Age of the Sage site banner

Palacky's famous letter to
the Frankfurt Parliament

F. Palacky - letter to the Frankfurt Parliament
Committee of Fifty, April 1848

The letter of 6th April in which you, greatly esteemed gentlemen, did me the honour of inviting me to Frankfurt in order to take part in the business concerned "mainly with the speediest summoning of a German Parliament" has just been duly delivered to me by the post.

With joyful surprise I read in it the most valued testimony of the confidence which Germany's most distinguished men have not ceased to place in my views: for by summoning me to the assembly of "friends of the German Fatherland", you yourselves acquit me of the charge which is as unjust as it has often been repeated, of ever having shown hostility towards the German people. With true gratitude I recognise in this the high humanity and love of justice of this excellent assembly, and I thus find myself all the more obliged to reply to it with open confidence, freely and without reservation.

Gentlemen, I cannot accede to your call, either myself or by despatching another "reliable patriot". Allow me to expound the reasons for this to you as briefly as possible.

The explicit purpose of your assembly is to put a German people's association [Volksbund] in the place of the existing federation of princes, to bring the German nation to real unity, to strengthen German national feeling, and thus to raise Germany's power both internal and external. However much I respect this endeavour and the feeling on which it is based, and particularly because I respect it, I cannot participate in it. I am not a German - at any rate I do not consider myself as such - and surely you have not wished to invite me as a mere yes-man without opinion or will. Consequently, I would have in Frankfurt either to deny my feelings and to play the hypocrite or to contradict loudly at the first opportunity which offers itself. For the former I am too frank and outspoken, for the latter not sufficiently bold and ruthless; for I cannot find it in my heart by ugly sounds to disturb the harmony which I find desirable and gratifying not only in my own house but also in my neighbour's.

I am a Bohemian of Slav descent [Stamm] and with the little which I possess and can do have devoted myself totally and for ever to the service of my people. This people is, indeed, a small one, but has always been a distinct one and one existing for itself.

Its rulers have for centuries participated in the German union of princes [Fürstenbund]; it has never, however, counted itself as part of this people, and it has not been considered as belonging to it by others, during the course of centuries. The whole association of Bohemia, first of all with the Holy Roman Empire, then with the German Confederation, has always been a pure matter of the royal prerogative [Regale], of which the Bohemian people, the Bohemian estates, have never been accustomed to take any notice. This fact is known equally well to all German historians as to me; and if it should be doubted by anybody, I am prepared to secure the evidence in due course. Even granting the full assumption that the Bohemian crown has ever been in a feudal relationship with Germany (which, incidentally, has always been denied by Bohemian writers), nobody versed in history can possibly doubt the former internal sovereignty and autonomy of Bohemia. The whole world knows that the German emperors as such have never had anything to do with the Bohemian people; that they possessed in and over Bohemia neither the legislative nor the judicial or executive power; that they were never entitled to draw either troops or anything else based on their royal prerogative [Regalien] out of the country, that Bohemia with its crown lands was not part of any of the former German circles [Kreise], that the competence of the Supreme Imperial Court [Reichskammergericht] never extended over it, etc.; that thus the whole connection of Bohemia with Germany so far must be considered as a relationship not of people with people, but of ruler with ruler.

If it is now demanded that, going beyond the hitherto existing union of princes, the people of Bohemia should join together with the German people, then this is a new demand lacking any basis in historical right, to which I for my part do not regard myself as justified in acceding, so long as I do not receive for it an explicit and complete mandate.
The second reason which prevents me from taking part in your deliberations is the circumstance that, judging by everything that has so far been published about your purposes and views, you will of necessity intend to weaken Austria as an independent empire, even to make it impossible - a state whose maintenance, integrity and strengthening is and must be a high and important affair not only of my people, but of the whole of Europe, nay, of humanity and civilisation itself …

… You know which power possesses the whole great East of our continent; you know that this power, which has already grown to a colossal size, strengthens itself inwardly in greater measure with each decade than is or can be the case in Western countries; that - in its interior almost unassailable and inaccessible - it has long adopted a threatening position externally, and, though aggressive even in the North, driven by its natural instinct it seeks and will seek preferably to expand towards the South; that every further step which it could take along this way threatens with increased speed to produce and to lead to a new universal monarchy that is an incalculable and unutterable evil, a calamity without measure and end, which I, a Slav body and soul, would therefore in the interest of humanity mourn no less, even though it would be primarily a Slav one.

With the same injustice with which I am viewed as an enemy of the Germans in Germany, I am designated by many in Russia as an enemy of the Russians. No, I say it loud and openly, I am no enemy of the Russians. Quite the contrary, I have always followed with attention and joyful participation each step which this great people takes forward within its natural frontiers on the path of civilisation. As, however, notwithstanding all fervent love for my people, I have always put the interests of humanity and science above those of nationality: the mere possibility of a Russian universal monarchy finds no more decided opponent and person fighting against it than me; not because it is Russian, but because it would be a universal monarchy.

You know that the south-east of Europe along the frontiers of the Russian Empire is inhabited by several peoples significantly different in origin, language, history and culture - Slavs, Wallachians, Magyars, and Germans, not to mention the Greeks, Turks and Schkipetars - of whom none is strong enough by itself to put up a successful resistance in the future against the overpowering neighbour in the East; they can do that only when a single and firm bond unites them all with one another. The true life blood of this necessary union of peoples is the Danube: its central power, therefore, must not be too far distant from this stream if it wants to be and to remain at all effective. Truly, if the Austrian Empire had not already existed for a long time, then one would have to hurry in the interest of Europe and the interest of humanity to create it.

But why did we see this state, which by nature and history is called to be Europe's shield and refuge against Asiatic elements of all kinds - why did we see it in the critical moment surrendered to every impetuous onslaught, unsteady and almost helpless? Because it has in unhappy delusion for so long itself misjudged and denied the actual legal and moral basis of its existence: the principle of the complete equality of rights and the equality in respect of all nationalities and confessions united under its sceptre. The law of nations is a true natural law: no nation on earth is entitled to demand for its benefit from its neighbour its self-sacrifice; none is obliged to deny itself or to sacrifice itself for the good of its neighbour.

Nature knows no ruling, as well as no servile peoples; for the bond which unites several peoples to a political whole to be firm and lasting, none must have a reason for fearing that it would lose by unification any of its dearest blessings: quite the contrary, each must harbour the secure hope that it will find from the central power protection against any encroachments of its neighbours; then it will hasten, too, to endow this central authority with so much power that it could give such protection effectively. I am convinced that it is not yet too late for Austria to proclaim aloud and without reserve this principle of justice, the sacred anchor [sacra ancora] when shipwreck threatens, and to give it practical emphasis everywhere: but the moments are precious, not an hour is to be lost! Metternich did not fall only because he was the worst enemy of freedom, but also because he has been the most irreconcilable enemy of all Slav nationality in Austria.

When I cast my glance beyond the frontiers of Bohemia I am impelled by natural as well as historical causes to direct them not towards Frankfurt but towards Vienna, and there to seek the centre which is natural and is called to secure and to protect for my people peace, freedom and justice. Your tendency, gentlemen, however, now seems openly designed to weaken incurably this centre from whose strength I expect salvation not only for Bohemia, and even to destroy it. Or do you believe that the Austrian monarchy will still continue if you forbid it to possess in its hereditary lands its own army independent of the federal head [Bundeshaupt] in Frankfurt? Do you believe that the Austrian Emperor will even then be able to maintain himself as sovereign if you oblige him to accept all the more important laws of your assembly, and thus to make illusory the institution of the Austrian Reich estates as well as the provincial constitutions of the associated kingdoms, which are offered by nature itself? And if then Hungary, for instance, following its urge, secedes from the monarchy, or, which is almost the same, becomes its centre of gravity - will this Hungary, which does not want to know anything of equal rights of nations within its own frontiers, in the long run remain free and strong? Only the just is truly free and strong. But there can be no question of the Danube Slavs and the Wallachians, nay the Poles, voluntarily joining the state which proclaims the principle that one has first to be a Magyar and only then a human being; and even less can there be any question of a compulsory union. For the salvation of Europe, Vienna must not sink down to the level of a provincial city! But if there are even in Vienna people who desire your Frankfurt as the capital, they must be told, Lord forgive them, that they do not know what they want!

Finally I must hesitate for a third reason to collaborate in your deliberations: for I believe that all the existing plans for the reorganisation of Germany on the basis of the will of the people cannot be carried out and are in the long run untenable, unless you decide on a true Caesarean operation [Kaiserschnitt] - I mean the proclamation of a German republic, if only as a transitional form. All attempts to draft rules for a division of power between sovereign princes and the sovereign people remind me of the theories of phalanstery which equally make the assumption that all those participating will behave like figures in an arithmetical problem and will claim no other rights than those which theory designates for them. Possibly my view is unfounded, I may be wrong in my conviction - sincerely I desire myself that such may be the case - but the conviction is there, and I may not abandon its compass for a single moment, unless I want to get lost in the tempests of the day. So far as the introduction of a republic in Germany is concerned - this question lies completely outside the sphere of my competence, so that I do not want even to express an opinion on it.

I must, however, reject expressly and emphatically in advance the idea of a republic within the frontiers of the Austrian Empire. Think of an Austria divided into a lot of republics and small republics [Republikchen] - what a welcome basis for the Russian universal monarchy …

The demand that Austria (and with her Bohemia) should nationally unite with Germany, that is merge in Germany, is to expect it to commit suicide, and therefore lacks all moral and political sense; conversely the demand that Germany should join Austria, that is to say enter the Austrian monarchy under the conditions sketched above, makes much more sense. But if this expectation is inadmissible to the German national sentiment, then there only remains for the two powers - Germany and Austria - to constitute themselves next to each other on the basis of equality of rights, to convert their existing federation into an eternal defensive and offensive alliance [Schutz and Trutzbündnis] and in case of need, if it suits their mutual material interests, to conclude a customs union between them.

I shall always be glad to co-operate in all measures which do not endanger Austria's independence, integrity and the development of her power, particularly towards the East …

F. Palacky to the Frankfurt Parliament's 'Committee of Fifty,'  11th April 1848,
(translated from F. Palacky (ed.), Gedenkblatter, Prague, 1874, pp. 149 ff.)

A fuller version of this F. Palacky - letter to Frankfurt Parliament may be available in PDF / Adobe Acrobat format here

page content divider


It may be that we can consider Palacky's sentiments to be tellingly expressed but (the German?) Friedrich Engels felt able to to write of him:-
The chief champion of the Tschechian nationality, Professor Palacky, is but a learned German run mad, who cannot even now speak the Tschechian language correctly and without foreign accent.
That being said the Bohemian / Czech capital city, Prague, had long been a place where Germanic influences had been predominant in administration, trade and education. It was therefore quite possible for educated persons who could think of themselves as being Czech to appear to be substantially Germanised in culture.

page content divider


Other Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.