Prague History in the 20th Century
This page represents a concise history of the 20th Century from the formation of the country in 1918. To read a more detailed account of this century and it’s major events relating to Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, click on a link below.
World War One – End of Empire | The First Republic | World War Two | Liberation – Post War Changes | Socialisation – Communism Takes Hold | The Prague Spring | The Velvet Revolution | Czech Republic Today
October 28th 1918
Following the defeat of Germany and Austria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolves into several nation states. Bohemia, Moravia and the ethnic Slovak speaking part of Hungary form an alliance. The newly formed Czechoslovakia finally becomes an independent republic in October 1918. Tomas Garrigue Masaryk becomes its first president.
Czechoslovakia develops into ‘Europe’s Second Switzerland’ and is called the period of the First Republic, with one of the strongest economies. In 1922, greater Prague with 10 districts is founded.
September 29th – October 4th 1938
Munich Agreement. Britain and France agree to Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia has to fight alone or cede it’s German speaking territories to Germany.
March 15th 1939
The Wehrmacht invades and turns the Czech Sudetenlands (part of Bohemia) and Moravia into a protectorate, while Slovakia becomes an independent fascist state.
May 26th 1942
Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, responsible for the Czech protectorate, is assassinated and brutal repression follows. The village of Lidice 9 km west of Prague is annihilated as is the village of Lezky, 100km east of Prague.
May 5th 1945
The Prague uprising begins. 1700 civilians die in four days of fierce fighting as the Czechs fight the Nazis for the city. Prague is finally liberated by the Soviets. The country is ruled by President Benes, who was President prior to the war. The Communist Party, the single biggest party in parliament in the 1946 election, is in the government coalition and wields considerable power.
With political support falling the Communists send worker militias onto the streets and the police to occupy party headquarters and offices. A general strike brings the country to a halt, 10 ministers in the President Benes government step down apparently thinking that new elections will be called. They are not. The ministers are replaced to make way for the first “all communist government”. Benes is presented with the May constitution which he refuses to sign and is forced to resign. The country will remain under the Soviet sphere of influence until 1989.
Communist Party chairman Alexander Dubcek comes to power in January 1968. He makes efforts to establish “Socialism with a human face”. This includes releasing political prisoners and relaxing press censorship. His liberal ideals are brutally repressed during the invasion by Warsaw pact troops on the night of August 20 1968. Dubcek is effectively kidnapped and taken to Moscow. He is later “retired” to the Slovakian Forestry Commission. In protest at the invasion, On January 16th 1969, 21 year old philosophy student Jan Palach sets himself alight on the steps of the National Museum, dying three days later.
1968 – 1989
The forcible suppression of the Prague Spring movement is followed by the period of “Normalisation” under the Communist Party Chairman Gustav Husak. After the re-establishment of the socialist regime, the country becomes one of the most conservative and anti-semitic members of the Eastern Bloc.
1989 – Velvet Revolution
November 17th 1989. The Berlin wall celebrations had taken place only 8 days before when police in Prague brutally repress a student demonstration around the National Theatre commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Nazi’s closing the universities. News spread through the city that a student had been killed. Although it was later found to be untrue, it was enough to bring 200,000 people out on to Wenceslas Square two days later. On November 20th there were an estimated half a million people in the square. Among the speakers was a playwright called Vaclav Havel. By this stage the government had lost control of the media, if people couldn’t get to the square they watched the events on television. At the demonstration whole families stand in the cold and jangled their keys – a sign to say that it was time the communists left. On November 22nd the General Secretary of the Communist Party resigns. On November 25th the crowd in Wenceslas Square swells to 750,000. They listen to speeches from Vaclav Havel and Dubcek and the acting communist Prime Minister Adamec, who promises free elections and a multi party system. Adamec also fires party apparatchiks and admitted that the 1968 invasion had been a mistake. But it was all too late. By December 27th a coalition of all the opposition groups, called Civic Forum and strongly reformist communists had taken power. Not a single life was lost so, it is dubbed the Velvet Revolution. For a more detailed account of this event click on the Prague Spring page.
The first post-communist elections are won by Civic Forum coalition which gains the majority in parliament. Vaclav Havel is elected head of state of the CSFR (Czechoslovak Federal Republic). Over the next eighteen months the country gets used to democracy but, the Civic Forum proves to be inadequate to the task of accommodating all the wide range of political opinion so it splinters and new political parties emerge. The right of centre Civil Democrat party, ODS, quickly becomes the leading party.
May – elections are won by ODS run by the well-known economist Vaclav Klaus who is subsequently elected prime minister. Klaus follows a policy he calls Czech Thatcherism or Communism in Reverse.
Klaus was obsessed with privatisation. This is how it worked. The government issued a book of vouchers and every citizen had the right to buy a book of them for 1,000Kc (less than average weekly pay at the time). They could then use these vouchers to purchase shares in formerly state controlled businesses by way of a public auction. At first the scheme looked like being a flop. But then someone called Viktor Kozen came on the scene. From his investment fund he promised double digit returns to anyone who would sign their vouchers over to his firm. It seemed to good to be true – it was – but suddenly 8 million Czechs wanted the vouchers. Those that could get the vouchers for shares in good firms made a lot of money. But many more either failed to get their allocation of vouchers or gained them in companies that no one wanted to buy into.
Left wing authoritarian politician Vladimir Meciar becomes prime minister of Slovakia. Havel asks Klaus to form a new federal government with Meciar, instead the two men insist that the countries have to split. Havel resigns in protest and for six months there is no president. On December 31st 1992 – the so called “Velvet Divorce”, whereby Czechoslovakia splits up into the two independent states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
1994 – 1996
This was the golden time in Czech politics with everyone talking about the “Czech economic miracle”. Unemployment was just 3.5% compared to 12.1% in Hungary, inflation only 8.8% (compared to 23.6 % in Hungary). Unfortunately it would not last.
In May-June (which was when I arrived to work here) the centre right coalition of ODS fails by one seat to gain an absolute majority. Klaus is forced to negotiate a deal with the Social Democratic Chairman Milos Zeman. In return for becoming chairman of the Parliament Zeman agrees not to vote against Klaus’ government. It is an uneasy and unpopular alliance. Cracks began to appear in the Czech economic miracle of the mid 90s. Twelve banks fail due to incompetence or outright fraud. The loss is estimated at the equivalent of one month’s pay for every citizen of the Republic. In addition a new Czech word is added to the world’s dictionary. Tunneling is a process where one company gains control of another and strips out all its assets so that when the creditors try to get their money back they find nothing left but a shell.
April 16th, the Czech economy officially goes into recession and Klaus is forced to impose an austerity budget. It hurts – but worse than that it does not work. Despite repeated promises that the crown will not be devalued, on May 26 the central bank surrenders to speculators pressure and lets the Czech Korun float. It falls 10% overnight. On June 10th 1997, faced with growing calls to resign, Klaus wins a no confidence vote by one vote. In June 1997, central and eastern parts of the country suffer from devastating floods. 47 people die, 40,000 people are evacuated and 18,000 homes destroyed or damaged. Total damage is estimated at three billion dollars. July 16th the Klaus government promises 150,000Kc to every family affected, and in order to finance the package the government issues flood bonds. On November 30th 1997 – Vaclav Klaus, already accused of fraud and wrongdoing, resigns. This is followed by the resignation of the whole government. One accusation involves a donation of 7.5 million Kc from two men, one of whom has been dead for several years. Klaus has been in power longer than any other government leader in the former Communist states.
January 2nd and for two months the country is governmentless but, running surprisingly smoothly. Then in early 1998 President Vaclav Havel asks the former head of the Czech National Bank, Josef Tosovsk, to form a caretaker government of experts. January 20th and Havel is elected president for a second term. But for the first time opinion polls report he is not the most popular politician in the Republic. March – the country begins talks on joining the EU and The Czech Ice Hockey team win the Gold Medal in the Nagano olympic games having defeated Russia in the final. 250,000 people watch the match in the Old Town Square. On June 28th at general elections, the Social Democrats (CSSD) win 32% of votes, beating the ODS who secure 27%.
March – the Czech Republic joins NATO. The government starts work on preparing itself for joining the EU. But one of the major hurdles is the commissioning of the Temelin nuclear power plant near the Austrian border. In August there are growing international tensions over the Czech Republic’s ethnic minority Roma population who are reportedly leaving en-masse for the UK and Canada amid allegations of racial abuse in the Republic.
May 14th and the country enjoys an economic upturn while national pride is boosted by a 5-3 win over the Slovaks to clinch the World Ice Hockey Championship title. August – the country’s third largest bank IPB collapses. Riot police storm the headquarters, the bank is hastily sold to the recently privatised Ceskoslovenska Obchodni Banka (CSOB). September 25th sees running street battles in Prague at the meeting of the IMF and World Bank but, despite the violence and damage, most agree that the demonstrations were not as bad as had been feared. October 11th and despite Austrian blockades and demonstrations the Czech government starts up the nuclear power plant at Temelin. Czech TV personnel go on strike causing nationwide TV problems after a management change.