San José State University
Department of Economics

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Political and Economic History of
the Czech People and the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic

Brief Summary of
the History of the Czechs

Czechia, the Czech Republic, occupies the historic regions of Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia. These regions have been important in the economy of east central Europe because of their mineral deposits and later their industries. As the name Bohemia indicates it was not always occupied by the Czechs. Bohemia originally meant the Home of the Boii, a Celtic tribe that lived there from about 500 BCE until they were driven out by Germanic tribes who themselves did not occupy the territory for long before moving on to other territories. Slavic people moved into the vacated territory and by the fourth or fifth century A.D. Bohemia was Czech. The people occupying Moravia, to the east of Bohemia, are somewhat different culturally and linguistically from the Czechs but the differences are not significant.

In modern times there were significant non-Czech minorities in Bohemia. In medieval times and later, German settlers were encouraged to migrate to Bohmia , particularly to the cities where they were important in commerce. Germans also settled in the mountainous ring around the high plain of Bohemia.

In 1918 after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia, who had been under Austrian rule, were joined with the Slovaks who had been under Hungarian rule into the nation of Czechoslovakia. That nation also included an area to the east called Ruthenia. Bohemia and Moravia had about eighty percent of the industry of Austria.

In the 1930's the German residents of Bohemia, constituted one third of the population. These German residents were used as an excuse of Nazi Germany to dismember Czechoslovakia. During World War II Bohemia and Moravia existed politically only as a protectorate of the Third Reich. Soviet troops occupied Czechoslovakia near the end of World War II. At that time the Soviet Union separated and annexed Ruthenia, the eastern portion of Czechoslovakia.

After the war Czechoslovakia was governed by a coalition of communist and non-communist parties. In 1948 Joseph Stalin ordered a coup d'etat by the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Thereafter the elements of a Stalinist economy were installed; i.e., nationalization of industry, centralization of decision-making, collectivization of agriculture and a one-party state.

The Czechs and the Slovaks suffered through the decades of Stalinist rule. In the late 1960's there developed a spontaneous movement to liberalize the regime. The liberalization became known as the Prague Spring. But the rulers of Eastern Europe, located in Moscow, could not tolerate even a moderate liberalization of Stalinism and sent in troops in August of 1968 to occupy the country. Stalinism was preserved in Czechoslovakia for another two decades.

In the miracle years of the late 1980's and early 1990's Stalinism fell apart throughout Eastern Europe and even in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia achieved its freedom. The totalitarianism which had been imposed in 1938 and again in 1948 had lasted about fifty years.

The Slovaks have some things in common with the Czechs but culturally and linguistically they are enough different that with the first opportunity the Slovaks sought separation. The Czech Republic and Slovakia severed their union peacefully and amicably in 1993. It was dubbed the Velvet Divorce. Economically Slovakia was significantly backward compared to the Czech Republic.

The Emergence of the Czech Culture

Bohemia and Moravia were the object of many struggles. Czech tribes settled in the Elbe River Valley in about the fifth century A.D. There they had to, of course, struggle against outside invaders. In the sixth century A.D. the Avars, a Turkish nomadic tribe from the Volga Basin, invaded the Danube Plain and captured the Slavic tribes they found there. The Avars did not reach Bohemia but they were a fearful threat and the organization of a collective defense in Bohemia. This was the first assembly of Czech tribes into a political organization. Apparently the leader of this first organization of the Czechs was an outsider, a Frankish merchant named Samo. This led to the formation of the Empire of Samo in 625. This empire was centered around Prague. It broke up when Samo died in the year 658.

Later Czechs built up an empire in Moravia and had to defend it against Germanic invasions from the West. There was an attempt to stave off the German threat by developing ties with the Byzantine Empire. In part the German threat was embodied in the Christianization efforts of the Catholic Church of Rome. To counter balance this influence the Moravian sought Christianization through the Greek Orthodox Church of Byzantium. One result of this was that the monk Cyril and his associates came to the Moravia. To express the religious writings of the Church in Czech Cyril created an alphabet which became known as the Cyrillic alphabet. It became the basis for the writing of the Slavic languages of Russia, Serbia and elsewhere. Ultimately, however, the attempt to promote the Greek Orthodox version of Christianity in Moravia came to naught and the Moravian kings allied themselves with German kings.

In addition to the struggles of the Czech people with outside invaders there were struggles within Czech society. One ongoing struggle was between the kings and the local feudal lords. As part of this struggle the kings encouraged the immigration of Germans into Bohemia and Moravia for the commercial skills of the Germans and their ability to create new schools. But these German immigrants also became allies of the kings against the feudal lords. The kings sometimes gave the German immigrants special privileges. This created problems for the middle strata of Czech society as well as the Czech feudal lords.

Bohemia power and prestige was greatly enhance by the emergence of the Dynasty of the Premyslids in the tenth century. These kings came from the Cechové tribe who held control of the strategic territory at the junction of the Elbe and Vltava Rivers. The rule of Bohemia by the Premyslids spanned the period from the tenth century A.D. through the thirteenth century into the early years of the fourteenth century. During the thirteenth century, because of the turmoil brought by the Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, the Premyslids were able to extend the Bohemian Empire through marriage and conquest south through what later became Austria to the Adriatic Sea and north to Brandenburg taking Bohemia nearly to the Baltic Sea. These acquired territories were soon lost but for a few decades Bohemia was the dominant power in the region.

In the last years of the thirteenth century the kings of Bohemia were able through marriage to acquire the crowns of Poland and Hungary. But Wenceslas II died in 1305 and his son Wenceslas III was murdered in 1306. That brought the end of the Premyslid Dynasty of Bohemia.

The kingship of the Bohemian Empire was in dispute for four years until John of Luxembourg, the husband of Princess Elizabeth of the Premyslid family, brought an army into Bohemia to claim the throne. The line of Luxembourg kings was most notable for the reign of Charles IV who built up Prague as his imperial capital. He founded the University of Prague and had built the famous Charles Bridge across the Elbe River. Charles was also elected ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, but at that stage it was doubtful that there was anything holy, Roman or Imperial about it. When Charles died the Bohemian Empire was divided between his two sons and the Bohemian Empire was once again just Bohemia. For the next century the history of Bohemia was more religious than dynastic.


Jan Hus, An Early Reformer and Martyr

Jan Hus

Jan Hus was a noted 15th century scholar and preacher whose matyrdom galvanized Czech ethnic consciousness. The University of Prague was in the late 14th century dominated by the German element of Prague. Jan Hus, a poor Czech boy from southern Bohemia, enrolled in the University in 1390. After completing his education in about 1396 he began teaching at the University. By 1401 he had risen to the position of dean of the philosophy department. His rapid rise to prominence in a university dominated by Germans attests to the caliber of his abilities. In 1402 he began giving sermons in Czech at the Bethlem Chapel of Prague and became the leader of a movement among Czechs geared to bringing about reform in the Catholic Church. The English theologian John Wycliffe had published extensive criticism of the Church and called for sweeping, radical reform. Wycliffe's thoughts were a topic of strong interest among the Czechs of Prague, including Jan Hus.

Jan Hus did not accept all of Wycliffe's ideas but he believed in some. Jan Hus advocated reform but he was a relative moderate on the matter. The reforms of the Catholic Church that Jan Hus did call for were:

The call for the Church give up its wealth and ostentatiousness and to adhere to apostolic poverty was particularly crucial since Church organizations controlled about one half of all the land in Bohemia.

The political events at the University were affected by the problem of there being two claimants to the title of Pope. Many were calling for a convention to settled the matter of the schism and to reform the Church. When the University of Prague opposed the call for a convention the King of Bohemia, who favored the convention, broke the power of the German element at the University by taking away its special voting power. Under the new arrangement the Czech element at the University became dominant and Jan Hus was elected rector of the University in 1409.

The Council of Pisa then deposed the two rival Popes and selected a new Pope. This new Pope later prohibited preaching in private chapels such as the one Jan Hus was preaching in. Hus refused to stop his preaching and was excommunicated. For a period of time Jan Hus could defy the Pope because he had powerful protectors, particularly the King of Bohemia, Wenceslas and the Archbishop of Prague, Zbynek. But the Archbishop of Prague died. Then a new Pope began a campaign of selling indulgences. Jan Hus preached against these indulgences. The King, who shared in the proceeds of the sale of indulgences, withdrew his support from Hus. The Church renewed his trial for heresy and when Hus did not appear for trial an order of excommunication was issued for the city of Prague for harboring him. Hus left Prague and stayed in southern Bohemia for two years.

A Council of Constance was called for dealing with possible reforms of the Church and Hus was invited to present his views. The King of Germany granted Hus a safe-conduct for his attendance at the Council and on this basis he accepted. Hus was a man of scholarly achievement and respected as a preacher; a man exemplifying Czech ethnic honor.

The Burning of
Jan Hus

He journeyed to Constance confident in the security of the German king's promise of safe conduct. He was arrested on the day of his arrival and charged with many counts of heresy. He was ordered to recant and when he refused to do so in the manner the authorities demanded he was sentenced to burning at the stake. The sentence was executed the very same day.

His followers rose up in rebellion but there were factional divisions within the movement which thwarted their effectiveness. Nevertheless the emergence of Czech national consciousness can be traced to the Hussite movement.

After Jan Hus' martyrdom in 1415 a Czech aristocrat named Jan Zizka emerged as the leader of the Taborites. In 1419 King Wenceslas died and the kingship of Bohemia went to the King of Hungary, Sigismund. Sigismund, however, was not able to subdue the rebellious Czechs. During the religious wars the Czech rebels penetrated Slovakia and some Czech refugees settled there, strengthening the ties between the Czechs and the Slovaks.

Among the religious dissidents of Bohemia there was a moderate group called the Ultraquists. They were followers of Hus, but more willing to compromise than the Taborites. In 1433 some Ultraquists participated in the conference in Basle, Switzerland that formulated a Compact of Basle which was supposed to achieve a reproachment with the Catholic Church. However the Pope rejected the Compact.

When Sigismund died in 1437 there appeared to be the another opportunity for reconciliation. The Czech Diet (national assembly) elected Ladislas, a minor, king. The councilors who ruled in Ladislas' name were Ultraquists.


The conquering Magyars met their match in the conquering Ottoman Turks. The invasion of the Danube plain by the Ottomans led to a battle between the Magyars and the Turks at Mohác in 1526. The Magyars lost and the refugees fled into the mountains of Slovakia.


The Communist coup d'etat
in Czechoslovakia in 1948

Because of the perceived abandonment of Czechoslovakia by the Western European powers in 1939 and the offer of help by the Soviet Union, the Czechs were favorably deposed toward the Soviet Union. It was Soviet armies which liberated Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II. The Czech Communists were the leaders of the resistance to the German occupation. Therefore it was not reasonable in the minds of the Czechs the Communists should pay an important role, even a leading role, in the postwar government of Czechoslovakia. Eduard Beneš, who had been president of Czechoslovakia at the time of its dismemberment in 1938, headed a National Front government in 1945. That National Front government included members of the Komunistická strana Ceskoslovenská KsC (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) as well as members of two other socialist parties, the Social Democratic Party and the National Socialist Party. Together the representatives of these three parties made up a majority. No representatives of the rightist parties were allowed. Representatives of a few nonsocialist parties were included such as the Catholic Peoples Party of Moravia and the Slovak Democratic Party. However of the twenty five cabinet posts Communists held eight, including the most powerful ones.

(To be continued.)

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