In the Beginning
The word "Bohemia," now used to describe the westernmost province of the country, comes from an ancient Celtic tribe, the Boii, who once lived on the territory of the modern-day Czech Republic. The Boii settled here some 300 years before Christ in the land around the Vltava River. The Latin term Bohemia (land of the Boii) became etched in history.
Those early years were marked by strife between local Celtic tribes and Germanic tribes, like the Marcomanni, who managed to expel the Boii around 100 B.C., only to be chucked out in turn by the Huns by A.D. 450. The Huns were then expelled by a Turkic tribe, the Avars, a century later.
Shortly after this began the great Slavic migration of peoples westward from parts of Asia across the Carpathian Mountains into Europe. The westernmost of these Slavic tribes tried to set up a kingdom in Bohemia. The farming Slavs often fell prey to the nomadic Avars, but in 624 a Franconian merchant named Samo united the Slavs and began expelling the Avars from central Europe.
The Great Moravian Empire
Throughout the 9th century, the Slavs around the Morava River consolidated their power. Mojmír I declared his Great Moravian Empire -- a kingdom that eventually encompassed Bohemia, Slovakia, and parts of modern-day Poland and Hungary -- as a Christian organization still outside the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 863, the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius arrived in Moravia to preach the Eastern Christian rite to a people who didn't understand them. They created a new language mixing Slavic with a separate script, Cyrillic. When Methodius died in 885, the Moravian rulers reestablished the Latin liturgy, though followers of Cyril and Methodius continued to preach their faith in missions to the east. Ultimately the Slavonic rite took hold in Kiev and Russia, where the Cyrillic alphabet is still used, while western Slavs kept the Latin script and followed Rome.
The Great Moravian Empire lasted about a century -- until the Magyar invasion of 896 -- and not until the 20th century would the Czechs and Slovaks unite again under a single government. After the invasion, the Slavs living east of the Morava River swore allegiance to the Magyars, while the Czechs, who lived west of the river, fell under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire.
Bohemia Looks to the West
Borivoj, the first king of the now-separate Bohemia and Moravia, built Prague's first royal palace at the end of the 9th century on the site of the present Prague Castle on Hradcany Hill. In 973, a bishopric was established in Prague, answering to the archbishopric of Mainz. Thus, before the end of the first millennium, the German influence in Bohemia was firmly established.
The kings who followed Borivoj in the Premyslid dynasty ruled over Bohemia for more than 300 years, during which time Prague became a major commercial area along central Europe's trade routes. In the 12th century, two fortified castles were built at Vysehrad and Hradcany, and a wooden plank bridge stood near where the stone Charles Bridge spans the Vltava today. Václavské námestí (Wenceslas Sq.) was a horse market, and the city's 3,500 residents rarely lived to the age of 45. In 1234, Staré Mesto (Old Town), the first of Prague's historic five towns, was founded.
Encouraged by Bohemia's rulers, who guaranteed German civic rights to western settlers, Germans founded entire towns around Prague, including Malá Strana (Lesser Town) in 1257. The Premyslid dynasty of the Czechs ended with the 1306 death of teenage Václav III, who had no heirs. After much debate, the throne was offered to John of Luxembourg, husband of Václav III's younger sister, a foreigner who knew little of Bohemia. It was John's firstborn son who left the most lasting marks on Prague.
Prague's First Golden Age
Charles IV (Karel IV) took the throne when his father died fighting in France in 1346. Educated among French royalty and fluent in four languages (but not initially Czech), Charles almost single-handedly ushered in Prague's first golden age (the second occurred in the late 16th c.). Even before his reign, Charles wanted to make Prague a glorious city. In 1344, he won an archbishopric for Prague independent of Mainz. When he became king of Bohemia, Charles also became, by election, Holy Roman Emperor.
During the next 30 years, Charles transformed Prague into the bustling capital of the Holy Roman Empire and one of Europe's most important cities, with some of the most glorious architecture of the day. He commissioned St. Vitus Cathedral's construction at Prague Castle as well as the bridge that would eventually bear his name. He was most proud of founding Prague University in 1348, the first higher-education institution in central Europe, now known as Charles University. In 1378, Charles died of natural causes at age 62.
Protestant Reformation & the Hussite Wars
While Charles IV was the most heralded of the Bohemian kings, the short reign of his son Václav IV was marked by social upheaval, a devastating plague, and the advent of turbulent religious dissent.
Reformist priest Jan Hus drew large crowds to Bethlehem Chapel, where he preached against what he considered the corrupt tendencies of Prague's bishopric. Hus became widely popular among Czech nationals who rallied behind his crusade against the German-dominated establishment. Excommunicated in 1412 and charged with heresy 2 years later, Hus was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, in Konstanz (Constance), Germany, an event that sparked widespread riots and ultimately civil war. Czechs still commemorate the day as a national holiday.
The hostilities began simply enough. Rioting Hussites (followers of Jan Hus) threw several Roman Catholic councilors to their deaths from the windows of Prague's New Town Hall (Novomestská radnice) in 1419, a deed known as the "First Defenestration." It didn't take long for the pope to declare a crusade against the Czech heretics. The conflict widened and by 1420 several major battles were being fought between the peasant Hussites and the Catholic crusaders, who were supported by the nobility. A schism split the Hussites when a more moderate faction, known as the Utraquists, signed a 1433 peace agreement with Rome at the Council of Basel. Still, the more radical Taborites continued to fight, until they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Lipany a year later.
Rudolf II & the Second Golden Age
Following this period of hostility, the nobility of Bohemia concentrated its power, forming fiefdoms called the Estates. In 1526, the nobles elected Archduke Ferdinand king of Bohemia, marking the beginning of Roman Catholic rule by the Vienna-based Habsburg family, which continued until the end of World War I.
Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II ascended to the throne in 1576 but uncharacteristically for a Habsburg chose to live in Prague rather than Vienna. This led to what became Prague's second golden age. Rudolf invited the great astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe to Prague and endowed the city's museums with some of Europe's finest art. The Rudolfinum, which was recently restored and houses the Czech Philharmonic, pays tribute to Rudolf's opulence.
Rudolf was relatively tolerant to the city's Jews, even hiring for a time the head of the Jewish community, Mordechai Maisel, to manage his financial affairs. Many of the splendors of Prague Jewish quarter, Josefov, were built during this time.
Rudolf brought many benefits to Prague but ultimately failed to resolve the ever-present split between Catholics and Protestants, setting the stage for the coming Thirty Years' War in Europe, a conflagration that eventually torched the entire continent and had no peer in terms of destruction until the world wars of the 20th century.
Prague has the dubious distinction as being the place where the war started. Conflicts between the Catholic Habsburgs and Bohemia's ever-present Protestant nobility came to a head on May 23, 1618, when two Catholic governors were thrown out of the windows of Prague Castle, in the Second Defenestration. The war eventually lasted until 1648, with the defeat of the Swedish army on the Charles Bridge (you can still see war damage on the side of the Old Town Bridge Tower). The war came to an end with the Peace of Westphalia.
The Battle of White Mountain & the Austrian Occupation
The Thirty Years' War was a tragic setback for the Czechs and the Czech nation. One of the early decisive battles, presaging the Habsburg Catholics' sweeping victory in the Czech lands, was fought in 1620 on a hill in western Prague known as "Bílá Hora" (White Mountain).
The Czechs were ruled by their Protestant king, Frederick V of Palatinate. But Frederick was a lackluster commander-in-chief and the Habsburgs won decisively in a battle that lasted just 2 hours. The immediate repercussions were severe. The Austrians arrested some 47 Bohemian noblemen and publicly executed 27. Today, you'll find 27 crosses on the ground of Old Town Square to commemorate the executions. Following the battle, Frederick was run out of town to be forever known mockingly as the "Winter King," since he lasted just one winter on the throne. The Habsburgs went on to rule over the Czech lands for the next 300 years.
Vienna's triumph was Prague's loss, and the empire's focus shifted back to Vienna. Fresh waves of immigrants turned Prague and other towns into Germanic cities. By the end of the 18th century, Prague was dominated by Germans and the Czech language was on the verge of dying out.
Into the 20th Century & the Founding of Czechoslovakia
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution drew Czechs from the countryside into Prague, where a Czech national revival began.
As the economy grew, Prague's Czech population increased in number and power, eventually overtaking the Germans by around midcentury. In 1868, the Czech people threw open the doors to the gilded symbol of their revival, the neo-Renaissance National Theater (Národní divadlo), with the bold proclamation N&AACUTE;ROD SOBE ("The Nation for Itself") inscribed over the proscenium. Then, in 1890, at the top of Wenceslas Square, the massive National Museum Building (Národní muzeum) opened, packed with exhibits celebrating the rich history and culture of the Czech people.
As Czech political parties continued to call for more autonomy from Vienna, Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off World War I. Meanwhile, a 65-year-old philosophy professor named Tomás G. Masaryk seized the opportunity to tour Europe and America, speaking in favor of creating a combined democratic Czech and Slovak state.
As the German and Austrian armies wore down in 1918, the concept of "Czechoslovakia" gained international support. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson backed Masaryk on October 18, 1918, in Washington, D.C., as the professor proclaimed the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic in the Washington Declaration. On October 28, 1918, the sovereign Republic of Czechoslovakia was founded in Prague. Masaryk returned home in December after being elected (in absentia) Czechoslovakia's first president.
The First Republic: 1918-38
The 1920s ushered in an exceptional but brief period of freedom and prosperity in Prague. Czechoslovakia, its industrial strength intact after the war, was one of the 10 strongest economies in the world. Prague's capitalists lived the Jazz Age on a par with New York's industrial barons. Palatial Art Nouveau villas graced the fashionable Bubenec and Hanspaulka districts, where smart parties were held nonstop.
The Great Depression gradually spread to Prague, however, drawing sharper lines between the classes and nationalities. As ethnic Germans in Czech border regions found a champion in the new German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in 1933, their calls to unify under the Third Reich grew louder.
In 1938, Britain's Neville Chamberlain and France's Edouard Daladier, seeking to avoid conflict with the increasingly belligerent Germans, met Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini in Munich. With the signing of the "Munich Accord" they agreed to cede the Bohemian border areas (which Germans called the "Sudetenland") to Hitler on September 30 and marked one of the darkest days in Czech history. Chamberlain returned to London to tell a cheering crowd that he'd achieved "peace in our time." But within a year, Hitler had absorbed the rest of the Czech lands and installed a puppet government in Slovakia. Soon Europe was again at war.
World War II
During the next 6 years, more than 130,000 Czechs were killed, including more than 80,000 Jews. Though Hitler ordered devastation for other cities, he sought to preserve Prague and its Jewish ghetto as part of his planned museum of the extinct race.
The Nazi concentration camp at Terezín, about 48km (30 miles) northwest of Prague, became a way station for many Czech Jews bound for death camps at Auschwitz and points east. Thousands died of starvation and disease at Terezín even though the Nazis managed to dress it up as a "show" camp for Red Cross investigators.
Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak government in exile, led by Masaryk's successor, Edvard Benes, tried to organize resistance from friendly territory in London. One initiative came in May 1942, when Czechoslovak paratroopers were flown in to assassinate Hitler's lead man in Prague, Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. The paratroopers managed to set a charge to blow up Heydrich's motorcade as it passed along a road north of Prague. Heydrich survived the initial blast, but died in the hospital days later. Hitler retaliated by ordering the total liquidation of a nearby Czech village, Lidice, where 192 men were shot dead and more than 300 women and children were sent to concentration camps. Every building in the town was bulldozed to the ground. The paratroopers, Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, and some of their civilian helpers, were hunted down by Nazi police and trapped in the Cyril and Methodius church on Resslova Street in Nové Mesto near the Vltava. They reportedly shot themselves to avoid being captured. The debate still rages on whether the assassination brought anything but more terror to occupied Bohemia.
The Advent of Communism
The final act of World War II in Europe played out where the Nazis started it, in Bohemia. As U.S. troops liberated the western part of the country, Gen. George Patton was told to hold his troops at Plzen and wait for the Soviet army to sweep through Prague because of the Allied Powers' agreement made at Yalta months before. Soviet soldiers and Czech civilians liberated Prague in a bloody street battle on the last days of the war. Throughout Prague you can see small wall memorials on the spots where Czechs fell battling the Germans.
On his return from exile in England, Edvard Benes ordered the expulsion of 2.5 million Germans from Czechoslovakia and the confiscation of all their property. Many thousands of Germans were killed in reprisal attacks. The "Benes Decrees" are still an occasional bone of contention between the Czech and German governments. Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak government, exhausted and bewildered by fascism, nationalized 60% of the country's industries, and many looked to Soviet-style Communism as a new model. Elections were held in 1946, and Communist leader Klement Gottwald became prime minister after his party won about one-third of the vote.
Through a series of cabinet maneuvers, Communists seized full control of the government in a bloodless coup in February 1948, and Benes was ousted. Little dissent was tolerated, and a series of show trials began, purging hundreds of perceived threats to Stalinist Communist authority. Another wave of political refugees fled the country. The sterile, centrally planned Communist architecture began seeping into classical Prague.
1968 & The Prague Spring
In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek, a career Slovak Communist, became first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Long before Mikhail Gorbachev, Dubcek tinkered with Communist reforms that he called "socialism with a human face." His program of political, economic, and social reform (while seeking to maintain one-party rule) blossomed into a brief intellectual and artistic renaissance known as the "Prague Spring."
Increasingly nervous about what seemed to them a loss of party control, Communist hard-liners in Prague and other eastern European capitals conspired with the Soviet Union to remove Dubcek and his government from power. On August 21, 1968, Prague awoke to the rumble of tanks and 200,000 invading Warsaw Pact soldiers claiming "fraternal assistance." Believing that they'd be welcomed as liberators, these soldiers from the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Hungary were bewildered when angry Czechs confronted them with rocks and flaming torches. The Communist grip tightened, however, and Prague fell deeper into the Soviet sphere of influence. Another wave of refugees fled. The following January, a university student named Jan Palach, in a lonely protest to Soviet occupation, doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire in Wenceslas Square. He died days later, becoming a martyr for the dissident movement. But the Soviet soldiers stayed for more than 2 decades during the gray period the Communists called "normalization."
Václav Havel & the 1970s -- In 1976, during the worst of "normalization," the Communists arrested a popular underground rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe on charges of disturbing the peace. This motivated some of Prague's most prominent artists, writers, and intellectuals, led by playwright Václav Havel, to establish Charter 77, a human-rights advocacy group formed to pressure the government -- then Europe's most repressive -- into observing the human rights principles of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. In the years that followed, Havel, the group's perceived leader, was constantly monitored by the secret police, the StB. He was put under house arrest and jailed several times for "threatening public order."
The Velvet Revolution & Beyond
Just after the Berlin Wall fell, and with major change imminent in the rest of central and eastern Europe, thousands of students set out on a chilly candlelit march on November 17, 1989. As part of their nonviolent campaign, they held signs calling for a dialogue with the government. Against police warnings, they paraded from the southern citadel at Vysehrad and turned up National Boulevard (Národní trída), where they soon met columns of helmeted riot police. Holding their fingers in peace signs and chanting, "Our hands are free," the bravest 500 sat down at the feet of the police. After an excruciating standoff, the police moved in, squeezing the students against buildings and beating them with clubs.
Although nobody was killed and the official Communist-run media presented the story as the quiet, justified end to the whims of student radicals, clandestine videotapes and accounts of the incident blanketed the country. By the next day, Praguers began organizing their outrage. Havel and his artistic allies seized the moment and called a meeting of intellectuals at the Laterna Magika on Národní, where they planned more nonviolent protests. Students and theaters went on strike, and hundreds of thousands of Praguers began pouring into Wenceslas Square, chanting for the end of Communist rule. Within days, factory workers and citizens in towns throughout the country joined in a general strike. On Wenceslas Square, the protesters jingled their keys, a signal to the Politburo that it was time to go. By the end of the year, the Communist government fell and on New Year's Eve, Havel, joined by Dubcek, gave his first speech as president of a free Czechoslovakia. Because hardly any blood was spilled, the coup was dubbed "the Velvet Revolution."
The 1990s brought both democracy and free-market capitalism to the country, with the early phases marked by wild corruption sprees, when the whole of eastern Europe was known as "the Wild East." Czechoslovakia as a country was unable to resist the pressures of freedom as Slovaks stepped up their demands for an independent state. Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the independent Czech and Slovak republics on January 1, 1993.
Prosperity eventually returned to the country by the end of the end of the 1990s and the Czechs realized a long-held foreign policy goal in 2004 of joining the European Union. One major setback came in 2002, with the tragic flooding of the Vltava that inundated large parts of Malá Strana and other riverside districts, but luckily spared much of the Old Town. The damage ran into the billions of euros, but the city managed to turn the tragedy into a boon, using the reconstruction effort to rebuild large sections of the city, like Smíchov, Holesovice, and Karlín, that had been neglected for decades. Much transformation work still needs to be done and corruption remains a chronic problem, but the general consensus is that the Czechs have somehow clawed their way back into the Western family of nations and this time may be there to stay.
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