The earliest settlement of the lands now known as the Czech Republic is shrouded in mystery, although we do know that various Celtic and Germanic tribes passed this way before the Slavs moved in at some time over the 5th, 6th or 7th centuries.
At some point, the Slavs were conquered by the mystery-shrouded Great Moravian Empire but it wasn’t until that empire fell, in the 10th century, that the Bohemian lands and the city of Prague really hit their stride, under the Přemyslid dynasty.
It’s hard to separate the history of Přemyslid dynasty from the myths that surround it.
According to legend, the clan was originally ruled by the prophetess Libuše. Under pressure to find a husband, however, she went into a trance and sent a white horse out to find a groom.
As predicted, the horse found a ploughman, with two spotted oxen. This was Přemysl. Libuše married Přemysl and the dynasty bearing his name became the first great dynasty on the Czech lands.
Another Libuše-related legend explains the foundation of Prague.
The psychic Libuše, standing on the top of Vyšehrad hill, fire in her eyes, her arms outstretched, proclaimed: "Vidím město veliké jehož sláva se hvězd dotýká! ".. "I see a grand city whose glory touches the stars!" She sent her men into the forest to find a wooden hut whose doorway was so small "that king or pauper must bow in order to enter and look at the threshold".
The word "práh", an old Czech word for threshold, is thought to be the origin of the Czech name for Prague, Praha.
The most celebrated figure in Czech history was also a member of Přemyslid dynasty.
This was Wenceslas (in Czech, Václav), the fourth Přemysl leader and – by the standards of the day – a bit of a bleeding-heart liberal.
Wenceslas formed closer alliances with Saxony and the Holy Roman Empire and also dabbled with Christianity. His easygoing attitudes didn’t go down too well at home, however, and he was murdered by his brother Boleslav in 929 or 935 (there is some dispute about the actual date).
Wenceslas’s legacy would live on, however. He was made a saint shortly after his death while today Prague’s main square (Václavské náměstí) bears his name and a statue that has become a focal point for gatherings and demonstrations of all kinds, including 1989 Velvet Revolution.
For English-speakers, meanwhile, Wenceslas is probably best known through the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas (although he wasn’t, in fact, a king – merely a prince.)
The Přemyslids gave way to the Luxembourg Dynasty in the 1306 and the kingdom of Bohemia continued to grow, hitting its heights under Charles IV (Karel IV) who divided his time between heading the Holy Roman Empire and dragging Prague kicking and screaming into the 14th century.
Charles IV was responsible for building the Charles Bridge (Karlův most), creating the New Town (Nové Město) and setting up Central Europe’s first university, the Charles (Univerzita Karlova).
Although a Christian, Charles IV was also a vocal critic of church corruption, a position shared by his son, Wenceslas IV. But Wenceslas was a weaker leader than his father, and in the turbulent times ahead that would be a big problem.
The trouble began in 1403 when the rector of the Prague university, Jan Hus, began to preach in Czech rather than Latin, and campaigned against corruption in the Catholic church. (A statue of Jan Hus now stands in Old Town Square.)
Hus was declared a heretic and was burned at the stake in 1415 in Constance and his followers, the Hussites, began a bloody religious struggle against the establishment.
The most famous of the Hussites was the one-eyed military genius, Jan Žižka, who led a band of peasant farmers to five consecutive military victories over the crusaders sent by Rome to fight him. (Today, a giant statue of Žižka, on horseback, oversees the Prague district that bears his name, Žižkov.)
Relative calm and prosperity were restored in 1458, when George of Podebrady (Jiří z Poděbrad), an elected Protestant king, took the throne – but the peace was to be short-lived.
Hungary’s Catholic King, Matthias Corvinus, objected to George’s religious leanings, and declared war. Hostilities didn’t cease until George’s death in 1471.
Following George’s death, the Bohemian crown passed to two successive members of the Polish Jagellon dynasty, Vladislav II and Ludvík.
Following Ludvík’s death, the Bohemian nobles elected the Habsburg Duke Ferdinand I king of Bohemia, unwittingly beginning several centuries of mostly repressive Austrian rule.
To varying degrees over the next 400 years, the Czech population’s language, culture and brand of religion were suppressed by the Catholic Habsburgs.
The reign of the eccentric, alchemy-obsessed Rudolf II provided a little light relief from the volatile religious climate.
Rudolf was responsible for building Golden Lane at Prague Castle, to house his army of alchemists, and it’s Rudolf’s wholesale sponsorship of artists, scientists and mystics that’s mainly responsible for Prague’s ongoing reputation as a magical city.
The election of Frederick of Palatinate to the Bohemian throne in 1619 briefly raised hopes among Bohemian Protestants that their fortunes were about to change. Those hopes were crushed in 1620, however, when Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II and the armies of the Roman Catholic League defeated Frederick’s scant forces at the Battle of White Mountain (Bílá Hora) in what is now Prague′s sixth district.
Ferdinand II took control, from Vienna, and the suppression of the Czech identity became even more brutal. 27 leaders of the battle were executed on Old Town Square and some of their heads hung on Charles Bridge, making sure the catholic faith as well as the Habsburg dominance would be assured.
Protestant hopes were raised again in 1634, during the Thirty Years’ War, when General Valdštejn (or Wallenstein), leader of the Imperial Catholic armies, defected to join the Protestant cause. But that hope died when Valdštejn was murdered by Irish mercenaries in Cheb (now in western Bohemia).
By the middle of the 17th century, German had replaced Czech as the official language of government in Bohemia. For over a century, only peasants spoke Czech and the language came close to dying out.
Against this unlikely background, a Czech National Revival (národní obrození) started in 1848, beginning with a resurgence of interest in the Czech language, led by writers František Palacký and Karel Havlíček Borovský.
Over time, however, this cultural revival became a political independence movement.
Things came to a head during World War I. While millions of Czech soldiers deserted to the Allies rather than fighting under the Austria-Hungary banner, a philosophy professor named Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and a lawyer (and former Slavia Praha soccer player) named Edvard Beneš lobbied abroad for Czech independence.
Masaryk and Beneš were successful and on October 28th, 1918, an independent state of Czechs and Slovaks – Czechoslovakia – was declared.
Czechoslovakia, which had inherited most of Austria’s industry, boomed between the wars, becoming one of the ten richest countries in the world. The interwar period – the First Republic – was also a golden age for culture, throwing up diverse delights ranging from the country’s unique Cubist architecture to the writing of Franz Kafka.
All was not well, however: In the 1930s, tensions between German-speakers (23 percent of the population) and Czech-speakers were exacerbated by the rise of fascism across the border in Germany.
The Sudeten German Party began to gather support among German-speaking Czechs, campaigning for the northwestern sections of Czechoslovakia heavily populated by German speakers to be absorbed into Germany.
The British, French, German and Italian heads of state met in Munich to discuss the crisis and agreed – without Czechoslovakia’s consent – that Germany would take the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to press further claims on Czech territory.
Six months later, Hitler broke his promise and took the rest of the country, which was occupied and divided into the Protectorate of Bohemia & Moravia and a nominally independent Slovak puppet state for the remainder of World War II.
As an occupied territory, Bohemia escaped serious bombing, sparing Prague’s magnificent architecture but in every other way, the cost of occupation was immense: 300,000 people – most of them Jewish – died in World War II.
Faith in Czechoslovakia’s pre-war Western European allies was badly shaken by the Munich Agreement while the Soviets were now regarded as war heroes. Unsurprisingly, the Czech Communists were the biggest winners in the 1946 election, with Communist leader Klement Gottwald heading a leftist coalition as prime minister.
The Communists, backed by Stalin, soon infiltrated the Czech army and – seeing the writing on the wall – President Beneš stepped down in 1948.
Gottwald now assumed the presidency, beginning a whole new era of fear and oppression in the Czech lands.
The death of Gottwald in 1953 eventually led to an easing of restrictions on individual freedoms and in 1968 a reformist Slovak called Alexander Dubček was named First Secretary of the Communist Party.
Dubček’s idea of “socialism with a human face" ushered in the "Prague Spring", an era of hope and free expression that lasted until August 20th, 1968, when half a million Warsaw Pact troops entered the country.
Dubček was summoned to Moscow, fearing for his life, and was forced to back down. He remained in power for eight more months before being replaced with the hardliner Gustáv Husák. A particularly grim period of Communist rule known as Normalization had begun, that would last up until the late 1980s.
At first, the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev seemed likely to have little impact on the timewarped Czechoslovak regime.
Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the best efforts of playwright Václav Havel and other dissidents, Czechoslovakia seemed an unlikely breeding ground for revolution.
That all changed on November 17th, 1989, when riot police brutally attacked an officially sanctioned students’ demonstration. Outrage spread rapidly, leading to massive nightly demonstrations on Wenceslas Square.
Within days, the government had lost control and by the end of the year, Havel was president of a rapidly democratizing Czechoslovakia.
The excitement of the bloodless "Velvet Revolution" soon dissipated, giving way to the harsh realities of capitalism and the "Velvet Divorce", which saw Slovakia break away, reasonably amicably, as an independent state in 1993.
Compared to most other former-communist Eastern European countries, however, the Czech transformation to Western-style has been relatively smooth.
The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union on May 1, 2004. We will continue to use the Czech Crown (Ceska koruna) as our currency, however. It is not yet known when the Euro will be introduced.
Taken, with small changes and additions, from http://prague.tv . Thank you!