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ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
28. 1. 2003

The significance of Jan Hus for Czech history

There is no doubt that Jan Hus was and is one of the signally important figures of Czech history. If the number of statues and squares bearing someone's name can testify to their significance, then Hus, dominating the Old Town Square in Prague and with streets bearing his name in almost every city, is still a dominating presence in national consciousness. In October 1968 and again in November 1990, surveys were conducted in the Czechoslovakia determining which historical figures the Czechs regarded with pride. Not coincidentally, both dates come shortly after dramatic political changes and hence the surveys reflect nationalism riding high. In both cases, Hus is amongst the first four names for frequency, in 1968 appearing in the second place, behind only Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.[1]

At first sight, the grounds for Hus' prominence are plainly obvious and hardly need justification. He led the first religious movement in Europe which could be considered Protestant, 100 years before Martin Luther. He directly challenged both the Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire and gave his name to a movement which brought about revolution. During the Hussite period, the Bohemian lands also became enormously significant for the whole of Europe. They sparked potential unrest in the very heart of the continent and the Holy Roman Empire, drawing down the attention of the Pope and the Emperor and firing ecclesiastical arguments. When the reform movement grew into a violent and armed rebellion, their military successes seriously upset the possibility of stability in Europe, and crusades were sent by the Pope . Their military successes were such that the Pope had to grant a unique doctrinal concession for the Czech lands, that they could exercise their religion as they saw fit, as long as they gave up their expansive territorial aims on the rest of Europe. The climate which the Hussite revolution had created led ultimately to the crisis which precipitated the 30 Years War with all its repercussions for the shape of Europe today.

The Hussite movement also had far reaching effects within the Czech Lands. Initially, the edict of religious tolerance issued would seem a victory on their behalf. However, it had the effect of isolating Bohemia from the rest of the Christian world, setting it outside the mutual exchange of ideas between monasteries and universities which constituted the intellectual glory of the late Medieval period. The recatholicisation which followed the defeat of the Protestant armies in 1620 brought on what traditional Czech historiography calls the doba temna, the sleep from which the Czech patriotic feeling had to be awoken by the National Revival.

The Hussite period was thus highly significant not only for the development of Bohemia, but for European and ecclesiastical history as a whole. To evaluate the significance of a single individual is however more complicated. Hus did not even belong to the movement which bore his name and cannot be said to have intentionally inaugurated it:

Hus si zřejmě plně neuvědomoval důsledky své aktivity[2]

The Hussite movement began, in name and in earnest, only after - and because of - his death. On hearing of his execution, the Czech nobles sent a letter of protest to the Council of Constance carrying 452 seals. It does not have the relationship to Jan Hus that, say, Thatcherism has to Thatcher. The very designation 'Hussite' was originally an insult hurled by the movement's opponents. Though the Hussites certainly believed they were acting in his spirit and on his behalf, they ascribed their motives not to the edicts of Hus, but the to perceived deviation of the Church from the Bible. Doctrinal and especially military developments of the Hussite movement cannot be ascribed to him. Even while still alive, imprisoned in Constance, his influence could be only one of encouragement, not direction. He was not even the most radical of his group centring on the university and Betlemska kaple. The definitive symbol of the Hussites and their most distinctive doctrinal deviation from the established Church was symbolised by the chalice - the eucharist sub utraque specie. This, however, was introduced by Jakoubek of Stříbro in 1414; Hus certainly approved the move, but did not initiate it.

The manner in which the Hussites splintered off into various factions, ultimately going into battle with one another, demonstrates just how little unified the Hussites were, and that Hus had left behind more a spiritual example than a codified system of beliefs. His most direct and literal supporters were the most moderate Hussites, who saw themselves as reformers within the boundaries of the Church. His insistence on the common man's right to the Word of God and its interpretation led to the sectarianism which destroyed the Hussite movement as a military force. The Four Prague Articles of Hussitism, agreed in 1420, represent the lowest common denominator of the Hussite faith, rather than a programme: all that the various groups could agree upon. By 1421 the Hussites were already fighting themselves over Prague, burning Martin Húska at the stake.

Despite this, the Hussite movement itself, however, was marked by community and collectivism which undermines any argument for the significance of a single individual. Though Communist readings exaggerated it, it certainly was a rising of the common people, who had been inspired and emboldened by Hus' preaching from the Bethlehem Chapel. The revolution is also frequently read as a nationalist rising, Czechs against Germans. Although there are various nationalist elements to Hus' actions - his insistence on preaching and writing in the vernacular, his part in the decree of Kutná Hora - the nationalist picture again shifts attention from the individual leader in the form of Hus to the collective movement. The Hussites tended to form communities even communes, for example at Tábor. Again and again we see the insistence on the collective rather than the individual.

Furthermore, a look at the generally acknowledged factors which gave rise to the Hussite revolution once again detracts from the importance of any individual. Economic reasons can be ascribed: the Czech nobility were jealous of the swollen worldly wealth and political influence of the Church, making them the more willing to support reform measures. National feeling also played a part; the recent reign of Karel IV had raised Czech self-consciousness and thereby intensified Czech-German tension. This was the more exacerbated by what was seen by the Czechs as the German tendency to heresy, thus increasing their confidence in their own doctrinal rectitude. This fed into the disputes at Karlova univerzita which ultimately saw the creation of the first ethnic university in Europe. The incredible growth of education in the Czech Lands over the preceding decades also increased both Czech self-consciousness and willingness to question the ways of the Church; it also prepared ground where the essentially academic arguments of Hus could take root. All of these forces were beyond the powers of a single individual to influence, yet were contributory if not causally necessary factors in the development of the Hussite revolution. What is more, without the particular actions of individuals other than Hus, events could not have developed as they did. Without Václav IV's leniency, for example, or the extreme unpopularity and inappropriateness of Zbyněk Zajíc as Prague archbishop, support for Hus would never have reached the proportions necessary for revolution.

If, then, Jan Hus was not in the direct sense of cause and effect as important for the Czech Lands as it may at first seem, it only underlines the symbolic aspect to his continued significance today. It must be argued, then, that Hus as a figure fulfils certain imaginative propensities of the Czech national self-consciousness. Several of the particulars of his story find themselves repeated and cited throughout the following years, and heroes of the nation are frequently modelled on him.

The first aspect of Hus which finds itself made prominent as an essential rather than contingent aspect is his intellectualism. Hus was Dean of Charles University, a scholar and writer as well as a preacher. He is credited - though not conclusively - with the reforms in Czech orthography which introduced diacritics. This is a characteristic which attaches itself again and again to Czech leaders. Masaryk especially was a professor and philosopher; Václav Havel a writer; even Svatý Václav himself was renowned for contemplation. Karel IV., was also renowned for his learning, his writing, and his insistence on linguistic and intellectual diversity in his kingdom. His (and Hus') university was the first in Central Europe. In the lists of famous Czechs quoted by Holý[3] we see the preponderance of intellectuals: in 1968 we see Masaryk, Hus, Karel IV and Jan Amos Komenský; in 1990, these four are joined in the top five by Eduard Beneš. This is particularly notable when compared with other countries' lists of typical heroes. Learning is not often a characteristic associated with military men and not necessarily with political leaders, who generally speaking make up the bulk of national heroes in other countries.

Hus' most famous words were his dictum on truth:

Hledaj pravdy, slyš pravdu, uč se pravdě, miluj pravdu, braň pravdu až do smrti, neboť pravda tě vysvobodí.

Almost every book published about Hus uses this as its epigraph; these are the words etched on the monument to Hus on Staroměstské náměstí. The word recurs insistently in Czech texts and conceptions of history and is another of the aspects of the figure of Hus considered most important. The Czech Republic's very motto is pravda vítězí, a shortened form of the Hussite slogan pravda vítězí nade vším. The photograph reproduced on the front of Holý's book shows the statue of Svatý Václav in Václavské náměstí in 1989, surrounded by protesters and bearing a banner with the motto blazoned on it. Alfred Thomas' book The Labyrinth of the Word: Truth and Representation in Czech literature[4] reads Czech literature and history as bearing the marks of this notion very much at its heart. He points out how the notion of a prevailing truth posits the bearer of this truth as powerful. The National Revival appeal to a nationalistic truth of self-realisation, the Communist belief in the dogmatic historical truth and rectitude of socialism, and the post-Communist belief that with the Velvet Revolution the Czech Republic has been returned to the true path of democracy all exhibit this trend. This conception of truth has found its most recent advocate in Václav Havel. In 'Moc bezmocných' he posits this power as precisely 'living in truth'. The word recurs again and again in Czech history, which almost self-consciously models itself on the charge given in Hus' dictum.

This 'truth' is really an appeal to and belief in the transcendent or the beyond. Thomas uses Foucault to link this notion of possession of the truth to power, and Czech history provides plenty of exemplary instances of this - even the apparently powerless have power, as Havel describes it, in adherence to truth. Hus' truth is not the temporal and political truth of the squabbles of the Council of Constance, but the truth of God, which transcends time and place, in spite of earthly power. This, too, is the model of the ardent buditel, appealing to a grand historical truth of the self-realisation of nations. This is Masaryk's rhetoric when discussing the National Revival and the turn of the century project of independence[5]. It is the Communist orientation toward history and the dissident towards human rights, of Reformation and Counter-Reformation towards God. Even in the purely academic realm of the Prague Circle, this angling of the self towards the intransigent and immutable is detectable. The main poststructuralist quarrel with Structuralism is that despite its claims to take the text as a hermetic whole, it still relies on the notion of a transcendent signifier, a guarantor of meaning against which all other, imperfect, context-bound meanings have to be measured[6]. What all these have in common is the orientation towards something outside of oneself, more enduring and 'true' than whatever the momentary situation happens to be. It is significant that both Communists and dissidents, Protestants and Catholics for example, can simultaneously appeal to this higher authority, and that this is always 'typically Czech'. What matters is not the coordinates of this truth. Its nature is precisely that it is beyond the temporal, thus having no coordinates. Its significance is entirely that it is believed to be transcendent.

This appeal to transcendence is what makes martyrdom possible. Hus' death challenged the Council of Constance and confounded and frustrated it in that he refused to recognise their authority. He played out his days in a different context, behaving by its laws and expectations and thus refusing to engage with the earthly power of the Church. This frustrated the Council and enflamed the Czech Hussites, setting an example which still resonates through the ages. It is not merely the going to the stake that is significant here, but the manner of his going. In dying calmly, singing, and essentially of his own free will, having refused to recant, Hus apparently demonstrates the existence of the transcendent, and makes it easier for others to believe in it. As Jan Patočka wrote at the founding of Charta 77, there are things in the world worth suffering for, and Czech heroes through the ages have been willing to suffer for them. A disproportionate number of  significant historical Czechs can in some way be considered martyrs. Tomáš Masaryk, for example, was willing to put his reputation and career on the line for the truth, whether it be denouncing the fake kralovodvorské and zelenohorské manuscripts or engaging in the Hilsneriáda. His son Jan is considered by many to be a martyr: whether murdered by the Communists or driven by them to suicide, in one way or another the worldly circumstances became unlivable for him. Jan Ámos Komenský, too, suffered for his religious beliefs. Václav Havel explicitly refused to stop speaking his truth, in spite of the suffering it would necessarily cause him. Dissidents and resistance workers under all of the totalitarian regimes which have passed across the Czech lands could be seen as living in this light. This, for Czechs, is heroism. This leads occasionally to some unlikely bedfellows on the roster of Czech martyrs. The cult of Julius Fučík, for example, was specifically modeled on the propensity to martyrdom of Czech heroes. Even Svatý Jan Nepomucký, whose story was a myth invented to replace Hus as a popular spiritual hero by the Counter-Reformation, was a martyr is the specific Hus or Havel sense of insistence on the ultimate impossibility of the government of the tongue by earthly power. On Holý's list of historical figures significant for the Czechs compiled in 1990 only perhaps Karel IV and Ludvík Svoboda could not be described in some sense as martyrs, or at least willing sufferers for truth in Hus' sense.

Perhaps the most significant and telling follower of Hus' martyrdom for truth was however Jan Palach. The webpages of Radio Prague, for example, contain the following:

For Czechs, three names will always symbolise truth, freedom and democracy... These three men, who stretch their hands to reach one another across five centuries, are the Catholic church reformer Jan Hus, and the students Jan Opletal and Jan Palach.[7]

Note, again, the fact that Hus symbolises truth. In January 1969, Palach doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on Václavské náměstí in protest not just against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 but against the acclimatisation to the occupation which seemed to be setting in amongst the Czech population. He wished to jolt the public into a realisation that they were living under what should have been a state of crisis. Palach directly modeled himself on Hus, something which the Communist authorities tried to suppress, attributing inspiration to Buddhism and thus something alien to the Czech experience.

Palach himself served as an example, as Hus did for the Hussites: in the three months after his death, 26 further people attempted suicide, of whom 7 succeeded. However the majority of Czech and Slovaks, of course, did not make themselves human torches in response to Palach's actions, nor, in the long term, did his example stop the stultifying stagnation of the normalisation period. It would therefore be ridiculous to suggest that the Hus model of martyrdom for the truth is the dominant Czech national characteristic, if such a thing can be allowed to exist. The most obvious alternative to the martyr figure is that of Švejk. On the surface, there could not be a more different image. The Švejk character is about as far removed from strict adherence to the truth, self-sacrifice and principle as can be imagined. Indeed, the very defining features of the Švejk character are opposed to such notions: self-preservation at the expense of any overriding moral code, superficial obedience to or concurrence with the holders of power, loyalty primarily, indeed exclusively, to oneself. This is the Czechness of zlaté české ručičky and přizpůsobivost; adaptability and wiliness which enables them to exist and survive under whatever regime.

The characters of Hus and Švejk are entirely different, indeed diametrically opposed. They come into being, however, in the same circumstances and have the same basic orientation. The Hus/martyr and the Švejk/subverter are exemplary responses to overwhelming earthly power. They represent, though in different ways, coping strategies with the fact of being powerless. Švejk and Hus' symbolic resonance depends on the existence of a power which is fundamentally alien to them and incommensurably stronger. The Czech experience of the 600 years which divide us from Hus is a catalogue of subjugation to one power or another, one ideology or another: one group claiming to have exclusive right to the truth after another. Hus' significance for Czech history is thus more than simply as the figurehead of a particular historical religious grouping. He is the symbol of a strategy for orientation with regard to an oppressive power, a situation which for Czechs has been more familiar than self-determination. Thus his most lasting significance in the Czech context is not in the relative sums of historical cause and effect. Rather, in his insistence on truth and transcendence, he transcends his specific historical circumstances and becomes exemplary.

[1] pp 134-4, Holý, Ladislav, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation: National Identity and the Post-Communist Social Transformation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. In 1990 Hus appeared in fourth position; however, Holý argues that almost all Czechs think of Hus in the context of a significant historical figure; the subsequent brutalities of some Hussite factions, however, raise ambivalences as to whether he can be considered a pride-inspiring Czech, which was the question the survey posed.

[2] p 155, Dějiny Země koruny české, Vol. I, Praha: Paseka, 1992.

[3] Holý, 134-5

[4] Thomas, Alfred, The Labyrinth of the Word: Truth and Representation in Czech literature, Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1995

[5] see for example Masaryk's Jan Hus: naši obrození a naše reformace, Tábor, 1910

[6] It is possible to ascribe the apparent naive idealism of Havel's speeches after the fall of Communism in 1989 to the fact that post-structuralism as developed in Western Europe, particularly France, and America from the sixties onwards was unknown in Czechoslovakia. Havel's appeals to transcendent historical truth sound anachronistic to our ears precisely because we have been taught not to trust such terms. Even now in Czech departments of Literature and Languages, Post-structuralism is very little taught and meets with a kind of bemused ridicule - as, of course, it still does in some circles in the Western academic community.

[7] http://archiv.radio.cz/palach99

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