In This Review

The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History
The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History
By Derek Sayer
Princeton University Press, 1998, 442 pp

In The Winter's Tale, a ship touches the coastline of Bohemia, which Sayer relates to remind his audience that Westerners have not always had a firm grasp of the life and culture of a small people at the heart of Europe's dramas. Nor, to take the more recent example of Neville Chamberlain, have they always much cared. Sayer's mission, however, goes beyond putting this right. He wants to track how from antiquity the Czechs have shaped an identity and then clung to it through centuries of Hapsburg domination, notwithstanding the near expiration of the language in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sayer's is a cultural history, and rich at that. But because he conceives culture broadly to include not only literature, art, and architecture, but the development of language and the writing of history, he is also tracing the political past. He does so respectfully but not uncritically. Along with the perseverance and talent of the Czech artists and intellectual elite came anti-Semitism, a tendency toward "official Czechness," and a passion for possessing and honoring the nation's history rather than simply understanding it and moving on.