good reason to be wary. (Especially if they were German, or lived in Africa/Southern Asia.)
      We don’t, of course. But we easily could, just by putting a slightly different spin on our history.

      I am a nationalist.
      Unapologetically so. All men desire to be part of something larger than themselves, and it is best that this be harnessed productively. Without a meta-narrative, man reverts to tribalism (sometimes farther, to the Hobbesian “all against all” nightmare, but that’s not sustainable). Without a baseline of reciprocal responsibility to your fellow countryman, class warfare and splintered factions abound.
      Religion can, and has, filled the same role, but it sets up a Manichean paradigm where disagreement is heresy and error is evil. Experience informs us that this is sub-optimal.

      Of course nationalism can be dangerous. It’s powerful, and how it manifests rests entirely upon the character of the people comprising the nation.
      That said, it’s far and away the best available option.

      • When I teach European history, I stick with the “blood and soil” definition of nationalism, where a nation is defined by a common culture, language, Christianity or Judaism*, and place of origin or residence. So the Polish nation post partition was Polish-speaking, Catholic or Jewish or Uniate, lived in the old Polish lands, and traced its history back to the white eagle or at least to the princes of Krakow. The keys for 19th and early 20th century nationalism are culture (bloodline) and place (soil). You could live all you life in Poland, your parents could have lived in Poland, heck, you could go back to the late 1200s in Poland but be “German” if your family were descended from German merchants who came in to trade and settled in one of the merchants’ enclaves.

        By that definition, US citizens can’t be nationalists. We can be very patriotic, and love our country and state, but we don’t define ourselves by our ancestry and ties to the land. (Native Americans being an exception.)

        *When faith = race = genetics, things got really unhappy, as we all know. However, Jews got a by in some places so long as they meet the other criteria, Bohemia and the Austrian Empire being two of those places. Prussia another, through the end of WWI.

        • Eh…(Waggles hand)
          Mostly true now, but I’m old enough to remember distinct regional cultures.
          I was the 7th generation to grow up on the family farm, in the midst of a geographically circumscribed, extremely high-trust homogeneous culture which saw itself as a people apart.

          Blood and soil applied accurately, before even considering factoids like the highest per-capita rate of military enlistment in the country.

          It didn’t last.
          Immigration, public education, federal policies, market forces, and a number of other things conspired to destroy it.
          (There’s a remnant, of course, but if it ever reestablished anything, it would be a bitter parody.)
          And we can certainly confidently say that Blood & Soil nationalism was “a thing” during the ACW!

          • In the South. I’m not sure how much it applied in the North in general, given how recently some places had been settled.

            Once you start really drilling down to the state-by-state and county-by-county level, things get different. I’m trying to keep in mind “US as a whole” and “Hungary as a whole” vs. “Bexar Co. TX” and “Eger and the Matra Foothills.” Humans being tribal critters, once you leave us alone long enough, and the environment doesn’t make us shift locations, we all develop very small scale definitions of us and them.

            • There was a lot of immigration in the South. That is why they had all those Irish regiments in the Civil War,, just like in the North. (Not quite in the same numbers.)

            • Have you read =Albion’s Seed= by David Hackett Fischer? It traces American regional ‘folkways’ back to four migrations from England.

            • Yes. I’ve read it several times, and use it to teach US religious history as well as working it into US history when appropriate.

  2. i know there Czech and Slovac museums in Iowa, but I not (yet?) visited either. There were settlers of each there. (Though the most memorable billboards are for the “Grout Museum”.. which cause Freakazoid fans to ponder Cosgrove asking, “Hey Freakazoid, wanna go to the Grout Museum?!”)

  3. The atheist tendency to misquote Thomas Jefferson’s unofficial letter shows the missed point. First Amendment language was to separate State from Church, and implicit in State were the great families that used the State for their own ends. But the State and the great families refuse to bend the knee for any higher authority, so you have younger sons or nephews in training for, or in, high ecclesiastical positions: “Church, is this OK? Sure, Uncle… oops, Your Majesty, it’s fine.” Ans of course, they hated to be crossed. See Henry VIii and Henry Ii for their original formations and the fates of Sts. Thomas More and Thomas a Becket., for examples.

    I can understand the Czech or formerly Bohemian/Moravian negative definition. They’re at a central crossroads and tired of being run over or traded among larger neighbors. Unlike Belgium, they had mountain fastnesses to help keep out or slow down nasty neighbors. That negative, though, leads to a hollow or fragile structure, since they don’t enunciate what they are for.

    For a lighter note, and forgive the mischief, consider a remake of the Chipmunks. Martin Luther now calls for: “Wyclifde, John Huss, Calvin … CALVIN!” “OK, Marty you’re not predestined for a stroke!”

    • Well, when you’re talking about the Constitutional Convention, the debates surrounding its ratification and the enactment of the Bill of Rights, why *wouldn’t* you use an unrelated letter from someone who was in France the entire time to ground your arguments?
      Sounds totes legit.
      If force is to be employed for “the greater good”, it seems self-defeating to bar organizations that have spent centuries (at least!) trying to define “Good” from participating in the conversation.
      A division of power is good, lest Catholics force open borders, or are forced to perform abortions.
      But a division of power is not a bar upon power.

  4. “Who Am I”?

    A Christian (all though not a really good one), An American, A Dragon (in that order). 😉

  5. National identity, and how its conception has changed over time, is part of the core thesis of Philip Bobbett’s =The Shield of Achilles/War, Peace, and the Course of History=. (Note that the subtitle really does narrow the title!) It’s a huge, magnificent book. I’m not convinced that he’s right in every particular, but it’s a new way of looking at the history of the State as a component of civilization and it offers some genuine insights. It’s not a one-night read. The chapters are.

  6. Always remember the ‘winners’ write the history, not the losers… Thanks for the history lesson! Complicated is putting it mildly!

  7. When I was in Hungary (granted that was a long time ago, like far too much of my life) the criteria for being Hungarian were two: speaking the language, and looking like a Magyar. I confused the heck out of them by meeting the first criterion but not the second; they usually decided that I was a Gypsy. Not that I looked like that either, but it was the only other category they had for speakers of the language.

    I wonder if the influx of immigrants has changed that. Not likely though, since most of them were only passing through in their journey to a state with better welfare benefits, and since Orban has since constructed a great big beautiful wall.

    And I wish I still spoke Hungarian, but it’s mostly slipped away since I moved away from the Santa Monica/Venice enclave of Hungarian refugees.

    • When I was there in ’14, it was 1) speak the language, 2) look “right,” 3) believe in Western Civilization. Catholicism/Lutheranism/Calvinism helped, but wasn’t strictly required. In some odd ways they are going back to the Hababurg requirements.

  8. “Yes, there are some positives – language, literary culture, ***sense of humor***…”

    When the Soviets threw in the towel and the Iron Curtain was pulled down, something that popped up very quickly were shopping tours to Prague. The officers wives club arranged some weekend dash and shop trips, and I went on one. Overnight bus ride to Prague, get to Prague at daylight, tour and shop for 12 hours straight, back on the bus that evening, and back to Deutschland (with an evening stop at crystal factory on the way back).

    This was not long at all after the commies had been in charge, a few months at best, but Prague was open for business. There were shops and restaurants and hotels everywhere, street venders, tours, etc, Clean, tidy, painted, updated. They were waaaaaay ahead of the East Germans at “bouncing back.” Every shop and restaurant had a fax machine, often inconveniently right in the middle of everything, but humming away with orders and such. This was a pretty jolting site when you remembered how the previous authorities had controlled communication.

    I took a bus ride tour around the city pointing out notable places, including first President of the Republic Václav Havel’s apartment, which was a small place along the river IIRC. Apparently you could just walk up to his door, ring the bell, and speak with him if he was home, according to our tour guide. She was a young Czech woman who spoke excellent English.

    Now comes the Czech humor: As we looped around this largish, ugly bland building on the way to the castle, the tour guide somewhat offhandedly said, “Oh, that’s the former Communist Party Headquarters.” pause for three beats. “Now it’s a casino.”

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