Was Charles IV the Greatest Czech?

The commemoration of 700th birth anniversary of a medieval ruler unleashes old ethnocentric discourse, and intensifies the call for a wise, all-mighty and paternalistic sovereign.

Photo: Roman Boed

Czechs have always been captivated by King Charles IV, and over the last few weeks, it seems every billboard in Prague is advertising an event, concert, performance, lecture or exhibition in honor of 700th birth anniversary of the 14th century king of the Czech Kingdom, and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. His name magically opens public budgets and his “brand” seems to make any banality and obscurity look stately and majestic. 1

He has been celebrated from all thinkable angles over the last few months, as a ruler, a diplomat, a businessman, a warrior, an intellectual, a state-builder and a Christian, as well as a father, husband, womanizer, chevalier, and sometimes even a saint or a Marvel-type superhero. Some of this is justifiable, some just inflated out of thin air to market his name, and some simply disturbing.

Not only do updated reinterpretations of his legacy place him in current ethnocentric Czech discourse, but they have even enflamed recent anti-refugee rhetoric. As historian Milena Bartlová argues, championing Charles IV as the most influential Czech of all time, creates inflated images that become endowed with symbolic meaning – a fairytale-wise king, a pious son of the Catholic Church, a generous art maecenas and an all-mighty and powerful ruler – producing uncritical adoration, which fosters tacit attempts to subvert the modern and secular liberal state. 2

Hus versus Charles

The Czechs have simply resurrected yet another national hero, after doing the same thing last year with Czech religious reformer, and a predecessor to Martin Luther, Jan Hus. 3 Unlike the pious and modest priest, who criticized his own church’s hypocrisy, and continued doing so until he was burned as a heretic, Charles IV’s memory is split between the human figure and the institutions he represented.

While Hus symbolizes revolt, a critical spirit and moral integrity, Charles evokes images of an ambitious, ruthless and pragmatic state-builder.

While much of Hus has been lost in translation since it was adapted to modernity because of its complex theological language, Charles’ achievements can be promoted with perfectly current and comprehensible “buzzwords,” like “prosperity,” “stability” and “well-being”.

Hus challenges us at an intimately personal level to search deep within ourselves to achieve harmony in what we think, say and act; while Charles embodies the search for public roots, Czech national identity, and how ideal governments and rulers should act (and moral integrity was not always a key criterion).

We call upon Hus when the criticism of corrupt authorities is needed, and Charles when unity, statesmanship and diplomacy are needed to overhaul those authorities.

Both managed to highlight Czech causes at the European level: while Hus presented the Czech attempt to reform the Church, which had become a problematic institution throughout all of Europe; Charles used Czech land as a power-base, and brought European cultural and economic impulses into the Czech Kingdom.

It is no surprise then that the demand for these two crucial Czech figures has changed and vacillated over time. As historian and medievalist Dušan Třeštík pointed out, after 89’s regime change, Czechs put aside their Hussite identity, which was based on a “rebellion against all” mentality, and drew historical inspiration, legitimacy and justification from Charles´ statesmanship and Europeanism. Czechs felt that returning to Europe was an urgent task they needed to accomplish and they wanted to show that they had belonged to Europe ever since the 14th century, using Charles’ era as evidence. 4

This also explain Charles´ popularity. Unlike Hus, Charles has retained his prominence in Czech national memory over the centuries, without stirring any serious denial or condemnation. Historian Jiří Rak explains: “All the regimes somehow used him; and any inconvenient facts about his legacy were simply omitted.” 5

It was particularly visible when in 1978 the Communist regime launched a spectacular exhibition, “The Charles IV Era in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’s national history,” for the 600th anniversary of Charles´ death. According to Milena Bartlova, the exhibition presented the deeply religious Middle Ages within a Marx-Leninist ideological framework, 6 reducing the era to a series of class struggles, naturally heading for socialism. 7

Charles the Czech

As far as his “Czechness” is concerned, historian Robert Antonín says that Charles represents two contradictory positions within the Czech historical narrative. As king, Charles created conditions for the rise of modern Czech nationalism, being awarded with the honorary title “Pater patriae,” or “Father of the Homeland,” by a circle of his adherents. This title has been bestowed upon Charles ever since, now being transformed into the “most popular Czech,” due in part to a popular 2005 Czech TV series. 8

During his reign, Charles created a new constitution for the Czech Kingdom, which at the time was comprised of several lands and peoples united under the Czech Crown. Even still the constitution was not based on ethnic or nationalistic principles, therefore it united all peoples – Czechs, Germans, Poles and all the others, who lived within the Czech Kingdom’s jurisdiction. 9

Even though Charles spoke Czech, he was ethnically only half-Czech: his mother Elisabeth belonged to the Přemysl Dynasty who ruled Bohemia since the 10th century until 1306. So while it may be natural for some Czechs of today to utilize Charles’ memory to fortify modern ethnocentricities, only stressing his Czech ancestral bloodline is really just a self-confirmation of 19th century nationalistic myths and prejudices and not a reflection of the 14th century’s views at all. As the historian Milena Bartlová argues, creating a fictitious natural link between today´s ethnic Czechs and the 14th century inhabitants of the Czech Kingdom, is a “dangerous stupidity”. 10

This ethnic “update” materialized in a demonstration by several hundred of Tomio Okamura’s “Freedom and Direct Democracy” party adherents on Prague’s Wenceslas Square on May 14th. According to Okamura, if Emperor Charles IV ruled today, no refugees would be allowed in the Czech Republic. In his view, refugees are, “uninvited, unadaptable, economic intruders, who are coming to live as parasites, and destroying the wealth that our Czech ancestors spent generations creating.” 11

Contrarily, Charles identity was much more fluid. His father, Czech King John (1310–1346) was of Luxembourgian origin (although it is interesting that even in non-Czech historiography he is referred to as John of Bohemia). When Charles was a child, he was taken from his mother and sent to the court of the French king, which was closely affiliated to the Luxembourgian court, in order to be raised in the much-admired French culture, considered at the time, to be one of the most sophisticated.

As a young man he spent several years in Italy before returning to Bohemia, and after being crowned as the Czech king, was also crowned king and then an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, nowadays the territory of Germany, partly France, Benelux and Italy.

It should be noted that Charles was only fully “nationalized” by the Czechs during the 20th century. Previous periods, viewed him more as a German Emperor; Nazi propaganda, for example, portrayed him as the representative of a developed, “superior” German culture that dominated the “inferior” Slavs since the Middle Ages. 12

But the Germans face the same problem with Charles. They placed him in a prestigious ZDF documentary series entitled Deutschen (The Germans) along with Charles the Great and Karl Marx. But they seem to realize that due to his multiple identities, Charles can be appropriated not only by the Czechs or Germans, but also by the Luxembourgians, French or Italians. One of the ZDF series’ creators, Georg Graffe agrees that “we really cannot identify him as a German. Those were the times when nationalities were of no significance.” 13

Not entirely. As historian Martin Nodl points out, there was something called “national consciousness” or “nationalism” even in the 14th century, but Charles was a universalist by nature. He chose to restrain himself from closely identifying with any “national party,” because it would have been enormously impractical in his everyday politics. 14 He was a pragmatic and cautious ruler of a multiethnic empire, so he promoted his multilingualism as a key quality, so as not to alienate any peoples under his rule. Close to Hus, Charles was an extraordinarily religious man, and he identified himself as a sovereign and a king, blessed and chosen by God, who was tasked with ruling and bringing prosperity and peace to his subdues and all loyal Christian – Czech, German or Italian. 15

Who other than Charles could have symbolically bridged Czech-German frictions or hostilities? Some politicians, like Bernd Posselt – the once chairman of Sudetendeutschen Landsmannschaft, a league uniting all Germans forced to leave Bohemia and Moravia after 1945 – calls against “reducing” Charles to only the Czech or German side. He was, Posselt says, “the great European.” 16

Bartlová therefore correctly suggests that instead of spending time on useless debates about whether Charles was a Czech and how much Czechness ran though his veins, we should commemorate his legacy by remembering that the political nation of the medieval Bohemians and Moravians consisted of both people speaking Czech and German, who were firmly inter-connected with Europe and European affairs, so belonging to a nation was more ambiguous than it is today. 17

In search for his true identity, one must not forget Charles’ primary loyalty belonged to the dynasty he inherited and was expected to care for. He could transform into a Czech, a German or a Frenchman when it was advantageous for his dynasty and his personal power. 18

In the weekly, Echo, German historian Martin Bauch suggested that the best way to understand Charles IV in the 21st century is to view him as a member of an unique social strata of European aristocracy, as a super-elite of its own kind, with his own language(s), habits, manners, and mindset – likened more nowadays to members of the globalized financial or political elite. 19

The medieval Eichmann?

While Charles positioned himself as a protector of all of his subjects, there was a group he withdrew from, when it was beneficial to him. The ZDF documentary says that Charles was accused of being the first “Schreibtischtäter,” 20 in history, a man who actively and bureaucratically persecuted the Jews, and this had fatal consequences for them. 21

Fourteen century Europe endured a period of suffering triggered by the “Little Ice Age,” 22 which brought long-term climatic instability, worsening weather conditions and a loss of crops; this was followed by famines and malnutrition and then combined with other natural and societal catastrophes, like the Black Death and the Hundred Years´ War. 23 When the plague hit Europe in the mid-14th century, eradicating almost one-third of the European population, people were naturally keen on finding someone to blame. Not surprisingly, a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms struck Europe in 1349; the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells, and were severely targeted, attacked and murdered.  24 Charles was not one to defend them, or mitigate the anger of his subjects either. 25

Nurnberger archivist Johannes Heil said Charles did protect the Jews under his direct jurisdiction, those who resided in his hereditary territories, but he left those outside to their own destiny. 26 For example in Nurnberg, Charles made a deal with the local burgesses that if the Jewish houses in the town were destroyed, the locals would be entitled to build their own houses there. The destruction of several Jewish houses followed, and preempted the pogroms, which took 562 Jews’ lives. Charles even issued several decrees that expropriated the Jewish peoples’ property before they were murdered. 27

According to the historian František Kavka, Charles treated Jews as “property”. He took them under his protection only if it was advantageous for him, otherwise he left them to fend for themselves at the hands of the angry pogromists. 28 According to Martin Modl, portraying Charles as a bureaucratic “mass murderer,” is a bit misleading: “Charles definitely did not initiate the persecution of the Jews. He neither prevented nor banned the pogroms, but he did financially profit from them. However, this was nothing extraordinary during those times; there is much proof that other Christian kings did the same.” 29

He was not an anti-Semite in the modern sense of the term, but he shared a religious-based anti-Judaism with the majority-Christian society of his time. 30 According to German historian Bernd Schneidmüller, Charles was both a religious bigot and a cynical and shrewd politician, naturally living in between ecstatic piety and unscrupulous use of financial resources. 31

The King

Charles, as a historical figure, is still symbolically connected to Czech identity, what it means to be Czech, and where the boundary lies between being Czech and European. Charles´ era represents an ever-coming and ever-escaping dream of a golden age of prosperity, unity, peace and stability for the Czech lands, a time when we moved from the European periphery to the center . . . at least for a while.

Today, we somehow feel that his rule might serve as an example to follow in our modern, global times. How did he do it? What was the magic of his era? Was it all just a lucky coincidence? 32

Charles´ achievements have become cornerstones of Czech identity: Charles University, Charles Bridge, parts of Prague centered around Charles Square, the monumental castle Karlštejn. He also resuscitated the cult of St. Wenceslaus, who as the patron of Bohemia, was perceived as the owner and protector of the Czech Kingdom. 33

Historian Daniel Váňa says that the predecessor Czech kings attempted to establish a university in Bohemia, but never overcame the staunch opposition led by local noblemen, who perceived a university to be a dangerous and alien novelty that might subvert their power. 34 It was Charles who managed to found the first university in the Czech Kingdom and the Holy Roman Empire as well – a symbol of power at the time. 35 After the university was erected he quickly stressed that it belonged both to the Reich (Germans) and to Bohemia (Czechs and Germans), and claimed that Prague had been the most convenient place for it.  36

In many cases he smartly put his name on projects that were already in development, like the dominant structure over Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral, his father John actually initiated the build, but who remembers this now? Charles´ “propaganda machine” took all the credit. 37 As historian Robert Antonín claims, “Charles aimed to keep a positive memory of himself and his rule,” and anything that could boost this legacy was permitted. 38 He was his own best spokesman and understood perfectly what it meant to spread personal PR (or rather legends, if you fancy the terminology of his era).

Now it might seem that Charles´ legacy has succumb to the “dark forces” of oversimplification, commercialization or nationalization, but it is not actually anything the real Charles would vehemently protest against. He invested numerous resources so that future generations would remember him, merging state propaganda with his personal religious life, 39 and he succeeded.

Once again the Czechs seem to have fallen prey to Charles’ cunning efforts to create a benevolent self-image that would outlive him: “It is incredible how the image of this marvelous king still works, even after 700 years. The words that were said about Charles in the 14th century can be said in the 21st century, and still sound positive.” 40

While Hus’ courageous heritage, full of compromises and concessions, is difficult for common people to follow in their everyday lives, Charles left something tangible and material, something that Czechs are still proud of (and profiting from, of course). The National Gallery’s CEO, Jiří Fajt, who also curated the major official exhibition on Charles IV confirms this: “Czechs tend to grasp those moments in their history when their country really meant something.” 41

Charles ruled Bohemia for almost 40 years, and is credited for the prosperous time in Czech history. But is he the reason the kingdom flourished? Partly yes, but it was mainly due to the absence of internal friction and the region’s luck in avoiding the plague, which had decimated the rest of Europe. 42 As historian Lenka Bobková says, the prosperity was mainly due to a long period of peace and stability, and the absence of any devastating wars. 43 If the legendary king had faced similar problems to those of his son, Václav IV, who wasn´t lucky in this sense (and public memory has been merciless on him proportionately), it may have resulted in social unrest and religious chiliasm.

Economic journalist Josef Pravec says that Charles initiated various “development programmes,” building new parts of Prague, promoting trade and hosting diplomats, intellectuals, craftsmen, artists and scholars. 44 He ordered castles be built not only for defense, but also for the projection of his power and fame. He closely cooperated with the Catholic Church, supporting the development of the Church’s institutional network. 45 Charles also wanted to connect rich Italian towns with those in northern Germany via Prague, thus ending Bohemia’s foreign trade isolation, however, he did not succeed in this in the long-term.

Pre-Charles Bohemia, isolated from the main foreign trade routes, lagged behind in economic performance, lacked the newest technologies and was not producing fresh intellectual achievements. 46 Even Charles’ enormous European power and prestige only temporarily succeeded in pulling the Czech Kingdom out of its periphery status. The most visible of these achievements was the elevation of Prague to the center of the Holy Roman Empire. Prague’s aesthetic and identity, admired by millions of tourists every year, has primarily been shaped by this period. 47

However, Charles’ death showed the limits of one extraordinary ruler to beat basic geographic and economic rules and realities. 48 Soon afterwards, it became obvious that the Czech Kingdom was never (and never will be) one of Europe’s prosperous or political centers – that it has always been (more or less) a periphery to the developed European core – a reality still difficult for some Czechs to swallow now.


  1. “Charles IV (May 14, 1316 – November 29, 1378), born Wenceslaus, was the second King of Bohemia from the House of Luxembourg, and the first King of Bohemia to also become Holy Roman Emperor. He was the eldest son and heir of King John of Bohemia, who died at the Battle of Crécy on 26 August 1346. Charles inherited the County of Luxembourg and the Kingdom of Bohemia from his father. On 2 September 1347, Charles was crowned King of Bohemia. On 11 July 1346, prince-elector selected him King of the Romans (rex Romanorum) in opposition to Emperor Louis IV. Charles was crowned on 26 November 1346 in Bonn. After his opponent died, he was re-elected in 1349 and crowned King of the Romans. In 1355 he was crowned King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor. With his coronation as King of Burgundy in 1365, he became the personal ruler of all the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire.”, accessed on May 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/25c53Bu.
  2. Milena Bartlová, “Slavit narození Karla IV. je nebezpečná hloupost / To celebrate the birth of Charles IV. is a dangerous stupidity,” a2alarm.cz, February 17, 2016, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/25aFeBL; Milena Bartlová, “Otec vlasti a stavitel mostu / The father of the country and a bridge builder,” Právo, May 12, 2016, p. 3.
  3. Florian Stark, “Wie Kaiser Karl IV. bei der Pest die Juden verriet / When the emperor Charles IV. betrayed the Jews during the plague era,” Die Zeit, May 14, 2015, accessed on May 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/1Xxh0fr.
  4. Kateřina, Šantúrová, “Co vám o Karlovi neřekli / What haven´t you been told about Charles,” Newsweek, April 7, 2016, p. 32.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Milena Bartlová, “Karel Čtvrtý vystavený / Charles IV exhibited,” Art + antiques, May 9, 2016, p. 10.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Petr Zídek, “Hus pro naši dobu / Hus for Our Times,” Lidové noviny, July 20, 2015, p. 19. See also Jan Adamec, “The beloved musical of the Czechs – Jan Hus superstar – gets fresh staging,” V4Revue, July 5, 2015, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/24XqnqK.
  9. Zuzana Hronová, “Historik: Karla IV by ten humbuk těšil. Chtěl být slaven / Historian: Charles IV would be pleased by this hype. He wanted to be celebrated,” Aktualne.cz, May 21, 2015, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/1XxgnCp; “Lands of the Bohemian Crown,” Wikipedia, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/23W9OsQ.
  10. Bartlová, “To celebrate the birth of Charles IV is a dangerous stupidity.”
  11. “Czech extremists misused the anniversary of the birth a mediaeval Holy Roman Emperor to attack refugees and the EU,” Britské listy, May 14, 2016, accessed on May 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/24XqFxR.
  12. Bartlová, “The father of the country and a bridge builder;” Bartlová, “Charles IV exhibited.”
  13. Tomáš Procházka, “V Německu ukázali Karla IV. i jako pronásledovatele Židů / In Germany, Charles IV has also been shown as a persecutor of the Jews,” Prachatický deník, November 25, 2010, p. 16.
  14. Leona Šlajchrtová, “Německý velikán a postrach Židů, říká o “otci vlasti” Karlu IV. dokument ZDF / The TV documentary from ZDF says about Charles IV – A great German and a terror to the Jews,” iDnes.cz, November 23, 2010, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/1snbX55; The documentary can be viewed here: “Karl IV und der Schwarze Tod / Charles IV and the Black Death,” Die Deutschen, July 25, 2014, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/1TGiZIA.
  15. Martin Wihoda, “Největší Čech. Nebo Němec? / The greatest Czech. Or German?” Mladá fronta Dnes, November 29, 2010, p. 13.
  16. Bernd Posselt, “Podivný spor o Karla IV Byl to přece Čech, Němec, Evropan / A peculiar argument about Charles IV He was Czech, German and European,” iHned.cz, December 2, 2010, accessed on May 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/1OxXMyQ.
  17. Bartlová, “To celebrate the birth of Charles IV is a dangerous stupidity.”
  18. Šanda, “The historian on Charles IV: I do not think he was a man from the same planet of us, ordinary people.”
  19. Vladimír Ševela, “Karel IV, budovatel i pachatel z globalizované elity / Charles IV Builder and perpetrator from a globalised elite,” Týdeník Echo, 13(2016): 10 – 11.
  20. A perpetrator who masterminds and commits crimes from behind. The term was coined mainly for the Adolf Eichamnn-like types of bureaucrats who do not personally murder anyone, but order the deaths of thousands.
  21. Šlajchrtová, “The TV documentary from ZDF says about Charles IV – A great German and a terror to the Jews.”
  22. “Little Ice Age,” Wikipedia, accessed on May 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/1QjvJYh.
  23. Stark, “When the emperor Charles IV betrayed the Jews during the plague era.”
  24. Šlajchrtová, “The TV documentary from ZDF says about Charles IV – A great German and a terror to the Jews.”
  25. Ibid.
  26. Wihoda, “The greatest Czech. Or German?”
  27. Ibid.; Josef Pravec, “Karel IV. a peníze: České země prosperovaly i díky odborníkům, říká historička / The historian says: Charles IV and money – the Czech lands prospered also thank to the experts,” ekonom.cz, April 29, 2016, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/1TXC9w4.
  28. Jiří Šulák, “Karel IV., jaký byl / Charles IV as he was,” Respekt, November 29, 2010, p. 34.
  29. Šlajchrtová, “The TV documentary from ZDF says about Charles IV – A great German and a terror to the Jews.”
  30. Bartlová, “The father of the country and a bridge builder.”
  31. Stark, “When the Emperor Charles IV betrayed the Jews during the plague era.”
  32. Hronová, “Historian: Charles IV would be pleased by this ‘fuzz’. He wanted to be celebrated.”
  33. Šanda, “The historian on Charles IV: I do not think he was a man from the same planet of us, ordinary people.”
  34. Šanda, “The historian on Charles IV: I do not think he was a man from the same planet of us, ordinary people.”
  35. Wihoda, “The greatest Czech. Or German?”
  36. Ibid.
  37. Bartlová, “The father of the country and a bridge builder.”
  38. Hronová, “Historian: Charles IV would be pleased by this ‘fuzz’. He wanted to be celebrated.”
  39. Bartlová, “The father of the country and a bridge builder.”
  40. Šantúrová, “What you haven´t been told about Charles.”
  41. Šantúrová, “What you haven´t been told about Charles.”
  42. Pravec, “The historian says: Charles IV and money – the Czech lands prospered also thank to the experts.”
  43. Josef Pravec, “Karel IV. navzdory všem snahám Česko z evropské periferie nevymanil. A nedaří se to ani dnes/ Despite all his efforts, Charles IV did not extricate Czechia from the European periphery. And it is not possible even today,” ihned.cz, May 1, 2016, accessed on May 5, 2016, http://bit.ly/1W1H1Uq.
  44. Pravec, “Despite all his efforts, Charles IV did not extricate Czechia from the European periphery. And it is not possible even today.”
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid.
Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.