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HISTORY


Czechoslovakia was established in October 1918-one of the “successor states” that evolved from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It included the former imperial provinces of BOHEMIA, MORAVIA,, part of SILESIA (qq.v.), Slovakia, and sub-Carpathian Ruthenia.

From the 5th century on, Czechs and other groups of Western Slavs settled in the area. They were converted to Christianity in the 9th century during the reign (870-94) of Svatopluk, who united under his rule Moravia, Bohemia, and Slovakia. In 950 Bohemia, under its own dynasty (Premysl), became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Moravia was joined to Bohemia in the 11th century. The Premysl reign ended early in the 14th century, and the Luxemburg dynasty began. Under Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV) Bohemia achieved great political and cultural prominence. The Czech lands were later convulsed by the Hussite Reformation, a movement that attacked both the authority of the Roman Catholic church and the privileged position of the German inhabitants (see HUSSITES,; HUSSITE WARS,). After the victory of the Ottoman Turks in 1526, Bohemia, Moravia, and northern Hungary fell under Habsburg rule. The Czechs rebelled in 1618 and were defeated in 1620. For the next two centuries the Bohemians and Moravians were vigorously reconverted to Roman Catholicism and submitted to Germanization, while the Slovaks were forced to Magyarization by Hungarian nobles who owned most of the land. The 19th century was marked by a national awakening of Czechs and Slovaks, their aspirations for independence originating in the Revolution of 1848.

During World War I, Czech and Slovak representatives abroad-Tomáš G. Masaryk, Eduard Beneš, and Milan Štefánik (1880-1919)-had won much-needed support from the Allied powers for the creation of a Czecho-Slovak republic, which was ultimately established at Prague immediately after the war.

The New State.

The new Czechoslovakia was a Western-style democratic republic, with a parliamentary form of government, universal suffrage, and firm guarantees for human rights. The First Republic (1918-38) had only two presidents-the aged Masaryk (1918-35) and his younger colleague, Beneš (1935-38). Although a wide variety of political parties vied for power, the country enjoyed stable government during the interwar period. Most of this time, a coalition of the five major parties, led by the Agrarians, ruled the state. Extremist groups of the right and left, including a small native Fascist movement and a Communist party founded in 1921, never gained real political strength.

Granted generous territorial boundaries and inheriting a wealth of industrial resources from the defunct Austrian Empire, Czechoslovakia was also a comparatively prosperous country. A stable currency and a moderate program of land redistribution helped it weather successfully the postwar economic crisis and the worldwide depression that began in 1929.

Internal dissension.

The new state, however, had serious problems and implacable enemies. Like the Habsburg monarchy it had replaced, Czechoslovakia was a state of many nationalities. The two “state peoples,” the Czechs and Slovaks, totaled only 67 percent of the population, the dominant Czechs alone only 51 percent. The rest consisted of “national minorities,” and although they were generally well treated by the central government, these minorities had little or no desire to be part of the new state and felt little loyalty to it. Germans, concentrated mainly in the Sudeten Mountains of northern Bohemia, comprised 22 percent of the total inhabitants, Ruthenes (Ukrainians) 6 percent, and Hungarians 5 percent. Worse, relations between the Czechs and Slovaks themselves were not very amicable. In 1918, Masaryk had signed the so-called Pittsburgh Agreement with representatives of Slovak emigrants in the U.S., promising the European Slovaks self-government in a joint postwar state, but the constitution of 1920 declared Czechoslovakia to be a centralized, unitary state of a single “Czechoslovak people,” who spoke a “Czechoslovak language.” The Slovaks also resented the patronizing attitude of the more urbanized Czechs and their control of much of the administrative machinery, even in Slovakia. Their fervent Roman Catholicism was offended by the hostility that existed between the Czech-dominated government and the Vatican.

Foreign policy.

Insecure at home and fearful of the revisionist aims of its neighbors-Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Poland-Czechoslovakia sought to ensure its survival through close cooperation with France, Great Britain, and the League of Nations and by signing a series of defensive military agreements. In 1920-21 it joined Romania and Yugoslavia in the Little Entente, and in 1925 it signed a treaty of mutual defense with France. Another such treaty-with the Soviet Union-was signed in 1935.

German Claims and the Munich Pact.

The combination of inner weakness and external threat ultimately destroyed Czechoslovakia. Following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party in Germany in 1933, the 3 million Sudeten Germans rallied to the Sudeten German party founded by Konrad Henlein (1898-1945), a former gymnastics instructor. With Hitler's urging and support, Henlein made increasingly radical demands on the Czechoslovak government for self-rule for the German minority. Rejecting such proffered concessions as guarantees of equal opportunity in government service and equal unemployment benefits, he called for the complete restructuring of the country along nationality lines and demanded that the German minority be placed under Hitler's direct protection. After the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, all the German political parties in Czechoslovakia, except the Social Democrats, withdrew from participation in the government. In his Karlsbad Program (April 1938), Henlein repeated and escalated his demands, requiring a drastic alteration in the pattern of Czechoslovakia's foreign alliances as well. Pressured by the British mediator, Lord Runciman (1870-1949), the Czechoslovak government offered even greater concessions, but Henlein broke off negotiations and fled to Germany. On Sept. 12, 1938, Hitler officially declared himself in support of self-determination for the Sudeten Germans. Britain and France, anxious to avoid war, leaned heavily on Czechoslovakia to be conciliatory. Fearful of losing their support, the Czechoslovak government accepted British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's request that it cede all territories in which the population was at least 50 percent German. The terms were worked out by Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy (but not Czechoslovakia) at a conference in Munich on Sept. 29-30, 1938. As a result of the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia lost its western and northern borders and with them its best fortifications and natural defenses and vast economic resources. The Soviet Union offered to come to Czechoslovakia's aid if France also agreed to do so. Poland and Hungary took advantage of Czechoslovakia's weakness to present ultimatums for the cession of long-disputed border territories. Altogether, Czechoslovakia lost 4.8 million people, of whom one-fourth were Czechs and Slovaks.

Dismemberment and War.

The Second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-39) lasted only six months. President Beneš resigned and left the country in October 1938. A new, right-wing government under Emil Hácha (1872-1945) slavishly accommodated German wishes and granted autonomy to Slovakia and Ruthenia. On March 15, 1939, German troops simply occupied Bohemia and Moravia, making them a “protectorate” of the German Reich. Germany also prodded the Slovaks to declare their own independent republic, a clerico-fascist state headed by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Josef Tiso (1887-1947), that became a puppet and military ally of the Reich. Ruthenia was returned to Hungary.

Except for the assassination of the Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942), and an armed uprising in Prague in May 1945, Czech wartime resistance was passive, emphasizing sabotage and intelligence. In the Slovak National Uprising of August 1944, a coalition tried unsuccessfully to topple the Slovak regime.

Abroad, having received Allied recognition as the head of a Czechoslovak government-in-exile, Beneš made plans for the postwar revival of his country. Disillusioned with the betrayal of the Western powers at Munich, he decided to reorient the future Czechoslovak state toward a reliance on the Soviet Union, to make it a “bridge between East and West.” In 1943, he signed a 20-year treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. When the government was reestablished on Czechoslovak soil in April 1945, it included a strong Communist contingent; the “action committees” that sprang up throughout the country and took over local administration were also dominated by Communists.

The Communist Takeover.

In the Third Czechoslovak Republic (1945-48), the Communists, with Soviet backing, rapidly increased their political power. National elections in May 1946 gave them more than a third of the parliamentary seats. Beneš was restored to the presidency, but the Communist leader Klement Gottwald was called to form a new cabinet, and his partisans gained control of the ministries of education, interior, and communications. Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia was ceded to the Soviet Union, and the Sudeten Germans were expelled en masse. Major industries were nationalized. The prewar conservative political parties, including the powerful Agrarians, were banned; prominent anti-Communists were eliminated as “collaborators” and “war criminals.”

From mid-1947, however, the Communists' strength began to wane. They reacted by attempting to assassinate opponents and by packing the police force with their own followers. In February 1948, 12 non-Communist ministers resigned in a vain attempt to force a showdown. The Communists still commanded a majority of the cabinet; their control of the police and the workers' militia permitted them to mount armed demonstrations. President Beneš, ill and fearful of civil war, capitulated and appointed a new government dominated by Communists and their allies.

Soon afterward Beneš died, and Gottwald replaced him as president. Czechoslovakia was rapidly turned into a model Soviet satellite. Industry, commerce, and transport were nationalized, agriculture collectivized, churches attacked and restricted, and education and cultural-intellectual life revamped along Marxist lines. Anti-Communists, labeled subversives, were sent to prison and labor camps. In the early 1950s, in a series of public show trials, the Communist party purged many of its own members, including its general secretary, Rudolf Slánsky (1901-52).

When Gottwald died in 1953, he was succeeded as president by Antonín Zápotocky (1884-1957). Responding to the general thaw in Eastern Europe following Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, and to workers' riots and open disaffection on the part of farmers, intellectuals, and students, the new regime permitted a mild liberalization of conditions. But when Antonín Novotny (1904-75) assumed the presidency in 1957 (he had been general secretary of the Communist party since 1953), a traditional Stalinist system was once again imposed. Economic difficulties finally forced de-Stalinization upon Novotny and party hardliners, from 1963 on.

The Prague Spring.

At the beginning of 1968, a progressive faction of the Czechoslovak Communist party decided that radical changes were necessary to forestall a major catastrophe. In January Novotny was replaced as general secretary of the party by Alexander Dub[ccaron]ek, a Slovak, and in March as president by Gen. Ludvík Svoboda (1895-1979), a hero of World War II. In the ensuing months, which became known as the “Prague Spring,” the new regime set about liberalizing and democratizing Czechoslovak life and loosening the country's association with the Soviet Union. Its “Action Program” guaranteed freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion; gave a greater role to non-Communist parties and groups; adopted economic reforms, including decentralized decision making and profit incentives; agreed to the rehabilitation of persons unjustly convicted in the period 1949-54; and promised federal status for Slovakia. The program won mass support in Czechoslovakia, as well as approval by Romania, Yugoslavia, and many West European Communist parties. It evoked only hostility, however, from the Soviet Union and the other East European socialist countries, which feared it would spread to them. Despite official warnings, sharp attacks in the Soviet press, and intimidating military maneuvers, the Czechoslovak reformers stood firm. In meetings with their assembled critics in July and August, they pledged to maintain the leading role of the Communist party in Czechoslovakia and to continue the country's alliance with the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact states.

The Soviet Invasion and the Husák Regime.

Unconvinced, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies decided to end the Czechoslovak experiment. On August 20, allegedly responding to a plea from Czechoslovak Communist leaders to help put down a right-wing counterrevolution, about 600,000 Soviet, East German, Polish, Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops invaded and occupied the country. Some of the reform leaders, including Dub[ccaron]ek, were abducted to the USSR. Although about 25 Czechs and Slovaks were killed, resistance was generally nonviolent. The intervention was broadly condemned throughout the world.

The Soviets permitted Dub[ccaron]ek to return to office briefly. A treaty was signed allowing Soviet troops to remain in the country indefinitely, and they were soon joined by a host of Soviet military and civilian advisers. In April 1969 Dub[ccaron]ek was ousted and replaced by another Slovak, Gustav Husák, who also assumed the presidency in 1975.

Under Husák, the reforms of the “Prague Spring” were virtually scrapped by the end of 1969 and the reformers purged and punished, but the federalization of the country, put into effect on Jan. 1, 1969, was maintained. The country again became a tightly controlled, orthodox Communist state and a supporter of the USSR. Although initially there was little opposition to the new regime, a clandestine resistance developed in the 1970s. The most striking act of defiance came in 1977, with the Charter 77 movement, when several hundred people signed a document charging the Husák government with basic violations of human rights. The regime responded by imprisoning or exiling many of the leaders, provoking protests abroad.

In December 1987 Husák resigned as general secretary but retained the presidency; he was succeeded in the party post by another hardliner, Miloš Jakeš (1922-    ).

Reform and Division.

As the pace of political change quickened in the USSR and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Jakeš was unable to hold back the tide of reform; in November 1989 he and other Communist party leaders stepped down, and the government began negotiating with an opposition group, Civic Forum, led by the Czech writer Václav Havel. In December a new government took office with a Slovak, Marian Calfa (1946-    ), as prime minister. Dub[ccaron]ek was elected chairman of the Federal Assembly, which then chose Havel as president. In the nation's first free elections since 1946, voters in June 1990 gave Civic Forum and its allies large majorities in both houses of parliament. Havel was then reelected to a 2-year term, and he asked Calfa, a former Communist, to head a coalition government. A pullout of the more than 70,000 Soviet troops remaining in Czechoslovakia was completed in June 1991; in July the Warsaw Pact, which had linked Czechoslovakia's military structure with those of the USSR and other Eastern European countries, was completely disbanded.

Free-market reforms introduced in the early 1990s tended to benefit the Czech region more than Slovakia, and election results in June 1992 reflected the growing split between the two lands. With Czech and Slovak negotiators unable to agree on a new constitutional formula for national unity, Czechoslovakia split into two independent nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on Jan. 1, 1993.        J.F.Z., JOSEPH FREDERICK ZACEK, M.A., Ph.D.

For further information on this topic, see the Bibliography, sections 855. Slavic literature, 947. Czech Republic & Slovakia-948. Czech & Slovak history, 978. Russian diplomacy.
An article from Funk & Wagnalls® New Encyclopedia. © 2006 World Almanac Education Group. A WRC Media Company. All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted by written agreement, uses of the work inconsistent with U.S. and applicable foreign copyright and related laws are prohibited.

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