Cathleen M. Giustino. Tearing Down Prague's Jewish Town: Ghetto Clearance and the Legacy of Middle-Class Ethnic Politics around 1900. Boulder: East European Monographs, 2003. xiv + 425 pp. $40.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88033-516-4.
Reviewed by T. Mills Kelly (George Mason University, Department of History and Art History)
Published on HABSBURG (August, 2004)
The End of Prague's Ghetto
In her history of ghetto clearance in late-Habsburg Prague, Cathleen Giustino positions the clearance project at the heart of three intersecting developments: an assault on the built environment of old Prague by an aggressively modernizing Czech liberal elite, growing anti-Semitism in the city as Jews spread beyond the boundaries of the old ghetto, and the fragmentation of Czech middle-class politics and the Czech nation. From the ghetto's position at the heart of things, the author argues that its clearance clearance was both a cause and an effect of modernization, anti-Semitism, and the end of liberal hegemony in Prague politics. This is a complex argument and one that requires a fair amount of elaboration on Giustino's part, given the paucity of available scholarship on two of the three central aspects of the story.
One part of her argument is fairly well known already. The history of rising anti-Semitism in late-Imperial Bohemia is a story well told by authors such as Hillel Kieval, Gary Cohen, and others. What Giustino's book contributes to the existing literature on Czech anti-Semitism is a case study of how this rising anti-Semitism translated into social policy at the local level--especially in the venue of municipal politics driven by both the forces of modernization and by competition between the two largest Czech parties of the day. The clearance program conceived and carried out by these parties aimed to "sanitize" the Prague ghetto of Josefov, literally and figuratively, ostensibly to promote public health and less ostensibly to remove Jews from central Prague (p. 117).
As evidence of how complex these matters were, one might expect the leaders of the Prague Jewish community to oppose the destruction of the city quarter where Jews had lived out their lives for many hundreds of years. Instead, Giustino shows us how Jewish municipal leaders took a pragmatic approach to the finis ghetto plan, offering little opposition, and even supporting certain aspects of it. For one thing, the clearance project was evidence to these Jewish leaders (as opposed to the many poor Jews who were displaced when their homes were demolished) of the end of ghettoization--a different sort of finis ghetto than the framers of the project envisioned.
What had been the point of the project? City leaders who made the decision to clear Josefov of its old buildings, and replace them with new, more modern housing and commercial structures, wanted to accomplish several things. At the top of their list was the removal of what they saw as a blight on central Prague--a neighborhood of sub-standard structures with poor hygiene and too many poor residents that could be converted into a thriving modern commercial and residential district at the heart of the city. That this goal was accomplished by the clearance project is evident today when one strolls through Josefov--but at the cost of the destruction of some of Prague's most significant architectural landmarks and at a high social cost. The only remnants of old Josefov that remain are the old Jewish cemetery and the synagogues surrounding it.
In addition to describing the effect of the finis ghetto project on Prague's Jewish community, this book provides a detailed examination of the inner workings of Prague municipal politics in the late-Habsburg period. As such, it is the first detailed account in English both of the mechanisms of those politics and of the intricacies of the competition between the Old and Young Czech parties for power within the city. Scholars interested in how the larger competition between these two parties played out at the local level will find much in Giustino's book to admire. The author thus extends the narratives of Bruce Garver's Young Czech Party and Gary Cohen's Politics of Ethnic Survival in ways that make it possible for us to see how the rising Young Czech Party managed to establish itself as a force in Prague municipal politics. More important in many ways is the author's description of how the Old Czech Party managed to maintain a significant position in the Prague government despite being all but displaced by the Young Czechs at the provincial and imperial levels. Giustino shows us how this formerly dominant Czech Party manipulated the mechanisms of municipal politics quite successfully--a story that likely could be told in many other cities of late-Habsburg Austria.
For example, the Compromise of 1896 is sometimes portrayed as a last ditch effort by the Old Czech Party to hold off the Young Czech challenge. What Giustino demonstrates is that the Compromise served the interests of both parties--of an Old Czech Party that was fading fast at the provincial and imperial level, and a Young Czech Party facing both serious dissent within its ranks and the arrival of new mass parties on the scene at the very moment of its ascendancy. By dividing up the seats on the Prague city council between them, both parties were able to hold onto what each valued most--a semblance of importance in Czech politics for the Old Czechs and party unity for the Young Czechs.
For all its strengths, this book is not an unqualified success. In the final section of the book Giustino argues that dissent over ghetto clearence among leaders of the Prague Czech elite "contributed to the fragmentation of the Czech middle class and the Czech nation" (p. 205). This rather broad claim is not well supported by the evidence the author provides. For one thing, as is apparent from the example just mentioned, it is possible to conclude from the evidence presented that the clearance project actually helped members of the Prague Czech elite to maintain at least a tenuous working relationship beyond the useful lifetime of such an association.
At least as important as the finis ghetto project to the changing face of Prague politics, however, was the rise of other political parties in Prague at the end of the 1890s--clerical, socialist, and national socialist--that challenged the Old and Young Czech Parties' claims to legitimacy in municipal politics. Although blocked from any access to municipal power by the Compromise of 1896, these parties rapidly displaced the Old and Young Czech Parties as representatives of Prague in the imperial parliament, and used their electoral victories over their liberal rivals to call into question the liberals' hegemony in local politics. While the Czech National Socialist Party was openly anti-Semitic and, as Giustino points out, strongly in favor of the clearance project, it is a stretch to argue that dissent over the clearance contributed to fragmentation of Czech middle class politics or of the Czech nation. More relevant to the fragmentation of Czech middle class politics was the growing radicalization of nationalist politics that siphoned support from the Young Czech Party and the success of the Czech Clerical Parties that largely undercut what was left of Old Czech influence in Bohemia and Moravia. Neither of these larger developments--which were provincial or even kingdom-wide rather than merely municipal--was influenced in any significant way by issues arising from the finis ghetto project.
A second example of Giustino's tendency to see larger events too much through a municipal lens is the author's description of the Badeni tumult. A novice reader would come away from this book assuming that the Badeni riots were essentially a series of anti-Semitic riots by Czechs against their Jewish neighbors, rather than a complex upwelling of both Czech and German anger over the possible consequences of language reform in the Bohemian lands. To be sure, much of the anger of Prague Czechs was directed against the Prague Jewish community--but that is because the Badeni tumult was largely a Czech-German affair and for many Prague Czechs the Jews were German (or Jew-Germans as the National Socialist Press was fond of calling them). Moreover, these riots extended across the Bohemian lands and were not confined to Prague as a novice reader might assume from this work.
Finally, this reviewer cannot pass over the editorial flaws in this book, which suffers from a need for much more careful proof reading than it received prior to publication. Throughout the book one finds ideas repeated, not for the purpose of emphasis, but as though they had not been mentioned previously. There are numerous spelling errors and at least one mathematical error (on page 224 the author asserts that the 264 votes Christian Social candidates received represented 13.24% of the 3,495 votes cast instead of the 7.55% this total actually represents). While none of these editorial problems takes away from the depth of Giustino's research or from the importance of portions of her analysis of late-Habsburg Prague politics, they do make the book a difficult and sometimes frustrating read.
Despite the criticisms leveled in the second half of this review, Giustino's book remains a worthy addition to the library of any specialist in Czech or Austrian history. Because the author casts a new and more detailed light on Prague municipal politics, readers will be challenged to consider their assumptions about the history of Prague and to ask themselves how different that history might look when other lenses are used.
. Bruce M. Garver, The Young Czech Party 1874-1901 and the Emergence of a Multi-Party System Yale Historical Publications, Miscellany 111. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978); Gary B. Cohen, The Politics of Ethnic Survival: Germans in Prague 1861-1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
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T. Mills Kelly. Review of Giustino, Cathleen M., Tearing Down Prague's Jewish Town: Ghetto Clearance and the Legacy of Middle-Class Ethnic Politics around 1900.
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