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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Czechs/Marek J. Jovanovic

Canadians of Czech heritage trace their origins to the historic lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and the far southeastern corner of Silesia, as well as, in a few cases, from colonies in the region of Volhynia, in modern-day Ukraine. The first three aforementioned lands, which today comprise the independent Czech Republic, form an elongated, landlocked area surrounded by three mountain chains (Ore, Sudetens, and Bohemian Forest) that together are popularly referred to as the Sudetenland. The Czech Republic is bordered by Germany and Austria to the west and south, Poland to the north, and Slovakia to the east.

Czechs speak a West Slavic language that is closely related to Slovak and Polish. Although a Slavic language, Czech has been heavily influenced by German and Latin. This is largely because, from the Middle Ages until the end of World War II, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia were inhabited by both Czechs and Germans. The Czechs, who by 1930 numbered 7.4 million, generally lived in the lowland plains; the Germans (3.2 million in 1930) inhabited primarily the surrounding mountainous areas and lowland cities. Hence, cities like Prague, Brno, Ostrava, and Hradec Králové contained distinct enclaves of Germans and German-speaking Jews.

The Czechs are among several peoples in central Europe who enjoyed independent statehood in the medieval period, lost that independence in 1620, and then regained it in the twentieth century. Consequently, the medieval period has remained a source of pride in Czech culture.

Czech writers point to the early seventh century as the period when the first state was formed on Czech territory, and they emphasize that the land of Moravia was the centre of the Greater Moravian Empire which lasted from the early ninth to early tenth centuries. It was to Moravia in the 860s that the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity as well as a written language to the Slavs. In the course of the tenth century, the Kingdom of Bohemia was created in union with the Margravate of Moravia, with the seat of the kingdom at Praha (Prague). From its core lands, Bohemia-Moravia expanded, and at various times in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it controlled most of what is today eastern Austria and Slovenia and western Poland (Silesia) and eastern Germany (Lusatia and Brandenburg).

During the twelfth century, the country’s kings began to encourage Germans to settle the mountainous regions and cities where they soon became prominent in the mining industry and trade. In addition, from the early eleventh century onwards, the Kingdom of Bohemia-Moravia was part of the Holy Roman Empire, a loosely knit confederation of Germanic states. Indeed, Prague even became capital of that empire when Bohemia-Moravia experienced its “Golden Age” during the reign of Charles (1346–78), who ruled as both Holy Roman Emperor (Charles IV) and King of Bohemia (Charles I).

Among Charles’s achievements was the creation in Prague of the first university in east-central Europe, Charles University (1348), which soon became the source of disputes prompted by one of Europe’s earliest religious reformers, Jan Hus. After Hus was accused of heresy and burned at the stake in 1415, his followers rebelled against the Holy Roman Emperor in what came to be known as the Hussite War (1420–33). It was not long before the Hussite religious reform, and the defiance of the emperor, came to be associated with a rejection of Germanic and Catholic influence in Bohemia-Moravia and with a growing Czech national sentiment. Hus had also codified a Czech literary language through his translation of the Bible.

By the end of the sixteenth century, Bohemia-Moravia had effectively ceased to function as an independent kingdom. In 1526 it came under the authority, through a union by royal marriage, of the Habsburg-ruled Austrian Empire. Following an abortive revolt against the Habsburgs in 1618, the Czech Protestant armies were decisively defeated two years later at the Battle of White Mountain. This marked the symbolic end to any vestiges of Czech independence, since Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia were reduced to mere provinces of the Habsburg Empire in which the Catholic religion and German culture came to dominate. In the wake of the Habsburg victory, many Protestants were forced to flee the country, including the Moravian Brethren and the renowned educator Jan Amos Komenský/Comenius.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of Czech intellectuals set out to restore their people’s culture and language. The “national awakening” they undertook – marked by the restoration of the Czech language, the writing of patriotic histories, and the establishment of numerous cultural and civic organizations – became a model for many other stateless Slavic peoples in the region. Until World War I, the national movement was marked by a struggle for greater political rights within Habsburg Austria, an attempt to increase through migration the Czech presence in cities that at the time were largely German in language and culture, including Vienna itself, and an increasing interest in the Czechs’ closest relatives, the Slovaks, living at the time under Hungarian rule.

The Czech national movement reached its culmination at the end of World War I with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Inspired by the work of the wartime political émigrés, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Eduard Beneš, the independent state of Czechoslovakia, with the backing of the victorious Entente powers, was proclaimed on 28 October 1918. Aside from Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, the new state also extended farther east to include Slovakia and Sub-carpathian Rus’ (Ruthenia), territories that had been in the Hungarian part of the Habsburg Empire.

During the two inter-war decades (1918–38), Czechoslovakia’s leaders created a democratic state governed by the rule of law that also enjoyed economic stability, at least before the onset of the world economic depression in 1929. The country was, however, plagued by internal problems with non-Czech nationalities who made up nearly half (48.9 percent) of the population. The Germans and Magyars (in southern Slovakia) never really accepted the existence of the new state, while the Slovaks and Carpatho-Rusyns (in Subcarpathian Rus’) wanted more autonomy for their regions as promised by Czech leaders in the Pittsburgh Manifesto of 1918.

Most serious, however, was the threat from abroad, in particular from neighbouring Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. By the late 1930s, Hitler had committed his country to come to the aid of Germans in the Sudetenland (the mountainous regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia), who claimed to be suffering under what the National Socialist Party in the region called “Czech oppression.” Anxious to preserve peace, the leaders of Britain and France put pressure on their ally, Czechoslovakia, to accept Hitler’s demands. Those demands were spelled out in the Munich Pact of September 1938, by which the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany and the rest of “rump” Czechoslovakia was transformed into a federal republic of three autonomous territories: Bohemia-Moravia, Slovakia, and Subcarpathian Rus’. This arrangement functioned for only a few months, and in March 1939 the rest of Bohemia-Moravia was “reunited” with the German Reich. Harsh Nazi German rule, marked by brutal reprisals against all forms of opposition and the liquidation of the Jewish community, was to last until the defeat of Germany in May 1945.

As a member of the victorious Allied coalition, Czechoslovakia was restored as an independent state in 1945 but without Subcarpathian Rus’ (Ruthenia), which was ceded to the Soviet Union. In an effort to overcome the nationality problems that had plagued the inter-war republic, the post-war settlement included the expulsion of three million Germans from the Sudetenland. This effectively ended the centuries-old Germanic influence upon large parts of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.

The Soviets actively supported Czech and Slovak Communists who in February 1948 succeeded in taking over the government. For the next four decades Czechoslovakia was transformed into a Communist country marked by the forced nationalization of industry, confiscation of church and private property, and collectivization of agriculture. Democratic principles were abandoned and the country’s borders were sealed, cutting off the possibility of emigration. At the same time, a large percentage of the population had access to higher education and the country’s economy became relatively prosperous although increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union.

Attempts to reform the Communist system and to create “socialism with a human face” led to the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dub™ ek 1968. This brief attempt to liberalize Communist rule was crushed by a military invasion led by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies in August 1968. The invasion prompted many vacationing Czechs to remain abroad, and they were joined by others, still able to flee the country until the end of 1968, who refused to live under the Communist totalitarian rule that during the 1970s wiped out all vestiges of the short-lived reform period.

Following the collapse throughout east-central Europe of several Communist regimes in 1989 and the refusal of the Soviet Union to intervene and help them survive, reformers in Czechoslovakia led by the dissident playwright Václav Havel were able to replace their Communist government in what became known as the non-violent “Velvet Revolution.” Post-Communist Czechoslovakia immediately set out to institute democratic and free-market reforms. The country was also transformed into the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. When negotiations with Slovak politicians to define the new federal relationship failed, the country was peacefully divided on 31 December 1992. The new Czech Republic has since 1993 continued economic and political reforms in an effort to prepare the country for eventual membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).