History and culture
Eventful History of the Czech Republic
The history of settlement in the territory of the present Czech Republic dates from the oldest Palaeolithic period. The Czech Republic is in the territory of three historic Czech lands – Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. The first ethnic group in the territory, known from written sources, were the Celts, who came in the second half of the 5th century BC, and settled in areas fit for farming in the 4th century BC. It is noteworthy that the name of the country, Bohemia (Boiohaemum in Latin) is derived from the powerful Celtic tribe of Boii.
The first Slavs came to Bohemia and Moravia, probably in the second half of the 6th century. Some of them, especially those in the territory of South Moravia, were exposed to Avar raids for many years. Relief came in the 7th century with the arrival of the Frankish merchant Samo, who sided with the Slavs and formed the first Slavonic empire. The first Slavonic state in central Europe originated in the territory of South Moravia and North-west Slovakia in the early 9th century. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII called it Great Moravia. Its southern neighbours were the Avars, who ceased to be dangerous after their defeat by Samo. They were defeated again by Charlemagne in the early 9th century, and this was an opportunity for the Slavonic princes. The Moravians took control of South-west Slovakia which came together with South Moravia under the rule of a single prince. Prince Svatopluk I (ruled 870-894) could thus form a vast and powerful empire. A significant milestone in the overall development of the Slavonic territories was the arrival of the brothers Constantine and Methodius – missionaries of Christianity to the Great Moravian Empire at the turn of 863-864. The brothers taught in Old Church Slavonic – a Macedonian dialect understood by the Slavs.
Bohemia was not united under a single ruler at the time vast empire was originating in Moravia. The Bohemian tribe, ruled by the Přemyslid dynasty, was settled in the centre of the Bohemian territory. The first known Přemyslid prince, Bořivoj I, submitted to Prince Svatopluk and was baptised. The first church buildings were founded in the territory of the then Bohemia in his reign. The first Christian church was built at Levý Hradec (now Roztoky near Prague) whence Bořivoj I ruled at that time. A settlement and later a palace were taking shape not far from there during the reign of Spytihněv I, son of Bořivoj I. This was actually the beginning of the construction of Prague Castle. Spytihněv I was succeeded by his younger brother, Vratislav I, who had two sons, Václav (Wenceslas) and Boleslav. When Vratislav I died (921) his wife Drahomíra was entrusted with the rule until Václav reached the age of maturity. When Václav took over the rule, he founded the Church of St Vitus at Prague Castle and acquired for it relics of the Saxon patron St Vitus from King Henry of Saxony. Frequent disputes between Václav and his brother Boleslav ended with the murder of Václav, which was allegedly conspired by Boleslav, who took his place on the throne. In the second half of the 11th century, Václav was canonised and became the patron of the Czech nation (Saint Wenceslas). Prince Boleslav, Václav’s brother, contributed without a doubt to the strengthening of the emerging Czech state, and thanks to him a bishopric was founded in Prague and Vojtěch (Adalbert) of the Slavník family, later canonised, came to head it in 982. He sought to improve the relations between the church and society and contributed significantly to Christianisation in this part of central Europe, namely among neighbouring Poles and Hungarians.
An important year in Czech history was 1085. Vratislav II obtained then the royal crown (but nonhereditary) for his loyal services from Emperor Henry IV, was freed from paying obligatory tribute and required that Czech rulers with a retinue participate in coronation journeys of German rulers to Rome. The ties of Czech and German rulers were thus gradually loosening, but the hereditary title of king of Bohemia was secured only later by the skilful diplomacy of Přemysl Otakar I, who was granted in 1212 the so-called Golden Bull of Sicily by Frederick II, King of the Romans and Sicily. Throughout its history, the Czech state was formed not only by the Kingdom of Bohemia, but also the Margraviate of Moravia (recognised at the Diet of Regensburg in 1182). The Přemyslid Dynasty reigned until 1306, when their rule ended through the assassination of King Václav III in Olomouc.
Prosperity under Charles IV
In 1310, John of Luxembourg succeeded to the Bohemian throne. During the reign of his son, Charles IV, who became King of Bohemia in 1346 and was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1355, the Czech lands achieved great prosperity. Charles IV laid the foundations of Gothic Prague, made improvements at Prague Castle, had a stone bridge – now called Charles Bridge – built in Prague, founded the first university in central Europe, and built Karlštejn Castle near Prague. During his reign Prague was elevated to become the centre of the empire, its forty thousand inhabitants made Prague one of the largest cities of Europe at the time. After the death of Charles IV the throne was obtained by his son Václav IV. During his reign the country moved towards chaos, religious unrest was spreading and came to a head in 1415 with the burning at the stake of the preacher Jan Hus (John Huss), who criticised the Roman church and called for its reform. Bohemia and a part of Central Europe were subsequently devastated by Hussite wars.
In 1471, the throne of Bohemia was assumed by the Jagiello dynasty, namely Vladislav, the oldest son of King Casimir IV of Poland. The Jagiello Dynasty ruled here until 1526 when Vladislav’s only and childless son Louis died in the battle of Mohács against the Ottoman Turks.
400 Years of Habsburg Rule
In 1526, the throne of Bohemia was taken by the Habsburgs (Ferdinand I of Habsburg) and the Czech lands became a part of the Habsburg monarchy. The Habsburgs remained on the Bohemian throne for the next almost 400 years. Although Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia were all under the single Habsburg rule, the development of these lands differed. Moravia accepted hereditary rule of the Austrian Habsburgs and was spared the strife between the original Bohemian nobility and the interests of the Habsburg monarchy. In contrast, the estates in Bohemia were prepared to defend what they regarded as their prerogatives and freedoms. As the Habsburgs pursued their centralistic endeavours, conflict was inevitable. Tension existed already during the reign of the first (third in all) Habsburg ruler on the Bohemian throne – Ferdinand I (1526-64), who tried to restrict the estates in Bohemia.
Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who was crowned King of Bohemia in 1575 and later of King of Germany, is considered the most important ruler after 1526. During his reign Prague experienced prosperity and became again a modern European metropolis. A revolt broke out against the Habsburgs after his death (1612), the Bohemian estates elected Frederick of the Palatinate as their king, but this decision turned into political disaster. The estates were divided and Frederick did not show the needed characteristics of a leader. The army of the Bohemian estates was defeated in the decisive Battle of White Mountain near Prague in 1620 and King Frederick fled to save his life. The Protestant rebels were severely punished. 27 Bohemian leaders (3 lords, 7 knights, and 17 burghers), who participated in the revolt against the Habsburgs, were executed in public in Prague in 1621. The executions were only a prelude to further repression and Counter-Reformation decrees. A forcible Counter-Reformation was thus set in motion in a country which was 90% Protestant.
The Thirty Years‘ War, which followed the rebellion of the estates, devastated and impoverished the country so much that only 800 000 inhabitants remained of the original more than three million. Many representatives of the Bohemian aristocracy and intelligentsia preferred to emigrate to neighbouring countries where Protestant faiths were permitted. Their properties were transferred to faithful supporters of the Habsburgs. However, foreign nobles were not coming only in the first years after the Battle of White Mountain. The most prominent person among the émigrés was Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), the Czech thinker and educational reformer (also known as the Teacher of Nations, one of the main figures in the Unity of Brethren. The Peace of Westphalia in1648, which ended the Thirty Years‘ War, sealed the fate of the Czech lands. It confirmed the incorporation of the Bohemian Kingdom into the Habsburg monarchy, with Vienna as its most important (capital) city.
With Charles VI the Habsburgs died out in the male line; he was succeeded by Maria Theresa, who attempted a more rational administration of the empire, which led to a policy of centralisation (and bureaucracy). What remained of the Kingdom of Bohemia was merged with the Austrian provinces of the monarchy. Real change was brought only by the reforms of her son, Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790). In 1781 he issued a decree abolishing serfdom and the Edict of Tolerance, which permitted the existence of two Protestant churches. At the same time, administration was centralised and German was made a dominant language in higher education and at offices. A reaction to the Germanisation effort was the Czech National Revival from the early 19th century. National Revival leaders, such as František Palacký, Josef Dobrovský, Josef Jungmann and Karel Havlíček Borovský, played a major role in the formation of modern Czech language. During the reign of Emperor Francis Joseph I his domains were divided into the Dual Monarchy – Austria-Hungary. Czech politicians strove for a similar compromise for the Bohemian Kingdom, but their efforts failed. Despite many crises the system survived until 1918.
Establishment of the First Republic
Due to the defeat in the First World War (1914-1918), Austria-Hungary disintegrated and new states were formed on its ruins: Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and also Czechoslovakia, which was established on 28 October 1918 as a democratic state headed by President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937). Besides Bohemia and Moravia, Czechoslovakia also incorporated Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia. The period between the two World Wars is sometimes referred to as the First Republic. During this period the Czechoslovak Republic ranked among the economically most developed countries of Europe, especially in engineering.
Czechoslovakia gradually became the only island of democracy in central Europe. It was surrounded by fascist-leaning states, which included Poland and Hungary. In 1933, Adolf Hitler took power in neighbouring Germany, which invaded Austria in 1938, and by this “Anschluss“ made Austria a part of the so-called Grossdeutsches Reich. Czechoslovakia, with its three million Germans settled mainly in the country’s border regions, was the next one to follow. The existence of the First Republic was cut short by an invasion by Nazi Germany in 1939, after the Munich Treaty. The country was divided into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Slovak State. Following the defeat of Germany and the return of the government headed by Edvard Beneš from exile in London the state was re-united in 1945.
Czechoslovakia after 1945
Due to the power arrangement in Europe after the Second World War, the territory of Czechoslovakia found itself in the so-called sphere of Soviet influence. This contributed to some extent to the seizure of government by the communists after a coup in February 1948. In 1960, the name of the state was changed to “the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic“. In 1968, some reform-oriented communists made an effort to partly democratise the society. This liberalisation movement, known as the Prague Spring, was crushed by an invasion of the armies of the Soviet Union and other countries of the Warsaw Treaty (the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic) on 21 August 1968. Shortly after the invasion many people, especially educated ones, emigrated to democratic countries in Europe and to the U.S.A.. This further accelerated the economic decline that the country experienced after its incorporation in the Soviet bloc. The so-called normalisation can be characterised as a period of persecution by the state apparatus of all persons and activities which were not identified with the Soviet occupation and subsequent normalisation.
Birth of Democratic Country
In the early 1980s, tendencies of democratisation re-appeared with greater intensity also in other countries of eastern Europe, the so-called eastern socialist bloc. In Czechoslovakia, the situation culminated in November 1989 with the so-called Velvet Revolution. Under the pressure from the public, communists stepped down from leading positions in the state and refrained from police action against the inhabitants. On 29 December 1989, the Federal Assembly elected Václav Havel, a candidate and representative of a new democratic group (the Civic Forum) the country’s president and he then led the Czechoslovak Federal Republic to the first free elections in 40 years in June 1990.
On 1 January 1993, after an agreement between the two parts of the country, the Czechoslovak Federal Republic was partitioned into two independent states, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. The Czech Republic became a member of NATO in 1999 and in 2004 joined the European Union, and is also a state in the Visegrad Group. The Czech Republic is a democratic state with a liberal constitution and a political system based on the free competition of political parties and movements. The state is headed by the President of the Republic, its supreme legislative body is the bicameral Parliament of the Czech Republic
Czech Republic and European Union
The Czech Republic officially applied for EU membership on 17 January 1996, and since then entry into the EU became a priority for Czech foreign policy. In July 1997 the European Commission issued the Agenda 2000, which became the basic methodological document for the admission of new members. It also contained European Commission assessments of the newly acceding countries regarding fulfilment of the conditions of EU membership. On this basis the European Commission recommended in 1997 to begin accession negotiations with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. The accession negotiations with these countries started in March 1998. The negotiations were conducted in the form of inter-governmental conferences, on the one hand with EU member states (negotiations were always run by the country holding EU Presidency), and on the other with the candidates. An important moment for the admission of new members was the ratification of the Treaty of Nice in 2003 which, among others, prepared the European institutions for the admission of new members. In December 2002 negotiations with ten candidates (the negotiations were joined also by Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, and Malta) were concluded in Copenhagen, and the Treaty of Accession was signed in Athens in April 2003. The date of the ten countries‘ entry into the EU was set for 1 May 2004. The Accession Treaty was ratified by the national parliaments of the EU member states, by the European Parliament, and also by the newly acceding states. Some opted for parliamentary ratification, some, including the Czech Republic, chose a referendum. In the Czech Republic, 77.33% voted for EU entry, voter turnout was 55.21%. The country’s current strategy of development within the EU in the 2007-2013 period is described in the National Strategic Reference Framework, an official document which forms the basis for drawing financial assistance from the EU Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund in the amount of EUR 26.69 billion.
In 2009, the Czechs celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution
The Velvet Revolution is an expression used to refer to the period of changes in Czechoslovakia between 17 November and 29 December 1989, which led to the fall of the communist regime and replacement of the political system with democratic principles. The revolution began on 17 November 1989, when the regime took a tough action against a student demonstration held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the closing of Czech universities by the Nazis. People took to the streets to protest against the police brutality, and this touched off demonstrations and strikes in cities and towns all over Czechoslovakia. The protest has become known as the Velvet Revolution because of its non-violent character, as neither violence nor armed struggle were necessary to take over power. With the exception of the events on 17 November, when students were assaulted by the police, the revolution was carried out peacefully and not a single life was lost in the change of government. The expression then started to be used as a synonym for revolutions in which power is won without the use of violent means.
Interesting information about the Czech Republic is available on www.czech.cz .