The roots of modern Prague are in its thousand-year history as the capital of the Czech state and as one of Europe’s oldest metropolises. Human settlements have existed here since prehistoric times. Prague castle was used as it still is today as the seat of government between the years 880 and 890 AD by the first historical Czech duke, Bořivoj I of the Přemyslov family. In the first half of the 10th century a second ducal residence was created – Vyšehrad, and in the areas below both fortresses, there sprang up lively international markets and urban merchant and tradesman settlements.
In the 13th century, the residents of the formerly legally fragmented settlements below Prague Castle joined to form cities, and they built ramparts to fortify the Greater Town (Old Town) of Prague (ca. 1230). In 1257 King Přemysl Otakar II founded and fortified the New Town on the left bank of the Vltava (since the 14th century known as the Lesser Town or Lesser Side). The blossoming of this medieval conglomerate of cities reached its pinnacle during the reign of Emperor and King Charles IV (1346-1378). Charles founded a university in Prague, the first north of the Alps (1348), generously laid out and founded the New Town of Prague (1348), increased the sized of Prague Castle and of the Lesser Town and had dozens of church and secular buildings erected. Prague grew into a magnificent Gothic metropolis, one of Europe’s largest at that time, where ca. 40,000 inhabits lived in an area of 8 km2.
Serious social conflicts led to a reform movement in Czech cities. After the leader of the movement, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake (1415), the movement developed into a revolution (1419-1434). Right from the beginning, Hussite Prague took power away from the royal officials, the German patricians and the Roman Catholic Church, fended off the crusades of King Sigismund and for a time became the decisive powerbroker in the state. The Prague bourgeoisie held a privileged political standing at the forefront of the city’s politics even after the Hussite period. Its dominant position was not shaken until the ascent of the Habsburg dynasty to the Czech throne (1526), and the far-reaching limitation of the rights of Czech royal cities by Ferdinand I after the unsuccessful uprising of the estates in 1547.
In spite of the loss of political influence, in the second half of the sixteenth century Prague underwent a period of intensive renaissance reconstruction, and in the years from 1583 to 1612 it became the seat of the art-loving Emperor Rudolf II, whose court was a gathering place for artists and scholars from all over Europe. With 60,000 inhabitants, Prague was again among Europe’s biggest cities. The defeat of the second uprising of the estates against the Habsburgs at the Battle of White Mountain (1620) led once again to harsh punishment for the City of Prague, exile of non-Catholics, pillaging and casualties. The removal of the imperial court to Vienna gradually reduced Prague from the capital of the state to a mere regional center. The city nonetheless maintained its economic and cultural importance. The construction of aristocrats’ palaces continued and especially of monasteries and churches of the renewed Catholic church. This was the time when Prague acquired its architecturally original, stylistically unusually unified appearance – the so-called Prague Baroque style.
By edict of Emperor Joseph II on 12 February 1784, Prague’s four still independent cities – Old Town, New Town, Lesser Town and Prague Castle – were joined as a single entity, the City of Prague. As a result of the industrial revolution, large industrial suburbs sprang up around the city’s baroque fortifications (Karlín, Smíchov, Holešovice, Libeň etc.). Prague became the biggest manufacturing and transportation center in the country. During the 19th century it transformed itself into a modern city. It was a flash point of the patriotic national liberation movement. After the revolution of 1848, that movement overcame the post-White Mountain decline of the Czech language and of national consciousness. A negative consequence of that modernization was the insensitive renovation of the inner city, leading to the sacrificing after 1893 of a large portion of the Old Town and almost all of the New Town and the Jewish Quarter. The cultural loss was only partially compensated for by the new, attractive buildings in the styles of the Czech renaissance, Art Nouveau and cubism.
On 28 October 1918, Prague became the capital of the independent Republic of Czechoslovakia. On 1 January 1922, 37 adjacent towns and villages were annexed to Prague, creating greater Prague, with an area of 171.64 km2 and a population of 676,657. After overcoming the post-war crisis and social unrest, in the years 1922-1938 the city went through another period of dynamic development, resulting in population growth bordering on one million (1938), and especially to the building of many urban architectural and cultural in the spirit of modernism, functionalism and the avant-garde artistic currents of the 1920s and ’30s. Prague became a haven for emigrants from countries where totalitarian and fascist regimes had taken power, and despite the growing threat of nationalism and fascism, the country maintained its democratic sovereignty until early 1939, with the participation of all political currents ranging from the right to the Communists.
When Nazi troops occupied the city on 15 March 1939, Prague, with a 95% Czech population, was declared by representatives of the occupying administration to be an “old German city” where Czechs were to be tolerated only temporarily. Prague showed its true face by the massive demonstrations of the public against the occupying forces on 28 October 1939. Arrests and executions followed the closing of Czech universities on 17 November 1939 and there was bloody terror after the assassination of the Reich’s Protector R. Heydrich (27 May 1942). The antifascist resistance by Prague citizens climaxed with a revolt from 5 to 9 May 1945, ending with the liberation of the city and the arrival of the Red Army.
Postwar political developments led to the seizure of power by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. After the bloodless Prague coup from 20 to 25 February 1948, instead of the proclaimed Czechoslovak road to socialism, the Communists instead created a non-democratic totalitarian regime characterized by despotic a police state and judicial crimes. An attempt to end totalitarianism was the Prague Spring of 1968, but that was forcefully ended by the invasion of occupying troops from five Warsaw Pact countries on 21 August 1968. The imposition of so-called normalization suppressed the incipient renewal of democracy and freedom for Prague citizens, and further deepened the stagnation in the economy and all areas of public and cultural life.
The end of forty years of Communist totalitarianism came with the Velvet Revolution, which began as a student demonstration in Prague on 17 November 1989. The renewal of a pluralistic democratic system, wide-scale restitution of property and privatization of businesses and services changed and greatly revitalized the city, which again found its own dynamism. It became a cultural and tourism center of Europe-wide importance and the site of the most important political talks. The Prague Historical Zone was entered into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992. With the arrival of the 21st century, in spite of problems that still remain to be resolved, the capital of the Czech Republic has regained in a dignified manner its historical role as the head of the Czech state and as one of the important metropolises and spiritual crossroads of Europe.
Official city Pageswww.praha.eu
Prague virtual tourwww.virtualtravel.cz