The Bohemian Basin had been a melting pot for various ethnic groups since time immemorial: Celts, Germans and Slavs had all settled there. In the Middle Ages, its Czech rulers, the Přemyslid dynasty, invited Germans to come and live in Bohemia and Moravia. The newcomers were guaranteed certain rights and independence in matters of language and culture. In 1176, Duke Sobeslav II of Bohemia issued the famous charter of freedom for the German inhabitants of Prague. The influx of German settlers to the lands of Bohemia during the Middle Ages peaked in the 13th century under King Přemysl Otakar II.
The cultural significance of ethnic Germans for Bohemia, Moravia and the Sudeten part of Silesia – historical regions that now make up the Czech Republic – cannot be adequately conveyed within the space available here. Not only was their number greater than the total of all the other regions looked at here, but they also made up a greater percentage of the population. The census of 1910 registered around 3.25 million Germans living in these regions – equivalent to almost one third of their total population. At the peripheries of Bohemia and Moravia where they adjoined German-speaking countries, that is to say, along the borders with Bavaria, Saxony, Silesia, and Austria, the areas inhabited by Germans were basically continuous. Here they made up over 90% of the population. Apart from these, there were German-speaking enclaves in the majority Czech interior of the country, such as Schönhengstgau and the area around Iglau. The percentage of Germans in Prague varied over the course of history, dwindling considerably in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1945, some 42,000 Germans native to Prague still lived in the city. Brünn (Brno), the capital of Moravia, also had an economically and culturally significant German minority population until 1945. The use of the term 'Sudeten Germans' to refer to all of these people dates from the late 19th century.
Karlsbad, Marienbad and Franzensbad are among the most famous spas in the world. The health-giving properties of the thermal springs were known back in the Middle Ages. In 1370, the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Karl IV, granted a royal charter to the town of Karlsbad, which is named after him. People have gone there ever since, in the hope of alleviating their ailments. At first, the hot springs were only bathed in, but from the 16th century onwards, the water was drunk for medicinal purposes. The springs of Marienbad had been known to the monks of the nearby monastery at Tepl for centuries, but it was not until 1813 that a spa was established there. Franzensbad was founded as a spa in 1793, during the rule of Franz II, from whom it gained its name. Water from its springs had in fact been sold since the 17th century, by the nearby town of Eger.
The number of guests increased enormously with the advent of the railway in 1870. Magnificent buildings worthy of a city were erected in Karlsbad and Marienbad, which became the cosmopolitan watering holes of Europe's 'high society', whereas Franzensbad kept much of its original character. European rulers came to the spas to meet for informal talks and official conferences. By the early 20th century, members of the bourgeoisie and middle class were also coming there to take the waters.
The Germans mostly settled in the peripheral areas of Bohemia and Moravia, which were covered with huge forests. The most important resources there were timber and metal ore. Although the lay brothers of the monasteries and the settlers themselves felled large swathes of woodland, parts of the Bohemian Forest and other tracts of land cultivated by Germans remained primeval forest. Many of the highlands were barely suitable for agriculture. On the other hand, the Bohemian Forest, in particular, enabled an advanced timber industry to develop. The Schwarzenberg canal was built, allowing timber for building and fuel to be floated down to the Danube and from there to Vienna. Timber for Prague was floated down the river Moldau. Typical specialist industries grew up, including charcoal burning, paper mills, glassworks, furniture manufacturing, and workshops for wooden musical instruments. The Ore Mountains in both Saxony and Bohemia had been one of Europe's most important mining regions since the Middle Ages. Bohemia's geology was still of interest to visitors such as the German writer Goethe in the 18th century.
Bohemian lead crystal became famous throughout the world as a luxury export. Ruby glass and other types of coloured glass were also known as a Bohemian speciality. Northern Bohemia became a centre for important glass, jewellery and textile industries. The lands of Bohemia as a whole formed the industrial heart of the Habsburg monarchy.