Karel Havlicek

In the first half of the 19th century, when the Czech lands were part of the Austrian empire, state officials and army officers had c. and k. written before their rank, meaning 'imperial' and 'royal'. There were c. and k. lieutenants and c. and k. field marshals. If we wanted to characterize journalist, writer and politician Karel Havlicek, we would most probably mark him as a c. and k. dissident. He was one of just a few who bravely stood up against the Austrian authorities, and as we'll hear in this week's Czechs in History, the Austrian police retaliated mercilessly. By Alena Skodova.

Karel Havlicek was born in the small village of Borova in 1821 to a merchant's family. The talented and thoughtful boy grew up under the strong influence of the enlightened local parson, so it seemed quite natural that after finishing secondary school he started preparing to become a priest at the Archbishop's Seminary in Prague. But his dreams about serving people as a priest were dashed when thanks to his stubbornness and creative thinking he soon became disliked and was expelled from the seminary after only one year. This marked the beginning of his entirely negative attitude towards the Catholic church as an institution. Most of his notes, newspaper articles and poems ridicule the church hierarchy - openly and sometimes even cruelly.

Dr. Vera Menclova from the Arts Faculty at Prague's Charles University says a critical and rational outlook accompanied Havlicek through his whole life:

"After leaving the seminary, Havlicek left for Russia where he worked as a tutor. He had left Bohemia with great enthusiasm, but returned sobered and skeptical. However, in Russia he found a great example to follow - writer Nikolai Gogol, whose most famous novel, Dead Souls, Havlicek translated immediately. He also wrote a book of journalism, Pictures from Russia, which was one of just a few literary works that were published during Havlicek's lifetime."

Czech society soon started to perceive Havlicek as a highly critical journalist, especially after he wrote a sharply critical study on the then very popular and indulged playwright Josef Kajetan Tyl. In 1846, Havlicek became editor-in-chief of several newspapers, which he used to try to lead readers to think independently and form their own political views. In the revolutionary year 1848 he started publishing his own newspaper, called Narodni listy, through which he tried to advance the idea of Czech autonomy within the Austrian empire. Havlicek's newspaper was soon banned by the Austrian authorities, but he did not give-up and started publishing a magazine called Slovan, known for its strong anti-Austrian and anti-religious spirit.

"The most characteristic feature of Havlicek's journalism was the bluntness of opinion and hot-headedness but on the other hand, when he realised he was wrong, Havlicek was fully willing to change his mind. But then he stood up for his new view and was prepared to fight for it under any circumstances. A good example of this is his change of mind after the 1848 revolution: at the beginning, Havlicek was against any radicalism, together with liberal politicians he was active in the imperial parliament and he hoped that new rights for the Czech nation would be secured under a new constitution. When he saw that this would never happen, he became an open and fierce opponent of the Austrian government."

The Austrian authorities retaliated, though: Havlicek was twice tried and freed and he himself decided to stop publishing Slovan. But the persecution from the Austrian authorities went on, and it culminated in December 1851, when Havlicek - without any trial and without any notice - was arrested at night at his mother's house in Nemecky Brod and taken for a long journey, to the Austrian town of Brixen in the Tyrols, to live there in exile.

"He spent four years there, miles away from his friends and most of the time also from his family. In Brixen, Havlicek devoted himself to various activities - he studied economics because after his return he planned to buy a farm and live with his family there. He was also interested in bee-keeping and devoted much time to writing about Russian history, but he did all this with uneasiness and unsystematically."

Until recently, we were taught that Havlicek's stay in Brixen was harmful for him, his wife and his little daughter, but Jiri Morava, a Havlicek scholar in Austria, says this was misleading:

"He was suffering not materially but mentally in Brixen. Although his wife and little daughter Zdenicka were with him for some time, he lived a sad and very uncertain life. On the other hand, he was given 500 florins a month, on which he could live very comfortably, so nothing like the 'Brixen martyrdom legend' existed."

As for Karel Havlicek's private life, Dr. Menclova told me that he was engaged for several years to a girl from a respected merchant family in Nemecky Brod, but suddenly changed his mind and married Julie Sykorova, a daughter of a man who took care of the forests and property of Count Wallenstein. They met at a Prague tailors and dressmakers and married soon after, in 1848. Julie had thus become the wife of a renowned man who was in the centre of Czech political life. They had a daughter named Zdenicka. Julie Havlickova suffered from tuberculosis and most probably infected her husband with this - then lethal - disease. Havlicek loved Julie so much that because of her he made the biggest compromise of his life: he signed a promise that he was giving up all his journalist activities in order to be allowed to come home from Brixen, to meet his ill wife. By the time he had signed the document, he was already a widower. Julie passed away at the age of 29. Havlicek died a year later, when he was not yet 35 years old.

Dr.Meclova says after his death, a kind of cult was created:

"Already after the revolution in 1848, in the eyes of his contemporaries Havlicek was a hero who never surrendered and was ready to fight for others people's rights, but after his death a kind of cult started to be created. First it was his funeral, which grew into a demonstration of national feelings, later on sentimental songs were composed, and pictures painted depicting Havlicek with a martyr's aura above his head. Several statues of Havlicek making prophetic gestures still exist. But there was nothing Havlicek hated more than empty gestures and hollow phrases."

Only after his works written at Brixen had been published - in the 1870s - did people learn that Havlicek was not merely a sharp critic and journalist, but also an author of longer satirical works. His specialty were epigrams, which have been preserved mostly in his personal notes and more rarely in the press of that time under the pen-name Havel Borovsky. Havlicek used to write epigrams, parodies and aphorisms on small pieces of paper and we also know them from his correspondence.

His three major works, written in Brixen, are epic poems - 'King Lavra', an allegorical fairy tale, 'The Tyrolean Elegies' about his stay in Brixen, and 'The Baptism of Saint Vladimir', a kind of political pamphlet. In all the three works, Havlicek made full use of spoken and colloquial language, sometimes even using 'four-letter-words' .

Finally I asked dr. Menclova if Havlicek's books were available in translations:

"As far as I know, he was mostly translated into Slavonic languages, especially Russian. My English-speaking students know some of his epigrams from an anthology published in the USA back in the 1950s, and there's yet another anthology of Czech literature published in Britain, where parts of 'King Lavra' can be found."