Czechoslovakia, a country which joined two nations I

Sculpture of Tomáš Masaryk on Hradčany Square, in Prague. Photo: Celia Pérez

Czechoslovakia, a planned and desired union


The First World War (1914-1918) ended four empires: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman. This meant that the maps of Europe, and the Near and Middle East were forever changed due to the new states that emerged from the ashes of the previous empires.

Czechoslovakia, for example, was the result of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The union of Czechs and Slovaks under one government is something that Tomáš Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, pursued for years and which became a reality on 28th October 1918.

The new state brought two nations, that had so much in common, together. For this reason, from the foundation of Czechoslovakia until its dissolution (1992), the question of nationality was almost always on the table. However, it should be mentioned that the dissolution was entirely peaceful and that current relations between Prague and Bratislava are very friendly and constructive.

Czech and Slovak yesterday

Both Slovakia and the Czech Republic are very closely related Slavic peoples, both territorially and linguistically. Under the governance of Great Moravia (833-907) present day Slovakia and the Czech Republic were part of a larger grouping of united territories.

However, Slovakia was influenced and governed by the Hungarians, or Magyars, from around 1000 to 1918. Bratislava (Pozsony in Hungarian) was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1536 to 1847 due to the Ottoman occupation, which lasted from 1541 to 1699. The occupation ended, but Bratislava remained the coronation city of the Hungarians kings until the aformentioned date.

On the other hand, the Czech Lands (as the Czech Republic was then known) belonged to the Holy Roman Empire from 1034 to 1806, the year of its dissolution. Prague was also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire on several occasions. For example between 1538 and 1611 under the Habsburgs.

At the same time, the Czech Lands and the Kingdom of Hungary were ruled by the Habsburgs from 1526 to 1918. This was because Ferdinand I of Habsburg (brother of Charles I, King of Spain) was elected to the throne of Czechia and Hungary by both states in 1526. In this way, the Czech Lands, Austria and Hungary, together with the Kingdom of Croatia, formed a close union. This meant that two or more states shared the same head of state, but maintained their independence in domestic and foreign policy.

Jan Rychlík, Professor of History at Charles University in Prague and the Technical University of Liberec and co-president of the Czech-Slovak Commission of Historians, explains that in 1867, due to the Austro-Hungarian compromise and the official establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrian Empire (as it was formally called from 1804) was divided into two semi-independent states: Austria and Hungary. “They were only united by the emperor and by three common ministries: War, Common Finance and Foreign Affairs”, he says.

Austro-Hungarian Empire. Source: Wikipedia

He stresses that Austria declared itself to be a multinational state in which all its nations had the same rights and the same status. In fact, it was enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of 21st December 1867[1].

“This meant that all the nations of Austria could develop freely. They had their own schools, their own national institutions, their language was used as an official language on their historical territory, although the lingua franca was German as it was the language of the emperor,” Rychlík explains. For this reason, the Czechs were able to develop in the 19th century as a modern nation, even though they lost their independence in 1526.

He highlights that the nations within Austria did not decide to leave the empire because they felt oppressed. On the contrary, Vienna gave them so much autonomy or independence that there came a time when the plurinational state was not enough.

For its part, “Hungary declared itself to be the Hungarian nation-state. Except for the Croats, non-Hungarian nations had no collective rights,” the expert notes. One of the consequences was that “after 1875 there were no Slovak secondary schools”, Rychlík points out. This meant that the nations under the rule of Budapest considered themselves oppressed.

A fruitful alliance                                        

The subjugation to another state and the remarkable similarities between the Slovak and Czech languages favoured the emergence of a feeling of independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, there was something else that united both peoples in the same direction: the big number of the Hungarians and Germans in today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In the Czech lands, the Germans represented 30% of the population and the Hungarians in Slovakia represented around 20%. “The Czechs needed Slovakia as a corridor to avoid the German encirclement in the east”, the expert explains. Similarly, the large Hungarian minority in Slovakia was a problem for the Slovaks.

Ethnic composition of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Source: Wikipedia

For this reason, the union of the ten million Czechs and three million Slovaks was very beneficial for them, as the Hungarians and Germans became a minority, instead of the majority ethnic groups they had been for centuries. As a result, this union was not well received by either the Hungarians or the Germans.

In Rychlík’s opinion, there was no better alternative to Czechoslovakia, as the Germans already represented a significant number of the Czech population. Moreover, “who wants to be a minority in a country? Perhaps they would end up going to German areas”, Rychlík says.

Masaryk wanted the future country to be relevant in the European sphere. To this end, it was important to count on the Slovak population, since together they represented thirteen million inhabitants and the borders were much larger.

Apart from Masaryk, a Czech from Moravia, whose parents were a Czech woman and a Slovak man; the Czech Edvard Beneš and the Slovak Milan Štefánik also played a key role in the process of establishing the new state.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Masaryk began to study the formation of a Czech and Slovak state. To this end, he relied on Beneš and Štefánik. The three of them travelled separately and at different times to the USA, Russia, the UK and France to gain the support of the Triple Entente. They considered it very important to gain recognition and help from abroad.

In 1916 they founded the Czechoslovak National Council to better organise the independence movement outside the Austro-Hungarian borders. By October 1918 it had gained the support of France, the UK and the USA.

In fact, Masaryk announced the foundation of Czechoslovakia on 18th October in the Washington Declaration in the USA. Ten days later, on 28th October 1918, independence was proclaimed in Prague. It should be noted that October 28th is Republic Day in the Czech Republic and is a very important bank holiday.

A year later, on 10th September 1919, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was officially dissolved by the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. As a result, the Republic of Austria was established, with much more limited borders.

Czechoslovakia, like Poland and Romania, was one of the new states born after the break-up of Austria-Hungary. This republic united the Czechs and Slovaks until the end of the 20th century. During that time, the needs of Czechs, who saw in Czechoslovakia the continuation of their state, and Slovaks, who were able to develop as a state for the first time, became increasingly different. These differences and needs marked the path to its dissolution.

Esta obra está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 4.0 Internacional.

[1] Basic Law of 21 December 1867 on the General Rights of Nationals in the Kingdoms and Länder represented in the Council of the Realm

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