Czech, German, and Noble: Status and National Identity in Habsburg Bohemia

By Rita Krueger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Challenges of Reform
and Revolution

IN 1801, THE PROSPECTS of the Bohemian aristocrat appeared fundamentally altered from the previous century. Reflecting that year on the stresses facing men in his position, Kaspar Sternberg wrote to a friend:

Unhappiness to the man who lacks the courage to raise himself above
events, if he falls in a century like our own. I see them every day, those
who succumb under the weight of sorrows, because they have neither the
strength nor the will to march with the spirit of the century, which they
have not understood. I had the strength to make my personal revolution
before the general revolution could reach me. I am now prepared for
every eventuality. My state, my perspectives, my hopes are no longer
those of this overthrown world. I am driven back to nature—nature and
the natural sciences offer me an inexhaustible treasure, the life of a man
is not long enough to grasp it, it is independent of men….1

Sternberg’s reassessment of his personal plans and the challenges presented by “this overthrown world” were at the root of an essential revolution in aristocratic identity. For some nobles, the “spirit of the century” to which Sternberg referred represented a constant subversion of traditional noble status and identity. This chapter will explore Sternberg’s “general revolution”—the Enlightenment and its practical applications in Bohemia, the centralizing reforms of the Habsburgs, and the French Revolution—in an attempt to understand how and why Sternberg and others like him underwent a personal revolution in response. What was the impact on aristocratic identity when the traditions of aristocratic customs, power, and position were challenged?

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