The state most widely known as the Czech Republic formed way back in the 9th century as part of the Holy Roman Empire, which encompassed most of Central Europe. Back then the nation was called “Bohemia,” and was a mix of mainly Catholic Slavs from the highland Bohemian plateau (and, eventually, also from the rolling green hills of nearby Moravia). The Bohemian principality expanded for several centuries, especially in the 14th century when the Czech King Charles became Holy Roman Emperor and built the city of Prague to be an international hub of learning and culture.
In the 15th and 16th centuries about 90% of the Czech people converted from Catholicism to the “Hussite” form of Protestantism (named for early 15th century reformer Jan Hus). In 1526 the Austrian Hapsburgs became rulers of Bohemia and didn’t much approve of Hussites; in 1620, when the Hapsburgs put down a Bohemian rebellion and took Bohemia into the Austrian monarchy, they gave people the “choice” to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. This started the Czech “Dark Age,” which lasted for more than 150 years, during which the Czech population declined by a third due to war, disease, famine and the Protestant expulsion.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire finally collapsed after World War I and in 1918 an independent Czechoslovakia was born! In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and the country splintered, but after World War II the nation came back together, albeit as a Soviet-dominated, Communist-ruled state.
PRAGUE SPRING, THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE and THE
Throughout the 1960s the people of Czechoslovakia demanded the ruling Communists increase social, political and economic freedom. In the spring of 1968 (which came to be called “Prague Spring”) the new Secretary General of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubček, announced a series of reforms, including the right of citizens to criticize the government. In April 1968 the Communist Party Central Committee even declared that each member of the Party “has not only the right, but the duty to act according to his conscience” rather than blindly follow its line. At the same time Dubček tried to assure the USSR that it wasn’t going to leave the Warsaw Pact — look to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to see what happened to a Soviet-bloc nation that threatened to leave the fold — but the Soviets clamped down anyway.
In August 1968 Warsaw Pact nations sent tanks and troops into Czechoslovakia and put an end to Prague Spring. Dubček ordered Czechoslovakian troops not to resist. Soon after the invasion the Soviets ordered Dubček to Moscow for some “free comradely discussion.” He returned to announce that the reform program would end. In 1969, soon after “the Czechoslovak Hockey Riots,” Dubček resigned as Party Secretary. For the next two decades, before making a post-Cold War return to politics, he served the Communist Party in a substantially lower profile job in the Slovakian Forest Service.
After Prague Spring the Czechoslovakian Communist Party tightened its reigns on the nation’s people. This included renewing State censorship of the arts. In 1976 the government arrested four members of the consciously apolitical, Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa-influenced rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe, accusing their lyrics as possessing “extreme vulgarity with an anti-socialist and an anti-social impact, most of them extolling nihilism, decadence and clericalism.” After a controversial and very public trial, several Plastic People of the Universe band members earned prison sentences or went into exile in the West. Playwright and Plastic People of the Universe supporter Václav Havel co-founded human rights initiative called Chapter 77 as a response to the
arrests. Havel later wrote, “Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together. It was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life.”
In the years after the trial the Plastic People of the Universe continued as a band but only legally could play at private occasions such as (according to legend) the wedding of a previously divorced couple, friends of the Plastics, who agreed to get remarried so the band could have a gig. The band also played at concerts in the remote parts of the forest, which fans would walk miles to attend, and more publicly at illegal “Second Culture” festivals that celebrated the underground Czechoslovakian art and music culture. (The Plastic People broke up in the late ’80s but reunited in 1997 at the 20th anniversary party of Charter 77.)
In 1989, as the USSR crumbled, the Czechoslovakian people rose again, initiating a series of immense non-violent demonstrations. The Communist Party responded by non-violently stepping aside. Dubček returned from the forest and became speaker of the federal parliament and Václav Havel became President. The Czechs refer to this extraordinary period as the Velvet Revolution. The Slovaks, who split peacefully from the Czech Republic in 1993 to form their own nation, call it the Gentle Revolution.
In class we’re going to listen to some music by the Plastic People of the Universe as we symbolically rebel against whoever we feel oppresses us. If we play our cards right we’ll win a victory for plastic people everywhere.
More about the Czech Republic:
Wikipedia on the Czech Republic | Czech.cz: a colorful web overview of the Czech Republic | More about Jan Hus and the Hussites | The BBC on Prague Spring | Prague Spring, then and now (includes a timeline of the fall of the USSR) | More about Havel (includes a timeline of his life and career. Havel passed away in 2011.) | Havel on Chapter 77, Chapter 08 and Liu Xiaobo
More about The Plastic People of the Universe:
About The Plastic People of the Universe: “perhaps the greatest obscure
rock band of all time” | The Plastic People of the Universe banned | Meet The Plastic
People on YouTube | The Plastic People in concert in 2007 | “We Want Our Music and Freedom and Love and Peace and Human Rights!”