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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 a few books about Prague, and I have listened to old men tell their stories. I have read building plaques and visited museums. Unfortunately, as with all memories, I do not remember every conversation or exact dates, but I am certain 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 885AD. They were part of a fort located at the highest point in Prague. Below, in the valley by the river, were houses and a market—baby Prague.

Before that, way before that, mammoths grazed Prague. Of course, they are all long gone, 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. There were battles as kings and princes fought over patches of land; castles were built and then they were destroyed. Homes were built by one generation and then destroyed by the next. Men were killed, women raped, and children sold as slaves—the usual 1000AD kind of stuff.

Baby Prague expanded by beating and killing its neighbors until they surrendered their cows and tomatoes. As in hundreds of other hill and valley cities around the world, humans killed, abused, and loved each other all on the same day. These days rolled one onto the next with not much happening.

Suddenly, though, 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 were 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 city.

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 at the same time. Charles decided to settle in Prague. When he did, 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 spend his days laughing at the jester. He was a scholar. To quench his thirst for knowledge, he built the first university in Europe. To please the all-seeing man in the sky, he built the Gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral, which has become a great place for group photos. And finally, after a flood toppled the rickety Judith Bridge, Charles commissioned the sturdy Charles Bridge.

The city became the Golden City thanks to Charles.

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 suffers a black eye. In Prague, the party ended when Charles was too old to wake up. After the somber parade, Charles’s son Wenceslaus IV settled down on his father’s throne. If he assumed it would all run on cruise control, it must have disappointed 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 pitchforks.

In the 1300s, in Prague and most of the Bohemian empire, the Catholic Church was booming. Times were good. Profits gathered from indulgences kept meeting and beating expectations. Every young go-getter’s dream was to hitch his wagon to the Catholic gravy train.

But Jan Has was an oddball. He had it in his head that the Church was cheating the people by collecting indulgences.

A rich noble kills his mother and kicks the family dog. Obviously, the ‘Man Upstairs’ does not approve of such behavior, so the rich noble slaps a few bills in a priest’s 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 sit, stew, and complain to his bar buddies—he started a revolution. He believed that people did not need the Church to abolish their bad behavior. People could save themselves. Grab a Bible, look up to the sky, and make your wish—no church required. This is the same message Martin Luther, with the help of the printing press, made famous a hundred years later.

Not surprisingly, 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 before the sugar dissolved, they burned him at the stake. This started the Hussite Wars, which lasted for over 20 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 at Wittenberg did the would-be Protestants start up the fight again.

In 1526, the Hapsburg family took over the place. The Hapsburgs were a cultured and business-orientated family who brought science and commerce to the city. It was a 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 went to hang out in Prague.

The good times lasted for one hundred years.

The hundred good years were quickly followed by a string of bad years. It was a reckoning for all that goodness. Of Prague’s total population, 60 percent was lost in the Thirty Years War. A hellish fire erupted that 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 a Nightmare That Was

At the beginning of the 20th century, things were looking pretty good for Prague. True, it was no longer the central hub of Europe—Vienna had that honor—but it did have a rich economy thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was not tyrannical. It held Prague on a long leash and left it free to move this way and that. Prague used the freedom to move up. It grew, expanded, and made its people prosperous and comfortable. A citizen in Prague in the year 1900 felt he had it all and the future could 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 the Prague castle just like Charles IV did so many years before.

World War II was not positive for Czechoslovakia. The Czech people lost their country even before the war started. Hitler just walked down from Germany and took it, and nobody did anything about it. For the entire war Prague was draped with German tapestries.

A proud moment during the war was when a group of Czechs assassinated a powerful German, Reinhard Heydrich. The drawback to this success was Hitler’s retribution: he completely obliterated a Czech village from the face of the earth. All the villagers were shot and every building 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 the Germans were forcefully asked to leave. 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 going to be 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. For citizens, it meant that putting fresh bread on the table depended on knowing the right people who could pull the right strings.

In 1989, when the USSR’s grip loosened, the Czech people decided they had had enough of the misery. It started with a group of university students but ended with thousands of men, women, and children gathered at Wenceslas Square, demanding the Communists step down.

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 relatively well.

Did I bring you pleasure? :)

I hope you find this website helpful. I created the website because I love Prague, I enjoy writing about it, and I get a weird kick out of helping you make your trip to Prague more enjoyable.

I wrote a book about local travel in Prague. The book is my pride, my joy, my unbiological offspring. It was written with a passionate heart. If you find this website helpful consider getting my book full of useful tips that will instil in you the confidence to wander the local streets of Prague. The book is included in the popular (proud to say over 1000 sold) Prague Local Explore Kit.

Thank you,
Roman : Prague 2023

Prague Local Travel Kit