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  • History of Censorship in Bohemia

    Part Three - The Nineteenth Century

    Jan Čulík

    Some of the liberal reforms, instituted by Joseph II. were abolished after his death in 1790. Nevertheless, Czech periodicals perpetuated the spirit of Josephinian liberalism well until the 1820s, in spite of the accession of Emperor Francis I. (1792 - 1835), who turned Austria into a reactionary, absolutist police state. In 1795, Francis I. issued a new law on censorship, which curtailed many liberal practices, brought about by Joseph II. The Josephinian right of appeal was abolished. Henceforth, the decisions made by censors were not to be questioned. If a banned manuscript was published abroad, even without the author knowing about it, the author was held responsible. Booksellers had to submit books offered for sale to official scrutiny. From 1798, literary periodicals and leaflets were no longer allowed to be displayed on premises accessible to the public. This meant that many libraries and reading rooms, opened in previous years, lost their raison d'etre and had to close down. In 1801 titles published to date were subjected to a new review and more than 2000 titles which were previously freely available were now banned. An imperial decree from 18th May, 1793 outlawed the setting up of new printing offices in the coutryside. The decree complains that the previous "unlimited freedom" led to the establishment of far too many printing offices. Thus apparently the printers could not reasonably support themselves by publishing the officially approved materials and ventured into the publication of banned books. A decree of 14th April, 1801 ordered that the number of printing offices in Prague and other large towns was to be reduced and a  decree from 18th March, 1806 stipulated that new printing offices could be set up only in large towns, where they could be under the supervision of the authorities. A new printing office could be opened only if replacing another printing office which was about to close down.

    On 14th September, 1810, the power of the censor was made almost absolute. From this time onwards, the censor was free to decide which publications were to be regarded as scholarly and which publications were intended for the general public. While scholarly works were to be judged leniently by the censor, the titles intended for the general public were judged strictly. Books dealing with the state and the government were not necesssarily to be banned outright. The criticism contained within them had to be modest, factual and constructive and was not supposed to be directed against concrete persons. No works dealing with the Austrian Emperor and his family were allowed. Books spreading dissatisfaction and superstition, titles disseminating materialistic and deistic teaching and libellous material were outlawed. The censors placed the examined books in four categories: Freely admitted books could be advertised, tolerated books could be disseminated without advertising, some banned works could be made accessible to a specially selected list of readers, known to the Emperor, writings directed against the state and religion were prohibited.

    It was extremely difficult at the time even to open new bookshops. Thus when in 1818 a bookseller from the Bohemian town of Karlovy Vary applied for permission to open another bookshop in the nearby Mariánské Lázně, the regional authorities turned this application down, expressing the view that Mariánské Lázně did not need a bookshop. It was too small to support a bookshop and there was a suspicion that the bookseller wanted to open a lending library in Mariánské Lázně which might include banned books and there was nobody in town who could oversee such a bookshop since the head of the local authority was not sufficiently qualified to do this.

    The first half of the 19th century was the era of the Czech National Revival. At first, the Revival was primarily cultural and literary. No political activity would have been possible under the stifling absolutist regime of Chancellors Metternich and Bach. Up to 1848 and then again between 1851 - 1860, the newly resurrected Czech literature suffered from the vagaries of censorship. All the major figures of the Czech National Revival complained bitterly of censorship in their letters to friends. Strict censorship went hand in hand with police oppression, which in the 1820s was directed especially against students and their associations.

    "Censorship is worse than a lottery," sighed the Czech poet František Ladislav Čelakovský (1799 - 1852), whose first poems were prohibited by the censor. Čelakovský was expelled from school for reading Jan Hus's Postilla, a collection of sermons. In 1820, a collection of early poems by Čelakovský and his friends was suppressed. Later, when Čelakovský wanted to publish a collection of folk songs, entitled Slovanské národní písně (Slavonic National Folk Songs, 1822 - 1827), the censor wanted to suppress the adjective "Slavonic" in the title. From 1834, Čelakovský edited the Prague newspaper Pražské noviny. In November 1835, he criticised in Pražské noviny the Russian tsar's refusal to listen to the demands of Polish petitioners. As a result, he was sacked both from the newspaper and from his university post and lived in destitution for seven years.

    Censorship was carried out at the Prague governor's office. The censors followed instructions from Vienna. František Němeček, Mozart's friend and biographer and Jan Zimmermann, scriptor at Prague University, belonged among the most bigotted censors in the 1820s.

    The historian Pavel Josef Šafařík (1795-1861) criticised "futile conflicts, and the censors, native Czechs, who were the greatest obstacle to the development of literature". When in 1822 Šafařík translated Schiller's tragedy Mary Stuart into Czech, the censorship did not alow the work to be printed. A new version was not published until 1831. Šafařík destroyed most of his correspondence with scholars and friends in Bohemia and abroad, after the suppression of the revolution in 1848, for fear of police reprisals. Josef Jungmann (1773-1847)'s textbook of literature Slovesnost (1820) was truncated by censorship. A number of love sonnets by Ján Kollár (1793-1852) were suppressed by the censors. Kollár's political and patriotic collection Slávy dcera (The Daughter of Sláva, 1824) had to be published in Budapest. Nobody dared to review the work in Bohemia at the time. It was not until 1831 that Čelakovský published a critical assessment of the work. Kollár's well-known rebellious political poem Vlastenec (The Patriot) was circulated in manuscript and was not published in print until 1868.

    From 1827, Czech activists published a cultural and literary quarterly - Časopis českého muzea (The Journal of the Czech Museum). The periodical started publication in two language versions, Czech and German, but while the Czech journal flourished, the German version had to be closed down for lack of interest. It was difficult for the German-language journal to find subscribers in Germany because German readers found the Austrian censorship absurdly narrow-minded and constricting.

    In 1823, Václav Hanka (1791-1861) attempted to publish the Czech-language Dalimil's Chronicle, which dates from the beginning of the 14th century. The censor turned down Hanka's application, pointing out that the Chronicle was "filled with fierce anti-German sentiment". In 1848 Hanka organised the printing of Dalimil's Chronicle in Leipzig. Meanwhile censorship temporarily fell in Austria and the production of the work was completed in Prague.

    The Austrian authorities were particularly afraid of the neocatholic, reformist views of Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848), who had a major influence on Prague university students, of whom many later became important figures in the Czech National Revival. From 1805, Bolzano was Professor at Prague University, where he taught theology, later mathematics and philosophy. In 1819, he was sacked from his university post. Two philosophical works by Bolzano's pupil Vincenc Zahradník, Jednání o svrchovaném zákonu ctnosti (A Dissertation on the Supreme Law of Virtue, written in 1829) and Dušesloví (Philosophy) were suppressed by censorship, which strove hard in this period not to allow any original ideas into print. Karel Hynek Mácha's (1810-1836) Máj (1836), a  Romantic Byronic poem, a major work of 19th century Czech literature, could only be published after long discussions between the author and the censor. Mácha's novel Cikáni (The Gypsies), written in 1835, was suppressed by censorship. An extract was published in the journal Lumír in 1851, the whole novel did not appear in print until 1857.

    Left wing philosopher and poet František Matouš Klácel (1808-1882) had serious problems with the publication of his Lyrické básně (Lyrical Poems, 1836) and Básně (Poems, 1837). Paradoxically, Klácel's poem Hlas z Blaníka (A Voice from the Blaník Hill), an open description of an armed struggle against the suppressors of the Czech nation was published. The directness of lines such as "Bohemia! Bohemia! Let's kill the enemy!" was rare in Czech poetry of the time - the censor did not understand them and passed them. As a supporter of Hegel's philosophy, as a pantheist, free-thinker and an enthusiast for Slavonic culture, Klácel was sacked from the post of professor of philosophy at Prague University in 1844.

    The value system of the Austrian Empire under Metternich can be eloquently summed up in this quote from a speech by Emperor Francis I., made to professors of a lyceum in Ljubljana in 1821:

    "Keep to the old values: they are good and our ancestors lived well by them, why not we? New ideas now prevail. I cannot approve of them and I will never approve of them. Keep away from them because I do not need scholars, I need good citizens. It is your job to bring up young people for this purpose. Those who serve me must teach what I order. Those who cannot do this or who come with new ideas, they can go, or I will remove them."

    In spite of the strenuous attempts of the Austrian authorities to suppress all independent thought, the Czech cultural and literary efforts began to acquire a political dimension towards 1848, especially in the work of Karel Havlíček (1821-1856), the first great modern Czech journalist. From 1846, Havlíček was the editor of the Prague government paper Pražské noviny and after censorship fell in the spring of 1848, Havlíček founded his own opposition newspaper Národní noviny. This excellent publication, in whose pages Havlíček explained and defended the basic principles of liberal democratic politics, was published from April 1848 until 19th January 1850, when the Austrian government closed it down. Havlíček moved from Prague to the small town of Kutná Hora and published, from 8th May 1850 until 14th August 1851, Slovan, a political newspaper which came out twice a week. In 1851, he managed to bring out two volumes of the most important articles selected from Národní listy and Slovan, Duch Národních novin (The Spirit of Národní noviny) and Epištoly kutnohorské (The Kutná Hora Letters). The Austrian government put Havlíček on trial twice, in April 1849 and in November 1851, accusing him of seditious writing, but Havlíček defended himself brilliantly at court and the jury unanimously found him not guilty on both occasions. At two o'clock in the morning of 16th December, 1851, Havlíček was arrested and deported without trial to the Tyrolean town of Brixen. He was not allowed back until 1855, by which time his wife had died, most of his Prague friends were afraid to meet him and he had contracted tuberculosis. In the Brixen exile, Havlíček wrote three long satirical poems, directed against absolutism, Král Lávra (King Lávra, 1870), Tyrolské elegie (The Tyrolean Elegies, 1870) and Křest svatého Vladimíra (The Baptism of St. Vladimir, 1876, anonymously). These poems and/or their fragments circulated in manuscript and could not be published until the 1870s.

    The temporary abolishment of censorship in 1848-1849 led to the sudden emergence of more than 30 newspapers. Two distinctive political movements appeared in Bohemia, the middle-of-the-road liberal democrats and the left-wing radicals. During the period of renewed absolutism in 1850-1860, it was especially the radicals who bore the brunt of fierce police repression. They were interned, imprisoned and exiled abroad.

    The radical democratic newspaper Pražský večerní list (The Prague Evening Newsletter), published from April 1849 by Prokop Chocholoušek (1819 - 1864) was closed down by the authorities on 1st February 1851. All the other independent newspapers were also forced to cease publication. In 1852 - 1860, no independent newspaper was published in Bohemia. The radical writer Karel Sabina (1813-1877) published Básně (Poems, 1841), but his most significant poetry was not even submitted to censorship and thus was never printed. Sabina's 6-volume novel Husité (The Hussites) was turned down by censorship five times. The author re-wrote it and started publishing it in instalments under a different title in 1844, but censorship stopped the publication in mid-stream. In 1848, Sabina worked as a journalist and took part in radical political activity. From May 1849 he was fiercely interrogated by the police and was subsequently sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to 18 years of imprisonment, he was released from prison in 1857. Josef Kajetán Tyl (1808 - 1856) was another figure of the Czech National Revival, who was destroyed by the Austrian authorities after 1848. A journalist and playwright, Tyl attempted to increase the political awareness of the Czech people by writing and staging accessible, entertaining plays with an implicit political message. His historical dramas with political undertones were prohibited after 1848. Tyl was placed under police surveillance in the post-revolutionary clampdown, lost his job as repertory adviser to the Prague Estate theatre (the government stopped subsidising the production of Czech plays), was denied a licence to run a travelling theatre, so he attempted to run it using somebody else's licence, and died in extreme poverty.

    After Austria was defeated by joint Sardinian-French forces at Magenta and Solferino in June 1859, Bach's absolutism fell and was discredited when it came out that some of its major figures had committed wholesale corruption. In October 1860, the Austrian Emperor published the "October Diploma", promising a constitution. The constitution ws issued in February 1861, setting up several regional and one national assembly. The first election, which took place in March 1861, gave high voting preferences to the landed aristocracy and the moneyed classes. The majority Czech nation in Bohemia was at a disadvantage. General franchise was not introduced in Austria until 1907.

    The December 1867 constitution guaranteed basic civic rights in Austria. Within limits, given mostly by the unequal electoral law, the Czechs could enjoy fundamental democratic freedoms between 1867 - 1914.The Austrian absolutist press law from May 1852 was replaced in December 1862 by a liberal law, which was modified in 1868 and 1894 was actually taken over after 1918 by the democratic Czechoslovak Republic (with further modifications in 1934 and 1935).

    The 1867 constitution placed censorship within the responsibility of the provincial governors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Articles were often confiscated, the publication of newspapers temporarily suspended and journalists imprisoned, mostly for short periods of time, for "subversion" and offences against public order.

    Czech writer and journalist Jakub Arbes (1840-1914) listed in his work Pláč koruny české (The Tears of the Czech Crown, 1894) more than a thousand acts of petty political persecution perpetrated by the Austrian government against Czechs in 1868 - 1873, during the five year period of strong Czech nationalist political activity for autonomy within Austria. The Austrian authorities were trying to minimalise nationalist friction in the Empire by suppressing critical voices. The government also attempted to silence left wing writers and journalists and anyone whom they regarded as extremist. Jakub Arbes bore the brunt of the wrath of the autorities in the 1870s and the 1880s. Arbes worked as a journalist on staff of the main Czech opposition daily newspaper Národní listy, but his radical views came to be regarded as unacceptable and he was sacked. For a short time, he edited in 1880 and then again in 1883, a satirical magazine Šotek, on both occasions it was suppressed. The Collected Edition of Arbes's works published in 1902 - 1916, although comprising 40 volumes, was not completed: the publisher refused to print some of Arbes's works for their political content. In 1883, the poem Lešetínský kovář (The Blacksmith of Lešetín) by Svatopluk Čech (1846-1908) was confiscated by censorship because it highlighted some of the more ruthless aspects of aggressive capitalism and combined its criticism with Czech national protest.

    Nevertheless, the press law of 1862 was relatively liberal, giving the right to anyone to edit and publish books and periodicals, in line with current business legislation, although the premises where books and newspapers were to be sold had to be registered with the police. In 1894, it was decreed that holders of a business licence must not be denied the right to sell periodicals published on the territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The business licence could be taken away if some of the contents of the periodicals offered for sale constituted a criminal offence. Those who had committed a criminal offence or were being held in pre-trial detention could not be editors-in-chief of a periodical publication.

    Although the Austro-Hungarian Empire was becoming progressively more liberal in the last decades of its existence, it reverted to strict absolutist rule and harsh censorship during the First World War in 1914-1918.

    (To be continued)

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