Over the centuries Prague’s fortunes have risen and fallen in step with the surrounding Bohemian kingdom and, more tellingly, the actions of Bohemia’s neighbours. In the 14th century, and again briefly in the 16th century, the city was the head of a continental empire. Later, in the shadow of the Habsburg capital, Vienna, Prague was relegated to something of a backwater. These days, the city is back in a big way as one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations.
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. Archaeologists have turned up evidence of several important Celtic tribes in and around the city of Prague.
The Myth of Libuše
Fittingly for a city that embraces so much mystery, the origins of Prague are shrouded in a fairy tale. Princess Libuše, the daughter of early ruler Krok, is said to have stood on a hill near Vyšehrad Citadel one day in the 7th or 8th century and predicted a glorious city would one day arise around her. According to 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.
Charles IV & the Holy Roman Empire
It’s hard to imagine Prague will ever exceed the position of power it held in the 14th century, when the city 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 into 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.
The Hussite Wars & Religious Conflict
In contrast to the prosperous 14th century, the 15th century brought little but hardship and war to the city. 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 city and 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 the 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 & Rudolf II
The destruction wrought by the religious wars left Prague open to foreign intervention. Austria’s Habsburg empire, ruled from Vienna, was able to take advantage and eventually came to dominate. 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, their leadership established some 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.
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 a Europe-wide war known as the Thirty Years’ War – a precursor to the 20th century's WWI and WWII – that ultimately left the city (and the continent) in ruins.
The Rise of Prague's Jews
The 16th century, and particularly the reign of Rudolf II, were relatively benevolent years for Prague's Jewish residents. Jews had first moved into a walled ghetto north of Old Town Square in about the 13th century, but Rudolf encouraged a flowering of Jewish intellectual life. 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 city's 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, markedly fewer than the population of around 92,000 before the outbreak of the war.
The Czech National Revival
Under the Habsburgs, German was the official language in Prague, though remarkably Czech managed to endure. As the Austrians eased their grip in the 19th century, Prague became the centre of a 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 countries in post-Napoleonic Europe were swept up by similar nationalist sentiments, social and economic factors gave the Czech revival particular strength. Educational reforms passed by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa (r 1740‒80) had given even the poorest Czechs access to schooling, and a vocal Czech-speaking middle class was emerging through the Industrial Revolution.
WWI & 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. This paved 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 United States lobbying ceaselessly to win American backing for a joint state, Czechoslovakia, that would link ethnic Czechs with their linguistic cousins, Slovaks, 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.
The Nazi Occupation
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.
After the war, 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 2.5 million ethnic Germans had been stripped of their Czechoslovak citizenship and forcibly expelled to Germany and Austria.
The Communist Freeze
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 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. The Prague Spring was eventually crushed by a Soviet-led invasion of Eastern bloc states on the night of 20 and 21 August 1968. Much of the fighting took place in Prague, near the top of central Wenceslas Square.
In 1969, Dubček was replaced by hardliner Gustáv Husák. 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'.
The Velvet Revolution
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.
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 Václav Havel at the forefront, formed an anticommunist coalition. Havel was elected president by the Federal Assembly on 29 December.
Prague Rejoins 'Europe'
It would be impossible to summarise in a few paragraphs the changes that have taken place since the Velvet Revolution. 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. Though the city (and country) remain divided politically, elections have come and gone without incident and the economy continues to expand.
At the start of 1993, Prague received a bit of a comedown with the peaceful split that year between the Czech and Slovak republics. The two main regions of the former Czechoslovakia agreed to separate that year into two independent countries. From one day to the next, Prague became the capital of a much smaller, but perhaps more cohesive, country.
In 2011 Prague paid its last respects to aruably its best-known citizen, with the passing of former playwright-president Václav Havel in December that year at the age of 75.
On the positive side of the ledger, word of Prague's charms has spread far and wide, and the city is now one of Europe's biggest tourist draws. The city receives around six million visitors annually, making it the 6th or 7th (depending on the survey) most popular city in Europe. The influx of visitors gives the city the added dimension of energy and vitality, and on sunny summer days, Prague can feel like one big street carnival.