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.
The short-lived 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 political process.
Nationalist 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 concentration camps.
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 coup d'état.
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.