Birth of Czechoslovakia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Centuries of outside rule came to an end when the Czech and Slovak peoples joined to form Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak state’s creation occurred largely because of its significant political advantages and because the U.S. government supported the implementation of the principle of national self-determination in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Summary of Event

The designation of Tomáš Masaryk as the first president of the new nation of Czechoslovakia on December 21, 1918, marked both the end of a long struggle by the Czechs and Slovaks for a state of their own and the fulfillment of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s desire to create a northern Slavic state based on the principle of national self-determination. Both of these issues, however, were more complicated than they first appeared. To the outside world, the linguistic similarities and frequent history of intermarriage between the Czech and Slovak peoples made them prime candidates for union in a state based on the principle of national self-determination; that is, the right of a people united by national identity to have a country of their own. Czechoslovakia, founding World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period [kw]Birth of Czechoslovakia (Dec. 21, 1918) [kw]Czechoslovakia, Birth of (Dec. 21, 1918) Czechoslovakia, founding World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period [g]Czechoslovakia;Dec. 21, 1918: Birth of Czechoslovakia[04570] [c]Independence movements;Dec. 21, 1918: Birth of Czechoslovakia[04570] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 21, 1918: Birth of Czechoslovakia[04570] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 21, 1918: Birth of Czechoslovakia[04570] Masaryk, Tomáš Beneš, Edvard Osuský, Štefan Štefánik, Milan Wilson, Woodrow

Tomáš Masaryk.

(Library of Congress)

Before World War I, both countries were governed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was on the war’s losing end. As a result, throughout most of 1918, there was no Czechoslovak nation; instead, there were the Slovaks and the Czechs, both of which had their own national consciousnesses. These consciousnesses developed primarily during the fifty years before 1918, when these communities were joined—for the first time in their history—by a system of joint rule based in both Vienna and Budapest. Although they were nominally united under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in reality the Czechs and Slovaks lived under two different forms of rule, and the form that their respective nationalist philosophies took reflected these differences.

By 1918, Slovakia had been under the heavy-handed rule of Hungary for approximately nine hundred years. As a result, much of Slovak nationalism was reactive and defensive in nature. In contrast, the Czechs had traditionally been allowed a comparatively significant degree of freedom: They were widely considered an economically advanced people whose capital, Prague, was one of Europe’s grandest cities. Not surprisingly, Czech nationalism was characterized by its sense of pride, and it even developed a pan-Slavic flavor that was largely absent from Slovak nationalism. It is important to note, however, that Czech nationalism also presupposed a degree of superiority over the Slovaks.

What the Czechs and Slovaks did share by the time of World War I were extremely skillful politicians. Czech leaders Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš and Slovak leaders Milan Štefánik and Štefan Osusk realized that the World War I-era emphasis on the right to national self-determination offered an opportunity for the formation of an independent, mutually beneficial Czech-Slovak state. To be sure, Wilson and other proponents of self-determination never intended that principle to be universally applied. There was, for example, no serious plan to meet the demands of the Irish, who sought independence from British rule. Wilson did, however, believe that self-determination was relevant to the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, since the Czechs and Slovaks were surrounded by non-Slavic states—Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia—the region seemed well positioned for statehood. Czech and Slovak leaders aggressively lobbied the American and French governments in their attempt to make statehood a reality.

Ultimately, the creation of the Czechoslovak state occurred because Wilson and other leaders decided that the union offered significant political advantages. By merging with the larger Slavic community, Slovakia would be protected from Hungary, its neighbor to the south. For the Czechs, the Slovaks represented a useful counterweight to the large German minority living in Czech territories; combined, the Czechs and Slovaks would constitute a substantial Slavic majority in the new state.

For Wilson, the bargain was sealed by a visit from Masaryk shortly before the war’s conclusion. Masaryk, a seasoned politician who had served twice in the Austrian parliament as a Czech representative and a wartime ally who had organized Slavic resistance against the Austro-Hungarian army on the Russian front, won Wilson’s strong support. After the war, Masaryk became the head of the new country’s provisional government, and two years later he was elected its president. He was reelected to this office twice before his 1935 retirement and replacement by Edvard Beneš.

Significance

Instead of making a seamless transition into unification, Czechoslovakia became a multinational state primarily composed of two ethnically and linguistically similar but competing populations. The Czechs continually offered the Slovaks the type of benevolent leadership they did not want after centuries of external rule, but fortunately this arrangement did not prove to be a prescription for disaster. In the end, however, differences between Czech and Slovak identities became insurmountable, and in 1992, less than four years after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, Czech and Slovak leaders agreed to dissolve their country into two independent states. The Czech Republic and Slovakia (also known as the Slovak Republic) were created on January 1, 1993.

The years between Czechoslovakia’s founding and its dissolution were turbulent ones both in the region and around the world. As a result, the development of a unified Czechoslovak identity proved difficult. The country had barely been established when the leading Slovak statesman, Štefánik, died in an airplane accident under circumstances mysterious enough to lead many Slovaks to believe that he was intentionally killed by the Czechs. These suspicions may have been rooted in Slovak frustration over Czechoslovakia’s consistent domination by its more numerous Czech community.

Meanwhile, interwar political disorder, the devastating economic effects of the Great Depression, Czechoslovakia’s occupation by Germany during World War II, and its 1948-1989 absorption into the Soviet Union further complicated the creation of a Czecho-Slovak national consciousness. During World War II, the Germans created a puppet government staffed by Slovak collaborators called the First Slovak Republic. After the war, the communists converted the country into a federal state, giving Slovaks a measure of self-rule on which nationalists built later demands for an independent Slovakia. Furthermore, by the 1990’s, Slovaks no longer feared that Hungary would reestablish control over Slovakia. The Czechs had expelled their German citizens immediately after World War II and no longer needed a Slovak counterweight to assure a solid Slavic majority, and they saw the less developed Slovak lands as a drain on Czech resources and a potential hurdle in the Czechs’ drive to be admitted to the European Union. Czechoslovakia, founding World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirschbaum, Stanislav J. A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. An excellent examination of Czechoslovak politics from the vantage point of Slovak nationalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Left, Carol Skalnik. National Conflict in Czechoslovakia: The Making and Remaking of a State, 1918-1987. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Perhaps the most cited work on the topic. An outstanding analysis of the origins of the state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olivová-Pávová, Vera. The Doomed Democracy: Czechoslovakia in a Disrupted Europe, 1914-1938. Translated by George Theiner. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972. An older but widely available source on the first Czechoslovak republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pynsent, Robert B., ed. The Literature of Nationalism: Essays on East European Identity. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Excellent essays on the development of national consciousness in the Czech and Slovak lands and elsewhere in the region.

World War I

Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence

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