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Sketches of Czech history

Many archaeological discoveries prove that people lived in the Czech lands already in the prehistory. During the Roman Empire in this area there was a Celtic tribe, the Boji that later gave their name to the region. Romans never arrived in these territories. Later on Germanic tribes absorbed the Celtic culture. Between V and VI century Germans moved out and the first Slavonic tribes settled here but they had to fight against a tartaric tribe, the Avari who occupied the Pannonia, nowadays Hungary, reaching the territories of the Franks. In 623 a Slavonic leader, Samo manages to conquer this land and pushed away the Avari. He was later elected emperor. We have no historic data for the following 150 years. Around 830 the Empire of the Great Moravia (Slovakia, Pannonia and part of Poland) was created having as a leader Mojmir. His successor Rastislav, invited from Constantinople 2 preachers, Cyril and Methodius to spread catholic religion in these pagan lands. They created a new alphabet mixing local Slavonic dialects with ancient Greek and this alphabet is still in use in Russia and Bulgaria with the name Cyrillic. Methodius baptizes Bořivoj and his wife Ludmilla. The Empire of Great Moravia was destroyed in 907 by the invasion of the Unni. With Bořivoj the dynasty of the Premyslides began and will rule for the first four centuries of Czech history. Their first settlement was in Leví Hradec, now NW suburbs of the Czech capital but around 885 they moved to the area of the Castle of Prague. They are not connected to world history except for some of them being at first just princes. Frederick II from Svevia issues the Sicilian Pact in 1212 and allowed them to become kings. They managed to include Bohemia in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. This dynasty ended in 1306 and in 1310 the Duke of Luxemburg John, son of Henry VII was elected as the new king. He didn’t care much about these lands and soon his son Wenceslas, later Charles IV became his administrator.

Charles IV. Father of the Czech lands

Charles IV was born in 1316 and already as a young boy helped his father in the leadership of their wide empire. At the age of 15 he was governor of 17 Italian cities. No surprise. He got married at the age of 7 and graduated from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, at the age of 13. At the age of 20, in 1346, he was crowned king of Rome and Bohemia, in 1354 king of Lombardy and the following year emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.Very well educated man, he spoke 5 languages and was also an artist, since he carved wood to make statues and other objects. He got married 4 times. His first three wives died before him due to various diseases but he didn’t manage to survive the fourth wife, 31 years younger than him and with such a strength that she was able to bend swords.Charles IV loved Prague and Bohemia and did many things for his homeland. He founded the first university of Central Europe in 1348. He raised Prague from bishopric to archbishopric and founded a new town, the New Town of Prague.He died in 1378 at the age of 62.Nice age for that time…

He ruled from 1346 to 1378 and he is the most beloved Czech king. Prague was struggling and suffering against a big plague in 1348 and he gave food and recovery to the people asking them to build a fortified wall that you can still see today on the Petrin hill. It is now called the Hunger Wall. During his kingdom Prague was one of the most important cities in Europe. His son was elected when he died but he was not able to face the greatness of his father. The country was still fighting against Plague that causes a period of general crisis. People found part of the reasons of this crisis in the high corruption of the Catholic Church at that time. Jan Hus became the preacher of the first protestant movement a century before the Reform by Luther and Calvin. He was influenced by the books of Wycliffe. He managed to gather more and more unhappy and unsatisfied crowns so he was a dangerous person for the church. They invited him to Germany in 1415 and burned him at the steak. This was the cause of the first religious war of this country, named Hussite war after this preacher. The Protestants as a rebellion act threw out of the windows of the New Town Hall the catholic counselors. It was in the year 1419 and they started a Czech tradition. Getting rid of unwanted people by throwing them from windows, Defenestrating.

This war lasted for about 20 years and at the end the Pope and the Emperor had to accept a compromise with the Protestants. They were so strong that they managed to elect their own king in the second half of 1400. His name was George of Poděbrady and was elected in 1458. After the Premislides he was the only real Czech ruler. All the others were totally or partially foreigners. He tried to reconcile Protestants and Catholics, but he was more advanced in foreign policy. His idea was realized just few years ago. He wanted to create the Union of European Kings… He died in 1471 and the crown passed to 2 kings of polish origin, the Jegello. The first Vladislav is responsible for the very nice gothic hall bearing his name inside the Royal Palace at the Castle. His successor Ludwig dies in 1526 in Hungary in the battle against the Turks. After his death Habsburg took the power in the Czech lands and were going to keep it until the First World War. The archduke Ferdinand I was elected on October 23 1526. The Habsburg imposed the catholic religion as state religion in a country that had become protestant and they were helped by all the noble families who followed them and most of all by the Jesuits who settled their convent and universities in key locations. His successor Maximilian tried to pacify with the Protestants so he had a quiet time. The new emperor, Rudolf II was elected in 1576 and from 1583 he moved his court to Prague. He was the only emperor of this dynasty to rule from Prague. The Habsburg court was in Vienna. Also Rudolf II tried to find a compromise with the Protestants but his successor didn’t continue this peaceful policy and paid the consequences.

Rudolf II. The second Golden Era of Prague

Rudolf II was educated at the court of Spain during the Inquisition, a period of bigotry, intrigues and witch-hunt and all this influenced his shy, lonely and melancholic character.He spent most of the time alone and was unwilling to take part to his court duties. He was interested more in culture, art, magic and collections than in the politics and economics of his empire.The nickname Magic Prague comes from this period when his court was full of alchemists and magicians, most of them charlatans, invited for his hunger for the search of the most hidden secrets and the philosopher’s stone.He was a maniac collector and he filled many rooms of his palace with the most incredible objects, with which he had a morbid relationship. He visited his collections also at night, becoming almost an object among objects.He loved art and sciences so his court was full of the most important artists and scientists of Europe. The court painter was the Italian Arcimboldi.His melancholy soon became insane so Matthew obliged him to resign in 1611.He died the following year.

On May 22 1618 the Protestants decided it was about time to raise against the oppression so they meet in a palace in Malá Strana and decide to solve the problem “the old way” (do you remember? 1419, Hussite war, windows of the New Town Hall…) The following day there was the famous Prague defenestrating. Once again the victims were the 2 catholic counselors of Matthew ruling from Vienna and their secretary. They were thrown out of the windows of the Castle. They didn’t die. They landed softly on the piles of garbage and something more… that were normally thrown away from the windows of the castle. This event was the cause of the second religious war of this country, the 30 years war that later involved the whole Europe. Soon after the defenestrating the Protestants were able to elect their king, Frederick of Palatinate, nicknamed the Winter King because he was in power just a season. On November 8 1620 there was a battle in Prague, the battle of the White Mountain and in little more than 2 hours the European Catholic League won against this country of Protestants. The Habsburg took full power and cancelled any trace of the rebels. On June 21 1621 in front of the Old Town Hall there was a mass executions of 27 Protestant leaders. Czechs say that this was the beginning of the “Dark Age “ of their history that lasted, from invader to invader, until 1989.

For the rest of the Habsburg Empire Prague was just a provincial town of the empire and lost its importance. The court was in Vienna and the Castle was almost falling apart being used just as administrative building. In the second half of 1700 Maria Therese had it restored by his court architect. His son Joseph II issued the Edict of Tolerance giving to people the chance to profess their religion. In 1784 he joined together the towns Staré Město, Nové Město, Hradčany e Malá Strana creating the historic heart of Prague. Those cities were independent and surrounded by walls with customs among them. The Habsburg ruled until the First World War. In 1918 a new state was born, Czechoslovakia, One of the several states born after the end of the Habsburg Empire. It was created as a pillow state between west and east and it had inherited 70% of the industry of the former empire. It was one of the first European democracies placed at the 10 row in the world economy. At that time One Czech Crown was equal to One German Mark. Good old times…

Since the end of 19 century Prague was almost twin city with Paris and they had deep cultural and artistic exchanges. These exchanges continued also after 1918, during the first republic. This flourishing period was interrupted in 1938 with the Munich Pact and the following year, it was March 15, Hitler invaded the country. He placed in Slovakia a puppet government under his control and he enclosed the other regions, Bohemia and Moravia into the Third Reich creating a Protectorate. The former chief of Gestapo Reinhard Heydrich arrives in the Protectorate in 1941 bringing the ideas of the Final Solution, the exterminations of the lower races. Not only Jews paid with life this situation but also Slavonic people, considered by Hitler as sub-human deserving only slavery.

On May 5 1945 the population raised against the invader through a partisan movement and three days later the Red Army set the nation free. Czechoslovakia looked at the decision of the Pact of Munich as a treason by the other European nations so a short time before the end of the war signed the Pact of Yalta choosing the protection of the USSR. About 100 km West of Prague there is a worldwide famous town, Pilsen renowned for beer. This was the meeting point of the Allies and the Red Army. The Americans stopped here and let the Red Army enter Prague in glory. The Americans set the town of Pilsen free and every year there are great celebrations on May 8, Freedom Day. I talked about Russians “setting this country free”…

Well Czechoslovaks were soon to regret this Russian influence. In 1948 the Czechoslovak Communist Party helped and pushed by USSR made a Coup d’Etat and established a dictatorship that was going to last 41 years. Every personal freedom, every free activity soon disappeared and everything became state owned from the little tobacconist shop to the grocery store and the large company. Everything. During the 50s also Czechoslovakia, following the examples in USSR was stained of blood due to the rough trails during Stalin’s dictatorship.

During the 60s there was the beginning of a more open and critic era that was going to burst in the famous Prague Spring in 1968, when Alexander Dubček, the secretary of the Communist Party at that time wanted to create the “Socialism with a Human Face”. He didn’t manage though. The tanks of the Communist Block invaded Czechoslovakia in the night between August 20 and 21. Dubček was employed as a worker and replaced by a puppet controlled by USSR, Gustáv Husák who became also president of the republic in 1975.

The period from 1968 to 1989 is called with an uncomfortable name, Normalization, that is to say put the nation back to “normal” so the oppression common to all the totalitarism got worse. On January 16 1969, right in front of the Monument of Saint Wenceslas in the square bearing the same name, a student of the faculty of philosophy of the Prague University committed suicide by burning his body to protest against the invaders. His name was Jan Palack. Few weeks later another students did the same. Nothing changed of course but they became national heroes at the point that the government had to hide their gravestones.

1989 is a year of great changes in Europe: the Berlin Wall was turned down, there were the first result of Gorbacov’s Perestroika so there was a glimpse of hope for Czechoslovakia and on November 17 the Velvet revolution began. It was a soft revolution made of general strikes so no blood and fights, that is why it is called Velvet. Students were the first to rise but soon the whole population joined them so that the Communist Party was obliged to resign. During the revolution the population had unofficially elected Vacláv Havel as president. He is a play writer and had always been against the government. He was officially elected in the first democratic elections in 1990. In 1993 there was the Velvet Divorce” that is to say the separation of Czech and Slovak Republics, now 2 independent states. Havel was elected again as president of the new Czech Republic twice and he ended his last mandate in February 2003 being president of 3 republics. The present president is Vaclav Klaus, But this is the end of history and the beginning of daily news…

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