Czechoslovakia, a country which joined two nations II

Vladimír Mečiar (left) and Václav Klaus (right) during the last meeting on Czechoslovakia. Brno, 26/08/1992. Source: Czech News Agency (ČTK)

Czechoslovakia, a consensual separation


The new country that was established in 1918 was encouraging for both the Czechs and the Slovaks. In general, the development of Czechoslovakia was beneficial to both nations; in spite of there being some disagreements between Prague and Bratislava throughout its existence.

The question of nationality accompanied Czechoslovakia from the beginning. The 1918 state was centralised, but the Slovaks were promised that a federal republic would eventually be founded. These words were made official in 1969 during the period of communism.

The great similarity of these two Slavic languages and the good relationship between Slovaks and Czechs was not enough to build a true sense of Czechoslovak identity. The history of the two peoples is so different that finally the Czechoslovak Republic officially expired on 31st December 1992.

What Prague learned from Vienna

It is true that the new Central European country was a centralized state. However, this did not prevent the Slovaks from developing as a state because, for example, all the schools in Slovakia were Slovak and Slovak, like Czech, was one of the two official languages.

Jan Rychlík, professor of history at Charles University in Prague and the Technical University in Liberec and co-president of the Czech-Slovak Commission of Historians, explains that the Czechs applied in Czechoslovakia what they experienced in the 19th century under the leadership of Vienna.

He emphasises that the Czechs were able to evolve as a modern state in the 19th century. In his opinion, the Czechs saw in Czechoslovakia the continuation of the Czech nation-state with much larger borders. They saw it as a state where there were two different nations. For their part, the Slovaks understood it to be an association of two states.

Although the Slovaks were promised that the new state would become a federal republic, there were hardly any nationalist movements, let alone separatist ones. In fact, Rychlík argues that during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, only the Hlinka Slovak People’s Party (Hlinkova slovenská l’udová strana, HSES), a clerical party, and the Slovak National Party (Slovenská nardodná strana, SNS), defended Slovakia’s autonomy but were not very popular.

Some of the autonomists were afraid that the Slovaks would disappear among the Czechs, as had happened to them with the Hungarians, or the Magyars. Rychlík explains that this fear was unfounded “because the Czechs in Slovakia did not apply the pre-war Magyar model for the solution of the ethnic question, but the Austrian one,” the professor states.

Furthermore, Rychlík recalls that the Austrian model gave the Czechs so much freedom that there came a time when Prague needed more political concessions. The historian notes: “This is what happened in Slovakia between 1918 and 1938, when Slovakia developed so much that it asked for more concessions”.

The Second World War

The HSES party officially defended the autonomy of Slovakia. According to the historian, this party considered that Czechoslovakia was favourable for Bratislava to extend its sovereignty and that it would eventually establish its own state.

In 1938 the Munich Agreement (known in Czechoslovakia as the Munich Betrayal) took place, which accepted the incorporation of the Sudeten Czechoslovakia into Germany and parts of southern Slovakia were granted to Hungary. In addition, “this forced the Czechoslovak government to grant power to the Slovak autonomists in Slovakia”, Rychlík stresses. That way, the parish priest and politician Jozef Tiso, from the HSES party, was the prime minister of Slovakia and later the prime minister of the autonomous of Slovakia.

Between 18 and 22 November 1938, the Czechoslovak Parliament approved Slovak autonomy and the union of the two countries was renamed: Czecho-Slovakia. Moreover, “it was anti-Czech and anti-Jewish”, the historian underlines. Under this extreme and Catholic party, a totalitarian regime was introduced in Slovakia which was dependent on and supported Hitler’s Germany.

Rychlík claims that at the time Tiso was in favour of independent autonomy, but not total separation. However, Hitler and Tiso met in Berlin on 13 March 1939 and Hitler persuaded him to proclaim independence. Thus, the next day, 14 March, Tiso declared the new independent state of Slovakia in Bratislava. That way Germany had further divided and weakened Czechoslovakia. On 15 March 1939 the Germans occupied the Czech Lands and established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Jozef Tiso and Adolf Hitler during their meeting in Berlin. Source: Czech News Agency (ČTK)

It is worth noting that the period between 1939 and 1945 was perceived very differently by Czechs and Slovaks. According to Rychlík, the former did not accept the German occupation and remained loyal to the government in exile of Edvard Beneš. The latter accepted the Tiso government to a greater extent.

Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the Slovak Republic. Source: Wikipedia

In spite of being widely supported, Tiso also faced dissident opponents. In 1943 the Civic Bloc and Communist parties formed an organized resistance called the Slovak National Council (Slovenská narodná rada, SNR), which consisted of three members each, including the communist Gustáv Husák. SNR’s main goal was the reunification and federation of Czechoslovakia.

The SNR prepared an offensive against Tiso’s government to regain Czechoslovakia. On 1st September 1944 the SNR gathered in the Slovak town of Banská Bystrica and liberated Czechoslovakia.

This group recognised Beneš as president, but remained firm in its goal of a federal republic. Because of that, “they sent a delegation to London to discuss with Beneš the future of Slovakia within Czechoslovakia”, says Rychlík. As a result, the exiled Czechoslovak president accepted the SNR’s demands.

Edvard Beneš. Source: Wikipedia

However, due to the incursion of German troops into Slovakia and specifically into Banská Bystricia, the SNR had to transfer power to Trebišov and finally to Kozice. The SNR was so weak that negotiations between SNR representatives and the Czechoslovak government in exile took place in Moscow between 22nd and 29th March 1945. It was finally agreed that the federal republic would share Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Defence, and that Slovakia should have its own influence.

It should be noted that after the Second World War the Czechs expelled the Germans in the Czech lands, while the Slovaks did not expel the Hungarians from their borders. This became very important during the negotiations between Bratislava and Prague in 1992. The Slovaks were afraid of the Hungarians, as they did not know what would happen to them.

The Federal Republic

Although a federal republic was declared in 1945, it did not last long because general elections in 1946 gave communists the victory in the Czech Lands, but not in Slovakia. Due to political reasons, the Slovak communists agreed to limit the power of the Slovak national bodies and to transfer some of the power to the central government in Prague”, Rychlík states.

Communist celebration on Staroměstské náměstí, Praga. February 1948. Source: Muzeum Prahy

Years later, in 1969, in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the Federation of the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic was established. Rychlík explains that there were two chambers in the Federal Assembly: the Chamber of the People and the Chamber of Nations.

In the Chamber of People there were 200 deputies who were elected according to the proportional representation of the country. As there were ten million Czechs and five million Slovaks, the Czechs had more representation in that chamber. However, in the Chamber of Nations each state had 75 deputies.

According to Rychlík, the majority of Slovaks were in favour of a federal republic, as this would make it easier for them to extend their sovereignty, and they were not seeking independence at that time. On the contrary, “the Czechs preferred the centralized state, but accepted the federation in the hope that the stability of Czechoslovakia would be longer or permanent”, he stressed.

Even though the republic was federal, “the real power laid with the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ), so it was a federal republic on paper, not in practice”, Rychlík said.

It is true that there were more and more Slovaks in ministries and other public administrations. In fact, the President of the Republic between 1975 and 1989 was the Slovak Gustáv Husák. However, “the Slovaks wanted Slovak issues to be dealt with in Bratislava, not in Prague, and they also wanted Czechoslovakia to be known abroad as a state of Czechs and Slovaks, not just of Czechs” he highlights. As a result, quite a few Slovaks regarded Husák as a traitor and other Slovaks in the public administration, since, according to them, “they were not defending Slovakia’s interests”, Rychlík points out.

Gustáv Husák. Source: Wikipedia

Throughout this time, the economic differences between the two peoples came to the surface. In 1918, when Czechoslovakia was founded, the Czech Lands were much more industrialized and urbanized than Slovakia, which was very rural and agricultural. Between the 1950’s and 1960’s, Slovakia developed its industry a great deal.  At the same time, the tertiary sector began to grow and develop in the Czech Lands.

The end of one republic and the birth of two

In November 1989 the Czechoslovak communist government fell. From January 1990 it was officially renamed the Czechoslovak Republic, as it was no longer socialist. From December 1989 to July 1992, its president was the Czech Václav Havel.

Václav Havel. Source: Wikipedia

Like the 1969 republic, it also introduced several Slovaks into the public administrations and it remained a federal state. However, the Slovaks did not have much confidence in government bodies.

Since 1989 all Slovak political organizations carried the status of Slovakia within Czechoslovakia in their programmes, so it was difficult to ignore. Most notably for the Slovaks was that the new republic opened the door to negotiations between Prague and Bratislava about the coexistence of the two nations. There were several meetings between the two peoples in different Czech and Slovak cities and towns.

Elections to the Federal Assembly and to both the Czech and Slovak Councils were held in 1992. In the Czech Republic the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, ODS) of Václav Klaus won. In Slovakia, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko, HZDS) of Vladimír Mečiar gained the majority of votes.

HZDS did not demand a separation of the two states, but a confederation. Mečiar advocated that each should be represented separately in international organisations, but that both should collaborate in Defence and Foreign Affairs. Each republic would have its own public finances, but they would share the same currency. On the contrary, the professor argues that Klaus stood for federation.

Surveys at that time indicated that most Czechoslovaks were in favour of staying together. However, Klaus disagreed with the demands of Mečiar and considered that the only possible solution was the separation of the two states. Furthermore, Klaus concluded that the Czechs no longer needed the Slovaks. “At that point in time the problem was not Germany, but Russia, and it was not convenient to have borders so far east”, Rychlík underlines.

According to Rychlík, Klaus thought that a confederation between Prague and Bratislava would be an economic disaster because of the economic differences between them. As well as this, problems with joining the EU and the NATO would likely arise.

Against this background, the last meeting was held in Brno on 26th August 1992, where it was agreed that Czechoslovakia would expire on 31 December of the same year. Hence, on 1st January 1993 two separate states were established: The Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Finally, the Slovaks got their longed-for and fought-for statehood. A peaceful separation which depended on wide dialogue and consensus.

As for current surveys, in 2017 one was conducted for Cesky Rozhlas [1]about the topic that it is addressed. According to this poll, 44% of Czechs consider the separation from their predecessor country to be positive, and 56% believe that the dissolution of the historic republic was a mistake. The survey also shows that 54% of Czechs think that the role of Klaus and Mečiar was rather negative.

Nowadays Prague and Bratislava maintain excellent relations and work together in the EU, NATO and the Visegrád Group. Beyond inter-governmental relations, the personal closeness between the two peoples is still very much present. In fact, there are many people in the Czech Republic who have relatives in Slovakia and vice versa. There are also quite a few families where each parent is from one of the two republics. Therefore, the bond between both was not broken by the disintegration, but remained and remains very stable.

Nevertheless, the dismemberment of the historic republic meant that Prague and Bratislava became weaker or less visible in the European sphere. It is worth recalling that one of the goals of Tomáš Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, was to establish a strong state in the eyes of the European powers. However, experts such as Rychlík believe that despite the loss of strength, there was no other solution because “the Czechoslovak identity never existed”.

The disintegration of Czechoslovakia was not, and will not be, the last in history. It is an exceedingly widespread belief that a state is a nation. The Czechoslovak case shows that this is not true. Similar languages or good treatment are not enough for a sense of identity to be born and to grow. In today’s Europe we find several plurinational countries where something similar is happening (we must not forget that no two cases are alike, however similar they may be), such as the United Kingdom, Belgium or Spain itself.

The expiry of this state put the question of legal nationality on the table. What happened to Czechoslovak nationality? How did the Czechs and Slovaks obtain their respective nationalities? The answers are in the following document.

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

[1] PRŮZKUM: Polovina Čechů považuje rozpad Československa za chybu Český Rozhlas 29/05/2017

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