28 September 2018

Byzantinism and the interwar Czechoslovaks

Ever since that World Bank / World Values Survey study came out demonstrating how Orthodox Christians tend to be worse capitalists than Western Europeans and also to view capitalism with a greater degree of scepticism, I’ve secretly been intrigued by these connexions between the deep habits and Lebenwelt of those who have grown up in religiously-Orthodox countries, and their political behaviour. I wasn’t particularly convinced by the conclusions of the Djankov-Nikolova paper, which struck me as falling into a lazy ipse dixit cultural-essentialist trap and dismissing too cavalierly the proximate negative experiences of post-communism. But I was intrigued nevertheless. (As an Orthodox Christian leftist, how could I not be?) I already touched on this a little bit, I think, in my ‘Red Ruthenia’ piece, which showed some suggestive and intriguing parallels between Eastern Orthodox Church membership in Slovakia and populist / democratic-socialist (as opposed to ethnic-nationalist) politics. I daren’t comment too boldly on my own performance there, but I really hope I didn’t interpret this in the kind of baldly cultural-essentialist way that Djankov and Nikolova did.

Considering the history of Czechoslovakia more broadly, I also think there are intriguing parallels between the rise of Byzantine studies among Bohemian Czechs at the tail end of Habsburg rule, and the rise of Czechoslovakism as a political solution to the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy. These parallels are particularly intriguing when one considers the distinctly ‘Byzantine’ shape (particularly the back-room intrigues and the intricate but robust balances of political factions) that even Czechoslovak democratic politics took in the period of the First Republic. In addition, Czech philosopher Jozef Matula has a fascinating overview of Byzantine studies and how they closely overlapped with the same Slavist circles from whence emerged the ideologists of Czechoslovakism.

With the exception of a rather short episode when Cyril and Methodius led a mission to Great Moravia,’ Jozef Matula begins, ‘the Czech countries have never been under the direct influence of Byzantine civilisation, but have developed in the sphere of Western Latin culture.’ (Ironic, actually, that I should be discussing this on the feast day of Martyr-Duke Václav.) But he goes on to point out that the ‘late’ but relatively-profound interest in Byzantine history, literature and politics among the Czech intelligentsia overlapped to an overwhelming degree with the pan-Slavist political ideals that many Czech public figures espoused. ‘Byzantine studies, from the very beginning, were a historical science closely connected with the pressing political problems of the time.’ It is not an accident that Jaroslav Bidlo, whom Matula describes as the ‘founder of Czechoslovakian Byzantology’, was also a Slavic studies specialist who worked in Poland and the Slavic Balkans.

Bidlo himself was something of a political quietist, but his students ranged from quietly to stridently radical. Matula mentions Karel Škorpil by name, a Slavophil archæologist who sympathised with Bulgarian national liberation, and ‘political idealist’ historian Konstantin Jiriček, both of whom contributed materially to the Bulgarian national renaissance. Another of Bidlo’s students not mentioned by Matula, is the rather oddball Romantic Bulgarian folklorist and populist Nayden Sheytanov, who sought to merge all the South Slavic nations into a ‘Balkano-Bulgarian Titanism’.

Miloš Weingart is another prominent intellectual Byzantinologist, Bulgaria scholar, Czechoslovakist and pan-Slavist whose work makes an appearance in the interwar period, and who is mentioned with approval by Matula. A professor of linguistics and Church Slavonic at the Charles University in Prague, he published numerous works, several of which pertained specifically to the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Great Moravia, and to a historical analysis of the development of mediæval Czech and its relationship to Old Church Slavonic. His face was set sternly against ethno-nationalism. As a linguist he militated particularly, through the Prague Linguistics Circle (which included the prominent left-liberal Russian Eurasianist Prince Nikolai Trubetskoi!), against the Czech chauvinist idea of a ‘pure’ Czech language which could be historically isolated from Slovak, and also against the idea that the West Slavic languages were exclusively formed apart from the rest of the Slavic tongues under the influence of the missions of Saints Cyril and Methodius. His historical overview of Byzantine studies shows that it is intertwined even with the first stirrings of Czech and Slovak national sentiment under František Palacký. Needless to say, Dr Weingart is a figure about whom I would like to learn much more.

Another intriguing figure, and one whom I want to study in more depth, is one whom Matula mentions in passing: Milada Paulová, whose work is cited by Daniel Miller in Forging Political Compromise. Paulová, a distinguished Byzantine scholar, Czechoslovakist and Yugoslavia scholar, who became the first female professor in Czechoslovakia in 1925, also at the Charles University in Prague.

What Matula touches on but what I wish he had devoted a bit more space to, is the influence of these Byzantinist-cum-pan-Slavist ideas in the intellectual sphere on politicians like Masaryk, Švehla and Beneš – contemporaries who more or less collaborated smoothly together most of the time (even though most of the time, Švehla and Beneš didn’t trust or even particularly like one another). Both Masaryk and Beneš held mild pro-Russian sympathies, although they tended in different directions. Masaryk himself had Slavophil leanings and welcomed Russian émigrés with open arms, particularly intellectuals, including the Russian Orthodox religious-philosophical father and son Nikolai and Vladimir Lossky. This was a tendency Švehla shared, but to a lesser extent. Beneš, on the other hand, even though he and his mentor Masaryk were both socialists, had more open sympathies with the Soviets – this became apparent particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Actual Orthodox Christians, apart from the Rusins, in the Czech and Slovak lands were rare. There were one or two notable exceptions, like the poet (and possible forger of historical documents) Václav Hanka, and the conservative-nationalist ‘Young Czech’ politician Karel Kramář. But a certain fascination with, respect for, and attempt to emulate certain aspects of Byzantium were apparently much more widespread and influential in the Czech and Slovak lands and had apparently little to do with formal religious affiliation. This seems to be an interesting historical book-end to the process by which Orthodox Christianity in fact spread into the Slavic lands at the hands of Byzantine South Slavic missionaries through the polity of Great Moravia over 1100 years before.

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