The first recorded inhabitants of the territory of the present-day Czech Republic were the Celtic Boii tribe, who settled there about 50 BC . They were displaced in the early modern era by German tribes (Marcomanni, Quidi) and later by Slavs, who pushed in from the east during the so-called Migration of the Peoples. The new settlers kept the Roman version of the name Boii for that region, Boiohaemum, which later became Bohemia. The first unified state in the region was that of a Frankish merchant named Samo, who protected his lands from the Avar empire in Hungary and the Franks of the West, reigning until his death in 658. This mercantile city-state lasted until the 9th century, when it grew into the Moravian Empire. The fidelity of this new empire had strategic importance to both the Eastern and the Western Church, who sent missionaries to convert the Moravian people. Beginning in 863, two Orthodox monks, Cyril and Methodius, succeeded in converting large numbers of people to the Byzantine church (introducing a Slavic alphabet named "Cyrillic" after one of the monks), but Roman Catholic missionaries gained the majority of converts.
The Moravian Empire was destroyed at the end of the 9th century (903–907) by invading Magyars (Hungarians), who incorporated the eastern lands into their own, while the Kingdom
of Bohemia inherited the lands and peoples of the west. The Premyslid Dynasty took control of the Bohemian kingdom, allying with the Germans to prevent further Magyar expansion. In the year 1085, Prince Vratislave was the first Bohemian prince to receive royal status from the Byzantine Empire, gaining his title by supporting Henry IV against Pope Gregory VII. A century later, in 1212, Premysl Otakar I was given the Golden Bull of Sicily, proclaiming Bohemia a kingdom in its own right, and the Bohemian princes the hereditary rulers of that land. During the 13th century, the powers gained by the Premyslid Dynasty through the German alliance waned as this relationship brought the substantial migration of Germans into Bohemia and Moravia. The next line to rule Bohemia, starting with John of Luxembourg (1310–1346), came to power before a time of great social and religious strife. Charles IV of Luxembourg was not only King of Bohemia (1346–1378), but Holy Roman Emperor as well, ushering in the Czech "Golden Age," but his ties to the Roman Catholic Church would later tear the Kingdom apart. In 1348 he founded Charles University in Prague, one of the first learning institutions to operate outside of the Church's monasteries, which nourished the minds of Bohemian intellectuals. As the citizens of Prague began to learn of the intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church, Wenceslas IV, successor to Charles IV, experienced a series of economic and political crisis (1378–1419) that escalated with The Great Schism of the Church. Bohemia became a center of passionate opposition to the Catholic church, and to German domination, led by Jan Hus in the Hussite movement. Burned at the stake for heresy in 1415 by German Emperor Sigismund, Hus became a national martyr and hero, and the country was in open rebellion (1420–1436). During this time, Sigismund conducted six crusades in Bohemia to end the revolution, until he finally succeeded in 1434. By 1436, tired of fighting, both sides signed the Compacts of Basle. These documents allowed the Hussite denomination, and became the model of religious tolerance, which did not last for long. In 1462 Hungary extended its control over Bohemia, ruling through the Jagellon Dynasty until 1526, when Ferdinand of Hapsburg was elected to the Crown of St. Wenceslas, making Bohemia the property of the House of Hapsburg.
The Czechs were predominantly Protestant, while their new rulers were bent on introducing the Roman Catholic faith to Bohemia, exacerbating civil tensions. Although Protestants were able to secure certain civil rights, and the freedom to worship, peace was fragile. In 1618 two Protestant churches were closed, leading Protestants to throw two royal governors out of the windows of Prague Castle, an act known as the "Defenestration of Prague." At the same time, 27 Protestant nobles are executed by the Habsburgs. In the Thirty Years' War, which followed, the Czechs deposed their Catholic king, replacing him with Frederick of the Palatinate, a Protestant. The Protestant forces of the Bohemian Estates were defeated by the Catholic Emperor in 1620, at the Battle of White Mountain, and the Catholics again took the throne. This represented a disaster for the Czechs, who had their lands seized and their leaders executed, while nearly 30,000 of their number fled. The war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which sanctioned the large-scale immigration of Germans, resulting in the gradual Germanification of Czech territory. Under Empress Maria-Theresa (1740–1780) Bohemia became part of Austria, and the most industrialized part of the Austrian Empire, but Czech culture and language were suppressed.
Political tranquility was ended by the riots, which broke out across Europe in 1848. On 11 March 1848, a demonstration in Prague demanded freedom of the press, equality of language, a parliament to represent Czech interests, and an end to serfdom. A Pan-Slavic Congress was convened in Prague in June of the same year, under Francis Palacky, a Bohemian historian. The Austrian authorities responded by imposing a military dictatorship, which struggled to restrain a steadily rising tide of nationalist aspirations. When World War I began, thousands of Czech soldiers surrendered to the Russians, rather than fight for the Austro-Hungarians. They were transformed into the Czech Legion, which fought for the Russians until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although Austria retained nominal control of Bohemia until the war's end, a separate Czech National Council began functioning in Paris as early as 1916.
It was the members of that Council, especially Eduard Benes and Tomas Masaryk, who were instrumental in gaining international support for the formation of an independent Czech and Slovak state at war's end. The Czechoslovak Republic, established 28 October 1918 under President Tomas Masaryk, was a contentious mix of at least five nationalities—Czechs, the socalled Sudeten Germans, Slovaks, Moravians, and Ruthenians— who created one of the ten most developed countries in the world, during the interwar period. All these nationalities were granted significant rights of self-determination, but many groups wished for full independence, and some of the Sudeten Germans hoped for reunification with Germany. In 1938 Adolph Hitler demanded that the Sudeten German area, which was the most heavily industrialized part of the country, be ceded to Germany. A conference consisting of Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain, was convened, without Czechoslovakian representation. Ignoring the mutual assistance pacts, which Czechoslovakia had signed with both France and the USSR, this conference agreed on 30 September 1938 that Germany could occupy the Sudetenland. On 15 March 1939, Hitler took the remainder of the Czech lands, beginning an occupation that lasted until 9 May 1945.
Many prominent Czechs managed to escape the Germans, including Eduard Benes, the president, who established Provisional Government in London, in 1940, and Klement Gottwald, the communist leader, who took refuge in Moscow. In 1945, negotiations between Benes, Gottwald, and Josef Stalin established the basis for a postwar government, which was formed in the Slovak city of Kosice in April 1945 and moved to Prague the following month.
The government was drawn entirely from the National Front, an alliance of parties oriented toward Soviet Russia, with whom Czechoslovakia now had a common border, after the USSR incorporated Ruthenia. Although deferring to the communists, the National Front government managed to run Czechoslovakia as a democracy until 1948. The communists had been the largest vote getter in the 1946 elections, but it seemed likely that they might lose in 1948. Rather than risk the election, they organized a putsch, with Soviet backing, forcing President Benes to accept a government headed by Gottwald. Benes resigned in June 1948, leaving the presidency open for Gottwald, while A. Zapotocky became prime minister. In a repeat of Czech history, Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister at the time, and son of T. Masaryk, was thrown from a window during the coup, a "defenestration" which was reported as a suicide.
Once Czechoslovakia became a People's Republic, and a faithful ally of the Soviet Union, a wave of purges and arrests rolled over the country (1949–1954). In 1952 a number of high officials, including Foreign Minister V. Clementis and R. Slansky, head of the Czech Communist Party, were hanged for "Tito-ism" (after the Yugoslavian president who had been dismissed from the Cominform) and "national deviation."
After an unsuccessful Army coup on his behalf, Novotny resigned, in March 1968, and Czechoslovakia embarked on a radical liberalization, which Dubcek termed "socialism with a human face." The leaders of the other eastern bloc nations and the Soviet leaders viewed these developments with alarm. Delegations went back and forth from Moscow during the "Prague Spring" of 1968, warning of "counterrevolution." By July the neighbors' alarm had grown; at a July meeting in Warsaw they issued a warning to Czechoslovakia against leaving the socialist camp. Although Dubcek himself traveled to Moscow twice, in July and early August, to reassure Soviet party leader Brezhnev of the country's fidelity, the Soviets remained unconvinced.
Gottwald died a few days after Stalin, in March 1953, setting off a slow but eventually significant erosion of communist control. Zapotocky succeeded to the Presidency, while A. Novotny became head of the party; neither enjoying the authority which Gottwald had held. They clung to the Stalinist methods that, after Nikita Khrushchev's secret denunciation of Stalin in 1956, had already lost salience in the USSR. Novotny took the presidency upon Zapotocky's death in 1957, holding Czechoslovakia in a tight grip until well into the 1960s, but the seeds of the Communist party's destruction were already planted. The Khrushchev-led liberalization in the USSR encouraged liberals within the Czechoslovak party to emulate Moscow. Past abuses of the party, including the hanging of Slansky and Clementis, were repudiated, and Novotny was gradually forced to replace many of his most conservative allies, including the head of the Slovak Communist Party. The new head of that party, Alexander Dubcek, attacked Novotny at a meeting in late 1967, accusing him of undermining economic reform and damaging Slovak interests. Two months later, in January 1968, the presidency was separated from the party chairmanship, and Dubcek was named head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, the first Slovak ever to hold the post.
Finally, on the night of 20–21 August 1968, military units from all the Warsaw Pact nations save Romania invaded Czechoslovakia, to "save it from counterrevolution." Dubcek and other officials were arrested, and the country was placed under Soviet control. Repeated efforts to find local officials willing to act as Soviet puppets failed, so on 31 December 1968 the country was made a federal state, comprised of the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. In April Gustav Husak, once a reformer, but now viewing harmony with the USSR as the highest priority, was named head of the Czech Communist Party. A purge of liberals followed, and in May 1970 a new Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship treaty was signed; in June Dubcek was expelled from the party.
Between 1970 and 1975 nearly one-third of the party was dismissed, as Husak consolidated power, reestablishing the priority of the federal government over its constituent parts and, in May 1975, reuniting the titles of party head and republic president. Civil rights groups formed within the country; including a group of several hundred in 1977 that published a manifesto called "Charter 77," protesting the suppression of human rights in Czechoslovakia. These groups did not seriously impinge upon Husak's power, but his successors had difficulty suppressing the liberalization movement.
Once again, it was revolution in the USSR which set off political change in Czechoslovakia. Husak ignored Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's calls for perestroika and glasnost until 1987, when Husak reluctantly endorsed the general concept of Party reform, but delayed implementation until 1991. Aging and in ill health, Husak announced his retirement in December 1987, declaring that Milos Jakes would take his post. Jakes had been a lifelong compromiser and accommodator who was unable to control dissenting factions within his party, which were now using the radical changes in the Soviet Union as weapons against one another.
Even greater pressure came in early autumn 1989, when the West German Embassy in Prague began to accept East German refugees who were trying to go west. Increasingly the East German government was being forced to accede to popular demand for change, which in turn emboldened Czech citizens to make similar demands. On 17 November 1989, a group of about 3,000 youths gathered in Prague's Wenceslas Square, demanding free elections. On Jakes's orders, they were attacked and beaten by security forces; igniting a swell of public indignation, expressed in ten days of nonstop meetings and demonstrations. This "velvet revolution" ended on 24 November, when Jakes and all his government resigned. Novotny resigned his presidency soon after. Although Alexander Dubcek was put forward as a possible replacement, he was rejected because he was Slovak. The choice fell instead on Vaclav Havel, a playwright and dissident, and founder of the Charter 77 group, who was named president on 29 December 1989.
Dismantling of the apparatus of a Soviet-style state began immediately, but economic change came more slowly, in part because elections were not scheduled until June 1990. In the interim, the old struggle between Czechs and Slovaks resulted in the country being renamed the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. In the June elections the vote went overwhelmingly to Civic Forum and its Slovak partner, and economic transformation was begun, although there were continued tensions between those who wished a rapid move to a market economy and those who wanted to find some "third way" between socialism and capitalism. Equally contentious was the sentiment for separation by Slovakia, the pressure for which continued to build through 1991 and 1992. In the June 1992 elections the split between the two parts of the country became obvious, as Czechs voted overwhelmingly for the reform and anticommunist candidates of Vaclav Klaus' Civic Democratic Party (ODS), while Slovaks voted for V. Meciar and his Movement for Democratic Slovakia, a leftist and nationalist party. Legislative attempts to strengthen the federative structure, at the expense of the legislatures of the two constituent republics, failed, and the republics increasingly began to behave as though they were already separate so that, for example, by the end of 1992, 25.2% of Czech industry was been privatized, as opposed to only 5.3% of Slovak industry. The prime ministers of the two republics eventually agreed to separate, in the so-called "velvet divorce," which took effect 1 January 1993.
Havel (who did not subscribe to any party in the interest of political tranquility) was reconfirmed as president by a vote of the Czech parliament on 26 January 1993. Klaus was successful in fostering growth in the newly formed Czech Republic, emerging from close 1996 elections with another term as prime minister, but after the first glow of liberation, major cracks in the system became visible. Milos Zeman of the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) challenged Klaus' policies, during and after the 1996 elections, especially those relating to economic growth (which was slowing). The year 1996 also saw the first elections for the 81-member Senate, the upper body of parliament, which reflected a major split in the attitude of Czech voters. Governmental democracy and a newly liberated economy had not brought about the immediate transformation that Czech citizens wanted to see, and they ended up blaming the ODS party for their woes. This, and charges of corruption in the ODS party, brought about the triumph of the opposition. In the 1998 elections, the majority of votes went to the Social Democratic Party, in a platform that stressed economic regulation and the socialist approach to government. Milos Zeman was appointed as the prime minister by President Vaclav Havel on 17 July 1998. Havel had been reelected president the previous January for another five-year term.
In March 1999, the Czech Republic became a member of NATO. In January 2001, the largest street demonstrations since the overthrow of Communism were held to protest the appointment of Jiri Hodac as the head of public service television. He was seen as a political appointee and was accused of compromising editorial independence. Hodac resigned following the protests. In April, Vladimir Spidla became leader of the Social Democrats; he was more left-wing than Zeman, and was dismissive of ODS leader Vaclav Klaus. When in the June 2002 elections the Social Democrats gained the largest number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, Spidla became prime minister. Spidla formed a government with the Coalition, composed of the Christian-Democratic Union/Czechoslovak People's Party, and the Freedom Union (Koalice), holding 101 seats in the 200-seat Chamber (70 seats for the CSSD, and 31 for the Coalition). The ODS came in second with 58 seats, and the Communists, in their best showing since the Velvet Revolution, came in third with 41 seats.
In August 2002, Central Europe was plagued by torrential rain, and Prague suffered its worst flooding in 200 years. The city's historic district was spared, but towns and villages across the country were devastated.
The Czech Republic was one of 10 new countries to be formally invited to join the EU in December 2002, and accession is to be completed by 2004. Issues to be resolved by the countries include adoption of the euro, migration, and agriculture, among others.
Havel stepped down as president in February 2003, after his second five-year term expired. Havel's rival and former prime minister Vaclav Klaus was elected president by a slim majority of 142 votes in the 281-member parliament after two inconclusive elections and three rounds of balloting on 28 February. Although when he left the presidency opinions about his legacy were mixed in the Czech Republic, on the international scene Havel remains eternally popular for being a voice for democracy.