Czech people face adversity throughout history

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Prague Castle

By Henry Srebrnik (commentary)

The Czechs may have the saddest history of any European people. At many times, they have been thwarted in their desire for freedom and independence.

The years 1415, 1620, 1938, and 1968, in particular, were disastrous.

The historic lands of Bohemia and Moravia in central Europe have been home to the Czech people since the Middle Ages and an independent Bohemian kingdom existed from the ninth century until 1306, when it became a component, but distinct, kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire.

A full century before Martin Luther inaugurated the Protestant Reformation, a Czech theologian, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake for heresy, setting off decades of warfare. Following his execution in 1415, the Hussite movement continued to advance the Czech cause.

The Protestant Reformation gained support in the 16th century; soon some 90 per cent of the Czech population had become Protestant. But in 1620, two years after the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe, the Protestant Czech landowners were defeated by the Imperial Habsburg armies at the Battle of the White Mountain, and Bohemia lost its autonomy.

Now part of the Habsburg Empire, the country for the next three centuries would be ruled from Vienna. Czechs were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave Bohemia and Moravia. Many of the cities became culturally and ethnically German.

Perhaps this is why the Czechs, unlike their Catholic Slavic neighbours in Poland and Slovakia, have worn their religion lightly and have not fused it with their national identity.

Following the defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the First World War, a new state, Czechoslovakia, a union of the Czech and Slovak peoples, emerged. However, it also contained the Sudetenland, with its three million Germans, almost one-quarter of the country’s population, and this would lead to disaster two decades later.

At the infamous Munich meetings held in September 1938 between Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and Edouard Daladier of France, the Sudetenland was handed over to Nazi Germany, leaving Czechoslovakia virtually defenceless.

Hungary and Poland also bit off small chunks of the country. (My father was part of the Polish army that occupied the Zaolzie region of Cieszyn Silesia.)

In March 1939 Hitler completed the destruction of the country. Slovakia became a separate puppet state, while the Czech lands were incorporated into Nazi Germany, as the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.”

The Nazi occupation lasted for most of the war; Prague was not freed until May 8, 1945.After the German defeat the Czechoslovak state was reconstituted and its German inhabitants, now considered “fifth columnists,” were expelled. Three years later, though, the country fell under Soviet domination.

In the 1960s the tight grip of the Communist apparatchiks began to loosen. In January 1968 a reformer, Alexander Dubcek, became the country’s leader. A program adopted in April 1968 set guidelines for a modern, humanistic socialist democracy that would guarantee freedom of religion, press, assembly, and speech, as well as abundant consumer goods. It would be “socialism with a human face.”

But in August 1968 Warsaw Pact troops snuffed out Dubcek’s attempt to liberalize Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev claimed that the country was falling into the hands of “western imperialists” and following Dubcek’s overthrow the Soviets installed a regime loyal to Moscow.

Those who could not be intimidated into collaborating were punished or marginalized. When I visited Czechoslovakia in July 1977, I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the country, Prague in particular, and the despondency and sadness of its inhabitants.

The heavy hand of Communist repression was evident everywhere — this was only nine years following the dashed hopes of the “Prague spring.”

However, dissidents regrouped, led by human rights activists and intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel; they founded the group known as Charter 77, which in the 1980s became the Civic Forum, an umbrella group championing bureaucratic reform and civil liberties.

By the late 1980s Communism was a discredited ideology throughout eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, the “velvet revolution” of November-December1989 – a very secular affair – would be followed by the “velvet divorce” of January 1993, which split the country into Czech and Slovak states. Following the collapse of the Communist regime, Havel had become president of the country.

Today’s Czech Republic is a homogenous, liberal multi-party parliamentary democracy, and a member of both the European Union and NATO. The current president is Milos Zeman, of the Party of Civic Rights. The prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka of the Czech Social Democratic Party, heads a three-party coalition government. The Czechs, it seems, have finally overcome their sad history.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: Imperial Habsburg, Habsburg Empire, Polish army Warsaw Pact Charter 77 Civic Forum European Union NATO Party of Civic Rights Czech Social Democratic Party University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Czech Republic, Bohemia, Moravia Europe Germany Poland Slovakia Prague White Mountain Vienna Munich Italy France Hungary Cieszyn

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