Czech This Out
By Leanora Cole
Better known for its holiday destination of Prague – the capital city of the central European state – the Czech Republic is a cultural amalgamation of beautiful architecture, historic sites, stunning landscapes and rich heritage. There is, however, more to this land locked country than meets the eye: while it isn’t geographically large, its history is both eventful and completely intertwined with that of its neighbouring countries. It is a fountain of innovation for many things one might not even begin to imagine as Czech, and a country saturated in the art of our times.
No, you aren’t imagining things: the Czech Republic was initially known as Czechoslovakia. It was only after the early 1990s that the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated, but not yet in the manner that we know today.
After World War One, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires crumbled and the independent republic of Czechoslovakia was created, amongst other emerging nation-states. The young Czechoslovakia incorporated the Bohemian Crown (Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) and parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (Slovakia and the Carpathian Ruthenia). Czechs made up half of this initial population with its own ideology and values from a long line of Czech life, with Slovaks came in at fifteen percent using a very similar language to the Czechs. This helped them get along, but with the Slovaks never having their own country, and the rest of the population a mix of German, Hungarian, Polish and so on, there were difficulties drawing new boundaries to realign the polyglot empire.
Relatively speaking, The First Czechoslovak Republic didn’t inherit a large number of the former Austria-Hungary population. It did, however, take almost eighty percent of the industry, allowing it to compete with Western industrial states at a similar level. It was a unitary state in a time where this was uncommon, meaning it was a “state governed as a single power in which the central government is ultimately supreme and any subnational units exercise only the powers that the central government chooses to delegate”. However, it provided (during that period) extensive rights to minorities and remained the only democracy in this area of Europe during the interwar period. Unfortunately, the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the surviving state, resulting in high unemployment. Coupled with a bombardment of propaganda from Nazi Germany, ethnic Germans experienced much discontent, and were in full agreement to demand a break from The First Czechoslovak Republic. With Hitler in charge of Germany, Czechoslovakia was annexed, and World War Two followed closely behind. Ultimately, this ended with Czechoslovakia being conquered by the Soviet Union and being put under a communist government. This period was characterized by the state suddenly lagging behind the West in both social and economic aspects, a stark change from its initial position as the Communist government seized the means of production, establishing a command economy that stagnated faster than planned. All this was brewing for far too long, and that all that contained pressure culminated in what is known today at the Velvet Revolution.
The Velvet Revolution
Coined by Rita Klímová, a dissident English translator to eventually became the ambassador to the United States, the Velvet Revolution (also known as the Gentle Revolution by the Slovaks) was a term used both internationally and internally to describe the peaceful nature of the upheaval.
At the end of the 1980s, with protests across Eastern Europe getting more intense by the day and the impossibility of matching the military resources of the west, the urgent need for reforms came to a head. The Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev did what needed to been done with sudden swiftness: he ended the Cold War and removed the threat of Soviet-led military repercussions against former communist entities, leading to liberal democracy. This wasn’t to be the end though, and the Velvet Divorce followed – with the Slovak national aspirations strengthening as it drifted away from the Czech national ideology, the state’s existence came into question. With the peril of communism gone, the newly democratic state found that the differences between them were too large to solve, be it in terms of local federalist governments or the growth rates of the twin economies. The varying views on employed policies therefore meant that it was simply easier to negotiate a split into the independent Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
Currently, the Czech Republic, also known as Czechia, is exceedingly varied but can be separated into regions. Bohemia is in the West and is surrounded by mostly low mountains, while Moravia is in the East of the country is more hilly. According to locals, the best way to classify the diverse regions would be through temperament: the former province is more reserved and appreciates the pure rustic aesthetic of beer, while the latter is extremely friendly and more partial to the wine as they are more rural and their climate supports the thriving vineyards. Moravia also has its own specific dialect, and considers itself a sovereign nation that has yet to gain political recognition.
More importantly, the Czech Republic has the highest standard of living of any former Soviet Bloc country. They possess a well-developed, high-income economy that has a current per capita GDP that is on par with Western European countries like Portugal. At eighty seven percent of the European Union average, they are the most prosperous of the post-Communist states, seeing an upward trend in growth notwithstanding the global economic crisis.
A substantial amount of the state’s income comes from tourism, with Prague being the fifth most visited city in Europe. One reason for this is the fact that Czech has an amazing array of attractions and is known for its natural wonders, architectural monuments and UNESCO sites.
Ranking as the twenty-seventh most environmentally country in the world on the Environmental Performance Index, the Czech Republic has four national parks and 25 protected landscape areas. Not only are they perfect for visiting or for a bit of exercise, but they also act as organic borders to the different provinces and provide an array of seasonal conditions. Waterfalls, rock formations, quaint villages and breathtaking views are some things to expect, but nothing can compare to the majesty of experiencing these UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Forests first hand. Furthermore, the Czech Republic is the castle capital of the world, more notably known for Prague Castle or Pražsky hrad, the largest castle in the world sprawling over 7 hectares. Česky Krumlov Castle is another, with most of what still stands today being a UNSCO World Heritage Site. With armies from all sides coming through, it’s no wonder this country has the densest population of castles in the world, the number of which contributes to a stunning list of outstanding buildings beautifully maintained and celebrated as part of thriving folk traditions and a strong sense of national heritage that is preserved and passed down to each generation.
Czechs are proud of many things, but one thing they are not only proud of, but will vehemently fight over is the fact that that it was their country where modern beer or pivo was invented, and that they are the number one beer drinking capital in the world, surprisingly surpassing the Germans. The original Budweiser can be found in the Czech Republic, and the Czech city of Pilsen is in fact home of pilsner. There are several beer festivals held annually.
However, one thing Czechs love more than cold pint of beer would be a mushroom. Hunting for edible species is such a bonding activity that families dedicate whole weekends to it, and host festivals during picking season to celebrate the art of foraging and then enjoying the fruits of their labour. This hobby is so popular it even has its own saying, “všechny houby jsou jedlé, ale některé jenom jednou.” Translated, that “every mushroom is edible, but some only once.”
Speaking of death, another piece of trivia: Czechia invented defenestration, which is the act of throwing someone out the window, or the act of removing someone from a position of power. This is amusing because in the case of Prague, defenestration meant both at the same time: the two main incidents that created this word involved members of authority being thrown out of windows due to dissatisfaction.
The rise, fall and subsequent formation of the Czech Republic serves as evidence that states are capable of dividing peacefully and without bloodshed or warfare. Bringing stability allows the sidestepping of legal and political wrangling for the sake of building each other up, instead of contributing to cultural tensions. This is especially important now with the world in the state that it is in, and the Czech Republic, to a certain extent, shines as a foundational solution to many territorial disputes.