Speech by Ms Blanka Fajkusová, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to South Africa, at the opening of the exhibition 'Jan Hus in 1415 and 600 years later.' The exhibition recalls the peronality, teaching and work of Jan Hus, a Czech priest, philosopher, reformer and educator at the Prague University regarded as a key predecessor to the Protestant movement of the 16th century.
Prof. Buitendag, Dean of the Faculty of Theology,
Reverend Abrahams, President of the Moravian Church in South Africa,
Ambassador van de Geer, Head of the EU Delegation,
Ambassadors, High Commissioners,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Representatives of the South African institutions,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It´s my utmost pleasure to open the exhibition recalling the 600th anniversary of the death of Jan Hus, one of the most prominent personalities in the Czech history. I have no doubt that many of you, when receiving the invitation, asked yourself a question what meaning the death of a priest from the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia had for today and especially for South Africa.
For me personally, a citizen of the Czech Republic, which comprises the historical Czech lands Bohemia and Moravia, it is fascinating how people's lives get connected even though they are separated by thousands of kilometres and by hundreds of years.
The links between Jan Hus and South Africa are profound, as you will see from the exhibition panels and heard from Rev. Abrahams, the President of the Moravian Church in South Africa at the public lecture. I would like to express my deep thanks to the Moravian Church, which is historically so closely affiliated with the teachings of Jan Hus, for their cooperation in organising the series of events, in Cape Town, Pretoria, Genadendal and Port Elizabeth. Allow me also thank to the Faculty of Theology of the University of Pretoria for their partnership. Last, but not least I would like to thank all the colleagues from the Embassy for their time and devotion in the preparation of the exhibition. The exhibition is part of the EuropeFest festival, presenting in South Africa in April and May 2015 a diverse range of cultural events organised by the EU Member States.
Before I try to explain the significance of Jan Hus for the Czech history and nationhood allow me briefly mention the historical background.
Jan Hus was born in the Bohemian village called Husinec, but we do not know exactly when, probably at the very end of the 1360s or at the beginning of 1370s. He studied at the University in Prague, which had been established already in 1348 by Charles IV. In 1396 he obtained the degree of Master of Liberal Arts and in 1401 he became the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, before becoming the Rector of the University, the highest representative of the institution, in 1409.
The religious and political situation in the Kingdom of Bohemia and in Europe at that time was extremely complex. I think it needs to be reminded that at that time, from today´s perspective, the Kingdom of Bohemia was in fact a multinational entity. It included a part of Silesia; a large number of Germans was living side by side with the Czechs and the German language was widely spoken. At the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century there were internal power struggles everywhere, among the nobility (Czech and German), between them and the Catholic Church and also between the supporters of two sons of Charles IV, Wenceslas and Sigismund. The Czech national feelings were playing an increasingly important role as well.
The Catholic Church was in a deep crisis itself and had at one point in time three Popes wrangling among themselves. It was generally challenged by growing discussion about the necessity of its reform. The ideas of Jan Hus, inspired by the teaching of English priest John Wycliffe, thus became not only a concern to his domestic opponents, but gradually for the whole Catholic Church as well. Unfortunately, they also became a part of wider political considerations in Europe.
Jan Hus called for the reformation of the Church structures and its representatives' morals. He criticised the Church's accommodation of wealth, dishonesty of the clergy and trade in holy services, especially the sale of indulgences. But besides the criticism of the Church practises the conflict was also deeply religious.
Jan Hus´ role in reforming the Czech orthography was important as well. He simplified it by abolishing the digraphs and introducing “hooks” for soft consonants and “accents” for long vowel. These exist in the Czech language even today and pose so many problems for foreigners to pronounce Czech names properly.
Jan Hus was excommunicated and an interdict, a ban on church ceremonies, was declared on Prague for as long as he resided there. Hus was then forced to leave Prague and took refuge in the countryside homes of his noble followers, where he continued preaching. The number of his supporters was growing.
The conflict with the Catholic Church continued and in 1414 the supreme body of the Catholic Church, the Council, was convened to German town Constance. Jan Hus was summoned there to advocate his religious positions. Although protected by Sigismund of Hungary, King of the Romans and the brother of the King of Bohemia, Wenceslas IV, he was arrested and later sentenced to death by being burnt at the stake. This happened on 6 July 1415 outside the walls of Constance. The ashes were later scattered into the Rhine River. Famously, when already at the stake, Jan Hus could have saved his life by renouncing his teaching, but he refused to do so.
Many Czechs, including powerful nobles, recognised Jan Hus as their spiritual leader and formed several movements which referred to his teaching. However, Jan Hus himself probably wouldn´t have liked what followed after his death: the Hussite wars. Several crusades were declared by the European leaders, both secular and clerical, trying to get “the heretic Czechs” back to the Catholic Church. But they failed. At the end of the 15th century, as a political solution to the conflict, the Catholic Church declared the plurality of confession in Bohemia. Thus, for the very first time a model of religious tolerance was established. By the middle of the 16th century as many as 90 percent of the inhabitants of so called Czech lands, Bohemia and Moravia, were Protestants.
The teaching of Jan Hus made him a key predecessor of the European Protestant movement of the 16th century, a hundred year later. Martin Luther could once state: „We all were unknowingly Hussites.“ There were many protestant churches built on ideas of the Hussite movement, the Unity of Brethren, Unitas Fratrum, later known as the Moravian Church, was among them.
The model of religious tolerance in Bohemia was, however, destroyed in the 17th century when the Habsburg monarchy imposed the Catholicism as the only possible religion. The Brethren had to operate underground and eventually dispersed in Europe, mainly into Germany. Moravian missions, spreading from the new base in Germany, were later set up around the whole world, including in Africa.
In the Czech lands the Hus' legacy was revived again in the 19th century with the rise of the Czech national movement within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to which they belonged. Some historians think that if there was a survey among the Czechs in the 19th century who was the most important personality in the history, Jan Hus would have won. The Czechs started to refer to themselves as the “Hus nation“ and saw a parallel between their fight for self-determination and the wars led by the Hussites. The perception of Jan Hus became more and more secularized. Jan Hus was recalled as someone who challenged both the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. He thus became a kind of secular national saint and contributed to strengthening of the Czech national consciousness in and against the predominantly German-speaking Empire.
The Hus' tradition became also an important part of independent Czechoslovakia established in 1918, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The first Czechoslovak President T. G. Masaryk saw connection between the Hus' religious fight and the political fight for Czech self-determination. Masaryk also stressed Hus´ strive for the upholding of ethical principles and humanity. “The truth will prevail”, derived from Jan Hus' phrase “Seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, hold the truth and defend the truth until death” was his personal motto and was also inscribed on the Presidential flag, one of the national symbols, from 1918 to 1939 and again since 1960. The phrase also appears along the base of the Jan Hus Memorial at the Old Town Square in the centre of Prague.
The concept of truth has a long tradition in Czech political thought. Jan Hus and Jan Ámos Komenský, known as Comenius, connected the truth with theological aspects, while in Masaryk's ethical concepts truth was seen as the opposite of lie. The Hus' motto had been traditionally seen as testifying the moral and spiritual, rather than physical and military, strength.
After the Second World War, when the communist regime came to power, Hus was still regarded as a progressive historical personality, but the Hussite movement, portrayed as an uprising of oppressed masses rather than a religious movement, received much more emphasis and attention.
The Charter 77 movement, the main voice of democratic opposition from the late 1970, had the motto “Truth prevails for those who live in truth“. It comes with no surprise that the concept of “living in truth” inspired in Hus' teaching was a crucial idea and principle of the then Czechoslovak and later Czech President Václav Havel.
Democratic Czechoslovakia from 1989 and the Czech Republic since its establishment in 1993 returned to some extent to the perception of Jan Hus of the first half of the 20th century. In 1990, 6 July, the day of burning Jan Hus at the stake in 1415, was pronounced a public holiday in Czechoslovakia and remains it until today. If the number of statues, streets and squares bearing someone's name can testify to their significance, then Hus has the dominating presence in the Czech national consciousness, although the number of Church members fell significantly.
To finish on a somewhat lighter note: Ten years ago, the Czech TV organised a public survey to choose the “Biggest Czech”, the most important Czech personality. Although Jan Hus came about as only number 7, five of six persons who preceded him in this list, had intensive linkages to him. The King of Bohemia and the Roman Emperor Charles IV was selected as the most important one. It was him who had established the Prague University just a half a century before Jan Hus started to teach there. Presidents Masaryk and Havel gained the second and the third place, the fourth was Comenius, a priest of the Moravian Church who became famous as an early champion of universal education and teaching in the mother tongue. The number five was Jan Žižka, one of the Hussite leaders during the Hussite wars.
The fact that the 600th anniversary of Jan Hus' death became national celebrations under the patronage the Czech president with a plethora of events taking place in all places of the country, and not only there, shows that Hus' legacy does still have its place in the Czech society.
Thank you for your attention.