The history of the “German Czechs”

German Colonizer - Knight Manesse (Codex Manesse), photo: Public Domain

Czechia used to have a large German-speaking population. The „Bohemian-Germans“, as they were called, inhabited especially the border region of the Sudetenland. However, many of them started settling here since the Middle Ages deep in the heart of what used to be the Duchy of Bohemia.

German Colonizer - Knight Manesse (Codex Manesse), photo: Public Domain
It is the close of the 11th century and the Duchy of Bohemia, its nobility and religious orders want to grow economically stronger. Cities such as Prague or Olomouc are already bustling with agricultural and trading activity, but large areas of the Duchy still need development. That is when the town of „Brod“ is born on the banks of the Sázava river in the region we now call the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. Historian Aleš Knápek walks me around its well-preserved historical center:

“The earliest settlement was linked with the trading routes. We know about an important road leading from Kolín in Central Bohemia to South-Western Moravia. The source is the Chronicle of Bohemians written by the famous priest Cosmas of Prague. He wrote it in the 12th century but describes earlier history. So we know, among other things, that today’s busy Route 38 follows a much older road from the Middle Ages. It leads through the main square of the town of Brod towards the bridge over the Sázava river. Originally there was only a ford that gave the town its name: Czech „Brod“ being the equivalent for the English „ford“. In the beginning, it was probably just a stop, a kind of resting place and a service station on the road.

But the nobility and religious orders that owned large swaths of land wanted a bigger income. There were indications that precious metals could be mined in the border mountains but also deep in the interior highlands. However, the original Slavic population lacked the know-how. In the neighbouring German states, mainly Bavaria, mining was already a well-established economic activity. So their experts were invited to help out:

Aleš Knápek, photo: archive of Czech Radio
“They were coming mainly to the border regions of Bohemia: forests in the foothills of the border mountains or the still thinly populated area of the Highlands. It is obvious that the main driving force was the promise of precious metals mining. Here in the Highlands, the landowners were hoping to find gold as early as in the 12th century. We have records showing that they were looking for it around the town of Humpolec and in the northern part of the Highlands region. Prospecting for gold proved fruitless, but it showed that there were silver and iron deposits. Since then, the process of mining for metals had been uninterrupted.”

What is fascinating from today’s point of view is that up until the birth of romantic nationalism in the 19th century, hardly any of the locals identified themselves as Germans or Czechs. They were first and foremost all subjects of the Habsburg Austrian Empire and their native language was not really all that important. Aleš Knápek again:

Remnants of old mines near Koječín - Bohemian Moravian Highlands, photo: Vít Pohanka
“I am not trying to say that the cohabitation of the communities was completely problem-free all the time up until the 20th century. But there were many instances of villages and towns where there weren’t any conflicts. There was also another significant benefit of the Czechs and Germans living side by side. These days there are very few bilingual people. In the past centuries, local folk often spoke both German and Czech. They needed it for everyday life so it was really quite a common skill.”

The Czech and German-speaking people lived peacefully side by side for nearly eight centuries even deep in the interior of the Czech lands. It was only the hysteria of nationalism raised by Nazi Germany in the middle of the 20th century that managed to destroy their symbiosis. The vast majority of the German-speaking population was expelled after the end of the World War II.