A Brief History of the Czech Lands (to 1992)

The term Bohemia is apparently derived from the Boii, a Celtic tribe dominant in this region in Classical Roman times. Archaeological and circumstantial historical evidence suggests that the Slavs first moved into Bohemia in the 6th century AD, having reached Moravia and Slovakia somewhat earlier.

These Central European Slavs emerge dimly into history in a chronicled account of a 7th-century union against the Avars, led by Samo, a Frankish merchant. By the late 8th century, during the reign of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, Moravia had received its first Western Christian missions, and by the 830s a proto-state habitually called “Great Moravia” had arisen along the upper Danube, ruled by its prince Mojmír and incorporating Nitra, in present-day Slovakia. Nitra already had its own church, while other early church sites have also been found in Moravia, notably at Mikulčice. The conversion of Moravia is traditionally associated with the 9th-century mission recorded in the Lives of the Byzantine Slav brothers Cyril (Constantine) and Methodius. Born in the area of Salonika, they were sent on their mission (in 863), we are told, by the Byzantine Emperor Michael II, following a request from the Moravian prince Rostislav. Use of Slavonic in the liturgy went against the Latin-centred practice of the Western Church, but the Papacy is recorded as giving the mission some backing. Cyril died in Rome, but Methodius resumed his work in Moravia, despite conflict with the Frankish clergy. After his death, however, the Slavonic rite was expelled from Moravia, and its main centres became Bulgaria, the Slav Balkans, and Kievan Russia. By the early 10th century the Moravian state had collapsed under pressure from the incoming Magyars (Hungarians), and Moravia later became a province of the emerging Bohemian kingdom.

To what extent the Slavonic rite also flourished in Bohemia is a matter of dispute. Until the 14th century Bohemia was ruled by the Přemyslid dynasty, of legendary origin. One day, as the story goes, the Czech nobles refused to be ruled over by a woman, Princess Libuše, any longer; she told them to follow her horse till it led them to Přemysl, her husband-to-be, ploughing in a field. The nation, in turn, traditionally derives its origins from the patriarchal leader Czech, who stood Moses-like upon Bohemia's Mount of Říp and pronounced the land vacant, and fit to inhabit. Bohemia began to receive Christianity by the 9th century, when fourteen Bohemian princes were baptised at Regensburg, while according to legend an early Přemyslid prince Bořivoj was christened by Methodius, founding the first Bohemian church at Levý Hradec, and later another at Prague Castle. Under his grandson Wenceslas (Václav in modern Czech, “Good King Wenceslas” in the 19th-c. English carol), Bohemia's westward affiliation was marked by a church at Prague Castle, now its Cathedral, dedicated to St. Vitus. Wenceslas, who subsequently became Bohemia's patron saint, was murdered in 935 by his brother Boleslav, and his piety was soon celebrated in both Latin and Slavonic legends of his life. The use of Old Church Slavonic, perhaps temporarily revived, reached its end in 1097, when the Slavonic monks of Sázava were driven out. (Much later, Charles IV brought some Croat monks of the Slavonic rite to Prague, to the Emmaus Monastery, but this was a brief episode.)

By the 13th century Přemysl Otakar I had obtained from the Emperor the hereditary title of King and the Bohemian rulers later became imperial electors. Large-scale immigration began in the 13th century from Germany, bringing population to settle new towns and develop mines, such as the rich silver deposits of Kutná Hora, as well as to occupy the less fertile border areas. Queens, royal advisers and church figures were often German too, while German-language culture obtained a strong position at court, and amongst some of the nobility, who often adopted German names for their castles and families. The towns later became more Czech in character, through assimilation, and during the Hussite Wars, but the process later reversed, under the Habsburgs. When, however, a 14th-century chronicler writes that “German speech is commoner than Czech almost in all towns and at the court”, this may be taken as referring in particular to the speech habits of the upper nobility and prosperous burghers.

In 1278 Přemysl Otakar II was killed in battle against the Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg, having failed to secure territorial gains into Austria. His successor Václav II expanded into Poland and Hungary, but his son Václav III was assassinated in 1306, only a year after his father's death, and the male line of the Přemyslid dynasty came to an abrupt end.

After a four-year tussle, the choice of ruler rested upon John of Luxembourg, the Emperor's youthful son, who married a daughter of Václav II. John was a largely absentee monarch who indulged in tournaments and military adventure, dying at the Battle of Crécy, a blind man, in 1346. Under his son Charles IV, however, Prague became the imperial capital, and it rapidly expanded, acquiring the New Town, much of its Gothic architecture (including St. Vitus Cathedral) and the Charles Bridge. In 1348 Charles founded Prague University, the first in this part of Europe, which attracted many foreign scholars, but its very success, coupled with growing resentment at foreign privilege and the enlarged benefices of the Church, helped to engender later religious and social turmoil. His son Wenceslas IV faced growing difficulties, both with the nobility, and with the Church, whose authority was weakened by the Papal Schism, and undermined by mounting criticism of ecclesiastical wealth and often blatant corruption. Zealous and scholarly preachers, encouraged at first by King and Archbishop, contributed to the growth of a powerful religious reform movement, increasingly Czech in complexion, and centred around the figure of Jan Hus, a University scholar appointed to preach at the popular Bethlehem Chapel in Prague and influenced by the English Wyclif. Wenceslas IV added to existing national animosity by his Kutná Hora decree of 1409, which gave dominance to the Bohemian nation at the University. The losers, who had refused to endorse Wenceslas's favoured Pope, departed in anger to found Leipzig University. Meanwhile this Pope condemned Hus's ideas, and his successor excommunicated him. Summoned to the Council of Constance, Hus failed to submit to authority, and he was burnt at the stake in 1415.

National indignation was further fuelled by the burning of Hus's friend Jerome of Prague. Following the death of Wenceslas IV in 1419, soon after the throwing of Mayor and councillors to their deaths by Hussites from the windows of the New Town Hall (the first of two famous “Defenestrations” in Bohemian history), the Hussite party refused to accept his brother Sigismund. As German King, Sigismund had failed to save Hus at Constance. Sigismund pursued his claim by invading crusades, while the radical Hussites, based at their biblically named town of Tábor, split from the more moderate party known as Utraquists (named from the taking of both bread and wine in the communion). The famous Táborite leader Jan Žižka scored repeated victories over Sigismund's armies, but the Hussite factions remained at odds. Eventually, some years after Žižka's death, the Catholics and Utraquists combined to crush the radicals at Lipany (1434), and a compromise was reached with the Church, the so-called Compactata of 1436. Following Sigismund's death soon after, in 1437, an interregnum ensued, ended finally by the crowning in 1458 of the “Hussite King” George of Poděbrady, who attempted to reconcile Utraquists and Catholics, and is remembered for plans to establish a kind of “Peace Confederation” in Europe. Another religious group, the Unity of Czech Brethren, formed in 1457-58 as a sterner counterpart to the Utraquists, lacked legal status, and later they were periodically persecuted.

After George's death in 1471 rule passed to the Polish Jagiellonians. Vladislav II, though a disliker of Utraquism, was obliged by his coronation oath to respect their form of worship. Overshadowed by barons, he later inherited the throne of Hungary and moved his capital to Buda. His successor and son Louis was drowned in the marshes near Mohács retreating from battle against the Turks in 1526, and rule passed to his brother-in-law Ferdinand I of Habsburg.

So began the long era of Habsburg imperial rule in Bohemia. By now there were Lutheran adherents among Czech Utraquists as well as Germans, while attempts to suppress the Brethren left them based mainly in Moravia. Ferdinand strengthened the Catholic party by introducing the Jesuits, but his son Maximilian II eventually assented to the Confession of the Czech and German-speaking Lutherans, also recognised by the Brethren. Maximilian's son Rudolf II, famous for his interests in the arts, alchemy, astronomy, astrology, and magic, transferred his imperial court from Vienna to Prague. He too sought to strengthen the Catholic party, stronger amongst the lords than the lesser nobility and burghers, and he issued a decree against the Unity. However, after political inroads by his brother Matthias, in 1609 Rudolf issued a Letter of Majesty, granting freedom of worship to both Catholics and those of the Bohemian Confession. Rudolf was soon deposed by Matthias, and open Protestant rebellion erupted not long after. Two governors, accused of violating the Letter of Majesty, were thrown from a window of Prague Castle in 1618, escaping with minor injuries. Soon after this 2nd Defenestration Matthias died, his nephew Ferdinand 11 was rejected by the Bohemian estates, and Frederick V, Elector of the Palatinate (son-in-law of James I of England) was crowned in his stead. However, Frederick, called the “Winter King”, was swiftly defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain (as historians call it), which was fought at Bílá hora, just outside Prague, on November 8, 1620, an event which marks the start of the Thirty Years' War between Protestant and Catholic powers in Europe.

Bohemia's rebels were treated harshly for their disloyalty to Habsburg rule. Apart from the execution of 27 rebel leaders, landowners who had participated had estates confiscated, royal powers were enlarged, and the official use of German was also authorised alongside Czech. No Christian faith other than Roman Catholicism was permitted. Those from the upper classes could choose either conversion or emigration, and many went abroad, especially to Saxony. Many newcomers obtained land for services rendered in the years up to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. But others to take advantage were local, including that famous freebooter and imperial generalissimo Albrecht von Waldstein (Wallenstein), murdered in 1634. The rise of magnates was accompanied by the political collapse of the gentry and towns. Subsequent decades brought lengthy wars with the Turks and French, with economic burdens, and aggravation of peasant obligations, accompanied by periodic revolts. The Kingdom of Bohemia retained its administrative autonomy, albeit subordinated to a Vienna-based regime working through powerful Catholic magnates and the Church (who also controlled education).

From 1740 the Empress Maria Theresa faced Bavarian invasion and three costly wars with Frederick the Great of Prussia, fought largely in Bohemia and Moravia, as a result of which she lost most of Silesia. She and her son Joseph II brought in a number of modernising and centralising administrative reforms, aiming to create a closer union of the Bohemian crown lands with the Alpine provinces. Joseph's reforms included his popular decrees of 1781, abolishing restrictions on the personal freedom of peasants, and permitting Protestant worship, and this period also saw the general establishment of primary schooling, while German ousted Latin from its primacy in education. The post-Josephine reaction, frightened by the French revolution (the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, in which Napoleon defeated the Austrian and Russian armies, took place near Slavkov in Moravia) did not overturn these fundamental reforms, with their long-term social consequences. Primary education, though stressing the learning of German, also led to increasing literacy in Czech, the daily language of the majority. German cultural nationalism, including the cult of native historical tradition and Rousseauist elevation of “natural” folk and national culture by Herder and others, produced its own Czech counterpart, which reacted against claims of German cultural, hence general superiority, just as German culture had been asserting itself against French intellectual and artistic imports.

Initially a patriotic, scholarly and broadly literary-cultural movement, often espousing Enlightenment, and later semi-Romantic, but also more conservative, even traditional clerical values, Czech nationalism first emerged as a political force in that revolutionary year of 1848, when the Metternich regime in Vienna was overthrown, and the leading Czech historian František Palacký refused the German liberals' invitation to attend the Frankfurt National Assembly, declaring that he was not a German, and Bohemia was not a German historic province. A Slav Congress in Prague led to nationalist demonstrations and the imposition of order through bombardment by Windischgrätz, the Austrian military commander, whose wife had been killed in the fray by a stray bullet. Czech federalist constitutionalist ambitions, promoted by Palacký, František Rieger, and the outstanding Czech journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský, were brought to nothing by the Habsburgs' military defeat of Hungary (with Tsarist Russian aid) and re-establishment of central, “neo-absolutist” rule, under Franz Joseph, who succeeded to the throne in 1848 on his uncle Ferdinand's abdication, and proceeded to reign until 1916. Some concessions however remained, including the freeing of the peasants from compulsory service, and the censorship never regained its previous force.

The second half of the century saw strengthening of the status of Czech language and culture vis-a-vis German within the Lands of the Bohemian Crown; this included steady advances in Czech educational provision at all levels. After the establishment of a new constitution in 1861, triggered by Austrian defeat in Italy, Czech claims to historic state rights were promoted by middle-class nationalist politicians, led by Rieger, who for some years pursued this goal by boycotting both the Vienna Reichsrat and the Bohemian diet. The 1866 Austro-Prussian war, which resulted in Austrian defeat at Königgrätz (Sadová, near Hradec Králové) and a brief Prussian occupation of Prague, led to further constitutional change, in the form of the 1867 Compromise or Ausgleich, under which Hungary received far-reaching autonomy. Attempts to replace Dualism by a tripartite solution giving Bohemia its own historic autonomy foundered in 1871, lacking support from German Liberals, Hungarians and the Emperor. Franz Joseph was never crowned in Prague with the crown of St. Wenceslas. In 1878-9 the Czechs recognised the failure of their policy of passive resistance by returning to the Bohemian diet and the Reichsrat, joining a government coalition under Count Taaffe along with the German clericals, aristocrats and Poles. In return Czech was designated an “outer” language, recognised for public use in courts of law and government offices, and in 1882 Prague University was divided into Czech and German institutions. By the mid 1880s it was the Germans' turn to feel under some threat. By the end of that decade the original Czech nationalist party, known as the “Old Czechs”, had lost ground heavily to the more radical, initially oppositionist “Young Czechs”, but in the mid nineties the Young Czech party itself joined the government of Badeni, who agreed to make Czech an “inner” language. But a storm of German protest forced the rescinding of this change. This was a period of bitter nationalist agitation, accompanied by a good deal of upward Czech economic, social and cultural mobility. The broadening electoral franchise, while strengthening Czech political influence, also undermined the older nationalist parties, especially when in 1907 universal manhood suffrage was introduced for the Reichsrat elections, for this encouraged the formation of new parties reflecting diverse socio-economic interests, such as the Agrarians and the Social Democrats, with a separate Czech Social Democratic party from 1911. Class interests cut across and fragmented nationalist interests, but also vice versa.

Czech politicians did not seriously anticipate the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy or entertain the idea of an independent republic until some time into the First World War of 1914-18. In December 1914 Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, an academic and leader of a small Czech political party, left Prague and went abroad, organising opposition to the Habsburgs and eventually propagating the idea of an independent Czechoslovak state. From Rome he went to Geneva, Paris, and London, where he stayed from 1915-17, then to Russia, to help organise Czechoslovak forces formed from deserting units and prisoners of war. In 1916 Franz Joseph died and was succeeded by Charles I, who attempted political reforms, and pursued chances of a separate peace. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Czechoslovak troops became involved in struggles for the Siberian railroad from May 1918, shortly after Masaryk had left via the Far East for the United States. In January 1918 President Wilson's Fourteen Points statement had supported “autonomous development” for the peoples of Austria-Hungary, while Czech politicians at home had also begun to make pro-independence declarations. After the prospect of separate peace with Austria was abandoned, the French and other Allies moved to support the idea of an independent Czechoslovak state. A declaration of Czechoslovak independence was issued in Washington on 18 October; Austria surrendered on 28 October; and the Prague National Committee proclaimed an independent state that same evening.

The Czechoslovak Republic was established in its western part largely within the historic frontiers of Bohemia and Moravia, but to the east it incorporated the northern Slovak counties of pre-1918 Hungary, and also Carpathian Ruthenia. This of course meant the inclusion of a substantial German population within the state, as well as a considerable Hungarian minority in Slovakia, in addition to the Slovaks themselves. There was also dispute with Poland over the Těšín frontier area. A constitution was adopted in 1920, with reasonably liberal guarantees of minority rights, but classifying Czechs and Slovaks on the grounds of similar language as a single Czechoslovak, and hence numerically dominant nationality. Masaryk became first president, and the republic was served by a series of coalition governments, elected under a system of proportional representation. Though the Germans initially opposed the constitution, in 1925 the German Agrarians and Christian Socialists joined the government, and later the German Social Democrats also joined the German "activists". Slovak anti-centralist dissatisfaction was expressed by the Slovak People's Party, led by Msgr Andrej Hlinka. The originally strongest Czech party, the Social Democrats, split on the formation of the Communist party in 1921, leaving the Czech Agrarians under Antonín Švehla as the mainstay of successive coalitions. Foreign policy centred on the alliance with France, loyalty to the League of Nations, and treaties with Yugoslavia and Romania creating the so-called Little Entente. Relations with the Germans, quite good in the later 1920s, deteriorated soon after 1930, with the severe impact of the Great Depression on industry in German-speaking areas, and militancy was boosted by Hitler's coming to power in 1933: in the 1935 elections Konrad Henlein's Sudeten German Party gained almost two-thirds of the German vote. Masaryk retired in December 1935 at the age of eighty-five, and his close associate Edvard Beneš was elected in his stead.

By the time Masaryk died, in September 1937, Czechoslovakia was about to succumb to collapse over the German question. Austria was taken over by Germany in March 1938. The British prime minister Chamberlain's talks with Hitler in September led to the infamous Munich agreement whereby Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier presented Beneš with an ultimatum to cede territory to Germany. Czechoslovak capitulation to this demand was followed by Beneš's resignation, Poland and Hungary were also granted territorial gains, while, bereft of its border fortifications, the republic was now militarily incapacitated. In March 1939 the final collapse came when Bohemia and Moravia were proclaimed a protectorate of the Third Reich, while Msgr Tiso, Hlinka's successor in the Slovak People's Party, established a separate Slovak state under Hitler's tutelage.

In Prague Hitler installed Konstantin von Neurath as Reichsprotektor, while a Czech government with limited powers continued under President Emil Hácha. Neurath was replaced in September 1941 by the much harsher Gestapo leader Reinhard Heydrich. Following his death on 4 June 1942 after an assassination attack on May 27th by parachutists sent from London, terrible reprisals were taken, including slaughter of the inhabitants of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Under Heydrich the first transports of Jews from Prague to concentration-camp ghettos took place: in October 1941 to Łódź in Poland, in November to Terezín (Theresienstadt) in northern Bohemia, which became a staging post for thousands of Jews sent on to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Birkenau and elsewhere. Many died of disease and malnutrition in Terezín itself. Thousands of others were transported to the death camps from Slovakia. Romany gypsies were another Nazi extermination target.

Beneš was in the United States when Hitler entered Prague, and in London when the war broke out. Leading the exile Czechoslovak Provisional Government recognised by the British in July 1940, Beneš worked first for the repudiation of Munich. When Hitler attacked Russia in June 1941 Beneš moved to negotiate a new Czechoslovak-Soviet alliance. He also began to work to gain approval for a post-war transfer of German population out of Czechoslovakia. In May and June 1943 Beneš was in the United States, meeting Roosevelt and putting a positive gloss on Russian intentions, and in December 1943 he reached Moscow, had a number of meetings with Stalin, and obtained his treaty of alliance. By now the Czechoslovak Communists, led by Klement Gottwald, were acquiring an increasingly strong influence. It was crucial of course that it was the Red Army which crossed the frontiers of the republic months before the Western Allies were able to enter Bohemia. [Kalinov, north of Medzilaborce was liberated by the Red Army on 21 Sept 1944; the Dukla pass was taken on October 6; Sobrance, Snina, Humenné, Kráľovský Chlmec, Svidník, Michalovce on 23-27 Nov 1944.] An abortive Slovak uprising, proclaimed on 29 August 1944, and commanded by regional army chief-of-staff Ján Golián, held out until Banská Bystrica fell on 27 October. In January 1945 Russian troops liberated Košice, in March Banská Bystrica. In March Beneš travelled again to Moscow, a post-war programme was elaborated, and the new government was set up in Košice on April 3, 1945, with key positions awarded to Communists. Fighting continued in Bohemia and Moravia for another month or so: American units under General George Patton crossed into Czechoslovak territory on 21 April, reaching Aš and on 6th May Plzeň; on May 5 an uprising was launched in Prague, but Prague was liberated by the Red Army, on 9th May, while the Americans were halted, respecting an agreement to halt along the Karlovy Vary-Plzeň-České Budějovice line. Churchill wanted Eisenhower to advance to Prague, but Eisenhower declined to risk his troops unnecessarily. (A reconnaissance mission went from Plzeň to Prague however on May 7th.)

Ruthenia was taken by Stalin. Soviet and American forces withdrew by the end of 1945. The majority of Germans were expelled from the republic in 1946, and their numbers fell from well over 3 million in 1930 to a mere 250,000 or so in 1947. Almost 2 million went to West Germany, almost I million to East Germany. In the May 1946 election the number of political parties was limited to 7: 4 in the Czech lands, 3 in Slovakia, and the strong pre-war Agrarian party was banned. All parties campaigned in a common National Front, and the Communists secured about 38% of the vote (about 40% in the Czech lands, 30% in Slovakia), emerging as the largest single party, though without an absolute majority. Klement Gottwald became Prime Minister, and the Communist Ministers of Information and the Interior asserted control over the media and the police, while the non-party Minister of Defence (General Svoboda) co-operated with the Communists too. When Czechoslovakia was offered American aid under the Marshall Plan in 1947 initial Czechoslovak acceptance was vetoed by the Soviet Union. The final crisis between Communists and non-Communists came in February 1948 when a Cabinet majority ordered the Interior Minister to stop packing the police force with Communists, and on 20 February twelve non-Communist Ministers resigned, hoping to force Gottwald's resignation and bring about an early election. However, following organised pro-Communist mass demonstrations, the forming of “action committees” to protect the achievements of the revolution, and other threats, President Beneš agreed on Feb 25 to the formation of a new government, nominally still representing all the National Front parties, but using members of other parties hand-picked by the Communists. On March 10 the body of the Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk (who had not resigned) was found beneath a window of the Foreign Ministry. In the scheduled election of 30 May 1948 there was only one list of candidates, producing a vote of over 86% for the National Front. Gottwald became President, Antonín Zápotocký Prime Minister. Beneš resigned on 7 June 1948, refusing to sign a new constitution promulgated on May 9th. He died three months later.

During the first 3 years of Communist rule something like 70 thousand citizens left the country as refugees, including many non-Communist leaders, intellectuals, managers and business people. Nationalisation of business and industry had begun already under the Košice programme; by 1950 it had reached even small shops and restaurants. Change was less swift in agriculture: in 1955 about 57% of agricultural land was still private, but in 1960 only 12%, in 1965 only 10%, the rest having become cooperatives or state farms. Education was quickly invaded by Marxist-Leninist style indoctrination. Religion was discouraged and limited from 1949 by administrative measures, internments and imprisonments. The systems of policing and justice were remoulded (e.g. abolishing the jury system) to enable them when required to follow the Party line and operate as “weapons in the class struggle”. In June 1950 a number of non-Communist politicians were tried for anti-state activities and four were executed, including Milada Horáková, the most prominent woman in the National Socialist Party, and the ex-Communist Záviš Kalandra. Literature was deeply affected by the nationalisation and state control of publishing houses, newspapers and magazines, and the media. Lists of forbidden books affected not only a considerable amount of pre-war writing (ruralists, Catholics, Czech legionaries), but also writers who emigrated (Ivan Blatný, Jan Čep, Ferdinand Peroutka, Egon Hostovský and others). A significant number of Catholic writers and scholars were imprisoned and interned on trumped up charges, e.g. Zdeněk Rotrekl, Bedřich Fučík, Zdeněk Kalista (1951-60), Jan Zahradníček (arrested 1951, imprisoned 1952-1960, died same year). Other non-Communist writers imprisoned included the ruralists Josef Knap and František Křelina, and the poet and translator Josef Palivec. Gottwald was also under pressure from the Soviet Union after Tito's break with Stalin to find “Trotskyite Titoists”, “bourgeois nationalist traitors” and the like in his own ranks. In February 1951 the Slovaks Vlado Clementis, former foreign minister, Gustav Husák, and others were arrested, and in December 1952 Clementis was executed, along with ten other former Party prominents, including Rudolf Slánský, former first secretary. Some were Jewish.

Stalin died suddenly in March 1953, and Gottwald, more unexpectedly, died within days of the funeral. Monetary reform on 1 June 1953 deprived many people of savings, and workers' demonstrations took place, notably in Plzeň. Antonín Novotný became first secretary in September, then president also, on the death of Zápotocký in 1957. But there was no real “thaw” in the Khrushchev years, even after his famous speech condemning Stalin, and certainly no challenge to Communist rule, as in Hungary. Indeed, the system consolidated itself, albeit with less violence, and in 1960 a new Constitution renamed the country the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and confirmed the “leading role” of the party. Rehabilitation of victims was slow and faltering, as the incumbent rulers were themselves heavily implicated in the organisation of the show trials. Criticism however began to be expressed with increasing effectiveness within the party itself, as young Stalinist intellectuals turned into less starry-eyed, more middle-aged reformers, disaffected by economic failures. Indeed, by the mid sixties there was considerable de facto liberalisation in cultural life. An internal power struggle grew during late 1967, and when Brezhnev refused to intervene to support Novotný while in Prague in December, Novotný was left isolated. His resignation in January 1968 was succeeded by the election of the Slovak Alexander Dubček as first secretary, who in the following months was carried along in a wave of reforms.

The reformers' Action Programme, issued in April, planned greater democracy within the Party, and economic reforms, but what most alarmed conservatives in this “Prague Spring” was the wholesale abandonment of controls over the mass media, which began openly discussing the re-establishment of opposition parties and other unthinkable subjects. Dubček's growing domestic support went hand in hand with growing alarm in Moscow, which finally decided to crush the reforms. On the night of 20th - 21st August, troops from the USSR, helped by troops from Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and the GDR invaded the country.

Opposition was basically passive, later symbolised in public memory by the self-burning of a student Jan Palach in January 1969. Dubček's group had been taken to the Ukraine, General Svoboda, now President, intervened for their release, but during October 1968 the reformers were bullied into retreat, and signed an agreement for Soviet troops to be stationed “temporarily” in the country. Attempts to preserve at least some of the reforms were reduced to confirmation of the federal structure of Czech and Slovak republics. Dubček was replaced by Gustav Husák, one of the victims of the fifties purges, who turned out to be prepared to take the stiff measures required to “normalise” political and cultural life, as a result of which many reformers and others, especially in management, education, the media and the arts, who refused to submit to coercion lost their jobs. Over a hundred thousand people chose to emigrate, many highly qualified professionals. Mass discontent was deflected by increased scope given for private consumption: car-ownership, colour TVs, country cottages, etc. At the same time, much of industry was increasingly antiquated, polluting and inefficient in its energy use, even if Czechoslovakia did avoid the problems of massive foreign debt incurred by countries such as Poland and Hungary in these decades.

Opposition was especially associated with the underground presses or samizdat, and writers, academics and artists who had lost their jobs, refused to conform, and were officially prevented from pursuing their professions officially, but many others who were allowed to keep their positions were also active in circumventing official regimentation where they found opportunity. In late 1976 the prominent playwright Václav Havel was one of the founders of the much persecuted association known as Charter 77, formed to publicise infringements of the Helsinki agreements on human rights.

The driving force for change however eventually came from the outside, fundamentally from the liberalising Gorbachev regime in the Soviet Union, which disastrously undermined the prospects of the Husák regime by adopting and even going beyond the kind of reforms discussed during the Prague Spring. On the one hand somewhat lukewarm attempts at face-saving economic and cultural reforms were pursued, limited by justified apprehension of the likely chain-reaction of consequences, - on the other, repressive police measures were taken against public demonstrations, in an effort to stave off political nemesis. The collapse of the East German regime in October 1989, with its mass exodus of citizens, through Hungary, but also through Prague, left the regime hanging by a few threads, and an officially permitted student march on 17 November, commemorating the death of Jan Opletal at the hands of the Nazis in 1939, turned, not unexpectedly, into an anti-government demonstration, violently quelled by riot police.

If this was an underhand attempt to restore the situation by instilling fear, an attempt moreover possibly to replace one discredited Communist clique by another, it failed, for the scenes of police violence (and rumours of a student death) produced a mass public response, spreading from strikes and demonstrations by students, young people, and figures in the theatre and the arts to wide sections of the public. Political opposition was organised with theatrical skill and in a theatre building under a coalition called Civic Forum, in which Havel played a leading role (in Slovakia a similar movement was called Public Against Violence). After successive negotiations and concessions a government with a non-Communist majority was sworn in on 10 December. Immediately after this President Husák resigned, party first secretary Miloš Jakeš having already gone along with his entire secretariat, and on 29 December Havel was elected President by the Federal Assembly. One of his first steps, as a man imprisoned and detained several times by the previous regime, was to declare a wide ranging amnesty for prisoners in Czechoslovak jails, an act whose haste led to some predictable public disorder. His first foreign visit was to Germany, where he stressed support for unification and controversially apologised for the way in which Germans had been expelled after 1945.

The election of 8 June 1990 brought a controlling voice in Federal Parliament for Civic Forum/Public Against Violence. However, not long afterwards, under finance minister Václav Klaus, a programme of far-reaching economic privatisation was embarked upon, and Civic Forum split. Other hot issues were the political future of Slovakia, restitution of alienated property, and the extent to which past Communist regime collaborators, real or alleged, were to be excluded from public office. Much time and energy was devoted to the latter issue, with acrimonious debate about specific alleged informers. Complex large-scale restitution and reassignment of property ownership took place. In the election of June 1992 the stauncher private-marketeers under Klaus became the dominant Czech party (Civic Democratic Party - ODS), while in Slovakia a more national-style party (Movement for a Democratic Slovakia - HZDS) under Vladimír Mečiar, feeding on traditional discontent with Czech political attitudes to Slovakia and renewed economic anxieties, gained the upper hand. After failure to agree on a common federal programme, the leading Czech and Slovak politicians drew up a timetable for governmental and state separation by the end of 1992. In July of that year Havel also resigned as President, the Slovaks in parliament having blocked his re-election; it was not long however before he again became President, this time of the now separate Czech republic.

© James Naughton, 2001, last minor revision 2012

Last revised December 2017