The Good King Wenceslas of the Christmas carol fame was actually a prince, and the land he looked out over was the ancient territory of Bohemia. Beatified as St Wenceslas (svatý Václav in Czech), he remains the country’s patron saint.
In the heart of Europe, the tides of war and imperial domination have washed through Bohemia and Moravia for centuries. Events in Czech history have impacted throughout Europe. Two Habsburg councillors were thrown from a Prague Castle window in 1618 (the famous Defenestration of Prague), igniting the Thirty Years War. Hitler’s 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland (the western borderlands of Czechoslovakia) triggered the final slide towards WWII.
The two ‘Golden Ages’ of Czech history were the rule of Charles IV (1346–78), who founded Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral, built Charles Bridge and established Charles University; and the reign of Rudolf II (1576–1612), who made Prague the capital of the Habsburg Empire and drew many great artists, scholars and scientists to his court. Bohemia and Moravia remained under Habsburg dominion for four centuries.
The 20th century was notable for the ‘years of eight’. Czechoslovakia was created after the fall of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, was occupied by the Nazis in 1938 and fell to a communist coup in 1948. The hopeful ‘Prague Spring’, when censorship was relaxed and political prisoners were released, was crushed by the Soviet invasion of 1968.
The Velvet Revolution – the bloodless overthrow of the communist regime – however, didn’t happen until 1989. It was soon followed by the Velvet Divorce of 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into separate Czech and Slovak republics, the former led by famous playwright and former political prisoner Václav Havel, whose term in office lasted until 2003. The Czech Republic joined the European Union (EU) in 2004.