The oldest evidence
of human habitation in the Prague valley dates from around
6000 BC. Permanent farming communities were established in
the area by Germanic and
Celtic tribes around 4000 BC. Slavs came into the picture
around the turn of the millennium, and by the 600 AD had
settled opposite sides of a particularly appealing stretch
of the Vltava River. They successfully defended the land now
known as Bohemia for generations, but by the 9th century it
had been conquered by the Great Moravian Empire.
empire introduced the locals to Christianity, but it was 'Good
King Wenceslas' of Christmas-carol fame (he was actually a
duke) who made it the state religion of Bohemia in the 930s.
He remains the patron saint of the Czech Republic. It was
under the rule of Charles IV (ruled 1346-78) that Prague
truly came into its own, becoming one of the continent's
largest and most prosperous cities, acquiring its fine
Gothic face and landmark buildings like Charles University,
Charles Bridge and St Vitus Cathedral.
Jan Hus, who
attended Charles University in the late 1380s, rallied
popular support for the Church-reform movement; when he was
burned at the stake in 1415, the rabble was roused enough to
hurl various Catholic officials from the upper stories of
Prague's New Town Hall, introducing the word 'defenestration'
(literally, to toss someone out a window) into the popular
political lexicon. While the 1526 ascent of the Catholic
Hapsburg family to power in the region cooled things off
briefly, a second round of defenestrations in 1618 made it
clear that the matter was not quite settled.
In fact, the
insurrection catalyzed the Thirty Years War, which
devastated much of Europe; a quarter of Bohemia perished.
Their defeat slammed the door on Czech independence for
almost three centuries. The Czech national spirit was not so
easily crushed, however, and by the 19th century, Prague -
which had been unified in 1784 by imperial decree - had
become the centre of the so-called Czech National Revival.
Czech literature, architecture and journalism were
celebrated, even as Czechs were denied participation in the
sentiment was growing as waves of pro-democracy protests
swept the continent. An 1848 uprising was summarily
squelched, but in 1861 the Czech majority defeated German
candidates in the Prague council elections. It was a
watershed event for Czech independence.
The 20th century
solidified the Czech nationalist movement. Czechs had no
interest in fighting for their Austrian masters in WWI, and
neighbouring Slovakia was equally reluctant to take up arms
for their German occupiers. Leaders from both independence
movements approached US President Wilson, who was actively
trying to build the League of Nations, asking for his help
in achieving their dream. With Allied support,
Czechoslovakia became an independent nation in 1918; Prague
became its first capital.
The young country
weathered the Great Depression only to be occupied by Nazi
Germany in 1939 - Bohemia and Moravia were labelled a 'protectorate'
and Slovakia an 'independent' (puppet) state. Prague's
community of some 120,000 Jews was all but wiped out; almost
three-quarters of them either starved or were murdered in
On May 5, 1945, the
population of Prague rose up against German occupation
forces as the Red Army approached from the east. Most of
Prague was liberated before the Soviets arrived. Liberation
Day is now celebrated on May 8; under communism it was May
9. In the 1946 elections, the communists became the young
republic's dominant party, and in 1948 did away with the
inefficiencies of a multi-party system with a Soviet-backed
In 1968, after years
of gradual liberalisation under General Secretary Dubcek,
the 'Prague Spring' came into full bloom. Full democracy, an
end to censorship, and 'socialism with a human face' were
the goals of this popular movement. Moscow was miffed and
sent tanks into Prague. Fifty-eight people died, almost
300,000 sympathisers lost their jobs and, in something of a
step down, Dubcek was forced to find employment with the
Slovak Forestry Department.
The newly stringent
communist leadership maintained control until the breaching
of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A series of peaceful
demonstrations beginning on November 17 became
confrontational, though the essentially nonviolent character
of the uprising earned it the name 'Velvet Revolution'. Free
elections were held in 1990, and the Czech and Slovakian
separatist movements subsequently inspired the smooth 1993
split into the Czech and Slovak Republics, remembered as the
'Velvet Divorce'. Prague quickly became one of the top
tourist destinations in the world during the 1990s, and the
ringing of cash registers combined with a solid industrial
base has left its citizens in better economic shape than
those in the rest of the country. Much of this spare change
has been reinvested in the city itself, making for an even
more pleasant visit.
The Czech Republic
has become a member state of the EU, and Prague will preside
gracefully as the country finds a new place in the world.
In August 2002
Prague experienced the worst floods in almost two centuries,
with the river Vltava sweeping the city.
Sixteen people died, hundreds of thousands of people were
forced to evacuate their homes and businesses, the historic
city centre was closed off and there were fears - not
realised - that the 14th-century Charles Bridge would be
washed away. The final damage was calculated in the billions
of US dollars, with the city's low-lying Jewish Quarter
suffering considerable damage, as well as the Karlin and
Troja districts, the metro system and numerous cultural and
tourist attractions. Despite the disastrous damage, Prague
and its citizens managed to bounce back, demonstrating once
again that the spirit of the city really is indomitable.