Prague History: A Story Of Bad Times And Good Times
I am not a professor of history. I did not spend years in the library reading dusty books. I have never entered the catacombs under the city in search of artifacts.
But I have read books about Prague, I have listened to old men tell their stories. I have read building plaques and visited museums. Unfortunately, as with my childhood memories, I do not remember every conversation or exact dates but I am aware of the basic plot.
Here is the story of Prague told by someone who lives in the city and experiences its history every day.
No More Mammoths, Prague is Born
Under the Prague castle there are bricks that date back to around 885AD. They were probably part of a fort or lookout because they are located at the highest point in Prague. Around this time, below in the valley by the river were probably houses and a market - baby Prague.
Before that, way before that, mammoths grazed this land. Of course they are long gone, probably hunted down by the meat-loving ancestors of modern meat-loving Czechs.
Visit the National Museum if you want to see a full-sized replica of the beast.
Charles IV Builds a Bridge And Paints The Town Gold
Not much happened between the founding of Prague around 900AD and 1350AD. Certainly there were battles, Kings and princes fought over land, sheep were traded. Homes were built by one generation and then destroyed by the next. There were invasions from neighboring towns, men were killed, women were raped and children were taken as slaves - the usual 1000AD kind of stuff.
Little Prague expanded by beating and killing it neighbors until they surrendered their cows and tomatoes. Like thousands of other hill and valley cities around the world humans killed, abused and loved each other. One day rolled onto the next with nothing really new or exciting happening.
Then all of a sudden everything changed when Charles IV took over. What Steve Jobs did for Apple Charles did for Prague.
Just before Charles arrived Prague managed to build itself into a cute little city. There was a looming castle on the hill and a bustling town square in the valley below. The newly built Judith Bridge over the river connected the Castle with the people.
Through, no doubt dubious and double-crossing tactics, Charles IV managed to become king of Bohemia. This by itself was no small feat, but the feather in his cap was that he managed to become the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as well. Charles decided to settle in Prague. Real estate prices shot up and the humble little city became the third largest in Europe.
Charles worked hard for his crown. He did not just sit up in the castles and laugh at his jester. He was a scholar. To quench his thirst for knowledge he built the first university in Europe. To please the all-seeing eye in the sky he built the Gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral which has become great place for group photos. And finally after a flood that toppled the rickety Judith Bridge, Charles, not wanting that embarrassment to happen again commissioned the sturdy Charles Bridge.
What a great man. He is remembered as the man that forever knotted the word Golden with Prague.
Jan Hus burns at the Stake, 20 Years of War, and More Good Times
All parties must come to an end. Usually it is when the beer runs out or somebody gets a black eye. In Prague the party ended when Charles was too old to wake up. After the somber parade ended and the people’s tears dried up Charle's son Wenceslaus IV sat on his fathers throne. If he thought he was simply going to let things run on cruise control, it must have been a disappointment to him when Jan Hus started preaching.
Today you can see a statue of Jan Hus in the center of Old Town Square. He is standing proud and tall. Behind him are his followers - mostly peasants with their pitchforks.
In Prague and throughout most of the Bohemian empire the Catholic Church was booming. Times were good. Profits from indulgences kept meeting and beating expectations. Every young go-getter's dream was to hitch their wagon onto the Catholic gravy train.
Jan Has was an odd ball. He had it in his head that the Church was cheating the people. What really peeved him was the practice of collecting indulgences.
A rich noble kills his mother and kicks the family dog. Obviously the 'Man Upstairs' does not approve of such behaviour. So the rich noble slaps a few bills in a priest’s open palm, mumbles a Hail Mary, and ta-da, the sin is gone. During two-for-Tuesdays you could sin twice for the price of one.
Hus didn’t just sit, stew and complain to his bar buddies - he started a revolution. He believed that people did not need the church to be abolish of their bad behaviour. People can save themselves. Grab a bible, look up to the sky and make your wish - no church required. This is the same message that Martin Luther, with the help of the printing press, made famous a hundred years later.
The church did not react kindly to Hus’s message and his band of rowdy brothers. They asked him to come for a pleasant sit-down and discuss the matter. He arrived for tea but even before the sugar had a chance to dissolve they burned him at the stake. This started the Hussite Wars which lasted for over twenty years.
The result of the long war was nothing. Catholics won and the indulgence business was booming again. Not until Martin Luther stabbed his knife into the church door in Wittenberg did the would-be Protestants fight again.
In 1526 the Hapsburg family took over. The Hapsburgs were a cultured and business orientated family who brought science and commerce to the city. It was prosperous time - Prague became the place to be. If you wanted to be a 'somebody' you had to be seen mingling in the high society of Prague. Astronomers, painters and poets started to hang out in Prague.
The good times lasted a one hundred years, followed by a host of bad things. It was a reckoning for all that goodness. Sixty percent of Prague’s population was lost in the Thirty Years War. Then a hellish fire erupted which destroyed most of Prague. And finally with the citizens battered, bruised and burnt, the Plague arrived and put 13,000 out of their misery.
The 20th Century - What I Nightmare That Was
At the beginning of the 20th century things were looking pretty good for Prague. It was no longer the central hub of Europe, Vienna had that honor, but it did have a rich economy as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was not tyrannical. It held Prague on a long leash and left it free to go this way and that. Prague used that freedom to move up. It grew, expanded and made its people prosperous and comfortable. A citizen in Prague in the year 1900 thought that he had it all and the future can only get better.
World War I was not positive for a lot of people on the European continent. But it was good for the Czech people. Because Austria was on the team that lost, it was not allowed to keep its empire after the war. As a result Czechoslovakia was born - a nice little country with Prague as its capital. The first president, Tomáš Masaryk, sat proudly in Prague castles just like Charles IV did so many years before.
World War II was not positive for any country in Europe. Czech people lost their country before the war even started. Hitler just walked down from Germany and took it - nobody did anything about it. For the entire war Prague was draped with German tapestries.
A memorable moment during the war was when a group of Czechs assassinated a powerful German, Reinhard Heydrich. The drawback of this success was Hitler's retribution by completely removing a Czech village from the face of the earth. The villagers were shot and every building was bulldozed - nothing remains but an empty field.
But finally after many trials, struggles and horrors World War II ended. German decorations were taken down and Germans were kicked out. Prague was the capital of Czechoslovakia once again.
The celebratory cold cuts were still fresh when the Russians decided that it was their turn to decorate the city. Prague's new color scheme was red. The dark cloud of Communism loomed above as Prague became the stage to a puppet show that lasted for over 40 years. The once rich and beautiful city turned to a decaying and economically dead city. To put fresh bread on the table was a matter of knowing the right people to tug the right strings.
In 1989, Czech people decided they had enough of the misery. It started with a group of university students but ended with thousands of men, women and children gathering at Wasclavas Square demanding the Russians leave.
The Russians left and they took communism with them. Prague castle became the seat of a democratically elected president of a free market economy.
The 21st Century
So far things are going well.
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