Iwas born in Prague in 1932. My parents—both Czech by origin—had come to the city from the provinces in the 1920s. My father was a skilled worker who went on to become a technician; a socialist, but Catholic and strongly anti-Communist. Perhaps, later on, his difficulty in understanding my decision to study humanities, which he saw as pointless, inclined me more to study topics that would have some social relevance. My mother’s father was also a socialist, but with staunch anti-clerical and national feelings. Religion was never discussed in the family and played little role in my formation, beyond the not-very-attractive teaching at elementary school. The decisive intellectual environment for me was the eight years spent at the Gymnasium, where Latin and Greek were the core of the syllabus.
The years of occupation above all schooled me in fear: I learned to be distrustful, a capability which later became important for survival. I remember the uprising of May 1945, in which my father participated, as a time of great euphoria—and pride; after the liberation, the whole of Czechoslovakian society was intensely patriotic. The three years that followed seem to me today the only period of my life in which I felt absolutely free to express myself. Naturally, this is an illusion, for I was certainly being influenced by the media. February 1948 was seen by everyone in my family as a disaster, but I also felt a strong sense of indignation towards the non-Communist politicians, who had opened the door for the Communists to come to power and then fled to the West. I knew little of the Treaty of Yalta and the division of the world between the superpowers. After 1948, the patriotism of the liberation era had to be politically modified to meet the requirements of the Cold War: Czech national feeling had to be made compatible with love for the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, while attitudes to the West needed to distinguish between ‘the people’, the object of positive sentiments, and the ‘bourgeoisie’, the enemy—pedagogical concepts that were, needless to say, ineffective and soon degenerated into farce.
I had originally intended to study literature at university, rather than history—I saw it as necessary to maintain the Czech cultural tradition, which I felt was endangered by Communist nihilism. But I was discouraged by the low level of intellectual discussion and the political atmosphere, and after a year switched to history, where there were still some teachers from the pre-revolutionary days, and where the climate was friendlier and less politicized. My favourite teacher, Josef Polišenský, was from the pre-1948 generation, and it was he who suggested I study the Wallenstein archives and analyse his less well known activities on the Baltic coast. The fact that I knew German and Nordic languages also played some role in this—as a young boy, I had been involved in a Red Cross project taking undernourished Czech children on summer holidays to Norway; so I learned basic Norwegian, which opened up Scandinavian languages for me. Studying Wallenstein began as quite a traditional topic, but it served as a bridge to my doctoral work on the inter-relationship between trade and politics during the Thirty Years’ War, where I combined political history with the history of trade, prices and transportation. This was considered too far removed from standard approaches, and Polišenský was not very enthusiastic about it. Later, when the debate on the 17th century reached the socialist countries, I concentrated on the distinction between crisis and decline. I tried to prove that crisis did not automatically mean decline, but was rather a manifestation of the sharpening internal contradictions of a system; if the system was able to overcome the crisis through partial changes, it could emerge stabilized or even strengthened.
My interest in nation-forming processes—how national movements began—came rather early on, in the 1950s. At the start of my second year of history at university, I wrote an essay on the social structure of the membership of a 19th-century Czech patriotic grouping. I found that the national movement’s supporters were neither from the bourgeoisie, as the official Stalinist line had it, nor from the peasantry, as held by Czech patriotic myth, but rather from the petty bourgeoisie—craftsmen, shopkeepers—and the intelligentsia. This starting point was somehow indirectly connected to the fact that we were part of the Soviet imperium, and at that time national movements were criticized as instruments of the bourgeoisie. There are several articles by Marx and Engels from 1848 criticizing Slav national movements, and especially the Czechs, as counter-revolutionary. Some Soviet and also Czech historians in the 1950s denounced them as ‘reactionary’, and I regarded this as the first step to Russification.
The first author to influence me in a negative sense was Stalin, with his thesis that nations were formed through the struggles of the bourgeoisie for markets. This is what we learned in Gymnasium. The first author to have a positive impact on me was the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, whose Social Democracy and the Nationalities Question argued that nations had been formed in a series of different stages, since the Middle Ages. It was a very important and interesting book, but difficult to get hold of in the 50s, because it was forbidden as ‘revisionist’ in Czechoslovakia. Another significant work for me was Karl Deutsch’s Nationalism and Social Communication, published in 1953, and which I read in the early 60s; at the time, I saw ‘communication’ as a very important explanatory factor in nation-formation. Indirect inspiration also came from Eric Hobsbawm, whose Age of Revolution came out in 1962, and which contained a short chapter on nations and another on European Romanticism. He describes a situation on the threshold of modernity, and sees nations and national movements as emerging from what today would be called a ‘crisis of identities’, though he uses other terms. I think this was a very important hypothesis, and one I still support.
But at this time, my motivation in studying national questions was above all scholarly: to look at this fascinating phenomenon, unfolding in Europe at different times, in different territories, but with the same concepts, the same way of thinking. It could not be explained solely by the ‘migration’ of the national idea—otherwise, why did the Catalans, living next to France, start their movement a hundred years after the French Revolution, whereas the Czechs, who are much further away, began theirs within ten years of it? Was this nation-formation process an abstract one, or was it the concrete sum of actions by really existing people—and which people? What motivated them to be patriots? This was why I set out to study the ‘social preconditions of national revival’. There was also, perhaps, a certain satisfaction for me in seeing that the Czechs were far from the only ones to struggle for their ‘revival’; a nostalgic element of searching for affinities with our destiny. If there was any political undercurrent to my research, it came from a desire to introduce some kind of revisionism into the field. I tried to use statistical data, which at the time I felt could not be questioned, in order to demonstrate that it was possible to use Marxist methodology to explain nation-formation in a more sophisticated and convincing way than official Soviet Marxism-Leninism did.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, in Western Europe, my area of research was seen as very out of date. I remember visiting West Germany and Denmark in the 60s, and meeting some young historians who could not understand my interest in such ‘reactionary’ phenomena as nations and ‘nationalism’. On this, their view did not differ from those of liberals who considered ‘nationalism’ an outdated legacy of the 19th century. It was, incidentally, during a year-long stay in Marburg—where I attended the seminar of Wolfgang Abendroth, among others—that I learned to understand and appreciate Marxism as a serious research method.