Young Czechs and Old Czechs

views updated


Following the suppression of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg lands, political activity was outlawed, but the failures of this "neoabsolutist" system, especially the losses in the Italian War of 1859, caused Emperor Francis Joseph to change course. As a result, the so-called constitutional era in the Austrian Empire was launched in 1860, and provincial diets reappeared, an imperial parliament (the Reichsrat) was established in Vienna, and political parties were founded. In Prague, Czech leaders, led by František Palacký and his son-in-law František L. Rieger, created the Czech National Party, whose goals were the political autonomy of the Bohemian crown lands of the empire on the basis of the traditional state rights of the old Kingdom of Bohemia, and greater rights for Czech language and culture. Because elections were carried out according to a restrictive curial system, which weighted votes in favor of wealthy landowners and urban elites, the party made a tactical alliance with the conservative great landowners, who shared their desire for provincial autonomy. Although the 1867 Ausgleich (compromise), which created the new country of Austria-Hungary out of the old empire, expanded political and individual rights in the Bohemian crown lands, it represented a setback for the Czech program because it established German dominance in the western, or "Austrian," half of the monarchy. In response, the National Party launched a program of passive resistance, refusing to participate in the local diets and the imperial parliament.

From its origins, the National Party had incorporated two factions, the conservative Old Czechs and the progressive Young Czechs—the name of the latter reflecting not the age of its members, but rather its initial identification with liberal nationalist movements such as "Young Germany" and "Young Poland" that had been inspired by the Italian ideologue, Giuseppe Mazzini. The split in the Czech national camp became apparent in a debate over the Polish revolt against Russia in 1863. The more conservative wing around Palacký and Rieger, although critical of tsarist policies, continued to support Russian leadership of the Slavic world, whereas liberals condemned the Russians as oppressors, and a small group of radical polonophiles sought to aid the Poles directly. In addition, the Young Czechs questioned the need for an alliance with the landed aristocrats, and developed an interpretation of Bohemian state rights that de-emphasized its feudal aspects. They combined their demands for greater democracy with a program of strident nationalism and occasional anticlericalism designed to appeal to the broad masses.

Chafing under the restrictions of passive resistance, the Young Czechs broke with the National Party, establishing a new party, the National Liberal Party, in 1874, and resuming participation in the government. In 1878 the Old Czechs also abandoned passive resistance and made an agreement with the Young Czechs to promote the national agenda. This coalition, led by the Old Czechs, supported the government of Austrian Minister-President (prime minister) Eduard Taaffe, which came to power in 1879, in return for concessions on national issues. The diminishing returns of this agreement caused the Young Czechs to end their cooperation with the Old Czechs in 1888. Following a controversial agreement negotiated by the Old Czechs in 1890 that gave significant concessions to the Bohemian Germans, the Young Czechs unseated their rivals in the 1891 elections to the imperial parliament. The Young Czech victory was in many ways a protest against the Old Czechs, and it transformed the party from a small radical nucleus into a broad coalition encompassing disparate segments of Czech society.

Once in power, party leaders lost touch with the more radical elements that had brought them to victory. As a result, several new, mostly small, parties, advocating a variety of progressive reforms, emerged to challenge the Young Czechs. At the same time, the expansion of the franchise opened the way for a transfer of political power away from parties of notables such as the Old and Young Czechs to mass-based parties of interest, such as the Social Democrats and the Agrarian Party. The Young Czechs lost their leading role in Czech politics in 1907, following the first elections to the imperial parliament on the basis of universal male suffrage. They continued to exert significant influence in provincial and municipal politics, where the curial system remained in effect. Increasingly identified as the party of business and banking interests, the Young Czechs emerged after the fall of the empire as the Czechoslovak National Democratic Party, one of the five influential parties that set the political course in the interwar Czechoslovak Republic.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia; Masaryk, Tomáš Garrigue; Palacký, František.


Garver, Bruce M. The Young Czech Party, 1874–1901, and the Emergence of a Multi-party System. New Haven, Conn., 1978.

Šolle, Zdeněk. Století české politiky: Pocátky moderní české politiky od Palackého a Havlícka az po realisty Kaizla, Kramáre a Masaryka. Prague, 1998.

Vojtěch, Tomáš. Mladočeši a boj o politickou moc v Čechách. Prague, 1980.

Claire E. Nolte