Nationalism in Bohemia and Poland

By Herbert Adolphus Miller

[The North American Review, December 1914]

No one can foretell the future political organization of Europe. Traditions, alliances, and antipathies will continue to exert an influence more or less in harmony with the past. There are, however, certain elemental states of mind whose development made the war upon which Europe has entered almost inevitable and which will continue to assert themselves until a political organization in harmony with their demands is accomplished. This war has been called a conflict of races—Pan-Germanism versus Pan-Slavism. The fundamental cause of the antagonism between these two peoples is neither racial nor economic; it is psychological. We call it Nationalism.

Nationalism is the struggle of a group to preserve its own individuality. It is even more elemental than religion itself, and, as in the case of the early Christian church, its growth to gigantic proportions has been fostered by the blind stupidity of rulers who could not see that the way to make it grow was to try to crush it. It is akin to patriotism, but draws its lines according to the group consciousness for a common language and traditions, or the feeling of unity of blood through some common ancestor. It does not correspond to national boundaries, but rather to historic or even imaginary boundaries. It is sentimental rather than rational. In fine, it is the revolt of a people conscious of its unity against control by influences trying to annihilate this consciousness. A familiar example of this spirit is the Irish Home Rule agitation. Nationalism does not express itself so much in antagonism to political supremacy as in resentment against the imposition of cultural influences, of which language is generally the chief instrument.

In older days the victims of war were killed or enslaved; in recent times they have been made subjects. Within a half-century, and most rapidly within the last decade, the whole world has developed a spirit of revolt against the subject condition—whether political or cultural—and the spirit of Nationalism has become dominant. Nationalism has sprung into being in its present form so rapidly that the world has been slow to recognize it as one of the most potent social forces of this generation. Norway long resented the authority of Sweden, and ten years ago peaceably separated from her, and is now officially reviving the language used by the people four hundred years ago before the Danes imposed a foreign language and culture upon her. The Germans, both in the Empire and in Austria, have been ruthless in their efforts to impose their language and ideas upon all who came under their power, with the result that every people in Europe both fears and hates them.

It was the development of the national spirit among the Peoples of Southeastern Europe, focused against the efforts to impose upon them German language and culture, that precipitated the present war. The policy of Europe has been the government of various areas and peoples by a few great Powers. Of late years this rule has been maintained with relatively less war than formerly, but a storm has been brewing and has finally broken. Austria has established her dominion over a heterogeneous aggregation of Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Dalmatians, and Italians. Russia has strengthened her control over Finland and Poland. But, thanks to the new spirit of Nationalism, there has never before been so little assimilation. It has long seemed inevitable that the time could not be indefinitely postponed when disintegration and realignments would change the map of Europe. When Austria appropriated Bosnia and Herzegovina, she gave an impetus to the forces that must eventually lead to her own destruction. While the assassination of the Grand-Duke Ferdinand may not have been desired, it was exactly in harmony with the hostile spirit of the Slavs, who constitute two-thirds of the subjects of Austria. Each Slavic group has a strongly developing Nationalism of its own coupled with the ponderously forming Pan-Slavic consciousness. All the Slavic languages are closely related and serve as a symbol for a closer union of all the divisions. As an organization Pan-Slavism is only an ideal. It was, however, to meet the danger which he foresaw from Pan-Slavism that the German Chancellor raised the unparalleled war tax two years ago, and thereby forced England and France into corresponding increases.

The two largest subject Slavic groups, who have developed Nationalism to the highest degree and have been the most influential in fostering antagonism to the Germans, are the Bohemians and the Poles. The present situation in Bohemia is well described in an address given by Count Lützow in Prague in 1911:

One of the most interesting facts that in Bohemia and especially in Prague mark the period of peace at the beginning of the nineteenth century is the revival of the national feeling and language.... The greatest part of Bohemia, formerly almost Germanized, has now again become thoroughly Slavic. The National language, for a time used only by the peasantry in the outlying districts, is now freely and generally used by the educated classes in most parts of the country. Prague itself, that had for a time acquired almost the appearance of a German town, has now a thoroughly Slavic character. The National literature also, which had almost ceased to exist, is in a very flourishing state, particularly since the founding of a National university. At no period have so many and so valuable books been written in the Bohemian language.

Count Lützow himself had an English mother and German father, but has identified himself completely with the Bohemian Nationalism. The Countess is the daughter of a German minister in Mecklenburg, but feels such antipathy for the Germans that, not knowing the Bohemian language, she speaks only English and French.

About fifty years ago, several Bohemian writers were bold enough to write in their own language instead of German; from that time the Bohemian spirit has grown until now hostility to the German language has become a passion. In many of the restaurants throughout Bohemia, the headwaiter passes a collection-box regularly for "the Mother of Schools," which supports public schools in the Bohemian language in all parts of the country where there is a majority of Germans—only German schools being provided by the Government in such communities. The inevitable result of this national spirit is the gradual elimination of the German language. One rarely hears German on the streets of Prague, whereas ten years ago one heard little else. Fathers who were brought up to speak German teach their children to speak Bohemian. Business men take the greatest pride in succeeding without knowing German, for it proves that Bohemia is developing ability to stand alone. Most older people know both languages equally well, but the younger know little German. At the University of Prague the Bohemian graduates do not know German well, and the Bohemian part of the university is more than twice as large as the German. The nationalizing process of unifying the people is going on in the face of the disrupting force of eleven political parties and the sharp spiritual division into Catholics and anti-Catholics.

It has unquestionably been a disadvantage for a people of seven millions to cut itself off from the opportunities of the environing German culture, science, and commerce, but even those who have seen this most clearly have deliberately made the sacrifice in their struggle for the freedom of the spirit. When we remember that the prestige is on the side of the Germans, we realize in this movement the same indifference to personal success that characterizes the religious enthusiast.

Bohemian Nationalism is strong also in America, expressing itself most strongly in organized propaganda for free thought. This is an interesting story in itself; it is mentioned because primarily it is an expression of the historical hatred of Catholic Austria, just as Polish Catholicism is an opposition to Orthodox Russia and Protestant Prussia, and Irish Catholicism to Protestant England. As the sight of a Russian church makes a Pole pious, so the sight of any church intensifies Bohemian free-thinking. In the city of Chicago alone there are twenty-seven thousand Bohemians who make quarterly payments for the support of schools on Saturday and Sunday for the teaching of the Bohemian language and free-thought.

The most inclusive form of Slavic Nationalism is pan-Slavism. An enormous stride toward its crystallization was made by the international Slavic gymnastic meet in Prague in 1912. More than twenty thousand persons took part; at one time eleven thousand men speaking many different languages and including the soon-to-be enemies, Bulgarians and Servians, were doing calisthenic exercises together. The Poles would not come because the Russians were invited, but all the other Slavic divisions were represented: Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Servians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, Ruthenians, Moravians, Bohemians, and Russians.

"Slavie! Slavie!" was the key-note of every speech, and every utterance aroused the wildest enthusiasm. The meet was held at the same time that the Olympic games were taking place at Stockholm. The latter aroused the greatest international interest, but the meet at Prague which was fanning the sparks which were to set Europe aflame with war passed almost unnoticed by all but Slavs. A quarter of a million visitors filled the city and illustrated reports of the exhibition went to the ends of the Slavic world. A few weeks afterward I saw some pasted on the wall of a peasant factory in the back districts of Moscow. The German papers of Prague were full of the Stockholm games, but completely ignored the meet in their own city, which no self-respecting German could attend. The streets were everywhere brilliant with flags, but never the Austrian flag.

During the Balkan War, for Austria to threaten Servia was like rushing to destruction, for it was bound to arouse a Slavic revolt. When Bohemians were being entrained from their garrisons for mobilization on the Servian border, they sang the pan-Slavic hymn, "Hej Slovane," sung by all Slavic nations, but forbidden to Austrian soldiers in service. This is an enthusiastic and powerful hymn, full of encouragement to the Slavs, telling them that their language shall never perish, nor shall they, "even though the number of Germans equal the number of souls in hell." It is estimated that more than seventy thousand young men disappeared from Austria when they were called for their military service; there is every reason to believe that in the present war also the heart of the Austrian Slav is on the other side.

Poland, perhaps, offers the most highly developed example of Nationalism. It was never a conspicuous country, but over a hundred years ago it was free. Germany, Austria, and Russia divided it, and, completely ignoring sociological laws, have tried to absorb it. Never was there another so persistent and deliberate effort to wipe out national individuality, but if there ever was a case of imperial indigestion, Poland has caused three chronic attacks. Bismarck's foolish policy of forbidding the Polish language and forcing German in its place, and Russia's similar policy with Russian, can be called a basic cause for the present European turmoil, because it has made the preservation of language a religion, and martyrdom for it a glorification. The Poles think that their love for the church is piety, while in reality they are good Catholics because their religion is Poland, and Catholicism is a Polish protest against Orthodox Russia and Protestant Prussia. I was interested to observe that a Polish gentleman, whose education would have made him a weak Catholic in any other country, after passing a Russian church would always cross himself more fervidly when passing the next Catholic church. Every sign of Russia or Germany says to a Pole "Be a good Catholic.'' In fact, any particular religious form is never so strong as the spirit of Nationalism to which it may often serve merely as a symbol. The obsession of the Poles is to find some way to thwart the plans of the various controlling governments. Progress as a policy has no interest for them. Pan-Slavism has not as yet become a motive to them, partly because their hatred of the Russians has hitherto precluded any suggestion of a union with them. Since they are the most numerous Slavs, except the Russians, numbering about forty millions, and the most aggressively nationalistic, they have been one of the chief causes of the heavy armaments of both Germany and Russia. If the promise of Russia to grant autonomy to the Poles in return for their loyalty is made in good faith, she has under the compulsion of necessity taken a step which sound sense should have dictated long ago. It is difficult to imagine the change of front which will occur among the Poles in consequence. Unquestionably its influence on the Pan-Slavic union will be exceedingly great.

Lithuania and Finland show the same phenomenon of growing national spirit as Bohemia and Poland. In their cases, however, the revolt is against the cultural authority of a group who are not their political rulers, instead of being both political and cultural. The Lithuanian movement is going on within Poland. Several centuries ago the two countries were united by the marriage of rulers, the Government and culture of Lithuania becoming Polish. The Lithuanian language was preserved by the peasants as in Bohemia. Poles and Germans were the landholders; the Lithuanians were the laborers and serfs. Within the last decade the Lithuanian consciousness has burst into a conflagration. A man fully Polish in culture and association, but possessing Lithuanian blood, becomes Lithuanian in spirit. He learns the language from the peasants and chooses them for associates rather than the cultured Poles whom he would have sought ten years ago. After the revolution in 1905 in the gymnasia, the privilege was granted to students of adopting the Russian, Polish, or Lithuanian language for part of their instruction where previously only Russian had been allowed. In a gymnasium in Vilna ten years ago three out of thirty chose Lithuanian; now out of he same number at least twenty take Lithuanian. This change is an indication of the growth of the movement among the people. I have had two Lithuanian students who speak Polish as a mother tongue and Lithuanian with relative difficulty. One is half Polish in blood, and has learned to read Lithuanian since coming to this country. When attending the gymnasium in 1905 he chose Polish as his language; his younger brother now in the gymnasium speaks nothing but Lithuanian when possible, though his mother does not know the language at all, and his father only slightly. A still older brother, a successful attorney in St. Petersburg, is now studying the language and feels fully Lithuanian.

For six and a half centuries the Finns were ruled by Sweden. In 1809 their country became subject to Russia. Their culture has been continuously Swedish. At the University of Helsingfors, where twenty-five years ago all the work was done in Swedish, now a larger part is in Finnish, and the Finnish spirit is increasing by leaps and bounds. Seven and a half centuries of Swedish culture with no Finnish education has had no effect, except to stimulate the growth of Finnish national feeling. The people live amicably together. The government has been increasingly Russian, but there are absolutely no signs of assimilation. Helsingfors and the other Finnish cities look more like Detroit or Washington than like St. Petersburg, though Russian influence has been working a full century on them.

Illustrations of the development of national spirit among the warring people and others might be greatly multiplied. Enough have been given to show that the conflict in Europe is not simple, but is the product of complex social psychology, and that, whatever the outcome of the war, these forces will continue to work until their demands are satisfied. Organized Pan-Slavism is no more to be desired than organized Pan-Germanism, but group freedom is essential to the human soul and must come. The dream of pan-Slavism is a potential fact in the struggle to attain this freedom. This social law which underlies the war in Europe must be learned as a result of the present gigantic conflict or peace will not be assured. The precipitation of the war was due to the fact that the highly organized nations of Europe were so superlatively prepared for war that they were in a state of unstable equilibrium which could no longer stand the tension. This war should silence for ever the old dogma that the way to preserve peace is to be prepared for war. This war, which is an apparent travesty on civilization, is probably a prelude to ultimate international peace, since the time necessary for physical recovery will be great enough to give opportunity for the adoption of obvious sociological principles which could make no headway against the political medievalism of the immediate past.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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