Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 from territory that had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As well as the seven million Czechs, two million Slovaks, 700,000 Hungarians and 450,000 Ruthenians there were three and a half million German speaking people living in Czechoslovakia.
Eduard Benes became foreign minister of the new country. He worked hard for the League of Nations and attempted to obtain good relations with other nations in Europe. Benes replaced Tomas Masaryk when he retired as president in 1935.
Although Czechoslovakia had never been part of Germany, these people liked to call themselves Germans because of their language. Most of these people lived in the Sudetenland, an area on the Czechoslovakian border with Germany. The German speaking people complained that the Czech-dominated government discriminated against them. German's who had lost their jobs in the depression began to argue that they might be better off under Hitler.
Adolf Hitler wanted to march into Czechoslovakia but his generals warned him that with its strong army and good mountain defences Czechoslovakia would be a difficult country to overcome. They also added that if Britain, France or the Soviet Union joined on the side of Czechoslovakia, Germany would probably be badly defeated. One group of senior generals even made plans to overthrow Hitler if he ignored their advice and declared war on Czechoslovakia.
In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable.
Adolf Hitler was in a difficult situation but he also knew that Britain and France were unwilling to go to war. He also thought it unlikely that these two countries would be keen to join up with the Soviet Union, whose communist system the western democracies hated more that Hitler's fascist dictatorship.
Benito Mussolini suggested to Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany.
The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany.
When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, protested at this decision, Neville Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.
The German Army marched into the Sudetenland on 1st October, 1938. As this area contained nearly all the country's mountain fortifications, she was no longer able to defend herself against further aggression.
By March 1939 the whole of Czechoslovakia was under the control of Germany. The Czech Army was disbanded and the Germans took control of the country's highly developed arms industry.
In 1941 Eduard Benes became head of a Czechoslovakia provisional government in London. Benes maintained a good relationship with Joseph Stalin and on 12th December 1943 he signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union.
In March 1945 Benes flew to Moscow and after meeting Stalin agreed that in his post-war coalition he would accept several Soviet-trained Czechs. Benes and Jan Masaryk accompanied the Russian-sponsored Czechoslovak Corps that liberated the country from Nazi Germany in May 1945.
Eduard Benes became president of Czechoslovakia but in the 1946 general election the Communist Party won the largest number of parliamentary seats with 38 per cent of the votes. Klement Gottwald set up a National Front government but caused great controversy when under the orders of Joseph Stalin, he rejected Marshall Aid.
In June 1948, when it became clear that Gottwald intended to introduce a Russian-style political system, Benes resigned from office. Later that year Jan Masaryk was found dead. He had either been murdered or had committed suicide in protest at the imposition of a Stalinist political system.
Leaders of the Communist Party were also purged. Rudolf Slansky, General-Secretary of the Communist Party, refused to follow the orders of Joseph Stalin and in September, 1951, he was arrested and charged with being a follower of Josip Tito of Yugoslavia. Slansky was executed on 2nd December, 1952.
When Klement Gottwald died in 1953 Antonin Novotny replaced him as first secretary of the party. Over the next few years he introduced central planning and concentrated on the needs of heavy industry. In 1958 Novotny became president of Czechoslovakia.
In the early 1960s the country suffered an economic recession. Antonin Novotny, the president of Czechoslovakia, was forced to make liberal concessions and in 1965 he introduced a programme of decentralization. The main feature of the new system was that individual companies would have more freedom to decide on prices and wages.
These reforms were slow to make an impact on the Czech economy and in September 1967, Alexander Dubcek, secretary of the Slovak Communist Party, presented a long list of grievances against the government. The following month there were large demonstrations against Novotny.
In January 1968 the Czechoslovak Party Central Committee passed a vote of no confidence in Antonin Novotny and he was replaced by Alexander Dubcek as party secretary. Gustav Husak, a Dubcek supporter, became his deputy. Soon afterwards Dubcek made a speech where he stated: "We shall have to remove everything that strangles artistic and scientific creativeness."
During what became known as the Prague Spring, Dubcek announced a series of reforms. This included the abolition of censorship and the right of citizens to criticize the government. Newspapers began publishing revelations about corruption in high places. This included stories about Novotny and his son. On 22nd March 1968, Novotny resigned as president of Czechoslovakia. He was now replaced by a Dubcek supporter, Ludvik Svoboda.
In April 1968 the Communist Party Central Committee published a detailed attack on Novotny's government. This included its poor record concerning housing, living standards and transport. It also announced a complete change in the role of the party member. It criticized the traditional view of members being forced to provide unconditional obedience to party policy. Instead it declared that each member "has not only the right, but the duty to act according to his conscience."
The new reform programme included the creation of works councils in industry, increased rights for trade unions to bargain on behalf of its members and the right of farmers to form independent co-operatives.
Aware of what happened during the Hungarian Uprising Dubcek announced that Czechoslovakia had no intention of changing its foreign policy. On several occasions he made speeches where he stated that Czechoslovakia would not leave the Warsaw Pact or end its alliance with the Soviet Union.
In July 1968 the Soviet leadership announced that it had evidence that the Federal Republic of Germany was planning an invasion of the Sudetenland and asked permission to send in the Red Army to protect Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek, aware that the Soviet forces could be used to bring an end to Prague Spring, declined the offer.
On 21st August, 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by members of the Warsaw Pact countries. In order to avoid bloodshed, the Czech government ordered its armed forces not to resist the invasion. Alexander Dubcek and Ludvik Svoboda were taken to Moscow and soon afterwards they announced that after "free comradely discussion" that Czechoslovakia would be abandoning its reform programme.
In April 1969 Dubcek was replaced as party secretary by Gustav Husak. The following year he was expelled from the party and for the next 18 years worked as a clerk in a lumber yard in Slovakia.
Over the next few years Husak purged the government of Dubcek supporters and re-established Communist Party discipline. He also introduced moderate reforms and a new federalist constitution.
In 1987 Husak opposed the Perestroika policy of Mikhail Gorbachev. When it became clear that the overwhelming majority of people in Czechoslovakia supported Gorbachev, he resigned as general secretary.
After the collapse of communism government in November 1989, Husak was expelled from the Communist Party. Alexander Dubcek was elected chairman of the Federal Assembly and was awarded the Sakharov Peace Prize.
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