The Czech and German nations have always been very closely intertwined, for better or for worse. The first Germans started to move into the Czech lands at the invitation of the Bohemian kings around the 12th century, and Germany shares the longest portion of its border with what is now the Czech Republic.
The two nations certainly haven’t always gotten along well over the centuries, but one thing that’s for sure is that the Germans have left numerous influences on their neighboring country, from food and select words in the Czech language to, more visibly, architecture. Prague is famous for proudly displaying buildings from across myriad architectural periods, and many of them don’t have purely Bohemian roots.
The Gothic Period
Gothic architecture was already flourishing in much of Europe when it finally spread to the Czech lands in the early 13th century. One of greatest patrons of art and architecture that Prague has ever seen was also the country’s most revered king, Charles IV, who ruled from 1346-1378. He invested a lot into beautifying and developing the city, one of the most obvious results of which is the St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle, certainly the most recognizable piece of the city’s skyline. After the first architect died, the second hired was Peter Parler, who came from what is now Germany. He also designed New Town, which was built under Charles IV’s rule, and another key point on Prague’s tourist route: the Charles Bridge.
So remember, when you’re walking across the Charles Bridge and looking up at St. Vitus, Charles IV ordered them to be built, and he entrusted the plans to a German architect.
The Baroque Period
Prague is also famous for its Baroque architecture, which was built up in the 17th and 18th centuries. Baroque architecture originally filtered up from Italy, and then a great number of Bavarian and Austrian architects came into the Czech lands and began turning Bohemian Baroque into something special. Prague’s crowning Baroque jewel is the St. Nicholas Church in Lesser Town, just about a block away from the Charles Bridge – and it was built by a Bavarian architect, Christoph Dientzenhofer. He came to Bohemia with his son, Kilian Ignatz, and together they created some of the most spectacular Baroque structures in the world.
The 19th Century
By the time the 19th century rolled around, Prague was a bustling, diverse city full of Czechs, Germans, and Jews. While the populations in many ways lived and worked together harmoniously, they also tried to differentiate themselves. The Czechs and Germans, for example, had to have separate theatres to have performances in their separate languages. The Prague State Opera, then, was built in the Neo-Rococo style by the German minority, and opened in 1888 with a Wagner opera.
The 19th century was also an important time for the Czechs in terms of defining themselves as a nation separate from the German nation. This process was called the Czech National Revival, which involved both revitalizing the Czech language and creating the symbols of the nation, including music, literature, art, and architecture. While we can see German influences all over Prague, two important places where we cannot see it are the National Museum and the National Theatre, both designed by Czechs in the Neo-Classicist style.
Later in the 19th century and into the 20th, another style arose in Prague, one that is now one of the defining features of the city: Art Nouveau. The version of Art Nouveau that you’ll find in Prague combines elements from the original Parisian style, the more abstract Viennese Secession movement, and the floral motifs of the German Jugendstil.
The 20th Century
Once you get past Art Nouveau, the 20th century architecture in Prague usually isn’t what you come to the city to see. However, there are some notable Functionalist buildings, a style that emphasizes function over ornament that was heavily influenced by the German Bauhaus movement. The Veletrzni palace, which now houses one branch of the National Gallery, is one of Prague’s major Functionalist works.
Outside of Prague
The borderlands of Bohemia and Moravia, once called the Sudetenland, were once primarily inhabited by Germans. Most major cities even outside of this region also had significant German populations, as Germans made up much of the upper class. If you have enough time to explore the architecture outside of Prague, a perfect place to look for German influences is in Liberec, which was once the capital of the Sudetenland. Walk up Husova ulice and back down Masarykova ulice to see an unbelievable collection of villas built in the late 19th and early 20th century by the rich German families in the area.
Another good stop is Brno, the second biggest city in the Czech Republic and the Moravian capital. During the Czech National Revival in the 19th century, the German population there began to feel their position threatened, so they built what is now lovingly called the Red Church in 1867 in the North German Gothic style, the main characteristic of which is the choice of bricks as a building material. The bricks marked it as a typical German construction, and this style is found across Northern Europe in areas where there are (or were) German populations. After the German population was expelled after the Second World War, the Red Church was converted from a Lutheran church into the Jan Amos Komensky Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren.