Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The Czechs in the Habsburg Monarchy

The Czechs were numerically the third strongest ethnic group in the Habsburg Monarchy. The Bohemian lands – Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia – were their main historical settlement areas. In many spheres they were caught up in bitter rivalry with their German-speaking compatriots.

According to the census of 1910, Czechs formed 63.2 % of the population of Bohemia. This was the historical heartland of the Czechs; Bohemia was therefore also the cradle of the modern Czech nation. The Czech element was focused in the central countryside of Bohemia. But because of increasing labour migration the Czech contingent rose sharply also in the North Bohemian industrial region.

Bohemia was the scene of extraordinarily violent national conflicts between Czechs and Germans, the latter a third of the country’s population. The capital, Prague, had developed during the nineteenth century into the cultural centre of the Czech nation and was transformed from a German-dominated city to a Czech metropolis. Accordingly the German contingent dropped in the city to 6.1 % (status in 1910).

Bohemia was the industrial centre of the Habsburg Monarchy. Although its core lay in German-speaking North Bohemia, in the second half of the nineteenth century industrialisation spread as well to the Czech interior, where the textile, engineering (Skoda) and food industries (sugar refineries, large-scale breweries, etc.) began to boom.

In Moravia the Czech part of the total population was even higher than in Bohemia, at 71.8 %. Nevertheless, the German element was felt even more strongly here: Germans had a formative influence on the larger cities such as Brno (Brünn) and Olomouc (Olmütz), but there was also an influential German bourgeoisie living in numerous smaller towns. The two ethnic groups were far less strictly separated from each other here than in Bohemia. In Moravia the situation was rather one of opposition between the German-dominated urban areas and the Czech-dominated environs. Bilingualism and the readiness to cooperate were more widely distributed in both linguistic groups here than in Bohemia, torn by German-Czech antagonism.

In Silesia the Czechs took third place after the Germans and Poles at 24.3 % of the population. The Czechs were settled in the central regions of this small territory that had remained under Habsburg rule after losing the major part of Silesia to Prussia in the Austrian Wars of Succession. Silesia went through a radical change in the nineteenth century: because of its coal deposits a centre of heavy industry grew up around Moravian Ostrava (Mährisch Ostrau, Czech Moravská Ostrava), which attracted a great number of Czech workers to this industrial region.

Czechs could be found as an ethnic minority in other Crown lands, however. The contingent in Lower Austria was 3.8 %, above all owing to the massive labour migration to Vienna and the industrial regions of Lower Austria. Even today the Czech brick-maker and the Bohemian woman cook are a cliché that has with time become cloaked in sentimentality. But the Viennese Czechs were found not only among industrial workers and in domestic service, but also strongly represented in small trading and handicraft businesses, also as civil servants in the central departments of state administration.  And Czechs were also encountered in other parts of the Monarchy, where, on account of their higher educational level and strong industrial traditions in comparison with most of the other linguistic groups, they were sought as specialists and skilled employees.

As a whole, in 1910 around 6.7 million citizens of the Habsburg Monarchy declared they belonged to the Czech linguistic group. In Cisleithania the Czechs formed the second largest group after the Germans at 23 %. Throughout the empire they formed the third largest nationality after the Germans and Magyars, at 12.6%.

On the eve of the First World War the Czechs availed of an above-average socio-economic and cultural standard in comparison to most of the other nationalities in the Habsburg Monarchy (except the Germans). This was expressed in their pronounced self-confidence and national pride. Around 1900 the Czechs were deemed to be the nation with the highest standard of development among those that had no national state of their own.

Translation: Abigail Prohaska


Hoensch, Jörg K.: Geschichte Böhmens. Von der slavischen Landnahme bis ins 20. Jahrhundert, München 1987

Rumpler, Helmut/Seger, Martin (Hrsg): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band IX/2: Soziale Strukturen, Wien 2010

Kořalka, Jiří/Crampton, Richard J.: Die Tschechen, in: Wandruszka, Adam/Urbanitsch, Peter (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band III: Die Völker des Reiches, Wien 1980, Teilband 1, 489–521

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    The Habsburg empire

    Austria-Hungary had an extremely diverse state structure. At the start of the First World War it was a major power in decline. Social and political problems and the dominant nationality conflicts shook the empire to its foundations. At the same time, the Monarchy represented an enormous cultural region in which the Habsburg empire flourished in spite of the political stagnation.