Czechoslovakia was established in 1918 as a national state of the Czechs and Slovaks. Although these two peoples were closely related, they had undergone different historical experiences. In the ninth century A.D., the ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks were united in the Great Moravian Empire. The Bohemian Kingdom emerged in the tenth century when the Premyslid chiefs--members of the Cechove, a tribe from which the Czechs derive their name--unified neighboring Czech tribes and established a form of centralized rule. By the tenth century the Hungarians had conquered Slovakia, and for a millennium the Czechs and the Slovaks went their separate ways. The history of Czechoslovakia, therefore, is a story of two separate peoples whose fates sometimes have touched and sometimes have intertwined. Despite their separate strands of development, both Czechs and Slovaks struggled against a powerful neighbor that threatened their very existence. Cut off from Byzantium by the Hungarian presence, the Bohemian Kingdom existed in the shadow of the Holy Roman Empire. Hapsburg rule brought two centuries of conflict between the Bohemian estates and the monarchy. As a result of this struggle, the Czechs lost a major portion of their native aristocracy, their particular form of religion, and even the widespread use of the Czech language. The Hapsburg policy of centralization began with its first ruler, King Ferdinand (1526-64). His efforts to eliminate the influence of the Bohemian estates were met with stubborn resistance. But the Bohemian estates were themselves divided, primarily on religious lines. By several adroit political maneuvers, Ferdinand was able to establish hereditary succession to the Bohemian crown for the Hapsburgs. The estates' inability to establish the principle of electing or even confirming a monarch made their position considerably weaker.

The Dual Monarchy, 1867-1918

After the revolutions of 1848, Francis Joseph attempted to rule as an absolute monarch, keeping all the nationalities in check. But the Hapsburgs suffered a series of defeats. In 1859 they were driven out of Italy, and in 1866 they were defeated by Prussia and expelled from the German Confederation. To strengthen his position, Francis Joseph was ready to improve his relations with the Hungarians. At first it seemed that some concessions would be made to Bohemia, but in the end the crown effected a compromise with the Hungarian gentry. The Compromise of 1867 established the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary (also known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The two parts of the empire were united by a common ruler, by a joint foreign policy, and, to some extent, by shared finances. Otherwise, Austria and Hungary were virtually independent states, each having its own parliament, government, administration, and judicial system. Despite a series of crises, this dual system survived until 1918. It made permanent the dominant position of the Hungarians in Hungary and of the Germans in the Austrian parts of the monarchy. While Czechs, Poles, and other nationalities had some influence in government, they were never permitted to share political power. This inability to come to terms with its nationalities contributed to the ultimate collapse of the Dual Monarchy.

The Czechoslovak Idea

At the turn of the century, the idea of a "Czechoslovak" entity began to be advocated by some Czech and Slovak leaders. The concept that Czechs and Slovaks shared a common heritage was hardly new. But as the two nations developed, the Slovaks had been intent on demonstrating the legitimacy of Slovak as a language separate from Czech. In the 1890s, contacts between Czech and Slovak intellectuals intensified. The Czech leader Masaryk was a keen advocate of Czech-Slovak cooperation. Some of his students formed the Czechoslovak Union and in 1898 published the journal Hlas (The Voice). In Slovakia, young Slovak intellectuals began to challenge the old Slovak National Party. But although the Czech and Slovak national movements began drawing closer together, their ultimate goals remained unclear. At least until World War I, the Czech and Slovak national movements struggled for autonomy within Austria and Hungary, respectively. Only during the war did the idea of an independent Czechoslovakia emerge.

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, the Czechs and Slovaks showed little enthusiasm for fighting for their respective enemies, the Germans and the Hungarians, against fellow Slavs, the Russians and the Serbs. Large numbers of Czechs and Slovaks defected on the Russian front and formed the Czechoslovak Legion. Masaryk went to western Europe and began propagating the idea that the Austro-Hungarian Empire should be dismembered and that Czechoslovakia should be an independent state. In 1916, together with Eduard Benes and Milan Stefanik (a Slovak war hero), Masaryk created the Czechoslovak National Council. Masaryk in the United States and Benes in France and Britain worked tirelessly to gain Allied recognition. When secret talks between the Allies and Austrian emperor Charles I (1916-18) collapsed, the Allies recognized, in the summer of 1918, the Czechoslovak National Council as the supreme organ of a future Czechoslovak government. In early October 1918, Germany and Austria proposed peace negotiations. On October 18, while in the United States, Masaryk issued a declaration of Czechoslovak independence. Masaryk insisted that the new Czechoslovak state include the historic Bohemian Kingdom, containing the German-populated Sudetenland. On October 21, however, German deputies from the Sudetenland joined other German and Austrian deputies in the Austrian parliament in declaring an independent German-Austrian state. Following the abdication of Emperor Charles on November 11, Czech troops occupied the Sudetenland. Hungary withdrew from the Hapsburg Empire on November 1. The new liberal-democratic government of Hungary under Count Michael Karolyi attempted to retain Slovakia. With Allied approval, the Czechs occupied Slovakia, and the Hungarians were forced to withdraw. The Czechs and Allies agreed on the Danube and Ipel' rivers as the boundary between Hungary and Slovakia; a large Hungarian minority, occupying the fertile plain of the Danube, would be included in the new state (see fig. 6).

Ruthenia (Carpatho- Ukraine)

The Ruthenians (from the Ukrainian Rusyn--a name used for Ukrainians in the Hapsburg monarchy) were Ukrainian-speaking mountain people who lived in the deep, narrow valleys of the Carpathian Mountains. In the eleventh century, Ruthenia (also known as Subcarpathian Ruthenia) came under the Hungarian crown. Poor peasants, grazers, and lumbermen, the Ruthenians were vassals and serfs of the Hungarian magnates dominating the plains of the Tisza River. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ruthenia lay within the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, most Ruthenians were converted from Eastern Orthodoxy to the Uniate Church. The Ruthenians remained a poor, agrarian, and politically inert people. Ruthenian delegates did, however, attend the Slavic Congress in 1848 and later appealed to Vienna for autonomy and the right of cultural development. Political activity on behalf of Ruthenia during World War I was conducted by Ruthenian emigrants in the United States. They formed groups with varying political objectives: semiautonomy within Hungary, complete independence, federation in a Ukrainian state, inclusion in a Soviet federation, or union with the Czechs. The American Ruthenian leader, Gregory Zatkovic, negotiated with Masaryk to make Subcarpathian Ruthenia part of the Czechoslovak Republic. This decision received international sanction in the Treaty of Saint-Germain (September 10, 1919), which guaranteed Subcarpathian Ruthenia autonomy within the Czechoslovak Republic.

The Czechoslovak Republic, 1918-39

The independence of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed on October 28, 1918, by the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague. The transformation of the dream into reality was a formidable task. Several ethnic groups and territories with different historical, political, and economic traditions had to be blended into a new state structure. The Czechoslovak Republic, known as the First Republic, suffered internal constrictions, which, when coupled with foreign aggression, destroyed it. Initial authority within Czechoslovakia was assumed by the newly created National Assembly on November 14, 1918. Because territorial demarcations were uncertain and elections impossible, the provisional National Assembly was constituted on the basis of the 1911 elections to the Austrian parliament with the addition of fifty-four representatives from Slovakia. National minorities were not represented; Sudeten Germans harbored secessionist aspirations, and Hungarians remained loyal to Hungary. The National Assembly elected Masaryk as its first president, chose a provisional government headed by Karel Kramar, and drafted a provisional constitution.

The Paris Peace Conference convened in January 1919. The Czech delegation was led by Kramar and Benes, premier and foreign minister respectively, of the Czechoslovak provisional government. The conference approved the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, to encompass the historic Bohemian Kingdom (including Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia), Slovakia, and Ruthenia. The Czechs requested the inclusion of Ruthenia to provide a common frontier with Romania. Tesin, an industrial area also claimed by Poland, was divided between Czechoslovakia (Cesky Tesin) and Poland (Cieszyn). The Czech claim to Lusatia, which had been part of the Bohemian Kingdom until the Thirty Years' War, was rejected. On September 10, 1919, Czechoslovakia signed a "minorities" treaty, placing its ethnic minorities under the protection of the League of Nations.

The new nation had a population of over 13.5 million. It had inherited 70 to 80 percent of all the industry of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the china and glass industries and thesugar refineries; more than 40 percent of all its distilleries and breweries; the Skoda works of Plzen (Pilsen), which produced armaments, locomotives, automobiles, and machinery; and the chemical industry of northern Bohemia. The 17 percent of all Hungarian industry that had developed in Slovakia during the late nineteenth century also fell to the republic. Czechoslovakia was one of the world's ten most industrialized states. The Czech lands were far more industrialized than Slovakia. In Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, 39 percent of the population was employed in industry and 31 percent in agriculture and forestry. Most light and heavy industry was located in the Sudetenland and was owned by Germans and controlled by German-owned banks. Czechs controlled only 20 to 30 percent of all industry. In Slovakia 17.1 percent of the population was employed in industry, and 60.4 percent worked in agriculture and forestry. Only 5 percent of all industry in Slovakia was in Slovak hands. Subcarpathian Ruthenia was essentially without industry. In the agricultural sector, a program of reform introduced soon after the establishment of the republic was intended to rectify the unequal distribution of land. One-third of all agricultural land and forests belonged to a few aristocratic landowners--mostly Germans and Hungarians--and the Roman Catholic Church. Half of all holdings were under two hectares. The Land Control Act of April 1919 called for the expropriation of all estates exceeding 150 hectares of arable land or 250 hectares of land in general (500 hectares to be the absolute maximum). Redistribution was to proceed on a gradual basis; owners would continue in possession in the interim, and compensation was offered.

As a parliamentary democracy surrounded by hostile neighbors, the Czechoslovak Republic not only survived for twenty years but also prospered. Yet the republic was not able to withstand the combined pressure of its dissatisfied minorities and the aggressive designs of its neighbors. Tension was most acute in the German-populated Sudetenland. The rise of Hitler, who became chancellor of Germany in 1933, led to mounting German nationalism in the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and provided a pretext for Hitler's demand for annexation of this highly industrialized area. Czechoslovakia's major allies, Britain and France, were anxious to avoid a war with Germany. To appease Hitler, they signed the Munich Agreement on September 29, 1938, ceding the Sudetenland to the Third Reich. Bowing to the inevitable, Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes accepted the Munich decision. In March 1939, Nazi troops occupied all of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Slovaks declared independence. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted as an independent state but again faced the threat of a powerful neighbor. President Benes had made major concessions to the Communist Party of Czechoslovkia, hoping to satisfy it and the Soviet Union while, at the same time, attempting to preserve Czechoslovakia's democratic, pluralistic political system. Benes's hopes were not realized, and the communists overthrew his coalition government in 1948. Czechoslovakia soon was placed firmly into the Soviet orbit, and Stalinization followed.

Czechoslovakia's democratic tradition had been suppressed but not destroyed. In 1968 the struggle for democracy reemerged within the party itself. While remaining loyal to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the leadership of the party under Alexander Dubcek attempted to introduce within Czechoslovakia a more democratic form of socialism. The ensuing Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion. Subsequently, the leadership of the party was purged, and Gustav Husak, the new general secretary (the title changed from first secretary in 1971), introduced a "normalization" program. Despite Czech and Slovak dissent, as of 1987 Husak continued to enforce an antireformist course.


revised 2/4/06 by Steven Schoenherr WWI Links | Topics | Bibliography | Maps | Songs | Picture Sources