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History of the Czech Lands

500 - 1306: The Great Moravian Empire and the Premyslid Dynasty

Some of the oldest settlers of the Czech lands were the Boii, a Celtic tribe that inhabited the region from around the 4th century BC and who gave Bohemia its name. The Celts were later replaced by Germanic tribes, and around the 6th century AD, the Slavs finally reached the territory from the east. In the 7th century, a Frankish merchant Sámo succeeded in uniting the Slavic tribes under his empire and defeating the tribe of the Avars that occupied today's Hungary.

Around 830, the Great Moravian Empire (Velkomoravská ríše) was established along the Morava River by the Slavic leader Mojmír. Mojmír's successors expanded the empire to include today's Bohemia, Slovakia, southern Poland and western Hungary. The empire found itself at the crossroads between the Germanic people in the west and the Byzantium in the east. Mojmír's successor Rostislav feared the German influence and asked the Byzantine emperor to send two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius of Constantinople, to come and spread Eastern Christianity in the Great Moravian Empire. Cyril and Methodius created the Slavonic script (Cyrillic alphabet that is still in use in Russia and Bulgaria) and translated religious texts from Greek and Latin into the Old Slavonic language. After Methodius' death in 885, the Roman Catholic religion was adopted and the Cyrillic script was replaced by the Latin alphabet. The Great Moravian Empire collapsed with the Hungarian invasion in 907.

The rule over the region was now in the hands of the Premyslid dynasty that dominated the Czech lands from the 9th century until 1306. Around 880, the Prague Castle was founded by prince Borivoj, the first of the Premyslid princes, and the seat of power was moved there. Several churches, such as the St. Vitus rotunda, were built and foundations were laid to the Vyšehrad Castle in the 10th century. The Prague bishopric was founded in 973. The Czech lands had a high economic, cultural, and political status during the Premyslid rule, which was further strengthened by Vratislav II being granted the royal crown and becoming the first Czech king in 1085 - so far remaining subordinate to the Holy Roman Empire and the German king, with the royal title being made hereditary in 1212 by the Golden Sicilian Bull.

In the meantime, Prague was growing rapidly thanks to its position at the crossroads of several trade routes. The first stone bridge over the Vltava, Judith Bridge, was built in 1172. The Old Town (Staré mesto) was founded in 1234 and the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) was founded in 1257. During the reign of Premysl Otakar II in mid-13th century, the Czech kingdom briefly expanded all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The Premyslid dynasty ended with the death of its last member, Wenceslas III, in 1306.

1310 - 1378: John of Luxembourg and Charles IV

The Czech throne was taken by John of Luxembourg who ruled the country from 1310 to 1346. During his reign, the territory of the Czech lands expanded and Prague continued to grow. The Prague Castle Area (Hradcany) was founded around 1320, followed by the Old Town Hall in 1338.

During the reign of John of Luxembourg's son Charles IV, the Czech lands experienced the Golden Age of their history. Charles IV was a highly educated man (he spoke five languages), an excellent diplomat and a very good king. He established Prague as the cultural capital of central Europe and made it one of the most prosperous European cities at the time. The Czech language was promoted to the official language in the country along with Latin and German, and the position of Bohemia became very strong.

Charles IV loved Prague and the city flourished during his rule. The Prague bishopric was upgraded to an archbishopric and when the king was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, Prague's status increased to the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Many building projects were started during Charles' reign, including the St. Vitus Cathedral. In 1348, Prague's New Town (Nové mesto) was founded, the Charles University was established to become the first university in Central Europe, and the Karlštejn castle was founded to protect the imperial jewels and other treasures. The construction of Charles Bridge began in 1357 at the place where Judith Bridge once stood (it collapsed in a flood in 1342).

Charles IV is remembered as the most beloved Czech king and the "father of the Czech nation". Charles IV's son and successor Wenceslas IV took the throne after his father and his reign extended into the time of the Hussite wars of the 15th century.

1415 - 1526: The Hussite Era and George of Podebrady

The 15th century is marked by conflicts between the Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, a reform movement (reformace) was started and lead by priest John Huss (Jan Hus). Influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, Huss spoke against the corruption of the Catholic Church. His sermons in Prague's Bethlehem Chapel were conducted in Czech to be understood by ordinary people. Hus' ideology was not liked by the Church and Hus was burned at the stake in 1415.

The killing of Hus started a massive protest movement by his followers, the Hussites. In 1419, the First Defenestration of Prague took place when the Hussites threw seven counselors out of the windows of Prague's New Town Hall. The religious Hussite wars were then sweeping the country from 1420 to 1434 when the last battle, the Battle of Lipany, took place. Many historical artifacts and literature were destroyed during the wars and the Prague Castle deteriorated. The conflicts ended by an agreement between the Hussites and the Catholic Church.

After some 20 years without a ruler, the Hussites elected a Czech Protestant, George of Podebrady (Jirí z Podebrad), as the country's new king in 1458. The "Hussite king" Jirí became another beloved king in Czech history. He lead a policy of peace and wished to unite the whole Europe in one peaceful nation. Even after his death, during the reign of the Polish Wladislaw and Ludwig Jagellons, Protestants and Catholics lived peacefully side by side.


1526 - 1790: The Hapsburg Dynasty to Joseph II

Ludwig Jagellon died in battle in 1526 and Ferdinand I of Hapsburg took up the Czech throne, thus initiating the Hapsburg rule over the country that lasted until 1918. Ferdinand strengthened the position of the king and firmly reinstated the Catholic religion in the country, which included the arrival of the Jesuits in Prague based upon his invitation. The seat of power moved to Vienna and the Prague Castle became more of a recreational site for the Hapsburgs. It was reconstructed in the Renaissance style and the Royal Garden, the Belvedere, and the Ballgame Hall were added.

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, was crowned the Czech king in 1576 and moved his court back to Prague in 1583, thus promoting Prague to the imperial seat of power again. This era is sometimes referred to as Prague's Second Golden Age. Rudolf was obsessed with art and science, not spending much time on his royal duties, and made Prague the center of science and alchemy. It was during his reign that Prague earned its nickname "Magic Prague". Rudolf's court attracted scientists and artists from all over Europe, including astronomers Tycho de Brahe and Johannes Kepler. The legend of the Golem comes from that time, too.

Rudolf's successor Matthias attempted to deprive the Protestants of the few freedoms they were left with since the Hapsburgs took the throne, and this oppression resulted in another Protestant uprising. The rebellion started with the Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618 when several Matthias' governors were thrown out of a window of the Prague Castle (they landed on a pile of garbage and survived). The protests culminated in the Battle of the White Mountain (bitva na Bílé hore) in 1620 in which the Protestants were severely defeated by the Hapsburgs. The Battle of the White Mountain resulted in the Thirty Years' War that spread across Europe. 27 Protestant leaders were executed on the Old Town Square in May 1621 and all religions except Catholic were banned. The Czech language and national consciousness were suppressed for the next 150 years. Prague lost its importance and the Prague Castle deteriorated. This period in Czech history is referred to as the Dark Age (doba temna).

The situation started improving with Marie Therese who ruled the Austrian Empire from 1740 to 1780. She and her son and successor Joseph II (1780-1790) brought some needed reforms that included reducing the power of the Catholic Church, expelling the Jesuits from the country in 1773, and issuing the Edict of Tolerance in 1781, which granted political and religious rights to religious minorities. The four independent urban areas of Prague (Old Town, Malá Strana, Hradcany, and New Town) were united by Joseph II in 1784. Josefov (named after the emperor) was added to the Prague's historical center in 1850.

In 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Prague and was the guest of the Dušeks, leading Czech musicians, at their villa Bertramka. His opera Don Giovanni had its premiere at the Estates Theatre.

1790 - 1914: National Revival to World War I

A nationalist movement called the National Revival (národní obrození) started at the end of the 18th century, attempting to bring the Czech language, culture and national identity back to life. Some of the most prominent figures of the revival movement were Josef Dobrovský and Josef Jungmann who succeeded in introducing the study of the Czech language in schools, and historian František Palacký, author of the History of the Czech People. Czech literature was reborn with novelist Božena Nemcová, Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha, political columnist Karel Havlícek Borovský, and others. The first dictionary of the Czech language (the Czech-German Dictionary) was written by Josef Jungmann and published in five volumes in 1834-1839. Czech institutions were established to celebrate the Czech history and culture. The National Theater opened in 1883 and the National Museum in 1890.

The 19th century is also characterized by the Industrial Revolution and the building of factories. A railway between Vienna and Prague was opened in 1845. The growing industry resulted in an increase of Prague's Czech population as people moved to the city from the countryside.

The beginning of the end of the Hapsburg dynasty came with the assassination of Francis Ferdinand in 1914, an event that preceded World War I.

1918 - 1945: The First Republic and World War II

With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, the Czech lands and Slovakia jointly proclaimed the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia on October 28, 1918. Prague became the capital of the country and the Prague Castle became the seat of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The time between WWI and WWII is now called "the First Republic". Czechoslovakia had a parliamentary democracy, concentrated 70% of the industry of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had an economy that was among the strongest in the world. Prague became close to Paris then, as is exemplified by the great Czech-French art-nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha.

In the mid-1930s, the German inhabitants of the Czech border areas called the Sudetenland began calling for autonomy. Masaryk resigned from his post of president in 1935 due to illness and was replaced by Edvard Beneš. In September 1938, Germany, Britain, France and Italy signed the Munich Pact, giving Hitler the right to invade and claim Czechoslovakia's border areas, despite the fact that France had a treaty with Czechoslovakia promising help in the event of military aggression. O nás bez nás (about us, without us) has become a phrase bitterly remembered by all Czechs. On March 15, 1939, Czechoslovakia was invaded by Hitler's army. The border territories were seized by Germany and the rest of the country was occupied by Nazi Germany until the end of World War II in 1945. The end of the war came with the Prague Uprising on May 5, 1945 and the subsequent liberation of Prague by the Soviet Red Army on May 9. The western territories of the Czech Republic, including Plzen, were liberated by the American army lead by General Patton.

1945 - 1989: The Communist Era

Soon after WWII, the power in the country went largely to the hands of the Communist Party and the first wave of nationwide nationalization of the industry and other areas of the economy took place. At the same time, some two million Germans were expelled from the country and their property was confiscated.

The Communist Party seized complete power after the coup d'etat on February 25, 1948. This event marked the start of the Communist totalitarian regime that lasted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. A second wave of nationalization took place and 95% of all privately owned companies became the property of the state. There were a number of political trials and executions in the following several years. The economy went steadily down under the socialist regime. Basic human rights were suppressed.

The 1960s were a time of greater political and cultural freedom and changes were made in the Communist Party itself. Alexander Dubcek, secretary of the Communist Party, attempted to create a more humane version of socialism, "socialism with a human face", that would guarantee people's basic rights and reduce the amount of political persecution in the country. The changes culminated in the spring of 1968 (known as "Prague Spring") when changes reached the government. The growing political freedoms in Czechoslovakia were seen as a threat by the Soviet Union. On August 21, 1968, five Warsaw Pact member countries invaded Czechoslovakia and Soviet troops continued to occupy the country until 1989.

The period from 1968 to mid-1980s was the period of "normalization", the purpose of which was to put things back to the way they were before the attempted Prague Spring reform. Any sign of disapproval of the regime was persecuted and opposition moved underground or became limited to isolate acts of protest, such as the suicide of Jan Palach, student of Charles University, who lit himself on fire on Prague's Wenceslas Square in January 1969.

1989 - present: Velvet Revolution and Beyond

The Russian perestroika that was introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s marked the last years of communism in Czechoslovakia. The late 1980s are characterized by public demonstrations. A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Velvet Revolution brought an end to communism. Václav Havel, former dissident, was elected president during the country's first democratic elections in January 1990.

On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two independent countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. In 2002, the country was approved to become a member of the European Union on May 1, 2004

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