George Stimpson

His life and works

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What is a Bohemian?

The Romans applied Bohemia to a region on their northern frontier because it was inhabited by a Celtic tribe known as the Boii, whose capital was Boiohemum. A Slavic people who established themselves in Bohemia about the beginning of the Christian Era called themselves Czechs and their country Czechy. But the Romans and other Europeans continued to call the country Bohemia and the inhabitants Bohemians. Teutonic and Slavic peoples struggled for the possession of Bohemia for nearly a thousand years. During the Thirty Years' War Bohemia was almost depopulated. She lost her independence and passed under the Austrian yoke in 1620 when the Czechs were defeated by Frederick V, Elector of the Palatinate, at the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague. Bismarck, because of its strategic location, said: "Who dominates Bohemia dominates Europe." Bohemia lay directly in the path of Drang nach Osten, "the thrust toward the [page 44] east," a phrase used in connection with Germany's policy of expansion in the direction of Asia. During the First World War Thomas G. Masaryk and Eduard Beneš built up public opinion throughout the world in favor of an independent country composed of Bohemia, Slovakia, Moravia, Silesia and Carpathian Ruthenia. Nearly a million dollars for this purpose was contributed by Czechs and Slovaks in America, Russia and France. Although their native land was then part of Austria-Hungary, several hundred thousand Czechoslovaks fought on the Allied side during the First World War in France, Italy and Russia. After the collapse of Russia in 1917, about 92,000 Czechoslovakian troops who had been fighting in that country, known as the Czech Legion, joined the Allies in the west after an amazing expedition in a body through Siberia to Vladivostok and then to France. In 1918 Bohemia became part of the country known popularly as Czechoslovakia and officially as the Czechoslovak Republic because Czechy and Slovakia were the two chief units of the new nation. Before the First World War and the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic those Czechs who had immigrated to America, as well as their immediate descendants, were popularly called Bohemians, or simply Bohemies, but that term is being gradually replaced by Czechs in American usage. The religious sect known as the Moravians in America are the successors of the Bohemian Brethren, a sect formed from the remnants of the followers of John Huss (1369-1415), a reformer who was burned at the stake for preaching doctrines in Bohemia similar to those preached by John Wycliffe in England. The Germans in Czechoslovakia are called Sudetans (pronounced soo-DETT-ans) because large numbers of them lived along the Czech-German border in the region of the Sudetic Mountains. When the first band of gypsies arrived in France about 1427 the French supposed them to be Hussites expelled from Bohemia and called them Bohémiens, which is still the French name for "gypsies." From this source came Bohemian in the sense of an idle stroller or one who wanders about like gypsies. William Makepeace Thackeray popularized Bohemian in the sense of an artist, actor, writer or other intellectual who, like the gypsies or Bohémiens, lives a free and easy life in violation of accepted social conventions.