HISTORY
At an unnamed site in the Czech Republic, evidence of prehistoric weaving has been found in clay fragments that range from 24,870 to 26,980 B.C.E. with the bones of mammoths and many smaller animals. No evidence was found that people were there later. At this time Alpine glaciers and the huge Scandinavian ice sheet were advancing on Central Europe, so the people who did the weaving had to leave. Sites with late Neolithic Corded Ware and potsherds finds of the Moravian middle Neolithic “painted pottery” culture are also being excavated. The ceramics, notable for their well-preserved painted decoration forming recognizable rectilinear and curvilinear patterns, as well as the conspicuous number of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic clay figurines, were found in a circular ditched enclosure with four gates. The remains of an early Slavonic settlement known as Pohansko hillfort, inhabited between the sixth and eighth centuries C.E. was probably a clustered agriculture settlement divided into separate granges. Within the granges large extended clans, themselves divided into smaller nuclear families, lived and worked communally. Over three centuries the settlement shifted and was rebuilt several times. Such archaeological and circumstantial historical evidence indicates that the Slavic tribes first moved into Bohemia in the sixth century, having reached Moravia and Slovakia somewhat earlier. These tribes adopted Christianity and united for a short period to form the Great Moravian Empire from 830 to 906. The empire was made up of western Slovakia, Bohemia, Silesia, and parts of eastern Germany, southeastern Poland, and northern Hungary. At the end of the ninth century the Czechs separated to form the independent state of Bohemia. Around 870 Prince Borv ivoj (fl. ninth century) of the Premysl (also spelled Przemysl) Dynasty (named after the most revered ancestor of Czechs, Premysl or Przemysl) established the Prague Castle as his seat of power, but he was unsuccessful in bringing the various tribes together. In 950 the German King Otto I (or Otto the Great), the first holy roman emperor, invaded Bohemia and made it a part of his empire. (The term Holy Roman Empire did not come into usage until several centuries after Otto’s accession; the Holy Roman Empire was a successor state to the empire founded in 800 by Charlemagne.) However in 1212 the Premysls united the warring factions in the country; the Premysl Prince Otakar I (1198–1230) was granted permission by the emperor of Germany as well as by the pope to rule over Bohemia, and was granted the status of king. He was succeeded by his son Prince Otakar II (c. 1230–78), who married a German princess Margaret of Babenberg (d. 1266; sister of the duke of Austria and the last ruler of the Babenberg Dynasty Frederick II, (1219–46), and thus became the duke of Austria. By virtue of being a duke of Austria Otakar II established control over a major part of Austria. However after the death of Frederick II, he met with fierce opposition from the emperor of Habsburg Rudolf (1218–91) who was also the godchild of Frederick II. In 1278 a battle was fought between Bohemia and Habsburg, and Otakar II was killed on the battlefield. “The golden age” of Bohemia began under the auspices of the king of Luxembourg Charles IV (1316–78). He was the son of John the Blind of Luxembourg (1296–1346) and Queen Elizabeth (1292–1330), the heir to the throne of Bohemia after the death of her brother and the last male ruler of the Premysl dynasty King Wenceslaus III (1289–1306). Charles IV was a great patron of the arts, and he founded the Charles University of Prague in 1348. During his reign Prague developed into one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, liberally dotted with impressive buildings in the Gothic style. In the 14th and 15th centuries a Czech named Jan Zizka (c. 1370–1424) led a church-reform movement called the Hussite Revolution that was influenced by the teachings of Jan Hus (b. 1369), a religious reformer. The Roman Catholic Church often viewed his teachings as antipapal, since he spoke openly against the hierarchical tendencies as well as corruption and the accumulation of wealth prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1414 Jan Hus was summoned by the Council of Constance, an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, where bishops had assembled to discuss and settle issues related to church practice and doctrine. After listening to the views of Jan Hus, the council declared him a heretic, and, in 1415 he was burned to death. The death of Jan Hus marked the beginning of widespread protests by the Hussites against the Roman Catholic Church. The fight between the pro-church demonstrators and Hussites soon led to a series of wars, known as the Hussite Wars, fought between 1420 and 1434, and to the killing of German Roman Catholics in Prague by Bohemian Hussites. Hus’s death and the succeeding violence also led to the reformation of the Catholic Church in Bohemia. In 1440 Ladislaus the Posthumous (1440–57), whose name was chosen because he was born four months after the death of his father the king of Bohemia Albert II, 1397–1439), became king of Bohemia. During this period attempts were made by George of Poderbrady (d. 1471), a Bohemian noble and supporter of the Hussites, to unite the Hussites and the Czech Reformed Church, and Catholic sympathizers in the region were driven away from Prague. In 1457 Ladislaus died of the plague, and in 1458 George of Poderbrady was elected the new king of Bohemia, despite the pope’s protests. George Poderbrady also became the first European king to denounce the Catholic faith. He ruled over the region until his death. In 1526 after the Hussite King Louis II (1506–26) was defeated by the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Mohacs, the Bohemian nobility elected Archduke Ferdinand I (1529–95), a Habsburg ruler, as the king of Bohemia. After he became the emperor following the death of his brother Charles V (1500–58), Ferdinand started spreading Catholicism in Bohemia and even imprisoned the bishops of the Czech Reformed Church and many Hussite leaders. This purge was carried on into the 17th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias (?1557–1619) and led to growing friction between the royalty and the Hussites. Thus on May 23, 1618, as a mark of protest against the rule of the emperor, two Habsburg councilors were thrown out of one of the windows of Prague Castle by the Bohemian people. This incident was the catalyst for the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) between the Bohemians and the emperor, which ended unfavorably for the Bohemians when the emperor emerged victorious at the end of the war. As a consequence Bohemians were forced to accept Germanization and the Catholic religion for the next three centuries, a condition that persisted into the 19th century. In 1867 after suffering a series of defeats in Prussia and Italy, the Habsburg Dynasty, ruled by the King of Bohemia Franz Joseph (1830–1916), struck a deal with Hungary to strengthen his position in Europe, which led to the establishment of the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under the dual monarchy the native Bohemians suffered immensely and were denied the right to have any say in the governance of their country. All policies were made in the interests of the Hungarians, Germans, and Austrians, and many Czechs were deprived of their basic rights in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But this repressive rule failed to wipe out the Czech national identity. In the 19th century Bohemia and Moravia decided to unite and fight the Habsburgs. The city of Prague was the torchbearer of the revolt that had begun to sweep through Europe. The idea of an independent Czech state began to form in the 20th century and intensified during the course of World War I. The Czechs and the Slovaks decided to set up a single federal state of two independent republics in 1918. This resulted in the formation of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. Eventually due to the slow pace of development and the fact that they were not granted their own federal state, the Slovaks wanted to break away. The large number of Germans in Bohemia also cherished their own dreams of a greater Germany. In 1938 under the Munich Agreement Hitler took advantage of this fact and annexed the Sudetenland, a region along the Moravian and Bohemian borders that had a large German populace. This upset the Czechs, who immediately began to prepare for war. The German forces invaded Czechoslovakia and wreaked havoc on the underground resistance movement. Although Bohemia and Moravia suffered little damage, tens of thousands of Czech and Slovak Jews lost their lives in concentration camps. On May 5, 1945, the city of Prague rose against the Germans and emerged victorious, thereby reestablishing Czech autonomy and independence. The Communists emerged as the majority party in the 1946 elections, winning 36 percent of the vote. Communist authorities established a repressive, authoritarian regime and during the 1950s Communist economic policies brought Czechoslovakia to the brink of bankruptcy. In the 1960s things began to improve. Liberalization took place and Alexander Dubcv ek (1921–92), a former leader of the Slovak party, became the president. He represented the people’s desire for complete democracy or “socialism with a human face.” The Soviet Union would not tolerate any threat to Soviet-style Communism and brutally crushed the “Prague Spring.” This was the name given to an uprising in 1968, which was a short-lived attempt at freedom from state control. Dubcv ek was exiled, and thousands of prodemocracy party functionaries were expelled. The Communist regime was once again in control and remained in power for almost two more decades. On November 17, 1989, the Communist youth movement in Prague carried out a peaceful prodemocracy rally. The police cracked down severely on the demonstrators, but the protests continued. Led by the dissident playwright Václav Havel (b. 1936), the democracy movement ultimately forced the Communist government to step down. Havel was subsequently elected president of the republic. The period between November 17 and December 29, 1989, which saw the Communist regime thrown out of Czechoslovakia, is known as the Velvet Revolution for its lack of violence. In the meantime the Slavs were beginning to agitate for a separate republic, and the leaders of Czechoslovakia decided to split the nation into two parts. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia came into being. Václav Havel was sworn in as the first president of the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union (EU) in 2004.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
The landlocked Czech Republic is bordered by Poland to the north, Germany to the northwest and west, Austria to the south, and Slovakia to the east. The Bohemian Massif, a ring of mountains that encloses the Bohemian Plateau, dominates the landscape. This imposing landform is 3,000 feet above sea level. The two main rivers are the Elbe and the Vltava. The highest peak is the Snevzvka (“Snow Mountain”) in the Giant Mountains on the Polish border, part of the Sudetes mountain range, at 5,256 feet. To the west Bohemia is made up of rolling plains, hills, and plateaus encircled by low hills. To the east Moravia is extremely hilly. The Czech Republic has a temperate climate marked by cool summers and cold and snowy winters. The warmest month of the year is July, while January is the coldest. Winters are bitterly cold in the mountains and usually last from December through February. Temperatures can fall below freezing even in the lowlands. In the western region of Cheb the mean annual temperature is 45ºF; in Prague during summer, the temperature can reach 91ºF, while in winter the temperature can be as low as 1ºF.
ECONOMY
The economy of the Czech Republic has begun to bounce back with the help of sound economic policies, and it is regarded as one of the most stable economies among the post-Communist states. The Czech Republic is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, China, and Vietnam into and through the Czech Republic mainly for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Tourism is a good source of revenue, and Czech industries include power engineering, metallurgy, car manufacture, glass, leather, plastics, chemicals, ceramics, and beer. Growth has also received a boost from exports to the EU, and Germany in particular. Foreign investment has shown a steady upward trend and inflation has been brought under control. Deficits in the current account have hovered around five percent of the gross domestic product. There have been concerted efforts to privatize banking, telecommunications, and energy. The economy has almost made a full recovery from the recession since mid-1999. The shops are well stocked, and the cities have an air of prosperity.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
By nature the Czechs are straightforward, even-tempered people. Despite their turbulent history and the repressive nature of Communist rule, they have achieved a high degree of development in art, architecture, music, and literature and produced worldrenowned musicians, composers, and writers. The Czech Republic is famous for its grand and opulent architecture and possesses some of the finest Baroque, Renaissance, and Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. Less well known, but equally deserving of praise, are the illuminated manuscripts, religious sculpture, marionettes, and puppet theater. Czech Puppet Theater is regarded as one of the finest in the world. The most famous Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924) was a member of a circle of writers in Prague at the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the more recent writers of great talent and influence include Milan Kundera (b. 1929), Ivan Klima (b. 1931), and Josef Skvorecky (b. 1924). Milan Kundera wrote about life under the Communists, and his notable works are The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979). Jaroslav Siefert (1901–86) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. Former Czech president Václav Havel, a playwright, has written several books about Czech history and politics. Disturbing the Peace (1991) and The Art of the Impossible (1998) are among his works. Czech music, like Czech art and architecture, is of an extremely high standard. It encompasses the entire spectrum from classical to jazz. Antonín Dvorv ák (1841–1904) is generally regarded as the greatest Czech composer. He was an apprentice butcher who possessed a prodigious talent that resulted in works such as his Symphony from the New World, which he composed in the United States while lecturing there. Following World War II Czech jazz musicians were the foremost in their field, until the Communist regime put an end to their playing. Some immigrated to the United States and became successful there. However, the jazz scene has picked up again in the years following the Velvet Revolution.
CUISINE
Czech cuisine is generally quite rich and, despite a move toward eating lighter food, traditional favorites still have a loyal following. Czech cuisine is partial to the use of meats and usually has a high content of fat, calories, and sugar. A meal frequently starts with a soup (polévka). Some popular soups are potato, garlic, and sauerkraut (fermented white cabbage). A meat dish (maso) and a side dish (prv íloha) follow the soup. Chicken, pork, and beef are the most popular meats and are often served with a sauce. Mackerel is a popular choice for grilling over an open fire. On Christmas Eve carp is usually served. As far as side dishes go, the popular choices include mashed or boiled potatoes, French fries, bread dumplings, potato dumplings, and potato salad. Czech cuisine offers a wide range of desserts (moucv níky). They are generally rather rich and fatty, and the ingredients often consist of butter (máslo) and whipped cream (s v lehacv ka). The favorites among them are crepes (palacv inky) filled with jam (dzv em) or strawberries (jahody) and whipped cream, blueberry dumplings (boru° vkové knedlíky), apple strudel (jablecv n´y závin), and ice cream sundaes (zmrzlinov´y pohár). A Czech meal is incomplete without the national beverage, beer (pivo), served with it. Other popular beverages are orange juice, apple juice, and soda. Czechs also like to drink tea with sugar and lemon, and coffee with or without milk or cream.
MARRIAGE
The Czech Republic has many colorful and wonderful wedding traditions that go back through the ages, mainly drawing from the regions of Bohemia and Moravia. An ancient tradition during weddings in the Czech Republic required the friends of the bride to sneak into her back yard, plant a tree sapling, and decorate it with neatly painted eggshells and colorful ribbons. It was believed that the bride would live as long as the tree. On the eve of her wedding the bride’s friends weave a wreath of rosemary, the symbol of remembrance, and remind her of the importance of love, wisdom, and loyalty in a marriage. The traditional Czech wedding is a test for both the groom and the bride. A chopping box and axe and a bottle of wine are kept at the threshold of the bride’s house for the groom’s test. If he picks up the axe, it means that he will prove to be a good husband; if he picks up the bottle, it means he will be a drunkard. The bride is tested when she enters her husband’s house for the first time. A broom is kept in the room’s corner; if the bride notices it and swiftly cleans the room, she will prove to be a good housewife. In another traditional practice the bride and groom’s friends throw nuts, grain, coins, or figs outside the newlyweds’ house. It is done to please the gods who, it is hoped, will shower blessings on the couple. Nieces of the couple or daughters of their friends lead the wedding parade to the church and scatter flowers before them. This stems from a pagan belief that flowers attract the goddess of fertility. Friends form an aisle for the newlyweds to walk through. They try to make the walk difficult, which is seen as a fun gesture but has the underlying meaning that the couple must overcome all difficulties in marriage and still walk together. After the wedding ceremony the groom’s friends pull a rope across the church door. The rope is decorated with flowers, ribbons, and empty bottles and they allow the couple to continue their journey if they are paid off by the groom. This means that the groom has to pay off the sins of his youth. According to Czech tradition the groom carries his bride over the threshold of their home. Romantic as it may seem, the main idea is to ward off the evil spirits that lurk under the threshold. There is also the ritual of the groom’s friends kidnapping the bride after the wedding reception to signify the bride’s separation from her parents and the beginning of a new partnership. If the groom does not find her he has to pay a ransom. Traditionally small buns called kolaches are baked a few weeks before the wedding. They are given to relatives, friends, and neighbors as an invitation to the wedding reception. Kolaches should have at least three kinds of filling to show the culinary art of the housewife. A special Czech wedding dance is the kolibka. In this dance the chief bridesmaid holds a plate in her arms as if it were a baby. Guests throw coins onto the plate to start a nest egg for the couple’s future offspring.