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CZECH REPUBLIC
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Prague

History

Prehistory and antiquity

Archaeological findings show that the territory of the Czech Republic and Slovakia must have been inhabited at least 80,000-10,000 years B.C. (Palaeolithic). From the 4th to the 1st century B.C., these regions were inhabited by a number of Celtic tribes. One of them, the Boii or Bojers, gave their name to the region of Bohemia or Boiohaemum. Germanic tribes and Romans also lived in this area for a short time, but the Romans soon withdrew south of the Danube.

Middle Ages and Premyslid Dynasty

Slavic peoples came from European Russia and probably arrived in the 5th century AD. Czech tribes settled in the basin of the Vltava and Slovaks in a more eastern region. From these two groups, the Great Moravian Empire emerged in the 9th century, which roughly corresponds to what is now Czechoslovakia. Byzantine missionaries started to Christianise this empire.

In the 10th century, the Great Moravian Empire fell apart after invasions by the Magyars (Hungarians), who roughly took the Slovakian area, separating the Czechs and Slovaks for ten centuries. After the Great Moravian Empire, the Premyslids came to power and ruled over the Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia. In the end, Moravia did not remain an independent entity and was absorbed into Bohemia. The oldest known ruler of this dynasty was Borivoj, who died in 894. Under the later patron saint of Bohemia, Wenceslas I, Bohemia became part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Premyslide princes were only dukes.

In 929, Wenceslas was murdered by his brother, who succeeded in uniting the Czech tribes under the Premyslid rule. Under his rule, the Bishopric of Prague was also founded and the Premyslids succeeded in increasing their power. In 1086, Duke Wratislaw was crowned the first King of Bohemia, but it was not until 1212 that Bohemian kingship became hereditary. At that time, the German Emperor Frederick II gave the Bohemian king Ottokar I the right of succession.

Under Ottokar II, who ruled from 1253-1278, the Bohemian kingdom had the greatest extent. It encompassed most of Central Europe, including Austria, Carinthia and Styria. However, after all these successes Ottokar also wanted to become German Emperor and this became fatal to him. The German Electors chose Rudolf of Habsburg as Emperor and he defeated Ottokar on the battlefield of Marchfeld.

All Austrian possessions were taken from Bohemia and passed to the Habsburg House. In 1306 Wenceslas III was murdered and the Premyslid dynasty came to a bloody end.

Hussites and Habsburgs

The new King of Bohemia in 1311 was Johan of Luxembourg, who was married to the daughter of Wenceslas. Johan died in 1346 and was succeeded by his son Charles, who was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1355 as Charles IV. It was he who made Prague the capital of the empire. Charles' reign was a highlight of Bohemia's history in many respects, including the founding in 1348 of Charles University, the oldest university in Central Europe.

In 1378, however, Charles was assassinated and this period of prosperity came to an end. He was succeeded by Wenceslas IV, who had to deal with major religious and social problems. Because Bohemia was under strong German influence, the Czech part of the population felt disadvantaged compared to the privileged nobility and richer bourgeoisie who were often German. The power and wealth of the Church was also a thorn in the flesh of the poorer sections of the population. He founded a religious-nationalist mass movement that fiercely opposed the secular Church. He also became popular because he spoke to the Czechs in their own language. Initially, Wenceslas showed some sympathy to the Hussites, but after protests from the Pope, support for the Hussites came to an end. Hus was even condemned to death for heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.

The anger and frustration of the population grew and in 1419 the Prague people stormed the town hall in Nové Mesto. When King Wenceslas died, the so-called Hussite wars broke out during which the imperial armies initially suffered great defeats. At that time, the Hussites consisted of a moderate faction, the 'utraquists', and the 'Taborites', who strived for a society based on communion and dispossession.

The Utraquists and the Church reached an agreement at the Council of Basel, but it was not until 1434 that the Táborites were defeated by imperial troops. In 1471, the last Czech on the Bohemian throne, Jirí of Podebrady, died. He was succeeded by members of the Polish dynasty of Jagellons, the last of whom died in 1526. Podebrady's son-in-law Ferdinand succeeded him and was the first Habsburger to become King of Bohemia. He established the right of succession for the Habsburgs and brought the Jesuits to Bohemia.

In 1575 Rudolf of Habsburg was crowned king. He then succeeded his father Maximilian II as Emperor Rudolf II and proclaimed Prague the capital of the entire empire. Prague flourished under his rule, but this changed rapidly in 1608 when he had to cede Moravia and Hungary to his younger brother Matthias. In 1611 Matthias succeeded his brother as King of Bohemia; Rudolf died in 1612 and the capital of the empire became Vienna. The religious freedoms were largely reversed again and this inevitably led to a revolt in 1618 which lasted until 8 November 1620. In revenge, the Habsburgs executed 27 leaders of the revolt, after which many intellectuals and clerics left the country. Those who stayed were forced to adopt the Catholic faith and a far-reaching Germanisation took place by the arrival of many German noble families. In 1648, with the help of Sweden, Protestant exiles made a last attempt to expel the Habsburgs, but without result.

Rising nationalism: Czech Republic and Slovakia back to one state

During the reign of Joseph II (1765-1790) some important changes took place. The power of the Catholic Church was curtailed and education was allowed in the Czech language. This was to some extent a response to Czech national consciousness, which only in the 19th century became a major factor in social and cultural life and opposed Austrian domination and the suppression of Czech language and culture that went with it.

In the European revolution year 1848, a Slavic congress was held in Prague, which resulted in an uprising. This uprising was quashed but it did revive Czech nationalism, as a result of which, in 1861, Czech became the second official language in Bohemia. On 28 October came the ultimate nationalist moment in the history of a state when the independent Czechoslovak Republic was proclaimed with Tomáš G. Masaryk as president. After 10 centuries the Czechs and Slovaks were reunited.

World War II

After World War I several million Germans lived in Czechoslovakia and they had had Czechoslovakian citizenship since 1918. It was therefore not surprising that Hitler had his eyes on this territory in connection with his "Heim-ins Reich- Politik". At the Munich Conference, the later Allies allowed Hitler to take possession of parts of Bohemia where many Germans lived in exchange for peace guarantees. The fact that Hitler could not be trusted was demonstrated when he occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia was founded on 15 March 1939. Slovakia benefited from this and declared its independence in 1939 and became a German vassal state. President Masaryk was succeeded in 1935 by Edvard Beneš, who fled to the United States in 1938 but would later return to the same position.

Czechoslovakia suffered greatly under the German occupation. For example, 340 men, women and children from the village of Lidice were murdered after the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech resistance. The most famous concentration camp in Czechoslovakia was Terezín (Theresienstadt). Especially the spring camp in Slovakia made an important contribution to the eventual liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and the United States. Even on 5 May 1945, a revolt against the German occupiers broke out in Prague, after which the Soviets liberated Prague on 9 May.

Postwar years

Edward Beneš, who fled, became the first post-war president of the reunified Czechoslovakia. Free elections were held in 1946, which were won by the Communist Party. Klement Gottwald became the prime minister of a coalition government of socialists, communists and social democrats. However, the Communists tried to push their ideas through so much that in 1948 a number of non-Communist ministers resigned. They hoped this would cause a government crisis in order to hold general elections afterwards. This did not happen, however; on the contrary, the Communists were far too powerful and, moreover, received support from the powerful Soviet Union.

Beneš bowed to so much pressure and accepted the departure of the non-communist ministers. Gottwald and his communists now held all the power and after Beneš' death Gottwald even became president of the republic. As usual in the Stalinist era, opponents of the new regime were eliminated (many executions) and purges took place within the party.

In 1953 Stalin died and was succeeded by the more moderate Khrushchev, who started the process of destalinisation. Gottwald died shortly after Stalin and was succeeded by the hardliner Novotny.

Sixties and seventies

Things started to change slowly in the 1960s as a number of reformist communists rose to the top of the Communist Party. The Slovak reformer Alexander Dubcek became party leader in 1968 after Novotny resigned under pressure from reformist party members. A period of liberalisation then began, which was to be known as the "Prague Spring" with its pursuit of democracy and respect for human rights.

The neighbouring communist countries, led of course by the Soviet Union, watched developments in Czechoslovakia with suspicion. On 21 August 1968 the Warsaw Pact countries, minus Romania, invaded Czechoslovakia and put an end to the nascent democracy. One exponent of this was Jan Palach, who committed suicide in public by setting himself on fire. Dubcek was replaced by Gustav Husák, who ran a repressive regime that left no room for civil liberties or criticism of the government.

The government tried to keep Czechoslovakians in line by raising the standard of living. At the end of the 1970s, a number of dissident intellectuals drew up a manifesto, Charta '77, calling for respect for human rights as laid down in the Helsinki Accords.

Velvet Revolution

Important figures of this movement were Jíri Hajek, Foreign Minister in the Dubcek government, the philosopher Jan Patocka, and the playwright Václav Havel, who would later become President of the Czech Republic. The 1980s were marked by reforms throughout Eastern Europe. The policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) with which Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev broke through the hitherto rigid communist policy in the Soviet Union was important.

On 21 August 1988, a demonstration was held in Prague to commemorate the Soviet invasion 20 years earlier. On 28 October there followed another demonstration demanding more freedom. In the same year, there were also small events that indicated a changing attitude on the part of the government towards the pursuit of more freedom. On 10 December, for example, a demonstration took place in support of human rights, with the approval of the authorities. This would have been impossible a few years earlier.

In January 1989, Havel was arrested together with several other dissidents at a memorial service for Jan Palach. Many protests followed from home and abroad, including from the US Secretary of State Schultz. Havel was given an eight-month prison sentence, but was released on parole in May. A petition for democratic reforms gathered 35,000 signatures within a few months.

After this, developments and events followed each other in rapid succession. Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not interfere in the internal affairs of the other Eastern Bloc countries and even implicitly called for reforms. These statements put so much pressure on the communist regimes that one after the other faltered and eventually fell. On 17 November the so-called 'Velvet Revolution' began in Czechoslovakia, with large demonstrations on Wenceslas Square in Prague and in other large cities. More than 50,000 people went to the square but the peaceful demonstration was broken up by the police and many of the demonstrators sustained serious injuries. This attitude of the police was the signal to organise more demonstrations.

On Monday 20 November, around 100,000 people stood in Wenceslas Square. The opposition united in the "Civic Forum" which started negotiations with the government under the leadership of Havel. On Thursday evening the military leaders declared their readiness to fight for socialism. Havel asked the workers to join the students and intellectuals and go on strike on Monday. This call was heeded en masse and millions of Czechs did go on strike.

On Friday 24 November the politburo resigned and on Saturday Karel Urbánek became the new party leader. On Wednesday 29 November the provision on the leading role of the Communist Party was removed from the Constitution, after which the Civic Forum demanded the resignation of President Gustáv Husák and the release of all political prisoners by 10 December. Prime Minister Adamec tried to form a new government, but when it turned out that many old communists were still in it, it was cancelled amid loud protests.

On 10 December Husák resigned as President and a provisional government with a communist minority was approved by the Civic Forum. Many ex-dissidents, including Jiri Dienstbier, Marian Calfa (prime minister), Jan Carnogursky took their places in the government. Havel was proposed by the Civic Forum as the new president and appointed on 29 November. Alexander Dubcek became the new parliamentary speaker. One of the first acts of the new government was to disband the secret police and prepare the first free elections.

On 8 and 9 June free elections were held for the federal parliament and the parliaments of the republics. The Civic Forum was the big winner and obtained a large majority in both the federal and the republican parliaments. The communists still received 13% of the votes and the conservative and fiercely anti-communist Christian Democratic CDU came in third. The separatist Slovak National Party also obtained quite a few seats in the federal parliament and ended up in third place in the Slovak state parliament. It soon became clear that communist rule had been disastrous for the economy and Czechoslovakia was practically bankrupt as a state.

The only remedy against economic ruin was the introduction of a market economy based on the Western model and privatisation of business. This change of economic course initially led to high unemployment, but soon the economy flourished, especially in Bohemia and Moravia; the economy in Slovakia got off to a slow start. Inflation fell, exports and GNP increased.

Vaclav Klaus was responsible for this policy. The harsh economic policy was detrimental to the older and less educated workers who were left out. As a result, Klaus was in constant conflict with Havel, the social face of the Czech Republic. On 19 August 1991, the Czechs were shocked. There was a coup in the Soviet Union and Gorbachev was imprisoned. For a while, people feared for the democratic reforms in the other Eastern Bloc countries, but in the end everything went very smoothly. On 21 August the coup was over and Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin in Moscow.

Czech Republic and Slovakia continue independent

Meanwhile, nationalism reared its head in Slovakia. Many Slovaks felt that Slovakia was disadvantaged compared to the Czechs and clearly wanted something different from the current federation. Ethnic differences also often played a major role in the controversies between the Czechs and Slovaks. The poor economic situation of Slovakia, which was hit much harder by Klaus's economic measures, also caused a strong push for independence.

The economy was also hit hard by the fall of communism in the Soviet Union after which the war industry practically disappeared as the main source of income. The nationalistic feelings were led by the Slovak National Party that strived for an independent Slovakia. In December 1990, a kind of compromise was reached in which a number of differences of opinion were settled. On 5 and 6 June 1992, general elections took place again and the main issue was the Czechoslovak question.

The elections were won by the Union of Democratic Citizens (ODS) of Václav Klaus and the left-wing HZDS party led by ex-communist and former Prime Minister of Slovakia, Vladimír Meciar. These two parties were diametrically opposed in terms of their principles. The ODS was very much oriented towards the Czech Republic and stood for far-reaching economic reforms and a free market economy. The HZDS, on the other hand, wanted more state intervention in the economy and stood for Slovak sovereignty. Immediately after the successful elections for both parties, negotiations were started with the intention of maintaining a federal state.

Major differences of opinion over the balance of power between the federal and state governments and the distribution of ministerial posts brought the negotiations to a complete standstill. A federation did not seem to be a viable option and the idea of a confederation was born, whereby the country would be divided into two practically independent states, linked only by a political treaty. At a later stage, the Slovakian people would be able to vote in a referendum for or against final independence. These negotiations also came to nothing and Meciar and Klaus came to the conclusion that there was no place for a federal structure.

A government team was formed to prepare for independence. But before that happened, the Slovak parliament unexpectedly declared sovereignty on 17 June 1992. Immediately afterwards, Havel stepped down disappointed and announced that he was still interested in the presidency of the Czech Republic. On 28 August, the Slovakian parliament adopted a new constitution, which came into force on 1 January.

On 1 January 1993 the Czech Republic and Slovakia continued as separate states as agreed and Klaus became the first Prime Minister of the Czech Republic. Havel was elected president for a five-year term. The decoupling of the Czech koruna from the Slovakian currency made it possible to implement rapid changes in the economy. In 1994, Havel expanded democracy by directly electing senators. In the same year, together with the other countries of the Visegrad Group, the Czech Republic joined NATO's Partnership for Peace programme. A year later, the Czech Republic became the first ex-communist country to join the OECD.

In the 1996 parliamentary elections, the ruling coalition won more votes than in 1992, but failed to win a majority in parliament due to the complicated electoral system. The Czech Social Democrats (CSSD) won a major victory, but a minority cabinet led by Prime Minister Klaus was formed, which would be tolerated by the Social Democrats. Senate elections were also held in 1996; the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) won 32 of the 81 seats.

In January 1996, the Czech Republic officially applied for membership of the European Union. At the beginning of 1997, Prime Minister Klaus and the German Chancellor Kohl signed a so-called declaration of reconciliation, in which Germany apologised for the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia during the Second World War. The Czech Republic in turn apologised for expelling three million Sudeten Germans just after the war.

Later that year the Czech Republic was invited by NATO to join the alliance and in December the EU decided that the Czech Republic could join in the not too distant future.

At the end of November 1997, Prime Minister Klaus resigned his government. Opposition both within and outside his own party grew and even President Havel withdrew his confidence in Klaus. In early 1998, a transitional cabinet was installed and in February Havel began his second term.

In the early parliamentary elections of June 1998, the opposition Social Democrats won a huge victory. As they failed to form a coalition with other parties, CSSD leader Milos Zeman formed a minority cabinet in July, which was tolerated by the ODS in exchange for a number of key positions. According to this agreement, ex-Prime Minister Klaus became Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In November 1998, elections were held for a third of the Senate seats, in which the CSSD suffered a significant defeat, possibly linked to the controversial agreement with the ODS.

In mid-March 1999, the Czech Republic officially joined NATO together with Poland and Hungary. Three months later, the Czech Republic made a military unit available to KFOR, the UN peacekeeping force in Kosovo. In 1999, both chambers of the Czech Parliament ratified the European Social Charter. In November, almost seven years after the federal republic was divided, the Czech Republic and Slovakia reached an agreement on the separation of estates (state property and debts).

21th century

In January 2000, the ruling social democratic ÈSSD of Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and the semi-oppositional conservative ODS of Parliament Speaker Václav Klaus renewed the opposition agreement. They agreed on changes to the electoral system that would make it more difficult for smaller parties to enter parliament. In November 2000, elections were held for 13 of the 14 new regional councils, which had been set up to decentralise the internal administration. The ODS won a majority in seven councils, while the opposition four-party coalition of mainly Christian Democrats and Liberals won five councils.

The elections for a third of the Senate seats, also held in November, were won gloriously by the four-party coalition, which thus became the largest group. The Social Democrats suffered a heavy defeat in both elections. Less than a third of the electorate participated in the elections.

On 1 May 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union. Following the poor result of the CSSD in the European Parliament elections (12 June 2004), in which the party won only 2 of the 24 seats available for the Czech Republic, MP Spidla resigned first as party leader of the social democratic party CSSD on 26 June and then as Prime Minister of the Czech Republic on 1 July. On 4 August 2004, President Klaus appointed a new government consisting of the same coalition partners (CSSD, KDU-CSL and US-DEU) led by Stanislav Gross. This government also had a one-vote majority in the House of Representatives. In February 2005, Prime Minister Gross was discredited for the way in which he and his wife had managed their personal financial affairs. After a crisis lasting more than two months, during which five ministers resigned, Gross resigned on 13 April. President Klaus appointed Regional Development Minister Jiri Paroubek (like Gross from the CSSD) as the new Prime Minister. On 13 May, the Paroubek government (composed, like the previous one, of CSSD, KDU-CSL and US-DEU) won the confidence of Parliament with a majority of 101 votes. Prime Minister Paroubek has indicated his intention to continue the policies of his predecessor. It is now generally expected that this government will be able to stay in office until the regular elections, which will be held on 2 and 3 June 2006. The results of these elections led to a stalemate.

Finally, in January 2007, a centre-right coalition was formed under the leadership of Mirek Topolanek. In February 2008 Václav Klaus was re-elected president. The Czech Republic took over the EU presidency in January 2009. In March Mirek Topolanek's government loses the confidence of the parliament. In May, an interim cabinet led by Jan Fischer takes office in anticipation of new elections to be held in May 2010. The Social Democrats win the most votes, but in June 2010 Petr Necas of the ODS forms a centre-right coalition. In December 2011, former president Havel dies.

Miloš Zeman has been president of the Czech Republic since 8 March 2013. Zeman was the first president to be elected by the people; his predecessors Havel and Klaus were elected by parliament. In June 2013, Prime Minister Necas resigned after a scandal; his successor was Jin Rusnik. In the October 2013 parliamentary elections, the Social Democrats win but do not get an absolute majority. In January 2014, Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobatka becomes the leader of a coalition government. In the years 2015 and 2016, the Czech Republic belongs to the group of European countries demanding strict admission criteria and advocating the sparing admission of refugees. In December 2017, Andrej Babis becomes the new Prime Minister, he already loses a vote of confidence in January 2018 and resigns. He is succeeded by Jan Hamacek in July 2018. The populist ANO party suffers a surprising defeat in the 2021 elections, after four years in power, at the hands of the centre-right Spolu coalition led by Petr Fiala, who becomes prime minister.

In early February 2023, former General Petr Pavel, former head of NATO's Military Committee and chief of the Czech General Staff, was elected president of the Czech Republic.


Sources

Mandos, M. / Tsjechiƫ
ANWB

Schneider, J. / Tsjechiƫ
Kosmos-Z&K

Sioras, E. / Czech Republic
Marshall Cavendish

Tsjechiƫ, Slowakije
Lannoo

Wilson, N. / Czech & Slovak Republics
Lonely Planet

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated March 2024
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