Neighbours: An Austrian-Czech History Book: Book review

Relationship status: it’s complicated. Summarised in the vernacular of the virtual age, Austrian-Czech relations have long been characterised as uneasy, bolstered by a range of stereotypes established across the past centuries – the Czech as the beer-swelling yokel ‘Václav’, the Austrian as the kaisertreu snobbish brute, or a country bumpkin with right-wing sentiments. Rather than to divulge in these exaggerated characterisations any further – which are often malicious, sometimes humorous, and occasionally contain a grain of truth – Neighbours: An Austrian-Czech History Book draws attention to the joint history of the two countries in a decidedly more positive light.

Published in separate German and Czech language editions with essays written jointly by experts from both countries, the book builds on the metaphor of neighbours as a community ‘conditioned by geographical closeness, habit, proximity and points of exchange, as well as knowledge of the other’ (p. 11). Tracing the history of the two countries from medieval times to the contemporary era, Neighbours covers a lot of ground on just under four hundred pages. Though explicitly directed towards the general reader, the book is well referenced and recommends further literature in each section, which also makes it valuable for specialists, who may be more familiar with one specific period, or the history of one of the countries.

‘Austrians’ and ‘Czechs’

A central issue from the start is how the designations ‘Czech’ and ‘Austrian’ might be defined. After all, ‘Austrian’ once also encompassed Czech territory (the lands of the Bohemian crown). Meanwhile, the significance of ‘Austrian’ as a national identifier is much younger than the Czech one. While the latter originated in the early nineteenth century, an Austrian national identity as such did not exist until 1918 and was only accepted as an identity separate from a greater ‘German’ one after 1945. The Czechs, on the other hand, shared a state with the Slovaks for the greatest part of the twentieth century and as such had to navigate between a Czech and a ‘Czechoslovak’ identity.

Nachbarn Neighbours Czech-Austrian relationsWithout aiming to unravel this fragile web of social, national, political and cultural identifiers, the editors sketch out the underlying problematics of the terms ‘Austrian’ and ‘Czech’ in the introduction and delimit the scope of the book to what currently encompasses the state territory of the two countries respectively. The nuances of what the national identifier signified at different points in time are then left to the authors of each individual chapter – an appropriate solution, which comprehensibly highlights that what sounds simple as an ‘Austrian-Czech history’ bears underlying complexities from the start.

The breaking-down of national entanglements at the core of the narrative unfolds across thirteen chapters in chronological and thematic arrangement. Thereby, the authors do not aim to tell history anew, but draw together perspectives that have all too often been separated by nationalist views. Beginning with a chapter about the Bohemian and the Austrian Lands from the medieval period until the early modern era (Hanns Haas and Luboš Velek), and ending with an analysis of stereotypes and narratives in Austrian and Czech perceptions of one another from the age of Jan Hus until the early 2000s (Walter Reichel and Václav Petrbok), Neighbours is dedicated to finding common ground and to redrawing a joint history. Additionally, short sections inserted in the text are dedicated to specific topics, such as the Czech national heroine Libuše, and comparative aspects of Prague and Viennese theatre. While the dominant focus is on national politics, the role of culture, both in forging connections and emphasising national division, nonetheless represents an important aspect in the narrative. Throughout, the text is illustrated by a rich variety of images, including an extensive range of maps, photographs, paintings, popular prints, and documents such as passports. Even though these visual sources are rarely discussed directly in the text, they are accompanied by longer captions and thus offer further, specific insight into the material discussed.

Cultural relations: exchange and competition

Following on from a comparative account of the First Czechoslovak and the First Austrian Republic, Neighbours dedicates a chapter to the significance of culture from Josephinian times until the end of the Second World War (Hanns Haas and Suzanne Kříženecký). While this is a point in the book well chosen, given the importance of national symbols in the new nation states discussed on the preceding pages, one wishes that culture, a term under which the book encompasses the arts in a broad sense, including literature, art, architecture, film, theatre and music, would have been integrated more symbiotically into the relevant historical sections. For, as it stands, one chapter is faced with the task to introduce main aspects of Austrian and Czech culture to the general reader, and to set the two in relation to each other across various disciplines. The chapter on cultural relations, set between 1775, when a Chair for Czech language was instated at the University of Vienna, and 1945, marking not only the end of the Second World War but also the mass expulsion of Czech Germans, is therefore by necessity a summary and can only give a highly selective account of Austrian and Czech culture. In doing so, a danger arises in perpetuating myths, such as the ‘death’ of Austrian art in 1918, and, forced by way of a broad overview, a comparison of the most common narratives rather than an aim to construct more nuanced ways of assessing the relationship between the two cultures.

Neighbours Czech-Austrian HistoryWith regards to the thematic focus of this blog, continuity and rupture in central European culture after 1918, Neighbours encompasses a cultural narrative at its core which follows a comparable goal: to emphasise that political ruptures did not necessitate cultural ruptures. Rather, the institutional frameworks both the First Czechoslovak and the First Austrian Republic inherited from the Habsburg Monarchy offered a sense of continuity, which often betrayed political narratives of change and a fresh start. At the same time, however, Neighbours closely follows cultural narratives, which were conditioned by the social and political environments of the new nation states after 1918 and have by and large remained unchallenged until recent years. As such, Austrian cultural history after 1918 is introduced in reference to a ‘lack of avant-gardes’ (p. 155) before Vienna’s new identity as the ‘red city’ is emphasised in refence to the work of Karl Ehn (1884-1957), architect of the Karl-Marx-Hof, among others. In relation to the Czech context, this is juxtaposed with the work of Josef/Jože Plečnik (1872-1957), Pavel Janák (1882-1956) and Josef Gočár (1880-1945), before moving to functionalism with the example of Bohuslav Fuchs’ (1895-1972) Moravská Banka building (1928-1930) in Brno. Moreover, Adolf Loos’ (1870-1933) building projects in Austria and Czechoslovakia after 1918 serve to emphasise both continuity between monarchy and democracy, and the cultural exchange between the two countries.

In the limited space that is dedicated specifically to cultural developments in the book overall, the narrative thus closely follows dominating accounts of national Czech and Austrian culture, presented side by side. Points of exchange between the two are often based in institutions, including the Viennese Secession, which had Czech members, and Habsburg Vienna as the staging point for cultural education and careers overall. Considering that the city was the cosmopolitan capital of a multi-national empire at this point, however, closer engagement with the complexity of the definition of ‘Austrian’ culture could have helped to stage more clearly how the power relations between ‘Czech’ and ‘Austrian’ culture changed across the timespan considered, particularly because no definition is provided for what entailed ‘Austrian’ culture after 1918. In fact, cultural exchange is most evident in the context of Prague German and Viennese literature, as well as collaborative film making, most famously Gustav Machatý’s (1901-1963) Ecstasy (1933).

While the chapter dedicated to cultural developments in Austria and the Czech Lands thus serves to emphasise the position of both as Kulturnationen (‘nations of culture’), the wide angle with which this topic is approached only allows for a comparison of cultural narratives in the broadest sense. Inevitably, this leads to a strict selection process, which in Neighbours has been limited to the most popular accounts of Austrian and Czech culture respectively. While serving as a basic overview, however, this approach also reaffirms particular aspects that conceive of the two mostly as separate entities in line with national narratives, even though a joint Austrian-Czech cultural history could have been explored in reference to a wide range of aspects: exhibition exchange in the interwar years could be one example, or the exploration of broader developments, such as reactions to and interpretations of modernism. Thus, the exchange and collaboration between Czech and Austrian culture that Neighbours seeks to establish might have come to the fore more explicitly in relation to a thematic overview, rather than a chronological, discipline-based one.

National cultures, joint histories

In its multi-faceted approach, the chapter on cultural exchange represents the aims of Neighbours on the whole. Deriving from a scientific collaboration that found a more concrete form in 2009 with the founding of the Permanent Conference of Austrian and Czech Historians about Joint Cultural Heritage (SKÖTH), the aims of the book are to facilitate and to further the exchange between the two countries, based on a common history, in which past experiences are used to set the course for a ‘neighbourly’ future. Thereby, history provides material for numerous points of conflict across a wide timespan, from the Battle of the White Mountain to the controversies around the Temelín nuclear power plant in the early 2000s, during which the countries nonetheless remained closely linked to one another, first through the Habsburg Monarchy, then through economic exchange. These aspects are all closely and comprehensively outlined in Neighbours, making it a valuable, scientifically grounded sourcebook particularly useful as a teaching resource, and for a general reader who may want to follow up on entangled family histories – as the saying goes, every Viennese has a Bohemian grandmother.

The book is remarkably nuanced in its inclusion of ‘Czech’ and ‘Austrian’ narratives, ensuring that a balanced view of history weighs in against a nationalised historical past. The active aim to bridge national divisions thus forms the core of the narrative throughout, addressed in relation to eminent points of national conflict. While the chronological structure thereby allows for historical grounding, it also introduces a sense of linearity that, in the case of cultural developments, for example, do not always make ideal points of comparison. In this light, a conclusion that thematically draws together the main points made throughout the book might have served as a summary to emphasise what this experience of being neighbours concisely entailed – in relation to one another, as well as within a wider (central) European context. Moreover, and while there is a brief section dedicated to shifting gender roles as a consequence of the First World War, by and large, the history presented in Neighbours is strongly male dominated. On the one hand, this approach evidences historical circumstances, yet on the other hand, closer engagement with women’s roles and positions would be desirable. In the chapter on culture, for example, female cultural figures only feature on the side-lines, despite the fact that women’s contributions to central European art and culture in the early twentieth century have been a growing topic of research in recent years.

Having said this, overall, Neighbours is exemplary in the way in which it traces and draws together two national histories. In doing so, it implicitly points outs that, particularly in the literature available to the general reader, nationalised accounts still dominate, while little attention is being paid to developments across the border. Despite the fact that the covered timespan is vast and thus necessitates abstraction, it emphasises a sense of historical continuity across pivotal social and political ruptures. Especially in a time of crisis, like now, this provides a nuanced perspective that not only offers a positive outlook, but also mediates between big and small histories in an accessible manner. After all, Neighbours show that, at least in the case of central European politics and culture, a complicated relationship is better than none at all.

Julia Secklehner

Václav Šmidrkal, Ota Konrád, Hildegard Schmoller and Niklas Perzi, eds, Nachbarn: Ein österreichisch-tschechisches Geschichtsbuch/ Sousedé: Česko-rakouské dějiny (Vienna/Prague: Bibliothek der Provinz/Nakladatelství Lidové noviny 2019).


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