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Czech History

The current Czech Republic comprises three historical lands: Bohemia (Čechy) in the West, Moravia (Morava) in the South-East, and Czech Silesia in the North-East, with Czech language being spoken in all three.

Great Moravia

In the beginning of the 9th century the first Slavic state was formed on the territory of contemporary Czechia, comprising modern Slovakia, part of Hungary and nearly the entire Austria. The end of existence of Great Moravia came with the Magyars who played at that time the same role in Europe as the Tatars of Crimea in southern Russia. Great Moravia fell under the continous marauding raids of the Magyars broken into several isolated states.

Přemyslid Dynasty

After the glorious period of the Great Moravian Empire, the center of the state was moved westward to Bohemia. The Czech state or Bohemia (Lands of the Bohemian Crown) as it was known until 1918 emerged in the late 9th century, when it was unified by the Přemyslid dynasty. The kingdom of Bohemia was a significant regional power during the Middle Ages. It was part of the Holy Roman Empire during the entire existence of that confederation. The Přemyslid Dynasty maintained power for nearly 400 years. One of the most famous representatives of the Přemyslids was St. Wenceslas (907-935), a king who established Christianity in the country, the first martyr and patron of Bohemia. Having dedicated all his energy to the accession of the Christian faith, St. Wencelas lost his vigilance and was murdered by his younger brother in 935. In the second half of the 12th century his descendant took advantage of Germany’s weakness (Bohemia was part of Germany at that time) and declared sovereignty constituting his sole power throughout the country. Nonetheless, the collapse of the Přemyslid Dynasty occurred in 1306: after a series of dynastic wars the Bohemian throne was passed to the royal Luxembourg family.

King Charles IV (1316-1378)

The 14th century, particularly the reign of Charles IV (1342–1378), is considered the Golden Age of Czech history. King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles (Karel) IV of Luxembourg was one of the most astute and cultivated monarchs of his time. During his reign Prague became the capital and a major cultural centre and royal power base. Of particular significance was the founding of Charles University in Prague in 1348, construction of Charles Bridge and the Fortress Wall on Petrshinsky Hill, the Citadel of Carlstien and a great number of churches and monasteries, including part of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prazsky Hrad. The legend has it that Charles IV was also responsible for the discovery of salubrious springs at the famous spa city of Karlovy Vary. Under the rule of King Charles IV Prague expanded twofold. The vigorous monarch married four times and had three sons. Charles was a well-educated and highly industrious person who never wasted time on worthless efforts. His demise was natural, at the age of 62. The Black Death that raged in Europe from 1347 to 1352 decimated the Kingdom of Bohemia killing about 10% of the population.

Jan Hus (1371-1415)

In the 15th century the religious and social reformer Jan Hus formed a movement, later named after him. During the reign of Wenceslas IV (son of King Charles IV) Czechia witnessed the Protestent Reformation. In his prachings Jan Hus, theologist and rector of the Prague University, started accusing the wealth of the Catholic Church and the privileged status of the clergy, which eventually led to his expulsion from the university. Despite that, Jan Hus continued defending his views publicly. Although Hus was named a heretic and burnt in Constanz in 1415, his followers seceded from the Catholic Church. A monument to Jan Hus stands in the Staromestské Square in Prague. The day of his execution, July 6, is a national holiday in Czechia.

The Hussite Wars (1419–1434)

Тhe execution of Jan Hus was followed by massive and lasting unrest within the coutnry. In 1419 the adherents of the reformer stormed the City Hall in Prague and threw several members of the town council out of the window (defenestration). Common people were shortly joined by the nobility who refused to aclnowledge the authotity and power of Sigismund I, the Holy Roman Emperor. Supported by the Roman Catholic Church, Sigismund I led five crusades against the Hussites and in 1434 finally defeated their uncoordinated resistance.

The House of Habsburg (1526-1918)

During the next two centuries, 90% of the inhabitants converted to the Hussite form of Protestantism. After 1526 Bohemia came increasingly under Habsburg control as the Habsburgs became first the elected and then the hereditary rulers of Bohemia. The Austrian archduke Ferdinand I of Habsburg became the new king of Bohemia. By now it is not fully understood why the Czechs handed the power voluntarily to the representative of the Austro-Hungarian imperial house; nonetheless that dynasty ruled over the country for nearly 400 years until the end of World War I in 1918.

Rudolf II (1576-1611)

Rudolf II, the Holy Roman emperor, king of Bohemia, Austria, Croatia and Hungary was the ruler who precipitated the eternal status of Prague as the Capital of Mysticism. It was due to his personal whim that the capital was transferred to Prague from Viena. A big lover of everything original, the emperor sponsored alchemists, astrologists and prophets. The seekers of the philosopher’s stone haunted throughout Europe and all other kinds of adventurers could find shelter at King Rudolph’s court. Clergymen and monks, to the contrary, were not welcome at the court (given that one of the astrologists had predicted death to Rudolf II from the hands of a monk).

The reign of Rudolf II was the time of religious forbearance, which embraced the Jews as well, leading to significant economic progress. Some of the famous people that lived and worked in Prague at that time were Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, as well as the renowned sorcerer Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the creater of Golem.

The following period, from 1620 to the late 18th century, has been often called the "Dark Age". The population of the Czech lands declined by a third due to war, disease, famine and the expulsion of the Protestant Czechs. The Habsburgs banned all religions other than Catholicism. Ottoman Turks and Tatars invaded Moravia in 1663 taking 12,000 slaves. In 1679–1680 the Czech lands faced a devastating plague and an uprising of serfs.

Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780)

Empress Maria Theresa acceded to the throne in 1740. Her notable governing initiated the “Enlightenment Age” in the country. The empress launched a number of significant financial and social reforms, including the new tax legislation, according to which the nobility and clergy that were formerly relieved of all kinds of taxes, were obligated to pay a single capitation tax calculated dependent on their wealth. Apart from that, a heritage tax was introduced, and the major part of taxable amounts was directed towards the reform of the education system. Under the personal control of the empress a network of public schools was established.

Maria Theresa instigated a series of reforms in the area of justice as well. She developed a new Civil Code and a new Criminal Code that were abolishing torture and prescribing that capital punishment could be exercised only upon the consent of the crown. Maria Theresa initiated an expansive reconstruction of Prague. It is due to the restoration efforts of this period that Prague acquired the magnificent spendor we see today. But the greatest virtue of the empress was that she was a wonderful wife and a loving mother. Having lived in lawful wedlock with her husband of 30 years Franz Stephen, Maria Theresa gave birth to 16 children (11 girls and 5 boys) and loved them dearly.

Joseph II (1741-1790)

The elder son of Maria Theresa was a worthy son of his indefatigable, enterprising mother. Inheriting the throne after her death in 1780, Joseph II carried out a series of reforms, among which liberation of serfs from the feudal lords and issuance of an edict about religious toleration, thus putting an end to the monopoly of Catholicism. In order to facilitate governance, Joseph II prescribed the introduction of German as an official and universal language to be used across the multilungual empire. One of the important reforms was the induction of compulsory primary education for all boys and girls, irrespective of their descent. Higher education, however, remained the prerogative of the elite for many more years.

National Awakening

Along with the industrial revolution, the start of the 19th century was marked by an unprecedented period of national awakening. Czech culture became highly popular: theatres put up dramatic pieces in Czech language and abundant publications appeared praising the Slavic civilization. In 1867 Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, made a declaration about the independence of Hungary. In response to that, Czech national movement embraced practically all the educated layers of the native population. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, professor of the Prague University became the leader of the national liberation movement.

The First Republic (1918-1939)

In the summer of 1918 Tomáš Masaryk formed a provisional government. In October of the same year the world witnessed the final collapse of the Habsburg Empire. On 28 October 1918 Masaryk proclaimed the creation of a new independent state called Czecho-Slovakia, which incorporated regions of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia and the Carpathian Ruthenia. The newly-formed country opened its hospitable doors before the Russian intelligentsia that fled from the Civil War in Russia. Czecho-Slovakia was virtually the only state where lecturing in the Russian language was being paid. The immigrants opened several notable educational institutions, including the Russian Popular University and Russian Gymnasium where training was carried out by some of the most celebrated representatives of the Russian professorate. Thanks to these institutions, many of the descentants of the Russian immigrants were provided the fortuity to finish their education that was interrupted because of the revolution.

The Years of Nazi Occupation

In 1938 the German troops occupied Sudetenland, taking advantage of the support of the local, primarily German, population. The German occupation of the entire Czecho-Slovakian territory began on 15 March 1939. Hitler was favorably disposed to Prague and that was the reason why during the entire period of occupation not a single historic monument was damaged in the city. On 5 May 1945, when the military units of the Anti-Hitler Coalition approached Prague, the city became ablaze with insurrection. On several occasions the insurgents turned to the Russian and American commanders for help. The two super powers, however, could not come to an agreement as to who would be the first to enter Prague. The unexpected help came from the military units under general Vlasov. On 8 May 1945 Prague was liberated from German occupation, and on 9 May Soviet troops went into the city. The combatants of general Vlasov tried to surrender themselves to the American soldiers, but the Americans refused to capture them. In the aftermath, the greater part of those soldiers found themselves in Stalin camps.

Arrival of Communists

As a result of the Parliamentary elections, communists came to power in Czecho-Slovakia in 1946. An expansive and full nationalization process with collective farm and land reform was launched in 1948. Those who were against this process were promptly dispatched to uranium and granite stone mines.

Prague Spring

On 5 January 1968, Alexander Dubcek became the leader of the Communist Party in Czecho-Slovakia. Sensing a rare opportunity, he quickly initiated a series of reforms to bring about a socialist democracy, lifting censorship and freeing artists and other political prisoners, increasing freedom of the press and beginning the Prague Spring, essentially ending Soviet control over the nation. He also planned the federalization of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic into two equal nations, Czech and Slovak. All this changed on the morning of 21 August 1968, when the Warsaw Pact invasion, led by the Soviet Union with forces from five Pact countries (Romania abstained), brought about “normalization”, disguised as massive rolling green machines bearing artillery. Censorship and regulation of communist system returned in April 1969, when Gustav Husak replaced Dubcek as First Secretary, and the period of "normalization" began. Husak reversed Dubcek's reforms, purged the party of the reformists and dismissed from public offices those of professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political turnaround, a situation which would remain in place until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Velvet Revolution

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 instigated active actions by the opposition in Czecho-Slovakia supported by the local population. On 19 November, a public organization called Civil Forum led by Václav Havel raised a claim in front of the government about the dismissal of the president and amnesty for all political prisoners. On 27 November the Communist Party of Czecho-Slovakia consented to the formation of a multi-party coalition government, and following national voting Václav Havel became president.

Division of the Country

Effective 1 January 1993 Czechia and Slovakia are two autonomous countries. At the first presidential elections in Czechia Vaclav Havel was voted for as the first president of the new Czech Republic. In 2003 he was replaced by Václav Klaus.