History - a short overview
Czech is the interface between the German sphere of influence and Slavic nations - at least for the last one thousand years. In contradiction to some neighbouring countries, Czech was never much bigger then it is today. However, although it is a relatively small country, Czech always played an important role in middle Europe. The word 'Czech' is quite new. In history, the name 'Bohemia' deriving from the German word Böhmen (the western part) and Moravia (Mähren), the eastern part, appeared much more often.
Probably around the 4th century A.D., a celtic tribe called Boii settled in present-day Bohemia. Because of the name, the word 'Böhmen' (Bohemia) sprang up. German tribes and, after the 5th century West-Slavic tribes followed. The latter started to dominate the area and eventually united. So the Great Moravian Empire was founded in 830. Slavs of the area underwent christianization initiated by the two monks Method and Cyril from →Ohrid. They baptized not just Moravia but wide parts of Eastern Europe.
After 995, the noble Přemysl's dynasty dominated the area and founded the Bohemian Empire, which was turned into a kingdom in the 12th century. This was the one and only time Bohemia expanded - the Bohemian kingdom even included present-day →Slovenia. In 1306, the last descendant of the Přemysl dynasty died. Because of various connections between European royal houses, Bohemia became a part of the German Empire in 1310 and the city of →Prague its capital. So it comes as no surprise that the first German university was founded in Prague in 1348.
|Žižka-Statue in Tabor|
In the beginning of the 15th century, the religious reformer Jan Hus launched the Hussite -movement. Jan Hus himself was burnt at a stake in 1415, but the movement grew stronger and stronger. The Hussite movement headed by Jan Žižka made the historical town of →Tabor their stronghold and converted wide parts of Bohemia. The year 1434 marked the end of the Hussites, but the idea of reformation remained strong. In 1526, the catholic Habsburg (Hapsburg) dynasty gained control of the throne. In the year 1618, the famous Defenestration of Prague (i.e. the king's advisers were thrown out of a window by some protestant nobles) started the devastating Thirty Years' War - a series of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics ravaging wide parts of Middle Europe. As a result, Bohemia was re-catholicised and germanised.
The End of the Habsburg reign:
As mentioned above, the Habsburg reign started in 1526 and soon included present-day →Hungary, parts of →Romania, →Slovakia and even Western →Ukraine. Bohemia was ruled by Habsburg dominated Austria for almost four centuries. In 1848, Bohemians stirred up a democratic revolution, but they failed. At least the industrial revolution in the area was more then successful.
During the First World War, →Slovakian and Czech nationalists came up with the idea of creating a united and independent country. After the defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the chance was there to make this wish come true. And so Czechoslovakia was founded. The new country contained ¾ of the industrial potential of Austria-Hungary. However, around three million Germans remained in the country, mostly settling along the German and Austrian border. Those areas were called Sudetenland, inhabited by Sudeten-Germans.
The peaceful time of independence did not last very long. Germany formed a 'union' with Austria and continued to make a bid for more territory in middle Europe. Logically, Czechoslovakia was going to be the next victim. The annexation of the Sudetenland was even legitimized by Great Britain and France through the infamous Munich Pact in 1938. Only one year later, the rest of the present-day Czech Republic was about to follow. In 1939, Hitler united the annexed territories and established the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia. On the other hand, →Slovakia was turned into a pro-fascist puppet regime. As in all other occupied territories and the Reich itself, almost the entire Jewish community was annihilated. Czech Jews were deported to the ghetto of →Terezin (Theresienstadt) first. From there, the majority was brought to the extermination camp of Auschwitz in present-day →Poland. Only a few survived. In 1942, Czech assassinators killed the German Reichsprotektor Heydrich, having dire consequences. Thirsting for revenge, Germans wiped out the small village Lidice north of →Prague and killed all inhabitants.
Even after the capitulation of Nazi Germany, fightings in Prague didn't stop. It took much more time for American troops and the Red Army to liberate the rest of Bohemia. Now, the Czech people turned the tables on the Sudeten Germans. This included sporadic massacres of civilians and a consequent expulsion of all Germans - all in all around three million people!
Beneš (Benes) - Decrees:
Even today, the so called Benes-Decrees remain a problem. In 1945, the government in exile issued not less then 147 decrees to regulate postwar life in Czechoslovakia. Decree Nr 5 and 12 contained the order that "unreliable people" were to be expropriated without compensation. According to the decree, 'unreliable people' included all Germans and Hungarians living in Czechoslovakia. Another decree deprived all ethnic Germans and Hungarians of the Czechoslovakian citizenship, and so all of them could be expropriated and expelled.
Another controversal decree of the year 1946 granted amnesty for all people having contributed to the struggle for freedom between 30 Sep 1938 and 28 Oct 1945. The latter date is important. It means that someone who had killed a German or Hungarian, even some months after the liberation, could not be prosecuted. And what exactly is a 'contribution to the struggle for freedom'? Naturally, the Benes-decrees are a thorn in the flesh of all expelled Sudeten-Germans. Which is quite understandable, since chances are low that all Sudeten-Germans were convinced Nazis. Some groups even demanded that the Czech Republic should not become a full member of the European Union before revoking the Benes-decrees. They failed - the Czech parliament confirmed the decrees. Which is probably a good decision. Not only German but also Czech civilians suffered. This shall not be forgotten. However, it wouldn't be wise to open old sores.
After the war:
Supported by the Soviet Union, the Communist party quickly grew stronger and eventually got the upper hand. Klement Gottwald became the leader of the National Front - a union between communists and social mocrats. The same thing occured in the GDR (East Germany). But in Czechoslovakia, the social democrats had left the National Front under protest in 1948. This of course didn't deter the communists from governing the country.
In 1968, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubček, decided to reform the system and establish Socialism with a human face. This included the abolition of censorship and the release of all political prisoners. In the beginning, the Soviet Union didn't react. But the boiling-point was reached when reformers opted for the retreat from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union decided to intervene and sent in some 200,000 soldiers from the Soviet Union, East Germany (which was of great delicacy - 23 years after the war, German soldiers intervened again) and other Warsaw pact countries. This is how the Prague Spring was ended. However, in contradiction to the riots in →Hungary and East Germany before, the resistance was mostly passive. The military power was too overwhelming.
Repressions followed. In 1977, a show trial against an oppositional rock band took place. Consequently, an oppositional underground movement called Charter 77 was founded. Vaclav Havel was one of their most active members.
The events from 1989 to 1990 were quite similar to the events taking place in East Germany at the same time. At the beginning, there was a student demonstration broken up violently by the police. More and bigger demonstrations followed. This culminated in a general strike. Eventually, the Politburo gave in and resigned to avoid the outbreak of violence. The velvet revolution was bloodless and successful. The Civic Forum, a mixed group of opposition parties, took over. The notorious dissident Václav Havel became interim president, until free elections could be organized in June 1990. As a result of the first free and democratic elections, the Communist Party only got 15.6% of parliament seats.
→Slovakia seemed to have had enough of the central government in Prague and yearned for independence. But there was no reason to hurry, and so both states founded the ČSFR (Czech and Slovak Federative Republic) with two equally strong states, new money and so on. Soon both countries noticed that political ideas of their leaders, as there were Václav Klaus (Civc Democrats, Czech) and Vladimir Mečiar (Movement for a Democratic →Slovakia), differed too much. And so both countries agreed on a velvet divorce coming into effect on 31 Dec 1992. This is how →Slovakia as well as the Czech republic became independent countries.
Economically, the Czech republic seems to be stronger than →Slovakia. According to various sources, organised crime and nepotism in →Slovakia are quite problematic these days. But →Slovakia shows visible progress, too, and is a very nice destination for travellers. Together with the Czech republic, →Slovakia became a full member of the EU.