Periods in the History of Bohemia

General Observations . Many historical accounts subdivide Bohemian history by dynasties (Przemyslid 9th century-1310, Luxemburg 1310-1437, Habsburg 1437-1458, Podebrady 1458-1471, Jagiellonian 1471-1526, Habsburg 1526-1618, 1620-1918). While this criterion is legitimate, it uses genealogical events of coincidential nature as cornerstones for epochs, and it fails to identify moments in time when changes of structural nature occurred. Also, this chapter aims to describe the history of the Duchy / Kingdom of Bohemia, not the history of the dynasties who ruled Bohemia; the latter, since 1076, ruled a complex of territories (the Lands of the Bohemian Crown), since 1310 often were parts of larger territorial complexes (Luxemburg, Jagiellon, Habsburg Dynasties). A history of Bohemia focussing on the dynasties will emphasize the foreign policies of the kings, and thus deviate from the line this chapter is to focus on.

Antiquity (2nd Century B.C. to 5th Century A.D. . Bohemia is a region defined by geography. It is surrounded by mountain ranges on four sides - northeast (Sudeten), northwest (Elbsandstein Mountains), southwest (Bohemian Forest, Bavarian Forest) and south. The border to Moravia is formed by the less formidable watershed between the Elbe/Moldau basin and the March basin.
In Antiquity Bohemia was inhabited by the Celtic Boii, many historians believe Bohemia to derive from "home of the Boii". In the early centuries A.D. the country was inhabited by a succession of Germanic tribes, the Marcomanni, Quadi, Bavarii (the part of the Marcomanni not placing themselves under Roman protection believed to have been absorbed into the Quadi in the 4th century; the Quadi believed, together with other Germanic peoples, to have merged into the Bavarii; recorded for the 6th century). In the course of the Barbaric Peoples' Migration the Bavarii left Bohemia and moved into Bavaria.

Slavic Settlement, Pagan Religion (5th to 10th Century) . Bohemia is believed to have been settled by pagan Slavic groups in the later 5th century A.D. The early history of Slavic Bohemia is nebulous due to the scarcity of written records. Bohemia is recorded as being a vassall of the Frankish / East Frankish Kingdom since 817.
A first attempt to convert Bohemia to (Orthodox) christianity, in the 9th century, after initial successes, was foiled by Magyar incursions, which caused the collapse of Greater Moravia (c. 905).
In the 10th century Bohemia converted to Catholicism, and the Przemyslid family acquired the position of hereditary dukes. The Diocesis of Prague was established in 973.

Early Christian Bohemia (973 to 1200) . The Przemyslid Dukes of Bohemia, while for most of the time loyal to the East Frankish (Roman) King respectively Emperor, pursued their own dynastic ambitions, and temporarily extended their authority over Moravia and other areas. Vysehrad castle near Prague was constructed in the 10th century; the Przemyslid Dynasty, while maintaining a Slavic identity, adopted the lifestyle and politics of Frankish (German) higher nobility.

Era of Development (1200-1400) . By 1200 Bohemia was among the largest political entities within the Holy Roman Empire, rich in economic potential and poorly developed. France and the western regions of the Holy Roman Empire had seen rapid economic development ever since technological developments such as the introduction of the iron plough, dyking and draining techniques permitted to take fertile clay soil under the plow, to drain swamps and to protect lowlands against inundation. The Urban Revolution had begun here. By 1200, both hardly had made an impact on Bohemia.
The Przemyslid rulers of Bohemia, and from 1310 onward their successors of the Luxemburg Dynasty, wanted to introduce these novelties into their country, in order to raise their revenues. Groups of settlers were called into the country to cultivate stretches of land which hitherto lay idle, to found cities where there were none before. These settlers, which happened to be German, were given privileges, thus legally separated from their Slavic neighbours. Thus, Bohemia became a country of two cultures, the Slavs who dominated the countryside of the central Bohemian plain, and the Germans who dominated in the Sudetenland (the hill rim of the Bohemian basin, and the cities). Prague, the capital, was an exception; it combined three elements, the Czech, German and Jewish communities. Bohemia's mining industry flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries; the technical know-how had been brought into the country by immigrant German miners.
Politically, Bohemia became the center of the Lands of the Bohemian Crown; Moravia was a sideland of Bohemia since 1182, Silesia since 1335, Lusatia since 1076. The Luxemburg Dynasty, since 1310, chose Prague as their residence.
Under Emperor (and King of Bohemia) Charles IV., the Diocesis of Prague was elevated to an Archdiocese (1344), and the city became seat of a University (1348); Prague Castle was reconstructed.

Religious Disputes (1400-1620) . Jan Hus, master at Prague University, by preaching in vernacular and criticizing abuses within the church, gained a large followership among Bohemia's Czechs - the Hussites. When Hus was burnt as a heretic by the Council of Konstanz in 1417, this did not deter the Hussites. The Luxemburg Dynasty lost control of central Bohemia; the Hussites not only defeated a series of crusades launched against them, but undertook raids into the countries from where the crusaders originated. The Hussites were not defeated by their enemies; peace was restored in 1434 after a Hussite civil war, in which the moderate Utraquists won over the radical Taborites.
Bohemia had been the site of an early reformation, which had not spread beyond Bohemia and Moravia because of two reasons - the limitation of the Czech language, and Gutenberg's single letter printing technique not having been available yet.
The Luxemburg Dynasty lost control of Bohemia; the country was ruled by 'Hussite King' George of Podebrady (1458-1471), who was succeeded by two kings of the Jagiellonian Dynasty (1471-1526). They again were succeeded by the Habsburg Dynasty (1437-1458, 1526-1618, 1620-1918). In 1485 King Vladislaus II. granted the Bohemian Estates vast authorities regarding the administration of the country. Habsburg Kings Ferdinand (1526-1564) and Rudolf (1576-1611) resided in Prague; Ferdinand in 1556 called the Jesuits to Prague. By the mid 16th century, Bohemia had become a religious caleidoscope, consisting of 4 christian communities : Catholics, Utraquists (moderate Hussites readmitted into the Catholic Church in 1433; mostly Czechs), Bohemian Brethren (successors to the Taborites or radical Hussites, mostly Czechs) and Lutherans (mostly Germans); to these, the country's Jews have to be added as a 5th religious community.
In 1617 Duke Ferdinand of Styria, a staunch supporter of the Counterreformation, was elected King of Bohemia; a number of Bohemian aristocrats rebelled and in 1618 staged a coup d'etat (Defenestration of Prague). From 1618 to 1620, Bohemia was a noble's republic, under an elected, nominal king.

Counterreformation Bohemia (1620-1711) . The Habsburgs being victorious in the Battle of the White Mountain 1620, they had the rebellious Bohemian aristocrats executed and their estates auctioned off. In effect, Bohemia got a new nobility, partially of German, partially of Italian background, all of them Catholics. The printing of books in Czech language ceased; the Jesuits were given a free hand in implementing the Counterreformation. Large numbers of Bohemian protestants fled the country. Economically, the country suffered - from war as well as from maladministration. Czech historians refer to this period as the Dark Age of their history.
Within the territories of the Austrian Habsburgs, Bohemia still was the economically most versatile and productive region.

18th Century Bohemia (1711-1792) . In 1683 the Austrian Habsburgs narrowly escaped disaster; the Ottoman siege of Vienna was broken, by 1699 Hungary liberated. The Austrian Habsburgs, throughout the late 17th and into the 18th century, in order to fight their many wars, heavily depended on foreign subsidies. Austrian economists wanted to improve the Emperor's finances and suggested policies such as lessening the burden on peasants and introducing taxation on nobility. Still, in 1775 the country saw a peasants rebellion. Also, new forms of production, such as manufactures, were promoted. Bohemia was the most versatile and productive economy among the territories of the Austrian Habsburgs (the Austrian Netherlands and Milan disregarded).
Repeatedly, Bohemia was the battleground of wars (War of Austrian Succession 1740-1748, Seven Years War 1756-1763; War of Bavarian Succession 1777-1778).

19th Century Bohemia (1792-1918) . In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, the Kingdom of Bohemia declared integral part of the Austrian Empire (1806). Czech and German nationalism emerged. The Habsburg administration were reluctant to concede political authority to the estates, to extend the franchise. The Industrial Revolution affected Bohemia stronger than any other region within Austria. In 1848, Prague saw a revolution, and was the seat of the 1st Pan-Slavic Congress. The revolution was suppressed, but serfdom abolished in Austria (including Bohemia).
The Industrial Revolution resulted in changes in society; the growth of a railroad network increased social mobility. Persons from the (Czech) countryside migrated into cities, many of which used to be of an ethnic German character; the Germans, over time, found themselves being reduced to a minority.
Improved education resulted in increased circulation of newspapers, both in Czech and German; these, despite press censorship, often were edited by liberal patriots of either ethnicity. Among the Bohemian Czechs, demands for a Czech politically autonomous entity comprising of what was left of the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Bohemia, Moravia, Austrian Silesia), where Czech was official language, was made. Pan-Slavists hoped for the formation of a Czecho-Slovak state. Bohemia's Germans feared such visions, but many hoped for an extension of the franchise, political liberties.
Bohemia's Jews, in the 19th century, assimilated into the German culture.
The Austrian administration, only for short term goals, searched the support of one or the other political groups, making minor concessions in order to get it. By the late 19th century, dissatisfaction with Austrian rule was widespread, especially among the Czechs (who saw similar privileges to those they demanded granted to Hungary (1867) and to the Pols in Galicia (1867).
When World War I broke out, many Bohemian Czechs followed the motto "this war is not our war". The number of Czech soldiers deserting on the Russian front was so large that, in Russi, a Czecho-Slovak Legion could be formed. Jaroslav Hasek, in his novel "The Good Soldier Svejk", immortalized this Czech attitude toward World War I. For Bohemian Jew Franz Kafka, the changes which came with World War I were of a catastrophic nature and formed the background of his works.

Czechoslovakia (1918-1992) . In 1918 the Czechoslovak state was established. Ethnic Germans in Bohemia, Moravia and Austrian Silesia, ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia found themselves marginalized in a state which emphasized its Slavic origin. The Czechs (Slav Bohemians and Moravians) outnumbered Slovaks 2:1; the old Bohemian capital of Prague was capitl of the entire state, Czechia the more politically and economically developed part of the entire country. While the Czechs identified with the Czechoslovak Republic and regarded themselves part of a Czechoslovak Nation, the Slovaks were split into Czechoslovaks and supporters of a Slovak autonomy.
In 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland; from 1939 to 1945 it occupied core Czechia (then referred to as the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren). This was a period of ruthless opression.
In 1945 Czechoslovakia was restored, the country's ethnic German minority (c. 3 million) forcibly expelled. In 1948 Czechoslovakia became a socialist people's republic. An attempt to introduce Socialism with a Human Face (Spring of Prague 1968) was suppressed by Warsaw Pact troops. Until 1989 the country was ruled by concrete head communist politicians. Drastic political and economic reforms then resulted in the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia.

Czech Republic (since 1993) . Joined NATO (1999), EU (2004).

Czechoslovakia, from : Library of Congress, Country Studies

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on July 27th 2006

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