This essay is intended to examine
origins and history of the Czech nation from a broad historical and geographic context.
A second goal of this essay is to examine of the relationship of the Czechs', and seek historical
causes for trends, both positive and negative, seen today and in recent past.
This essay will
specifically focus on the Czechs' most important neighbor: the Germans.
This essay points out the many similarities both nations share: their arrival in central Europe
in the waning days of the Roman Empire, and their cultural roots derived primarily from the
vanishing Roman culture. At the beginning neither nations was parimarily sophisticated,
compared to either the highly developed Romans, or even the Celts who inhabited
the area before them.
Both nations lived side by side
for close to 1500 years. For most of its time, they competed with one another:
politically, economically or militarily. Sentiments have developed on both sides
that influence the mutual feelings to this day.
Yet, seen from a broader, supra-European
perspective, these two nations - when looking from inside out - may not always
realize how similar to each other they are. Seen from a global perspective, their mutual
rivalries throughout history seem a bit trivial and petty: who will speak what language -
at which university and where, who will inhabit a province, who will practice a particuar
This essay aims to say: "look beyond
and think big."
Going a long way back, the first
inhabitants of the Czech lands were prehistoric fish. The area was several times
throughout geologic time covered with oceans. Alternating with times of
being flooded by oceans, the Czech lands have experienced multiple periods
of collisions of entire continents, which produced tall mountains that gradually eroded away.
The Czech lands lie on the intersection of two such tectonic plates: one dating
back to the Paleozoic VariscanOrogeny (400-350 million
years before present), the other - younger one
- to the Alpine Orogeny (most of which was over by the Oligocene
(35 million years before present). In some forms (mild earthquakes,
hotsprings, carbonated mineral water springs) this latest plate
collision continues to this day.
Earliest humans inhabited the
region since the Stone Age. The region is replete
with such relics (the "Venus of Vestonice" dating to 22-24,000 years
before present), pointing at an abundant and thriving culture. .Neolithic
farmers inhabited the region from around 5000 to 2700 BC. For thousands
of years that portion of the Vltava's course where Prague was to rise was
crossed by trade routes linking northern and southern Europe.
The Celtic and Roman Times
The Celts, members of
an early Indo-European people, spread between the 2nd millennium BC to
the 1st century BC over much of Europe. Celtic tribes and groups eventually
ranged from the British Isles and northern Spain to as far east as Transylvania,
the Black Sea coasts, and Galatia in Anatolia. They were later part
absorbed into the Roman Empire as Britons, Gauls, Boii, Galatians, and
Celtiberians. Linguistically they survive today in the modern Celtic speakers
of Ireland, Highland Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Brittany.
Between 500 and 200 BC
the Celtic Boii tribe built settlements in the Czech region, including
the fortress of Závist, south of Prague. It was this sulture that,
indirectly, gave the Czech Republic - Bohemia as it is also called -
its name: the Romans started called their region Boiohaemum.
From the second century
AD onwards, the Roman Empire was weakened because of depopulation due to
plague epidemics. The Romans tried to keep the people on their land, but
did not succeed. They had to return to a simpler form of organisation.
Smaller armies and a smaller administration were the result. Tribes from
outside the Empire kept attacking it and finally succeeded. About 406 AD,
the northern part of the Empire had to be abandoned and other parts followed
soon afterwards. The people in the regions the Romans had left returned
to old patterns. Almost everyone had to once again contribute to the primitive
production. Warriors and priests were the only exception.
The period from the 4th
until the 7th century was called the period of Migration of Peoples.
was a stupendous wave of migration of entire nations unrivaled in modern
history. Some groups migrated for centuries from as far east as China
(the Huns and the Avars) and as far north as Scandinavia
(the Goths and the Norse). It is difficult to know
what exactly triggered the giant migration because of the general lack
of information about this period. Some causes, however, can be found:
power vacuum left by the decaying Roman Empire and the attracttion to its
wealth, the availability of land, the westward push of Centra Asian tribes
driving others on, climatic changes in northern Europe driving northern
tribes south, internal causes of migration i.e. population growth, changing
conditions of life and changing social structures.
Compared to the Roman
civilization characterized by its urban lifestyle, art and a highly evolved
legal and political system, the primary characteristic of this ancient
was law of the jungle: stronger tribes prevailed and weaker tribes had
to move on and settle elsewhere.
The Migration of Peoples
period laid the basic building blocks of future Europe and set essential
power relationships that would - in general terms - govern the pricipal
political relationships in Europe to this day. During the migration
most tribes found a fixed place to live and the roots of future states
were made. For instance the Franks and Burgundians settled
in today's France, the Angles and Saxons in England.
European politics gradually
became east-west oriented, rather than north-south, as it was throughout
the Roman times. The contrast between northern and southern Europe faded
away and was replaced by a contrast between eastern and western Europe:
Eastern Europe of the Slavic and Greek culture vs. the western European
culture of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon and the former Latin culture. This
division was set in place on all levels: regious, cultural and economic.
European politics of today very much reflects this.
Migration of Peoples
took place in three major waves: first the Huns, Goths and
entered Europe, second were the Slavs, various steppe-tribes
and Arabs, and third were the Vikings, Norse and Magyars.
The Celtic Boii tribe
living in Bohemia was pushed out by the migrating German tribes
of Marcomanni and Quidi, followed in turn by the Slavic tribes.
The Slavic people lived - until the mid 6th century in the area between
the mouth of the Danube river (the Black Sea coast of today's Romania),
the Dnieper river (today's Ukraine) and the Vistula river (today's Poland).
in the 6th century, being chased by the Avars and the Bulgarians,
they started moving in three directions:
The migrations of the Slavic
tribes was completed by the 10th century AD. When the western Slavic
tribes displaced the Germanic tribes from Bohemia, the first chapter of
the parallel - and many times common - history of the Czechs and the Germans
was written. For the next millenium and a half, tehse two nations
would live side by side, sometimes peacefully, sometimes at war, sometimes
sharing its creative energies while hating and killing each other at other
northeast, in the direction of the Volga river and Ladago
lake in today;'s Russia (here a Slavic state was formed around the cities
of Novgorod and Kiev, which existed until 1240 AD)
west, in the direction of the Baltic sea and the Elbe river,
displacing (in Bohemia) the Germanic tribes of the Marcomanni and
south, to settle in the Balkans, displacing (among others)
Early Slavic Times
When observing the modern
nations of central Europe: the Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks and
Poles, it is interesting to note how much these cultures inherited from
their tribal origins from the time of the Migration of Peoples and
how much was adopted from ancient Rome.
In the pre-Christian times
Slavic and Old European love of the universe, of honoring all-that-is in
folk traditions. From the simple presentation of bread and salt to guests
in the home, to the elaborate and ceremonial welcoming of the new year
at Yule with the czuwać and the wigilia, slavic babcie (wise
women of the village) and people were constantly reminded of the
sacredness of every moment and every breath.
Many "alternative" trends
of today - witchcraft, wicca and modern paganism, even fortune-telling
- share a common root in the eastern european Slavic pre-Christian traditions
Advent, the period of
four Sunadys leading up to Christmas and literally meaning "coming", coincides
with the commemorative days of a number of saints, which also include a
number of other popular. These customs in all likelihood have their
connections to certain Christian beliefs but also to the ancient pagan
mythology. The first Advent holiday, for example, used to be a day for
fortune-telling, though today this has become more of a Czech Christmas
Eve tradition. One example of this ancient tradition was the practiceof
pouring molten lead by Silesian girls to read their futures. They would
melt it in spoons over a candle, and then quickly pour it into cold water
through a key whose teeth formed the shape of a cross. From the form into
which the lead hardened they would make predictions on what their next
husband would look like: slim, fat, handsome, ugly, hunch-backed, etc.
In the shape the lead took, the girls would also look for signs of the
various crafts in order to predict the profession of their future bridegroom.
Elsewhere, girls would look for the appearance of their future husband
in a hole cut in the ice, where shadows revealed his character to them.
In still other places, girls would tap on the door of the henhouse, and
if a rooster crowed, the girl would be married in the next year. If a hen
answered, she would have another year to wait.
Another example is Christmas.
It is is more a day honoring the birth of Christ than it is a birthday
celebration on the precise date, as the real birthday of Christ is unknown.
December is the rainy season in Judea, and a time when shepherds would
not have been in the fields of Bethlehem. Even the year is not certain,
and could not have been later than 4 B.C, the year of King Herod's death.
Furthermore, the early Christians did not celebrate
birthdays, and the celebration of Christ's birth is not
as religiously significant as his ressurection, celebrated with Easter.
It is most likely that the observance of Christmas was established to replace
existing pagan festivals of the time. Pagan festivals celebrating the winter
solstice were common in pre-Christian times, the most significant at the
time being the Roman Saturnalia, and the Mithraic birthday of the unconquered
sun. Much of our current Christmas lore comes from these ancient customs.
Santa inherited his reindeer from the Nordic god Odin, chief of the wild
hunt, who rode with them through the sky.
The hanging of mistletoe
comes from the Druids, to whom it was believed to have healing powers.
They would hang it over their doors to appease the woodland spirits, in
the belief that only happiness could pass the mistletoe.
There had long been a
custom of exchanging gifts on New Year's Day dating back perhaps to the
Roman times. Because of the pagan origins of this custom, and the desire
by the early Christians to abolish all pagan customs combined with the
difficulty in eliminating long observed customs, the gift-giving custom
was moved to Christmas, where it could be looked upon as an emulation of
the Magi, and a token of generosity and goodwill.
The name of Sant
Claus is a corruption of Saint Nicholas (Sinter Klaas), the patron
saint of children, whose feast day is on December 6 durign Advent. It was
the custom in old England to clean out the chimney at the beginning of
the year so that luck could descend and stay all year. This may have been
the origin for Santa Claus' habit of entering through the chimney.
Czech children in
Early Struggle Toward Unity
The first half of the
7th century marks the first successful attempt to unite Slavonic tribes.
The Kingdom of Samo resisted the pressure of the powerful Avar empire
centered in the Hungarian lowlands, and defended its territory against
the forces of the Frank attackers from the west, with partial success.
Another attemp to unite slavic tribes was the the Great Moravian Empire
(named after the region of Moravia, part of today's Czech Republic) that
formed in the first half of the 9th century and was destroyed by the Magyars
in the years 903-907.
The culture of the Great
Moravian Empire greatly influenced the future cultural and religious
development among the Eastern and Southern Slavic peoples.
In 863, in order to to foster education, literacy as well as the conversion
to Christianity, the Moravian king asked Rome for help, and after not receiving
any answer turned to the Constantinople, the capitol of the Byzantine Empire.
Christian missionaries Constantin and Methodius came to Moravia.
They are credited with the glagolitic alphabet, the first Slavic
script and with the translation of some extracts from the Gospel and the
Church Law for Laymen.
Gaudericius, the author
of a Roman legend, wrote about them:
" They started work zealously in order to achieve
the aim they came with; they taught writing to local children and duties
towards the Church to people, tried to eliminate heresy and used eloquence
in self-defence. As soon as the thornbushes of depravities had been removed
from the weedy fields, they started dispersing God's Word".
At that time they translated
the entire Gospel, the Psalm Book, a breviary and other prayer books. He
and Methodius both established the first higher education institution in
Slovakia similar to an academy in Constantinople.
With the introduction of Old Church Slav as a liturgical language, it became
the literary language of Czech and Slovak ancestors. With Latin, Greek
and Hebrew it became the first written national language, the basis of
Czech and Slovak national literature and the literature of other Slavic
Very soon, however, the
Roman Catholic Church intervened. Cyril and Metodius were denounced
to the pope, had to travel to Rome and defend there their Slavonic
liturgy. Constantin died in Rome. Methodius was appointed Archbishop
of Pannonia and Great Moravia. However, continued tensions and struggle
with the Bavarians to the west as well as with the new Pope in Rome weakened
the empire. This le and it eventually led to its destructions by
the Maguars in 906 AD.
The expanded influence
of the Roman Catholic Church prove to be decisive turning point in the
course of the history of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.
Together with today's Poland and Hungary the regions was culturally and
politically linked to western Europe, while the remainder of the
eastern Europeans Slavic people (Ukrainians, Russians, Serbs) stayed under
the Byzantine influence from Constantinople.
The Beginnings of Prague
The first settlement at
what is now Prague has been traced to the second half of the 9th century.
The oldest building was the Vyšehrad Castle, set on a commanding
right-bank hill. It was followed by what was to become the Hradčany
Castle, set on an equally commanding left-bank site a little downstream.
Legend ascribes the foundation of Prague to Princess Libuše and
her husband, Přemysl, founder of the Přemyslid Dynasty. Legend
notwithstanding, the Pěemyslids, in power from about 800 to 1306, consolidated
a political base centred on Prague that was to be the nucleus of the Czech
state and that enabled the natural trade advantages of the city site to
develop under defensive protection. The dynasty included St. Wenceslas
(Václav), who was murdered by his brother Boleslav in about 939 and whose
statue now looks down upon the square to which his name has been given;
and Boleslav I, whose reign (936-967 A.D.) witnessed the consolidation
of power against a German threat. The little community flourished, and
in 965 the Jewish merchant and traveler Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub was able to
describe it as a "busy trading centre." In 973 the bishopric of Prague
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages saw a
great deal of economic expansion of the community reflected in the topography
of the city. A market centre on the right bank, opposite Hradcany, developed
into the Old Town (Staré Město), particularly after the construction
of the first stone bridge, the Judith Bridge, over the river in 1170. By
1230 the Old Town had been given borough status and was defended by a system
of walls and fortifications. On the opposite bank, under the walls of Hradcany,
the community known as Malá Strana (literally, "Little Quarter")
was founded in 1257. Following the eclipse of the Premyslids, the house
of Luxembourg came to power when John of Luxembourg, son of the future
emperor Henry VII, became king of Bohemia. His son, Charles IV, Czech king
and Holy Roman emperor, had his capital at Prague from 1346 to 1378 and
took considerable personal interest in the development of the city. In
1348 he founded Charles University, the first in central Europe, which
was later to attract scholars and students from throughout the Continent.
His reign also saw the growth of the planned New Town (Nové mesto) adjacent
to the Old Town; construction of the Charles Bridge (1357, reconstructed
in 1970) linking the Old Town and the Malá Strana; and the beginning (1344)
of the great St. Vitus' Cathedral, which was not completed until 1929.
Other buildings included the Carolinum (the central hall of the
university), the town hall (partially destroyed in 1945), and several churches
and monasteries in the New Town. The Jewish ghetto was also developed,
and the bishopric was raised to an archbishopric in 1344.
By the 14th century Prague
had become a major central European city, with the Czech money minted at
nearby Kutná Hora serving as the hard currency of the entire region. Foreign
merchants, notably Germans and Italians, became economically and politically
powerful in uneasy alliance with the kings. The social order, however,
became less stable because of the emergent guilds of craftsmen, themselves
often torn by internal conflicts. The town paupers added a further volatile
Early Protestant Movement and the "Hussite Wars"
During the 15th century
religious developments in Prague laid the groundwork for the modern Protestant
movement. The sermons of Jan Hus, a scholar at Charles University, begun
in 1402 at the Bethlehem Chapel and carrying forward the criticisms of
the Church developed by the English reformer John Wycliffe, endeared him
to the common people but brought him into conflict with Rome; he was burned
at the stake in Konstanz, Switzerland in 1415. Popular uprisings in 1419,
led by the Prague priest Jan Želivský, included the throwing of city councillors
from the windows of the New Town Hall, a method of disposing of unwanted
politicians that entered history under the term "Defenestration".
The next year peasant
rebels, led by the skilled military leader Jan Žižka, joined forces with
the Hussites of Prague to win a decisive victory over the army of
the Roman Catholic Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg at nearby Vítkov Hill.
The following 14 years saw a period knows as the Hussite Wars, during which
a rag-tag army of Czech peasants scored hands-down victory after victory
againt an elite army of Sigismund's knights. The Hussites demonstrated
a time-proven phenomena that will and determination to fight for freedom
in the hands of poorly equipped fighting force is more powerful than the
best armor and technology. Unfortunately, this streak of success
did not last long. Following Žižka's death, the rebellion was defeated
in the battle of Lipany in 1434. Sigismund of Luxembourg won
his victory and his soldiers brutally diposed of the defeated.
Yet the Hussites
occupy a special place in the heart of most Czechs. The Hussite Wars
mark one of the few periods in Czech history during which the nation managed
to stand up for itself and successfully defend its principles against a
dominant foreign power. Although the Hussite Wars did not drastically
change the course of European history, the Hussites, like the troops commanded
by George Washington, this army faced overwhelming odds and power, yet
prevailed, albeit for only 14 years.
There is an interesting footnote
concerning Emperor Sigismund that needs to be mnentioned. Before
leading the Crusade against the Hussites, Sigismund had prior experience
in leading and losing religious wars in a Crusade against the Turks in
the 1390s. In 1389 the Turks won a major victory as against a Christian
army at the Battle of Kosovo, crushing the Serbian Empire as a dominant
force in the Balkans. In 1396, Emperor Sigismund ended all hopes
for the Crusaders by losing to the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid at the
town of Nicopolis, Bulgaria, escaping with his commanders through the Straits
of Bosporus bnack into the Mediterranean and leaving his troops behind.
The Thirty Years War
During the 16th century,
Prague experienced relative stability and prosperity. Wealthy merchants
became ascendant once more, and the late Gothic architectural style flourished
in many churches and buildings, reaching a peak in the fine Vladislav Hall
of Hradcany. In 1526, however, the Roman Catholic Habsburgs became rulers
of the Czech Kingdom and attempted to crush Czech Protestantism. The situation
came to a head in 1618: the Czechs again exercised their method of disposing
of unwanted politicians, and threw their ruling Governors from the windows
of the council room in Hradcany. (Landing in a convenient pile of garbage,
they escaped with their lives.) The Second Defenestration of Prague precipitated
the the Thirty Years War - a major conflict that engulfed most of Europe.
The Thirty Years War consisted
of a series of declared and undeclared wars which raged through the years
1618-1648 throughout central Europe. The series of conflicts, military
and political, which make up the Thirty Years War are highly complex. The
opponents were, on the one hand, the Austrian House of Habsburg (the Holy
Roman Emperors Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III together with his Spanish
cousin Philip IV), and on the other hand the various international opponents
of Austria: the Danish, Dutch and, above all, France and Sweden.
The struggle for unity
in 17th century Europe was governed by the notion that Christianity was
a unifying force and that a single ruler was to occupy the position of
Emperor. It was, however, a matter of dispute who that should be. The most
promising candidates for such a universal monarchy were the Habsburgs,
who held the emperorship of the Holy Roman Empire as well as the Spanish
kingship and controlled the resources of the New World. The French and
the Swedish king were their competitors. Together with the formation of
the Dutch state, the Second Prague Defenestration, jeopardized the position
of the Habsburgs and became the spark that unleashed the devastating war.
The Thirty Years War was
also, at least in part, a religious war among Catholics, Lutherans and
Calvinists. Ferdinand II and, to a lesser degree, his primary ally Maximillian
I represented the re-Catholicizing zeal of the Jesuit Counter-reformation,
while Frederick V of the Palatinate represented the equally militant forces
Very early in the conflict
the Czechs suffered a crushing defeat by the Habsburgs in the Battle of
the White Mountain near Prague. This paved the way to their forced re-conversion
to Catholicism that was to last over 300 years. Just as the Hussites represent
a freedom fighter role model for most Czechs, the Battle of the Wite Moutain
became to represent a symbol of utter defeat and failure.
Immediately after the
battle Emperor Ferdinand II was to revenge himself on both the disloyal
Czechs. Twenty-one of the primary leaders of the rebellion were publicly
executed in Prague. The lands of Protestant nobles were confiscated, in
whole or in part, and sold cheaply to those who had remained loyal. It
is estimated that over half of the land in Bohemia changed hands in the
wake of the rebellion. Further, the minting of the Bohemian currency was
turned over to a cabal of loyalist elements. These promptly debased the
currency, to the great misery of the country. Albrecht Waldstein (better
known as Wallenstein) was active, both as a purchaser of estates and as
a debaser of coinage. It was on this foundation that his wealth and power
were later built. Prague ceased to be the capital of the empire, was occupied
by Saxons (1631) and Swedes (1648), and went into a decline hastened by
two outbreaks of plague.
Early Modern History
The settling of conditions
in central Europe was marked by renewed economic growth, and Prague's population
grew from 40,000 in 1705 to more than 80,000 by 1771. In 1784 the Old Town,
the New Town, the Little Quarter, and the Hradcany complex were administratively
united into one city. The merchants and the mostly German, Spanish, and
Italian nobility who were active in and around Prague in this period had
an enormous effect on both architecture and cultural life. Outstanding
architects created magnificent palaces and gardens, and churches in the
Prague version of the Baroque style sprang up throughout the city.
The onset of the Industrial
Revolution had major effects in Prague. The first suburb (Karlín) was established
in 1817, and in the next 20 years many factories sprang up, often in association
with the coal mines and ironworks at Kladno and Králuv Dvur, not far away.
The population exceeded 100,000 by 1837, and expansion continued after
the city received its first railway eight years later. The rise of a working
class and of strong nationalistic sentiments had a profound effect on the
city; students, artisans, and workers took to the barricades against the
ruling Austrians when revolution flared briefly in 1848. Within 20 years
Czechs had won a majority on the City Council, and Czech cultural life
was experiencing a renascence centred on Prague. The Neoclassical building
of the National Museum and the National Theatre are only two examples of
the building that took place in this period. By the 1890s the first electric
streetcars (trams) were running in the city, urban services were being
reorganized, and a replica of the Eiffel Tower overlooked the city from
Petrín Hill. Things sterted to look up for the Czechs.
First World War
At the beginning of the
20th century, European politics was dominated by several themes: Austro-Hungarian
determination to impose its will upon the Balkans; a German desire for
greater power and international influence, which sparked a naval arms race
with Britain; a French desire for revenge against Germany following disastrous
defeat in 1871; Russia's anxiety to restore some semblance of national
prestige after almost a decade of civil strife and a battering at the hands
of the Japanese military in 1905. It is this web of international relations
that gave rise to tensions that ultimately led to the First World War.
Unlike the Second World
War, the reasons for the so-called 'Great War' can be shrouded in confusion.
The Second World War was rather more straightforward: no questions there
who did what and who was at fault. However, the First World War was one
of the greatest conflicts the world has ever known. It was the first war
fought with a heavy involvement of technology: mechanized ground vehicles,
machine guns, ships and aircraft, even chemical wapons.
During the war, the Czechs
became unified in their opposition to Austrian rule. Most especially, Austria-Hungary's
alignment with Germany and the restriction of democratic rights in the
Czech lands led to growing opposition to the monarchy. An organized resistance
began to develop, both at home and abroad. In 1916, the Czech professor,
philosopher and politican Masaryk, living in exile in the United States
was founded the Czech National Council. By 1917, Czech opposition to the
war became much more active. People began organizing strikes, demonstrations,
and even violent protests - which had to be put down by the army. Anybody
who is particularly interested in this period of Czech history should definitely
read "The Good Soldier Schweik" by Jaroslav Hasek. It not only offers a
great deal of insight into the kind of passive resistance the Czechs favor,
but also offers many more insights into the Czech psyche.
In May 1918, the representatives
of the resistance movement abroad had signed the Pittsburgh Convention,
which set the groundwork for the formation of a joint Czech and Slocak
state. In October 1918, the Allied Powers resognized the Czechoslovak National
Council as the interim government of the Czechoslovak Republic. A proclamation
of an independent Czechoslovakia, tailored after the American Declaration
of Independence, followed on October 28, 1918. Prague became the capital
of the new republic.
The Rise and Fall of the "First Republic"
Referred to as the "First
Republic", the twenty-year period between 1918 and 1938 represents another
one of the highlights in Czech history. By 1930 the population of Prague
had reaches 850,000. Under President Masaryk, Czechoslovakia is not only
the only successful democratic states among the new eastern European countries,
it becomes one of the top-ten most developed countries of the world! For
the first time in centuries, Czechs and Slovaks aree governed by democratically
elected members of their own nations. It seems the Czechs have finally
Indirectly, it was The
Great Depression that spelled the end of the Czechoslovak prosperity.
Rising through the political ranks in the neigboring Germany, taking advantage
of the frustration of the Depression, runaway inflation, and resentment
of the humiliation bestowed on Germany by the victorious neighbors, Adolf
Hitler started to rise through the politically instable Weimar Republic.
In the 1930s, Hitler pushed
the agenda of the Nazi party, a united German state for all German people.
He invaded Austria first and then set his sights on Sudetenland,
a border region inside Czechoslovakia inhabited for centuries by a mixture
of Czechs and Germans. Czechoslovakia is strategically placed in
the heart of Europe, and its conquest was central to Hitler's plans for
overrunning Europe. The "liberation" of the "oppressed German minority"
in the Sudetenland was a ploy. It was at this point that France
and England had a chance to spoil Hitler's plans for world dominance by
presenting a strong and unified front. Instead a land-for-peace deal with
Hitler under which Germany would be allowed to invade and control Sudetenland
in return for giving assurances to the West to refrain from future expansionist
ambitions. Written promises to go to war to defend Czechoslovakia's borders
made under the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 notwithstanding,
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain struck this deal with Hitler
- without Czech participation. It was worded to them as having to give
up the Sudetenland for "the maintenance of peace and the safety
of Czechoslovakia's vital interests." This tragic and embarassing diplomatic
blunder became known as the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938.
In Munich Hitler achieved
a twofold victory. First he gained assurance that he can rape yet
another country with impunity. Second, he achieved with a pen what
his generals were reluctant to do with an army. By gaining control over
the Sudetenland, he took without a single shot an entire sophisticated
system of border fortifications and fortresses that had been built in the
border mountains over many years, making passage by force a very costly
proposition, perhaps even impossible. Though small, Czechoslovakia could
field over 800,000 men (one of the strongest armies in Europe), and it
had a highly efficient arms industry. Hitler's generals were utterly opposed
to an assault on the Czech fortifications.
Promises made to Chamberlain
in Munich aside, Hitler invaded the remained of the now largely defenseless
Czechoslovakia in the Spring of 1939. The Czechs faced a difficult
choice: try defend themselves against the migty German Army without the
protection of its defensive fortifications and hope that the West comes
to their defense; or risk anihilation if the west fails to do so. In the
end they did nothing and the German army marched throughout the country
unopposed, just like they did in the Sudetenland less than a year
ago. Six years of slaughter of millions of people in concentration camps
Second World War
Unlike World War I, World
War II did cause destruction, albeit relatively small-scale, to the city.
The most visible reminder is the northern wing of the gothic city hall
in Old Town Square destroyed by a bomb at the end of the war. However,
unlike many German cities (Frankfurt, Dresden) that were nearly leveled
during the war, Prague suffered minor damage.
Toward the end of the
war, Stalin set his sights on Czechoslovakia as part of the post-war Soviet
sphere of ifluence. Groundwork for future communist domination of Czechoslovakia
was put in place already in March 1945 in the Kosice Program. The
exiled London-based Czechoslovak government formed this agreement with
the Soviets and with Czech Communists in hope of preserving some form of
democracy in postwar Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, the war in
Europe still continued until May 9 1945. The Soviet Red Army had liberated
Poland and eastern Czechoslovakia, and took most of eastern Germany. The
American Army liberated a large part of western Czechoslovakia, including
the cities of Pilsen, Carlsbad and Cheb. Cheb (Eger) was the first major
city to be liberated by American forces. The U.S. Army 97th Infantry Division
(The "Trident Division") and the 1st Infantry Division ("Big Red One")
were the first unit to enter Czechoslovak territory. Following the April
of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp located immediately west of the
border, after a day-long battle the Tridents took the city of Cheb, and
moved on to liberate a total of 37 Czech towns and cities that within a
matter of days. On April 29 the Cheb area was turned over to the 18th Infantry
Regiment of 1st Infantry. The 97th Division moved south to the area of
Rozvadov, Ples and St. Katerina.
The 1th Infantry Division
("Big Red One") is a legendary unit formed in May 1917 a originalyl given
the name "First Expeditionary Division". It was always the first American
unit to enter combat: during WWI in October 1917 in France, during WWII
in Novermber 1942 in North Africa, in Vietnam at Qui Nhon in June
1965, in Desert Storm in February 1991, in Bosnia in 1995, in Kosovo in
1999. The division stormed ashore on D-Day at Omaha Beach, crossed the
Rhine river in December 1944, fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the
Ardennes Forest, and crossed the Weser River into Czechoslovakia on April
During the very last days
of the war the citizens of Prague rose in revolt against the Nazis on May
5, 1945. At the time, elements of the 1st Infantry and 97th Infantry Divisions
were in the western part of the Czech Republic, within hours from Prague.
However, Stalin - looking to control Czechoslovakia after the war - insisted
that it be a Red Army unit that liberates the city. He sent in the closest
Red Army unit - located in Berlin - to liberate the city. And so it happened
that the Prague Uprising cost hundreds of Czech lives unnecessarily lost
during the four days it took General Konev's 10th Tank Corps to arrive
In a broader historical
perspective, the Prague Uprising of May 1945 was just one piece of the
puzzle in Stalin's plan for the domination of Europe. In April 1945 Stalin
feared that the Americans were positioning themselves to snatch Berlin
from under his nose. By the 12th, the U.S. 9th Army advanced 35 miles into
the agreed-upon Soviet Occupation Zone, taken a foothold across the Elbe
River at Magdeburg, and closed to the Elbe at Tangermünde, 53 miles due
west of Berlin. Zhukov was 32 miles from Berlin but still had the Oder
River to cross. The Germans were dug in on the Oder but hardly in evidence
along the Elbe. Stalin, who had been playing Konev and Zhukov against each
other throughout the war , was clearly not having to contrive a race. On
the 16th, Zhukov mounted an effort at a swift breakthrough to Berlin that
within hours degenerated into a seriocomic fiasco. He recovered on the
19th, but by then, Stalin, whose confidence in his generals was always
easily shaken, had decided to hedge his bet by forestalling the Americans.
Since the presumed other contestant never entered it, the race for Berlin
can be said to have terminated on 25 April with the encirclement completed.
In the final stages of the battle it was Zhukov who took the credit for
the victory, because Stalin reined in Konev just 200 meters from the Reichstag
In the meantime, however,
another race had emerged. Having cleared central Germany, the American
armies had, on 22 April, begun a fast sweep to the south. By the 28th,
they had taken a full third of the Soviet zone, including Leipzig, the
fourth largest German city, and the U.S. 1st Army was on the undefended
western border of Czechoslovakia, 80 miles west of Prague. Stalin therewith
acquired compelling military and political reasons for getting Konev
out of Berlin, where his tank armies were tied down 260 miles away
from Prague. Even without American interference, Konev would not accomplish
a proper "liberation" of Prague until 12 April, four days (three by Soviet
count) after the German surrender.
Being allowed by Stalin
to liberate Prague was Konev's final wartime operation. Being a political
soldier, Konev "presented evidence" to Stalin, pointing against Zhukov
during Stalin's inquiry into Zhukov's past. His reward was Zhukov's job,
commander-in-chief of the ground forces.
The situation of Sudetenland
seems settled now, but may not be in the long run. Like Südtirol
in Italy, Sudetenland is one of those regions of the world that
has been for centuries inhabited by a mixed population that and stands
culturally inbetween more than one culture. The province of Tirol
belonged to the Austrian House of Habsburg since the Middle Ages. During
the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century its southern part went under
Italian influence and became known as Alto Adige. When Napoleon
lost the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Alto Adige went back to Austria
and became known as Südtirol (South Tyrol). After World War I in
1918 it became part of Italy. During the Nazi period, the pro-Hitler Italian
government undertook to resettle to Germany those inhabitants of Südtirol
who opted for German Citizenship. After World War II in 1946 Südtirol
remained part of Italy, but was granted autonomy of language and administration
in 1946. Approximately 1/3 of the population is German-speaking. In the
1950s terrorist attacks by Südtirol separatists gave rise to a lengthy
controversy between Austria and Italy leading to a package of further concessions
to increase the autonomy of the province. The final articles were approved
by the Italian government in 1992, and the matter seems closed, although
resentments over the preferrential treatment of one nationality over another
do occasionally simmer below the surface.
Now consider this parallel
Sudetenland. The region comprises areas along the northern
and western borders of the Czech Republic with Germany. The region had
been predominantly German-speaking, but for centuries belonged politically
to the Czech Kingdom. After World War, under the Treaty of St. Germain
it was incorporated into the Czechoslovakia. In subsequent years control
over the territory became a point of bitter contention between Germany
and Czechoslovakia. Matters worsened in the 1930's when, as a result of
The Great Depression, the heavily idustrialized area suffered massive unemployment.
Unemployed workers were susceptible to the anti-semitic, anti-Czechoslovakian,
pro-German rhetoric of Konrad Heinlein and his cohorts, who founded the
Sudeten German (Nazi) Party. Publicity of the ensuing unrest caused the
leaders of the western democracies to fear the possibility of war. The
result was the infamous
Munich Agreement of 1938. It sanctioned
- without Czech participation - the annexation of the region into Germany.
population welcomed the invaders warmly. In most of the region, a carnival
atmosphere prevailed. To greet the occupying troops, whom the Czechchoslovak
forces had been ordered not to resist, huge Nazi flags-smuggled in earlier
by party agents-sprouted from buildings. Women wept or cheered at the sight
of German soldiers, and garlanded them with flowers. Behind these festive
scenes were a few darker vignettes. A German mob in the town of Cesky Krumlov
fired at the backs of retreating Czech soldiers; in other towns shops and
homes belonging to Czechs and Jews were vandalized and ransacked; a railroad
station clerk was shot dead when he refused to turn his cash over to Sudeten
freebooters. Even more ominous for Europe's immediate future were Hitler's
words as he spoke at the Czech town of Cheb, congratulating his new subjects
on their love for the Fatherland. He grandiosely assured them that "over
the greater German Reich is laid a German shield protecting it, and a German
sword protecting it!" Careful listeners noted that territory in German
control for barely a day had somehow become part of the Reich, and clearly
saw signs of the future in the words "greater" and "sword."
For non-ethnic German
Czechoslovak citizens who did not want to become second-class citizens
of the Third Reich, Munich meant quickly abandoning their property and
removing to the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Over 114,500 Czechs, 11,500
anti-fascist Germans, 7,000 Jews, and around 1,000 others of various nationalities
fled the occupied areas. As the Czechoslovak army troops were leaving a
certain area, the local population found themselves face to face with the
most brutal terror the Sudeten paramilitaries and their fanatical helpers
were capable of. Torrents of beggered and tortured refugees poured into
When World War II was
over, the total death toll, in terms of both civilian and military casualties,
was 20-25 milion Russians, 7 milion Germans, 6.8 milion Poles, 6 milion
Jews, half a milion Czechoslovaks: over 60 milion people world-wide. Coupled
with that is the tremendous destruction of countless historical and architectural
treasures throughout Western Europe that took place in the course of fighting
the fanatical Nazi enemy. In May 1945, countless - mainly German - German
cities were in ruins. Moreover, Hitler's regime inflicted more than just
material and human-life damage on Germany itself: the country's pre-war
artistic community: cinematography, theater, literature, painting...
In August 1945, at the
Allied Summit at Potsdam outside Berlin, England convinced the U.S.
and the Soviets that relocating the German minority population from Czechoslovakia,
Poland and Hungary to Germany represented a viable solution to the situation
forever. Unlike the chaotic and disorganized exodus of the Czechs from
in 1938, this relocation took place under the oversight of an Allied Commision.
The relocation has been largely applauded by Czechs as a revenge for the
Holocaust. However, seen by many Germans who were on the receiving end
of the relocation, it has been an act of "criminal uprooting of an entire
... civilization" and a "flagrant violation of a fundamental ... right
to one's homeland". Pictures of haggard refugees pushing carts filled with
sparse family belongings (same scenes as in the expulsion of the Czechs
in 1938) can be seen
in books and on the internet.
It is possible to say
that the Czechs did to the Germans, what the Germans had done to them.
The support among the Sudetengermans for the Nazi party was very high -
almost unanimous - and the Czechs saw what the Nazis have just done to
them. It is therefore easy to imagine that the Germans, while leaving the
country, were not generally treated with finesse. On the other hand, the
Czechs could not simply expel the minority back into Germany, had it not
been for the consent of the U.S., the Soviets and the British who jointly
controlled Germany. Although
Sudetenland today does not lie in the
center of anybody's radar screen, and mainstream politicians on all sides
would rather put the entire affair behind them, there are isolated strongly-opnionated
voices on both the German as well as Czech sides. Should the matter ever
be seriously reopened, it must be borne in mind that it did nto start purely
as a matter between Germany and Czechoslovakia, therefore it would have
to involve everybody who stood at teh tabel at Potsdam: England, the U.S.,
France and Russia, in addition to the Czech Republic and Germany.
Hopefully, should that
time ever come, the entire continent will be far enough down the path of
economic and political integration that an affair centered around a small
part of real estate called Sudetenland and two nations who had shared
more than a thousand years of relatively peaceful history before the hysteria
of World War II, will be not worth mentioning.
Post World War II Czechoslovakia and the onset of Communism
Three years of freedom
and relative democracy following the end of World War II is all Czechoslovakia
experienced before it plunged into another form of totalitarianism. The
fact that American troops did not liberate Prague and even evacuated western
Czechoslovakia, convinced many Czechs that their country was definitely
in the Soviet sphere of influence. Therefore, thousands joined the Communist
Party. That Party was was already quite popular because the Soviet Union
as "the liberator" was seen as a friend that would tolerate democracy in
Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, the expulsion of the German population from
the Sudetenland made the communists popular with this conservative
element. It is not surprising that, in the relatively free elections of
May 1946, the Communists won 40.17% of the total vote in the Czech lands.
Communist Klement Gottwald became Prime Minister and key cabinet posts
went to Communists. President Benes believed that Stalin would tolerate
democracy in his country. However, it turned out that the Kosice Program
of 1945 had laid the groundwork for later communist and Soviet domination.
Meanwhile, however, Czechoslovakia was still a showcase of democracy in
Eastern Europe until communist pressure led to the establishment of total
communist power in February 1948.
The communists, led by
Prime Minister Klement Gottwald and the chairman of the Central Council
of Trade Unions, Antonin Zapotocky (1884-1957), put tremendous pressure
on President Benes to dismiss the non-communist ministers. The communists
knew, as did Benes, that they could not hope to win a majority if the non-communist
ministers resigned and new elections were held. As for Benes, he did not
believe the communists would mount a coup. He was wrong. When the 12 non-communist
ministers tendered their resignations in protest against the actions of
the security police, they expected Benes to retain them and thus start
a constitutional crisis which would lead to new elections and communist
defeat. But the communists flooded Prague with armed factory "workers"-
the militia they had organized beforehand. The Trade Union Congress, controlled
by the communists, also threatened to act. Indeed, two and a half million
workers went on a strike organized by the Communist Party. Prime Minister
Gottwald proclaimed a "state of emergency," and the headquarters of key
opposition parties were raided. Above all, there were also threats from
Moscow. The Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, Valerian Zorin, arrived in
Prague. He told several democratic ministers that the present Czechoslovak
government was "intolerable" to the Soviet Union.
President Benes gave in.
As in 1939, the government again decided not to risk a hot war with a formidable
adversary and did not defend the country. In the short term Benes'
decition not to resist saved lives, but in the long term paved the way
for forty one years of harsh communist rule. A new communist government
was appointed on February 25, 1948. Benes refused to sign the
new constitution, resigned the Presidency in June and died three months
In the late 1940s and
early 1950s, to solidify its grip on power, the communist government instituted
extremely harsh measures to eliminate opposition. Freedom of press
and speech gradually gave way to censorship. Thousands of political
oponents died in Nazi-like forced labor camps, sanctioned by new laws
passed within months of the communist coup d'etat. Strict political profiling
governed education, science, the Arts and well as people's individual professional
careers. Education, especially humanities, was subject to trict government
guidelines. For example, to fit the propaganda of the time,, essential
facts about World War II were skewed to foster the image of the Soviet Union
at "the leading power of anti-Nazi struggle". The fact the American army liberated
a significant part of Czechoslovakia did not fit the picture, therefore many
students never learned anything about it. While certainly significant the merits
of the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazis were presented as absolute.
Soon after the February 1948 coup d'etat
all major industries were nationalized. Small businesses were allowed to linger until
the early 1950s. After that, no private ownership of businesses was
allowed. The centrally planned and managed economy started to deteriorate
The situation started
to relax somewhat after Stalin's death in 1953. Czechoslovakia began
to gently pull away from the grip of the Soviet Union. In 1968,
the revisionist attempts ended in failure as Soviet troops rolled into
Prague and crushed the liberation movement that had become known as Prague
From the 1970s onward
there was an increasing emphasis on the development of new satellite communities.
The city continued to grow, although most of its population growth was
attributable to annexation. Construction of bold new projects did
take place during the communist era, including a subway network in Prague,
a system of highways and a large new convention center. However,
much of these new additions to Prague were either iintended as a facade
effect on western visitors, or had purely military purpose: broad new highways
leading into to the city center were an ingress route for military units
in case future unrests, the subway stations would serve as nuclear fallout
shelters in case of an all out confrontation with the West. In reality,
much of Prague has become a dusty maze of permanent scaffoldings and gray
The internal grip of the
communists staretd to loosen in the 1980s as Perestroika, Glaznost
and a detente between the Superpowers proceeded. In an attempt to
shore up the economy and stave off publc disconent with, the government
gradually allowed small-scale business ownership. Censorship gradually
was loosened as well.
In November 1989, Prague's
Wenceslas Square became the cradle of the movement that swiftly ended four
decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. An officially sanctioned march
in the city, commemorating the death of a student at the hands of Nazis
in 1939, resulted in police violence and public disorder. Indignation at
the current regime kindled further unrest, and in the second half of November
students, young intellectuals, and later older people, totaling some half
a million, demonstrated in the streets of the capital. Subsequent pressure
led to the resignation of the entire Communist Party leadership and the
formation of a coalition government headed by non-Communists.
The swiftness with which
the communist regime toppled has puzzled historians and politicians.
Theories have surfaced suggesting an internal struggle withinthe communist
party, one faction staging a public "unrest" to help oust the other, the
unrest getting oout of hand and leading to an all-out revolution.
The bloddless nature of the takeover led to the name Velvet Revolution.
Playwright activist Vaclav
Havel became President and many other dissidents took cabinet posts occupied
previously by hard-line communists. Within a year of the revolution
an vast economic reform started. Although not painless and to many
citizens, and not without scandals and controversy, it has led to a total
privatization of all key industries and the replacement of the inefficient
government-run services network with private businesses.
With the common enemy,
the communists, gone, old rivalries between the Czechs and the Slovaks
resurfaced. Under pressure from Slovakia, these sentimentsy eventually
led to a dissolution of Czechoslovakia into its constituent republics on
Jan. 1, 1993. Prague maintained its prominent international status
as capital of the Czech Republic.
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