‘Moral Limits’: The Expression and Suppression of Guilt in Czech Post-War Writing About the Borderlands

RA Chitnis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


The 1945‐46 expulsion of Bohemian Germans and the subsequent colonization of the Czech borderlands both stemmed from the rationalist, utopian pursuit of purity and perfection that pervades twentieth-century history. Intrinsic to that pursuit is the attempt to eradicate guilt, which can be readily seen in Czech responses to the expulsions and the social and environmental devastation of the post-war borderlands. Beginning with the principle of ‘collective guilt’ used to justify the expulsions, Czech political, academic, and media rhetoric, schoolbooks, international collusion, and collective amnesia have perpetuated the dominant myth of the Czechs as victims, while seeking to discredit any suggestion of Czech guilt. Key novels from the first wave of Czech literature about the post-war borderlands — Sedlmayerová’s The house on the green hill (1947) and R ˇezácˇ’s Advance (1951) — explicitly show the suppression of guilt in action. This suppression is also evident in the imprisonment, soon after the 1948 Communist takeover, of the journalist Michal Maresˇ, who in 1946 and 1947 accused the state of both encouraging and covering up criminal conduct in the borderlands, thereby embedding criminality in the fabric of the emerging new society. Since the 1970s, a minority of Czech intellectuals have called on the Czech nation to confront this ‘embedded’ guilt as a step towards ‘self-healing’. The origins of this perspective can be found in Jaroslav Durych’s God’s Rainbow (1969) and Josef Jedlicˇka’s In the Midway of This Our Mortal Life (1966), both written in and about post-war North Bohemia in the 1950s. While Durych reasserts the place of guilt within the traditional Christian model of repentance, atonement, reconciliation and absolution, Jedlicˇka reflects the more fashionable Existentialist view of guilt as an inescapable part of the human condition. Their histories of publication and receptions show the extent to which their messages have been misunderstood and misrepresented. Their reincorporation into the mainstream, together with Maresˇ, as part of renewed reflection on the fragile concept of guilt, is vital to current efforts to complicate Czech understandings of their post-war history.
Translated title of the contribution‘Moral Limits’: The Expression and Suppression of Guilt in Czech Post-War Writing About the Borderlands
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18 - 54
Number of pages37
JournalCentral Europe
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - May 2012


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