White Mountain 1620


From the middle ages until the 17th century the Czech Lands played a significant role in European history. Defeat at the start of the Thirty Years’ War marked the beginning of three centuries of domination by the Habsburgs. The joint state of Czechoslovakia, founded after World War I, came to an end in 1993.

The Latin name of Bohemia derives from Boii, one of the two Celtic tribes who, from the 3rd century BC, settled in the territories of the present-day Czech Republic. Towards the end of the 1st century BC, the Celts were dislodged by two Germanic tribes, the Quadi and the Marcomanni. They inflicted several defeats on the Romans who, as a result, decided not to extend their empire beyond the Danube. In the end, it was tribes from the east who displaced the Germanic tribes in the 5th and 6th centuries. In the 7th century Bohemia and Moravia were briefly part of a vast Slav state ruled by the Frankish merchant, Prince Samo.


The early 9th century saw the rise of the Moravians. They forget an alliance with the Slavs of Bohemia, and thus the Great Moravian Empire was born. At its peak, in around 885, the empire included Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and parts of modern Slovakia, Germany and Poland. In response to German ambition in the region, the second Moravian emperor invited Byzantine missionaries to spread Christianity in the Slavic language. The two monks, the so-called Apostles to the Slavs, were later canonized as St Cyril and St Methodius.


Following the fall of the Moravian empire, brought about by a Magyar invasion in 906, a new political centre emerged in Bohemia under the Přemyslid princes. One of the dynasty’s early rulers, Prince (St) Wenceslaus, improved his state’s relations with Germany but was murdered by his brother Boleslav in 935. Under Boleslav, Bohemia became part of the Holy Roman Empire. In 973 a bishopric (subordinate to the archbishopric of Mainz) was founded in Prague. The murder of Bishop Adalbert, who became the first Czech-born Bishop of Prague in 983, stunned Christian Europe. In 1085 Prince Vratislav II received from Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV the (non-hereditary) title of king. He thus became the first crowned ruler of Bohemia.   


In exchange for supporting Frederik II of Sicily in his endeavours to secure the Holy Roman Emperor’s throne, in 1212 Přemysl king Otakar I received the Golden Bull of Sicily. This edict established the right of succession to the Bohemian crown. Bohemian rulers, were also made electors of the emperor.

The 13th century saw a rapid increase in both the political and economic power of Bohemia. Many towns were founded during this period. The discovery of silver in Kutná Hora and Jihlava helped transform the Bohemian court into one of Europe’s richest. Actively encouraged by the Přemyslid, vast numbers of Germans came to settle in Bohemia. They even founded entirely new towns.

Bohemia became the most powerful state within the Empire. During 1254-69 its territory expanded to include parts of what is now Austria. The endeavours of Přemysl Otakar II to win the throne of Germany and the imperial crown met with opposition from the imperial princes, however. The Bohemian king’s death at the Battle of the Moravian Field (Marchfeld), in 1278, put an end to the ambitious monarch’s plans.

A period of chaos followed the death of Přemysl Otakar II. The early death of Vaclav II was followed by the murder of his heirless son, Václav III, in 1306. This marked the end of the Přemyslid dynasty.     


By cleverly choosing a member of the Přemyslid family as his wife, John of Luxemburg found himself in a position to secure the Bohemian throne. While John rarely visited Bohemia, his son Charles IV, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, had much closer links with his kingdom. Charles IV’s reign as King of Bohemia (1346-78) is often described as Bohemia’s “Golden Age”, a period of great economic and cultural growth. Prague, which became the imperial capital, acquired the first university north of the Alps, a new royal palace and a stone bridge across the Vltava river; work started on St Vitus’s Cathedral, and the city became the seat of an archbishop. The network of roads and navigable stretches of rivers grew rapidly; weaving, as well as the cultivation of cereals, hops and grapes flourished; the mining of silver, gold, iron and tin all increased. There was success abroad, too: through his four marriages Charles IV extended his kingdom north into parts of Poland and Germany. In short, Charles presided over a period of great prosperity and relative peace.

Charles IV’s son, Václav IV (1361-1419), failed to continue his father’s success. Hoping to exploit the weakness of the Church at a time of increasing crisis for the Papacy, he engaged in a dispute with the archbishop of Prague and some sections of the nobility. The consequences of this conflict, including Vaclav IV’s own imprisonment and the weakening of the king’s position, coincided with effects of outbreak of bubonic plague which, in 1380, ravaged certain parts of Europe.     


In the late 14th century the notion that the source of the social crisis lay in the Church’s departure from the teaching of the Gospels began to gain support. One of the advocates of this view was a peasant-born preacher, Jan Hus (1371-1415). He became the main ideologue of the reformation movement, which demanded the curtailing of the Church’s influence over state affairs. When, following the Council of Constance in 1415, Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic, unrest spread throughout the country. It reached boiling point in 1419, when several Catholic councillors were thrown out of Prague’s New Town Hall’s window, in the first “Prague defenestration”.   


In the 15th century, the followers of Jan Hus become a major fighting force. They achieved great successes against the Emperor’s crusades, due largely to the skill of their leader, Jan Žižka. The Hussites split into the radical Taborites and the moderate “Ultraquists” (from sub ultraque specie, symbolising the wish to celebrate Mass with both bread and wine). While the former were finally beaten at Lipany in 1434, the Ultraquists recognised papal supremacy in return for consent for the Czech language to be used in church. The Ultraquists were active until the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620.  


The end of the Hussite wars in 1434 and the dying out of the Luxemburg dynasty were followed by nine years of interregnum, which ended in 1458, when the Czech nobility elected as their king George of Poděbrady (1458-71), a moderate Hussite, who also enjoyed the approval of the Czech Catholics.

The new king of Bohemia, who represented the reforming spirit and preached religious tolerance, was initially accepted by a number of European monarchs. In 1462 George put forward a plan to establish a League of Christian Monarchs to resist the Turkish expansion. This visionary proposal did not, however, meet with approval and the king’s position was worsened by the hostile attitude of Rome. In 1466 Pope Paul II excommunicated George and called for a crusade against the “Czech heretics”. The ensuing war ended only with the death of King George, in 1471.


In compliance with the late monarch’s wishes, the Czech nobility chose as their new king the Polish Prince Vladislav Jagiello (1471-1516) who, in 1490, also ascended the throne of Hungary and moved his capital to Buda (today’s Budapest). The king’s absence was exploited by the Bohemian nobility to strengthen their own political and economic power. The fortunes of families such as the Rosenbergs and Pernsteins grew; they founded new towns and supported agriculture and trade.    

A treaty concluded at Kutná Hora between Catholics and Utraquists in 1485 laid the foundation for religious peace that lasted more than half a century. Ideas of humanism percolated into the Czech Lands, and local architects created Late-Gothic masterpieces such as Prague Castle’s Vladislav Hall (1502).

In 1526 Vladislav’s successor, Louis Jagiello, was killed fighting the Turks at the Battle of Mohács. He left no heir, so based on the political treaty concluded in 1515 between Vladislav and Maximilian I, the throne passed into the hands of the Austrian Habsburgs.    


Ferdinand I (1526-64), the first representative of the Habsburg dynasty, tried to centralise the monarch’s power, which met with violent opposition among the Bohemian Estates (essentially the nobility). Tension increased when attempts were made to reestablish the Catholic faith, which eventually eased when an Act of Tolerance, giving the various Christian denominations equal rights, was signed in 1609 by Rudolph II (1576-1611). This emperor, who made Prague his capital and was a great lover of the arts, presided over Bohemia’s second Golden Age. Sadly, intensifying pressure from the clergy, combined with the Emperor’s deepening mental illness, forced Rudolph to abdicate in favour of his brother Matthias.


Rudolph II’s Act of Tolerance failed to put an end to the conflict between the Catholic monarch and the non-Catholic Bohemian Estates. In 1618 representatives of the latter threw two of the emperor’s envoys out of the windows of Prague Castle. This second “Prague defenestration“ signalled an open anti-Habsburg rebellion and marked the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which was to engulf much of Europe.

In 1620 the army of the rebellious Bohemian Estates was crushed by the forces of Emperor Ferdinand II at the Battle of the White Mountain (Bílá Hora), near Prague. The collapse of the insurgence was followed by severe repression in Bohemia: 27 leaders of the anti-Habsburg opposition were executed in Prague’s Old Town Square. Around 75 per cent of the land belonging to the Bohemian nobility was confiscated; thousands of families had to leave the country; and dissenters were forced to convert to Catholicism.


The Thirty Years’ War, which ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, reduced Bohemia’s international stature and caused both devastation and depopulation. The war also elevated the position of Catholic noble families, who arrived mostly from abroad and were granted the confiscated estates of Bohemian landowners. Many of the latter went into exile.

With the Czech Lands now firmly under Catholic control, a period of intense Counter-Reformation activity followed, spearheaded by the Jesuits. As a result of the campaign, the majority of the population converted to Catholicism. A major role in the shaping of the religious consciousness was played by Baroque art. During this period some outstanding works were created by architects Carlo Lurago, Giovanni Santini and Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer; sculptors Ferdinand Brokof and Matthias Braun; and painters Karel Škréta and Petr Brandl. The immigrant Catholic nobility built themselves grand palaces.

Following the war, the legal position of the Czech Crown within the empire changed. The Habsburgs were given hereditary rights to the throne and the German language was made legally equal to Czech. The most important national issues were now being decided by the central administration in Vienna.

When Maria Theresa (1740-80) inherited the Habsburg crown, she introduced the principles of the Enlightenment in the empire. Her most notable act was to expel the Jesuits. Her son Joseph II (1780-90) felt an even stronger need for change. He abolished serfdom and even granted certain Christian denominations equal rights. Bohemia’s Jews, in particular, felt the benefits if this new freedom of worship.

However, Joseph II, often described as an “enlightened despot”, was not very popular. In his drive to unify his vast empire, he made German the official language and centralised power in Austria. The ruthless enforcement of his reforms and Germanization of the Czech Lands bred dissatisfaction.

Joseph’s successor, Franz II, was a conservative who largely swept aside his predecessors’ reforms. His most memorable act was to sign a peace treaty with Napoleon following the latter’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.      


In response to the unification policies of Habsburgs, the early 1800s saw the emergence of a new but uncoordinated movement to rebuild Czech culture. The fight to restore the position of the Czech language became the key element of revival programme. New plays and literary works were written in Czech. A vital role in this revival was played by Josef Dobrovský, who wrote a history of the Czech language and literature. Among other leading writers was Karel Hynek Mácha, one of the greatest ever Czech poets. The second half of the 19th century heralded the arrival of realist literature represented by the great Jan Neruda, a poet of world renown and also the author of some fine short stories. His Tales of the Little Quarter (1878), set in Prague, is marvellous portrayal of life in the city.


In the mid-19th century the Czech Lands, like many other European countries, became a scene of revolutionary struggle against absolute monarchy. The demands included political autonomy and the granting of civic rights, including freedom of speech, assembly, press and religion. In June 1848 an uprising in Prague was quashed by the imperial army. Franz Joseph I, who became emperor that same year, continued the policy of absolute monarchy but could not prevent the decline of the Habsburg Empire. Following the defeat of Austria by Prussia in 1866, the so-called Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established, creating two independent states under one ruler. This decision was a disappointment to Czech politicians, who failed to win the same rights for the Czech Lands as those enjoyed by Hungary.

The disgruntled Czechs turned their energies to economic activities. New companies (such as Škoda) were established, and new theatres and national museums were built. Increasing importance was attached to the standards of education.  

The 19th century saw the rapid growth of Czech culture and the shaping of a modern national consciousness. Playing a vital role in this process were musicians, artists and writers, including the composers Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, the painter Mikoláš Aleš, sculptor Josef Myslbek and novelist Antonín Jirásek, whose works inspired a huge popular response. The Czech language became the basic tool in the process of shaping the national identity. Theatres and museums sprang up all over the country, emphasizing the importance of Czech culture in the nation’s life.


Few Czechs (or Slovaks) had the appetite to fight for the empire during World War I, and it was during the war that the idea of a joint Czech and Slovak state independent of Austria arose. Its main champion was Tomáš Masaryk, a professor at Prague University. In 1916, together with Edvard Beneš, he created the Czechoslovak National Council, based in Paris, which was later recognised by the Allies as the representative of the future Czechoslovakia. In May 1918, in Pittsburgh, USA, representatives of Czech and Slovak émigré organizations signed an agreement that provided for the creation of a joint Czechoslovak state after the war.

The political endeavours were supported by the military efforts of Czechs and Slovaks fighting on the side of the Allies. Czechoslovak legions in Italy, France and Russia. Back at home, where there had been growing anti-Habsburg dissent, the Czechoslovak National Council became the supreme political authority. On 28 October 1918, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, the independent Czechoslovak Republic was declared in Prague. Tomáš Masaryk was its first president.  


Thanks to the industry established under the Habsburgs, Czechoslovakia flourished economically. However, the ethnic situation was much more problematic. The new state had a diverse population made up of some 6 million Czechs, 2 million Slovaks and 3 million Germans, as well as communities of ethnic minorities including Ukrainians and Hungarians. While the Czechs were generally content with their new situation, the other ethnic groups were much less satisfied with their lot.

It was thanks to the skills of Tomáš Masaryk that Czechoslovakia became such a progressive and staunchly democratic nation. The new Czechoslovak constitution ensured that there was, at least for the moment, peaceful coexistence among the ethnic minorities by ensuring that any area with an ethnic community exceeding 20 per cent of the population would be officially bilingual. This relative calm disappeared in the 1930s. On top of the economically devastating Wall Street Crash of 1929 came political instability; this coincided with the growing threat posed by the Third Reich. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 helped to activate the disgruntled German minority living in northern Bohemia and Moravia (the Sudetenland). They found a voice in the Sudeten German Party, a far right group with direct links with the Nazis. The retirement in 1935 of President Masaryk, to be replaced by Edvard Beneš, couldn’t have come at a worse time.


Following the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938, Czechoslovakia became Hitler’s next target. Later that year he demanded the Sudetenland. In a bid to avoid war, President Beneš agreed that the heads of France (Daladier) and Great Britain (Chamberlain) should negotiate with Hitler and Mussolini to settle the dispute. In September 1938 the four powers signed the notorious Munich Agreement, which handed Sudetenland to the Nazis. Czechoslovakia lost 5 million inhabitants and a vast chunk of its land. President Beneš resigned and left the country.

The nation carved out by the Munich Agreement survived only for another six months. In March 1939 Hitler forced the ineffectual Emil Hácha (Beneš successor) to agree to make Bohemia and Moravia a German Protectorate. Nazi troops marched into Bohemia.

Repression against the population, while not as brutal as that seen in Poland, intensified after 1941, when Reinhard Heydrich was appointed Reich protector. A concentration camp was established in Terezín for the Jews brought from Germany, Austria, Holland and Denmark, as well as from the Protectorate. In 1942 Heydrich was assassinated by Czech paratroopers trained in England.  


On 5 May 1945, in the closing days of World War II, there was an armed uprising in Prague against the Nazis. Four days later the city was liberated by the Red Army. Beneš returned to the country as its president. The reprisals against Czech German speakers were inevitable. Thousands died and more than 2 million were forcibly expelled (or fled).

The years immediately after the war were marked by the rapid rise of the Communist Party (KSČ). It was the party with the most votes at the 1946 election, its leader, Klement Gottwald, became prime minister and several Party members joined the cabinet. While the Communists had great popular support, there was growing dismay among the non-Communist members of the cabinet. In February 1948, 12 of them resigned, hoping thereby to bring an end to Gottwald’s premiership; in the event, he managed to orchestrate a Communist coup, without the military assistance that Stalin had offered. Failing in health, Beneš resigned. This so-called “Victorious February” opened an era of Stalinization, bringing with it nationalization, collectivization and massive industrialization. There was also repression and persecution. Farmers opposed to the collectivization of the land were sent to work in the mines or to prison; clergymen were sent to concentration camps. Many people opted to emigrate.


In the 1960s a reform movement within the Communist Party took shape. It demanded a liberalization of the Stalinist approach to economics, politics and individual freedoms. After failed attempts to win over and then repress the reformers, in January 1968 President Novotný was forced from office. The new First Secretary, Alexander Dubček, declared his wish to build “a socialism with a human face”. The subsequent democratic reception, embraced all aspects of social and political life. It all came to an abrupt end on 21 August 1968, when, on Soviet orders, troops from the Warsaw Pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia. Dubček and other reformers were sent to Moscow, and people protested in the streets. Among the few who died was a student Jan Palach, who set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square.

The suppression of the “Prague Spring”  returned orthodox Communists to power. Dubček was replaced by Gustáv Husák, a man totally subservient to the Soviet Union. During the next 21 years of “normalization“, totalitarian rule was re-established and all dissent quashed. Many intellectuals fled abroad.

In 1977, a group of politicians and intellectuals, including the playwright Václav Havel, signed a document demanding basic human rights. This so-called Charter 77 became a rallying point for all dissidents.


In the autumn of 1989 the wave of democratic changes that was sweeping across Europe reached Czechoslovakia. In response to a mass demonstration in the capital, Václav Havel and Alexander Dubček appeared on a balcony in Wenceslas Square on 22 November. Their call for a general strike was enough to cause the downfall of the Communist regime. A hastily formed new political party, the Civic Forum, embarked upon negotiations with outgoing government. On 29 December 1989 Václav Havel became president.


Without the strong, centralizing authority of the Communists, the historical tensions between Prague and Slovakia reappeared. The Civic Forum split into two (the centre-left Civic Movement and the right-wing Civic Democratic Party), and the 1992 general elections brought to power parties intent on breaking up the joint state. On 1 January 1993 the Czech Republic was established. Václav Havel remained its president for two terms of office, until 2003. He was replaced by Václav Klaus. In 1999 the Czech Republic became a member of NATO and in 2004 joined the European Union. The current President is Miloš Zeman, in office since March 2013.