History of the Czech Republic

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CZECHOSLOVAKIA WAS ESTABLISHED in 1918 as a national state of the Czechs and Slovaks. Although these two peoples were closely related, they had undergone different historical experiences. In the ninth century A.D., the ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks were united in the Great Moravian Empire, but by the tenth century the Hungarians had conquered Slovakia, and for a millennium the Czechs and the Slovaks went their separate ways. The history of Czechoslovakia, therefore, is a story of two separate peoples whose fates sometimes have touched and sometimes have intertwined.

Despite their separate strands of development, both Czechs and Slovaks struggled against a powerful neighbor that threatened their very existence. Both nations showed resilience and perseverance in their search for national self-expression. The Czechs had a much richer tradition of self-rule. From the tenth to the fifteenth century, the Czech-inhabited Bohemian Kingdom was a powerful political and military entity. The immigration into Bohemia of a large number of Germans, however, created tension between Czechs and Germans.

Perhaps the greatest moment of Czech self-expression came with the Hussite movement in the fifteenth century. In 1403 the Czech reformist preacher Jan Hus challenged papal authority and precipitated a broadly based anti-German rebellion. The Hussite religious reform movement developed into a national struggle for autonomy in political and ecclesiastical affairs. For over two centuries the Czechs were able to maintain political self-rule, which was expressed by the Bohemian estates (an assembly of nobles, clergy, and townspeople representing the major social groups in the Bohemian Kingdom) and the Czech Reformed Church.

The failure to establish a native dynasty ultimately doomed the Bohemian Kingdom. In 1526 the Bohemian estates accepted a Hapsburg ruler as monarch. Soon this voluntary subordination was transformed into the hereditary rule of an alien absolutist dynasty. The Bohemian estates resisted, but their defeat by the Hapsburgs at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 had dire consequences: the entire Czech leadership was either killed or went into exile, the reformed Czech religion was gradually eliminated, and even the Czech language went into decline. As the remnants of the Bohemian Kingdom were abolished, the Czech lands were incorporated into Austria. From self-rule, the Czechs were reduced to an oppressed peasant nation.

New forces at work in the nineteenth century dramatically changed the position of the Czechs. A vigorous industrial revolution transformed a peasant nation into a differentiated society that included industrial workers, a middle class, and intellectuals. Under the influence of the Enlightenment and romanticism, the Czechs experienced a remarkable revival of Czech culture and national consciousness. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Czechs were making political demands, including the reconstitution of an autonomous Bohemian Kingdom. Because of Austria's parliamentary system, the Czechs were able to make significant cultural and political gains, but these were vigorously opposed by Bohemia's Germans, who feared losing their privileged position. On the eve of World War I, the Czech leader Tomas Masaryk began propagating the Czechoslovak idea, i.e., the reunion of Czechs and Slovaks into one political entity.

The Slovak road to nationhood was even more difficult than that of the Czechs. After incorporation into the Kingdom of Hungary in the tenth century, the Slovaks were reduced to being serfs of their Hungarian overlords. Having no forum for political expression, the Slovaks lacked a strong national consciousness. They did maintain their language and folk customs. On occasion, the Slovaks were able to renew contact with the Czechs. In the fifteenth century, Czech Hussite armies had briefly occupied parts of Slovakia. In the sixteenth century, Czech Protestant literature was circulated in Slovakia, and the Czech language became the literary language of educated Slovaks.

National revival came late and more hesitantly to the Slovaks than to the Czechs. Slovakia was not industrialized until the end of the nineteenth century; therefore, the Slovaks remained primarily a rural people led by a small group of intellectuals. The Slovak leadership had first to decide on the nature of Slovak identity. Some outstanding Slovak scholars, e.g., Pavel Safarik and Jan Kollar, viewed Slovaks as merely a long-separated part of a single Czechoslovak nation. By the 1840s, however, L'udovit Stur emphasized the distinctiveness of the Slovak language and people; subsequently, Slovaks viewed themselves as a separate Slovak nationality. As the Slovaks attempted to establish cultural institutions and make political demands, they were blocked by the Hungarian ruling aristocracy. The Slovak national revival was severely repressed, and, on the eve of World War I, the Slovaks were struggling to preserve their newly found national identity.

After a millennium of separation, the Czechs and Slovaks were politically reunited in 1918 in the Czechoslovak Republic. As a parliamentary democracy surrounded by hostile neighbors, the Czechoslovak Republic not only survived for twenty years but also prospered. Yet the republic was not able to withstand the combined pressure of its dissatisfied minorities and the aggressive designs of its neighbors. Tension was most acute in the German-populated Sudetenland. The rise of Hitler, who became chancellor of Germany in 1933, led to mounting German nationalism in the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and provided a pretext for Hitler's demand for annexation of this highly industrialized area. Czechoslovakia's major allies, Britain and France, were anxious to avoid a war with Germany. To appease Hitler, they signed the Munich Agreement on September 29, 1938, ceding the Sudetenland to the Third Reich. Bowing to the inevitable, Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes accepted the Munich decision. In March 1939, Nazi troops occupied all of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Slovaks declared independence. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted as an independent state but again faced the threat of a powerful neighbor. President Benes had made major concessions to the Communist Party of Czechoslovkia, hoping to satisfy it and the Soviet Union while, at the same time, attempting to preserve Czechoslovakia's democratic, pluralistic political system. Benes's hopes were not realized, and the communists overthrew his coalition government in 1948. Czechoslovakia soon was placed firmly into the Soviet orbit, and Stalinization followed.

Czechoslovakia's democratic tradition had been suppressed but not destroyed. In 1968 the struggle for democracy reemerged within the party itself. While remaining loyal to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the leadership of the party under Alexander Dubcek attempted to introduce within Czechoslovakia a more democratic form of socialism. The ensuing Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion. Subsequently, the leadership of the party was purged, and Gustav Husak, the new general secretary (the title changed from first secretary in 1971), introduced a "normalization" program. Despite Czech and Slovak dissent, as of 1987 Husak continued to enforce an antireformist course.

Data as of August 1987

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Czech Republic > Map Economy History