Sunday, 28 September 2008

The famous Czechs were all Germans

“All the famous Czechs were Germans” is a saying you’ll sometimes hear when you ask about the prominent personalities of Czech history.

It usually refers to the period before WWI, when Bohemia and Moravia were part of the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Germans lived side by side with Czechs (in varying degrees of harmony) in Bohemia and Moravia from the 13th Century until the end of WWII, when they were expelled by presidential decree.

Sigmund Freud is probably the most famous historic figure to whom the saying refers. Despite being born in Příbor, North Moravia, in 1856, he is usually associated with Vienna and London before the land of his birth. It’s true he spent only his youngest years there before being whisked off to Vienna by his family, but most scholars agree that Freud’s early years in the Czech lands (and his nanny Monika Zajicova) were heavily influential on his later theories.

Gregor Mendel was another important thinker from a small town in North Moravia. Born in Hynčice in 1822, Mendel went on to study mathematics, physics, philosophy and ethics at the Olomouc University, before entering a monastery in Brno and laying the foundation for the science of genetics by experimenting with pea plants in the garden there.

Oscar Schindler’s influence on the world was more localized, but no less important, especially to the descendants of the Jewish workers that he saved from Nazi concentration camps by declaring them essential workers for his Krakow factory. As the war turned against Germany and the Russians advanced, Schindler moved his entire operation including about a thousand Jewish workers to a village in the Czech-Moravian highlands, not far from his hometown of Svitavy. Where, incidentally, there’s an excellent museum in his honour and a commemorative statue near the house he grew up in.

Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka are two more prominent figures in German culture. Mahler was an important composer and conductor who was born near Jihlava in 1860 and Kafka is one of the most influential writers of the early 20th century. In much of his work the gloomy atmosphere of his native Prague is tangible enough to almost be a character of its own.

So Mahler, Freud, Mendel, Schindler and Kafka are the reasons this phrase came into existence, but is it really true?

Were the most famous Czechs all Germans?

If someone asked you to name five famous Czechs, which names would spring first to your mind?

12 comments:

Michael Svec said...

How do you define any ethnicity? If DNA were the test then 2 children of Czech emigrants would surely qualify, Ray Kroc founder of McDonalds and George Halas who established the Chicago Bears and the NFL (OK I am a Chicago native and Bears fan). Are naturalization papers enough? If language is the primary criteria which I suspect is appropriate and most frequently used, then surely Jan Hus would be Czech, as would Jan Komensky (Comenius) and Havel. Kafka did speak Czech and encouraged his girl friend to write in Czech because it was more romantic than German. I suppose you could argue that Jaromir Jagr is the best known Czech in the US at least and I bet Petr Cech is well known in UK. Although I currently live in South Carolina, I am not considered a native since I have a northern accent and I don't have 3 generations buried here (I did not make that up). Who else is a famous Czech?

sansIcarus said...

Is Russell Crowe a Kiwi because he was born there or Australian because he lives in Australia?

Could you also pose the question 'are some of the most famous Germans Czech?'

When I think of famous Czechs, I think of Jan Hus, Milan Kundera, Milos Forman, Vaclav Havel and Franz Kafka.

Eso said...

Jan Amos Komenský, Antonín Dvořák, Jan Janský, Karel Čapek, Jaroslav Hašek, Tomáš Baťa

Hello Xu Xu said...

Václav Havel, Franz Kafka, Antonín Dvořák, Saint Wenceslas, Karel Kryl

Captain Oddsocks said...

Some interesting suggestions there. Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova are two that I thought might be mentioned but haven't been yet. Tomas Bata is a good one. Who in the world hasn't heard of Bata Shoes?

Esigodini said...

Tomas Bata works for me. My first employment as a teenager was for him - at a Bata factory in a converted WWII airbase in Zimbabwe. There were plenty of Czech expats at the factory in the 50s and 60s, and at least one still there in the 80s.

Michael said...

Jara Cimrman.

Michael said...

Oh, and Alfons Mucha, Emil Skoda and countless sports stars (Pavel Nedved, for example).

To balance it out, how about Ferdinand Porsche? Born in Vratislavice-nad-Nissou.

Michael Svec said...

If we have Cimrman, then we must include Švejk.

Captain Oddsocks said...

So just going by the number of times they've been mentioned here, it seems that Mssrs Bat´a, Komenský, Havel, Hus, and Dvořák are the most famous Czechs...

Although fame is obviously very subjective; if you're a sports fan in one country, you're probably going to think of different famous people than a non-sports fan in a different country.

Emil Zatopek is another sportsman whose name is well recognised in Australia, where's there's an annual raced named in his honour.

And nobody mentioned any supermodels...

Karen said...

Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Ivana Trump, Martina Navaratola (sp), Bata the shoe guy

dainfomaster said...

RE: "... we must include Švejk."

If you do, make sure you get the new English translation of The Good Soldier Svejk available at http://zenny.com. More information about the Svejk phenomenon at http://SvejkCentral. Also, Svejk is on FaceBook now: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Good-Soldier-Svejk/133349009873?ref=nf