Anybody wanting to gain a deeper knowledge of the Czech people, Czech culture, and Czech spirit should read Derek Sayer's 'The Coasts of Bohemia.' Anybody wanting to dive into the sticky mess of Central European history would also do well to read this book. And those unbelievers who think that a scholarly work must be by its very nature dry and dense, MUST read this book.
Sayer's work stands alone in the veritable dearth of good works dealing with Czechdom. A towering mountain, 'Coasts' is far and away the best door to a culture and nation little understood in the 'West.' In this monumental work, Sayer continues in the grand tradition of Czech historiography started by the grand master of Czech history, Palácky. And like Palácky before him, Sayer attempts to give an answer to that elusive question: Who are the Czechs?
Starting his work with the formulators of written Czech, Josef Jungmann and Josef Dobrovsky, Sayer makes a wise decision. During the Hapsburg rule from 1620 to 1918, the only real home of Czechdom was Cestina, the Czech language. From there, Sayer takes the reader on a serpintine journey through the heart of Czech cultural consciousness. We meet up with poets of the national awakening like Karel Hynek Macha, whose epic poem, 'Máj,' could easily be considered the Czech people's Aeneid, a work that defines who they are as a voice in the cacophony of Europe. Critics of culture like F.X. Salda and voices of modernism in Czech culture like Kundera or the Noble Prize-winning poet, Jaroslav Seifert, also make appearances as Sayer makes a case for the Czech artistic voice being paramount in the creation of national identity. Sayer shows how even supposedly 'international' art trends like surrealism and social-realism all served a very selective end: the search for national identity.
In the realm of politics and ideology, Sayer argues that the Czechs have pursued an uniquely singular course throughout their history. The first people in Europe to rebel against catholic uniformity (hence the term 'bohemian'), Czech preacher, Jan Hus, laid the groundwork for Luther's more cathartic 'reformation.' The followers of Hus, the 'Hussites' not only preached a more Gospel-centered Christian creed stripped of the Roman church's ceremony and tradition, but promoted a lifestyle of radical egaliterianism. This conception of a rank-less society more than anything irked the Catholic Hapsburgs who waged a long and savage war with the Hussites until 1620 when the Austrian Hapsburgs put their unruly neighbors under the boot of Catholic rule until the demise of Austro-Hungary in 1918. Sayer argues that the coals of Hussiterian democracy never cooled down completely but instead smoldered on until the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. This grand social experiment led by the teacher-ideologue, Tomas Masaryk, proved to be Central Europe's only real democracy during the years between both world wars. Yet, Sayer makes a strong claim that Hussitism only gained full resurrection (albeit in a radically perverse form) with the ascension to power of the Czech Communist Party in 1948. The Hussite dream of a radical levelling of all economic and social class was made real with the party's drastic restructuring of Czech society which included the violent expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from the Czech lands, the shameful odsun of 1946-47. Czech communists soon took their ideology of 'people's democracy' to such radical extremes that they stamped out all forms of dissent in their quest to create uniform Czech society. Kundera's novels paint a grim picture of a society which sought to regulate, control and oppress its citizens in even the most intimate of spheres.
By the time the reader finishes 'Coasts,' he/she will not only be wiser by far, but quite exhausted as well. The sheer detail and volume of Sayer's information threatens at times to overwhelm the reader. That one quarter of the book is devoted to 'notes' is not by chance. Yet, even these notes are fascinating cultural and historical tidbits. If Sayer's work has a flaw, it lies in the author's selection of material. Selection is the most crucial (and most difficult) element of historiography. What to include, what to exclude, not only makes or breaks a work, but also carries echoes for generations to come. Who and what is left out of the history books is often doomed to oblivion in day to day life as well. Thus said, Sayer's work attempts to define Czechness around a deliberately tiny base. That of one province, Bohemia. While Bohemia did suffer the lion's share of conflict with the neighboring Germans as well as play a central role in the national awakening, two other Czech lands, Moravia and Czech Silesia have also played crucial roles in the formation of Czech identity. Some of the most internationally-known Czech artists originate from these parts i.e. Kundera, Janácek, Lysohorsky and even Mucha. Unfortunately, Sayer glosses over the cultural and historical connections with these lesser-known Bohemias. Moreover, his treatment of Slovakia's role in the making of the Czech nation and Czechoslovak 'idea' is cursory at best. A grievious absence considering the prominent role many Slovaks have played in Czech political life from Masaryk to Dubcek.
All in all though, there is little room to complain. Sayer's work has filled a gapping hole in Central European studies. A profound act of scholarship and one written in a style approaching the lyric, 'The Coasts of Bohemia' is a giant indeed. Read it!