Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The metropolis as melting pot II: Prague

Prague (Czech Praha), the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, had always been a bilingual city in which Germans and Czechs lived alongside each other. The history of the city was dominated by the alternating importance of the languages. From the middle of the 19th century, the pendulum swung to the benefit of Czech.

When Prague entered the industrial age during the Biedermeier period, the city had a strong German character. The Prague middle class tended towards German, while Czechs predominated amongst the urban lower classes, constituting the majority in terms of numbers but weaker in social and economic terms.

In the 19th century, like most urban centres of the Monarchy, Prague underwent a period of huge growth, although not as extreme as Vienna or Budapest. Around 1910, Prague had a population of 220,000. This figure, however, does not do justice to the importance of the city, since a number of administratively independent towns had developed around it (Smíchov, Vinohrady, Žižkov), with the result that the agglomeration as a whole had a population of 617,000, and thus constituted the third largest urban settlement in the Monarchy after Vienna and Budapest.

The population was mainly made up of immigrants from the Czech-speaking surroundings, which shifted the ethnic proportions to the benefit of Czech. While at the middle of the 19th century, Germans accounted for roughly 40%, this figure had fallen to 6.1% by 1910.

This was associated with a change in the city's social structure. Following the successful national emancipation of the Czechs from German cultural and economic hegemony, the increasingly strong middle-class, the university graduates and entrepreneurs, now professed themselves in favour of the up-and-coming Czech nation. Prague became the setting for the national rebirth of the Czechs, whose urban centre became the city on the Vistula. The Germans of Prague – many with a Jewish background – found themselves on the defensive despite the fact that their cultural activities were experiencing a boom, as demonstrated above all in the field of literature (with writers such as Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Werfel etc.).

From 1861, there was a Czech majority in the Prague City Council. As a consequence, public life in the city acquired an increasingly Czech character, reflected among other things in the use of Czech for public signs and street names, which from 1894 were only in Czech.

The Prague writer of German Jewish origin, Max Brod, describes the difficulties "of explaining to someone not from Prague or someone who hadn't spent years living in Prague the fine and not so fine variations of the reaction to the hotly disputed and historically complex nationalities question in which the text on every shop sign and every street name became a language problem, a political issue."

An increasingly entrenched struggle between the nations mobilised the masses, which led to riots and street fighting. The separation of Bohemian society into two nations now appeared definitively insuperable. Cultural life was divided strictly according to ethnic criteria, and even in business nationally separate systems developed as a result of the nationalisation of everyday life. Under the battle cry "Buy only from Germans/Czechs!", every use of services and every visit to the shops became a national demonstration.

The mutual alienation along the linguistic division led to the development of parallel worlds, requiring the individual to make a clear commitment to the one or the other linguistic group. The "both and" was replaced by the "either or".

The extent to which the climate between the two language groups had already been poisoned was reflected in the nationalistic agitation during the Badeni crisis of 1897, when Czech-German antagonism escalated to the stage of street battles, to which the government reacted by imposing a state of emergency on Prague.

Translation: David Wright


Csáky, Moritz: Das Gedächtnis der Städte. Kulturelle Verflechtungen – Wien und die urbanen Milieus in Zentraleuropa, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2010

Demetz, Peter: Prag in Schwarz und Gold. Sieben Momente im Leben einer europäischen Stadt, Zürich 2000

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

Křen, Jan: Die Konfliktgemeinschaft. Tschechen und Deutsche in den böhmischen Ländern 1780–1918 (Veröffentlichungen des Collegium Carolinum 71), München 1995

Lichtenberger, Elisabeth: Wien – Prag. Metropolenforschung, Wien 1993

Rumpler, Helmut: Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie [Österreichische Geschichte 1804–1914, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005


"of explaining to someone not from Prague ...': Max Brod: Der Prager Kreis. Mit einem Nachwort von Peter Demetz, Frankfurt am Main 1979, 83 (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    “Viribus unitis” or prison of nations?

    The multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary formed a relatively stable environment for the co-existence of the many ethnic communities. The much-vaunted “unity in diversity” was in fact overshadowed by numerous inequalities. This was illustrated above all in the differing weight of the various language groups involved in political and economic rule. These inequalities were increasingly challenged by the disadvantaged nationalities. As a result, the nationality issue dominated political affairs, leading to destabilisation of the Monarchy.


  • Development

    Nation-building – national programmes and positions

    Nation-building was part of the emancipation by large sections of the population from feudal dependence. In line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the nation – understood as a community of free citizens – was to become the sovereign in place of feudal potentates.