To the mountain top! How Czech ‘People’s camps’ rallied against the new dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy

People’s camp at Mužský hill (1869), photo: Public Domain

The establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or dual monarchy, came as bitter blow for Czech intellectuals who hoped for equal status under a federalist state. While the liberal era after 1861 and resulting German centralist approach had all but destroyed the hopes of Austrian Slavs for equal treatment, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 establishing the dual monarchy, left Czechs in Bohemia in particular feeling disenfranchised, and brought an end to political Austro-Slavism.

People’s camp at Mužský hill  (1869),  photo: Public Domain
Many ordinary Czechs literally took to the hills to voice their anger over the Compromise in a mass protest movement known as Tábory lidu or People’s camps. The movement began as pilgrimages to important sites in Czech history or lore, such as the site of a memorable battle or castle.

The first was held on May 10, 1868 when tens of thousands ascended Říp Mountain, where legend has it Father Čech decided his people would settle in Bohemia. But among the largest ‘People’s camps’ took place on the 29th of August, 1869, at a lesser known castle atop Kunětická Hill, which played a significant role during the Hussite Wars.

To mark the 150th anniversary of that particular protest, the nearby East Bohemian Museum in Pardubice is organising a re-enactment of the procession, during which a resident historian will explain the phenomenon, says museum director Tomáš Libánek.

“As a museum, we are a link between the past, present and future, and try to present a lot of topics from our history, such as the upcoming 30th anniversary since the Velvet Revolution.

“We wanted to show also another very important part of Czech history – 150 years since the time of the ‘camp’ movement, which was everywhere in the Czech lands, and happened on the 29th of August in Kunětice, on Kunětická Hill near Pardubice.

“Something like 30,000 people took part, and we want to show people what it was like. We will have a procession along the river up to Pardubice Castle and will follow their journey to Kunětická hill.

Is it certain that the Kunětická hora procession was the largest of the so-called camps?

“Yes, there were 30,000 or maybe more. They came from many, many places – towns like Chrudim and Přelouč, cities like Pardubice and Hradec Králové, and from villages all around.

“They were protesting against Austria and Austro-Hungarian dualism. They tried to fight for Czech rights. They tried to have the same status in the Hapsburg monarchy as the Hungarians and Austrians.”

Franz Joseph and the Bohemian constitution

Franz Joseph I
Politician and journalist František Ladislav Rieger, one of the leaders of the Czech National Revival of the late 19th century, had served as spokesman of the Austro-Slavs in the Imperial Diet.

He had helped draft a Bohemian constitution in the revolutionary year of 1848 which advocated the Czech lands becoming an autonomous federal state, based on the size, might and loyalty of the Slavs.

“We Slavs are by far the largest power in this state. It is through our money and our blood that it survives, but Austria will exist only as long as we want it to – but we do want it to”, Rieger once famously said.

However, the new Habsburg monarch, Franz Joseph I, begged to differ. He found the Bohemian constitution too radical, soon rejected it, and went on to rule the Czech nation for nearly seven decades, though ceding some ground time and again, in a number of crises.

Liberal democratic Austro-Slavists such as Rieger had seen the Habsburg monarchy as the guardian of the Slav peoples, believing that only within the multi-ethnic empire could they counter German attempts to achieve regional hegemony. Few advocated for a fully independent state.

Yet the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 establishing the Dual Monarchy was taken as an affront by the vast majority of Czechs. While denied autonomy, and not on an equal footing with Hungary, Czechs were not “oppressed”, noted historian and Charles University professor Jan Rychlík in an earlier interview for Radio Prague:

“It is an old myth, which is untrue. Czechs could develop freely like all nations in the western part.

“In Hungary it was different – the Slovaks were oppressed, because the idea of the Magyars was to transfer Hungary into a single nation state. But this was not the case in the west. There, the problem was different.

“Simply put, all the nations living in Austria had their own national programmes, and these were mutually incompatible. Meeting the demands of one nation essentially meant it was to the detriment of someone else.

František Ladislav Rieger,  photo: Public Domain
“For example, the project of the Czech independent state within the framework of Austria-Hungary could not be realised because the 3.2 million Germans opposed it. Naturally, they did not wish to be a minority within the Czech state. The final result was that no-one was satisfied with Austria-Hungary.”

In the Czech lands, the ‘People’s camps’ nonetheless played an important role in keeping national aspirations of intellectuals such as František Ladislav Rieger alive. The gatherings had a tremendous impact on a new generation of thinkers coming of age, from the writer Alois Jirásek to the painter Mikoláš Aleš, who both took part in camps.

The intrigue required to hold the camps may well have played a role. The People’s camp at Kunětická Hill in eastern Bohemia, held exactly 150 years ago this Thursday, for example, was the third attempt to hold a rally there that summer. The first two were banned, but organisers got a permit to demonstrate, ostensibly, for measures to protect people from bankruptcy.

They made no reference to Czech constitutional demands, but word spread about the true intention, and on the 29th of August, nearby towns were awash in the national colours, wreaths, and Sokol demonstrations, with storefronts and private homes alike displaying political banners. Some 400 men on horseback led the way to the hill top. Museum director Tomáš Libánek again:

“There’s a long tradition – since the 15th century, when people wanted to show their politics, thinking, philosophy or movement, they went to the hills. And in eastern Bohemia, there is a tradition of going to that hill. The surroundings are quite flat and it’s quite high, and it’s something like a magnet.

“The camp movement went to many mountains around the Czech lands – there were something like 600,000 people altogether taking part in 1869. It lasted from 1868 through 1871, but the biggest in our region was in 1869.”

I understand that your colleagues at the Museum have done a lot of research to make accurate replicas of banners people were carrying and so on. Could you tell us a bit about the kinds of things they were saying?

“The banners had a lot of revolutionary themes, influenced by the French Revolution and also the revolution of 1848. They spoke about Czech rights, about the Czech language.

“One said something like, ‘A mountain can be moved but a proper Czech will never be pushed aside’. There were also a lot of jokes, but they don’t translate well into English.”

Kunětická Hill,  photo: Public Domain
According to historical sources, dozens of organisers were investigated for the People’s camp at Kunětická Hill, with at least two were tried in court for agitation.

Altogether, the period saw 143 such public manifestations, with 102 in Bohemia, 37 in Moravia and 4 in Silesia, involving thousands of people formerly outside of political affairs. Scores more were organised but shut down by official bans, police actions or military interventions. In 1869 approximately 414,000 people in Bohemia and 162,000 in Moravia took part in at least one People’s camp.