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His ancestors had been members of the community of the Bohemian Brethren , and had secretly maintained their Protestant belief throughout the period of religious persecution, eventually giving their adherence to the Augsburg confession as approximate to their original faith. Palacký's father was a schoolmaster and a man of some learning. The son was sent in 1812 to the Evangelic Lutheran Lyceum at Bratislava, where he came in contact with the philologist Šafařík and became a zealous student of Slavonic languages.
After some years spent in private teaching, Palacký settled in 1823 at Prague. Here he found a warm friend in Dobrovsky , whose good relations with the Austrian authorities shielded him from the hostility shown by the government to students of Slav subjects. Dobrovsky introduced him to Count Sternberg and his brother Francis, both of whom took an enthusiastic interest in Bohemian history. Count Francis was the principal founder of the Society of the Bohemian Museum, devoted to the collection of documents bearing on Bohemian history, with the object of reawakening national sentiment by the study of the national records.
Public interest in the movement was stimulated in 1825 by the new Journal of the Bohemian Museum (Časopis českého musea) of which Palacký was the first editor. The journal was at first published in Czech and German, and the Czech edition survived to become the most important literary organ of Bohemia. Palacký had received a modest appointment as archivist to Count Sternberg and in 1829 the Bohemian estates sought to confer on him the title of historiographer of Bohemia, with a small salary, but it was ten years before the consent of the Viennese authorities was obtained.
Meanwhile the estates, with the tardy assent of Vienna, had undertaken to pay the expenses of publishing Palacký's capital work, The History of the Bohemian People (5 vols, 1836-1867). This book, which comes down to the year 1526 and the extinction of Czech independence, was founded on laborious research in the local archives of Bohemia and in the libraries of the chief cities of Europe, and remains the standard authority. The first volume was printed in German in 1836, and subsequently translated into Czech. The publication of the work was hindered by the police-censorship, which was especially active in criticizing his account of the Hussite movement.
Palacký, though entirely national and Protestant in his sympathies, was careful to avoid an uncritical approbation of the Reformers' methods, but his statements were held by the authorities to be dangerous to the Catholic faith. He was therefore compelled to make excisions from his narrative and to accept as integral parts of his work passages interpolated by the censors. After the abolition of the police-censorship in 1848 he published a new edition, completed in 1876, restoring the original form of the work. The fairest and most considerable of Palacký's antagonists in the controversy aroused by his narrative of the early reformation in Bohemia was Baron Helfert, who received a brief from Vienna to write his Huss und Hieronymus (1853) to counteract the impression made by Palacký's History. KAK Hofler, a German professor of history at Prague, edited the historical authorities for the period in a similar sense in his Geschichte der hussitischen Bewegung in Bohmen. Palacký replied in his Geschichte des Hussitenthwmes und Professor Loffler (Prague, 1868) and Zur bohmischen Geschichtschreibung (Prague, 1871).
The revolution of 1848 forced the historian into practical politics. He was deputed to the Reichstag which sat at Kroměříž (Kremsier) in the autumn of that year, and was a member of the Slav congress at Prague. He refused to take part in the preliminary parliament consisting of 500 former deputies to the diet, which met at Frankfurt, on the ground that as a Czech he had no interest in German affairs. He was at this time in favour of a strong Austrian empire, which should consist of a federation of the southern German and the Slav states, allowing the retention of their individual rights. This this theory was called austroslavism. These views met with some degree of consideration at Vienna, and Palacký was even offered a portfolio in the Pillersdorf cabinet. The collapse of the federal idea and the definite triumph of the party of reaction in 1852 led to his retirement from politics.
After the liberal concessions of 1860 and 1861, however, he became a life member of the Austrian senate. His views met with small support from the assembly, and with the exception of a short period after the decree of September 1871, by which the emperor raised hopes for Bohemian self-government, he ceased to appear in the senate from 1861 onwards. In the Bohemian Landtag he became the acknowledged leader of the nationalist-federal party. He sought the establishment of a Czech kingdom which should include Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, and in his zeal for Czech autonomy he even entered into an alliance with the Conservative nobility and with the extreme Catholics. He attended the Panslavist congress at Moscow in 1867. He died at Prague on the 26th of May 1876.
Among his more important smaller historical works are:
- Wurdigung der alien bohmischen Geschichtschreiber (Prague, 1830), dealing with authors of many of whose works were then inaccessible to Czech students
- Archiv lesky (6 vols., Prague, 1840-1872)
- Urkundliche Beitrage zur Geschichte des Hussitenkriegs (2 vols., Prague, 1872-1874)
- Documenta magistri Johannis Hus viiaw, doctrinam, causant ... Ulustrantia (Prague, 1869)
- with Safarik he wrote Anfange der bohmischen Dirhtkunst (Pressburg, 1818) and Die altesten Denkmaler der bohmischen Sprache (Prague, 1840)
- Three volumes of his Czech articles and essays were published as Radhost (3 vols., Prague, 1871-1873)
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