05 December 2004

Bohemia Un-Czeched and Counter-Reformed, 1619-1919

[By the 1600s] the Kingdom of Bohemia had for practical purposes already lost its independence, and its internal struggles could not be isolated from the religious and political conflicts engulfing Europe as a whole. It was no longer either in representation or in reality a matter of Czechs "against all." Bohemia was a pawn in a Continental game. Where the Hussite Wars had been integrally and obviously national, the conflicts of the seventeenth century were only secondarily so. Their result, nonetheless, was to jeopardize the very existence of a Czech nation.

Dissension came to a head in the Rising of the Czech Estates, which triggered the Thirty Years' War. Appropriately enough, the rebellion began with a second defenestration of Prague, 199 years after the first. On 21 May 1618 Protestant nobles convened a General Diet, and two days later a mob turfed three Catholic imperial officials (who survived the experience) from the windows of Prague Castle. In August of the next year a General Diet of all the lands of the Czech kingdom formally repudiated the Habsburg succession and offered the throne to Frederick, the protestant elector of the Palatinate, son-in-law of King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Frederick was crowned and moved into Hradcany on 4 November 1619. The "Winter King" reigned for just a year and four days. Despite some initial military successes, the rebellion was decisively crushed by the troops of Emperor Ferdinand II (1619-37), Matyas's legitimate Habsburg successor, at the battle of Bila hora--the White Mountain [cf. Serbian Cerna Gora (= Montenegro) and Czech Bila Rus 'White Russia']--on the western outskirts of Prague on 8 November 1620. Frederick and his court immediately fled the city, leaving it defenseless before Ferdinand's army. Bila hora settled the fate of the Kingdom of Bohemia for the next three centuries; it was without any doubt the most cataclysmic event in modern Czech history.

Ferdinand's revenge was swift, brutal, and overwhelming. On Monday 21 June 1621, between five and nine in the morning, twenty-seven Czech aristocrats and burghers were publicly executed in Prague's Old Town Square, Staromestske namesti. The executioner dealt with Jan Jesensky (Jessenius), the rector of Prague University, particularly cruelly; his tongue was cut out and nailed to the block before he was beheaded. The heads of twelve of the executed were displayed on the tower of Charles Bridge for ten years until, during the brief occupation of Prague by a Saxon Protestant army in 1631, they were ceremonially buried in the Tyn Cathedral. Literal was followed by social decapitation: the indigenous Protestant nobility, burgher estate, and intelligentsia were to all intents and purposes destroyed. The estates of Protestant lords were confiscated on a grand scale, and gifted or sold cheaply to Catholic loyalists. Over three-quarters of the land in the kingdom, Church and crown estates excepted, changed hands in the 1620s. Out of this a largely new--and often foreign--aristocracy emerged, even if some of the biggest beneficiaries, like Albrecht z Valdstejna, creator of the Valdstejn (Waldstein) Palace in Prague, were Czechs....

By the later eighteenth century the overwhelming majority of Czechs, from nobility to peasants, were once again Roman Catholics. Lusatia and most of Silesia were gone, and Bohemia and Moravia had been Habsburg possessions since time out of mind. Prague was little more than a provincial backwater. The upper classes, whether in origin Czech or foreign, had little organic connection to the Czech past, and oriented themselves mainly to Vienna. Like much of the urban population, they spoke German. Many town dwellers, particularly in the capital, were German incomers; Czech-speakers preponderated in Prague only among the lower classes. For the most part Czech had ceased to be a language of either learning or (higher) administration; the rich Czech literary heritage of the past had been mostly erased or forgotten. Where it was kept alive, ironically enough, it was Catholic priests who were mainly to be thanked. Bohemia's sociolinguistic splits were reproduced in the Church; while the episcopal hierarchy was German-speaking, most ordinary parish priests were the sons of Czech peasants. Contrary to some later assertions, the Czech language as such was by no means close to death. But it had retreated to the fields, the stables, and the kitchens. It was a badge not of nationality but of ignorance, the rude tongue of the common folk. Language no longer unified or divided nations, as it had for the Hussites, but merely social classes. It was as a written language that Czech so catastrophically declined after Bila hora. The most characteristic cultural monuments of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Bohemia are visual, rather than literary. The art of the baroque is a feast that appeals to the eye, not the intellect; its architecture is an architecture of sensuous power, designed to impress and intimidate. All those resplendent baroque palaces, churches, and burgher mansions that do so much to define Prague as "the magical metropolis of old Europe" (as Andre Breton once called it) are testaments to the destruction of the Hussite and Protestant Bohemia on whose ruins they were erected; and a goodly proportion of them were designed by foreigners rather than Czechs....

Had there been no medieval Bohemian state, there might very possibly have been no modern Czech nation either. But this modern nation is not so much rooted in that medieval experience as retrospectively reconstructed out of it. Bila hora fractured Czech history and identity; the links to the past were severed.
SOURCE: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, by Derek Sayer (Princeton U. Press, 1998), pp. 45, 50, 52

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