Czechs in History

And now it's time for the latest edition of Czechs in History, in which Nick Carey takes a look at the life and works of natural scientist and philosopher Emanuel Radl...

Emanuel Radl is a little-known figure in Czech history. He is neither remembered or acknowledged by the Czech people, though he died only sixty years ago. Closely linked with the ideals of the first Czechoslovak Republic, Radl wrote extensively supporting the fledgling state and attacking nationalist ideology. The lambasting that Radl received in return from nationalists on both sides of the divide in the early 1930s led to a nervous breakdown that permanently ruined his health.

Emanuel Radl was born in the village of Pysely, not far to the west of Prague, on December 22nd 1873. His parents owned a shop in the village, and growing up in these surroundings, says Erazim Kohak, philosophy professor at Charles University, was to greatly influence his view on life and the country:

A studious boy, Radl applied to Charles University to study mathematics and biology. Too poor to pay for his own studies, he worked for his board and lodgings at an Augustinian monastery in his early years at the university. Academically gifted, he joined the natural philosophy and history department, and in 1903, at the age of thirty, he became the department's associate professor. In his early years at the department, he focused his work on evolution.

In 1909, he published his first major work, called A History of Evolution Theories in the 19th Century. The work was heavily influenced by the vitalist school of thought, which works from the idea that there is a vital, guiding principle in the universe:

This fascination for the meaning and purpose of being was eventually to move Emanuel Radl further and further away from his natural science background and more into the field of philosophy and social commentary. Radl's articles and writings on the issues of the day, such as democracy and cultural identity, intensified with the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak state in 1918:

The first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, wanted the state to be founded not on the principles of nationality, but on those of democracy. The Czechs formed less than forty percent of the population, and Masaryk believed that the main chance for the country's survival was to ensure that the Czechs did not try to dominate the other ethnic groups: the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Ruthenians and the Germans. Emanuel Radl admired Masaryk, he shared his views and began to write against nationalism, all nationalism, in the early 1920s. Erazim Kohak:

Unfortunately, the rising tensions between ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland birder regions of Czechoslovakia and the Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia, meant that nationalist parties on both sides of the divide began to grow in size and influence. Radl continued to write in favour of the founding ideal of Czechoslovakia, and condemned nationalism at every step. His main work in this vein, called The War Between the Czechs and the Germans, published in 1928, attempted to address the issues at stake:

The attacks that Radl made in this book against the principles of nationalism, did not, unsurprisingly, go over very well with either the Czech or the German nationalist parties. Such was the outcry by these parties over Radl's book that he became the focus of a sustained hate campaign in nationalist elements of the press. Erazim Kohak again:

The problem with the ideals that Emanuel Radl was trying to foster amongst the Czech people, says Erazim Kohak, is that after centuries of subjugation at the hands of the Habsburg Empire, the Czechs were in no mood to be magnanimous towards Czechoslovakia's ethnic German minority:

After his nervous breakdown, Emanuel Radl spent much the remainder of his life being cared for at home. He continued to write on philosophical themes and returned several times to the subject of nationalism, but as his forays on the subject were still the subject of frequent attacks, he kept out of the public eye as much as possible. Radl also kept up his writings in the field of natural sciences, and here, unlike in his writings about Czechoslovakia, he received some acclaim, though at times he had a tendency to moralistic and old-fashioned views:

Emanuel Radl's health continued to weaken, and in the late 1930s, the people who cared for him began to withhold information about what was going on in the country, such as the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement, and the subsequent occupation of the country by Nazi Germany in March 1939. He died at home on May 12th 1942, aged sixty-nine.

Although controversial in his own day, Radl has largely been forgotten by the Czech people today. This, though, says Erazim Kohak, is because Emanuel Radl focused on the issues of the day: