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Reviewed by:
  • The Czech Reader: History, Culture, and Politics ed. by Jan Bažant, Nina Bažantová, and Frances Starn
  • David Doellinger
The Czech Reader: History, Culture, and Politics. Edited by Jan Bažant, Nina Bažantová, and Frances Starn. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010. 568 pp. $94.95 (cloth); $26.95 (paper).

In The Czech Reader: History, Culture, and Politics, editors Jan Bažant, Nina Bažantová, and Frances Starn present a well-rounded journey through the history of the Czechs with an extensive compilation of primary source readings from the late tenth to the early twenty-first century that have been translated into English. The Czech lands were an important component of multinational states such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Czechoslovakia. This history connects Czechs to many of the intellectual, cultural, and political currents of the last millennium, which are conveyed in this collection. The primary sources are chronologically arranged into thirteen sections; each section addresses a specific theme or period and begins with an introductory essay that locates the documents in the context of Czech and European history. Each of the sixty-seven documents is then individually introduced. In addition to eight pages of glossy color illustrations in the middle of the book, more than sixty illustrations (art, photographs, and maps) appear throughout the volume and nicely complement the text. The majority of the primary sources are from the period since the Enlightenment.

The Czech Reader is part of Duke University Press’s World Readers series, and the volume emphasizes many ways in which Czech intellectual and cultural history is interconnected with Europe and the West. [End Page 192] This is a theme the editors emphasize in their commentary throughout the volume. For example, it includes a letter written in 1892 by composer Antonín Dvořák, who was in New York directing the National Conservatory of Music, addressed to the president of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Art. Dvořák discusses how he is portrayed in the U.S. press as helping Americans “create a national music” (p. 217). The discussion of Dvořák in this section’s introduction speaks to the influence that African American folk music had on his own compositions. Likewise, excerpts from nineteenth-century Czech historian František Palacký’s History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia present his arguments for the special role that Czechs have as a bridge between Western (German) and Eastern (Slav) Europe. As a result, this collection should be of interest to faculty teaching academic courses outside of the specialized areas of Czech, Czechoslovak, or even East Central European history.

With any edited collection of primary source documents, there is always the question of why some documents are included and others not. The editors made many thoughtful choices. The volume includes well-known texts, such as early church reformer Jan Hus’s “Letter to the Czechs,” written shortly before his execution in 1415; excerpts from Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., which first introduced the term “robot,” and Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk, a satire of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy and military during the First World War; and a dialogue from a play, as well as a political essay, written by Vaclav Havel, one of the most prominent dissidents before the collapse of communism in 1989. But, it is some of the unexpected selections that make this collection distinct. The inclusion of a nineteenth-century recipe for fried carp, which later became the main course for the Czech Christmas meal, was interesting and off the beaten path, though it would have been helpful to learn more about why this particular fish became so important. Alois Jirásek’s “Golem,” the legend of a servant made of clay by a Prague rabbi, highlights the long history of the Jewish community in Prague. Also in the unexpected category is a speech given by Reinhard Heydrich, “On the Elimination of the Czech Nation,” just after he was appointed by Adolf Hitler to administer the Czech lands for the Nazis in 1941.

However, it is the exclusion of the sources that the editors specifically refer to by name in...


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