The creation of Czechoslovakia was the culmination of the long struggle of the Czech people against their Austrian rulers. It was largely accomplished by the nation’s first and second presidents, T. G. Masaryk and Eduard Beneš. The union of the Czech lands and Slovakia was officially proclaimed in Prague on Nov. 14, 1918; the Treaty of St. Germain (Sept., 1919) formally recognized the new republic. Ruthenia was added by the Treaty of Trianon (June, 1920).
Our Czechoslovakia Heritage
Because Czechoslovakia inherited the greater part of the industries of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, it was economically the most favored of the Hapsburg successor states. Benefiting from a liberal, democratic constitution (1920) and led by able statesmen, the new republic appeared to have a bright future.
Redistribution of some of the estates of the former nobility and the church generally improved the living conditions of the peasantry. In foreign policy Czechoslovakia relied on its friendship with France and on its Little Entente with Yugoslavia and Romania.
Yet the new state was far from being a stable unit. With its antagonistic and nationalistic ethnic elements, it reflected the inherent weakness of the Hapsburg empire. The Czechs and Slovaks had separate histories and greatly differing religious, cultural, and social traditions. The constitution of 1920, which set up a highly centralized unitary state, failed to take into account the important problem of national minorities.
The Germans and Magyars of Czechoslovakia openly agitated against the territorial settlements. Although the constitution provided for autonomy for Ruthenia, in practice autonomy was constantly postponed. The Slovak People’s party accused the Czech government of having denied Slovakia promised autonomous rights.
Hitler’s rise in Germany, the German annexation of Austria, the resulting revival of revisionism in Hungary and of agitation for autonomy in Slovakia, and the appeasement policy of the Western powers left Czechoslovakia without allies, exposed to hostile Germany and Hungary on three sides and to unsympathetic Poland on the fourth.
The nationality problem led to a European crisis when the German nationalist minority, led by Konrad Henlein and vehemently backed by Hitler, demanded the union of the predominantly German districts with Germany.
Threatening war, Hitler extorted through the Munich Pact (Sept., 1938) the cession of the Bohemian borderlands (Sudetenland). Poland and Hungary obtained territorial
cessions shortly thereafter. Beneš resigned the presidency in October and was succeeded by Emil Hacha. In Nov., 1938, the truncated state, renamed Czecho-Slovakia, was reconstituted in three autonomous units—Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia, and Ruthenia.
At midnight on Jan. 1, 1993, and against the wishes of many of its 15 million citizens, Czechoslovakia into two countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic (official name: Czechia). The breakup is sometimes referred to as the “Velvet Divorce” in English and in some other languages, a reference to the non-violent “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 that led to the end of the rule of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the formation of new, non-Communist governments.
Czechoslovakia survived dismemberment by the Nazis and more than four decades of Communist rule only to fall apart after just three years of democracy. While relations between the two communities had often been tense, under Austria-Hungary, Germans were blamed for dominating both communities while under the totalitarian communists.
The Czechoslovak flag, which has been adopted by the Czechia (Czech Republic) as its own, remained atop Government buildings as the clocks tolled midnight. Czechoslovakia’s federal television, which became Czech Television at midnight, marked the occasion by playing the Czechoslovak national anthem, which has verses in both the Czech and Slovak language, one last time. Shortly after midnight, it played the anthem of the new Czech Republic, which has only the Czech verses.
Both nation-states joined the European Union in 2004. Relations are cordial, a testimony to the amicable way in which dissolution was handled. While deciding not to remain within one state they cooperate with other member states of the Union within a larger, multi-national framework. Czechoslovakia had always been an artificial creation. Under communist rule, tension between the two communities was ignored.
Separation into two distinct nation states each with their distinctive cultural and linguistic identities has in this case left neither side bitter. Under Austria-Hungary, it was Germans who were accused of dominating both communities. Under communism, everyone was equally oppressed by a totalitarian system. Nationalism was suppressed in favor of communist ideology and internationalism. Uniformity, not diversity, was the official stance. Now part of the wider European space, the two communities can relate to each other across open borders amicably and without rancor.
HighBeam Research, LLC. © Copyright 2005
NY Times By: STEPHEN ENGELBERG, Published: January 1, 1993