Historical Perspective

A Bohemia

The earliest known inhabitants of the mountain-rimmed nucleus of the Czech Republic were the Boii people. Not much remains of them but the name Bohemia, or “home of the Boii.” They integrated completely with a Slavic tribe called Czechs, around the fifth century ad. By the fourteenth century, Bohemia was the most prosperous kingdom in Europe. In the next century, Jan Hus made Bohemia the center of Protestantism.

In 1526, Ferdinand I’s marriage transferred Bohemia to the Roman Catholic Austrian House of Hapsburg. Despite Protestant grumbling, Ferdinand kept the peace and the Austro-Hungarian Empire thrives. The situation is fine until discontent with Roman Catholic rule boils over. The Protestant uprising that led to the disastrous Thirty Years’ War involving all of Europe began in Bohemia. The Protestants are finally defeated at White Mountain in 1620 and Bohemia again came under Austrian rule. This situation lasted until a Serbian terrorist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo. Austria decided the assassination was a good excuse to declare war on Serbia.

B World War I

There was no singular event that caused World War I. Several factors contributed to the conflict. It started when Austria-Hungary bungled relations with the Balkan States and, together with Germany, antagonized Russia. In addition, Britain was anxious about losing control of its empire and eager to cement an alliance with France.

In 1908 Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina exacerbated the situation and angered Serbia. Austria-Hungary could have dueled with Serbia in 1909, when that nation was weak. Instead, Serbia emerged, in 1913, prepared to attain its dream of a greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary responded with the creation of Albania in the path of Serbia. Germany, meanwhile, declared itself a friend of Turkey and threatened Russia’s use of the Straits of Constantinople for its grain exports-from which Russia derived 40 percent of its income. Consequently, the nations of Europe mobilized their armies for an inevitable war. The assassination of the Archduke provided the final act.

Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on July 28th, 1914, activated the two alliances that existed in Europe. Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary comprised the Triple Alliance, or Central Powers. England, France, and Russia made up the Triple Entente Powers, or Allies. Russia, now in the mood to protect Serbia and the Balkan States, sided with Serbia. France and Britain followed. It was a gruesome war.

Hoping to win early, each side went on the offensive. The death toll was huge: of the sixty million men mobilized for war, 8.5 million died, and twenty-one million were wounded. Every city and town in Europe has its memorial to World War I. When the offensives failed, Europe hunkered down into a deadly trench warfare; disease killed more men than bullets. Finally, the Americans were drawn into the conflict on the side of the Allies in 1917 and the simple Introduction of new energy turned the tide. The Allies won in 1918 and the Austria-Hungarian Empire was dismantled. Bohemia became the central province of the Republic of Czechoslovakia.

C Anti-Semitism

The ghetto was an invention of Pope Paul IV, who, in 1555, decreed that all the Jews in Rome would live in a particular area of the city. Such decrees spread throughout Europe as anti-Semitic fervor waxed and waned. Many ghettos were abolished in the late nineteenth century.

Although the Nazi program of genocide was several decades away, anti-Semitism was as natural in Eastern Europe as Jim Crow laws in the American South. Jews, by economic social circumstances, were forced to remain in the ghettos. Such a concentration of Jews in one place made them vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Early in the twentieth century, anti-Semitism flared up in the form of the Russian and Romanian pogroms. In 1903 and 1905, thousands of civilians-mostly Jews-were tortured or murdered. At the time, Germany was appalled and offered refuge to many. One million Jews fled the pogroms to New York City.

D Kafka’s Works

Although written against a backdrop of war, Kafka’s writings do not depend on the events of the time. The reason is that Kafka’s aesthetic intent was to create timeless parables about the human condition. Gas jets being the exception, there are few details that allow the novel to be dated. Clothes, for example, are nondescript and described in terms of function and wear rather than style. In fact, the condition of a man who deals with money being under investigation by a court could happen at any time. Due to this timeless quality, innumerable artists have borrowed Kafka’s technique. Many see a prophecy of totalitarianism in Kafka’s novels. Kafka, they say, foresaw the era of hidden courts and death squads.

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