Bohemia - Constitutional History

Note . Bohemia did not have a written constitution; this chapter is to describe the set of rules by which Bohemia was governed during various periods of history.

Pagan Bohemia . Bohemia was not yet an established Duchy; the Przemyslid family had established control over western Bohemia, the Slavnikid family over eastern central Bohemia; large parts of southern, eastern and northern Bohemia are believed to have formed part of Great Moravia.
The period is poorly documented, the sources written by Christian clergy of the mission period biased against pagan institutions and traditions. It appears that in pagan Slavic society the position of monarchs was less secure than in contemporary christian monarchies.

Bohemia 995-1344 . In 973 the Diocesis of Prague was established, marking the transition of Bohemia from a pagan to a Christian society. In 995 the Przemyslids eliminated their Slavnikid rivals, expanding their Duchy of Bohemia roughly to the modern size of the country. Feudalism was introduced.
The Dukes were vassalls of the Holy Roman Empire, the Diocesis of Prague placed under the Archdiocesis of Mainz. In 1085 (-1092; non-hereditary) and in 1158 (hereditary) the Dukes of Bohemia were elevated to the status of kings, as reward for their loyalty to the respective Emperor. This was in recognition of Bohemia's special status within the Empire; no other vassall of the Emperor bore the title of king. Bohemia enjoyed a higher degree of autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire than most other territories.
Bohemia had become part of the Empire not by conquest, but through the voluntary submission of her duke (9th century). Therefore Bohemia was not organized in counties or margraviates, as it was tradition in Frankish territory.
The Kings of Bohemia were crowned in Prague; the coronation ceremony had to be conducted by the Archbishop of Mainz. The Przemyslid Dynasty ended in 1306; in 1310 it was succeeded by the Luxemburg Dynasty.

1344-1420 . In 1344 the Diocesis of Prague was elevated to an Archdiocesis; henceforth Kings of Bohemia were crowned by the Archbishop of Prague; in effect, Bohemia had achieved a higher degree of autonomy.
Since 1310 the Luxemburg Dynasty resided in Prague; heirs to the Bohemian possessions were raised both in Czech and German language. In 1348, King Charles of Bohemia was elected Roman King (later crowned Holy Romn Emperor); From 1348 to 1400, and again from 1438-1439, 1558-1740, 1745-1806 the Bohemian and the Imperial crowns were held in Dynastic Union; while Bohemia enjoyed a high degree of autonomy within the Empire, King of Bohemia and Emperor were one and the same person.
Wenceslas (Emperor 1378-1400, King of Bohemia 1378-1419) was less capable than his father; his style of government was perceived as despotic in the Empire (where he was deposed in 1400) and in Bohemia, which was the focus of his attention.

State of the Estates (1420-1547) . The Bohemian noble opposition supported Hussitism; from 1420 to 1434 Bohemia was without king. The country's militia defeated a series of invasions ('crusades') launched against them by hostile Catholic Europe. In 1433-1434 a deal was negotiated; the moderate Hussites (Calixtines) were readmitted to the Catholic Church, and Bohemia would recognize Emperor Sigismund, brother of late King Wenceslas, as King of Bohemia - under conditions. In effect, the kings ruling Bohemia from 1437 to 1456 and from 1471 to 1526 were rather dependent on the Bohemian Estates, an assembly of nobles and representatives of the Bohemian cities. From 1456 to 1471, one of Bohemia's nobles, and a confessed Calixtine, George of Podebrady, was king.
In 1526 Ferdinand I. of the Habsburg Dynasty, brother of Emperor Charles V., was elected King of Bohemia. Charged with defending the Empire against the Ottoman Empire, as King of Bohemia he had to take the powerful Bohemian Estates into account. When the Schmalkaldic War erupted in 1546, in Bohemia supporters of the Reformation rose in rebellion against him. The Habsburg side was victorious (1547); Ferdinand took drastic measures against the rebels; the influence of the Estates was reduced.

1547-1620 . Habsburg rulers, from 1547 to 1617, were aware of the explosive potential of the religious issue, and, while themselves staunchly Catholic, were cautious in the implementation of the Counterreformation. In 1617, Ferdinand of Habsburg, Archduke of Styria, succeeded to the Bohemian Crown, an uncompromising proponent of the Counterreformation. In 1618 Bohemia's opposition (nobles and representatives of the cities) staged a coup d'etat - the Defenestration of Prague. The Bohemian Estates assumed control, elected a (nominal) King, Frederick Count Palatine. Briefly, from 1618 to 1620, Bohemia again was a State of the Estates, or a Noble's Republic.

1620-1750 . Habsburg rule was restored after the Battle of the White Mountain; the rebel leaders were executed as traitors, their noble estates auctioned off - to Catholic nobles of German or Italian origin. Thus, the privileges of the Bohemian Estates remained untouched, but the estates filled with docile personalities. Habsburg rulers, however, resided in Vienna; Bohemia was administrated by governors in combination with the Bohemian Estates.
In the early 18th century, the Habsburg administration sensed the need to raise her fiscal revenue. Bohemia was the most productive of the Habsburg territories, yet the class of nobles, from an economic standpoint, was parasitical - and reluctant to give up any part of her privileges.
In 1749 the chancellries of Bohemia and of Austria were merged; the authorities of Bohemia's circles (administrative divisions) was strengthened. Both measures intended to increase state control and reduce the influence of Bohemia's nobles.

1750-1860 . The Austrian administration, from 1750 onward, in a series of measures, aimed at increasing state control and reducing the influence of the Estates, without reforming the constitution. Increased taxation was pushed through the Estates; in 1775 the Robot Patent reduced the burden the peaants had to bear.
The Napoleonic Wars made the need for further reforms apparent. Yet, while both Czech and German national sentiment were emerging and spreading, the Austrian administration was very reluctant in the implementation of any reform. In 1848 Prague saw a revolution, which was suppressed by the military.

1860-1918 . In 1859-1860 finally constitutional reforms were implemented. The Bohemian Diet was reformed; politicians resp. political parties competed in elections for seats in the diet. Yet the competences of the Bohemian diet were rather limited.
Czech Patriots, from 1867 on, demanded the combintion of the Lands of the Bohemian Crown into one Czech State, within the framework of Austria-Hungary, a vision rejected by Bohemia's ethnic Germans. The Austrian central administration did not identify with either patriotic perspective and pursud the policy of maintaining central control as long as possible, reluctantly making concessions to one or another political group for short-term goals.
A number of suggestions to reorganize Austria-Hungary into a federation on the principle of nation states under the Habsburg Dynasty was made, but not taken up by the Habsburg administration. A number of Czech politicians then came to see their country's future outside of the unpopular Habsburg monarchy

Czechoslovakia 1918-1939 . In 1918 Czechoslovakia was established as a liberal democracy and as a Czechoslovak Nation State. The leading politicians (Masaryk, Benes) regarded Czechs and Slovaks as one nation, a view shared by most Czechs and a significant part of the Slovaks. Germans, Poles and Hungarians were treated as minorities, the rights of which were respected (such as separate institutions of education). However, Czechoslovakia, as a state, was organized after the French model, i.e. centralist rather than federalist. Many Sudeten Germans, as well as Slovakia's Hungarian minority, regarded themselves second-class citizens.

Wartime Czechoslovakia . The Sudetenland was annexed into Germany in 1938, the Sudeten Germans treated as German citizens.
In March 1939, core Bohemia and Moravia was occupied by German forces, organized as Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia; a German administration was forced upon the country.

1945-1948 . An Anti-Fascist Coalition Government was to administrate liberated and reunited Czechoslovakia during the period of reconstruction. The Sudeten Germans, collectively treated as collaborators, were expropriated and expelled.

1948-1989 . People's Republic of Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite. Constitutional reforms in 1960 and 1968 were to cover up the fact that Czechoslovakia was administrated by a clique operating in the interest of a foreign power, with the brief exception of the Spring of Prague 1968.


This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on July 31st 2006

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