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Review May 2024

Modernity, cosmopolitanism and the Czechoslovak railways

Review by Tess Megginson
Felix Jeschke, 2021
ISBN 9781789207767
256 Pages
Published by: Berghahn
Two of the Slovenská strela railcards at the train station in Přerov, 1936. (Public domain)

From the earliest days of Czechoslovakia, advocates for the independence of the state argued that control of railways was an essential element of the state’s existence. Ensuring railway lines ended up on Czechoslovak territory was a large part of the Czechoslovak delegation’s arguments at the Peace Conference after the First World War, and control of railway junctions was an oft debated topic between delimitation commissions in the years that followed. As the borders were drawn, railways remained contentious, and were at the front of the minds of the architects of the state. In Iron Landscapes: National Space and the Railways in Interwar Czechoslovakia, Felix Jeschke explains how railways became — and persisted as — a stage for debates on and symbols of nationalism, state-building, and modernity in interwar Czechoslovakia.

Dividing the book into five thematic chapters, Jeschke examines how politicians in Czechoslovakia used the railway to physically connect a newly pieced together country, from Bohemia to Subcarpathian Ruthenia, while also using the railways to push unification of these lands in the minds of its inhabitants. But it was not just politicians who found important meaning in the railways – Jeschke also examines how railway workers, school teachers, travellers, and businessmen experienced the railway system in this period.

Jeschke begins by outlining how the railway network was constructed in Czechoslovakia, becoming a symbol of national unity. The railway network in the Bohemian lands was denser than in Slovakia, and railways needed to be built to connect the country. But along with the construction of railways came Orientalizing discourses from Czech commentators towards Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia (p. 52).

In the second chapter, Jeschke expands on this idea through an examination of Czech travel writing and tourist advertisements, for both travel within Czechoslovakia and international tourism. Czechs were encouraged to “get to know [their] homeland,” a slogan which was mimicked by the Hungarian State Railways in 1930 (p. 68). With Patrice Dabrowski’s recent study on tourism in the Polish and Ukrainian Carpathians, Jeschke’s discussion of the Czechoslovak government’s advertisement of tourism in Ruthenia is a useful addition to studying discourses on “discovery” and “exploration” in the Carpathians. While Jeschke explains how Czech actors created campaigns for travelling to Slovakia or Ruthenia, there are questions remaining: Were there similar campaigns in Slovakia for travelling to Bohemia, or travelling to Ruthenia? Were there also ads targeted at Ruthenians? Or did these advertisements only go one way?

Using the example of Hungary, Jeschke explains that railways and nationalism were an issue not just in Czechoslovakia. While Jeschke is only able to give a brief comparison, the similarities between the discourses are striking. Hungarian activists lamented the loss of their territories, which they argued had been connected by the railways. For instance, in 1919, Cornel de Tolnay – a member of the Hungarian Territorial Integrity League – wrote a treatise called Hungarian Railways and Territorial Integrity, in which he advocated for why the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary and its railway needed to remain unified, arguing that it would damage the economic life of both Magyars and non-Magyars in the state. The similarities in these discourses highlights the importance of Jeschke’s study not only for the history of state-building and nationalism in interwar Czechoslovakia, but across central and eastern Europe in this period.

While Czech and German nationalism is arguably the most prominent theme in modern scholarship on interwar Czechoslovakia, Jeschke adds a new angle to the conversation by discussing how national conflict (and ambivalence) played out on the railways.

The third chapter focuses on national tensions between Czechs and Germans playing out in debates over the railway, using the Jireš affair – an incident in 1929 in which a passenger refused to speak German to the conductor and demanded service in Czech – to argue that railways were not just imposed from above as a national symbol, but were a medium for negotiation of nationalism from below as well. While Czech and German nationalism is arguably the most prominent theme in modern scholarship on interwar Czechoslovakia, Jeschke adds a new angle to the conversation by discussing how national conflict (and ambivalence) played out on the railways. He examines not only the Jireš affair, but also conflicts among Czech, German, and Slovak railway workers and the government. By examining these conflicts, Jeschke adds a fascinating perspective on spatial identities and territorialization in national conflicts in the interwar period.

While the third chapter provides an important examination of how national conflicts played out on the railways, it also reveals a weakness of the book. By organizing the book thematically, the chronology of the book can become muddled. How (or if) Czech perspectives and discourse on the railway changed throughout the interwar period is unclear, as Jeschke sometimes treats the interwar period as static. For instance, in the third chapter, we learn of the Jireš affair in 1929, then jump back to the early and mid-1920s to discuss German railway workers, ahead to the 1930s to discuss Slovak railway workers, then back to 1918 to discuss language laws. While the themes of the book are able to receive appropriate attention due to the organization, it also creates a slightly confusing narrative for the reader at some points.

The last two chapters examine de-Austrianization and the high-speed train between Prague and Bratislava. Looking at Hradec Králové and Uherské Hradiště, the fourth chapter examines how railway station architecture was a public way that Czechoslovakia could perform de-Austrianization and demonstrate the independence of the state. In the final chapter, Jeschke looks at the high-speed train between Prague and Bratislava created in 1936, that aimed to connect the two cities not just for leisure, but for economic reasons (e.g., business travel). This chapter uses this train to explain how the railways were a symbol of modernity and cosmopolitanism for interwar Czechoslovakia. The discussion of this train also allows Jeschke to lead to his conclusion by discussing how Slovak autonomists rejected the name of the train (Slovenská strela), and how the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939 ended the Strela and its role as a symbol of Czechoslovak national unity.

For his research, Jeschke relied primarily on periodicals and published primary sources, with archival research conducted in Prague, Hradec Králové, Kopřivnice, and Uherské Hradiště as well. The sources are mainly Czech and German, as the book’s main actors resided in Bohemia. While the discussion of the railway covers the entirety of Czechoslovakia — and Jeschke does a commendable job at discussing nationalist tensions beyond Czech and German by including conversations around Slovaks, Hungarians, and Ruthenians as well — the vast majority of the discussion of perception of the railways only deals with “Czech” (and sometimes German) perspectives, an issue which unfortunately continues to plague scholarship on interwar Czechoslovakia.

Iron Landscapes is a fascinating study of railways as state-building tools in the interwar period, which as Jeschke suggests was not a unique phenomenon to Czechoslovakia. It proves that an examination of infrastructure can reveal new perspectives on nation building, while providing novel insights into (and beyond) Jeschke’s main themes of modernity, cosmopolitanism, and nationalism. The book provides valuable contributions to the history of communication, tourism, and territory in central and eastern European history, and should be an essential read for anyone researching these topics.

Tess Megginson is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She researches border changes in central and eastern Europe after the First World War. Her dissertation examines Austrian and Czech map production from the end of the First World War through the Paris Peace Conference, focusing on the delimitation of the border between Austria and Bohemia.