Obezřetná elita. Česká společnost mezi tradicí a revolucí 1830 – 1851

TitleObezřetná elita. Česká společnost mezi tradicí a revolucí 1830 – 1851
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsKučera, Rudoft
Author(s) of reviewed materialŠtaif, Jiří

Title translated:
A Cautious Elite. The Czech Society between the Tradition and Revolution 1830 – 1851

PublisherPrague: Nakladatelství Dokořán
ISSNISBN 80-7363-014-1
Review year


Full Text

This book by Jiří Štaif represents a significant point in the contemporary rethinking of the 19th century history in the Czech historiography. While there is still no representative synthesis dealing with the history of 19th century Bohemia, Štaif conceptualizes some central issues in a methodologically sound, innovative and at times inspiring way. He uses not only theoretical terms from the field of modern social history that are already widely used in the Czech context (social interaction, national agitation etc.), but also comes up with some completely new concepts (alternative elite, breaking up and filling of the social space), the application of which to the Bohemian history of the “Vormärz” could be considered path-breaking. 

At the beginning of his book Štaif presents a strong thesis that the Metternich’s regime started to phase out from different spheres of public life before 1848 and thus made space for a new, alternative and Czech elite. While substantiating this thesis, the book makes use of already known theoretical approaches and concepts, such as “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson) or patterns of behavior of the old and new social elites (Pierre Bourdieu).

Throughout the book Štaif engages in the topical debates about formation of the Czech national civil society in the 19th century. He elaborates on the accepted propositions concerning the importance of the small social structures. His detailed and accurate analysis of the typical social milieus of the 19th century Bohemia (manor, town and village) is in many respects new and fruitful. Štaif makes use of his impressive knowledge of the Austrian statistics, but sometimes fails to employ his statistical data to present a persuasive argument. 

New are also attempts to reconstruct and typologize collective mentalities related to particular social spaces. Probably for the first time in the Czech historiography the relation of the national leaders and their “clientage” is drawn attention to from the “bottom up” perspective. Štaif’s argument that the arising Czech alternative elite not only had to respect the mentality of its clientage, but at the same time it was partly rooted in this mentality and therefore likewise limited, is predominantly convincing. The author managed to partway overcome the problematic theoretical approach still present in a number of works dealing with 19th century nationalisms, which presumes a strong division within the nation-building processes into sharply segregated groups, namely those of active national agitators and passive clients.  

This approach allows Štaif to interpret political strategies of the Czech national representation during the 1848–1849 revolution precisely with the mental limits overlapping with those of the “clientale.”  However, the analysis of modernization tendencies of the Bohemian nobility is somewhat simpistic and limited to the projects of Metternich’s library and the mortgage bank. Nevertheless, the mental milieu of the Czech society, which is divided into predefined social and geographical areas, is portrayed very vividly. The fact that in certain respects Štaif works rather with ideal types than with constructs that are rooted in the sources weakens the cogency of his conclusions only slightly. 

The main thesis about the fill up of the freed social space by the Czech intellectuals in the pre-revolutionary era is also strengthened by specific examples. Exemplifying the prosopographical analysis of some early Czech national activities (agitation for the National Theatre, fund-raising campaign for the Czech industry school and the foundation and activity of the Industrial Union), the book specifies the picture of the “clientale” of the Czech national movement in the social and geographical sense.   

A significant part of the book deals with the 1848–1849 revolution and the following commencement of the post-revolutionary, politically conservative regime. Such amount dedicated to revolutionary and immediately post-revolutionary situation is comprehensible since it was precisely in the revolution of 1848 – 1849 that the outcomes of the pre-1848 activities crystallized, and the revolutionary events and their impacts could be understood as a benchmark for the success of the Czech “alternative” elite.  Respecting the traditional way of describing the revolution according to the crucial political events and concentrating mainly on the revolutionary Prague, the book brings plenty of new facts in a relatively broad context. In many passages the traditional handicap of the Czech historiography is surmounted and the view stresses not only the traditionally highlighted Czech liberal representation with Rieger or Palacký at the front. Especially the parts dealing with the German speaking population represent an outstanding contribution.

Štaif does not hesitate to measure the revolutionary activity of the Czech liberals through the contemporary normative view of equal rights and social participation. In a short comparison to the German liberal representation, the image that emerges of the Czech liberals appears barely very flattering.

As already stated, its innovative applications of certain theoretical models for the purpose of understanding and interpreting the emergence of the Czech national movement in the pre-1848 era can be seen as the book's main asset. However strong the argumentation on many places of the book may be, certain weaknesses and ambiguities should not be overlooked.  The author uses general notions without clearly defining them and thus (partly intentionally) abandons the classical scheme of the predominantly German and Central European scientific discourse, where a clear definition of the central notions represents one of the main points for the historical analysis. This could be refreshing in some places, but here and there it leads to certain confusion. The very notion of “alternative elite” is used in different parts of the work differently.  At the beginning of the book it tends to describe the small community of the Czech intellectuals, but later it is used even for some parts of  the nobility or for radical democratic groups centered around such persons like Emanuel Arnold or Karel Sabina. 

The notion “old elite” is used both for aristocracy and for the bureaucratic and administrative machinery of the pre-1848 Austria. These terminological ambiguities lead to exaggeratedly pointed conclusions about the successful emergence of the modern Czech political elite and the reach of its influence. After all, the very understanding of elites in the national sense does not have to be the most typical one at the time that is examined.  The book pays only some attention to the estate differentiation of elites, which was naturally not defined according to national criteria and which could have been in certain milieus much more dominant than the definition of an elite position and function in the framework of particular national societies within the Habsburg monarchy.  In this context Štaif sees activities and concepts of the old elites and the redistribution of social prestige sometimes too schematically since he places them only in the 1850’s and tries to interpret them only with the post-revolutionary "wild" economical liberalism as its background.

All these reservations, however, cannot change the fact that this is a very interesting book that, with the help of a well-founded theoretical approach, will no doubt shape the contemporary understanding of the pre-1848 era in Bohemia and will contribute an interesting points of view to a future synthesis.