František Palacký

The Czech historian and statesman František Palacký (1798-1876) was the father of 19th-century Czech nationalism. He is known for his monumental History of Bohemia and his federalistic concept of Austro-Slavism.

František Palacký was born at Hodslavice, Moravia, on June 14, 1798, into a petit bourgeois Protestant family with strong Hussite traditions—a fact of considerable influence on his future outlook. After he attended school in nearby Kunewald (where he learned German), his father, a schoolmaster, sent him to Hungary to study at the Evangelical schools of Trencsén (now Trençin in Slovakia) and Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava). Particularly important was his stay at Pozsony (1812-1820)—then Hungary's administrative center—for there he came into contact with the already powerful Magyar national movement and with the nascent and rising Slavic (Slovak, Czech, pan-Slav) national consciousness, as represented by the works of such intellectuals as J. Palkoviç, J. Benedicti, J. Kollár, and P. Šfařik. From Pozsony he moved to Vienna, where he spent 3 years familiarizing himself with Immanuel Kant's philosophy of history and publishing a few studies on esthetics and literature. Then he decided to turn to the study of history, driven by the realization that only a clear and scholarly unfolding of the great moments of Czech history could awaken Czech national consciousness and save the nation from total extinction.

In 1823 Palacký moved to Prague, where he was received with great expectations, both by the older Czech scholars (for example, J. Jungmann and J. Dobrovský) and by the patriotic members of the Czech aristocracy, whose patronage (particularly of counts F. and K. Sternberg) permitted him to devote himself fully to scholarly and patriotic activities. After becoming editor of the journal of the Bohemian Museum Society (1827) and completing the publication of medieval Czech annals (1829), Palacký was named Bohemia's official historian. In this capacity he undertook the task of writing the first great synthesis of Czech history.

The first volume of this work (Geschichte von Böhmen; History of Bohemia) was printed in German in 1836. Subsequent volumes appeared irregularly in both Czech and German and carried Bohemia's history up to the extinction of its real independence in 1526. Its impact was immediate and phenomenal. It shook Czech national consciousness, particularly by depicting the nation's past as an unceasing struggle against German imperialism and violence. Palacký contrasted this with Czech (Slav) attachment to individual freedom and democracy, and he interpreted the Hussite movement (the central episode of his work) as his nation's effort to liberate the soul from the spiritual bondage of the Romano-Germanic Middle Ages.

Although working for the regeneration of his nation, Palacký did not call for Czech political independence. A nation to him was a kinship group that need not be organized into a state. He felt that small states (such as an independent Bohemia would be) are too much at the mercy of their stronger neighbors. He looked favorably upon the unity of the Austrian Empire and regarded its existence as a European necessity. At the same time, however, he was working for its federative reorganization.

Palacký elaborated his concept of federalism in Austria ("Austro-Slavism") in a plan presented to the Diet of Kromeřiz (Kremsier) in 1848. This plan—calling for the creation of seven autonomous national units in the empire—was in part unrealistic, but with a little goodwill it could have served as a point of departure toward a "new Austria."

Following the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Palacký retired from active political life. Becoming more and more discouraged during the 1860s, he slowly turned to Russia and pan-Slavism. In his Idea of the Austrian State (Czech 1865, German 1866), he again offered federalism—now based on the historical provinces—as a solution. Palacký died in Prague on May 26, 1876.


Further Reading on František Palacký

A fine monograph on Palacký, Joseph F. Zaçek's Palacký: The Historian as Scholar and Nationalist (1971), is based on primary Czech sources previously unavailable in English. Extensive material on Palacký's life and his influence on the Czech people is in Samuel Harrison Thomson, Czechoslovakia in European History (1943; rev. ed. 1953). Robert J. Kerner, ed., Czechoslovakia (1940), also considers Palacký. Robert W. Seton, A History of the Czechs and Slovaks (1943), briefly surveys his entire career.