Czech Genealogy: Why were writers and the press so important to our Czech ancestors?
Recently one of the fans of Onward To Our Past® asked us a great question. It was the following:
“Why did my Bohemian ancestors seem to hold their Czech writers and authors in such high regard?”
Like all questions it deserves an answer. So here is ours…
First let’s set the stage. Think back on Bohemians living for decade after decade, generation after generation, under the crushing hammer of authoritarian rule by the Habsburgs, the Holy Roman Empire, and/or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One thing was certain for the Bohemians during these times. It was they constantly were faced with forces seeking their annihilation. The counter-reformation in Bohemia was centered on the complete destruction of the Bohemian nation, society, Bohemian leadership (political, religious, and academic), and even to the point of wiping away the Czech language.
Think about it. The nation that gave the world the genius of John Amos Comenius saw him die in exile along with many of his fellow intellectuals. If you were a Bohemian then, you would find yourself living in your own country, but with rulers from a faraway capital trying to make you as un-Bohemian as they can – or kill you trying. You would see yourselves as not much more than cannon fodder for their wars and/or as laborers with which they enriched only themselves.
In urban environments German became the only accepted language for business, academics, and commerce. Czech was found only in the rural areas and even then most needed to use German for any official business and communication.
However, sometimes no matter how hard an occupying force tries, they simply cannot stamp out the deepest feelings a people have for their homeland. This is how it was for the Bohemians and slowly a current of nationalism began to reemerge in the land. Along with this nationalism came a slow revival in the use of Czech in literature and communications. But then you have to realize who was it that could still read Czech at that point in time? Perhaps a small number of teachers. Perhaps a few priests. Rural populations of mostly what we might call today ‘plain, old, country folk’.
It was not a smooth road for many for many Bohemian writers and poets of this time. Bohemian authors such as Karel Mácha, Karel Havlíček Borovský, and Božena Němcová, all died young, outcast, misunderstood, and poverty-stricken.
So how could the few embark on reviving a nation’s language, culture, literature, as well as cultivating their own points of view? Just like today, they used the media!
As times became a bit more liberal (in the 1860s) more and more periodicals sprang up and were used to promulgate the Czech language, political points of view, literature, Czech culture, and plain old communication. It was at this time, within this revival of the Czech language in the Czech ‘media’ (think many, small publications) Czech penmen and poets began to become better known and looked upon not only as authors, but as something far more important. They began to be viewed as political voices for the nation. Not only did they write prose, but they were expected to also write about policy, leadership, culture, and Bohemian nationalism and they were doing it all in Czech.
So the Bohemian people began to look at their authors, poets, and penmen as something far beyond storytellers. They saw them as the voice of all Bohemia! With this realization came popularity, reverence, high expectations from their readers, as well as high expectations the authors themselves would continue to participate in the media and voice these all important opinions.
For generations after Bohemians would look to their writers to be far more than simply writers, but carriers of the banner of Bohemian nationalism and the dreams and desires of a long suppressed people.
On a personal note this was very true in my family. My Czech ancestors belonged to literary clubs, were long time and regular subscribers to the Czech language newspapers of Cleveland, and looked to the Czech authors as true leaders in their community.
As we Czech genealogy fans look for information, clues, and hints in our family history work it is important for us to remember how Czech writers were viewed and to take the time and effort to seek out, translate and read what it was they had to say. Often times it was all about their fellow Bohemians!
Now get ready for a new, exclusive translation project we will be unveiling tomorrow! Right here only at Onward To Our Past®.
Onward To Our Past®