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 HISTORY and CULTURE
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History
 

The arrival of the Slavs in the 5th and 6th centuries saw the beginning of the Czechs' chequered history. Its tribes adopted Christianity and united in the short-lived Great Moravian Empire (830-906), which came to include western Slovakia, Bohemia, Silesia, and parts of eastern Germany, south-eastern Poland and northern Hungary. Towards the end of the 9th century, the Czechs seceded to form the independent state of Bohemia.

Prague Castle was founded in the 870s by Prince Borivoj as the main seat of the Premysl dynasty, though the Premysls failed to unite the squabbling Czech tribes until 993. In 950, the German King Otto I conquered Bohemia and incorporated it into his Holy Roman Empire. In 1212, the pope granted the Premsyl prince Otakar I the right to rule as king. His son and successor Otakar II tried to claim the title of Holy Roman Emperor as well as king of the Czechs, but the imperial crown went to Rudolph Hapsburg. Strong rule under the Hapsburgs brought with it Bohemia's Golden Age. Prague grew into one of Europe's largest and most important cities, and was ornamented with fine Gothic landmarks.

The late 14th and early 15th centuries witnessed an influential Church-reform movement, the Hussite Revolution, led by the Czech Jan Zizka who was inspired by the teachings of Jan Hus. The spread of Hussitism had threatened the Catholic status quo all over Europe. In 1420 combined Hussite forces successfully defended Prague against the first of a series of anti-Hussite crusades, which had been launched by authority of the pope. Though they were up against larger and better equipped forces, the Hussites repeatedly went on the offensive and raided deep into Germany, Poland and Austria.

In 1526 the Czech kingdom again came under control of the Catholic Hapsburgs. On 23 May 1618, the Bohemian Estates, protesting against both the Hapsburgs' failure to deliver on promises of religious tolerance and the loss of their own privileges, ejected two Hapsburg councillors from an upper window of Prague Castle (they survived with minor injuries). This famous 'defenestration' sparked off the Thirty Years' War. The Czechs lost their rights and property, and almost their national identity, through forced Catholicisation and Germanisation, and their fate was sealed for the next three centuries.

In the 19th century, Bohemia and Moravia were swept by nationalistic sentiments. The Czech lands joined in the 1848 revolutions sweeping Europe, and Prague was the first city in the Austrian Empire to rise in favour of reform. The dream of an independent state began to be realised during WW I. Eventually Czechs and Slovaks agreed to form a single federal state of two equal republics. The First Republic initially experienced an industrial boom; however, slow development, the Great Depression, an influx of Czech bureaucrats and the breaking of a promise of a Slovak federal state, generated calls for Slovak autonomy.

Czechoslovakia was not left to solve its problems in peace. Most of Bohemia's three-million German speakers fell for the dream of a greater Germany, Hitler demanded (and got) the Sudetenland in the infamous Munich agreement of 1938 and the Czechs prepared for war. Although Bohemia and Moravia suffered little material damage in the war, many of the Czech intelligentsia were killed and the Germans managed to wipe out most of the Czech underground. Tens of thousands of Czech and Slovak Jews perished in concentration camps. On 5 May 1945, the population of Prague rose against the German forces as the Red Army approached from the east. The Germans, granted free passage out of the city by the victorious Czech resistance, began pulling out on 8 May. Most of Prague was thus liberated before Soviet forces arrived the following day.

Czechoslovakia was re-established as an independent state. Attempts to consolidate its cultural identity - and punish its oppressors - included large scale deportations of German and Hungarian inhabitants. In the 1946 elections, the Communists became the largest party, with 36% of the popular vote. The 1950s was an era of harsh repression and decline as the Communist economic policies nearly bankrupted the country. Many people were imprisoned, and hundreds were executed or died in labour camps, often for little more than a belief in democracy. In the 1960s, Czechoslovakia enjoyed a gradual liberalisation. A new president, the former Slovak party leader Alexander Dubcek, represented a popular desire for full democracy and an end to censorship - 'socialism with a human face'. Soviet leaders, unable to face the thought of a democratic society within the Soviet bloc, crushed the short-lived 'Prague Spring' of 1968 with an invasion of Warsaw Pact troops on the night of 20-21 August. By the end of the next day, 58 people had died. In 1969, Dubcek was replaced and exiled to the Slovak forestry department. Around 14,000 party functionaries and 500,000 members who refused to renounce their belief in 'socialism with a human face' were expelled from the Party and lost their jobs. Totalitarian rule was re-established and dissidents were routinely imprisoned.

The Communist regime remained in control after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. But on 17 November things changed. Prague's Communist youth movement organised a demonstration in memory of nine students executed by Nazis in 1939. A peaceful crowd of 50,000 were cornered, some 500 were beaten by the police and about 100 arrested. The following days saw constant demonstrations, and leading dissidents, with Vaclav Havel at the forefront, formed an anti-Communist coalition which negotiated the government's resignation on 3 December. A 'Government of National Understanding' was formed, with the Communists as minority members. Havel was elected president of the republic on 29 December and Dubcek was elected speaker of the national assembly. The days after the 17 November demonstration have become known as the 'Velvet Revolution' because there were no casualties. (In September 1992 Dubcek was seriously injured in a car accident near Prague, dying of injuries on 7 November. Conspiracy theorists have been busy ever since.)

Voices for autonomy in Slovakia were getting stronger, and a vocal minority was demanding independence. Finally, it was decided by prime ministers of both republics and other leading politicians that splitting the country was the best solution. Many people, including President Havel, called for a referendum, but even a petition signed by a million Czechoslovaks was not enough for the federal parliament to agree on how to arrange it. In the end Havel resigned from his post, as after repeated attempts by the new parliament he was not re-elected as president. Thus, on 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist for the second time this century. Prague became the capital of the new Czech Republic, and Havel was promptly elected its first president.

Thanks to stringent economic policies, booming tourism and a solid industrial base, the Czech Republic is seeing a strong recovery. Unemployment is negligible, shops are full and many cities are getting facelifts. The picture is not all rosy, however: there is an acute shortage of affordable housing, steeply rising crime, severe pollution, a deteriorating health system and occasional political instability (such as a failure by the Parliament to elect a president to replace Vaclav Havel in February 2003). But the newly founded democracy and its radical economic transformation seem to be working.




Culture
 

The Czechs are a plain-spoken, even-tempered people, revealing a spectrum of cultural, religious and political influences that is surprisingly broad for such a small country - German and Austrian to Polish and Hungarian, liberal to deeply traditional, global-thinking to fiercely nationalistic. The largest church is the Roman Catholic Church, though in 1991 fewer than 40% of Czechs called themselves Catholics, and even fewer attend church regularly. The next largest church is the Hussite Church and there are numerous other Protestant denominations, the largest being the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. Prague has the largest Jewish community in the republic, with about 6000 members; smaller enclaves are in Ostrava and Brno.

Most travellers are impressed by the Czech Republic's architectural splendours, which include some of the finest Baroque, Art Nouveau and Cubist buildings in Europe, but Czechs have also excelled at less noticeable art forms, such as illuminated manuscripts, religious sculpture, and marionette & puppet theatre.

Czech music runs the gamut from classical to jazz & punk. Apprentice butcher Antonín Dvorák is generally regarded as the most popular Czech composer. He is noted for his symphony From the New World, composed in the USA while lecturing there. Czech jazz musicians were at the forefront of European jazz after WW II but this came to an end with the communist putsch. Keyboardist Jan Hamr, who escaped to the USA, became prominent in 1970s American jazz-rock under the name Jan Hammer. Since the Velvet Revolution, the jazz scene in Prague has been especially lively. The grim industrial north, particularly Teplice, is the hub of the Czech Republic's punk movement.

The most famous Czech writer is undoubtedly Franz Kafka, who, with a circle of other German-speaking Jewish writers in Prague, played a major role in the literary scene at the beginning of this century. Internationally renowned 'modern' Czech novelists include Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima and Josef Skvorecky. Much less well-known is the Czech poet Jaroslav Siefert, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984. The playwright Vaclav Havel now operates on a somewhat larger stage.

Czech cuisine is basically central European, with German, Hungarian and Polish influences. Meat is a huge feature, along with big portions of dumplings, potatoes or rice topped with a thick sauce, and a heavily cooked vegetable or sauerkraut; the standard quick meal is knedlo-zelo-vepro (dumplings, sauerkraut and roast pork). Caraway seed, bacon and lots of salt are the common flavourings. Vegetarians and cholesterol sufferers beware!


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