148. Without Remorse: Czech National Socialism and The Habsburg State

By
Catherine Albrecht and T. Mills Kelly

T. Mills Kelly comments:
If the history of radical nationalism in East Central Europe is read backwards through Bosnia, the two World Wars, and the breakup of the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman empires, it is almost impossible to imagine that a radical nationalist movement that mobilized its constituents using the rhetoric of ethnic separation and anti-Semitism, and relied on large and sometimes violent street protests, could also espouse pacifism and full equality for women, or that later this same party would become a pillar of strength in a democratic regime. Because Czech National Socialism was all of these things, it presents an intriguing opportunity to study the emergence and development of mass politics and radical nationalism in a rapidly modernizing society. It also demonstrates how difficult it is to fit radical nationalist movements in East Central Europe into convenient categories or theoretical models.

To those interested in the history of East Central Europe or the history of nationalism, the story of Czech National Socialism tells us much about the maturing of mass political mobilization in a period of intense social and political conflict among nations, interest groups, and classes. Upon close examination one finds, not surprisingly, that Czech national extremism was both a Habsburg and a European phenomenon. On the one hand, it was the result of a specific Austrian condition--the tensions resulting from the structure of the Habsburg political system and the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Czechs and Germans in Bohemia (and to a lesser extent in Moravia). At the same time, Czech national radicalism was part of a larger European problem resulting from the redefinition of popular sovereignty that began in 1789 when the French National Assembly took legitimacy away from God and bestowed it on the French nation.

The essential argument presented in the book I am writing is that the variant of Czech radical nationalism represented by the National Socialists was nourished from three sources: the rapid socioeconomic modernization of the Bohemian lands after 1880, the asymmetrical political system of the Habsburg state, and the availability of Czech-German and Czech-Habsburg conflicts. None of these circumstances necessarily presaged the collapse of the Habsburg state, although each certainly proved useful to National Socialist leaders in their quest for power within the Czech nation. In particular, the National Socialists found themselves in a mutually satisfying relationship with the Habsburg government. The Czech radicals needed the state to behave like an oppressor so that radical pronouncements about the state would be true. Likewise, Habsburg officials needed groups like the National Socialists to cross the line into open disloyalty or even treason in order to prove that there really was an internal threat to the state that would justify police measures limiting personal and political freedoms.

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Catherine Albrecht comments:
In his paper, "Without Remorse: Czech National Socialism and the Habsburg State," Mills Kelly argues that radical politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries grew out of frustration with limited democratization and the negative consequences of economic and social modernization.

That access to political power was limited in the late Habsburg monarchy has been amply demonstrated by recent works on both parliamentary and local politics in Cisleithania. Kelly aptly notes that the political parties that did not share directly in governance developed their own structures, particularly in the provincial cities and smaller towns, which directly challenged established political elites and the Habsburg state. One has to wonder whether access to shared political power before 1918 might have proved an effective antidote to National Socialist radicalism. If the National Socialists had been able to exercise political power by more conventional means, would they have chosen to do so?

Kelly analyzes the direct challenges leveled by National Socialist leaders, particularly Vaclav Klofac, to the military and foreign policies of the monarchy and the dynastic dignity of Franz Josef himself. The symbolic significance of these actions, and their importance to the public image of the National Socialist party, was enhanced by the strong reactions of the Habsburg state to perceived threats to its integrity. Thus, the National Socialist party was able to "prove" that the state it opposed denied full political participation to its citizens and discriminated against Czech political interests.

Political radicalism in the Habsburg monarchy was also motivated by the "social dislocation" caused by rapid modernization. The term "social dislocation" usually has negative connotations, referring to the uprooting of those who have lost their livelihood in agriculture or craft manufacture or to perceived downward mobility. Many supporters of Czech National Socialism, in their petitions and resolutions, believed that their livelihoods were threatened by larger manufacturers and financiers, many of whom could be identified as "German" or "Jewish."

But the leaders of the National Socialist party were for the most part upwardly mobile. For emerging Czech elites, "social dislocation" reflects a crisis of upward mobility among groups that were achieving new levels of education and economic opportunity, but still competing fiercely for a limited number of positions of political power. As Jan Kren has noted, many new radical and national associations were led by officials whose professional careers depended on the continuance of national discord. Thus, the aims of different groups that supported the party and the motives of both members and party leaders are keys to understanding the power of Czech National Socialism and other political parties in the last decades of the Habsburg monarchy.

Mills Kelly's study of Czech National Socialism raises questions that are relevant to understanding radical nationalism throughout the 20th century: does the rhetoric of hatred and dissatisfaction reflect reality or create it? Why does ethnic conflict replace other axes of competition, especially socio-economic competition? Who benefits from national extremism? And finally, can a study of Czech National Socialism before and after 1918 help us to understand Czech political culture today?

Catherine Albrecht and T. Mills Kelly spoke at an EES Habsburg seminar on January 13, 1998.

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