Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0
First Published: 17 May 1999

Book cover B O O K   R E V I E W:
The Coasts of Bohemia
Derek Sayer
Princeton University Press, 1998
ISBN 0-69105-7605

Jonathan Hughes Bolton

In the acknowledgments to The Coasts of Bohemia, Derek Sayer thanks an old friend for thinking up the book's subtitle. On the face of it, this is surprising, since the subtitle - "A Czech History" - seems fairly straightforward. Its subtlety becomes apparent, however, as we delve further into this fascinating book.

Sayer contends that, "seen from the outside," Czech history has few clear outlines at all, appearing as "little more than an incoherent series of lurching discontinuities," a "narrative no-man's land" that attracts our attention only when it enters into the struggles of surrounding powers, be they Habsburgs, Nazis, or Soviets. Sayer's sophisticated, suggestive, and lovingly detailed book is an attempt to map the "coastlines" of Bohemia from the inside, from a Czech point-of-view. This does not mean slanting the story in the Czechs' favor, but rather looking at how Czechs look at themselves: Sayer examines competing conceptions of Czech national identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, offering not just "a Czech history" but many histories, a survey of the vantage points from which Czechs have surveyed their past

The Awakeners

Sayer's story begins in the nineteenth century, with the first modern efforts to create a sense of Czech identity. After two centuries of Catholicization and Germanization under the Habsburgs had driven the Czech language out of official and educated usage, a small but growing group of intellectuals began to resurrect literary Czech as the core of the movement that would become known as the national awakening. At that point it wasn't entirely clear what it meant to be Czech - most of the awakeners themselves spoke German as their mother tongue - and part of creating a national identity was projecting this identity back into the mists of time, portraying historical figures as proto-Czechs and emblems of Czech nationhood. Sayer's second chapter gives a quick tour of Bohemian history from the seventh century, precisely to introduce the raw "materials of memory" which the awakeners had at their disposal as they waged their rhetorical and symbolic struggles over just which parts of Czech history to resurrect, and how to interpret them.

Sayer deals less with historical events per se - we hear relatively little about what actually happened in, say, 1848 or 1918 - and more with how these events were used and understood by successive generations. Rather than wars, revolutions, congresses, or trials, he turns his attention to novels, official documents, ceremonies, and other signs of the times. And he has assembled a truly massive and fascinating collection of such documents, everything from founding texts of Czech identity, such as František Palacký's History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia, to more subtle indicators of national feeling such as street names, guide books, and memorial plaques. Sayer is an expert "reader" of both literary and non-literary texts, and he is particularly good at teasing out the symbolic systems underlying public art and ceremonies, such as monuments, museum exhibitions, even postage stamps. He offers a number of brilliant readings of public funerals, for example, showing how the burials of Aloiš Jirásek, Karel Čapek, and Karel Hynek Mácha each in their way embodied certain conceptions of Czech nationality, although it is a little surprising that he hardly deals with the biggest funeral of all, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk's, which united and mobilized millions in the fall of 1937.

Colonization of the commonplace

At times this wealth of information is overwhelming, and a reader unfamiliar with Czech history may have trouble keeping some of the characters straight, especially since Sayer assiduously draws parallels across the whole breadth of his topic, moving in a single paragraph from the 1950s back to the seventeenth century and then forward to the 1890s. These parallels, however, are one of the book's great strengths, showing how successive Czech leaders and intellectuals struggled to reinterpret the same national icons for different ends. In a 1949 speech by Communist Prime Minister Antonín Zápotocký, for example, Sayer points out echoes of both the fifteenth-century St Václav chorale ("Do not let us or our descendants perish" - a plea Zápotocký redirected from St Václav to the equally mystical force of Soviet-Czechoslovak brotherhood) and the motto of the Czechoslovak legions in World War I, "We will remain faithful," which President Edvard Beneš had borrowed in his funeral oration for Masaryk. Zápotocký's loyalty, of course, was to Stalin rather than to the brief interwar tradition of Masarykian democracy.

It is somewhat surprising that Sayer hardly mentions another master semiotician, Vladimir Macura, whose Znamení zrodu [The Sign of the Origin] has given an account of the national awakening that is equally alive to the subtleties of meaning in texts both commonplace and unconventional, and equally aware that the "Czech nation" in the first half of the nineteenth century was a construct of recent vintage. Ultimately, however, Sayer's argument is quite different from Macura's. If the master-plot of Znamení zrodu was the story of how the first generation of awakeners created an artificial world among themselves, a semiotic "empty vessel" that as yet had no referent in reality, Sayer extends this model to all attempts at creating Czech identity, from the awakening down to the present, and he shows how these symbolic systems inexorably seeped into the reality of everyday life - such that peasant clothing or nursery rhymes ceased to be "incidental aspects of personal existence" and "were reconfigured as essential elements of a social identity."

This "colonization of the quotidian" by the symbol systems of nineteenth-century nationalism was a crucial part of the "cultural revolution" in which Czech-speakers were reconceived as a national collective. Even more than Macura, Sayer is confident in the power of signs to shape identity. But he emphasizes that such revolutions have their darker sides - the same affirmation of Czech identity confined Germans and Jews to their own separate collectives, foreign "minorities" living in a Slavic society. Likewise, the Communists would later carry out their own "colonization of the quotidian," albeit one based on a more total and repressive control of the signs and symbols of politics, culture, and everyday life.

The misbegotten child

To the extent that Sayer has a master narrative of Bohemian history, it is embodied in this similarity between the Communists and the awakeners. For all the differences in their methods, he says, they were engaged in a similar project: "the nineteenth-century buditelé [awakeners] had provided a ready-made template for a community homogenized in culture and belief, uncomplicated by the inconsistent liberalism ... of the first republic. In [Communist] hands, this romantic nationalist legacy was refashioned into a script of totalizing power...," such that Communism can be seen as "a misbegotten child" of the National Revival. Above all, the nineteenth-century cult of the "Czech people" as the source of national authenticity, directed against a German-speaking aristocracy and later the wealthy Jewish bourgeoisie, evolved smoothly into the Communists' identification of the nation's interest with that of the working classes.

This approach brings out interesting and disturbing parallels; above all it resists the idea that communism was merely a foreign imposition of Soviet imperialism, a purely external calamity visited on the Czechs from outside. But even though Sayer hastens to add that communism was not the inevitable result of nineteenth-century nationalism, he could have done more justice to some of the alternatives Bohemia abandoned along the way. He is especially hard on the interwar First Republic. He sees it as a country that was too ethnically diverse (with large minorities of Jews, Germans, Hungarians and of course Slovaks) for the narrow conception of Czech identity fashioned by the awakeners. For Sayer, the artists and writers of Prague's leftist avant-garde provided the main alternative to this dangerously narrow conception; only to have their laudably cosmopolitan and enthusiastically eclectic version of Czechness self-destruct in the clashes occasioned by the Moscow Trials.

Competing notions of Czechness

These are valid points of view, but Sayer could have supplemented them with more discussion of the pragmatic, centrist liberalism embodied in figures such as Masaryk, Čapek, and the interwar journalist Ferdinand Peroutka. They make frequent, brief appearances on the coastlines of Bohemia, but they do not get the same sustained treatment that is given to figures such as the artists Alfons Mucha, and Karel Teige or the historian Zdeněk Nejedlý. Masaryk. Čapek, in particular, deserve more comprehensive discussion, especially since many of Sayer's references to them emphasize their affinities to the narrow nationalist camp without exploring the complexities of their attachments to plurality and democracy. One could argue that Masaryk and the writers around him offered a far more plausible alternative to the ethnically restrictive conception of Czech identity than the starry-eyed avant-garde, which was equally naive about contacts with America (where they had never been) and Moscow (where many of them had been). In any case, however we feel about the prospects and achievements of interwar Czechoslovakia, surely no discussion of Czech identity is complete without confronting these figures, with their own complicated, conflicted and fascinating views of Czech nationalism and competing notions of Czechness.

These are strands missing in Sayer's larger tapestry, but in the end he makes no claims to completeness - just the opposite, in fact. He avoids definitive statements about who the Czechs are, instead taking the constant struggles and retellings of Czech identity as emblematic of our own modernity's tenuous and tendentious relationship to the past. After all, Czech history, in its fragmented discontinuity, is not anomalous: it "constantly forces us to rethink what we mean by a history in the first place, and to confront the question of how much forgetting is always entailed in the production of memory." Sayer pointedly ends his narrative in the 1960s - when the line running from 15th-century proto-Reformationist Jan Hus to Communist president Klement Gottwald seemed more direct than the one from Hus to Havel - implicitly suggesting how much Czechs have rewritten their own history since 1989. One of the many virtues of this provocative book is that it awakens our sense of how protean history is and how we endlessly fashion it in our own image.

Jonathan Hughes Bolton

Order The Coasts of Bohemia from Amazon.com

Editor's Note: This article was first published in ENP, 17 May 1999

Back to Central Europe Review


Articles galore
in the

Contact CER to find out more about our Virtual Internship Programme


Book Shop


Music Shop

with your comments
and suggestions.


Copyright (c) 1999, 2000 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved