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View of Central European history distorted in the 19th century

The medieval emperor Frederick Barbarossa is often viewed as an enemy who tried to prevent the rise of the Czech nation.

Historian Martin Wihoda from the MU Faculty of Arts.

In the Czech Republic, the medieval emperor Frederick Barbarossa is often viewed as an enemy who tried to prevent the rise of the Czech nation and damage its national interests in the 12th century. However, an international workshop and the publication of its results paint a different picture. Historian Martin Wihoda from the MU Faculty of Arts explains how this emperor fell victim to the political disputes and national interpretations of the 19th century.

“Frederick Barbarossa was one of the most important emperors of the Holy Roman Empire who reigned in the second half of the 12th century. Due to the important role that he played, there are many reports about him that were written during his life,” says Wihoda.

The emperor’s influence reached beyond the borders to Italy, France, and Poland. The Kingdom of Bohemia, which was then part of the empire, also felt its impact. “He was a controversial figure even during his lifetime. There were groups that were close to him, while others viewed him more critically,” adds Wihoda.

“Today, we have two Barbarossas: one who lived and acted within the context of his time, and another whose image was created during the 19th century, when he began to be perceived by various Central European nations within the context of their own era and its interests.” For German historians, Barbarossa was an important politician who built a new structure of Central Europe; from the Czech point of view, he was someone who wanted to destroy the Czech statehood and subdue the Czech nation.

It is obvious why this happened in the 19th century. “After the Napoleonic Wars, Central Europe moved towards an era of national revivals. While Czechs would be familiar with the Czech national revival, a similar process took place a bit earlier in Germany. You could say that the Polish and the Czech national revivals were a reaction to the German one,” explains Wihoda, who says that looking for national heroes and enemies was natural for an emerging nation. “To define its identity, it needed not only positive figures, but also negative figures that it could stand against.” Therefore, the image of Frederick Barbarossa fell victim to these national struggles.

These various interpretations were the subject of an international workshop with top German, Polish, and Czech medievalists that took place at Masaryk University in Brno. “The workshop showed how and why the same event was perceived in very different ways by German, Polish, and Czech historians,” explains Wihoda, highlighting the forced abdication of the Czech king Vladislaus II. “The Germans saw it as a legal act that was within the emperor’s powers, while Czech historiography condemned it as an act of despotism.”

According to Wihoda, the same holds for 1182 when Barbarossa allegedly commanded the division of the Czech lands into Bohemia and Moravia, elevating Moravia to the status of an imperial margraviate. “However, it turned out that this event never actually occurred. Czech historians deduced it based on indirect references and created a whole story about the bad Germans who wanted to harm the good Czechs.”

The great conflicts of the 20th century as a consequence

The Brno workshop also revealed something else: “The historians of the individual nations painted such negative pictures of their neighbours that in many aspects, the tragedies of the 20th century were portended by the history textbooks of the preceding century,” says Wihoda about the unexpected findings. “All the tragic events – the declaration of WWI, the breakdown of the old empires, the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, the imperilment of the existence of the Czech national state – the beginning of all of that goes back to the 19th century.”

And we are still seeing the consequences. “From the 10th century onwards, different languages and cultures overlapped in Central Europe. The Germans, Czechs, and the Polish lived next to each other and while there was some animosity, it never escalated into a nationwide disaster,” notes Wihoda. The national conflicts of the 19th and 20th century signalled the end of the old Central Europe. For Czechs, the year 1945 marked the creation of a more or less ethnically homogeneous society, the opposite of what the Czech lands used to be.

“At the same time, the Czechs began to turn in on themselves. So if we are struggling today with provincialism, isolationism, and increasing calls to leave the EU and sever relationships with the West because we can ‘get by on our own’, it is another consequence of the disasters of the 20th century,” says Wihoda, adding, “There have always been uncertainties, but since previous generations managed to deal with them, I don’t give up hope that so will we.”