Karel Havlíček Borovský

Karel Havlíček Borovský

The founder of political journalism, writer and poet. European-type thinker, political and economical liberalist. His poetry significantly influenced the development of Czech satire. Because of his brave struggle against the Austrian absolutism and his tragic fate he became the symbol of struggle against oppression and of loyalty to the idea of democracy and liberty.

The Life of KHB

The merchant Matěj Havlíček and his wife Josefína Dvořáková, the daughter of a head brewer from Horní Cerekev, had a son Karel, who was born on 31st October 1821 in the village of Borová near Německý Brod. “I was born dead and they only brought me to life by violence,” said the journalist himself about the beginning of his life. He was of gloomy, contemplative, solitary and stubborn nature. But he was also well off thanks to his father’s business talent. He had numerous conflicts with his parents and he made friends with the local vicar Jan Brůžek and the teacher Antonín Línek, who had a significant effect on his initial upbringing. When he was eight, Havlíček left school in Borová and started a school in Jihlava. A year later, in 1832, he started his six-year studies at grammar school in Německý Brod. The grammar school was well-known for its high quality of education. Havlíček’s parents moved house a year later and Matěj Havlíček started a grocery in a house in the corner of the square of Neměcký Brod. This house is the site of today’s museum.

Karel Havlíček finished his secondary studies in a philosophy seminar in Prague in 1840. His arrival to the capital of Bohemia with approximately 140 000 inhabitants had an immense impact on him. This was the place where most of the Czech revivalists were concentrated. Havlíček soon made friends with a few students, especially with Vilém Gabler and František Jirgl. They carried out the then ritual, the patriotic christening as it was called, and Havlíček received the name Borovský according to the place where he was born. He used this pen name several times in his life. The Prague environment motivated Havlíček to fully focus on self-study of the Czech language and Slavic literature. The Czech society at that time was concerned with the idea of Pan-Slavism as a way of defending the Czech culture and language against the German influence. Havlíček did not want to be left behind. He was especially fond of the Yugoslavs and he kept in touch with some of them. He seemed to have found the meaning of life. He and his friends organised meetings and had exaggerated revivalist plans. He wanted to continue his studies in a seminary but the conditions in Clementinum College, the overall situation in the church and the behaviour of its members did not only discourage him from his studies but also shattered his religious belief. He was expelled from the seminary but he did not abandon the idea of influencing people. His subsequent attempt to become a teacher failed as well. In June 1842, he started his journey on foot and visited Cracow, High Tatras or Liptovský Mikuláš. He wanted to clear his head.

When he finished the journey, Havlíček continued his self-study and made impression on a university librarian Pavel Josef Šafařík, who arranged a job for him with his friend, a university professor in Moscow, in October 1842. Havlíček enthusiastically accepted the offer. At that time the Czech nation considered Russia to be its support or even the leader against the German and the Hungarian who exploited the Slavic nations in the Habsburg Monarchy. There was a concern that the German wanted to assimilate the Slavs and the only safe solution was an alliance with the other Slavic nations. Havlíček hurried up to see the glorified Russia. He was not even discouraged by the delayed issuing of permission to travel abroad thanks to which he met the family of Karel Vladislav Zap in Lviv. He arrived in Moscow in February 1843 and was amazed. He spent the first months of his stay admiring the tsarist empire of Slavs, but then the sobering followed. After experiencing the gentry’s treating their serfs as slaves and the hypocrisy and superficiality of the church and social elites he radically changed his opinion on Russia as a possible saviour. If a Russian lord lets his serf live in poverty, what does it suggest about the possible relationship between the Russian and the other Slavs? Finally, there was a quarrel between Havlíček and his Russian employer and he left the country in July 1844. He collected his experience from the journey in his book Obrazy z Rus (Pictures from Russia).

When he returned home, Havlíček learnt about the death of his father. He decided to spend some time in Německý Brod with his mother. His never-ending patriotic activity led to founding of a community theatre in this small country town where he met his first love Fany Weidenhoffer, a daughter of a rich burgher. His ambition to marry the girl made him move to Prague and make his living by writing in April 1845. Although he soon started an astonishing career, the wedding was cancelled in the end. Thanks to his magazine articles he started to keep in touch with leading personalities of the Czech cultural life. One of the turning points of hi s career was his sharp critique of Josef Kajetán Tyl’s novella “Poslední Čech” (Tha Last of the Czech) where he used his masterly refined language and sense of irony for the first time. Havlíček called upon the nation to stop talking or writing about patriotism and to start acting. Moreover, he stood up to Tyl’s expectable furious reaction perfectly. Huge part of the Czech intelligentsia headed by Palacký found Havlíček to be their new ally. When Karel Vilém Medau took charge of Pražské noviny (Prague Journal) at the end of 1845, František Palacký and Pavel Josef Šafařík knew whom to recommend as a new editor. Karel Havlíček headed the newspaper since1846, although he had never thought about being a journalist. He started to publish phenomenal articles where he destroyed the idea of Pan-Slavism and showed the need of a Habsburg federation as a way of conciliation of the nations living together and an instrument of protection against the Russian and the German. He also highlighted the need of founding a Czech technical college, described the importance of existence of municipalities, and explained the news from abroad, and so on. Havlíček changed the Czech cultural movement into a political one. All of these steps were carefully watched by the Austrian authorities and police.

He was becoming more and more popular and influencing. When the old regime fell in 1848 and the situation in the state loosened, Havlíček changed the pro-government Prague Journal for the newly established National Journal which was independent and fully controlled by him. Havlíček also married Julie Sýkorová, a daughter of a forester from Proseč by Pelhřimov in the same year. They had an only daughter Zdenka.

When in 1848 the promise of constitution was to end the years of absolutism, Havlíček was not the only one who was brimming with enthusiasm and optimism. Yet the lengthy arguing of the deputies of the Imperial Diet and the suppressed revolutionary uprising in Prague and Vienna only helped to form the reactionary forces. Those forces were supported by the young emperor Franz Joseph I, who ascended the throne after the abdication of Ferdinand I on 2nd December 1848. The growing resistance of the government against the constitutional tendencies in the monarchy culminated with issuing of the imposed constitution on 4th March 1849 and dispersing of the Imperial Diet three days later. The initial enthusiasm of the people was replaced by disappointment and indifference. Havlíček was one of the few people who tried to point out the growing power of the reactionary forces and the gradual suppression of the recently gained liberty. Therefore he was committed for trial. Although he was acquitted, he was forced to stop publishing the National Journal in January 1850.

Havlíček refused to give up his publishing activities, even though the whole Czech intelligentsia including Palacký gradually fell silent and he was the only one left who tried to fight against the regime. A support to him was František Procházka from Kutná Hora, a printer who belonged to a small number of printers in the whole country who were not afraid to publish Havlíček’s work. And so the first issue of “Slovan, časopis věnovaný politickým a vůbec veřejným záležitostem slovanským, zvláště českým” (Slav, a journal focused on Slavic and especially Czech political and public issues) was published in May 1850. It was being published for more than a year and is believed to be the height of Havlíček’s journalism. The journalist himself stopped publishing Slovan in August 1851 under the pressure exerted by the authorities. That was the end of the country’s independent journalism for a long time.

Havlíček and his journal Slovan had been giving the incoming centralism and the reign of absolutism a hard time. Havlíček had never infringed the law and the legal action that was brought against him in Kutná Hora in November 1851 was not successful even though it had been supported by the most significant politicians. On the contrary, the government was disgraced. Although they issued a special law which helped to stop Slovan, Havlíček’s mere presence still posed a problem for them.  Therefore the emperor Franz Joseph I agreed with his deportation to Brixen in the Tyrol which was carried out in December 1851. When he stopped Slovan, Havlíček and his family moved from Kutná Hora to his mother’s house in Německý Brod. There the police woke him up in the middle of the night and told him to pack up and get into a carriage. At first he had no idea of what was to happen. He wondered if he was to be imprisoned or exiled. After two days of the journey, he learnt that he was to be deported to Brixen, a German speaking catholic town in the Alps in today’s Italy. He spent there three and half a year.  Although he was allowed to be visited by his family, send letters so his Czech friends and move freely around the town and its surroundings, he was completely isolated from the development in his country and had no chance to influence it.

Even though Havlíček had been very popular in his country, there was no substantial protest against his deportation. The emperor and his government announced the cancellation of the existing constitution a few days later on 31st December 1951. Despite some legal freedom, the beginning of 1852 meant a transition to absolutism which lasted for eight following years.

The stay in Brixen meant a lot of suffering for Karel Havlíček. The impossibility to influence anything, to take action and to take part in important issues tormented Havlíček, who used to be a man of great initiative. His activities were restricted to walking, having a conversation with a few people, writing letters to his family, and especially to writing his famous satires Tyrolské elegie, Křest svatého Vladimíra and Král Lávra. The government intentionally delayed his return from Brixen, because of the concerns about the forthcoming Crimean War, and Havlíček himself sometimes considered emigration. Nevertheless, there was an advantage of his stay in Brixen. The healthy mountain environment suppressed the symptoms of tuberculosis, which he had caught from his wife.

The authorities only allowed him to return home in May 1855 on condition that he would give up his writing. Havlíček agreed and supposed that he would be able to make his living in his brother-in-law’s roofing company. He had planned everything and therefore he was terribly shocked by the news which he learnt when he was approaching Německý Brod.  His wife Julie had died three weeks before his arrival. She died of tabes caused by tuberculosis before her thirtieth birthday. Havlíček’s world fell into pieces and he also found that he was as tied down and kept under surveillance as he had been in Brixen.  He needed permission whenever he wanted to leave Německý Brod, he couldn’t start working in Prague, and his daughter Zdenka preferred staying with her relatives. Havlíček was left alone. The atmosphere had changed since the end of the1840s when he participated in creating it. The regime had tightened up and the former Czech patriots had drawn back from the political scene.  Havlíček’s friends were afraid that any contact with him would compromise them. Havlíček may have been glad that he had given up writing, because there was no one left to write for. The authorities and the police didn’t trust him and kept him under constant surveillance. They hesitated whether or not to allow his sudden request to be transported to Prague and then to the Šternberk spa to be cured in May 1856. Havlíček’s tuberculosis suppressed by his stay in Brixen got worse because of the poor conditions in Bohemia. Havlíček’s fate had been sealed and that got the government out of a tight spot.

Karel Havlíček died on 29th July 1856 at the age of a little less than 35 and was buried at the Olšany Cemetery in Prague. His funeral was attended by all of his friends and admirers, who hadn’t visited him for a long time before. It became a rare manifestation of protest against the regime and laid the foundations of the later Havlíček’s myth.