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

By Rita Krueger | Go to book overview

Introduction

IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, Slavic identity and language barely registered on the intellectual landscape in the Kingdom of Bohemia. As in much of the Habsburg realm, German and French were the governing languages of public and intellectual life in the kingdom. Bohemia’s ancien régime social hierarchy was dominated by aristocrats whose background and traditions made them uniquely cosmopolitan and, initially, nonnational. Cosmopolitanism was a function in part of habits, as the social whirl of the Habsburg aristocracy included the loose international sociability of the spa towns, the court life and rituals of power in Vienna, and extensive travel to the West. Cosmopolitanism was also tied to intellectual expansion as international contacts, university training in Germany, and the importation from abroad of not just taste and social norms, but ideas, came to frame and shape the identity of Habsburg elites. In a sense, the aristocracy were also agents of “contagion,” as they brought in baggage and carriage the banned books and publications of the Enlightenment. Ethnicity, a problematic marker for all groups at any time, was particularly so for the Bohemian aristocracy, whose constituent families came through war, intermarriage, and land-holding patterns to be a European elite deeply integrated into political, social, and economic life across the Habsburg lands in the eighteenth century and beyond. Bohemian statehood, insofar as it was enunciated by the Bohemian aristocracy, was based on ancient noble rights and the heritage of a kingdom that had lost the last vestiges of its independence in the seventeenth century.

Yet, by the mid-nineteenth century, this eighteenth-century ancien régime had been transformed to the degree that the intellectual elite, including aristocrats, began to articulate a novel sense of community and public

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