Useful Notes: The Czech Republic
The Czech Republic (Czech: Česká republika) is a country in Central Europe (if you want to enrage Czechs, call it Eastern Europe), established in 1993 after the Velvet Divorce of Czechoslovakia, with a population of 10.5 million people. It currently ranks among the top 40 in the latest Human Development Index, the only former communist country to do so along with Slovenia (and Germany if you want). With a history of Reformation predating Martin Luther and John Calvin (utraquists and Unity of Brethren) and subsequent recatholisation, most of the population today is atheist (or agnostic) with a Catholic minority (and even smaller Protestant and other minorities). The official language is Czech, a Western Slavic language. It is mutually intelligible with Slovak, and, as with all Slavic languages, quite easy to learn if you know another Slavic language. (In the case of Czech, this is particularly true of the third major West Slavic language, Polish, which is almost but not quite mutually intelligible. Beware false friends between Slavic languages.note ) Czech is one of the few phonetically written languages, which means that words are written pretty much exactly how they sound. The Czech sentence "Strč prst skrz krk" is considered one of the most difficult tongue-twisters on Earth. (Czechs are also, possibly, the nation that invented those weird tealeaves above letters, called diacritics, which definitely help Czech in being a phonetically written language.) Just like the Central African Republic and the Dominican Republic, it is one the few countries that has "Republic" in its colloquial English name. "Czechia" never caught on (except in a very few other languages). Very famous for its beer, the Czech Republic has the highest beer consuption per capita. The first monastic breweries in the area started operating in the 12th century. The most well known international brands are Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj) and Budweiser Budvar (Budějovický Budvar), but there is also a number of small local breweries. However, wine is also grown, particularly in Southern Moravia. The Czech Republic is one of the northernmost wine-growing countries, with the first vines introduced in the 14th century by Charles IV. But foreigners rarely learn this, because Czechs tend to drink all the produce themselves. When Czechs are mentioned in anglophone fiction, expect an inevitable Czech/Check/Cheque pun.note It is also notable for being one of the most libertarian nations in Europe with very loose gun laws, even looser drug laws (all recreational drugs are decriminalized in personal-use quantities, and possession of smaller commercial quantities is equivalent to a parking ticket), and major movements towards privatization and deregulation (except where that conflicts with EU directives). The Czech Republic has one of the densest railway networks in use in the world. Trainspotting is a fairly popular hobby, usually involving photography; the other is complaining about the company České dráhy (Czech Railways). The quality of the tracks is, indeed, somewhat lacking behind Western Europe, but compared to e.g. the USA, like most of Europe the Czech Republic is a public transport paradise. A modern Czech train got a role in Casino Royale (2006). Trains appear quite often in Czech films as well, e.g. in Closely Watched Trains. Czechs are also very fond of "nature", hiking, mushroom picking, cycling, canoeing down rivers and so on. About a third of the country's area is covered in forests, although only a very small part of that is primeval. There is a large number of nature programs on TV (and some of the most popular radio programmes had to do with following the lives of animals and birds), various scientific pursuits are fairly popular, and there is a Czech research station in Antarctica.
HistoryA word of forewarning: Czech history (like most of history) is full of unrememberable dates. Many of the dates worth remembering involve the number 8. Some Czechs therefore feel superstitious about years that end in 8. Before there were Slavs, there were Germanic tribes, and before there were Germanic tribes, there were Celtic tribes, which is where the name Bohemia for the Western part of the country originally comes from. Blame the Romans. The first Slavic consollidated state in the approximate area was Great Moravia, which is where the name for Moravia comes from, more or less.note It was the Slavs of Great Moravia that Cyril and Methodius created the not-yet-Cyrillic alphabet for. (And it hasn't been in use in the area for centuries.) After the fall of Great Moravia at the beginning of the 10th century, the centre of power in the region shifted to Prague and the Přemyslid dynasty. There was the usual early medieval period of frequent infighting and dynastic disputes, interrupted by power wrangling with the neighbouring countries (especially Germany). The most famous ruler from this early period is St Wenceslas (Václav in Czech), who was immortalised in the anglophone world by the song Good King Wenceslas, but actually wasn't a king. It was only Premysl Otakar I who gained a hereditary royal title in 1198. This, obviously, gave the country and the dynasty some added weight in international dealings. Chivalric lifestyle (the original) flourished. The Přemyslid kings also invited German settlers to help tame the wilder areas of the country, which lay foundations to the large German minority in the following centuries. Lots of castles were built, providing future filmmakers with a wide choice of shooting locations. With Václav III's murder in 1306, there were only female Přemyslid heirs left, and with medieval politics being what they were, there was some fighting between their husbands before the reign settled with the Luxembourg dynasty. Charles IV, Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor, widely considered the greatest ruler of the Czech lands, was the second of that dynasty on the Czech throne. He founded the university in Prague and many other medieval monuments present in the country today, and made Prague into the cultural centre of the Holy Roman Empire. It was also during his reign that the first religious dissenters started working in the country; during the reign of Charles' son Václav, the most famous of them, Jan Hus, gained prominency to such an extent that the Catholic church first excommunicated him and later (in 1415) burned him at the stake for heresy. His Czech followers were not pleased with that turn of events. That displeasure eventually grew into full on armed rebellion against the Prague city council; Václav apparently had a strike when he heard, his brother the Roman Emperor Sigismund was not welcome in the Czech lands anymore and the Hussite Wars followed. There was, eventually, a settlement that allowed Czechs to follow some of their beliefs with the rest of the Catholic church ignoring them. note Later in the 15th century, the Czech nobility elected one of their own, Jirí z Podebrad, as Czech king; he's notable for being the only one to be elected so, being the only non-Catholic on the Czech throne, and trying to start a peaceful union of (Christian) European nations against the Turkish threat.note After yet another king died prematurely in 1526, the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg dynasty succeeded on the Czech throne, and stayed there until 1918 note . The last time Prague was a cultural centre was during the reign of Rudolf II (which is also the time when the famous legend of Golem takes place). After more political (and religious) tensions, Czech people once again resorted to defenestration against officials in Prague in 1618, starting the Thirty Years War (which, unlike the Hundred Years' War between England and France, did indeed last thirty years). After another Famous Defeat in the Battle of White Mountain, the Hapsburgs consollidated their power by proclaiming Catholicism as the only religion allowed in the country and all the Protestants who could afford to do so emigrated (often to Poland). This left the country without whole generations of intellectual elites and open to recatholisation and influx of foreign nobility. This is the period when chateaus and palaces were built, providing a different kind of wide choice of filming backdrops for future filmmakers. Another side effect of these events was the fact that at the end of the 18th century, Czech language was largely the language of peasants. Attempts to revitalise it and start a new Czech culture eventually, throughout the 19th century, led to attempts at greater political authonomy as well, which however did not materialise until independent Czechoslovakia was formed after WW1. During the war, many Czechs were forced to fight for Austria against their will, so when Czechoslovak legions were formed on the Allied side, naturally many Czech soldiers surrendered so they could join their national cause.note A collection of a number of different ethnicitiesnote , Czechoslovakia was formed after the Treaty of Versailles, but its diversity made it unstable. While it was economically (and culturally!) successful and notably retained a democratic system when many European nation states formed after WW1 fell into various totalitarian practices, the Germans and Hungarians wanted the self-determination doctrines paraded by America but not delivered at Versailles. After the First World War, people in other countries like Britain started to feel sorry for the Germans, who weren't maltreated in Czechoslovakia but didn't have any political autonomy. This sentiment was hijacked by Those Wacky Nazis and used as an excuse to take control of Germany, then the German-populated Sudetenland in autumn of 1938, then the rest of the Czech lands in March 1939; Slovakia split into a fascist state. Prague was comparatively untouched by the war. The Czech people were not. Hundreds of thousands went to the death camps, and the Lidice massacre, one of the most notorious war crimes of the war, took place as revenge for the assassination of the Nazi lord Heydrich/Heidrich. As Slavs, Czechs were considered sub-human and useful only for labour by the Nazis. note Like in the rest of Nazi-controlled Europe, the previously numerous Jewish population was nearly exterminated. Czechoslovak pilots fought with the RAF in WW2, and there was a number of Real Life Aces among them. After World War II the Germans and Hungarians were expelled en-masse and Subcarpatian Ruthenia was annexed by the Soviet Union. In 1948, the Communists seized power through a coup d'etat, and dissident elements, including the Church(es), were quickly purged. Czechoslovakia was a founding member of Comecon (Soviet bloc economic organization) and the Warsaw Pact. Readers who do not wish to come across as ignorant are strongly advised to remember that Czechoslovakia was never, ever part of the Soviet Union proper, only the so-called "Soviet bloc". Never using the adjective "Soviet" in reference to things Czech(oslovak) is a vital part of remembering. In the 1960s, the atmosphere slowly thawed, leading to a surge in culture. In 1968, a Slovak reformist, Alexander Dubček, came to power and started a short period of liberalization, the Prague Spring, which lasted a few months until other Warsaw Pact countries (except Romania) invaded the country. When the Czech army was told they were being invaded, they ran to fortify the Western border, because invasion from their allies was inconceivable. Popular protest, at first almost universal, slowly died down; Jan Palach's 1969 attempt to rouse people did not have the desired effect. In 1989, as part of Hole in Flag, the Velvet Revolution took place, the Communists were overthrown, and Czechoslovakia became a democracy. note Three years later, the Czech and Slovakian halves separated in the "Velvet Divorce", with much of the national property note being split 2:1 for the Czechs because of their larger population. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, The European Union in 2004 and the Schengen Area (open borders inside Europe) in 2007. As of 2015, the currency is still koruna česká (the Czech Koruna, CZK). note
Prague and other citiesPrague is the capital of the country and a global city. Despite the global status, it's far less expensive than most European cities of its stature (even notoriously cheap Berlin is more expensive). Being—as mentioned above—relatively untouched by the bombs of World War II, Prague is a popular place to film, particularly when an "old Europe" feeling is required. The Barrandov Studios are a particularly popular filming location for Hollywood movies such as xXx, Blade II, Mission: Impossible and The Bourne Identity. The cheapness also attracts tourists; Prague is a popular destination for Americans (and Canadians and Australians...) looking for a good time on a budget while still being able to say they went to Europe, as well as other Europeans (including, to the annoyance of many Praguers, British stag parties) looking for a short trip without expending too much on transportation or things when you get there. It is also a major European cultural centre. And the only city in the country with a metro. Prague has a population of approximately 1.2 million people, which, of course, means there's a good 9.3 million Czechs who live somewhere else, for example in Brno (pronounced with two syllables), the second largest city and the capital of Moravia. Brno maintains a rivalry with Prague. It tends to be the more industrial of the two, usually holds the largest trade fairs in the country and has a major racetrack. Its historical centre is smaller than in Prague, but there are some notable examples of Modernist architecture, such as the Villa Tugendhat, to be found in Brno. Thanks to the closeness to the border with Slovakia and a number of Slovak students, you are much more likely to hear the Slovak language in Brno than in other Czech cities like Ostrava, Plzeň, Liberec etc.
- Václav Havel, playwright and the first president of the country after the fall of Communism
- Jan vankmajer, animator and director
- Franz Kafka, author (wrote mostly in German)
- Karel Čapek, author (e.g. R.U.R.)
- Milan Kundera, contemporary author, who effectively renounced his Czech status, not that anyone cares
- Milo Forman, film director
- Jan Ámos Komenský (Comenius), 17th century author, philosopher, theologian and "father of modern education." Famous for the notion that school should be fun.
- Bedřich Smetana, composer (e.g. "Moldau")
- Antonín Dvořák, world-famous composer (e.g. "New World Symphony") and Rail Enthusiast Extraordinaire
- Leo Janáček, composer
- Field Marshal Josef Radetzky, who became famous in Austrian service and is known for the famous march composed by Strauss to most people
- The Plastic People of the Universe, famous dissident rock band from The '70s
- Olympic, another famous (pop) band with origins in The Sixties, with members like Peter Janda, Jiří Korn, Frantiek Ringo Čech, Pavel Bobek, and many others.
- Madeline Albright, U.S. Secretary of State (1997-2001)
- Eva "Hello Boys" Herzigová, model
- Martina Navratilova, tennis player
- Pavel Nedvěd, football player
- Alphonse Mucha, prominent Art Nouveau artist, patronized by college students everywhere
- Josef vejk (fictional), from the famous novel The Good Soldier vejk (pronounced roughly as "shveyk")
- Dr. Radek Zelenka (fictional), from Stargate Atlantis. His actor, David Nykl, was born in Prague, but moved to Canada with his family when he was one year old after the Soviet invasion in 1968. Nykl nevertheless grew up speaking Czech as well as English, and it was his fluency in the language that convinced the production team to change his character from an unnamed Russian to a Czech.
- Jára Cimrman - Despite being virtually unknown abroad, Cimrman's spirit looms large over Czech culture and popular consciousness. Born in Vienna note , he was the quintessential enterpreneurial, creative and hoplessly unsuccessful Czech underdog of the late Hapsburg period. He was an inventor, a writer, a playwright, a composer, a criminologist, and many other things. He also would have won the "Greatest Czech" poll held by the Czech TV in 2005 (following a template from BBC), were it not for the perfectly negligible technicality that he is completely and utterly fictional.
The Czech Republic and its predecessors in fiction
- All (or nearly all) Czech films and literature. Duh.
- In the MacGyver episode "For Love and Money'', Mac must rescue someone from a Czech "mental hospital" (yep, they did what the KGB did).
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the most famous John le Carré novel, is partly set in Brno.
- Blade II
- Mission: Impossible
- Casino Royale (2006) was filmed there, where it stood in for Montenegro.
- The best-known version of the Golem legend is linked to Prague, as portrayed in the movie The Golem and countless other works.
- Two of Contract J.A.C.K.'s missions take place in Czechoslovakia.
- The first mission of Soldier of Fortune II takes place in Prague.
- Forza Motorsport 5 has a racetrack in Prague. (Which would seem to be a typical case of Britain Is Only London, as the major racetracks in the Czech Republic are actually somewhere else.)
- Roughly the first half of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes place in early-WWII Prague. The Czech version of the Golem legend is featured as a plot point and symbol.
- Several films about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich during the Second World War, including Hangmen Also Die!, Attentat and Operation Daybreak, with varying degrees of historical accuracy.
- Costa-Gavras's The Confession, depicting the Slánský trial of 1952.
- Axis Powers Hetalia has the Czech Republic herself as a character, along with her brother, Slovakia.
Czech Popular CultureThe Czechoslovak New Wave is considered the golden age of Czech cinema. Films such as The Shop On Main Street and Closely Watched Trains are associated with this era. As already mentioned, Jára Cimrman is a looming presence over Czech culture. Czechs love to quote idiosyncratic lines and everything Cimrman serves very well for that purpose, as well as other works by Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak. Other favourites are e.g. Bohumil Hrabal, Saturnin or "The Good Soldier vejk". The vast majority of foreign TV Shows and films are dubbed, and all that are shown on television are subbed. Most theaters have both subtitled and dubbed screenings. The channel ČT2 sometimes shows subbed shows and movies meant for a narrow audience. Some video games have been developed in the Czech Republic, such as Mafia, Hidden & Dangerous, Vietcong, Operation Flashpoint, ARMA, Euro Truck Simulator, Hero Of Many, and Kingdom Come: Deliverance (which actually draws on some of the medieval history described above). Music in the Czech Republic is infinite. The saying "Every Czech is a musician" appears to be true.
The Czech Flag
The flag's white and red colors allude to the arms of Bohemia, the dominant region in the nation and home to the national capital of Prague; due to its similarity to the flag of Poland, a blue triangle was added at the hoist side. The flag itself was used in Czechoslovakia, and was retained by the Czechs long after Slovakia's separation.