Sarah Lemmen’s Tschechen auf Reisen occupies a niche between the beaten track (to borrow James Buzard’s phrase) of research into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century travel and the ambivalence with which eastern Central Europe is still regarded in scholarship. Lemmen is careful to emphasise that, while travel narratives can never be neutral, they are nevertheless “real” as the perception motivates action (p. 49). Under this premise, the fundamental question is, what can travel narratives tell us about the ‘culture of origin’ or “Ausgangskultur” of the travellers and their view of the world (p. 44). Instead of using travel publications solely to discover the view of Czech travellers on Africa, Asia or Australia, Lemmen employs travel as a mirror which displays Czech views of the Czech place in the world, in Europe, and within different political constructs, be it Habsburgian or Czechoslovakian. She deliberately calls into question the silent assumption that ‘European’ equals ‘Western’ and advocates for a renewed focus on eastern Central Europe (p. 38).
Throughout, Lemmen demonstrates a clever play with the concepts of Edward Said’s Orientalism and postcolonial studies, applied not only to Czech views of ‘oriental’ places but also to the question of the Czech position within Europe. This is illustrated, for instance, in the call for Czech colonial enterprises as the possession of colonies signified a ‘mature’ state (p. 97). Lemmen revises the image of the small neighbour to the eastern side of Germany and tells a story of the early twentieth century when every type of European growth seemed possible, when eastern Central Europe perceived itself only one step away from mature prosperity equal to that of other colonial powers. She also adds the counterpart to this story – the realisation that heralding European civilisation was not enough for Czech identity formation, that in fact Czech identity was built on an intricate web of related aspects, not all tangible, not all perceptible from outside. Nevertheless, Lemmen rejects the idea of a Czech ‘Sonderweg’ and instead advocates for the introduction of the category of the “nicht-kolonial[e] Nation” in research into colonial history to grasp the Czech case in its intricacies (p. 296).
The book’s structure is not chronological, rather it uses thematic complexities as building blocks: beginning with the internal Czech socio-political and economic debates of the 1930s, the book then proceeds to reach back into the last decade of the nineteenth century to unravel the connections between identity discourses in both travel and at home. Building on the premise that travelling is the motor in nationalisation processes (p. 26), Lemmen detects these processes of self-identification in the travel narratives. The study demonstrates the prevalence of a clearly European outlook among Czech travellers, providing evidence that even without a colonial empire, Czech ideas of the world aligned themselves to European ideas of civilisation. Lemmen argues that the lack of colonies allowed more freedom in Czech choices of travel destinations, yet the reaction to these destinations was decidedly aligned with the wider European hierarchy of ‘civilisation’ versus ‘savages’.
Moreover, Lemmen traces the change in descriptions whenever Czech travellers set themselves into relation with other European travellers. National identity formation was not only located at home but also abroad as Lemmen’s example of the Czech community, or ‘colony’ in Cairo details (pp. 186–187). After the First World War, Czech travel narratives of Cairo suddenly began to distinguish between Czech colonists and ‘others’, even if they had been part of the same Austro-Hungarian conglomerate. Emigrants mirrored the nationalisation process at ‘home’ – moreover, Czech travellers now looked towards prosperous British and American tourists, impersonating the emerging European economic “Zweiklassengesellschaft” (p. 191). This ambivalence between dreams of a ‘place in the world’ and the fear of its ultimate unattainability characterises much of Lemmen’s analysis and opens a new perspective on European identity formation, especially after 1918.
The selection and use of literature emphasise once more the vast body of research Lemmen has utilised in her study. Not only does she recur on Czech literature which might be less familiar to the German reader but also draws on German and English publications. Research on other empires and other parts of the world are related back to the Czech case study at hand, allowing the author – and the reader – to draw new conclusions from seemingly dried up avenues of enquiry. The study gives a good overview over the relevant literature on travel and travel writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century without ripping it out of context. Travel is always connected to ‘home’, and Lemmen makes a persuasive case for contextualising Czech travel around 1900 meaningfully within wider debates of nationalisation and globalisation.
With about 50 pages the introduction takes a lot of space but uses this to the argument’s advantage: as the book fills a neglected niche in German scholarship on travel, Lemmen sets the scene and introduces her study’s space and timeframe as well as her methodological framework in detail. For each parameter – such as location, timeframe, or source material – the study draws together a vast array of methodological tools: for instance, space is not only introduced in its geographical form but associated with an range of concepts, such as Roland Robertson’s ‘Glokalisierung’, Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’, and Stuart Hall’s ‘the west and the rest’ (p. 15). This illustrates the richness of literature the study utilises to support its main goal – to show that travel matters, and that travellers being physically removed from home offer a window into self-definition and the formation of national identity.
If one wanted to be critical, one could point to the frequent use of sub-headers within sub-chapters of the introduction – while this practice breaks up the text into topical chunks it also breaks up the text flow and interrupts the connectivity between different aspects. Equally, the last two chapters appear at times overly detailed compared to the rest of the study. Here, the book shows off almost too much knowledge, losing depth in the process. For instance, the section on photography (pp. 232–235) is intriguing but without accompanying visual material the fragment appears slightly disjointed from the overarching argument. Overall, however, the presentation supports the structure of the argument well, something that is often underestimated in monographies that try to cover a lot of ground.
Who, then, benefits from this tome? Contrary to potential first impressions, this book is much more than a mere Czech-centred attachment to the ever-growing body of research on European travel and travel writing. It connects travel with colonialism – or at least the dream of colonial grandeur. It traces the intricacies of eastern European identity formation and sets them into context and contrast with assumptions of ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’. It questions consolidated ideas of state formation, economic growth, and migration in the early twentieth century. The book, therefore, is a welcome addition to any scholar’s library researching Europe (East and West) around 1900, travel and travel writing, economics and migration, colonialism, and the formation of national identities.