In the center of a changing Europe, the Czech Republic is a country with a fascinating history, culture and people. With the union of lands in the 10th century, the area of the Czech and Moravian Empire extended all the way to what is now Austria and later to Poland and Germany. Under Charles IV in the 14th century, the empire was transformed into an intellectual and economic crossroads of East and West with the development of Prague and the founding of Charles University. Despite losing political sovereignty in the 17th century to the Austrian Empire, the Czech lands continued to foster a diverse and rich intellectual climate, producing and nurturing such greats as Anton Dvorak, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gregor Mendel and Alfons Mucha.
In the 19th century, an era of peaceful Czech nationalism arose, the Czech National Revival. Its focus and results were mainly cultural and a tradition of distinctly Czech literature, music and art was established. The Czechs were able to withstand foreign domination and keep their culture and language alive into the twentieth century. After 300 years of Austrian and Hungarian rule, a small group of Czech leaders seeking autonomy successfully created the component state of Czechoslovakia in 1918 with Tomas Masaryk as the first president. Within this brief period, the trends of intellectual curiosity, humanistic government and economic progress continued to develop and strengthen in the Czech nationhood. Because of its unique situation and aspirations, the new nation was nicknamed the "Darling of the West." Because of its strategic position and historical boundaries, Czechoslovakia became the ignition point of World War II when Hitler invaded in 1939, and it remained a Nazi protectorate for the remainder of the war. During Nazi control, the Czechs became famous for their insurgency and enlistment into Allied forces.
After being liberated by the Russian army in 1945, Czechoslovakia retained its pre-war borders and parliamentary system. However, it remained under the Soviet 'sphere of influence.' Though the Communists became the dominant political party in 1946 through a democratic election, the government was soon taken over and transformed into a Soviet state by the Russians. During this time, the Czechs and Slovaks suffered persecution and imprisonment for dissent under strict Communist rule. In the 1960's the president of Czechoslovakia at the time, Alexander Dubcek, presented the people and the Russian government with a new ideal: 'Socialism with a Human Face'. This new plan for a Soviet State reflected the Czech desire to somehow institute a progressive and sympathetic political system under authoritarian rule. Censorship was lightened in the press and arts as tolerance for freedom of speech gained momentum and economic reforms were introduced. Unfortunately, the Soviet system could not risk this type of relaxation behind the Iron Curtain. The Russian army invaded Prague and the rest of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968, which resulted in over 20 years of the tightest domination of any satellite country and the emigration of thousands of Czechs to the West. Finally, with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989, Czechoslovakia underwent the 'Velvet Revolution', named for the peaceful overthrow of the Communist government and the subsequent institution of a Democratic government.
The Czech people chose the famous dissident, playwright and poet, Vaclav Havel as their first democratically elected president. Havel exemplified the ideas of a government focused on human rights, culture and progress. With the establishment of a democratic Czechoslovakia, the voice of the Slovak minority gained ground and called for separation. Despite months of negotiations, the federation peacefully dissolved and the two independent nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia were formed. President Vaclav Havel left office in February 2003. The Czech people, ready for a change, now have a new president, former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, a conservative economist. The Czech Republic is now preparing for entry into the European Union in 2004.
The Czech Republic's rich history and culture are integral parts of modern life for citizens and tourists alike. The country contains a total of twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites in its towns and cities and has over 2000 castles in its landscape. Prague, nicknamed 'the City of a Thousand Spires' and 'the Golden City', is often quoted to be the most beautiful in Europe and welcomes millions of tourists each year. The country is divided into two major areas, each with its own distinct culture and character. Bohemia has a more Germanic influence, whereas Moravia reflects the culture of its Eastern neighbors. Brass folk music and beer dominate the folk celebrations of Bohemia, while wine and the music of the dulcimer and violin are the presiding flavors of the Moravian festivals. Both Prague and Brno, the Moravian capital, are centers of classical music, theatre, dance and art and also host a bustling nightlife. Those looking for natural beauty will not be disappointed. The geography of the county consists of beautiful forests, meadows, rolling hills and dramatic mountain ranges and opportunities for skiing, bike riding, hiking and camping are abundant.