The beginnings of Czech history are a little foggy. Evidence of Neanderthals and even prehistoric fish exist, followed by rambunctious and highly nomadic Celtic and then Germanic tribes occupying the area. These tribes would eventually beat a retreat out of Central Europe; nipping at their heels were Slavic people from the Black Sea and Carpathian regions. They settled in southern Bohemia and parts of modern day Austria. The activities of these groups are the stuff of legends. It is known that the Great Moravian Empire was the first real state on Czech soil – exactly where it was located is anyone´s guess. Experts place the origins of this principality around the 8th century.
That is where the story deviates from history, taking on fairy-tale qualities. According to legend, Libuše, daughter of mythical Czech ruler Krok, was chosen for succession to the throne. Not known for their forward-thinking ways, the people begged her to choose a man to rule instead. She chose Přemysl the Ploughman; they married, had a son, and the Přemyslid dynasty commenced its rule from a castle in Libušen – these days called Vyšehrad. The Czech state gained strength and a new-found sovereignty during their reign, and Queen Libuše prophesied the foundation of a golden city: Prague.
She wasn´t all that far off the mark. The Luxembourg Dynasty succeeded the Přemysls in the 14th century and its King Charles IV facilitated the coming-of-age of Bohemia, and specifically transformed the city of Prague into an imperial capital. Under his patronage, construction began on the Charles Bridge, Charles University, and Prague Castle. He was a Holy Roman Emperor until his death in 1355 and is generally considered to be the father of the country. The tides took a bit of a nasty turn at this point. An ongoing war between protestant Hussites (inspired by the teachings of reformist Jan Hus) and the Catholic crusaders led to political and economic strife and, above all, endless bloodshed.
The holy war ended in the 15th century and the country returned to a relative state of calm during the reign of George of Poděbrady. The 16th century would bring the rule of Rudolf II; an intellectual and art lover who granted the Protestants further religious liberty with his Letter of Majesty. Still unsatisfied, the religious group heaved two imperial governors out of a high window in Prague Castle. Surprisingly the men survived unharmed. This act signified the beginning of the Thirty Years War that would rage throughout Europe – it would be many, many years before the Czech lands were self-governed again. The Austrians captured the Bohemian throne in the 16th century, suppressing Czech culture and language for the next 400 years.
The 19th century brought a turnabout referred to as The National Revival. Fed up with the Germanization of their country, the Czechs considered it high time to get back to not only their own language and culture, but their own government. Emancipation from Austria came in the guise of the Versailles Treaty in 1918. The First Republic was led by President Tomáš Masaryk. The Czech economy was booming: art, literature, and music were flourishing, and the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) was one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
But such bliss, though long-earned, was short-lived. In 1938, the Nazis set up camp in Bohemia and Moravia and the subsequent effect on the country was tragic. Approximately 125,000 citizens, including 83,000 Jews, were killed, and hundreds of thousand of others were sent to prisons and concentration camps or forced into hard labor. The Czechoslovak Republic was restored after World War II made its exit from history. Yet shortly after coming to power, the country´s communist party fell under Soviet influence. In 1968, an attempt to give the communist system a human face known as Prague Spring (a period of political liberalization that brought Soviet ire, not to be confused with the Prague Spring International Music Festival), failed miserably when Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia. The new government was more hard-line than ever, and the Czech people remained locked behind the Iron Curtain throughout the 1970´s and the 1980´s.
Inspired by uprisings throughout Eastern Europe, the Czechoslovak people took part in a peaceful revolt known as The Velvet Revolution (1989), which led to the overthrow of the communist government. Dissident playwright Václav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 (in 1993 the country split from Slovakia). On January 1, 1993 the country held its first nationwide elections in more than 40 years. The country joined NATO in 1999 and became a member of the EU on May 1, 2004. The Czech Republic has now opened its doors to tourist and expatriate alike, many of whom consider Prague to be one of the continent´s loveliest capitals. And while the country continues to develop at a rapid pace, its fascinating history and rich culture will be not be lost to future generations of both visitors and citizens.