Czech Catholic literature 1918-1945: from dreams of utopia to despair


Opposed, later persecuted – and finally forgotten. That was the fate of many Czech Catholic writers, who stood outside the literary mainstream. In one of Europe’s most atheist nations, the impact of these authors gradually diminished throughout the 20th century although in their heyday, in the interwar period, they managed to convey many original ideas and intriguing artistic expressions.

Martin C. Putna
Literary historian and himself a leading Catholic intellectual Martin C. Putna devoted more than 12 years to the study of these authors, and recently published a voluminous, 1400-page book devoted to Czech Catholic literature in the first half of the 20th century.

“It was a rich period; it was the golden age of Czech Catholic literature and in a more general view, the golden age of European Catholic literature as well. This is the period when nearly all of the ‘classics’ of European Catholic literature, such as Graham Greene, Georges Bernanos, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and others were active, and the same is true for the Czech lands, too.”

The interwar period, marked by the abandonment of traditional values, which had not been able to prevent the horrible war, led many intellectuals to seek new values. In many countries, this went hand in hand with attacks on the Catholic Church – and even more so in the newly founded Czechoslovakia: There, ‘Rome’ was seen as a defender of the ancient Austrian regime, and an adversary of Czech and Slovak independence. For Catholic writers in Bohemian and Moravia, the situation was very difficult.

“Well, in the first moment, they were pretty much in shock. The first symbolic act of the new state was the destruction of the famous sculpture of the Virgin Mary in Prague’s Old Town Square. This statue was destroyed as a symbol of the Habsburg Monarchy, but the Catholics understood this as an attack against Catholicism. Similarly for Catholic intellectuals, the destroyed Marian column was a symbol of an attack against Catholicism.”

Martin Putna says that the most significant, and most widely read, of Czech Catholic writers of the time was Jaroslav Durych. A military physician, who reached the rank of colonel in the Czechoslovak army, he was well received despite going against the mainstream.

“In the 1920s, there was only a small group of Catholic authors – there was in fact a single writer who was highly appreciated by the general public, and that was Jaroslav Durych. He was a man with very strong, even provocative rhetoric who wrote almost extremist articles about the necessity of the reconstruction of the Marian column and of the destruction of the memorial to Jan Hus, the symbol of reformation.”

“He was a man of provocation. But regardless of that, he was highly respected as an author. He was a good friend of Karel Čapek, who was the so-called official writer of the Czechoslovak Republic and a close personal friend of president Masaryk. And Čapek, the official representative of Czechoslovak literature, would always say, ‘Durych may be wrong but he is a great poet and writer, and most of you who attack him are just journalists’.”

One of the most distinct and perhaps the most controversial Czech Catholic authors of the time was Jakub Deml. A priest and poet from western Moravia, he worked closely with an important publisher of modern Catholic literature, Josef Florian. Deml’s best known book, Zapomenuté světlo, or Forgotten Light, was adapted into a 1996 Czech film.

Towards the 1930s, many Catholic thinkers became increasingly intrigued by a concept called “the Fourth Way”. They saw the future in neither democracy, nor fascism or communism. They wanted to establish a state based on the traditional model of society, with firm values and less politics. But they ended up disappointed by the way things turned out.

“Obviously, this turned out to be only a utopia because during the 1930s, Hitler’s Germany had an ever stronger influence over all these Catholic or quasi-Catholic groups. As a result, there was no room for any fourth way. There was either a liberal democracy, or communism, or Nazism. So the fourth way was a utopia and a tragedy in the end because it very much discredited Catholic intellectuals after WWII.”

Few Catholic writers did in fact collaborate with the Nazis during there war but some did. One of them was a prominent Catholic journalist, Jan Scheinhost, the war-time editor-in-chief of the leading daily of the time, Národní Politika.

Another such figure was the Moravian Bohdan Chudoba, a historian and the founder of the English studies department at Brno’s Masaryk University. He left Czechoslovakia after the communist takeover of 1948, and later, in Spanish exile, succumbed to his far-reaching conspiracy theories.

Martin Putna says the end of the war and the rise of communism in central and Eastern Europe brought a decline in Catholic thinking and literature in the Czech lands.

“They were in a very difficult position because they saw a tendency towards socialism everywhere, the growing dominance of the Communists. Although the country was still formally a democracy, they saw very clearly that the golden age of Catholicism was over and that a dark future lay ahead.”

After 1948, some prominent authors, like Bohdan Chudoba and Jan Čep, left their country. Others, including Bohuslav Reynek and Jan Zahradníček, stayed in communist Czechoslovakia with very slim chances of publishing their works. But Czech Catholic writing survived.

“It survived in exile and also in samizdat – unofficial publications and manuscripts that were only came out after the fall of communism. But some writers succeeded in the so-called grey zone in the 1970s. Some of them were allowed to publish officially, provided they avoided openly writing about religious topics. None of them was a prominent writer but they somehow managed.”

Czech readers interested in these half-forgotten writers and intellectuals can now browse through Martin Putna’s impressive tome. International audiences, however, have few sources of information on Czech Catholic literature. Martin Putna says the reality is no modern Czech religious writers achieved international recognition.