These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Czechoslovakia: Birth and Death of a Nation

    A statue on the banks of the Danube in present-day Bratislava. It symbolises the lost ideal of Czechoslovakia.
 A statue on the banks of the Danube in present-day Bratislava. It symbolises the lost ideal of Czechoslovakia.
 Photo: Brian Jones

World War I eventually ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ousted the Habsburgs from the world stage after 800 years as players.

Even before the war ended, subject peoples were already declaring themselves independent from a Habsburg empire stretched too thin to keep its nations under the rule of Vienna and Budapest.

On the surface, a Czech-Slovak combination made sense. Just as Slovak activists had struggled against Magyarisation from the mid-19th century into the 20th century, the Czechs had been bristling against Austrian rule for centuries. And the two groups spoke a similar, and mutually understandable, language.

But there were differences. The Czech lands had experienced much more urbanisation than Slovakia, where the majority of people lived on subsistence farming. According to Kirschbaum, by 1900, 68 percent of the Slovak workforce were farmers. Artisans made up a quarter of the population, and shopkeepers and office workers accounted for the rest. He also cites farming numbers from 1896 that paint an equally stark picture: 80 percent of farmers owned lots of less than six hectares; 9 percent owned no land at all.

Clearly, this was a nation of smallholders who had never experienced an industrial revolution. They had also been almost completely squeezed out of the political process in Hungary, while Czechs had managed to gain approximate numerical equality to German speakers in civil-service posts by the start of the war.

Perhaps as a result of these differences, Czech political leaders took a paternalistic attitude to the Slovaks as the nation-building effort gained steam. The Czechoslovak nation's Declaration of Independence reads, in part:

"We claim the right of Bohemia to be reunited with her Slavic brethren of Slovakia, once part of our national state, later torn from our national body, and 50 years ago incorporated into the Hungarian State of the Magyars."

This is fanciful, at best, on two counts: Bohemia and Slovakia had last been united in the 9th century, during the short-lived Great Moravian Empire. Since that time, Slovakia had existed solely in "the Hungarian state of the Magyars" - the Habsburg period notwithstanding.

The new state of Czechoslovakia established itself as a model democracy almost immediately, with a functioning bicameral Parliament and broad rights for minorities. It even displayed the ability to defend its borders. When Hungary, in a fit of irredentism, grabbed a chunk of land in the Slovak territory, a newly formed Czechoslovak army managed to reclaim it.

But Czech-Slovak tensions began to brew not long after unification. Slovak politicians had been promised de facto autonomy. In agreements signed by expatriates in the United States and England during the war, Slovakia was to have its own administration, parliament, and courts. Further, Slovak was to be the official language of the territory. None of this, however, came to pass.

One of the reasons was demographic. According to a 1921 census, of the republic's 13.8 million citizens, just under half were of Czech extraction, 23 percent were German, 15 percent were Slovaks, and 6 percent were Hungarians. This was the age of nation-states, of self-determination, of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. To have granted autonomy to the new nation's second-biggest minority would have meant similar rights for the others as well.

Further, since the Czechs didn't quite command an outright demographic majority, it was in their interest to regard themselves as a single unit with the Slovaks. Combined, the Czechoslovaks made up nearly two-thirds of the territory. Thus in the post-WWI context, a Czechoslovak nation made sense.

In practice, this meant a Czech-dominated government, with a largely Czech civil service. While the first Czechoslovak Republic is still considered the pre-World War II Central and Eastern European democracy par excellence, the effective marginalisation of its minorities would prove a fatal flaw.

The main conduit for Slovak political opposition was the Catholic clergy. Slovaks tended to be more religious than Czechs, and a higher percentage of them were Catholic. Thus in pushing the Slovaks to the edge of public life, the new Republic also marginalised the interests of the Catholic Church. The main Slovak opposition party, the Slovak People's Party, was led by a priest, Andrej Hlinka.

    Eduard Beneš
 Eduard Beneš
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

The party's agenda, apart from its overriding demand for Slovak autonomy, tended to be quite socially conservative. The party managed to block a separation-of-church-and-state clause from the 1918 constitution; later, it tried to ban civil marriages.

While the Slovak situation percolated, a new challenge to Czechoslovakia arose. Its large, prosperous German minority, concentrated in Sudetenland along the border with Germany, began, too, to demand autonomy. When Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, those demands became serious, and eventually led to the dissolution of the state.

The Nazi government annexed Sudetenland in 1938. The European powers reluctantly agreed to this abrupt redrawing of the 1918 map at the infamous Munich Conference in September. Things began to change fast. Arguing that the central government could no longer defend the integrity of its boundaries, the Slovak People's Party quickly declared Slovakia's autonomy within the broader state.

Now under control of another Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso (following Hlinka's death), the party submitted its demand to Parliament, which accepted it. The First Czechoslovak state had ended; the new state would be called Czecho-Slovakia. Tiso immediately showed fascist tendencies. In the elections of December 1939, he presented voters with a single list of candidates, which they could accept or reject. He also deported all Czech teachers and government officials.

Czecho-Slovakia didn't last long. Emboldened at Munich, Hitler on Nov. 22, 1938, stripped away 22 percent of Slovak territory - including Košice - handing most of the territory to Hungary. The Czecho-Slovak government in Prague made one last stab at saving its state, sacking the Slovak government and declaring martial law on March 9, 1939.

Hitler quickly called Tiso to Munich and gave him an ultimatum: either he must immediately declare complete independence from the Czechs, or Slovakia would be "left to its fate," which meant division between Poland and Hungary.

On March 14, the Slovak Parliament convened, and Tiso presented a motion for independence. The deputies, taken quite by surprise, voted unanimously in favor of it. The mood in the new nation was apprehensive rather than joyous - not surprising, given the circumstances. The next day, Nazi troops entered the Czech Lands and declared them a protectorate of the Reich.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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