Milan Scholz’s Book on Masaryk and Dmowski Reviewed in Colloquia Humanistica

Book review and commentary / In December 2021, the Polish multinational English-language periodical Colloquia Humanistica published the book review by Tomáš Masař which deals with my recent volume České a polské hledání identity: myšlení Tomáše Garrigua Masaryka a Romana Dmowského v komparativní perspektivě [Czech and Polish Search for Identity. The Thought of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Roman Dmowski in a Comparative Perspective]. The review appreciated the in-depth treatment of the analysed topic and the breadth of material the book is based on. In addition, I am naturally pleased that the review described me as a gifted narrator. Nevertheless, Tomáš Masař criticized the emphasis on historical detail. Moreover, he pointed out that the book is centred on published writings of Masaryk and Dmowski, whereas archival materials and unpublished historical sources (correspondence, diaries) are kept out of the focus. Masař also raised partial critical objections concerning the concept of comparison applied in the book which is (according to his opinion) based on parallel stories. In the following lines, I would like to briefly comment on the critical points Masař mentioned in his review.

The first point of criticism raised by Masař concerned historical details, included allegedly too much in the reviewed book. Honestly said, I have never considered myself to be a specialist in what is usually called historical details. As regards historical research, I have always been more interested in processes and structures than events and stories, which was also the key reason for the choice of comparative history as my specialization. Thematically, my book belongs to the field of comparative history of ideas. The history of ideas, intellectual history, or history of thought (each linguistic environment prefers a slightly different conceptualization) is a field that anchors ideas and thought in their historical context. In this field, the alleged historical detail often playsan immense role. The detail, if correctly viewed and conceptualized, is a phenomenon able to summarize (in a condensed form) not only the ‘grand narratives’ (metanarratives), but also their conditionality. In this context, the detail is often more pertinent than stories formulated by lofty general constructions in which the protagonists are seemingly otherworldly beings, and their actions float high in the air. Indeed, the detail is not the same as the marginality, and it is an indispensable part both of the intellectual history and the research of identities. Within the book dealing with Masaryk’s and Dmowski’s thinking, it is by no means marginal to depict such topics as Masaryk’s complicated relationship with his father-in-law, physical activities carried out by Masaryk and Dmowski to compensate for their immersion in intellectual work, or even the serious health problems Dmowski suffered shortly after the end of the First World War. Moreover, the last case mentioned by Masař cannot be considered as a detail. Dmowski’s illness at that time was crucial for Dmowski’s entire activity in the post-war period and for the formulation of his ideas about identities. Indeed, it is one of the key factors helping to understand why Masaryk was so successful in the interwar period, while Dmowski was soon replaced by other political protagonists and his war activities were soon forgotten. Therefore, for all mentioned reasons, I cannot agree with Masař’s objections concerning allegedly redundant historical details contained in the book. Nevertheless, the way how details were incorporated in the book can be submitted to criticism, and it is the sovereign right of the reviewer and reader to evaluate this way disapprovingly.

The second objection Masař raised in his review concerns the historical sources used in the book. Masař criticized the lacking work with archival materials and unpublished sources as correspondence and diaries. The reviewer noted that the book primarily uses Masaryk’s and Dmowski’s published writings for its comparative analysis, and in its non-comparative parts, it draws on the results of historical research. In this context, I would like to emphasize what follows from the title of the book itself. The volume deals with the Czech and the Polish search for identity presented by Masaryk and Dmowski to the public. Therefore, the published writings are the natural key source for the comparative analysis. Indeed, Masaryk’s and Dmowski’s search for identity was primarily a public affair, destined for the discussion and reflection in the public sphere. Indisputably, the use of archival sources or correspondence would add another dimension to the content of the book. However, the topic in such a case would already be different and significantly shifted. The focus on ideas destined by Masaryk and Dmowski for the public would be replaced by historical reconstruction of the emergence of certain ideas and texts which was not the intention of my book. For that reason, I decided to analyse Masaryk’s and Dmowski’s search for identities on the basis of their published texts and to contextualize them on the background of Masaryk’s and Dmowski’s lives, as I indicated it in the previous paragraph. Large, generalizing concepts of the Czech and the Polish identity were formulated by people of flesh and blood who lived through everyday pains and worries. And these worries influenced and co-determined how Masaryk and Dmowski looked at those clouds floating in the heavens – at the long-term development of national identities and human history. This is the main thing I wanted to demonstrate by the interconnection between the analysis of Masaryk’s and Dmowski’s published texts and details from the personal life of their authors.

However, also a second, technical dimension is linked to the choice of sources the historian is working with. The comparative historian is always obliged to limit the quantity of analysed sources. In the introduction to his review, Tomáš Masař assigned my book methodologically to the so-called Hroch School. It was just the prominent Czech historian Miroslav Hroch who repeatedly said that comparative historian must in many cases rely on knowledge not extracted directly from primary historical sources. Otherwise, he would not be able to compare, because the immense quantity of historical sources would obstacle and disable the practicing of comparison. This Hroch’s remark particularly affects archival sources, and other classics in comparative research (Kaelble, Kocka, Grew, Haupt, etc.) came to the same conclusion. Therefore, high-quality and reliable historical and other professional works are (in addition to the sources themselves) an important source of knowledge for the comparative historian. The comparison is usually based on the “search for contexts” (to borrow the term used in the title of one Hroch’s book). The way a comparative historian works is often different from the conventional procedures of historical research. By the definition of the comparative approach, the interdisciplinarity is an integral part of the comparative history. The comparative analysis of the chosen issue was the basis of my research from the very beginning. The question of whether the book represents a historiographical treatment or whether it belongs to another discipline was marginal (and even irrelevant) for me. The difficulties with defining the discipline my book belongs to can also be traced from its thematic classification by booksellers – the book appears in thematic groups “political science literature”, “philosophical literature”, “society and politics”, but not in the category “history”.

The third point Tomáš Masař submitted to criticism was rather partial and it concerns the way how I applied the comparative approach. In this context, Masař noted the length disproportion between the chapters dealing individually with Masaryk and Dmowski and the third, comparative chapter. In his opinion, parallel stories are juxtaposed in first two parts of the book, and only the third, shorter section, is truly comparative. Nonetheless, there is no methodological rule on the equal length of chapters. In fact, such a rule would be extremely dubious because it would mean a distortion of the researched cases. Comparative studies are not (and cannot be) a comparison of everything with everything and in everything. They leave the compared cases in their natural environment (context), and subsequently they compare the chosen aspects. In addition, it is necessary to stress that even the juxtaposition of two (or more) parallel cases is a type of comparison, provided that the same methodology is used, and the same questions are asked in both (or all) researched cases. Hartmut Kaelble stated this in his handbook on comparative theory and methodology (Der Historische Vergleich), Charles Tilly noted it in his publication Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, Miroslav Hroch applied the above-mentioned kind of comparison in a great part of his book Social Preconditions of National Movements in Europe. In my opinion, such an approach can be called the “soft” comparison, as opposed to the “hard” comparison, which compares the studied cases integrally and systematically. As regards my book on Masaryk and Dmowski, the “soft” comparison is applied in the chapters devoted individually to Masaryk and Dmowski, the “hard” comparison in the third, integrally and systematically comparative part of the volume. In this context, the length of the third, integrally comparative chapter (126 pages) is to be considered as adequate. Since I was aware that the book combines “soft” and “hard” comparisons in order to better understand the issue, I used the expression “in comparative perspective” in its title. Comparative perspective is not a seemingly lofty phrase without concrete contents, but a notion with a specific meaning. Jürgen Kocka defined it as a type of comparative approach in which the primary research is not directly comparative, and the comparison comes on the background (see his study The Uses of Comparative History). However, I am self-critically obliged to admit that I did not sufficiently clarify these methodological questions in the introduction to the book, since I depicted them elsewhere (in the study Komparativní přístup v historiografii a transnacionální historická problematika [Comparative Approach in Historiography and Transnational Historical Issues]).

If I try to put myself in the position of the reviewer of my own book, I come to the conclusion that my thinking would be oriented towards similar points as those presented by Tomáš Masař in his review. Naturally, the accents and the evaluation of concrete aspects would be different. Nevertheless, the points in which Masař views the book critically are for me a useful imaginary mirror in which is good to look.

Tomáš Masař’s review in Colloquia Humanistica

Quoting this post: SCHOLZ, Milan: Milan Scholz’s Book on Masaryk and Dmowski Reviewed in Colloquia Humanistica. Version 1.0. In:, published 15th January 2022,

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