Book Review: Jan Zizka, The Hussite

Jan Zizka, The Hussite (On His Quincentenary), by R. Urbanek

Outside of those interested in the history of the Czech people, and those whose interest in the military history of the late European Middle Ages is profound, Jan Zizka is not a particularly famous person.  A somewhat poor lower noble from the area of South Bohemia, his skill and valor in battle led him to a position of respect within the Czech state as it sought to avoid German domination and a religious conversion led him to be a moderate but faithful Hussite who sought to unify the various and disparate elements of Czech society in a common struggle against religious and ethnic enemies.  Admittedly, not much is known about the man because the sources of the time failed to record what we would consider to be basic questions about his life and family background and the experiences of his life that shaped his conduct.  We know him to be a figure of considerable importance in history because of his military and political leadership in a difficult time, but knowing who he was as a man and how he got to be the sort of leader who was capable of shaping history remains obscure.

This particlar book, which was included in a larger work but also reprinted separately given its general historical interest, is a short work of only about 25 pages or so.  The author, who appears to have written in Czech and who is otherwise obscure to this reader at least, laments the lack of information that is known about Zizka but comments on his background, on the wealth and privilege he saw when interacting with others in the royal court at Prague, and in the lessons he drew on Slavic solidarity given his efforts in Poland.  The author has high praise for his moderation during the Hussite controversy and his efforts at joining together urban elites and rural extremists, a difficult position to take at any time but one which was certainly justified by the importance of both elements to the Czech nation as a whole.  The work discusses his military leadership, creativity in the use of war wagons, and his political skill and general moderation of position and strength of character and ends in a tone of lamentation at the inability of the Czechs to find another such leader in their time of need, which led to the eventual defeat of the Hussites in the 1430’s.

And this is to be regretted.  Those who have an interest in Czech history [1], there are not as many incidents as one would wish to celebrate, and the Czech have frequently found themselves to be at the mercy of stronger neighbors, especially the Germans and Austrians, despite having been one of the first Slavic peoples to be recognized as a European nation.  Be that as it may, Jan Zizka is one of the more notable figures of Czech history, someone who was capable of steering a middle path between the Prague elites and the Taborite radicals whose mutual support was necessary for a free Czech state to thrive, a project which outlived him but not as much as one would have hoped, given the fact that it seemed there was no one with the military skill that Zizka offered who was able to help lead and deliver the Czech people after his death on campaign.  Little peoples who desire to be free in the midst of stronger opponents have little margin for error when it comes to their leadership and logistics, and that was certainly true for the Czechs as centuries of German domination loomed.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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