Czech Republic and Central Europe

History

The Czech Republic (78,864km2) is made up of Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Silesia.  Together, they are the Czech Lands.  In the Middle Ages they were joined, and remained joined as a single joint state for hundreds of years.  The area of the Slovak Republic belonged for a long time to the Kingdom of Hungary, until 1918 when the Czechoslovak Republic was formed.

In the 13th century Germans began to move eastward into unpopulated Czech lands, bringing with them more advanced agriculture techniques.  With this colonisation came the development of towns.  In fact, it was at this time that Prague formally became a town.  During this century Western European culture was also accepted by the people, introducing to them the ways of the court and chivalry.  It was also when Gothic style was introduced to the republic.

One of the most important people in the history of the Czech Republic is Charles IV, King of Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor.  In 1348 Charles chose to live in Prague, which made Prague a very important city.  Much of what we see in Prague today is due to Charles.  As Prague was his home, it needed to be fit for a king.  In addition to reconstructions of Prague Castle and Vyšehrad, he enlarged the city by adding Prague New Town.  Another important note; he established Charles University, the first university in Central Europe.  This is the same Charles University that we have partnered with to offer our programs.

Moving forward to more recent history of Czechs and their lands, an important moment came to be due to the First World War.  Major changes happened all over Europe as a result of this war, and it was at this time that Czechoslovakia was formed, in 1918.  By joining with Slovakia the Slavonic culture could be preserved.  It was not an easy time, though.  There were disputes with Germany and Poland, requiring military intervention, and resulting in lost lives.  In 1920, The Language Law was passed.  This allowed Czechoslovak to be the official language, which was critical for the preservation of the culture.  Czechs and Slovaks were considered to be one group, even though there were distinctions between their histories and cultures.  Their languages were similar enough that they could understand each other without being taught the other’s language.

Soon after the formation of Czechoslovakia the country prospered economically, and was known for its industry, science, and art.  However, industrial production reduced by 40% during the Great Economic Depression, with unemployment thought to be around 25%.

When Hitler began to take power, Czechoslovakia tried to resist.  However, Western allies did not support Czechoslovakia.  Ultimately, the country lost much of its border areas which were absorbed by Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.  The country lost its fortifications, and was engulfed by German territories.  It was during this time, when the country and its people felt weak and threatened, that the country’s name officially became Czecho-Slovakia.  Hitler took advantage of this and use the Slovak separatists to gain power over the Czechs.  In the fall of 1941, Germans began their attacks on the Jewish people.  Terezín became an important town for the Nazis, known as ‘the gateway to death’.  Within 4 years, 73,603 Jews went through this camp.

The Czech people, though humiliated by their inability to resist Hitler and his Nazi’s occupation of their lands, showed strength and determination in other ways.  They demonstrated through art and culture, resisting the Nazi propaganda that showed the Czechs as dependant on the Germans.  In November of 1939, the Germans closed all Czech higher education institutions, put many students in concentration camps, and executed 9 leaders of the student movement.  The international community noticed, and November 17th became known as International Students Day.

One of Czech’s most remarkable moments during this war was when an assassination was done by two parachutists on May 27th, 1942.  One of the Nazi’s most important men was killed.  Hitler reacted to this by completely destroying 2 villages; Lidice on June 10th, 1942 and Ležáky on June 24th, 1942.  This devastated Czechs.  It wasn’t until the war was nearing its end that they again fought back with determination.  A pivotal moment for Czechoslovakia was when General George Patton was forbidden to cross the demarcation line and advance to Prague.  As a result, it was the Russian Red Army that freed Prague in the end.  The final shots fired on European soil of the Second World War were fired in the small town of Milín, south-west of Prague, on May 12th, 1945.

By 1948 things had greatly changed.  The country became a communist country, and within a short time became a true dictatorship, controlled by the Soviet Union.  It was a period of terror.  People were accused of false crimes.  People who opposed the communist regime were imprisoned or executed.  It is estimated that the number of victims is between 200,000 and 280,000 people.

1968 is the year of the “Prague Spring”.   The political scene began to change, with public rather than closed-door policies.  With this came a great change in who held positions in the government.  A new political system began to form.  “Socialism with a human face” began to take shape.  The Soviets responded by attempting to occupy Czechoslovakia.  The end result was that through negotiations the country now had 3 governments – federal, Czech and Slovak, rather than one.

Fifty years after the Nazis closed schools and murdered 9 students, the Velvet Revolution began.  A large student demonstration took place, and it was met with police brutality.  The people were outraged at the similarity between the Nazis 50 years prior and the communist police of that day in 1989.  On Monday the 19th of November, 1989, students began to strike and fight back not with violence, but with the power of information and publicity.  On December 29th, 1989, Václav Havel became president.  The country underwent great changes as it reformed itself.  On January 1st, 1993 the Czech and Slovak sides parted, resulting in the newly formed Czech Republic and Slovak Republic.  On the 26th of that month, Václav Havel became the first president of the Czech Republic.