Archaeologists have found evidence of prehistoric human settlements in the area, dating back to the Palaeolithic period. The figurine of Venus of Věstonice found here, along with several others from nearby sites, is the oldest known ceramic item in the world.
In the classical period, from the 3rd century BC, Celtic migrations settled here, the Boii and later in the 1st century the Germanic tribes of the Marcomanni and Quadi. Their king Maroboduus is the first documented ruler of Bohemia. During the Migration Period, around the 5th century, many Germanic tribes moved outside Central Europe to the west and south.
Slavic peoples from the Black Sea area and the Carpathians settled in the region (a movement also stimulated by the onslaught of the peoples of Siberia and Eastern Europe: Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Magyars). In the 6th century they moved westwards into Bohemia, Moravia and parts of present-day Austria and Germany. In the 7th century, the Frankish merchant Samo, who supported the Slavs in their struggle against the nearby Avars, became the ruler of the first known Slavic state in Central Europe, the Samo Empire. The principality of Moravia Great Moravia emerged in the 8th century and reached its peak in the 9th century, when it resisted the influence of the Franks and won the protection of the Pope.
The Duchy of Bohemia came into being at the end of the 9th century, when it was unified by the Přemyslid dynasty. In the 10th century, the Bohemian Duke Boleslaus I conquered Moravia and Silesia and expanded further eastwards. The Bohemian Kingdom was the only kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire to be a significant regional power in the Middle Ages. It was part of the Empire from 1002 to 1806, with the exception of the years 1440-1526. In 1212, King Přemysl Ottokar I. (who had held the title “king” since 1198) issued the Golden Bull of Sicily (a formal edict) to the emperor, confirming the royal status of Ottokar and his descendants; the Duchy of Bohemia was elevated to a kingdom. The bull declared that the King of Bohemia was exempt from all future obligations to the Holy Roman Empire, except for attending imperial councils. In the 13th century, German immigrants settled on the periphery of Bohemia. The Germans settled towns and mining districts and in some cases formed German colonies within Bohemia. In 1235, the Mongols launched an invasion of Europe. After the Battle of Legnica in Poland, the Mongols carried out their raids in Moravia, but were defeated defensively at the fortified city of Olomouc. The Mongols then invaded and defeated Hungary.
King Přemysl Otakar II was nicknamed “King of Iron and Gold” because of his military might and wealth. He acquired Austria, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola, expanding the territory from Bohemia to the Adriatic. He died in 1278 in the Battle of the Marchfeld, during a war with his rival, King Rudolf I of Germany. Ottokar’s son, Wenceslas II, acquired the Polish crown for himself and the Hungarian crown for his son in 1300. He established a great empire stretching from the Danube to the Baltic Sea. In 1306, the last king of the Přemyslid dynasty was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Olomouc while he was resting. After a series of dynastic wars, the House of Luxembourg won the Bohemian throne.
The 14th century, especially the reign of the Bohemian King Charles IV (1316-1378), who became King of the Romans in 1346 and both King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor in 1354, is considered the golden age of Bohemian history. Of particular significance is the founding of Charles University in Prague in 1348 at Charles Bridge on Charles Square. A large part of Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral in the Gothic style were completed during his reign. He united Brandenburg (until 1415), Lusatia (until 1635) and Silesia (until 1742) under the Bohemian crown. The Black Death, which ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1352, decimated the Bohemian kingdom in 1380, killing about 10% of the population.
At the end of the 14th century, the process of the so-called Bohemian Reform began. The religious and social reformer Jan Hus formed a reform movement that would later bear his name. Although Hus was labelled a heretic and burned at Constance in 1415, his followers split from the Catholic Church and defeated five crusades organised against them by the Roman Emperor Sigismund in the course of the Hussite Wars (1419-1434). Petr Chelčický took up the Hussite Reformation movement. In the next two centuries, 90% of the population became followers of the Hussite movement. Hus’ thoughts had a great influence on Lutheranism, which emerged later. Luther himself said: “We are all Hussites without being aware of it” and saw himself as a direct successor of Hus.
After 1526, Bohemia came increasingly under the control of the Habsburgs, who became first elected and then hereditary rulers of Bohemia in 1627. The Austrian Habsburgs of the 16th century, founders of the Central European Habsburg Monarchy, were buried in Prague. Between 1583 and 1611, Prague was the official seat of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and his court.
The siege of Prague and the revolt against the Habsburgs in 1618 marked the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, which quickly spread throughout Central Europe. In 1620, the uprising in Bohemia was put down at the Battle of White Mountain and relations between Bohemia and the Habsburg hereditary lands in Austria were strengthened. The leaders of the Bohemian uprising were executed in 1621. The Protestant nobility and bourgeoisie must either convert to Catholicism or leave the country.
The following period from 1620 to the end of the 18th century is often colloquially referred to as the “Dark Ages”. The population of the Bohemian lands decreased by a third due to the expulsion of the Bohemian Protestants as well as war, disease and famine. The Habsburgs banned all Christian denominations except Catholicism. The flowering of Baroque culture shows the ambiguity of this historical period. In 1663 the Turks and Ottoman Tatars invaded Moravia. In 1679-1680, the Czech lands were confronted with a devastating plague and an uprising of serfs.
The reigns of Maria Theresa of Austria and her son Joseph II, Roman Emperor and co-regent from 1765, were characterised by enlightened absolutism. In 1740, King Frederick II of Prussia captured most of Silesia (except for the southernmost area) during the Silesian Wars. In 1757, the Prussians invaded Bohemia and occupied the city after the Battle of Prague (1757). More than a quarter of Prague was destroyed and St Vitus Cathedral also suffered heavy damage. But shortly afterwards, at the Battle of Kolín, Frederick was defeated and had to leave Prague and withdraw from Bohemia. In 1770 and 1771, the Great Famine killed about a tenth of Bohemia’s population, or 250,000 inhabitants, and radicalised the rural population, leading to peasant revolts. Serfdom was abolished (in two stages) between 1781 and 1848.
The end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 led to a deterioration in the political status of the Bohemian Kingdom. Bohemia lost its position as an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire as well as its own political representation in the Imperial Diet. The Bohemian lands became part of the Austrian Empire and later Austria-Hungary. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the development of the Czech national revival began with the aim of reviving the Czech language, culture and national identity. The Prague Revolution of 1848, which aimed at liberal reforms and the autonomy of the Bohemian crown within the Austrian Empire, was crushed. In 1866, Austria was defeated by Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War. The Austrian Empire had to redefine itself in order to preserve its unity in the face of nationalism. At first it looked as if some concessions would be made to Bohemia as well, but in the end Emperor Franz Joseph I compromised with Hungary alone. The Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867 and the never-achieved coronation of Franz Joseph as King of Bohemia led to enormous disappointment among Bohemian politicians. The lands of the Bohemian Crown became part of the West Bank (officially “the kingdoms and lands represented in the Imperial Council”). The first elections with universal male suffrage were held in 1907. The last Bohemian king was Blessed Charles of Austria, who reigned from 1916 to 1918.
An estimated 1.4 million Czech soldiers fought in the First World War, of whom about 150,000 died. Although the majority of Czech soldiers fought for Austria-Hungary, more than 90,000 Czech volunteers formed the Czechoslovak Legions in France, Italy and Russia, where they fought against the Central Powers and later against Bolshevik troops. When the Habsburg Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, the independent Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, joining the victorious Allied powers. This new country comprised the Bohemian Crown (Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) and parts of the Hungarian Kingdom (Slovakia and Ruthenia of the Carpathians) with large German-speaking, Hungarian, Polish and Ruthenian minorities.
In 1929, the gross domestic product increased by 52% and industrial production by 41% compared to 1913. In 1938, Czechoslovakia ranked tenth in world industrial production.
Although Czechoslovakia was a unitary state, it granted its minorities quite extensive rights at the time and remained the only democracy in this part of Europe during the interwar period. However, the effects of the Great Depression – including high unemployment and massive propaganda from Nazi Germany – led to discontent and strong support among ethnic Germans for a break with Czechoslovakia.
Adolf Hitler seized this opportunity and, with the help of Konrad Henlein’s separatist Sudeten German Party, won the largely German-speaking Sudetenland (and its important Maginot Line border fortifications) through the Munich Agreement of 1938 (signed by Nazi Germany, France, Britain and Italy). Czechoslovakia was not invited to the conference, and the Czechs and Slovaks called the Munich Agreement a betrayal because France (which had an alliance with Czechoslovakia) and Britain abandoned Czechoslovakia instead of opposing Hitler, which later proved inevitable.
Despite the mobilisation of the 1.2 million-strong Czechoslovak army and the Franco-Czech military alliance, Poland annexed the Zaolzia zone around Český Těšín; Hungary won parts of Slovakia and Transcarpathian Rus in Vienna in November 1938. The other parts of Slovakia and Transcarpathia-Rus were given greater autonomy when the state was renamed “Czech Slovakia”. After Nazi Germany threatened to annex part of Slovakia and cede the remaining territories to Hungary and Poland, Slovakia decided to preserve its national and territorial integrity by seceding from Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and allying itself with Hitler’s coalition, as demanded by Germany.
The rest of the Czech territory was occupied by Germany, which transformed it into the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Protectorate was declared part of the Third Reich, and the President and Prime Minister were placed under the authority of the Reich Protector of National Socialist Germany. Transcarpathia Rus declared its independence as the Carpatho-Ukrainian Republic on 15 March 1939, but was invaded by Hungary the same day and officially annexed the next day. Approximately 345,000 Czechoslovak citizens, including 277,000 Jews, were killed or executed, while hundreds of thousands more were sent to Nazi prisons and concentration camps or used for forced labour. Up to two-thirds of the citizens belonged to groups targeted for deportation or death by the Nazis. One concentration camp was located on Czech territory in Theresienstadt, north of Prague.
There was Czech resistance to Nazi occupation, both at home and abroad, including the assassination of German Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak soldiers Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš in a Prague suburb on 27 May 1942. On 9 June 1942, Hitler ordered bloody reprisals against the Czechs in response to Czech anti-Nazi resistance. The Czechoslovak government-in-exile and its army fought the Germans and were recognised by the Allies. Czech/Czech troops fought in Poland, France, Britain, North Africa, the Middle East and the Soviet Union from the beginning of the war. German occupation ended on 9 May 1945 with the arrival of the Soviet and American armies and the Prague Uprising. An estimated 140,000 Soviet soldiers died in the liberation of Czechoslovakia from German rule.
In the years 1945-1946, almost the entire German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia, about 3 million people, were expelled to Germany and Austria. During this time, thousands of Germans were held in prisons and internment camps or used for forced labour. Several massacres took place in the summer of 1945. The only Germans who were not deported were the approximately 250,000 people who had actively participated in the resistance against the Nazi Germans or were considered economically important, many of whom later emigrated. After a referendum organised by the Soviets, Transcarpathian Rus did not return to Czechoslovak rule, but was integrated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as the Sakarpattia Oblast in 1946.
Czechoslovakia uneasily tried to be a “bridge” between West and East. However, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia quickly gained popularity due to general disillusionment with the West as a result of the pre-war Munich Agreement and positive popular attitudes towards the Soviet Union because of the role the Soviets played in liberating Czechoslovakia from German domination. In the 1946 elections, the Communists won 38% of the vote and became the largest party in the Czechoslovak parliament. They formed a coalition government with other National Front parties and quickly consolidated power. An important change occurred in 1948 with the coup d’état of the Communist Party. The Communist People’s Militia took control of the main localities in Prague and a one-party government was formed.
For the next 41 years, Czechoslovakia was a communist state within the Eastern Bloc. This period was characterised by lagging behind the West in almost all aspects of social and economic development. The country’s GDP per capita rose from the level of neighbouring Austria to that of Greece or Portugal in the 1980s. The communist government completely nationalised the means of production and introduced a planned economy. The economy grew rapidly in the 1950s, but slowed down in the 1960s and 1970s and stagnated in the 1980s. The political climate was very repressive in the 1950s, with many show trials and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, but it became more open and tolerant in the late 1960s, culminating with the leadership of Alexander Dubček in the Prague Spring of 1968, which sought to create a “socialism with a human face” and perhaps even introduce political pluralism. It was brought to a violent end with the invasion of all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania and Albania on 21 August 1968.
The invasion was followed by a harsh “normalisation” programme in the late 1960s and 1970s. Until 1989, the political establishment relied on censorship of the opposition. Dissidents published Charter 77 in 1977 and the first of a new wave of protests took place in 1988. Between 1948 and 1989, some 250,000 Czechs and Slovaks were imprisoned for political reasons, and more than 400,000 emigrated.
Velvet Revolution and Independence
In November 1989, Czechoslovakia returned to a liberal democracy thanks to the peaceful “Velvet Revolution”. However, Slovak national aspirations were strengthened and on 1 January 1993 the country peacefully separated into an independent Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both countries undertook economic reforms and privatisation with the intention of creating a market economy. This process has been largely successful; in 2006 the Czech Republic was recognised by the World Bank as a “developed country” and in 2009 the Human Development Index ranked the Czech Republic as a nation with “very high human development”.
The Czech Republic, originally part of Czechoslovakia and a full member since 1993, has been a member of the Visegrád Group since 1991 and of the OECD since 1995. The Czech Republic joined NATO on 12 March 1999 and the European Union on 1 May 2004. On 21 December 2007, the Czech Republic joined the Schengen area.