Rudolf Kučera’s 2013 Czech-language study of the fragmentation and re-constitution of the working class in the Bohemian lands in the First World War is now available in a clearly translated English-language edition, published by Berghahn Books (perhaps surprisingly, it is not part of their well-established ‘Austrian and Habsburg Studies’ series, although in approach and theme it is obviously a close cousin of many of the works featured there). Its subject is the attempt by planners to cope with wartime scarcity in Habsburg Bohemia. Something between a long essay and a monograph, it is a work of impressive intellectual sophistication and originality. Kučera’s central argument is that the First World War practically transformed into public policy long-existing scientific and rationalist discourses about the organisation of work and of workers. There seemed to exist in Habsburg war planners’ minds an ‘optimal work ratio’, the achievement of which would lead in turn to an optimal output from Czech workers, balanced, of course, against an efficient minimum of ‘inputs’. Calculations thus existed to determine the right amount of ‘fuel’ (that is, food) and work/rest balance workers would need in order to sustain themselves—oversupply in any of these fields could potentially undermine the Habsburg war economy. Kučera does not argue that there was a centralised masterplan to this process of rationalisation: this kind of power operated in a diffused, Foucaultian fashion. These were bodies of knowledge the origins of which were in the Enlightenment, but which were dormant or academic in nature until the advent of the war created an urgent need for their application in every conceivable field of the economy. The case is convincingly made across four chapters, each dealing with an interconnected aspect of the transformations that rationalisation brought to bear on the Czech worker. Thus, we learn about the ‘Politics of Food’ (ch. 1), ‘The Politics of Work’ (ch. 2), ‘The Politics of Gender’ (ch. 3) and ‘The Politics of Protest’ (ch. 4). The chapters begin by tracing the longer-term origins of the scientific and rationalist ideas that were then activated by the wartime emergency. Sources are typically derived from public records, reports from police or about strikes, protests and so on. The life of the worker in Prague is well served, which is only to be expected, as it was the most important urban centre in wartime Bohemia. Plzeň also features throughout the book, home of the Škoda armaments factory and therefore critical to various war machines across the twentieth century—Habsburg included. A study that included Moravia within its purview might have provided some accompanying insights into Zlín, the future company of Tomáš Baťa. Did wartime rationalisation play a part in the evolution of his famous ergonomic practices? The work does show how normative and hierarchical assumptions about the urban/rural divide (which until the war had favoured the former) and about gender (which had favoured men) were overturned in the forge of wartime rationalisation. The final chapter is an impressive feat of auto-synthesis in which Kučera brings together many of his preceding insights, tracing the new subjectivity of the Czech worker, whose public protests become an effective means of countering Austria–Hungary’s rationalisation drive. There were apparently consequences to the rationalists’ presumption that Czech workers were simply passive components of a much larger machine. Those consequences took the form of industrial actions that continued for some years after the war ended, and were at least partially channelled into support for the new Czechoslovak Communist Party (at the expense of the old Social Democrats). Rationalist discourse of this kind was, of course, an inherent part of the project of European modernity, a point that Kučera makes clear. By concentrating on this deeper historical matter the book offers a refreshing departure from the discussions and arguments about national versus imperial loyalties, or about war acceptance versus war refusal in the Habsburg space. There are implications here that an historian of the Habsburg empire’s collapse and of the creation of ‘New Europe’ at the end of the war can take away as food for thought (no pun intended). As a key industrial space in the Habsburg empire, conditions in Bohemia were of critical importance for the successful prosecution of the war—did the transformations that Kučera identifies have consequences for the empire at large? Can the limits of rationalisation and its unintended repercussions alter our understanding of the end of Austria–Hungary in 1918? And what were the consequences for this in the First Republic of Czechoslovakia? In its emphasis on the central position of the urban home-front in Austria–Hungary’s Great War, the work covers similar terrain to Maureen Healy’s influential study of wartime Vienna. It also bears some of the hallmarks of E.P. Thompson’s monumental work on the English working class in that it approaches the social history of class as more than just a matter of political organisation and mobilisation. The book is an important advance, in this respect, on the large socialist historiography of the Czech working-class movements, as Kučera notes in his introduction (p. 3). Thompson’s influence is most keenly felt in the discussion about a perceived ‘moral economy’ the terms of which the rationalisers breach (p. 137). For Kučera, however, the Czech working class is not exactly ‘made’ by the application of rationalist discourse during the First World War: the processes are more complex, involving both breaking and making, re-alignments, re-configurations. Despite these influences the originality of Kučera’s approach and interpretation cannot be overstated. It is a remarkable achievement—seminal, in fact. Future students of the Habsburg war effort would do well to address themselves to Kučera’s concept of a ‘rationed life’ and its impact on societies, states and individuals. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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