Archaeologists have discovered evidence of ancient human dwellings going back to the Paleolithic period in the region. The figure Venus of Doln Vstonice discovered here, along with a few others at adjacent sites, is the world’s earliest known ceramic item.
Celtic migrations, the Boii, and subsequently in the 1st century, Germanic tribes of Marcomanni and Quadi moved there in the classical period, beginning in the 3rd century BC. Maroboduus, their monarch, is the first recorded ruler of Bohemia. Many Germanic tribes migrated westwards and southwards out of Central Europe during the Migration Period around the 5th century.
The area was inhabited by Slavic people from the Black Sea–Carpathian region (a movement that was also stimulated by the onslaught of peoples from Siberia and Eastern Europe: Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Magyars). They spread westward into Bohemia, Moravia, and parts of modern-day Austria and Germany in the sixth century. During the 7th century, the Frankish trader Samo, who supported the Slavs battling against the neighboring settled Avars, became the king of the Samo’s Empire, the first recorded Slav state in Central Europe. The Moravian principality of Great Moravia emerged in the eighth century and reached its apex in the ninth, when it resisted the Franks and gained the protection of the Pope.
The Duchy of Bohemia arose in the late 9th century, when the Pemyslid dynasty united the region. Boleslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, conquered Moravia, Silesia, and pushed farther east in the 10th century. During the Middle Ages, the Monarchy of Bohemia was a major regional force as the sole kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire. With the exception of the years 1440–1526, it was a part of the Empire from 1002 until 1806. In 1212, Ruling Pemysl Ottokar I (king since 1198) obtained the Golden Bull of Sicily (a formal decree) from the emperor, confirming Ottokar and his successors’ royal legitimacy; the Duchy of Bohemia was elevated to the rank of Kingdom. The bull stated that, with the exception of participation in imperial councils, the King of Bohemia would be free from all future duties to the Holy Roman Empire. In the 13th century, German settlers landed on the outskirts of Bohemia. Germans settled in cities and mining areas, and in certain instances established German colonies in Bohemia’s interior. The Mongols began an invasion of Europe in 1235. Following the Battle of Legnica in Poland, the Mongols launched incursions into Moravia, but were repelled defensively at the fortified town of Olomouc. Following that, the Mongols invaded and conquered Hungary.
Because of his military might and riches, King Pemysl Otakar II was dubbed the Iron and Golden King. He conquered Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, extending Bohemian dominion all the way to the Adriatic Sea. In a battle with his adversary, King Rudolph I of Germany, he was killed in the Battle of the Marchfeld in 1278. In 1300, Ottokar’s son, Wenceslaus II, gained the Polish throne for himself and the Hungarian throne for his son. He established a vast empire that stretched from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea. At 1306, the last monarch of the Pemyslid dynasty was assassinated in Olomouc while he was sleeping. The House of Luxembourg ascended to the Bohemian crown after a series of dynastic conflicts.
The 14th century, particularly the reign of Bohemian monarch Charles IV (1316–1378), who became King of the Romans in 1346 and King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor in 1354, is regarded as the Golden Age of Czech history. The establishment of Charles University in Prague in 1348, as well as Charles Bridge and Charles Square, were all significant events. During his reign, he oversaw the completion of the Gothic-style Prague Castle and the church of Saint Vitus. He united the Czech kingdom over Brandenburg (until 1415), Lusatia (until 1635), and Silesia (until 1742). The Black Death, which ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1352, devastated the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1380, killing about 10% of the population.
By the end of the 14th century, the so-called Bohemian (Czech) Reformation had begun. Jan Hus, a religious and social reformer, founded a reform movement that was subsequently named after him. Although Hus was declared a heretic and burned at the stake in Constance in 1415, his adherents seceded from the Catholic Church and fought five crusades launched against them by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in the Hussite Wars (1419–1434). Petr Chelick remained active in the Hussite Reformation movement. Over the following two centuries, 90 percent of the population became followers of the Hussite movement. Hus’ ideas had a significant impact on the later developing Lutheranism. Luther himself said, “We are all Hussites without being aware of it,” and saw himself as Hus’ immediate heir.
After 1526, the Habsburgs gradually gained control of Bohemia, first as elected rulers and later as hereditary rulers in 1627. The founders of the central European Habsburg Monarchy, the Austrian Habsburgs of the 16th century, were buried at Prague. Between 1583 until 1611, Prague served as the official residence of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and his court.
The Defenestration of Prague in 1618, and the following rebellion against the Habsburgs, heralded the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, which rapidly swept across Central Europe. The revolt in Bohemia was defeated at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, strengthening connections between Bohemia and the Habsburgs’ hereditary territories in Austria. In 1621, the leaders of the Bohemian Revolt were executed. The country’s aristocracy and middle-class Protestants were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee.
The ensuing era, from 1620 until the late 18th century, has been dubbed the “Dark Age.” The population of the Czech lands fell by one-third as a result of the deportation of Czech Protestants, as well as conflict, illness, and hunger. All Christian confessions other than Catholicism were outlawed by the Habsburgs. The emergence of Baroque culture exemplifies the uncertainty of this historical epoch. In 1663, Ottoman Turks and Tatars invaded Moravia. In 1679–1680, the Czech lands were hit by a terrible epidemic and a serf revolt.
Maria Theresa of Austria and her son Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and co-regent from 1765, ruled with enlightened absolutism. During the Silesian Wars in 1740, King Frederick II of Prussia conquered most of Silesia (save the southernmost region). The Prussians invaded Bohemia in 1757 and captured Prague following the Battle of Prague (1757). More than a fifth of Prague was destroyed, and St. Vitus Cathedral was badly damaged. Soon later, however, in the Battle of Koln, Frederick was beaten and forced to flee Prague and withdraw from Bohemia. In 1770 and 1771, the Great Famine killed about one-tenth of the Czech population, or 250,000 people, and radicalized the countryside, sparking peasant uprisings. Between 1781 and 1848, serfdom was abolished (in two stages).
The fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 resulted in the political demise of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Bohemia lost its status as a Holy Roman Empire electorate, as well as its own political representation in the Imperial Diet. The Bohemian territories were absorbed into the Austrian Empire and, subsequently, Austria–Hungary. The Czech National Revival started in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the goal of revitalizing Czech language, culture, and national identity. The Prague Revolution of 1848, which sought liberal reforms and autonomy for the Bohemian Crown within the Austrian Empire, was crushed. In the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Austria was defeated by Prussia. To preserve unity in the face of nationalism, the Austrian Empire sought to reinvent itself. At first, it seemed that some concessions might be made to Bohemia as well, but in the end, Emperor Franz Joseph I only reached a settlement with Hungary. The 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise and the never-realized crowning of Franz Joseph as King of Bohemia disappointed Czech politicians greatly. The Bohemian Crown territories were included into the so-called Cisleithania (officially “The Kingdoms and Lands represented in the Imperial Council”). In 1907, the first elections with universal male suffrage were conducted. Blessed Charles of Austria was the last King of Bohemia, reigning from 1916 until 1918.
Approximately 1.4 million Czech troops participated in World War I, with approximately 150,000 of them dying. Despite the fact that the bulk of Czech soldiers fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, more than 90,000 Czech volunteers joined the Czechoslovak Legions in France, Italy, and Russia, where they fought against the Central Powers and, subsequently, Bolshevik forces. During the fall of the Habsburg Empire at the conclusion of World War I, the independent republic of Czechoslovakia was established, which joined the victorious Allied forces. This new nation included the Bohemian Crown (Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia) and portions of the Kingdom of Hungary (Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia), as well as substantial German, Hungarian, Polish, and Ruthenian language minorities.
The gross domestic product grew by 52% in 1929 compared to 1913, while industrial output climbed by 41%. Czechoslovakia ranked tenth in the world in industrial output in 1938.
Although Czechoslovakia was a unitary state, it granted minorities with what were at the time very broad rights and remained the sole democracy in this area of Europe throughout the interwar era. However, the consequences of the Great Depression, particularly severe unemployment and Nazi Germany’s enormous propaganda, led in dissatisfaction and significant support among ethnic Germans for a split with Czechoslovakia.
Adolf Hitler took advantage of this chance and, with the help of Konrad Henlein’s separatist Sudeten German Party, won control of the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland (along with significant Maginot Line-like border fortifications) via the 1938 Munich Agreement (signed by Nazi Germany, France, Britain, and Italy). Czechoslovakia was not invited to the meeting, and Czechs and Slovaks refer to the Munich Agreement as the Munich Betrayal because France (which had an alliance with Czechoslovakia) and Britain agreed to give away Czechoslovakia rather than face Hitler, which proved unavoidable in the end.
Despite the mobilization of the Czechoslovak army and the Franco-Czech military alliance, Poland seized the Zaolzie region near esk Tn; Hungary received portions of Slovakia and the Subcarpathian Rus as a consequence of the First Vienna Award in November 1938. The remaining parts of Slovakia and the Subcarpathian Rus acquired more autonomy, and the state was called “Czecho-Slovakia.” After Nazi Germany threatened to annex part of Slovakia, allowing the remaining regions to be partitioned by Hungary and Poland, Slovakia chose to maintain its national and territorial integrity by seceding from Czecho-Slovakia in March 1939 and allying itself with Hitler’s coalition, as Germany demanded.
Germany seized the remaining Czech land, transforming it into the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The protectorate was declared a part of the Third Reich, and the president and prime minister were subject to the Reichsprotektor of Nazi Germany. Subcarpathian Rus proclaimed independence as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine on 15 March 1939, but was attacked and officially annexed by Hungary the following day. Approximately 345,000 Czechoslovak people, including 277,000 Jews, were murdered or executed, while hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned, deported to Nazi death camps, or forced to work. The Nazis targeted up to two-thirds of the people for deportation or murder. Terezn, north of Prague, housed one concentration camp on Czech territory.
Czech resistance to Nazi domination existed both at home and abroad, most famously with the murder of Nazi German commander Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovakian soldiers Jozef Gabk and Jan Kubi on May 27, 1942, in a Prague suburb. As a reaction to the Czech anti-Nazi resistance, Hitler ordered deadly retaliation against the Czechs on June 9, 1942. The Czechoslovak government in exile and its army fought against the Germans and were recognized by the Allies; Czech/Czechoslovak soldiers fought in Poland, France, the United Kingdom, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union from the start of the war. The German occupation ended on May 9, 1945, when the Soviet and American troops arrived and the Prague uprising began. An estimated 140,000 Soviet troops were killed in the liberation of Czechoslovakia from German control.
Almost the entire German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia, about 3 million individuals, were evacuated to Germany and Austria between 1945 and 1946. Thousands more Germans were imprisoned, detained, or forced to work during this period. Several killings occurred during the summer of 1945. Only around 250,000 Germans who had been engaged in the fight against the Nazi Germans or were deemed economically significant were not removed, but many of them fled subsequently. Following a Soviet-organized referendum, the Subcarpathian Rus never reverted to Czechoslovak control, instead becoming part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1946 as the Zakarpattia Oblast.
Czechoslovakia uncomfortably attempted to serve as a “bridge” between the West and the East. However, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia quickly grew in popularity, owing to widespread disillusionment with the West as a result of the pre-war Munich Agreement, and a favorable popular attitude toward the Soviet Union as a result of the Soviets’ role in liberating Czechoslovakia from German rule. In the 1946 elections, the Communists received 38% of the vote, making them the biggest party in Czechoslovakia’s parliament. They soon established a coalition government with other National Front groups and sought to solidify control. The Communist Party staged a coup in 1948, ushering in a major shift. The Communist People’s Militias seized control of major Prague sites, and a single-party government was established.
Czechoslovakia remained a Communist state inside the Eastern Bloc for the following 41 years. This era is distinguished by a tendency to lag behind the West in virtually every area of social and economic development. In the 1980s, the country’s GDP per capita dropped from that of neighboring Austria to that of Greece or Portugal. The Communist government seized all means of production and instituted a command economy. The economy expanded quickly in the 1950s, but slowed in the 1960s and 1970s until stagnating in the 1980s. During the 1950s, the political climate was highly repressive, with numerous show trials and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, but it became more open and tolerant in the late 1960s, culminating in Alexander Dubek’s leadership in the 1968 Prague Spring, which attempted to create “socialism with a human face” and possibly even introduce political pluralism. On August 21, 1968, all Warsaw Pact member nations, with the exception of Romania and Albania, invaded Poland.
The invasion was followed by a severe “Normalization” campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Until 1989, the political elite depended on opposition censorship. Charter 77 was issued by dissidents in 1977, and the beginning of a new wave of demonstrations occurred in 1988. Between 1948 and 1989, about 250,000 Czechs and Slovaks were imprisoned for political reasons, with over 400,000 emigrating.
Velvet Revolution and independence
Czechoslovakia reverted to liberal democracy in November 1989, thanks to the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution.” However, Slovak national ambitions became stronger, and the country peacefully divided into the independent Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993. Both nations underwent economic reforms and privatizations with the goal of establishing a market economy. This approach was generally effective; in 2006, the World Bank designated the Czech Republic as a “developed country,” and in 2009, the Human Development Index designated it as a nation with “Very High Human Development.”
Since 1991, the Czech Republic has been a member of the Visegrád Group and, since 1995, the OECD, first as part of Czechoslovakia and then as an independent country. On March 12, 1999, the Czech Republic joined NATO, and on May 1, 2004, it joined the European Union. The Czech Republic joined the Schengen Area on December 21, 2007.