Moravia (Czech Republic)

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Czech Republic. World Factbook map, 2006

Moravia (Czech, Morava), is a historical region located in what is now the Czech Republic. It occupies most of the eastern third of the country including the South Moravian Region and the Zlín Region, as well as parts of the Moravian-Silesian, Olomouc, Pardubice, Vysočina and South Bohemian regions.

In the 16th century, Moravia was often called "the promised land" of the Anabaptists. During the Middle Ages it was a margravure and part of the Kingdom of Bohemia. As such it experienced also the rise and spread of Hussitism in the 15th century. When this pre-Protestant movement settled down to become a quiet sectarian church, several names appeared for it, such as Bohemian Brethren and Picards (a nickname erroneously derived from Beghards). Under this last name the movement was widely spread also in Moravia during the 16th century, to be sure among the Czech-speaking population only and with practically no contact with the German-speaking people of that land.

In 1526 the last king of Bohemia (and incidentally also king of Hungary) fell in a battle against the Turks, and Archduke Ferdinand of Hapsburg, his brother-in-law and later emperor, became king of Bohemia and of (a small part of) Hungary. Being a staunch Catholic he naturally tried to make Bohemia and Moravia thoroughly Catholic, an endeavor in which, however, all the Hapsburgs failed up to 1620. The provincial estates (Landstände) were exceedingly jealous of their local autonomy and resented all aggressive interference from the government in Vienna, Austria. They elected (and the Hapsburgs approved) a governor (Landeshauptmann) from their midst as head of the provincial (thoroughly feudal) government and also as their spokesman in Vienna at the Hapsburg court. On the other hand King Ferdinand was never certain whether his orders to this governor were actually carried out or not; thus he often sent his orders instead to the Bishop of Olmütz (Olomouc), the ecclesiastical ruler of Moravia. Moravia had three "royal" cities: Olmütz, Brno, and Znaim (Znojmo); provincial diets (Landtage) were held alternately in these three cities, with proceedings in the Czech language (for details see Olmütz). Until 1636 Olmütz was the capital of Moravia; after that year Brno became the capital. There were many smaller cities, too, such as Nikolsburg or Austerlitz, but they had the character of centers of large manorial estates rather than of cities in the modern sense. Here the lords could act more or less as they pleased.

It was these lords (some of them Protestants) who practiced such a degree of religious toleration that this country rightly stands out in the 16th century as a unique area of refuge for those fleeing religious persecution. Perhaps only Poland could compete with it to any extent; the rest of Europe knew nothing but persecution of those who did not conform. Franticek Hruby discusses at great length the roots of this liberal attitude. He is certain that it was by no means derived from economic motives only (sectarians being usually good and reliable workers); perhaps the Hussite-Picard tradition of more than half a century had something to do with it, and likewise the old feudal pride in independence. In short, not only Anabaptists of all shades but many other left-wing groups of the age of the Reformation found a welcome refuge in Moravia for shorter or longer periods. As far as the records go, there was only one execution for reasons of nonconformity in Moravia, namely, the burning at the stake of the Anabaptist brother Thoman Waldhauser in Brno in 1528 (Geschicht-Buch, 45 f.). But at that time Brno had a city government and was rather cool to manorial or feudal tradition.

The historic region of Moravia in present day Czech Republic. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Perhaps the earliest report on sectarian activities is found in a printed book of 1526 by Oswald Glait, which records a religious debate in Austerlitz in March 1526, sponsored by a nobleman John Dubchansky, who wanted to achieve a sort of unification of all non-Catholics (Utraquists, Lutherans, and independent groups, one of them called Habrovans). Oswald Glait, the recorder, was at that time not yet an Anabaptist. A few weeks after this debate, Balthasar Hubmaier, since May 1525 an Anabaptist preacher, arrived in Nikolsburg upon the express invitation of the nobleman Johann von Liechtenstein, lord of Nikolsburg and himself a sympathizer with Hubmaier's views. Most likely Liechtenstein was later baptized by his illustrious guest. From that time on Anabaptism found a foothold in Moravia. Glait also went to Nikolsburg, as did Hans Hut, Ambrosius Spittelmaier, Jakob Wiedemann, and many more. Soon Anabaptism experienced its first split: Hubmaier and Spittelmaier defended the use of the sword (Schwertler), while Hut, Glait, and Wiedemann opposed it, hence were derisively called Stäbler (staff-bearers; see Hutterian Brethren). As persecutions intensified elsewhere, a stream of refugees now poured into Moravia, coming from Tyrol and other Hapsburg areas, as well as from South Germany, Bavaria, Württemberg, etc. In the 1530s three main groups were observed: Hutterian Brethern (destined to survive all the vicissitudes of history), Gabrielites, who first left for Silesia but around 1545 joined the Hutterites, and Philippites, some of whom likewise joined the first-named group, while others returned to Germany, when for a few years even Moravia attempted to expel its Anabaptists. Besides these three main groups there were also "Swiss" Brethren, i.e., Anabaptists who did not practice community of goods. Whether they were actually Swiss is not known, but it is certain that small groups of them existed as late as 1591 and even 1618 (Beck, Geschichts-Bücher, 152, note). There were also the Pilgramites, apparently the followers of Pilgram Marpeck. Leopold Scharnschlager was for a while their leader (in the 1530's). But the number of independent groups other than Anabaptists was far greater. Several published lists and other reports show that at certain places, such as Austerlitz, there existed at least 13 or 14 sectarian (non-Catholic) groups. The earliest list, of 1556 (Krebs, 511), enumerates 20 such sects. De Wind published several such lists (of 1567 and later) which name, besides Picards, Lutherans, and Calvinists, various Anabaptist groups (one called Austerlitzer Brüder), then "Arians, Samosatenes, and Sabbatarians" (apparently all three names for the anti-Trinitarian Socinians, all of whom were immigrant Italians), then Adamites and similar marginal groups, practically all of them (except the Socinians) German-speaking people now living in Czech surroundings. De Wind also names some of the more outstanding manorial lords who made the opportunities for these groups available. Besides the lord of Nikolsburg (Liechtenstein), there was the lord of Austerlitz, Ulrich von Kaunitz, who was perhaps the most broad-minded of all (Austerlitz was said to have been at times a real "Babel"), then Johann von Lipa, lord of Kromau and Schakovitz (incidentally the man who also offered a safe refuge in 1537 to Paracelsus, the famous physician of that day), Heinrich von Lomnitz, lord of Jamnitz, who is said to have ransomed Anabaptist brethren from the dungeon of Passau (Mennonite Quarterly Review 1955, 61), and, strangely enough, also the Abbess of Maria-Saal near Brno, the mistress of Auspitz, another well-known center of Anabaptism. Apparently she needed reliable tillers of the soil and skilled craftsmen more than anything else. Somewhat later the lords of Seelovitz, the Zierotin family, became outstanding as protectors of the Hutterian Brethren and broad-minded lords. Three of these Zierotins, Friedrich (died 1598), Karl, and Ladislaus Velen (1619-1621), were also governors of Moravia and exerted a beneficent influence regarding the life of the Anabaptists in Moravia.

Only twice did it happen that King Ferdinand had his way and the lords had to yield; viz., 1535-1536 and 1547-1551. These were hard times for the Anabaptists (and most likely also for the other left-wing groups). In 1535 Ferdinand came for the first time personally to a provincial diet, and prevailed upon the reluctant lords to expel all "heretics." It was then that the Philippites left Moravia for good (except a few remnants; see Pulgram), and that Jakob Hutter addressed his famous letter to the governor Johan Kuna von Kunstadt, to be sure without success. The Brethren had no choice and began wandering hither and thither. Fortunately, the stern measures did not last for very long, and in 1537 new Bruderhofs could be established again on various estates (see Schäkovitz). In 1546 Ferdinand came again to Moravia. Things looked favorable for the Hapsburgs; the Turks had been defeated (at least for the moment) and Ferdinand's brother, Emperor Charles V, held the Protestants in check in the Schmalkaldian War. Now the danger for the Brethren was even more serious than a decade earlier. They began new settlements in nearby Slovakia, then belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary, where the Hapsburgs had not yet gained much influence. But even here the situation became somewhat critical in 1548-1553 (see Holitsch). Thus the brotherhoods shuttled back and forth between Moravia, Lower Austria, and Slovakia. Nowhere did they find a place of rest. It may have been in these dark years that they began to dig out the underground tunnels found all over that area and called in Czech Lochy, i.e., Löcher, meaning holes. They were pathetic witnesses of persecution. The Hutterites, however, tried again to write to the governor (Wenzel von Ludanitz) in 1545, with small success, as could have been anticipated. (Beck, 169-173.)

But the political scene changed again; the Turks threatened again from Hungary, and Charles V was defeated by the Schmalkaldians. Thus around 1551-1552 peace came for the Brethren, making it possible for them to develop permanent settlements (Bruderhofs). From 1551 until about 1600 the peace was but very little disturbed. The Hutterian Brethren called this period the "Golden Era." Their number multiplied now by leaps and bounds, mainly because of newcomers from many countries (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, etc.); their activities were so successful that the jealousy of the surrounding population was aroused. Jesuits arrived in Nikolsburg in the 1570s, but neither they nor other priests (Erhard, Fischer) could do much harm to the brotherhood which was so powerfully protected by the nobles.

The Hutterites were, however, not the only Anabaptists in Moravia, although they are the only ones of whom there is a continuous record. It is known that until the end of the 16th century Swiss Brethren also lived in Moravia (though in small numbers) and Pilgramites, the Marpeck group. As for the Swiss Brethren (besides what Beck had to say; see above) a remarkable event is known through a Dutch booklet, Het Brilleken of 1630 (Martyrs Mirror D I, 400 f., E 365-67), which tells of the visit of "Greek Brethren" from Thessalonica to these Brethren in Moravia around 1550, and also of the flight of one of these Swiss Brethren (who later tells this story) around 1620. As for the Pilgramites one of their most precious possessions, Marpeck's Verantwortung (1542), was copied in Moravia (now preserved in the library of Olmütz). This manuscript contains a letter of 1571 by a certain Wernhard Riepl of Klein-Teschau, Moravia, concerning certain theological arguments among these brethren, referring back to a tract by Leopold Scharnschlager (Loserth, Quellen, 35). This is apparently the latest reference available for the existence of the Marpeck group in Moravia and elsewhere.

One of the '"administrative" centers of the Hutterites between 1565 and 1620 was the Bruderhof at Neumühl, ten miles (16 km) east of Nikolsburg, which became the residence of four successive head bishops or Vorsteher, viz., Walpot, Kräl, Braidl, and Dietrich (for details see Neumühl). It was here that the large chronicle was written, where all the outgoing and incoming correspondence was handled and filed away, where some of the famous codices (Epistel- and Artikel-Büchlein) were written, and where the important community regulations (Gemeindeordnungen) were formulated. It was also here that Polish anti-Trinitarian visitors were entertained. All practical and doctrinal decisions of the second half of the 16th century seem to have originated at this place.

Unfortunate conditions brought this flowering to a bitter end. A Turkish-Hungarian war brought the invasion of undisciplined hordes, who inflicted severe tribulations upon the brotherhood: murder, rape, torture, arson, carrying away of women and children, war in its worst aspect, coming upon people who were nonresistant and therefore helpless in the face of such dangers (see Böger). Three hymns in the Hutterite hymnal tell of those terrible years (the "Botschkai Lieder," Lieder d. Hutt. Brüder, 804-812). The detailed story is also told in all their chronicles. In addition to all this tribulation came intensified demands from the Emperor Rudolph II (residing in Prague) for money (actually war loans), which the Brethren emphatically refused to give, thus provoking renewed threats (correspondence in the Geschicht-Buch, 443-46 and 477-80). And then the Catholic Counter Reformation came into full swing in the formerly liberal margraviate of Moravia (see Dietrichstein, Cardinal Franz von, the new lord of Nikolsburg). The number of Bruderhofs declined but they still were strong spiritually and in organization.

Then once again it appeared that good fortune would make it possible for the brethren to continue their work, internally by building up their brotherhood, externally by sending out missioners to the farthest corners of the German-speaking territories (such as East Prussia; see Elbing). When in the Bohemian Rebellion of 1618-1619 the Hapsburgs lost their old kingdom, and Friedrich, the prince-elector of the Palatinate, became the ruler (later called "the Winter-King," 1619-1620), things looked somewhat hopeful again. Friedrich himself was a Calvinist, but for the moment he was definitely graciously inclined toward all sectarians. When he came to visit Moravia he also stopped at some Hutterite colonies (such as Kromau), where he was given presents and promised his royal protection (Hruby). This did not last longer than one winter, however. In 1620 Friedrich lost the battle at the White Mountain (near Prague) and had to flee; with it the fate of the Protestants (and Anabaptists) in the Hapsburg lands was sealed. Emperor Ferdinand II, supported by Cardinal Franz von Dietrichstein, now insisted upon total expulsion of all non-Catholics. No lord could any longer protect the Hutterian Brethren, who thus suffered both from the unrestrained military hordes (e.g., Dampierre's cavalry), and the ruthless orders of the audiorities. The severity of this suffering through war can still be felt in reading the moving three "Pribitz hymns" of 1620-1622 (Lieder d. Hutt. Brüder, 821-38; see also Pribitz). Lives were lost and goods destroyed or confiscated. And then one Vorsteher, Hirzel, betrayed a number of hiding places of their savings, thus leaving the Brethren nearly penniless.

After 1622 no Anabaptist could remain in Moravia any longer. A few lords tried still to employ some single individuals on their estates, but as the Thirty Years' War progressed also these had to be sent away. Slovakia promised at least for a while a safe refuge (see Slovakia). As for the non-Hutterites, there is no knowledge at all concerning their fate.

And yet the crafts of the Brethren even after that tragic war continued to attract the interest of Moravian nobles. As Hruby proved, the famous Habaner ceramics were found throughout the 17th century in the inventories of Moravian castles and manor houses. The same is true regarding the Hutterite cutlery (knives) and their beautifully worked clocks, to be found on many a tower. But otherwise Moravia like Bohemia had been thoroughly reconverted to Catholicism. The old feudal independence faded away and the great period of Moravian history was over.

In 1918 Moravia became part of the Czechoslovakian Republic. At that time it still had more than 600,000 Germans among its 2.7 million population. When, in 1937, two Hutterite Brothers from America visited the country they reported that remnants of their old settlements were still extant and that even some vague recollections lingered on here and there. By the 1950s all Germans had been expelled from Czechoslovakia, and the country had become completely Slavic.

See also Moravian Church, Moravians in the Netherlands


De Wind, H. "A Sixteenth Century Description of Religious Sects in Austerlitz, Moravia." Mennonite Quarterly Review XXIX (1955): 44-53.

Dedic, Paul. "Die religiosen und hirchlichen Verhältnisse in Mähren im 16. Jahrhundert." 1922. Dissertation in manuscript at the University of Vienna, Evangelical-Theological Faculty.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 711-17.

Hruby, Fr. Die Mährischen Wiedertäufer. Leipzig, 1935, with new Czech source material.

Loserth, Johann. "Der Communismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zu ihrer Lehre, Geschichte and Verfassung." Archiv für österreichische Geschichte 81, 1 (1895).

For older works see Friedmann's bibliography in Archiv für Reformation Geschichte 36 (1929): 176-178.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1957

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Friedmann, Robert. "Moravia (Czech Republic)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 29 Jul 2021.

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Friedmann, Robert. (1957). Moravia (Czech Republic). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 July 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 747-750. All rights reserved.

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