THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

58 posts categorized "Czech Republic"

26 June 2020

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (Part 1)

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Believed to have left India in the Middle Ages, the Romani people are one of the biggest ethnic minorities in Europe that has traditionally suffered from prosecution and discrimination. Since they often choose not to disclose their ethnic identity, the exact number of Roma in Europe is unknown and is estimated at about 10-14 million. On the occasion of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month, we present a few selections of publications written by or related to members of the Roma community in Europe.

Pieśni Papuszy — The songs of Papusza

Photograph of Bronisława Wajs

Bronisława Wajs, Wikimedia Commons 

Bronisława Wajs (1908 or 1910-1987), most widely known by her Romani name Papusza, was one of the most famous Romani poets of all time. She did not receive any schooling and, as a child, she paid non-Romani villagers with stolen goods in exchange for teaching her to read and write. At the age of 16 she got married off against her will to a man older than her by 24 years. Papusza survived the Second World War by hiding in the woods and became known as a poet in 1949, as a result of her acquaintance with Jerzy Ficowski, a poet and a translator from Romani to Polish. Her poetry, dealing with the subject of yearning and feeling lost, quickly gained her recognition in the Polish literary world.

Ficowski convinced Papusza that by having her poems translated from Romani and published, she would help improving the situation of the Romani community in Poland. However, Ficowski also authored a book about Roma beliefs and rituals, accompanied by a Romani-Polish dictionary of words, which he learned from Papusza. He also officially gave his support to forced settlement imposed on Roma by Polish authorities in 1953. As a result, Papusza was ostracised from the Roma community. Her knowledge sharing with Ficowski was perceived as a betrayal of Roma, breaking the taboo, and a collaboration with the anti-Romani government. Although Papusza claimed that Ficowski misinterpreted her words, she was declared ritually impure and banned from the Roma community. After an eight-month stay in a psychiatric hospital, Papusza spent the rest of her life isolated from her tribe. Ficowski, who genuinely had believed that the forced settlement of Romani people would better their life by eradicating poverty and illiteracy, later regretted endorsing the government’s policy, as the abandonment of nomadic life had profound implications on the Romani community.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

References:

Bronisława Wajs, Jerzy Ficowski, Pieśni Papuszy. Papušakre gila (Wrocław, 1956). 11588.p.45

Angelika Kuźniak, Papusza (Wołowiec, 2013). YF.2017.a.16135

Valentina Glajar and Domnica Radulescu (eds), “Gypsies” in European literature and culture (New York, 2008). YK.2009.a.21165

 

Tzigari: vita di un nomade

Cover of Tzigari: vita di un nomade

Giuseppe Levakovich and Giorgio Ausenda, Tzigari: vita di un nomade (Milano, Bompiani, 1975), X.709/23552

Tzigari: vita di un nomade is an autobiographical account telling about the persecutions of Roma and Sinti in Italy during the Second World War and about the Romani genocide, Porajmos. Tzigari is the nickname of Giuseppe Levakovich. Born in 1908 in Istria, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Levakovich became an Italian citizen after the First World War and joined the fascist army in the invasion of Abyssinia, in 1936. When the Italian racial laws were promulgated, he and his people became discriminated and prosecuted. His wife was sent to a concentration camp in Germany, and Tzigari joined the Italian resistance movement. There aren’t many written accounts shedding light on these events from a Roma perspective, and this book is certainly an early example, published in 1975.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections


Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

A photograph of a Roma man holding a cockrerel

A photograph of a Roma man by Josef Koudelka from Gypsies (New York, 2011) LD.31.b.2995

Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies is an unprecedented documentary photography book on Romanies. Born in 1938 in Moravia, Koudelka is a Magnum photographer still active today. The original Cikáni (Czech for Gypsies) was first prepared by Koudelka and graphic designer Milan Kopriva, in Prague in 1968. The book was not published, because in 1970 Koudelka fled from Czechoslovakia to England to seek political asylum. However, the first edition of Gypsies was subsequently published in 1975 in the United States.

It was Roma music and culture that initially drew Koudelka to start taking photographs of the people. By immersing himself into their lives he managed to capture the intricacies of their everyday existence. Leading a nomadic life, they were like him in a way. “For 17 years I never paid any rent. Even gypsies were sorry for me because they thought I was poorer than them. At night they were in their caravans and I was a guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky.”

Gypsies offers an unbiased and honest insight into Roma people’s lives. It consists of 109 black and white photographs, taken between 1962 and 1971 in what was then Czechoslovakia (Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia), Romania, Hungary and Spain. During this time, Koudelka lived, travelled with, and documented Europe’s Roma communities. His masterful storytelling is bursting with emotion and the realism of people caught up in everyday situations, from individuals and family portraits to suited musicians, funeral processions or weddings set in rural landscapes. The unfolding candid images draw the viewer in and make them feel as if they are there with them, experiencing their lives. This rich and inspiring source of Roma iconography and self-identity is a timeless document of the community in its heyday.

Lora Afrić, Languages Cataloguing Manager

References:

Koudelka Josef. Cikáni (Prague, 2011). LF.31.b.8497

Koudelka Josef. Gypsies (London, 1975). LB.37.b.367

Quote taken from: https://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/01/30/street-photography-book-review-gypsies-by-josef-koudelka/


“Romani, read poems and keep your mother tongue”

Cover of O Devlikano Ramope

O Devlikano Ramope (‘Gospel of Luke’) (Belgrade, 1938) W2/6259.

“Romani, read poems and keep your mother tongue” is a simple and powerful message attributed to Rade Uhlik, a great researcher of the Romani language and culture from Southeast Europe.

Rade Uhlik (1899-1991) was a Bosnian and Herzegovinian linguist and curator at the National Museum in Sarajevo. He was the first Romani scholar in the Balkans and a pioneer in Romani studies. His scholarship was varied and prolific in multiple disciplines: from language and linguistics to history and ethnography and culture in general.

Uhlik was noted for his scholarly study of the Romani language and its many dialects. Most of his research was done away from the office. He devoted his time mainly to fieldwork and to collecting stories, poems and customs of the Romani people from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, which was his greatest scholarly achievement. His first book published in Prijedor in 1937 was a collection of Romani poems (We hold another edition of his Ciganska poezija (‘Gypsy poetry’; Sarajevo, 1957; 011313.m.48).

Uhlik collected about 1200 Romani stories in 20 volumes of which four have been published, three outside Yugoslavia and only one in Sarajevo in 1957 as Ciganske priče (‘Gypsy stories’; 11397.dd.53). In 1938 Uhlik translated the Gospel of Luke into Romani as O Devlikano Ramope. His Srpskohrvatsko-ciganski rečnik. Romane alava (‘Serbo-Croatian-Gypsy dictionary’) was first published in three sequels in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, with whom Uhlik actively collaborated, and then as an independent edition in Sarajevo in 1947 (012977.b.33. Revised edition (Sarajevo, 1983) YA.1991.a.7953).

The beginning of the Gospel of Luke, printed in two columns

The beginning of the Gospel of Luke, printed in two columns. The printing of the Gospel of Luke in Romani in Belgrade in 1938 was supported by the Bible Society.

Uhlik as a non-Roma did great service to Romani language and culture, passionately committed to the cause, almost independently and with little or no support of the Yugoslav academy and society. To preserve the memory of a great scholar, the Serbian Academy is helping the establishment of an international “Rade Uhlik” institute for the Romani studies under the sponsorship of the European Centre for Peace and Development in Belgrade.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections

04 May 2020

Alfons Mucha and his Art Nouveau books

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There is nothing more frustrating than being constantly told how successful you are, while deep inside you feel that you’ve never fulfilled your potential. At least, that’s how Alfons Mucha felt about himself.

Having been rejected by the Prague Academy of Arts (with the well-meant advice that he should look for a different career), Mucha persisted in his wish to become an artist. His resilience paid off: after his first poster of Sarah Bernhardt’s theatre performance was hung all over Paris, he became famous overnight. New commissions came in profusion, and brought a considerable income to Mucha, who spent his time designing beer, biscuit and cigarette adverts, theatre posters, and book and magazine illustrations.

Beer advert by Alfons Mucha featuring a woman drinking beer

Beer advert by Alfons Mucha. Wikimedia Commons 

He worked constantly. When the Parisian publisher Henri Piazza commissioned Robert de Flers to write L’Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli for Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha had only three months to prepare 134 illustrations before the date set for printing. He had to work on four lithographs at a time in order to meet the deadline. The edition turned out to be a great success and was subsequently reprinted in Czech and German.

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská with Art Nouveau illustrations by Alfons Mucha

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská by Robert de Flers (Prague, 1901) Cup.410.c.305. Wikimedia Commons 

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská with Art Nouveau illustrations by Alfons Mucha

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská

But while Mucha managed to achieve financial success and become a well-known figure within Art Nouveau, he felt that he was wasting his talent on trifling jobs carried out in a style for which he did not have much respect: “(…) I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about.”

While his professional life revolved around commercial advertising, Mucha turned to mysticism. He joined the Parisian Masonic Lodge, became involved in conducting séances, and, just as he did in his personal life, he longed to devote himself to a spiritual task in his work. In 1899 Mucha embarked on a project that he considered worthy of him: being a devout Catholic, he set out to publish his own edition of the Lord’s Prayer, Otčenáš, in which every line of text was accompanied by a whole-page illustration and Mucha’s commentary. In Mucha’s edition, God is presented as a protective, maternal force and the whole work abounded in Masonic and cabalistic symbols. By rendering the content of each line of the prayer in the form of an image, he aimed to present humanity’s struggle to achieve a higher spiritual state.

Illustration to “Lead us not into temptation” from Otčenáš

Illustration to “Lead us not into temptation” from Otčenáš (Prague, 1902) Cup.410.g.427. Wikimedia Commons 

Illustration to “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” from Otčenáš

Illustration to “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” from Otčenáš Wikimedia Commons 

Page with “Hallowed be thy name” verse from Otčenáš

Page with “Hallowed be thy name” verse from Otčenáš

Mucha issued the book in only 510 copies and expressed a wish for it never to be published again. As he saw Otčenáš as his greatest printed masterpiece and an embodiment of his religious credo, he did not want it to become yet another mass-produced commercial enterprise.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections 

References:

Jiří Mucha, Alphonse Maria Mucha: His Life and Art (New York, 1989) f89/0298

“Alphonse Mucha and Ilsee, Princess of Tripoli”, available at https://davidbarnettgallery.com/experience-the-story-of-ilsee-princess-of-tripoli

Peter Davison, “Alphonse Mucha: Art, Music And Spirituality”, available at: https://corymbus.co.uk/alphonse-mucha-art-music-and-spirituality/

http://www.muchafoundation.org/

 

07 April 2020

Books that don’t look like books

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Did this librarian chop up a piano? Is this reader hitting the bottle? No, they are just holding Czech books in their hands.

Modern Czech book designers can challenge our way of thinking on what a book should look like and leave us puzzled as to why it was designed that way. Take for example a book that looks like a hip- flask — Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle, a Czech translation of Naufragé Volontaire by Alain Bombard, who became famous for crossing the Atlantic on a drifting boat. He did it alone without taking any provisions with him, assuming that the sea would provide him with enough food and drink to survive. The enterprise was inspired by a shipwreck whose forty-three victims were found dead a few hours after the ship sank, even though all of them were wearing lifejackets. As a doctor, Bombard wanted to prove that many of the shipwreck victims did not die of hunger or thirst, but of fear. His journey lasted for 65 days; he lost 25 kilograms and suffered from a visual impairment, but he made it to the end.

Book in the shape of a green bottle

Cover of Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle by Alain Bombard (Prague, 1964) C.188.b.129

Top view of book in the shape of a bottle

Top of Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle

It is not clear why Jan Sobota, the designer of the binding, decided to give Bombard’s book the shape of a bottle. It could be an allusion to the freshly-squeezed fish juice which constituted Bombard’s only drink for more than two months, or rather to how great it would feel to drink a bottle of anything else…

Our next item, the autobiography of a pianist, Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994), is styled after a piano. The binding incorporates an actual piano keyboard applied to the front cover. Touching the book gives the same sensation as laying one’s hand on a musical instrument. The text of the book is printed as a facsimile of a manuscript on hand-made paper with unevenly cut edges, giving the reader the sense of reading Firkušný’s original memoir, and then reprinted in a regular font on later pages.

Photograph of a book styled after a piano

Cover of Rudolf Firkušný by Rudolf Firkušný (Prague, 1993) Cup.936/2167

Photograph of a book styled after a piano

Cover of Rudolf Firkušný

Text of Rudolf Firkušný

Text of Rudolf Firkušný

Besides books that can be mistaken for something else, we also have a few examples of bindings that involve the inclusion of another object. For example, the cover of Z motáků by Jan Kristofori incorporates a fountain pen and barbed wire (Kristofori was a graphic artist who spent seven years in prison for political reasons).

Book cover with fountain pen and barbed wire

Cover of Z motáků by Jan Kristofori (Prague, 1993) RF.2001.b.11

And here is Co je nesmrtelné aneb živé drahokamy, an autobiography of František Kožík (1909-1997), a Czech novelist. The cover is decorated with a hand-painted ribbon, an element of Czech folk costume.

Book cover decorated with a hand-painted ribbon

Cover of Co je nesmrtelné aneb živé drahokamy by František Kožík (Prague, 1994) RF.2001.b.12

And last but not least, a book that can be broken into two books. When you borrow Malovat slunce by Petr Nikl, it comes in one piece. But in order to read it, you need to dismantle what the library assistant gave you: you remove the blue paper ribbon (this requires some manual dexterity) and suddenly, instead of one volume of poetry, you have two of them – a small semi-circular booklet and a larger book. The latter provides you with a very interesting reading experience, as you read a book with a massive hole in the middle through which you can peep at your fellow readers.

Photograph of Malovat slunce showing the two parts of the book

Malovat slunce by Petr Nikl (Prague, 2018) [awaiting shelfmark]

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

To learn more about the bottle-shaped book, read: https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2017/06/one-green-bottle-jan-sobotas-book-binding.html

24 March 2020

Against books that 'look like paper rags'

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The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a real boom of Cubist art in Prague. As the art historian Miroslav Lamač noted:

Prague became the city of Cubism with Cubist apartment blocks full of Cubist flats furnished with Cubist furniture. The inhabitants could drink coffee from Cubist cups, put flowers in Cubist vases, keep the time on Cubist clocks, light their rooms with Cubist lamps and read books in Cubist type.

Cover of 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below), designed by Slavoboj Tuzar, from Jan Neruda, Malostranský feuilleton (Prague, 1916) Cup.408.pp.25.

Endpaper from 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Following the spirit of the times, local designers turned away from the style of Art Nouveau towards modern art based on geometrical ornamentation, known as Czech Cubism or ‘angular style’. They believed that objects, including books, have their own inner energy, which can be released by introducing crystalline shapes and breaking the horizontal and vertical planes of the surface. This went against the traditional book design, which the Cubists found limiting and against “the needs of the human soul”. In their opinion, a book should be treated as a holistic entity – this was to be achieved by restricting the design to a very limited choice of repeatable geometric or floral shapes and grids which, on the one hand, create symmetry, and, on the other, introduce dynamics through broken lines.

Cover of 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below) from Otakar Theer, Vsemu navzdory (Prague, 1916) C.108.u.16.

Endpaper from 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

An end had to be put to mass produced books that “looked like paper rags” – that, in a nutshell, was the manifesto of Czech Cubist book designers. The ultimate idea behind the design was to change the mind-set of the Czech middle class which, according to the Cubists, was devoid of any aesthetic sense. In their opinion, not only the content of a book was important; just looking at a book should be a source of immediate visual pleasure. In order to elevate society, they believed that art should be an integral part of the human everyday existence.

Cover of 'Demaskovaní' with a floral, geometric design

Cover, designed by Pravoslav Kotík, from Jan Opolský, Demaskovaní (Prague, 1916) Cup.410.f.251

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References:

Jindřich Toman, Kniha v českém kubismu = Czech cubism and the book (Prague, 2004) LF.31.b.923

04 February 2020

The grandmother of all Czech authors: Božena Němcová

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Although 4 February 1820 is officially commemorated as the birthday of Božena Němcová, one of the best-loved Czech writers of the 19th century, the actual date of her birth, and indeed her parentage, are surrounded by mystery. The register of baptisms in the parish church of the Holy Trinity in Vienna’s Alsterstrasse does indeed record the christening on 5 February of a daughter born the previous day to Terezie Novotná, a servant in an inn owned by Barbara Hauptmann, who stood godmother to the child, named after her but known by the Czech form, Barbora. However, the space for the father’s name is blank. On 7 August Terezie married Johann Pankel, coachman to Karl Rudolf Graf von der Schulenburg, on the Count’s estate in Ratibořice in Bohemia, and settled there. Terezie became a laundress to the Countess Wilhelmine, formerly Duchess of Sagan, but as her family increased (she had 12 children, though only six survived), she called on her mother for help, and Magdalena Novotná became part of the household in the Alte Bleiche. 

Portrait of Božena Němcová

Portrait of Božena Němcová from František Halas, Triptych o ohrožené zemi (Prague, 1959) X.989/70722.

In her book Tajemství Barunky Panklové (‘The mystery of Barunka Panklová’) Helena Sobková suggests that the child was actually the illegitimate daughter of Wilhelmine’s younger sister, Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord; other sources had previously claimed that her mother was Wilhelmine herself, who had given her to the Pankels to raise. Whatever the truth of this, after leaving the village school at ten the little girl was sent to the manor of Chvalkovice to acquire accomplishments such as etiquette, fine sewing and embroidery, piano-playing and flawless German to transform her from ‘Barunka’ into Fräulein Betty. Her mother, it appears, had little time or love for her, and her social pretensions also caused her to feel ashamed of Magdalena with her homely Czech speech and peasant dress. Possibly recalling her own illegitimate pregnancy, she determined to marry her eldest daughter off as quickly as possible, and on 12 September 1837 a wedding took place. The bride was 17, tear-stained and apprehensive; the groom, a customs official named Josef Němec, was 15 years her senior.

The marriage was unhappy from the outset, not helped by several moves during the next few years as Josef was transferred from one post to another. However, despite having her hands full with the care of a daughter and three sons, the young mother gradually found herself being drawn into a wider world. Josef was an ardent Czech patriot (something which would eventually cost him his job) and when the family moved to Prague in 1842 she came into contact with literary circles and met the historian and politician František Palacký and the author Václav Bolemír Nebeský, who encouraged her to write in Czech. On 5 April 1842 her first poem ‘Ženám Českým’ (‘To the Czech Women’) appeared, under the new name which she had adopted – Božena Němcová. Like many figures of the National Revival, she chose a name from Czech history: Božena was a peasant girl chosen as his bride by Prince Oldřich in preference to a German noblewoman.

By the time that Josef Němec’s involvement in the failed revolution of 1848 had caused him to be transferred to Slovakia, Božena’s literary activities had made her so unwilling to leave the Czech literary scene behind that she stayed in Prague with her children, although she made frequent visits to her husband. These journeys provided her with material for a book of travel writings from the Domazlice area (Obrazy z okolí domažlického, 1845), and also opportunities to collect Slovak folk-tales (1857-58) in the original – unusual for a Czech at a time when Slovak was not generally regarded as an autonomous language.

Illustration by František Slabý and Karel Štapfer of a castle and a procession from Národní báchorky a pověsti

Illustration by František Slabý and Karel Štapfer from Národní báchorky a pověsti (Prague, 1892) YA.1995.b.2351

Her best-loved work, however, was published in 1855. Babička (‘Grandmother’) draws on her recollections of a country childhood in the care of her own much-loved grandmother Magdalena, the ‘granny’ of the title who tells her grandchildren Barunka, Vilém, Jan and Adélka stories from her past, instils in them a simple but sincere faith and morality, and finally dies in the respect and affection of the whole village. In contrast to her is Viktorka, a girl who, seduced by a soldier, loses her wits, and is finally struck by lightning. The grandmother, however, teaches the children to show her compassion, and not to judge others hastily or harshly.

Illustration of a village market scene by Adolf Kašpar from Babička: Obrazy z venkovského života

Illustration by Adolf Kašpar from Babička: Obrazy z venkovského života (Prague, 1892) X.902/444

The first translation into German was made in 1858, and since then the novel has been translated into forty languages and reprinted in Czech more than 350 times. However, its success did not prevent Němcová from falling into poverty. Her later life was overshadowed by grief for her son Hynek, who died of tuberculosis in 1853, and as the wife of a civil servant it was impossible for her to take up any form of gainful employment, so that at times she actually went hungry. Her own health was deteriorating, and in 1861 it obliged her to return from Litomyšl, where she had been trying to earn a living with the publishing house which was preparing an edition of her work, to Prague and to her estranged husband. Her romantic relationships, including one with Nebeský, and disputes over the children had driven them further apart. On 21 February 1862 she succumbed to cancer, and was buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery, the last resting-place of many of the nation’s greatest writers, artists and musicians, close to the city’s ancient fortress.

Božena Němcová lives on today not only as a beloved author in her own right but as an inspiration to those who came after her. Jaroslav Seifert, the first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1984) to write in that language, wrote Píseň o Viktorce, and František Halas composed a cycle of poems about her, Naše paní Božena Němcová. Though never a grandmother in her lifetime, she is a true ancestress of Czech literature.

Illustration of the grandmother by Adolf Kašpar from Babička

The eponymous Grandmother. Illustration by Adolf Kašpar from Babička

Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

References:

Helena Sobková, Tajemství Barunky Panklové: Portrét Boženy Němcové (Prague, 2008) YF.2009.a.2612

Jaroslav Seifert, Píseň o Viktorce (Prague, 1950; X.958/30908)

František Halas, Naše paní Božena Němcová (Prague, 1940; X.958/3250

09 November 2019

The Revolutionary Year of 1989

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Thirty years ago today the crossing-points between two German states opened, marking the end of the Berlin Wall, demolished in the following months. The concrete barrier, separating East and West Berlin from 1961 until 1989, has been a symbol of the Cold War and the division of Europe. It was also a stage of dramatic escapes and a topic frequently explored by artists and writers. 

The demolition of the Berlin Wall generated high hopes about the new order emerging in 1989, after the collapse of authoritarian regimes across Central and Eastern Europe and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union. Timothy Garton Ash gave one of the most compelling accounts of these events and the spirit of the period. He went to Berlin to study the archival sources on the German resistance to Hitler, but found himself in the middle of a political upheaval in the region and embarked upon writing what he himself described as “history of the present”. He witnessed, among others, the first partly free election in Poland, the celebratory reburial of Imre Nagy (the executed prime minister of the revolutionary government in 1956) in Hungary, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

Blog on 1989 - Timothy Garton Ash - We The People
Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, We the People: the Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Cambridge, 1990), YK.1991.a.7367

Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern

Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: the Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (London, 2019), ELD.DS.107591 (a revised and updated fourth edition of We the People)

As a major turning point in European history, the events of 1989 have been repeatedly revisited by historians and social scientists. What exactly happened? Did the transition to democracy and free-market economy bring the expected results? Did the end of communism live up to the expectations of the people? Answers to these pertinent questions can be found in two volumes (co-)edited by Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian-American political scientist, who invited leading scholars in the field to rethink the meaning and impact of what is often called an annus mirabilis, a miraculous year.

The issue of bringing to justice people involved in authoritarian regimes has been hotly debated long after the transition to democracy. These debates are particularly vivid around the anniversaries of the revolution. In a large comparative study, edited by Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik, the commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the changes are analysed in 17 post-communist countries. The authors looked into how the memory of the historical events was shaped by various parties in order to serve their political agenda and concluded that the fractured memory of 1989 undermines democracy in the region.

Front cover of Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism

Front cover of Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration (Oxford, New York 2014), YC.2014.a.12893

The most recent attempt to rethink the changes of 1989 is a freshly-published book, The light that failed: a reckoning by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. They critically assess the belief prevalent after 1989 that the liberal democracy was destined to expand worldwide. The book begins with the sarcastic assertion that “the future was better yesterday”.

Andrzej Sadecki, British Library PhD placement student working on the topic ‘Politicisation of commemorative practices in Eastern Europe’ 

References

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The light that failed: a reckoning (London 2019), DRT ELD.DS.455162 (EPUB)

Timothy Garton Ash, We the People. The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Cambridge 1990), YK.1991.a.7367

Timothy Garton Ash, The magic lantern: the revolution of '89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (London 2019), ELD.DS.107591 (EPUB)

Vladimir Tismaneanu (ed.), The Revolutions of 1989 (London 1999), YC.1999.b.2118

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Sorin Antohi (eds.), Between past and future: the revolutions of 1989 and their aftermath (Budapest, New York 2012), YC.2002.a.8579

Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration (Oxford, New York 2014), YC.2014.a.12893

 

01 October 2019

Defending a Nazi – a barrister’s path from opponent of Nazism to advocatus diaboli

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“If you appoint me to defend this man, I will stand on the river bank naked, wearing only a white sheet, and scream that I am Jesus Christ” – that’s how we can summarize the reaction of Jaroslav Mellan, a lawyer, at the idea of him being asked to defend Karl Hermann Frank.

Cover of Noc pred popravou with a photograph of Karl Hermann Frank

Cover of Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou (Prague, 1995), YA.1999.a.737

The Czechoslovak Bar Association was in a tricky position. It was March 1946. Karl Hermann Frank, one of the most prominent Nazi leaders, had just been transferred from an American prison to Czechoslovakia, where he was to be tried and convicted of war crimes. The Bar Association, closely watched by the international community, had the difficult task of finding an advocatus diaboli for Frank, a job which no one wanted. The choice fell on Kamill Resler, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance movement and a defender of Jewish clients during the war, who was threatened with the withdrawal of his professional qualifications if he refused to defend the accused. Resler tried to challenge the decision a number of times, but to no avail. The situation was made even more dramatic by the fact that some of Resler’s relatives and friends were killed during the war as a result of Frank’s orders.

Photograph of Frank in front of his shop

Frank in front of his bookshop in Karlovy Vary, reproduced in Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu: K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Prague, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

And yet, despite his hatred for Frank, Resler believed that every criminal deserves a fair trial. In his opinion, a barrister’s duty was to disregard his feelings about the accused and to defend him to the best of his abilities. And that’s precisely what he did. Resler argued that Nazism was a disease and Frank, as its follower, must have suffered from a psychiatric disorder. He claimed that Frank lacked the ability to judge the consequences of his actions during the war and, on top of that, was unaware of what was happening in the concentration camps, even though he visited them several times.

Caricature of Resler

Caricature of Resler, reproduced in Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia: the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Before the war Frank worked as a bookseller and clerk. He enrolled in the German National-Socialist Workers Party in 1919, and when it was dissolved by the state, in the Sudeten German Party. Gradually he managed to reach the highest-ranking position in occupied Czechoslovakia, that of Secretary of State of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and chief of police. But now, with the war being over and he himself incarcerated in a Czechoslovak prison, isolated from family members and fully aware of the general hatred towards him, he became extremely depressed and struggled to find the emotional stamina to defend himself. That meant that Resler not only had to defend Frank, but that he actually found himself forced to console the Nazi prisoner and motivate him to fight for his life till the very end. The idea of Frank’s having hope of avoiding the death sentence would contribute to the image of a fair court trial that could not be questioned by international opinion.

Photograph of Resler during Frank’s trial

Resler during Frank’s trial, reproduced in Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia

Frank was at first very displeased with the fact that he would be defended by a Czech barrister. Resler upset him a number of times, as he didn’t hide his criticism of Nazi ideology and actions. Yet Frank had his softer side too. One day prison guards found him crying in his cell because two Czech prisoners had given him a loaf of bread as a Christmas gift. Frank was emotionally prepared to deal with hatred, but he wasn’t prepared for kindness.

Throughout the trial Resler was careful to keep a distance from him. Only when Frank heard the pronouncement of the death sentence did Resler shake his hand for the first time. He stayed with him in the prison cell for the three hours between the announcement of the verdict and the execution. When Frank was being taken to the gallows, he bade him farewell by saying: “Die like a man!”

Photograph of Frank sitting on a chair in a prison cell

Frank in prison cell, reproduced in Pán protektorátu

And thus Frank had a fair trial and the Czechoslovak justice system could not be criticized by the international public. The only detail that spoiled the whole picture was the hangman, who after the execution took the noose with which Frank was hanged and drank it away in a bar. Other than that, the moral standards of the Czechoslovaks successfully passed the test.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Slavonic and East European Collections Cataloguer

References/further reading

Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia : the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu : K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Praha, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou : K.H. Frank a jeho obhájce : archivy promluvily (Praha, 1995), YA.1999.a.737

01 August 2019

Pérák, the only Czech superhero

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During the Second World War, a strange rumour spread among the residents of Prague. A mysterious masked character dressed in black was said to be seen jumping at great heights over the rooftops and streets of the occupied city. He would suddenly leap out of a dark corner to attack Czech collaborators, or to save Czech civilians from the hands of the Gestapo.

An image of Pérák. He has springs on his feat and is holding a gun. In his other hand is a torn Nazi flag.

Jiří Gruss, Projekt Pérák (2003) reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou (Prague, 2017), awaiting shelfmark.

According to the urban legend, Pérák, the Spring Man (from Czech péro, 'spring'), was an inventor turned superhero. Thanks to springs attached to his shoes, he was able to startle and escape Nazi soldiers who tried in vain to capture him. That’s how popular belief has it. However, in his Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou, Petr Janeček shows that, in fact, the myth of the Spring Man did not start with the Second World War, but that for a century before it had been part of Czech and international folklore, and its origins could be traced back to Spring-heeled Jack, a spectre popular in Victorian England, who was believed to torment the inhabitants of London, Sheffield, and Liverpool. He had claws and red eyes and, just like Pérák, he was able to make enormous leaps.

Cover of Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London. The image shows Jack jumping from a window with a woman in his arms.

Cover of Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London. Issue 1 (London, 1867) 12620.h.26

In fact, the early oral tradition also presented the Spring Man as a sinister figure who posed a threat to common Czech people, as he would murder or rape defenceless civilians. As a result, many Czechs refused to work night shifts, which had a detrimental effect on the production of weapons in Nazi factories. During the peak of the Pérák myth, almost every incident would be attributed to the Spring Man. Gradually, Pérák evolved from a terrifying phantom into a positive hero who fought the Nazi army by blowing up military vehicles and who would defend the innocent residents of Prague, as well as writing anti-Nazi graffiti on walls to raise the morale of Czech civilians. And that’s how he became the only superhero in Czech history.

Cover of Petr Stančík’s Pérák. Pérák is crouching in the top left-hand corner of the cover.

Cover of Petr Stančík’s Pérák (Brno, 2008), YF.2008.a.33809

Being a symbol of Czech resistance against Nazi Germany, Pérák was an important part of Czech wartime culture. While he was almost certainly an imaginary character rather than a real person, he provided Czech civilians with hope and a feeling that someone out there was protecting them against the Nazi occupiers. Although his activity ceased completely with the end of the war, the career of Pérák as an urban legend was not over, and since then he has evolved from a hero of gossip stories into part of Czech popular culture, including cartoon animations, comic books and novels.

Cover of magazine Pionýr. Cover of magazine Pionýr is depicted here as a boy with springs on his feat jumping through the night sky.

Cover of magazine Pionýr (May 1980) reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

Being a symbol of resistance against the oppressor, the character of the Spring Man has been adopted by various political movements, including Czech nationalists, anti-globalists and anti-fascists - and in this way, the same spectre turned superhero has fought different enemies for the past eighty years.

An antifascist sticker with Pérák reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

An antifascist sticker with Pérák reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

Zuzanna Krzemien, SEE Cataloguer

References/Further reading

Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou (Prague, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark.

Petr Stančík, Pérák (Brno 2008). YF.2008.a.33809

 

30 July 2019

When moderation went out of the window: the First Defenestration of Prague

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Last year saw commemorations of the turbulent events of 1618, when the abrupt ejection of the Imperial councillors Martinitz and Slawata and their secretary from the windows of Prague Castle led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. However, in Britain it is not so widely known that this was not the first incident of this kind, although the First Defenestration of Prague had much closer links with England. Despite the fact that Elizabeth, the ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia, and her husband Frederick, the former Elector Palatine, were his own daughter and son-in-law, the timorous James I of England refrained from sending help when they and their growing family were driven out of Prague following the 1618 Defenestration. Afraid of jeopardizing relations with both Catholic and Protestant powers in Europe, he remained aloof, and the only Englishmen to become directly involved in the conflict were those who enlisted on either side as mercenaries.

Just under two centuries before, though, the equally fateful occurrences of 30 July 1419 stemmed directly from an English source which decisively influenced Bohemian politics. On the death of the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1378, his territories were divided between his sons. The new king, Václav IV, had to cope not only with the rivalry of his younger brothers Jošt, Margrave of Moravia, and Zikmund, who would succeed him, but with discontent among the nobility and increasing urban poverty and social unrest. This led to the eruption of civil strife in which minor nobility and Hussite preachers, intent on reform, opposed Zikmund and his Catholic supporters. As Prague’s status as a centre of culture and learning declined, the city’s German students decamped in 1409 to found a new university at Leipzig as Zikmund and the Council of Constance urged the young king to extirpate heretical elements within Prague’s university and churches.

Portrait of Jan Hus
Portrait of Jan Hus from Johann Agricola of Eisleben, Tragedia Johannis Huss ([Wittemberg], [1550?]) 11748.aa.1.

The followers of Jan Hus were notable for demanding that Holy Communion should be administered to the congregation sub utraque specie – allowing both people and clergy to partake of the chalice as well as consecrated bread. In other respects, too, they swerved dangerously from Catholic doctrine, not least in their zeal to make the Holy Scriptures available in the vernacular so that the laity could read them. Here they were drawing on the ideas of the English theologian John Wycliffe who attacked the Papacy, monastic orders and transubstantiation, and inspired the translation of the Bible into English. He shared a patron, John of Gaunt, with Chaucer at the time when Charles IV’s daughter Anne of Bohemia was queen of England, having married Richard II in 1381. Bohemian scholars who sympathized with Wycliffe and his Lollard followers came to Oxford, where Wycliffe had been a doctor of divinity, to copy his texts and take them back to Bohemia.

It was not only male academics who seized eagerly on these writings. An anonymous poem entitled Viklefice (‘The Wycliffite Woman’), dating from the early 15th century, describes in satirical tones how a female follower of Wycliffe lures an innocent young squire to her home as night approaches, ostensibly to teach him the true faith, but in fact plotting to seduce him. Despite its misogynistic character, the poem indicates a genuine sense of alarm about the capacity of women to read and interpret the Bible without the intervention of the clergy – not least because certain Lollards had already suggested that women too might become priests.

The execution of Jan Hus in Constance following a show trial in 1415 unleashed a revolt which the troops of the Emperor Zikmund failed to suppress, leading to the establishment of an independent Hussite church in the centre of Catholic Europe. In a desperate attempt at appeasement, Václav handed over St. Stephen’s Church, an important centre of the Hussite movement, to the Catholics.

Cover of Miloš Václav Kratochvíl, Jan Želivský

Cover of Miloš Václav Kratochvíl, Jan Želivský (Prague, 1953: 10798.e.13), part of a series of books devoted to ‘heroes of wars and revolution’

Churches were scrubbed, choirboys made to repent if they had served the Hussites, and dying Hussites were deprived of extreme unction unless they recanted. In retaliation a mob headed by the radical preacher Jan Želivský burst into the New Town Hall on 30 July 1419. They had just heard Želivský preach a rousing sermon on a text from the Book of Revelation demanding the punishment of the unjust. Raising the monstrance containing the Host high in his hands, he led the procession along what is now Wenceslas Square to rout the Catholic priest celebrating mass in St. Stephen’s. After a brief service of their own, they called for the release of prisoners arrested during the recent street fighting. One report claims that while they were parleying with the councillors, the latter threw stones, one of which hit Želivský’s monstrance. Among those present in the crowd was Jan Žižka, who would later command the Hussite army. The furious attackers stormed the tower and hurled seven members of the town council, including the burgomaster and the judge, to their deaths. A force of 300 cavalry despatched from Hradčany retreated, outnumbered by the Hussites, who rapidly elected four magistrates and invested them with the insignia taken from the bodies of the councillors.

Illustration of the First Defenestration of Prague

The First Defenestration of Prague as depicted by Hugo Schüllinger. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The king’s immediate reaction was to threaten to kill all the Hussites, despite his councillors’ urging him to forgive them. However, just over two weeks later he suffered symptoms suggesting a stroke or heart attack, and died on 16 August. The next day mobs were roaming the streets, breaking into churches and monasteries and destroying their treasure before burning down the brothels in the Jewish quarter. As violence escalated during the autumn, much of Malá Strana was destroyed in a battle between royalists and radicals on 4-6 November 1419.

Illustration showing Jan Žizka at the head of the Hussite army. He is riding a horse.

Jan Žizka at the head of the Hussite army, from the Jenský codex (late 15th century) in the National Library, Prague (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Hussite Wars raged until 1436. By this time the Hussites had split into the Utraquists and the more puritanical Táborites, while much of Bohemia had been ravaged in a way presaging the devastation of the Thirty Years War. Although on a lesser scale, these events left permanent scars on the country and eerily foreshadowed those which followed almost two centuries later.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

03 May 2019

Up the garden path with the Brothers Čapek and friends

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This is National Gardening Week, and with three Bank Holidays in quick succession, many of us will be inspired to get out and take stock of our plots, tubs and window-boxes. Not surprisingly in view of the British fondness for horticulture, one of the first and most popular works by Karel Čapek to appear in English translation was Zahradníkův rok (‘The Gardener’s Year’: Prague, 1929; YF.2005.a.31522 ). With its lively illustrations by the author’s brother Josef, it quickly became a favourite, and the translation by M. and R. Weatherall, which ran into multiple impressions, was succeeded by a more recent one by Geoffrey Newsome (London, 2004; ELD.DS.288828), testifying to its lasting appeal.

Title page of 'The Gardener's Year' with a vignette of a person gardening by Josef ČapekTitle page with vignette by Josef Čapek for The Gardener’s Year (London, 1966) X.319/191

Čapek himself was an enthusiastic gardener, and part of the enduring charm of his book is his lack of illusions about the cussedness of nature and the sheer hard labour involved in maintaining a garden. The text consists of a chapter for every month of the year, interspersed with others on topics such as ‘How a man becomes a gardener’, ‘Seeds’, ‘On the Cultivators of Cacti’ (Czech cousins of the Kaktusfreunde portrayed in paintings by Carl Spitzweg?), ‘The Blessed Rain’ and ‘On Market Gardeners’.

British readers familiar with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s poem ‘God’s Garden’, (in God’s Garden, & other verses: London, [1933]; 011641.df.93), with its claim that ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth’, may be pulled up short by Čapek’s far less sentimental view of things. Nature, one senses, is never more belligerent than when assailed by the gardener. From the very first attempts to lay out a garden (‘the best way is to get a gardener’) to the conclusion that ‘the gardener wants eleven hundred years to test, learn to know, and appreciate fully all that is his’, Čapek leaves us in no doubt that the way of the gardener is a stony one – in every sense. Indeed, the chapter ‘The Gardener’s May’ deals precisely with ‘the greatest pleasure and special pride of the gardener, his rock or Alpine garden’. This, he suggests, is so called because it ‘gives its owner opportunity for performing hazardous mountaineering feats’ as he lunges and scrambles among the ‘picturesque and not altogether firm stones of his rock garden’ in his attempts to plant and weed it.

Illustration of the intrepid rock-gardener by Čapek

The intrepid rock-gardener in May 

Nor does Čapek underestimate the crimes of passion of which the fanatical gardener is capable in the pursuit of some prize specimen for his rockery, from stealing Campanula morettiana by night to outright murder. Those too fat or too cowardly to accomplish this shamelessly weep and implore the proud owner for a cutting, or wheedle one from the local florist. However, once acquired these treasures frequently fail to come up to expectations: the hard-won campanula proves to be nothing but a horse-radish.

Illustration of two gardeners by Čapek The campanula that wasn’t.

A generation earlier another author, Mary Annette Beauchamp, had described the trials and pleasures of making a garden in East Prussia with the intervention of itinerant Russian labourers and her redoubtable German husband, Graf von Arnim, ‘the Man of Wrath’. Such was the popularity of Elizabeth and her German Garden (London, 1898; 012643.cc.34) that her subsequent works appeared as ‘by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden’ before she adopted the permanent nom-de-plume of Elizabeth von Arnim. Yet there is nothing sweetly quaint about her sharp perceptions of the Anglo-German clash of cultures in the garden and the drawing-room, where her acid perspicuity frequently recalls Jane Austen. Nor is she a mere armchair gardener who scorns to get her fingers dirty; from the excitement of ordering from catalogues to the headaches of persuading her acquisitions to take root in sandy Prussian soil with the fitful help of her sometimes incredulous staff, she shows not only a deep love of gardening but a thorough understanding of the challenges which it presents.

Like her, Čapek is often thwarted by the resistance of his local terrain to adapt to English models of horticulture. ‘I know an excellent recipe for an English lawn,’ he declares. ‘Like the recipe for Worcester Sauce – it comes from an “English country gentleman”’ who concludes ‘If you do this for three hundred years, you will have as good a lawn as mine’. In the meantime he has to contend with bald patches and dandelions, and to persuade his neighbours to look in and water it when he goes away on holiday in August. Failing to persuade a little old lady to bring her goat to eat the clippings, he has to pay a reluctant dustman to remove them (‘You know, sir,’ he says, ‘we’re not supposed to take it.’)

Illustration of two neighbours in the garden by ČapekHow to lose friends by asking your neighbour to keep an eye on your garden.

It is well known that following a spell of fine weather A&E departments in hospitals throughout the country see an influx of patients with all kinds of gardening-related injuries from infected wounds inflicted by rose-thorns to backs strained by over-enthusiastic lawn-mowing. In a sense Karel Čapek’s death was linked to his love for his garden. Although offered the chance to go to exile in England, where he had many friends, to escape persecution by the Nazis, Čapek refused to leave Czechoslovakia. While repairing flood damage to the family summer-house and garden in Stará Huť, he caught a cold which turned to pneumonia, from which he died on 25 December 1938. In the final paragraph of The Gardener’s Year he writes, ‘We gardeners live somehow for the future … I should like to see what these birches will be like in fifty years’. Sadly, he did not live to do so – but every gardener can draw comfort from the words, ‘The right, the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beauty’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services