While visitors still tend to see the Czech Republic as part of ‘Eastern Europe’, for more than a thousand years Bohemia and Moravia have stood at the heart of European affairs – in both good times and bad. Over the centuries, Prague has served at various times as Europe's leading city, while the territory of the Czech Republic has found itself, reluctantly, in the middle of the continent's most destructive wars.
The Early Years with the Celts
There’s been human habitation on the territory of the modern-day Czech Republic for some 600,000 years, with permanent communities since around 4000 BC, but it’s the Celts, who came to the area around 500 BC, that arouse the most interest. The name ‘Bohemia’ for the western province of the Czech Republic derives from one of the most successful of these Celtic tribes, the Boii. Traces of Boii culture have been found as far away as southern Germany, leading some archaeologists to posit a relationship between Celts here and those in France, and possibly even further afield to tribes in the British Isles.
In Come the Slavs
It’s unclear what prompted the great migration of peoples across Europe in the 6th and 7th centuries, but during this time large populations of Slavs began arriving in Central Europe from the east, driving out the Celts and pushing German tribes further to the west. The newcomers established several settlements along the Vltava, including one near the present site of Prague Castle and another upriver at Vyšehrad.
It was a highly unstable time, with the new arrivals under threat from incoming peoples such as the Avars. A Frankish trader named Samo briefly succeeded in uniting the Slavs to repel the Avars, but the Slavs quickly resumed their squabbling.
The Myth of Libuše
Fittingly for a country and culture that embrace so much mystery, the origins of the Bohemian (and later Czech) capital are shrouded in a fairy tale. Princess Libuše, the daughter of early ruler Krok, is said to have stood on a hill near Prague’s Vyšehrad Citadel one day in the 7th or 8th century and predicted a glorious city would one day rise around her. According to the legend, Libuše needed to find a strong suitor who could yield sturdy heirs to the Bohemian throne. Passing over a field of eligible bachelors, including some sickly looking royals, she selected a simple ploughman: Přemysl. She chose well. The Přemysl dynasty would go on to rule for some 400 years.
In the 9th century, the Přemysl prince Bořivoj selected an outcropping in Prague's Hradčany district to build Prague Castle, the dynasty’s seat. Amazingly, the castle – the official seat of the Czech presidency – remains the centre of power to this day.
Christianity became the state religion under the rule of the pious Wenceslas (Václav in Czech), the Duke of Bohemia (r 925‒29) and now the chief patron saint of the Czech people (immortalised on horseback at the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square). Wenceslas was the ‘Good King Wenceslas’ of the well-known Christmas carol, written in 1853 by English clergyman John Mason Neale. Wenceslas’s conversion to Christianity is said to have angered his mother and his brother, Boleslav, who ended up killing the young duke in a fit of jealousy.
Despite the dysfunctional family relations, the Přemysls proved to be highly effective rulers. During the 13th century, the Přemysl lands stretched from modern-day Silesia (near the Czech–Polish border) to the Mediterranean Sea. The last Přemysl ruler, King Wenceslas III (Václav III), was murdered in Olomouc in 1306 under circumstances that are still not clear to this day.
The Great Moravian Empire
Prague and Bohemia get so much attention from visitors and scholars that it's maybe a surprise to find out that the earliest Slav state in the region actually arose in Moravia, to the east. The Moravian empire formed in the early 9th century and reached its apex under ruler Svatopluk I (r 870–94). It eventually encompassed all of modern-day Moravia, as well parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.
It was here in Moravia, where the fabled Bulgarian monks, brothers Cyril (826–69) and Methodius (815–85), carried out their most important work. The brothers were called in to help convert the Slavs to Christianity. They wound up spreading their liturgical language, Old Church Slavonic, and inventing an alphabet, the Glagolitic, that later became the basis for today's Cyrillic script. The brothers are celebrated every year on 5 July – Sts Cyril and Methodius Day.
Alas, the Moravian empire did not last long on the world stage. By the early 10th century, Magyar incursions had eroded much of the empire's external territories. The eastern regions, in today's Slovakia, eventually fell under Hungarian domination. The western area – today's Moravian province – was eventually ceded to the Bohemian kingdom.
Charles IV & the Holy Roman Empire
It’s hard to imagine that the Kingdom of Bohemia (including Moravia) will ever exceed the position of power it held in the 14th century, when Prague for a time became the seat of what was known then as the Holy Roman Empire, under Emperor Charles IV (Karel IV; r 1346–78).
The path to glory began predictably enough with the murder of Přemysl ruler Wenceslas III, in 1306, leaving no male successor to the throne. Eventually, John of Luxembourg (Jan Lucemburský to the Czechs) assumed the Bohemian throne through his marriage to Wenceslas III’s daughter, Elyška, in 1310.
Under the enlightened rule of John’s son, Charles IV, Prague grew to become one of the continent’s largest and most prosperous cities. Charles greatly expanded the limits of the city and commissioned both the bridge that now bears his name and St Vitus Cathedral, among other projects. He also established Charles University as the first university in Central Europe.
Feature: Religious Reformer Jan Hus
Jan Hus was the Czech lands’ foremost (and one of Europe’s earliest) Protestant Christian reformers, preceding Martin Luther and the Lutheran reformation by more than a century. Hus was born into a poor family in southern Bohemia in 1372. He studied at the Karolinum (Charles University) and eventually became dean of the philosophy faculty.
Like many of his colleagues at the time, Hus was inspired by the English philosopher and radical reformist theologian John Wycliffe. The corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic clergy proved to be an easy target for Wycliffe’s criticisms and fuelled a growing Czech resentment of the wealth and corruption of the clergy.
In 1391 Prague reformers founded the Bethlehem Chapel, where sermons were given in Czech rather than Latin. Hus preached there for about 10 years, while continuing his duties at the university.
Hus’s criticisms of the Catholic Church, particularly the practice of selling indulgences, endeared him to his followers but eventually put him in the Pope’s black book. In fact, the Pope had him excommunicated in 1410, but Hus continued to preach. In 1415, he was invited to the Council of Constance in modern-day Germany to recant his views with the understanding that he would be granted safe passage. He refused to concede and was burned at the stake on 6 July 1415.
The Hussite Wars & Religious Strife
In contrast to the prosperous 14th century, the 15th century brought little but hardship and war to the territory of the Czech Republic. Much of the good of the preceding years was undone in a combination of religion-inspired violence and intolerance. The period witnessed the rise of an impassioned Church-reform movement led by Jan Hus. Hus’s intentions to rid Rome's papal authorities of corruption were admirable, but his movement ended up dividing the country. In 1419, supporters of Hussite preacher Jan Želivský stormed Prague’s New Town Hall and tossed several Catholic councillors out the windows – thus introducing the word ‘defenestration’ (throwing someone from a window in order to do him or her bodily harm) into the political lexicon.
The Hussites (as followers of Jan Hus were known) assumed control of Prague after the death of Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslas IV in 1419. The move sparked the first anti-Hussite crusade, launched in 1420 by Emperor Sigismund, with the support of many pro-Catholic rulers around Europe. Hussite commander Jan Žižka successfully defended the city in the Battle of Vítkov Hill, but the religious strife spilled into the countryside. The Hussites were split into factions – those wanting to make peace with the emperor and those wanting to fight to the end. The more radical Hussites, the Taborites, were ultimately defeated in battle at Lipany, east of Prague, in 1434.
The Habsburgs Take Over
The weakening of the Bohemian kingdom due to the religious wars left both Bohemia and Moravia open to foreign intervention. Austria’s Habsburg empire, ruled from Vienna, was able to take advantage and eventually came to dominate both regions. At first, in the mid-16th century, the Habsburgs were invited in by a weary Bohemian nobility weakened by constant warfare. Decades later, in 1620, the Austrians were able to cement their control over the region with a decisive military victory over Czech forces at Bílá Hora, near Prague. The Austrians would continue to rule over Bohemia and Moravia for another 300 years, until the emergence of independent Czechoslovakia at the end of WWI.
Though the Austrians are generally knocked in Czech history books, it must be admitted their leadership established some much needed stability. Indeed, the latter part of the 16th century under Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (r 1576‒1612) is considered a second ‘golden age’ in Czech history, comparable to Charles IV’s rule in the 14th century. Eccentric Rudolf preferred Prague to his family’s ancestral home in Vienna and moved the seat of the Habsburg empire to the Bohemian capital for the duration of his reign.
Rudolf is typically viewed by historians as something of a kook. He had a soft spot for esoteric pursuits such as soothsaying and alchemy, and populated his court with wags and conjurers from around Europe. The English mathematician and occultist John Dee and his less-esteemed countryman, Edward Kelly, were just two of the noted mystics Rudolf kept at the castle in an eternal quest to turn base metals into gold. It’s also true, though, that Rudolf’s tutelage led to real advances in science, particularly astronomy.
For all his successes, though, Rudolf failed to heal the age-old rift between Protestants and Catholics, and the end of his reign in 1612 saw those tensions again rise to the forefront. The breaking point came in 1618 with the ‘Second Defenestration of Prague’, when a group of Protestant noblemen stormed into a chamber at Prague Castle and tossed two Catholic councillors and their secretary out the window. The men survived – legend has it they fell onto a dung heap – but the damage was done. The act sparked the Thirty Years’ War, starting in 1618, that ultimately consumed the whole of Europe and left Bohemia and Moravia again in ruins.
Feature: Jews in the Czech Lands
Both Bohemia and Moravia, for centuries, were relative safe havens for Jews. Prague, in particular, evolved into an important centre of Jewish life and scholarship, but towns like Mikulov and Třebíč in Moravia also developed into influential Jewish settlements.
In Prague, Jews first moved into a walled ghetto north of Old Town Square in about the 13th century, in response to directives from Rome that Jews and Christians should live separately. The Jews generally thrived under Emperor Rudolf II at the end of the 16th century. Rudolf encouraged a flowering of Jewish intellectual life and Mordechai Maisel, the mayor of the ghetto at the time, became Rudolf’s finance minister and the city’s wealthiest citizen. Another major figure at the time was Judah Loew ben Bezalel (Rabbi Loew), a prominent theologian, chief rabbi and student of the mystical teachings of the Cabbala. He's nowadays known as the creator of the legendary Golem (a kind of proto-robot made from the mud of the Vltava).
When they helped to repel the Swedes on Charles Bridge in 1648, the Jews won the favour of Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand III to the extent he had the ghetto enlarged. But a century later they were driven out of the city, only to be welcomed back later when the residents missed their business.
In the 1780s, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II (r 1780‒90) outlawed many forms of discrimination, and in the 19th century the Jews won the right to live wherever they wanted. Many chose to leave the ghetto for nicer areas of the city. At the end of the 19th century, municipal authorities decided to clear the ghetto, which had become a slum.
The ghetto, renamed Josefov in Joseph II’s honour, remained the spiritual heart of Prague’s Jewish community. That came to a brutal end with the Nazi occupation during WWII. Today Prague is home to roughly 5000 Jews, a fraction of the community’s former size.
Revival of the Czech Nation
Remarkably, though German was the official language, Czech language and culture managed to endure through the years of Austrian occupation. As the Habsburgs eased their grip in the 19th century, Prague – and to a lesser extent the Moravian capital, Brno – became centres of the Czech National Revival. The revival found its initial expression not in politics – outright political activity was forbidden – but in Czech-language literature and drama. Important figures included linguists Josef Jungmann and Josef Dobrovský, and František Palacký, author of Dějiny národu českého (The History of the Czech Nation).
While many of the countries in post-Napoleonic Europe were swept up by similar nationalist sentiments, social and economic factors gave the Czech revival particular strength. Educational reforms by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa (r 1740‒80) had given even the poorest Czechs access to schooling, and a vocal middle class was emerging through the Industrial Revolution.
WWI & Czech Independence
For Czechs, the tragedy of WWI had one silver lining: the defeat of the Central powers, principally Germany and Austria-Hungary, left the Habsburg empire too weak to fight for its former holdings, paving the way for the creation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918. Czech patriots Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš had spent part of the war years in the US, where they lobbied ceaselessly with Czech and Slovak émigré communities to win American backing for a joint state, Czechoslovakia, that would link ethnic Czechs (Bohemians and Moravians) with their linguistic cousins, Slovaks, further to the east.
This plea appealed especially to the idealistic American president, Woodrow Wilson, and his belief in the self-determination of peoples. The most workable solution appeared to be a single federal state of two equal republics, and this was spelled out in agreements signed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1915 and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1918 (both cities having large populations of Czechs and Slovaks).
As WWI drew to a close, the newly created Czechoslovakia declared its independence, with Allied support, on 28 October 1918. Prague became the capital and the popular Masaryk, a writer and political philosopher, the new republic’s first president.
A Taste of Freedom, then Nazi Domination
Czechoslovakia, in the two decades between independence and the 1938 Munich agreement (that paved the way for the Nazi German invasion), was a remarkably successful state. Even now, both Czechs and Slovaks consider the ‘First Republic’ another golden age of immense cultural and economic achievement.
Czechoslovakia’s proximity to Nazi Germany, and its sizeable German minority in the border area known as the Sudetenland, made the country a tempting target for German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Hitler correctly judged that neither Britain nor France had an appetite for war, and at a conference in Munich in 1938, Hitler demanded that Germany be allowed to annex the Sudetenland. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain acquiesced, famously calling Germany’s designs on Czechoslovakia a ‘quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing’. To this day, the words 'Munich' and 'appeasement' are intertwined in the minds of many Czechs.
On 15 March 1939 Germany occupied all of Bohemia and Moravia, declaring the region a ‘protectorate’, while Slovakia was permitted ‘independence’ as long as it remained a Nazi puppet state. During the war, Prague was spared significant physical damage, though the Germans destroyed the Czech resistance. Around two-thirds of Bohemia and Moravia’s Jewish population of 120,000 perished in the war.
On 5 May 1945, with the war drawing to a close, the citizens of Prague staged an uprising against the Germans. The Red Army was advancing from the east and US troops had made it as far as Plzeň to the west, but were holding back from liberating the city in deference to their Soviet allies. Many people died in the uprising before the Germans pulled out on 8 May, having been granted free passage out in return for an agreement not to destroy more buildings.
In 1945 Czechoslovakia was reconstituted as an independent state. One of its first acts was the expulsion of the remaining Sudeten Germans from the borderlands. By 1947, some 2½ million ethnic Germans had been stripped of their Czechoslovak citizenship and forcibly expelled to Germany and Austria.
From Hitler's Arms into Stalin's
Czechoslovak euphoria at the end of the war did not last long. The communists seized power just three years later, in 1948. While these days the takeover is usually viewed as a naked power grab by Stalin’s henchmen, the reality is more complicated. For many Czechs, WWII had tarnished the image of the Western democracies, and Stalin’s Soviet Union commanded deep respect.
By the 1950s, however, this initial enthusiasm faded as communist economic policies bankrupted the country and a wave of repression sent thousands to labour camps. In a series of Stalin-style purges staged by the KSČ (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) in the early 1950s, many people, including top members of the party itself, were executed.
In the 1960s, Czechoslovakia enjoyed something of a renaissance, and under the leadership of reform communist Alexander Dubček, became a beacon for idealists wanting to chart a ‘third way’ between communism and capitalism. The reform movement was dubbed ‘Socialism with a Human Face’ and mixed elements of democracy with continued state control over the economy. This easing of hardline communism became known around the world as the ‘Prague Spring’.
In the end, though, it was the movement’s success that eventually undid it. Soviet leaders were alarmed by the prospect of a partially democratic society within the Eastern bloc and any potential spillover it might have in Poland and Hungary. The Prague Spring was eventually crushed by a Soviet-led invasion of Eastern bloc states on the night of 20 and 21 August 1968. While the entire country was invaded, much of the actual fighting took place in Prague, near the top of central Wenceslas Square.
In 1969 Dubček was replaced by hardliner Gustáv Husák and exiled to the Slovak forestry department. Thousands of people were expelled from the party and lost their jobs. Many left the country, while others were relegated to being manual labourers and street cleaners. The two decades of stagnation until 1989 are known today as the period of 'normalisation'.
Velvet Revolution & Divorce
The year 1989 was a momentous one throughout Eastern Europe as communist governments fell like dominoes in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Romania. But the revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia was perhaps the greatest of them all. It remains the gold standard around the world for peaceful anti-government protest.
Ironically, the Velvet Revolution actually had its start in a paroxysm of violence on the night of 17 November, when Czech riot police began attacking a group of peaceful student demonstrators in Prague. The protesters had organised an officially sanctioned demonstration in memory of students executed by the Nazis in 1939, but the marchers had always intended to make this demonstration a protest against the communist regime. What they didn’t count on was the fierce resistance of the police, who confronted the crowd of about 50,000 on the city’s Národní třída and beat and arrested hundreds of protesters.
Czechs were electrified by this wanton police violence, and the following days saw nonstop demonstrations by students, artists, and finally most of the population, peaking at a rally on Prague’s Letná Hill that drew some 750,000 people. Leading dissidents, with playwright and activist Václav Havel at the forefront, formed an anticommunist coalition, which negotiated the government’s resignation on 3 December. A ‘government of national understanding’ was formed with the communists as a minority group. Havel was elected president by the Federal Assembly on 29 December.
Almost immediately after the revolution, problems arose between Czechs and Slovaks. The Slovaks had long harboured grievances against the dominant Czechs, and many Slovaks dreamed of having their own state. On 1 January 1993, amid much hand-wringing on both sides, especially from Havel, the Czechs and Slovaks peacefully divided into independent states.
Feature: The Late Playwright-President Václav Havel
As Europeans lament the dearth of great men and women in modern times, one man whom everyone can look up to is the late Czech president and former dissident, Václav Havel. Havel, who died in 2011 at the age of 75, was the unshakeable moral authority behind the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the country’s first post-communist president. He was also famously a playwright and communist-era essayist, whose underground letters simultaneously excoriated his collaborationist countrymen and held up a moral alternative to official communist pabulum based on universal concepts of dignity and human rights.
Havel was born into a wealthy family on 5 October 1936. Had WWII and the subsequent communist coup not intervened, he might very well have lived out a successful life, minding his family’s various businesses, but that trajectory changed forever with the communist takeover in 1948. His family was stripped of its property and the young Havel was denied access to higher education.
Havel's enthusiasm for the liberal reforms of the ‘Prague Spring’ of the 1960s and his avowed opposition to communist rule in the 1970s made him an enemy of the government. His plays – typically focusing on the absurdities and dehumanisation of totalitarian bureaucracy – were banned and his passport seized.
The massive demonstrations of November 1989 thrust Havel into the limelight as a leading organiser of the noncommunist Civic Forum movement, which ultimately negotiated a peaceful transfer of power. Havel was swept into office as president shortly after, propelled by a wave of thousands of cheering demonstrators, holding up signs saying: ‘Havel na hrad!’ (Havel to the castle!).
In 2003, after two terms in office as president, Havel was replaced by former prime minister Václav Klaus. After leaving office, Havel finished two sets of memoirs and even returned to the stage as the author of the highly acclaimed play Odcházení (Leaving). He died on 18 December 2011 at the age of 75 after battling cancer for many years.
The Czech Republic Rejoins 'Europe'
It would be impossible to summarise in a few paragraphs the changes that have taken place in the nearly three decades since the Velvet Revolution. But the big-picture view is largely positive. The Czech Republic achieved its two major long-term foreign-policy goals, joining NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
Develops in politics and economics have not been without hiccup, but the Czech Republic has established itself as arguably the leading country in Central and Eastern Europe. Free elections have come and gone without incident. And while the economy took a big hit during the 2008 to 2011 worldwide downturn, seen from a longer perspective, growth has been steady since the fall of communism.
In 1998 the Czech Republic achieved a feat that many would count among the country’s finest-ever moments. The national ice hockey team that year defeated the Russians at the Nagano Winter Olympics, 1-0, sending the nation into rapture. On a sadder note, in 2011, Czechs bid their final farewell to Václav Havel, after the former playwright-president succumbed to a long battle with cancer at the age of 75.