By Tim Lambert
THE FIRST CZECHS
From about 400 BC what is now the Czech Republic was inhabited by a Celtic race. The Romans called them the Boii and they gave their name to Bohemia. Then about 100 AD a Germanic people called the Marcomanni conquered the area. The Romans traded with the Marcomanni and sometimes fought with them but they never conquered this part of the world.
In the sixth century, Slavic people entered what is now the Czech Republic. According to legend, a man called Cech led them. However, for centuries, they were only a collection of tribes not a single, united people.
However, in the 9th century, a people called the Moravians from the frontier of the Czech Republic and Slovakia created an empire in Central Europe. It was called the Great Moravian Empire and it included what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and parts of Germany and Poland.
German missionaries began to convert the people of the empire to Christianity. Then the ruler Ratislav (846-870) asked the Byzantine emperor to send missionaries. He sent St Methodius and St Cyril.
Wenceslas inherited the throne of Bohemia (Czech Republic) in 921 when he was 14. When he came of age he tried to convert his people to Christianity. However, people led by his brother Boleslav opposed him. In 929 Wenceslas was murdered. Afterward, he was canonized (declared a saint). But the march of Christianity could not be stopped and soon all of Bohemia was converted.
The Moravian Empire reached a peak under Svatopluk (871-894). However, in 896 a fierce people from the east called Magyars invaded. They conquered Slovakia but the Czechs remained independent.
THE CZECHS IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Furthermore, the different tribes in what is now the Czech Republic gradually became united under the Premyslid dynasty. However, the Germans overshadowed them.
In 950 Bohemia became part of the Holy Roman Empire. What was this empire? The Christian writer Augustine claimed that God created the Roman Empire for the good of mankind. He said there should be one empire led by an emperor just as there was one church led by the pope. In the early 9th century a man named Charlemagne conquered most of western and central Europe. He claimed he was the successor of the old Roman emperors (even though his empire did not include Rome).
After his death, his empire split into three parts. The eastern part eventually became Germany. However, the ruler of the eastern past kept the title emperor. In time his realm became known as the Holy Roman Empire. However, it soon became a patchwork quilt of states and the emperor had little power. The Czechs resisted any interference by the emperors in their domestic affairs.
In the 13th century, Bohemia (Czech Republic) prospered. Silver and gold were discovered and mining became an important industry. German settlers, craftsmen, farmers, and miners were encouraged to come and live in Bohemia. Towns and trade flourished.
The Premyslid dynasty ended in 1306 when Vaclav III was assassinated. Eventually, the Czech nobles offered the throne to John of Luxembourg, the husband of Vaclav’s sister. The 14th century was a golden age for the Czechs. John, who ruled until 1346 spent most of his time abroad but his son Charles or Karel IV was a great ruler. Under him, Bohemia became rich and powerful. In 1355 he was elected Holy Roman Emperor. In 1356 he issued a golden bull which confirmed that the Holy Roman Empire was a commonwealth of sovereign states, not a single empire.
Charles introduced more efficient farming methods from France. This together with its gold and silver mines made Bohemia prosperous. Charles built many new public buildings and under him, the arts flourished. Furthermore, in 1348 Charles founded a university in Prague – the first in central Europe.
By the late 14th century the church was very rich and powerful. It had also fallen into disrepute. The church had split and there were two popes, both claiming to be the ‘true’ pope. Some people began to demand reform. In England, John Wycliffe criticized some of the church’s practices and beliefs. His teaching spread to Prague University.
Leading the reformers was Jan Hus. At first, the king was willing to support the Hussites for political reasons. However, Prague University was founded not just for Czech students from all over the Holy Roman Empire. They were divided into four groups called nations, Saxons, Bavarians, Poles, and Czechs. Each had equal voting rights. However, in 1409, Vaclav IV changed the system. He decreed that in the future the Czech nation would have 3 votes and the other nations would have one each. In protest, German students and lecturers left.
Yet Vaclav IV changed sides in 1412 when he was offered a percentage of the money from sales of papal indulgences. (An indulgence was a document. If you bought one your sins were forgiven). The Hussites disapproved of this practice and they split with the king.
In 1412 Hus and his supporters were expelled from Prague University and excommunicated. They then became wandering preachers.
Eventually, Hus was called to the Council of Constance to answer charges of heresy. The Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund promised him safe conduct. Nevertheless, Hus was burned to death in July 1415. The Czechs were appalled and afterward many of the practices of the Czech church were reformed. Certain priests were removed from their parishes. However, in 1419 King Vaclav agreed to their reinstatement. This provoked rebellion. Hus’s supporters threw their enemies out of the windows of a building.
The Pope preached a ‘crusade’ against the ‘heretics’. However, the Czechs defeated them in battle. Under their leader Jan Zizka they went out to meet the ‘crusaders’. The Hussites surrounded themselves with heavy wooden wagons for protection. Women fought alongside men and they used farm tools adapted as weapons. Using these unorthodox methods they crushed the ‘crusaders’ at the battle of Vitkov.
Meanwhile, the Hussites had split into two groups. The more radical wing founded a new town called Tabor. They became known as Taborites. The Taborites did not only criticize the church they attacked excessive wealth and privilege. Not surprisingly they were very unpopular with the upper class. The more moderate wing of the Hussites wanted only religious, not social changes. They were called Utraquists. At first, the Taborites and the Utraquists were forced to unite to fight the Catholics. The Bohemian Diet (parliament) devised the Four Articles of Prague, which was meant to be a compromise. However, the unity did not last long.
In 1431 the Catholic ‘crusaders’ were crushed in a battle near Domazlice. Afterward, the Catholic church realized it had to resort to diplomacy. In 1433 they made peace with the Utraquists. The Taborites refused to stop fighting and as a result, the Utraquists turned against them. (Wealthy Czechs feared the Taborites because they were opposed to the existing social order). Together Utraquists and Catholics crushed the Taborites at the Battle of Lipany in 1434. Afterward, the church in Bohemia (Czech Republic) remained a moderate Hussite one.
In the 15th century Bohemia, like the rest of central Europe, was faced with a growing threat from Turkey. Meanwhile, Bohemia had a succession of weak rulers and the Czech nobility grew more powerful at the expense of the king and the towns.
THE CZECHS UNDER HABSBURG RULE
However, in 1526 a Hapsburg became Ferdinand I. (The Habsburgs were a powerful family who ruled several European states). The Habsburgs restored strong central rule.
However, Ferdinand was a Catholic. At first, he was forced to accept the Hussite Church in Bohemia but in 1546-47 he joined in a war against Protestants in Germany. Many Czechs rebelled but the rebellion failed. Afterward, many prominent Czech Protestants were executed. Furthermore, Ferdinand invited the Jesuits to Bohemia to try and convert his people to Catholicism.
However, he had to tread carefully to avoid alienating his Czech subjects. His son Rudolf II was even more tolerant and privately said he was neither Catholic nor Protestant but Christian. He was also a patron of the arts and learning and under him, Czech culture flourished.
However, he abdicated in 1611 in favor of his brother Matthias. In 1617 Matthias named his staunchly Catholic cousin Ferdinand as his heir. The result was a rebellion by Protestant nobles. Other countries, both Catholic and Protestant took sides and as a result, Europe was plunged into a terrible war – The Thirty Years War. It began in 1618 when rebels threw Catholic nobles out of a window in Prague – the so-called defenestration of Prague.
However, the Czech Protestants were crushed at the battle of Bila Hora (White Mountain) in 1620. Afterward, a number of Protestant nobles were executed and their property was confiscated. In 1627 a new constitution was imposed. The powers of the Czech Diet (parliament) were curtailed and Roman Catholicism became the only recognized religion.
Meanwhile, the Czechs suffered terribly during the war. In 1632 the Protestant Saxons took Bohemia but the Catholic forces soon recaptured it. Then for 13 years from 1635 to 1648 the two sides, Protestant and Catholic fought over Bohemia.
When the war finally ended in 1648 Bohemia was devastated and her population was greatly reduced. Afterward, Bohemia was a predominantly Catholic state. After the war Protestant landowners had their estates confiscated. (Much of this confiscated land was given to Catholic Germans). The Hapsburg rulers had much power and the Diet had little. The Czechs became part of an empire including Austria and Hungary. Czech culture suffered.
However Czech fortunes revived in the mid-18th century. From 1740 Maria-Theresa was the empress of Austro-Hungary. She was more sympathetic to the Czechs than previous rulers. However, Bohemia was involved in the War of the Austrian Succession from 1740 to 1748. French soldiers occupied Prague in 1741-1742 and the Prussians in 1744. Furthermore, in 1757 the Prussians defeated the Austrians in a battle at Prague during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). In 1773 the empress banned the Jesuits but in 1781 her successor introduced religious toleration.
THE CZECHS IN THE 19TH CENTURY
In the early 19th century Czech industry grew rapidly. The textile industry boomed. The sugar industry and an iron industry also prospered. Meanwhile, interest in Czech culture and history grew. Among the leading minds of the 19th century were Josef Dobrovsky (1753-1829) a linguist and Frantisek Palacky a historian. Furthermore, during the 19th century, the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote operas, concertos, and symphonies.
Nationalism and the ideas of the French Revolution grew more and more important during the 19th century and in 1848 they exploded in revolution. It was ignited by a revolution in France in February, which was followed by revolutions in other parts of Europe. Alarmed by the unrest sweeping Europe the Austrian emperor at first backed down. He promised his people constitutional changes. In June a Slav Congress was held in Prague. At that time Czech radicals erected barricades in the streets of Prague. The army withdrew but used artillery to bombard Prague. The city surrendered. Soon revolutions in the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed.
However, in 1859, Austria was defeated in a war with France. In 1866 the Austrians suffered another defeat in a war with Prussia. Following these humiliations, the Dual Monarchy was created in 1867. Austria and Hungary became independent states with one monarch. However, the Czechs were not granted autonomy, and nationalism and demands for independence grew.
Meanwhile, industrialization continued in what is now the Czech Republic. Coal mining boomed. So did the engineering industry. The textile industry also flourished.
THE CZECHS IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR
In 1914 the Czechs were reluctant to fight for the Austrians and Magyars. They were also reluctant to fight the Russians (fellow Slavs). On the eastern front, thousands surrendered to the Russians rather than fight them.
Meanwhile, in Paris, a university lecturer called Tomas Masaryk formed an organization called the Czech Committee Abroad. (It later changed its name to the Czech National Committee). In November 1915 his organization called for an independent Bohemia and Slovakia. On 29 June 1918, the Committee was recognized as the provisional government of Czechoslovakia by France. It was recognized by Britain on 9 August, by the USA on 18 September, and by Italy on 3 October. By then Austria-Hungary was collapsing. On 14 October Masaryk gave US President Wilson the Czechoslovak declaration of independence. (Later called the Washington declaration). On 28 October 1918, the independent Czechoslovak Republic was declared in Prague.
Meanwhile, in 1916 some Czech prisoners of war agreed to join the French foreign legion and fight the Austrians. In 1917 a separate Czech army was formed in Russia. However, in November 1917 the Communists staged a revolution. Russia then became embroiled in a civil war. The Czech soldiers were keen to return home but on 20 May 1918, the Communists demanded that they disarm. They refused and they had to fight the Russian Communists to get home.
The new state of Czechoslovakia was the only industrialized state in eastern Europe. It also proved to be the only successful democracy. Its first president was Masaryk. He resigned in 1935.
During the interwar period, Czechoslovakia produced the great writer Franz Kafka. Other writers were Jaroslav Hasek and Karel Capek who first used the word robot for a mechanical man in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).
However, the new republic was faced with the problem that it contained large national minorities. On 29 October 1918 Germans in the north and west of Bohemia declared their independence.
However, the wartime allies were afraid that they would join with Austria. French and Italian troops were sent to the German areas and they were made part of Czechoslovakia again but the German minorities’ desire for independence spelled trouble for the future.
Meanwhile, after 1929 Czechoslovakia suffered from an economic depression. By 1933 industrial output fell to only 60% of its pre-war level. Unemployment soared until it was almost one-third of the workforce. However, after 1935 the Czech economy slowly recovered. n However in the late 1930s the main question was the Germans who lived in the Sudetenland. They formed a separatist party, the German Sudeten Party and by 1935 60% of the Germans who lived in the area voted for them.
Then after annexing Austria in March 1938, Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. Konrad Henlein the head of the Sudeten German Party demanded full autonomy. In May German soldiers began moving towards the frontier. The Czech government ordered a partial mobilization. Henlein now demanded that the Sudetenland be joined with Germany.
Shamefully, Britain and France were unwilling to fight to defend Czechoslovakia. On 15 September Chamberlain, the British prime minister met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Later he met Hitler at Bad Godesberg in an attempt to ‘appease’ him.
On 23 September the Czech army fully mobilized. Unfortunately on 30 September Chamberlain and the French prime minister met Hitler in Munich and agreed to all his demands. The Czechs had no option but to agree. President Benes resigned on 5 October. He left Czechoslovakia on 22 October.
Then, on 15 March the Germans occupied the rest of the Czech lands. Slovakia became a separate country – and a German satellite. n Finally on 21 July 1940 the British government recognized Benes as the leader of a Provisional Czechoslovakian government in exile.
Also in 1941, Reinhard Heydrich was made ‘Reichs Protector’ or ruler of the Czech lands. A wave of executions followed. Heydrich also began deporting Jews to concentration camps. However, on 27 May 1942, Heydrich was assassinated by Czech agents who had parachuted into the country. The Germans carried out terrible revenge. They burned the villages of Lidice and Lezaky and killed all the men. Women and children were deported.
On 6 October 1944 Czech soldiers fighting alongside the Russian army crossed the border from Poland into Czechoslovakia. On 4 April 1945 President Benes formed a provisional government at Kosice. It was made up of Socialists, Social Democrats, and Communists.
Finally, on 5 May, the people of Prague rose in revolt. They fought the Germans until 9 May when the Russian army arrived in the city. After the Second World, War Germans from the Sudetenland were expelled from Czechoslovakia.
Furthermore, the Communists began taking over Czechoslovakia. Although Benes was president the Communists held the key posts of Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Minister of the Interior. They also controlled the trade unions. In elections held in May 1946, the communists obtained 40% of the vote and emerged as the largest party.
At the beginning of 1948, the Communist minister of the interior began to purge the police of ‘unreliable’ officers and replace them with Communists. In February 1948 the non-Communist members of the cabinet resigned in protest, hoping President Benes would dismiss the Communist prime minister Klement Gottwald.
However, the Communists held mass demonstrations and the Russian army began to build up along the Hungarian border. Prime minister Gottwald then demanded that President Benes appoint a new cabinet of Communists, which he did.
Then on 9 May parliament passed a new constitution giving the Communist party a ‘leading role’. Benes refused to sign it and resigned. Gottwald replaced him as president. Meanwhile, a liberal politician named Jan Masaryk was murdered.
The Communists lost no time in creating a totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. Industries were nationalized and in the 1950s agriculture was collectivized. At first, the Communists arrested their opponents. Then they turned on their own people. In the early 1950s, the Communist party was ‘purged’. Members were executed or imprisoned.
In 1953 after the death of Stalin Czechoslovakia was hit by demonstrations and strikes. The army was sent in to suppress them. Czechoslovakia remained a Stalinist society. n However in the 1960s a slight ‘thaw’ happened. Censorship was relaxed and restrictions of foreign travel were made less rigorous. As a result criticism of the regime grew and it reached a crescendo in 1968.
In January 1968 a Slovak named Alexander Dubcek became the First Secretary of the Communist party. During the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, he introduced a more liberal regime. It was sometimes called ‘socialism with a human face’. Censorship ended and people openly criticized the Communist Party. However, the Russians were appalled and they were determined to end the liberalization.
Finally, on the night of 20-21 August 1968 Russian forces and those from other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia. The Prague spring was at an end.
A long period of repression followed. On 16 January 1969, a student called Jan Palach (1948-1969) poured petrol over himself and set it alight in Wenceslas Square in Prague. He died in hospital on 19 January 1969. Despite his and other brave protests repression continued. However, the demand for human rights in Czechoslovakia would not die. In 1977 a group of people formed Charta 77 (Charter 77) to protest human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, in 1969 Czechoslovakia became the first country in the world to make wearing seat belts compulsory.
In 1978 Vladimir Remek became the first Czech in space.
In 1989 the Communist tyranny in Czechoslovakia crumbled. On 17 November the police attacked a student demonstration. Events then moved quickly. On 19 November human rights activists formed the Civic Forum. On 20 November huge demonstrations were held. More followed in the next few days. On 24 November the government resigned but the demonstrations continued. On 27 November a 2-hour strike was held.
Eventually, the Communist party agreed to end 1 party rule. They also promised to form a coalition government. However, on 3 December, it turned out that Communists dominated the coalition. The people were not satisfied and they held more demonstrations.
Finally, on 10 December a new government was formed. This time Communists were a minority. The Federal Assembly elected Vaclav Havel president of Czechoslovakia on 29 December. In June 1990 multi-party elections were held and the process of turning Czechoslovakia into a market economy began.
The Velvet Revolution was followed by the Velvet Divorce. The Czechs and Slovaks were two quite different people with different histories. In June 1992 the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia won elections and pressed for Slovak independence. Czechs and Slovaks quickly reached an agreement and on 1 January 1993 Czechoslovakia separated into two states, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The first President of the Czech Republic was Vaclav Havel. In 1999 the Czech Republic joined NATO. In 2004 it joined the EU.
THE CZECH REPUBLIC IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Like the rest of Europe, the Czech Republic suffered in the recession of 2009. Yet the Czech Republic soon recovered. Then in 2016 Czechia became the official alternative name for the country. Czechia is a prosperous country. It is noted for making machines, paper, glass, steel, and ceramics. It is also famous for beer. In 2020 the population of Czechia was 10.6 million.
Last revised 2022