Jeremy King. Budweisers into Czechs and Germans: A Local History of Bohemian Politics, 1848-1948. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 284 S. $39.50 (gebunden), ISBN 978-0-691-04892-5.
Reviewed by Claire Nolte (Manhattan College, New York)
Published on HABSBURG (May, 2004)
How Budweis Became Budjeovice: Local Politics in an Age of Nationalism
How Budweis Became Budjeovice: Local Politics in an Age of Nationalism
Using as his model Gary Cohen's pioneering study of the German community of Prague, Jeremy King examines the evolution of modern national identity in the Bohemian Crownlands by investigating political developments in the provincial city of Budweis/Budejovice in South Bohemia. He goes beyond Cohen's framework by examining the changing definition of nationhood among both Czech and German speakers in a city that was, in many ways, more representative of Bohemia as a whole than Prague, which as a university town and also a provincial capital, had a more complex social and ethnic pattern. In addition, Budweis/Budejovice had a relatively small Jewish community, comprising a mere one percent of the population, a situation which serves to clarify the interaction of its Czech and German speaking populations.
Arguing that historians of this region have perpetuated outdated assumptions about innate ethnicity, a practice he has referred to elsewhere as "ethnicism," the author claims that his approach to understanding the national question in the Bohemian lands will be different. For one thing, he will highlight the large swath of the population overlooked in earlier studies, i.e. those who remained nationally indifferent, Habsburg-treu, and/or who clung to their local identity as "Budweisers." In addition, he will give special emphasis to the role of the Habsburg government, whose policies often determined "which kinds of Budweisers tended to become Germans [...] and which kinds Czechs" (p. 5).
Setting the stage for his narrative, King asserts that because, prior to 1848, the main political struggles were those of class, not ethnicity, "Germans in the Bohemian lands actually numbered very few [...]. Czechs, although less rare, still made up only a small minority" (p. 21). From this starting point, understandings of ethnicity developed asymmetrically between the two national groups, with Czechs emphasizing heritage and language, and Germans basing their identity on a concept of historical superiority that was more open to assimilation. Local politics, suppressed during the neo-absolutist interlude that followed the 1848 Revolutions, revived in 1860, when the constitutional era in the empire was launched. In Budweis/Budejovice, German liberals began a long period of dominance as town politics increasingly divided between two camps; one "more populist, Catholic, federalist and Czech," while the other was "elitist, liberal, centralist and German" (p. 36).
In the late nineteenth century, as politics became more popularly based and bilingualism faded, German liberals became "more German and less liberal," while their opponents became "more Czech and less Catholic" (p.48). At the same time, the state shaped national politics by expanding the franchise, producing populist movements like the German voelkisch parties or the Czech National Socialists. Both national blocs sought to accommodate their populist fringes by emphasizing nationalism, marginalizing those who remained nationally indifferent. In the end, the Czech camp achieved greater unity than its German counterpart, which was increasingly torn by class-based hostilities. By the turn of the century, the Czech presence in Budweis had increased both numerically and economically. The author's discussion of how the famous Budweis brewery was transformed by national politics, and challenged by a new and more modern Czech-owned enterprise, is a case study for the processes that were transforming large swaths of the Bohemian Crownlands at that time.
In the prewar years, the Habsburg government became increasingly proactive in resolving national conflicts, overseeing the negotiation of compromises in Moravia and Bukovina. Perhaps less well known, the compromise worked out in Budweis/Budejovice on the eve of the war ended German control of city government and mandated national cadastres that "defined Czechness and Germanness in a way with which many Czechs and Germans disagreed" (p. 147). After the war, the traditional triadic structure of politics that had divided power among Czechs, Germans, and the Habsburg government was replaced in the new Czechoslovak Republic by a Czech-German dualism. A triadic structure re-emerged in the 1930s, when Nazi Germany intervened in the region. Once in control, the Nazis allowed greater choice in national identity than earlier regimes for all groups except the Jews. After the war, the process established to expel the German population created yet another variation on national identity, one that took loyalty to the state into consideration.
Presenting an overview of one hundred years of the history of nationalism in central Europe through the prism of politics in a small city is a formidable task that entails weaving local politics into the larger transformations that were reshaping the region. Unfortunately, the author is only partially successful in this effort. On the positive side, his explanation of the censuses undertaken by various governments and their impact on town governance is effective in demonstrating how government policies influenced evolving definitions of nationhood. In similar fashion, the descriptions of the Budweis/Budejovice Compromise and of the rise and fall of the town's brewery highlight the complexity of national politics on a grassroots level. However, the descriptions of other transformative moments in town history are less satisfying. The five pages devoted to World War I mostly focus on the famous desertion of the 28th Regiment, which was stationed in Budweis/Budejovice, while the four pages on World War II and the Holocaust barely mention the impact of these events on the town. The author's almost exclusive reliance on the local press as the source for his narrative is limiting. One longs to know what went on behind closed doors at the meetings of the town council, or exactly how many Jews from Budweis/Budejovice were deported during the Holocaust. In addition, economic developments are dealt with only in passing, so that, for example, no mention is made how the 1873 stock market crash and the ensuing depression undermined liberal government.
To further his objective of producing a work that is free from the taint of "ethnicism," the author conscientiously avoids nationally tendentious terminologies. He consistently refers to the subject of his study as "Budweis/Budejovice" in recognition of its bi-national character, only using the Czech form "Budejovice" in his description of the post-World War II period. Similarly, translating "Cesko-slovansky" as "Bohemoslavonic" captures the meaning of this concept in English more effectively than other usages. Still, one could argue that the National Theater, that monument to Czech national mythology, was hardly a "Czech/Bohemian" institution, a term that implies a connection to the province rather than to the Czech nation (p. 40). Indeed, Czech speakers from throughout the empire and abroad made pilgrimages to visit the theater, which became a major national shrine. Two minor quibbles: Gustav Eim, who is quoted on page 55, was more than "a Czech journalist in Vienna" rather he was also a prominent Young Czech politician who served for several years in the Imperial Parliament, and the German military leader, Erich Ludendorff, refused the offer to add the noble "von" to his name (p. 150).
In the end, this volume does not offer a startling new approach to the elusive topic of nationalism. Indeed, it is questionable that all of the scholars who have written about Bohemian history have fallen into the trap of "ethnicism" and "confused scholarly analysis with political practice" (p. 7). Most modern historians of the region are aware of the complex identities of its population, and if they have tended to exclude the nationally indifferent from their narratives, perhaps it is because this group, however large it was as a percentage of the population, did not play a significant role in modern politics. After all, which political party propounded a "Habsburg" identity, or even a "Bohemian" one, to win mass support? Nevertheless, despite some shortcomings, this book is a solid contribution, that will become a standard work on the rise of national politics in the conflicted heart of modern Europe.
. Gary Cohen, The Politics of Ethnic Survival: Germans in Prague, 1861-1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
. Jeremy King, "The Nationalization of East Central Europe: Ethnicism, Ethnicity, and Beyond," in Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Habsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present, ed. Maria Bucur and Nancy M. Wingfield (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2001), 113-114, and 141-142.
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Claire Nolte. Review of King, Jeremy, Budweisers into Czechs and Germans: A Local History of Bohemian Politics, 1848-1948.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.