Monday, March 25, 2013

Czechoslovakia: A Brief History Lesson

No one is completely clear on the origins of the Czech people, but they were a tribal group that settled in central Europe about 500 ad.  They had an association with the Boii tribe, after which the area of Bohemia takes its name, and they were closely related to the Slavic people who settled in the same area about the same time.  They were associated with the Great Moravian Empire of the 800’s and then with the Bohemian Empire that followed in the 900’s.  Bohemia grew to be quite large and was a self-governing state of the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.  Prague was the empire’s leading city.  Many German craftspeople and merchants moved into the Bohemian towns. 

In the 1500’s the Austrian Hapsburgs took control of Bohemia and Hungary.  Bohemia remained semi-independent and many of the nobles embraced the new Protestant Christian religion.  In the 1600’s a group of Czech Protestant nobles revolted against the Catholic Hapsburg rule by electing a Protestant king. The Czech revolt touched off the Thirty Years War. The Czech nobles were defeated by the Hapsburgs and lost self-rule.  Their empire was divided into three provinces: Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia.  The Habsburgs forced the Czechs to adopt the German language and culture, and Catholicism became the state religion. 

In the 1700’s, under Austrian-German influence, Bohemia and Moravia began industrial development and many Czech peasants moved from their farms to the urban areas.  A differentiated society of industrial workers, middle class and intellectuals formed.  About the same time, many Czechs began to promote a rebirth of the Czech language and culture.  The growth of Czech national feeling led to significant cultural and political gains during the late 1800’s.  But, life in Bohemia and Moravia remained hard for the common man.  Most had small plots of land for subsistence farming.  News of possibilities in the “New World” was enticing.  My husband’s family migrated from Bohemia and Moravia to America during the 1865 – 1890 period.  We don’t know exactly what induced them to set out for America, but researchers have concluded that the primary motive for Czech immigration was economic improvement. 

It was many years after the ancestor’s flight to America that the nation of Czechoslovakia came into existence.  Following WWI in 1918, the Czechs and Slovaks were politically united as Czechoslovakia but the nation was quickly swept up by Hitler’s Germany.  Following WWII in 1948, Czechoslovakia was firmly placed in the Soviet orbit and experienced decades of communist control.  With the collapse of Soviet authority in 1989, Czechoslovakia regained its freedom and in 1993 the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  In our lifetime, freedom from communism has allowed American Czech descendants to return to the “homeland” to learn more of their heritage.

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