Bohemia: History

The Romans called the area Boiohaemia after the Boii tribe, probably Celtic, which was displaced (1st–5th cent. AD) by Slavic settlers, the Czechs. Subjugated by the Avars, the Czechs freed themselves under the leadership of Samo (d. c.658). The legendary Queen Libussa and her husband, the peasant Přemysl, founded the first Bohemian dynasty in the 9th cent. Christianity was introduced by saints Cyril and Methodius while Bohemia was part of the great Moravian empire, from which it withdrew at the end of the century to become an independent principality. St. Wenceslaus, the first great Bohemian ruler (920–29), successfully defended his land from Germanic invasion; but his brother, Boleslav I (929–67), was forced to acknowledge (950) the rule of Otto I, and Bohemia became a part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Bohemian principality retained autonomy in internal affairs, however. Later Přemyslide rulers acquired Moravia and most of Silesia.

German influence in Bohemia increased with the growth of the towns and the rise of trade between East and West. Silver, mined chiefly at Kutná Hora, greatly added to the wealth and prestige of the dukes who, by the 12th cent., began to take part in the imperial elections. In 1198, Ottocar I was crowned king of Bohemia, which became an independent kingdom within the empire. The conquests and acquisitions of Ottocar II (1253–78) brought Bohemia to the height of its power and its greatest extent (from the Oder to the Adriatic), but his defeat by Rudolf I of Hapsburg cost Bohemia all his conquests.

After the Přemyslide line became extinct (1306), John of Luxemburg was elected king in 1310. The reign of his son, Charles IV (1346–78), who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, was the golden age of Bohemia, and Prague became the seat of the empire. His Golden Bull (1356) permanently established the kings of Bohemia as electors. In the reigns of his successors, emperors Wenceslaus and Sigismund, religious, political, and social tensions exploded in the movement, both religious and nationalist, of the Hussites against the Holy Roman Empire. The Hussite Wars led to the defeat (1434) of the radical Taborites at the hands of the moderate Utraquists, who were supported by the great nobles. In 1436, by the so-called Compactata, the Utraquists returned to communion with the Roman Catholic Church and established Utraquism as the national religion. Meanwhile the crown had passed to Albert II, a Hapsburg, and then to Ladislaus V of Hungary (in Bohemia, Ladislaus I). George of Podebrad actually ruled for Ladislaus and was elected to succeed him as king in 1458. On his death (1471) the crown reverted to the kings of Hungary—Uladislaus II (Ladislaus II), Matthias Corvinus, and Louis II. The nobles profited from the disorders of the period and in 1487 secured vast privileges, reducing the peasantry to virtual serfdom.

The accession (1526) of Archduke Ferdinand (later Emperor Ferdinand I) began the long Hapsburg domination of Bohemia. Ferdinand began the gradual process by which Bohemia was deprived of self-rule. He also introduced the Jesuits in order to secure the return of Bohemia to Roman Catholicism. The religious situation remained explosive. The conservative wing of the Utraquists had become almost indistinguishable from the Roman Church, and there had arisen a frankly Protestant movement, the Bohemian Brethren (see Moravian Church). The Brethren and their close allies, the Lutherans, won equality with the Utraquists by inducing Emperor Maximilian II to declare (1567) that the Compactata no longer were the law of the land. Rudolf II was forced to grant freedom of religion by the so-called Letter of Majesty (Majestätsbrief) of 1609. When in 1618 Emperor Matthias disregarded the Majestätsbrief, members of the Bohemian diet revolted and dramatized their position by throwing two imperial councilors out of the windows of Hradcin Castle on May 23, 1618.

The so-called Defenestration of Prague precipitated the Thirty Years War, which came to involve most of Europe. Matthias's son (later Emperor Ferdinand II) was declared deposed, and Frederick the Winter King was elected king of Bohemia. Frederick and the Protestants were crushed in the battle of the White Mountain (1620) by Ferdinand II. The Protestants were suppressed, and in 1627 Bohemia was demoted from a constituent Hapsburg kingdom to an imperial crown land; its diet was reduced to a consultative body.

The Thirty Years War laid Bohemia waste; after the Peace of Westphalia (1648), forcible Germanization, oppressive taxation, and absentee landownership reduced the Czechs, except a few favored magnates, to misery. The suppression (1749) of the separate chancellery at Prague by Maria Theresa and the introduction of German as the sole official language completed the process. Joseph II freed the serfs and permitted freedom of worship, but he incurred the hatred of the Czechs by his rigorous policy of Germanization. Leopold II tried to conciliate the Czechs; he was the last ruler to be crowned king of Bohemia (1791). During the later 18th cent. the foundations of industrialization were laid in Bohemia, but the German population fared better than the mostly peasant Czechs.

The 19th cent. brought a rebirth of Czech nationalism. Under the leadership of Palacký a Slavic congress assembled at Prague in the Revolution of 1848, but by 1849, although the Czech peasantry had been emancipated, absolute Austrian domination had been forcibly restored. The establishment (1867) of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy thoroughly disappointed the Czech aspirations for wide political autonomy within a federalized Austria. Instead, the Czech lands were relegated to a mere province of the empire. Concessions were made (1879) by the Austrian minister Taaffe; Czechs entered the imperial bureaucracy and parliament at Vienna. However, many Czechs continued to advocate complete separation from the Hapsburg empire.

Full independence was reached only at the end of World War I under the guidance of T. G. Masaryk. In 1918, Bohemia became the core of the new state of Czechoslovakia. After the Munich Pact of 1938, Czechoslovakia was stripped of the so-called Sudeten area, which was annexed to Germany. In 1939, Bohemia was invaded by German troops and proclaimed part of the German protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

After World War II the pre-1938 boundaries were restored, and most of the German-speaking population was expelled. In 1948, Bohemia's status as a province was abolished, and it was divided into nine administrative regions. The administrative reorganization of 1960 redivided it into five regions and the city of Prague. In 1969, Bohemia, along with Moravia and Czech Silesia, was incorporated into the Czech Socialist Republic, renamed the Czech Republic in 1990. The Czech Republic became an independent state when Czechoslovakia was dissolved on Jan. 1, 1993.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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