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State

Capital

Czech Republic

Praha

Fr Czechoslovakia Ceska Republika

Prague

Currency unit

Koruna

Connections

Borders

Central Europe

EU

Habsburgs

NATO

Slavs

 Slovakia

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History

Czechoslovakia was at the heart of central Europe. Bohemia and Moravia (the Czech lands) were part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire; Slovakia was ruled as part of the Hungarian kingdom within the Habsburg Empire.

The Czechs are a western Slav people who entered Europe in the migration of Slav peoples from the area of modern Ukraine. They were converted to the Roman faith as were the Poles and Slovenes and use a modified Roman alphabet. They formed the kingdom of Bohemia centered on Praha (Prague). An early king was the famous Vaclav (pr. Vaslaf) or Wenceslas. This became part of the Habsburg domains in 1526 following the collapse of the Protestant revolution there. This had been linked with England when John Hus its leader was influenced by the English John Wyclif. Later, in 1619 Frederick the Elector (archduke) of the Rhineland Palatinate became king of Bohemia. He was married to Elizabeth, the daughter of King James of England and Scotland, perhaps hoping for help from James. But he was defeated by the Catholic forces as the Thirty Years War began. From then Bohemia had no independence until 1919.

The Slovaks are a similar western Slav people who had never had their own state until the formation of Czechoslovakia. Until then their rulers had been Magyars and their land was part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

In 1918 with the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy the ancient kingdom of Bohemia was joined to Slovakia to create a democratic republic - the only democracy in eastern Europe in the inter-war period.

The Czechs are mostly Protestant and had been ruled by the Germans, while the Slovaks are mostly Catholic and had been ruled by the Hungarians.

From 1968 the country was a federation of the two, each of which had its own state. Until 1945 there was a large German minority - the Sudeten Germans -in Bohemia. They had been among the most enthusiastic of Nazis (it has been shown that the ideas of Nazism were first developed among the Sudeten Germans in the late 19th century. They had some similarities with the whites of Mississippi in their attitudes to non-Germans - Czechs and Jews.) They were expelled as a result of the second world war which they had helped provoke (perhaps this is an example of ethnic cleansing but President Havel has expressed his regret at this action, arguing courageously that the previous abuses of human rights by the Nazis did not justify another abuse).

Czechoslovakia was the first non-German conquest of Hitler. In 1938 he demanded that the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany because of its German-speaking population. But the area also contained the Czechs' main military defenses. The French and British agreed to allow the transfer, despite their alliance with Czechoslovakia. This was the "appeasement" of Neville Chamberlain, who may have believed that Hitler was stronger than he actually was, and that anyway Britain was not ready to fight yet. Documents published after the war show that Hitler would have backed down had he been resisted, as his army was not ready for war. The Czechs regard this handover as a dishonorable betrayal by Britain and France.

Hitler showed his real intentions when he invaded the rest of the country the following year. From 1939 until 1945 Bohemia was a German protectorate and Slovakia a puppet state under a Fascist government. Praha (Prague) had been one of the most important centers of Jewish culture and education. Almost all the Jews were sent to Auschwitz and few remain.

The Russians and Americans liberated the Czechs from the Germans but then the Russians helped install a Communist government in 1948 despite a promise (at the Potsdam Conference) to allow free elections. The Communists had been a large minority in the 1948 parliament but were given the key ministries of the Interior and Defense. From these they launched a coup which resulted in non-Communists being forbidden to organize. The non-Communist president Benes was killed when he was thrown out of the window of the Castle (one of the several "defenestrations" in Czech history). It was this action that inaugurated the Cold War as western leaders realized that Stalin had no intention of allowing free elections in the states occupied by the Red Army.

There followed a period of Stalinist rule - secret police, show trials and terror. This lasted until 1968 when a reforming Communist, Alexander Dubcek, came to power and tried to democratize Communism under the slogan "Socialism with a Human Face" (a forerunner of Perestroika and Glasnost). This was one of the most exciting events of 1968 as it made many people in both west and east believe that Communism could be reformed. His success brought in Russian tanks to restore a conventional Stalinist regime which lasted until 1989. This was one of the great tragedies of 1968.

From 1968 until 1989 the country was ruled by Gustav Husak who, although he had been an associate of Dubcek, was willing to accept Russian domination. He presided over a regime which prevented all free cultural activity and enforced total conformity on public expression. Writers and philosophers were locked up or forced to work in manual jobs. He followed orders from the Kremlin. In 1989 he was replaced briefly by Milos Jakes, a similar person (one of the Gray Men or Nomenklatura ).

In 1989 after the East German communist regime had begun to come to an end with the deposition of Erich Honecker, crowds of Czechs appeared on the streets of Praha and the government fell, to be replaced by a democratic regime. This is sometimes known as the "Velvet Revolution" because no-one was killed. (It has been suggested that the security services, perhaps instigated by the Soviet KGB, had plotted to change the Husak government for a liberal communist regime, but failed to find anyone to occupy the positions). The chief dissident, playwright Vaclav Havel was elected president by the still communist parliament and Husak resigned. Dubcek who had been forced to work as a forester was elected Speaker of the parliament (he died in November 1992).

Following elections in June 1992 there were discussions about breaking the federation. Some Slovaks wanted independence. There were also questions about the status of some minorities including Hungarians in Slovakia. In so far as the discussion took place in terms of 19th century nationalism it showed the dangers of trying to create states determined by linguistic identity - when there are many mixed areas (see Yugoslavia ). Both states were admitted to the EU in 2004. It joined the Schengen zone in January 2008.

Languages

Czech and Slovak are two western Slav languages, mutually intelligible.

Magyar (in Slovakia)

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Politics

During the Communist period the country had a Communist government largely controlled by the Soviet Union, backed up by Soviet forces stationed in the country. This was essentially a colonial regime.

On the collapse of the Soviet Bloc this system came to an end when huge demonstrations in the streets brought about a peaceful hand over of power to non-Communists.

The Czech Republic now has a non-communist system with governments whose policy was to move towards a market economy and membership of the European Union.

The Czech party Civic Forum split into two or more conventional parties: a right and a left wing party. Elections were called in 1992 and the country evolved towards normal democratic politics.

The first political problem after the end of Communism was that the people put in power during the communist system - the Nomenklatura - are still there. Some of them have become owners of the privatized businesses, others run the ministries. Former members of the secret police can be found in many positions. Is it possible to have a "normal" democracy when an unknown proportion of the population served willingly or unwillingly a dictatorship? Can people trust each other? The second problem was the desire of many Slovaks to form their own state.

It was agreed to split the state at the end of 1992, although opinion polls showed that a majority in both Slovakia and the Czech Lands did not want the split. This tends to discredit democracy as the politicians do not represent the real wishes of the people.

It has been suggested that the real cause is that Vaclav Klaus, the extreme free market Prime Minister of the Czech republic, preferred to dump the Slovaks who are reluctant to privatize their industry (because most of it would not survive). The Slovaks may well suffer without the Czechs. Klaus may have calculated that the Czechs will do better without them. This could turn out to be a dangerous calculation.

Does Klaus have dictatorial tendencies? Probably only in the Thatcher style. He was voted out in December 1997.

A Social Democrat government took office in July 1998.

Despite the state being admitted to the European Union, there are strongly Eurosceptic parties, at present in opposition but in alliance with the British Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament. They are also anti-homosexual.

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Economics

Czechoslovakia inherited much of the industry of the Habsburg Empire. It now has an economy created by the communists to the command system in imitation of the Soviet system. Its problem now is to convert to a market economy without social disturbance - unemployment and inflation.

Almost all industries showed signs of lack of investment in modern equipment, especially in energy saving, because the communist regime received cheap energy from the Soviet Union, whereas the new regime must now pay world prices.

Czechoslovakia supplied much of the Soviet Bloc and its overseas allies with weapons - including tanks (from Slovakia). The present government at first wanted to get out of this business but found it difficult to convert the factories and has kept them open. They also supplied streetcars and rail equipment to much of the Soviet bloc but the former Soviet states cannot find the dollars to pay for them. They used to pay with Soviet oil, in barter arrangements. The result is economic collapse in the former heavy industrial areas of a kind which has occurred, but more slowly, in northern England, Pennsylvania and many other parts of the world.

The process of privatization may be occurring too fast but so far has not resulted in unemployment.

The Czech government has been advised by the followers of Mrs. Thatcher whose enthusiasm is not tempered by the need to live with the results.

In the medium term future the Czech economy seems likely to become a branch of the German. As Germany is entering recession and is investing heavily in east Germany there may not be much left over for the Czechs. The split of the countries seems likely to make both units weak (but possibly the Czech prime minister hoped that the Czech republic would not be held back by Slovakian problems).

In 1994 unemployment was reported to be low, which suggests the policy hads been a success so far.

The revival of Russia as an energy exporter is a potential problem.

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Green/Ecology

There is very serious pollution of air, water and land in the districts of heavy industry from burning lignite producing large quantities of sulfur dioxide, and from other industries which have no pollution controls. This country shares the problem with Poland and former east Germany with huge areas of dying forests and poisoned soil and water.

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 Climate

Human Rights

Bad during the communist period; now in theory conforming to the democratic norm.

However, there are few police, badly paid and a great deal of crime. The former Secret Police are reported to have formed "private" security companies and behave like gangsters.

Roma (gypsies) are treated badly.

Climate effects

Increasing incidence of serious flooding from more rain in the summer.

Last revised 2/07/12


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