Samo’s Empire, Great Moravia, Duchy of Bohemia, Kingdom of Bohemia, Holy Roman empire, Austo-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Czech Republic.
These are most of the names that a land that I now call home used to have. Sometimes we were independent, sometimes we were ruled over by others, and sometimes we ruled over others. What is important is that the people here were always the same. Diligent, creative and sincere. Individuals eager to fight for their own freedom and the freedom of others. People dedicated to overcoming the greatest of obstacles for the greater good. Naturally, there were also rotten apples on the Czech tree, who’s mistakes we acknowledge and learn from. However, I believe that there were many, who have done great good for the world, but were forgotten by the modern, Anglo-Saxon dominated western culture. I do not mean any disrespect towards any English or American historical figures. However, I believe that it would be beneficial to the readers of the Prague Monitor to at least hear the stories of more or less forgotten Czech inventors, businessmen, and freedom fighters. If you agree with me, or are at least slightly intrigued by the proposition, that there were Czechs who changed the world, then I sincerely welcome you to my new series: Forgotten Czechs.
Before we start exploring the stories of individual Czechs, I believe it is crucial that all readers have at least a basic understanding of where Czech culture stems from. I am sure that many of you had the chance to learn about Czech culture during your visits, throughout the parts of your life that you spent here, or maybe even through Czech education, before you moved away and started reading Czech news in English. Whatever your case may be, I invite you to my amateur crash course on the roots of what it means to be Czech, written by a young Czech man patriotic just enough to start a series on forgotten Czechs, but not patriotic enough to study Czech history past the high-school level, so please take the following paragraphs with a moderately large grain of salt.
According to commonly used primary school textbooks, the first known humans who lived in the Czech lands identifiable not by the species of Homo they were, but by their culture, were the Celtic tribes that called the Czech lands home between 600 and 500 B.C. They soon got pushed west by Germanic tribes, who finally started to get pushed out by Slavic settlers after the year 550. Slavs used to be Vikings, who decided to give up raiding and fishing for keeping livestock and farming in north-eastern Europe. From there, they allegedly spread throughout Europe, until they decided to stop their journey close to what we now call the Czech border with Germany. They went so far west, since they got pushed by Central-Asian raiders Avars. However, here in what is now Czech Republic, they decided to put a stop to this violence and formed a defense-pact that became known as Samo’s Empire, named after the Frankish Merchant who allegedly united the Slavs against the Avars. Although this primordial political entity wouldn’t last long, the Slavs made it clear that they are eager to fight for their freedom.
Following the fall of the Samo’s Empire and soon also Great Moravia, the first mentions of feudal Bohemia appeared in texts preserved until today. The first officially mentioned Duke of Bohemia was born around 852, his name was Bořivoj I. of the Premyslid dynasty, and he earned his mention by being baptized as a part of Roman efforts to spread their new Christian religion, thus denouncing the pagan Slavic gods. The era of the Premyslids lasted until the murder of Wenceslaus III. Premyslid in 1305. During this time, the Czech patron St. Wenceslaus lived (Wenceslaus square), most of Czech legends were formed, and the Czech lands became the Kingdom of Bohemia after helping during the Siege of Milan, thus becoming the first kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire. The Bohemians were strong allies, and the valliant Bohemian forces were often used to restore order on the European continent. During its prime, the realm of the Premyslids reached both the Baltic and the Mediterranean seas.
However, as the era of the Premyslids ended, the era of Bohemian submission to foreign rulers slowly started to come along. First came the Luxembourgs of which at least the second ruler, The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV was a son of a Premyslid mother, so he respected the Czechs and brought prosperity to the lands (Charles Bridge, Charles University, Karlovy Vary, Karlštejn). Further Luxembourgs faced the uprising of the Husites, a band of many Czech citizens who managed to fight off many crusades with one of the first firearms in Europe and clever strategy, in a heroic stand against the powerful Christian church that started to rot from the inside. However, this defeat was the first of many blows that Czech pride would receive in the coming centuries. The Jagellonians and then the Habsburgs were foreign kings, forcing the Czechs to abide to the rules of foreign cultures and speak foreign languages. This was met with occasional uproars of Czech bravery which were quickly fought off by the foreign rulers. Despite this, the Czech lands became an industrial powerhouse and a cultural hub, which was ready to spring into the first opportunity to fight for its long lost independence, like a hungry lion, a two-tailed lion if you wish. This opportunity to fight for freedom finally came along during World War 1.
66 years before the Great War, a society of intellectuals who called themselves (in loose translation) Awakeners of the Nation managed to save the Czech culture by reinventing the language and thus reviving long lost folklore, which gives any nation the foundation of its identity. Throughout this process, they also managed to transform the remnants of the medieval feudal society into a society of citizens. Unfortunately this now non-feudal society had a monarch ruler, so it is no surprise that the Czechs took the first opportunity they had for independence. Through a combined effort of guerrilla warfare against their own empire in the east and masterful politics of an exile government of a non-existent country in the west, Czechoslovakia was formed. It was the biggest victory for Czechs in more than 700 hundred years. While they had to join with the Slovaks to form a majority in the new nation, Czechoslovaks could finally call themselves free in the newly formed democratic country led by former University professor, now president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. However, this joy would not last long.
After just a little over 20 years of freedom and independence, an Austrian was back to rule the Czech lands. This Austrian managed to take over the torn remnants of the formerly glorious Germany with his extremist politics and a talent for persuasive speech. He was so persuasive, that he managed to talk our allies, mainly France and the United Kingdom, into abandoning us. Thus, before they stopped waving a piece of paper with lies all over it and realized their mistake, the allies gave up Czechoslovakia, which spent the last few years fortifying its border with concrete bunkers, was full of medal-winning pilots, and was an industrial hub ready to support the war efforts of anyone who would end up taking it over. Unfortunately, the Nazis did, and soon they took over Paris with tanks and other weapons seized from the Czechoslovaks, while closing our Universities and enslaving our people. This betrayal from the allies is one of the deepest unhealed wounds in the heart of the Czech lion, and some still base their sour feelings towards westerners on this to this day.
However, there were some who did not give up the fight despite the sour start. Pilots escaped to fight in the air Battle of Britain (watch Dark Blue World), soldiers escaped to come back and aid anti-Nazi efforts as paratroopers, which climaxed with operation Anthropoid (watch Anthropoid), and an exile government was formed. While the Czechs could not help much, some did anything they could to help defeat the Axis powers and save their young but beloved democratic nation from total annihilation. As the war came to an end, they were ready to forget the betrayal of the Munich Agreement and ready to rebuild. However, during this euphoric era, mistakes were bound to be made.
First came the great mistake of deporting all German speaking Czechoslovak citizens, regardless of their involvement in the war, violently from Czechoslovakia, fueled by hatred and revenge. Then came a second mistake. During an unstable post-election time in February 1948, all Ministers from democratic parties gave up their mandate to protest the communists gaining too much power despite not having enough votes. They expected the dying president Edvard Beneš to dissolve the whole government and demand new elections. To their surprise, the old man could not fight the eastern influence and announced that new ministers will be taking all the empty spots, all of whom supported the communist party. Soon the whole democratic government was destroyed, the coup was done, and a one-party totalitarian communist regime took the reins of the country for more than 40 years.
Yet again, this regime forced the Czechs into submission, their freedoms were suppressed and the Czech lion suffered. However, my Czech Culture 101 lesson slowly comes to an end here, as we have approached a time about which you can ask current Czechs. Most Czechs will gladly explain to you what communism was like for them or their parents. No questions are bad questions, as long as what the Czechs learned about communism gets preserved in the common knowledge of mankind. I once even got asked “Why didn’t the Czechs sue the communists” by an American, and still didn’t get mad. I will now give you a list of pointers to ask current Czechs about: Milada Horáková, Kádrový posudek, Uliční výbor, Prague Spring, Invasion of the Warsaw pact armies, Emigration, Jan Palach, Normalization, Charter 77, Václav Havel, Velvet Revolution, Privatization, Entering EU, Entering NATO…
I hope that this quick rundown of Czech history was educational, and that your curiosity managed to latch onto at least one of the crumbs of information I mentioned. If it did, then please do read about that event, watch a movie about it, or even better, invite a Czech friend for a beer and talk about it. In starting this series, my biggest aim is to spark an interest in expats, an interest for Czech culture beyond Guláš, Trdelník and Matrioškas sold on Old town square, because if you were to do some digging, you would soon find out that none of those things are Czech, despite being advertised as such. So if you are even slightly interested in what historical figures and stories I forgot to mention in the past 9 paragraphs, please join me in my new series:
(forgotten) by Daniel Howard
New story every Tuesday