The town of Svitavy is situated on the Bohemia-Moravia frontier at an altitude of 430 metres above sea level. The town is named after the Svitava River, which was known by the first Czech chronicler, Cosmo.
Thanks to the colonization of the Premonstratensian monastery in Litomyšl the “Old Svitava” settlement with the Romanesque Church of St. Illya was established near the river. The second colonization of mainly German-speaking settlers led to the creation of "New" Svitava in the 13th century. Colonization occurred mainly under Olomouc Bishop Bruno von Schauenburg (1245 – 1281), who also entrusted his close colleague, the Westphalian aristocrat Helembert von Thurm, with the founding of the town of Svitavy. The interests of the Olomouc diocese and the Litomyšl Premonstratensian monastery sharpened into a dispute, which was subsequently settled in the accord of 6 November 1256. The document resolving the dispute is sometimes regarded as the “founding deed of the town of Svitavy.” Svitavy was a town ruled by the Olomouc bishops. The town, sometimes referred to as “oppidum” in documents, earned an important privilege in 1330 when it was affirmed that the villages of Čtyřicet Lánů and Moravský Lačnov belonged to the Svitavy magistrate's office. Later in 1513 the villages Hradec nad Svitavou, Vendolí, Sklené, Javorník, Ostrý Kámen, Horní Hynčina, Kamenná Horka, and Chrastová Lhota also fell under the Svitavy domain. Nevertheless, the Svitavy domain was often lent, sold, and used as collateral. In 1484 Svitavy was purchased by Olomouc diocese administrator Jan Filipec from Ješek Svojanovský of Boskovice. Svitavy once again became a town of the Olomouc bishops and part of the Mírov domain. The entire 16th century can be regarded as the “golden age of the town.” Trades prospered, the guild system developed, and the town earned important market privileges. Proof of the fact that the power of townspeople was continually growing was the privilege granted in the year 1606 permitting the use of red wax on seals. The Thirty Years’ War temporarily halted development of the town, but Svitavy recovered from the conflict relatively quickly. Churches were built, town walls razed, and the foundations of education were advanced. Important roads were built in the 18th century; these could be used by the armies of Maria Theresa and her Prussian adversary, King Friedrich II. The roads also supported transportation by coach. The fire of 1781 spelled disaster for town development. Svitavy was reduced to ashes; yarn stocks were destroyed, reducing an entire generation of weavers to poverty. Despite this, or rather as a result of this, the foundations were laid at this time for the future fame of the Svitavy cloth and textile industry. The town would come to be known under the flattering nickname of the "Manchester of West Moravia.” Following the dramatic period of the Napoleonic Wars the first industrialists arrived in town. They began, slowly at first, to establish the first small factories and install steam-powered machinery. Perhaps these entrepreneurs sensed that a railway would one day be built through the town. The year 1848 brought civic freedom and Svitavy became part of the Moravská Třebová political district. This ended the centuries-old subservience to the Olomouc diocese and archdiocese. Austrian constitutional efforts led townspeople to their first elections and entrepreneurs established the first large-scale textile factories. The town had its own gasworks, savings bank, schools, and court; civic pride grew among residents. Svitavy native and patron Valentin Oswald Ottendorfer was also a prominent figure during the period of town prosperity in the 2nd half of the 19th century. His gifts were used to build a much needed hospital, an orphanage, and finally even the pride of the town – a public library with a reading room. Czechs made up a mere handful of the nearly ten thousand people living in Svitavy. Nevertheless, Germans, Czechs, and Jews lived together with mutual respect. The town gained a new appearance at the end of the 19th century. In addition to large factory complexes directly in town or just outside luxury villas were built by factory owners and new streets and residential quarters were founded. The industrial character of the town was rounded out by worker's row houses and colonies. The historic town square received brightly coloured façades and streets were lit with gas lamps; later these were even replaced with electric lamps powered by the new town power plant. Politically the town population leaned toward trade parties and a Christian ethos. Christian fellowships, trade unions, and sports clubs were the leading organizations in town. But this was all to end with the onset of the Great War (1914 – 1918), which led to the disintegration of the multicultural monarchy and launched a period of nationalism in the new successor states. It is not surprising then that the declaration of the new Czechoslovak state was not received with understanding in German Svitavy. Calls for the renewal of German Austria could still be heard on the streets of Svitavy in November 1918, but the arrival of the Czechoslovak army in Svitavy spelled the end of proclamations of independence for the Hřebeč linguistic island. Despite initial distrust German-speaking Svitavy citizens took activist positions in the First Republic; the town’s deputies and senators (F. Spina, F. Jesser, F. Hodina) were in favour of cooperation with the Prague Castle. The economic crisis and social tension of the 1930s upset this fragile balance and the town threw its support behind Hitler. Standing on his side was yet another important native, Oskar Schindler, though at the time he was better known under the nickname Schindler – Rogue. Following the Munich Agreement Svitavy became part of Hitler’s Third Reich. The tragedy of a new war wasn’t long in coming. All at once the town was completely flooded with forced labourers, prisoners of war, and refugees from the East. Several thousand people found themselves in the abject conditions of work camps until May 1945. After the liberation of Svitavy German residents were herded into these same camps; their property was confiscated and new residents from all corners of Czechoslovakia arrived in Svitavy. With regard to state administration the judicial district of Svitavy was re-established as part of the Brno Region. This lasted until the year 1960 when the town fell into the newly-created East Bohemia Region, definitively making Svitavy a Bohemian town in the geographical sense. Administrative reforms at the end of the 20th century placed the town of nearly eighteen thousand residents in the Pardubice Region.