Interwar Czechoslovakia

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Interwar Czechoslovakia

The republic to 1945
Struggle for independence
World War I increased the estrangement between the Germans and the Czechs within the Czech Lands. The Germans lent full support to the war effort of the Central Powers, but among the Czechs the war was unpopular. Opposition to the war, however, was uncoordinated, because Czech political leaders were unable to agree on a program. In December 1914 Masaryk, a representative in the Vienna parliament, left Prague to organize activities that could not be developed at home because of political persecution and the suspension of civil rights. After staying some months in neutral countries, Masaryk moved to London. In 1915 he had been joined in Switzerland by a former student, Edvard Beneš, and by Josef Dürich, a member of the conservative Czech Agrarian Party. Masaryk at first had rather vague notions of the tasks ahead of him, but he eventually opted for a program of political union of the Czechs and Slovaks. A young Slovak astronomer, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, offered his support. Masaryk established contacts with the Czechs and Slovaks living in Allied and neutral countries, especially the United States. In 1916 a Czechoslovak National Council was created under Masaryk's chairmanship. Its members were eager to maintain contacts with the leaders at home in order to avoid disharmony, and an underground organization called the Maffia served as a liaison between them. At home the influence of the military increased. The press was heavily censored, public meetings were forbidden, and those suspected of disloyalty were imprisoned. Among those arrested were the pro-Russian Young Czech leader Karel Kramár and the economist Alois Rašín. Dissatisfaction among the Czech soldiers on the Eastern Front became more articulate in 1915, and whole units often went over to the Russian side. Francis Joseph died in November 1916 and was succeeded by Charles I. The new emperor called the parliament to session in Vienna and granted amnesty to political prisoners. Charles's reforms, although in many respects gratifying, called for more intensive activities abroad in order to convince the Allied leaders that partial concessions to the Czechs were inadequate to the problems of postwar reconstruction. The position of the Slovaks was not improving, and the Hungarian government showed no inclination to reorganize the kingdom in accordance with the principle of nationality.

Two major events coincided with Charles's new course in home affairs and with his discreet exploration of the chances of a separate peace: the Russian Revolution (March 1917) and the U.S. declaration of war on Germany. In May 1917 Masaryk left London for Russia to speed up organization of a Czechoslovak army. While small units of volunteers had been formed in the Allied countries during the early part of the war, thousands of prisoners of war were now released from Russian camps and trained for service on the Allied side. A Czechoslovak brigade participated in the last Russian offensive and distinguished itself at Zborov (Ukraine) in July 1917. From the United States came moral encouragement, but U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's early statements pertaining to the peace aims were rather hazy. Several weeks after the United States declared war on Austria-Hungary, President Wilson promulgated his celebrated Fourteen Points (January 1918), the 10th of which called for “the freest opportunity of the autonomous development” of the peoples of Austria-Hungary. After the Russian Revolution, Czechoslovak troops became involved in struggles between the Bolsheviks and the conservative forces for the control of the Siberian railroad. Their achievements, noticed favourably by the Western governments and press, gave the Czechoslovak cause wide publicity and helped its leaders to gain official recognition. Masaryk left Russia for the United States, where, in May 1918, he gained solid support from Czech and Slovak organizations. A declaration favouring political union of the Czechs and Slovaks was issued at Pittsburgh, Pa., on May 31, 1918 (called the Pittsburgh Convention). Throughout 1918, dealings with the Allies progressed more successfully. Added to the favourable publicity of the Siberian campaigns were increased activities at home to get the struggle for independence endorsed by the Allied governments. A demand for a sovereign state “within the historic frontiers of the Bohemian lands and of Slovakia” was made in Prague at the Epiphany Convention (January) and repeated later with more vigour. In May not only the Czechs but also the Slovaks made statements to which Masaryk and his collaborators could point when pressing for an official recognition. The anti-Austria resolution, adopted at the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities at Rome (April), helped in disarming conservative circles in the Allied countries who opposed a total reorganization of the Danubian region.

After several encouraging statements came the recognition by France of the Czechoslovak National Council as the supreme body controlling Czechoslovak national interests; the other Allies soon followed the French initiative. On September 28 Beneš signed a treaty whereby France agreed to support the Czechoslovak program in the postwar peace conference. To preclude a retreat from the earlier Allied declarations, the National Council constituted itself as a provisional government (October 14). Four days later, Masaryk and Beneš issued a declaration of independence simultaneously in Washington, D.C., and Paris. Events were moving rapidly toward total collapse of the Habsburg monarchy. The last attempt to avert it, the manifesto issued by Charles on October 16, brought no positive results. After that, Vienna had no choice but to accept Wilson's terms. The surrender note, signed by Count Gyula Andrássy, the last foreign minister, was accepted as a sanction of the idea of independence. The Prague National Committee proclaimed a republic on October 28, and, two days later, the Slovak National Council at Turciansky Svätý Martin acceded to the Prague proclamation.

Establishment of Czechoslovakia
Despite all efforts to maintain contacts between the leaders abroad and those at home, the early years of the republic were hindered by differences of opinion and occasional frictions. Masaryk returned to Prague on December 21. Beneš stayed in Paris and was joined by Karel Kramár, who had been prime minister since November. The Slovak leader Štefánik decided to return home but died in an airplane crash in May 1919. Masaryk and Beneš conducted foreign relations, and the leaders of five major parties controlled home affairs. Of the many tasks facing the new government, negotiations at the postwar peace conference, though complicated by dissensions among the Great Powers, were the least onerous. The frontiers separating Bohemia and Moravia from Germany and Austria were approved, with minor rectifications, in favour of the republic. The Slovak boundary also was satisfactory. The dispute over the Duchy of Teschen strained the relations with Poland; the partition of the duchy in 1920 was opposed by powerful Polish groups, and the Polish senate did not ratify the treaty. The northeastern counties of prewar Hungary (Carpathian Ruthenia) were attached to the new state. The area was inhabited by Slavic peoples, the majority of whom were keenly aware of their kinship with the Ukrainians. Consolidation of internal affairs proceeded slowly. The winter of 1918–19 was critical. The most urgent task of the new government was to replace the wartime economy with a new system.

The network of railroads and highways had to be adjusted to the new shape of the republic, which stretched from the Cheb (Eger) region in western Bohemia to the Carpathians in the east. The new country's first minister of finance, Alois Rašín, saved the Czechoslovak currency from catastrophic inflation, and his death in February 1923, after he was shot by a young revolutionary, was a shock to the new republic. In the chaotic conditions prevailing in central Europe after the armistice, a parliamentary election appeared to be impossible. The Czech and Slovak leaders agreed on the composition of the National Assembly. The Assembly's main function was the drafting of a constitution. The new, democratic constitution was adopted on Feb. 29, 1920, and was modeled largely on that of the French Third Republic. Supreme power was vested in a bicameral National Assembly. The Chamber of Deputies and the Senate had the right to elect, in a joint session, the president of the republic for a term of seven years. The Cabinet was made responsible to the Assembly. Fundamental rights of the citizens, irrespective of ethnic origin, religion, and social status, were defined generously. Some parties, however, saw a contradiction between the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all citizens and the intention to create a state of the Czechs and Slovaks. Large segments of the population gave wholehearted support to the republic; the most resolute opposition, however, came from an ethnic minority that soon came to be known as the Sudeten Germans. The age-old antagonism between Germans and Slavs, accentuated during the war, prevented cooperation during the opening stages of the republic. The Germans issued protests against the constitution but participated, nevertheless, in parliamentary and other elections. In 1925 two German parties—the Agrarian and Christian Socialist—joined the government majority, thus breaking a deadlock. Disagreement with the trend toward centralism was the main source of dissatisfaction among the Slovak Populists, a clerical party headed by Andrej Hlinka. Calls for Slovak autonomy were counterbalanced by other parties seeking closer contacts with the corresponding Czech groups; the most significant contribution to that effort was made by the Agrarians under Milan Hodza and by the Social Democrats under Ivan Dérer. The strongest single party in the opening period, the Social Democracy, was split in 1920 by internal struggles; in 1921 its left wing constituted itself as the Czechoslovak section of the Comintern. After the separation of the communists, the Social Democracy yielded primacy to the Agrarians.

The Republicans, as the peasant party was called officially, became the backbone of government coalitions until the disruption of the republic; from its ranks came Antonín Švehla (prime minister 1921–29) and his successors.

Political consolidation
Foreign relations were largely determined by wartime agreements. Czechoslovakia adhered loyally to the League of Nations. Treaties with Yugoslavia and Romania gave rise to the Little Entente. France was the only major power that concluded an alliance with Czechoslovakia (January 1924). Relations with Italy, originally friendly, deteriorated after Benito Mussolini's rise to power in 1922. Czech anticlerical feeling precluded negotiation of a concordat with the papacy until 1928, when an agreement was worked out providing for settlement of the most serious disputes between church and state. It was Germany, however, that most strongly influenced the course of Czechoslovak foreign affairs. The relations between the two neighbours improved slightly in 1925 after the Locarno Pact, a series of agreements among the powers of western Europe to guarantee peace. In the milder climate of the late 1920s, a third party, the Social Democrats, joined the German activists. Attempts to change the attitude of the Slovak Populists met with partial success. Reorganization of public administration in 1927, while marking a retreat from rigid centralism, did not go far enough to meet demands for Slovak autonomy. Hlinka and his chief collaborator, Josef Tiso, tenaciously pursued the program of decentralization and only at short intervals supported the Prague government. When the impact of the Great Depression reached Czechoslovakia, soon after 1930, the highly industrialized German-speaking districts were hit more severely than the predominantly agricultural lowlands. The ground was thus prepared for the rise of militant nationalism. Parties supported by middle-class German voters and persisting in opposition to Prague gained in popularity and were encouraged by Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany. In October 1933 Konrad Henlein, a supporter of Hitler and head of the politically active Sudeten Turnverband gymnastics society, launched his Sudeten German Home Front. Professing loyalty to the democratic system, he asked for recognition of the German minority as an autonomous body. In 1935 Henlein changed the name of his movement to the Sudeten German Party so as to enable its active participation in the parliamentary election (May 1935). The party captured nearly two-thirds of the Sudeten German vote and became a political force second only to the Czech Agrarians.

Moving toward the abyss
A tense interlude of little more than two years followed the landslide victory of the Sudeten Germans.

In December 1935 Masaryk retired from the presidency, and Beneš was elected his successor by an overwhelming majority, including Hlinka's party. A treaty with the Soviet Union in 1935 enhanced the sense of national security. The program of the Communist Party was determined not only by this treaty but also by the general reorientation of the Comintern, which now urged cooperation with antifascist forces in popular fronts. The Czechoslovak communists did not, however, seek cabinet posts. The erection of fortifications along the German frontier modeled on France's Maginot Line was commonly interpreted as an unwritten pledge of the French army to aid Czechoslovakia in the event of an unprovoked attack. Their capture would have given (and later did give) the Germans the key to the French defensive system. In February 1937 Prime Minister Milan Hodza made significant progress toward gaining the cooperation of those segments of the German population that were attached to the principles of democracy. The hope that Czechoslovakia would be able to withstand pressure from Nazi Germany seemed, for a while, to be justified. But, soon after the death of Masaryk, in September 1937, Hitler embarked on his program of eastward expansion. As early as November 1937, he informed his military chiefs of his intention to move against Austria and Czechoslovakia. After the annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Czechoslovak crisis became acute. The Czechoslovak leaders divided their energies. Hodza devoted all his talents to a search for a compromise that would satisfy the Sudeten Germans and held long conferences with Henlein's lieutenants. President Beneš, assisted by his foreign minister, Kamil Krofta, maintained contacts with foreign powers. Henlein played his hand so skillfully that the influential circles, especially in London, believed that he was a free agent and not Hitler's stooge. The advocates of “appeasement,” then rapidly gaining ground in Britain and France, failed to realize that the Sudeten German negotiators had no intention of compromise and acted on instructions from Berlin. The main task of Henlein's party was to give Hitler a better chance to dislocate the republic without recourse to war. To invalidate critical comments from London and Paris, Beneš consented late in July to the mission of Lord Runciman, whose avowed purpose was to observe and report on conditions within the country. The crisis culminated in September 1938. Armed with information supplied by Lord Runciman, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden and Godesberg.

Chamberlain assured Hitler that the German objectives could be achieved without fighting. The French consented to Chamberlain's policy, thus abandoning their former commitments. The Soviet Union was under no treaty obligation to assist Czechoslovakia, since the treaty of 1935 was to be operative only if the French would honour their pledges. Thus, the stage was set for a meeting between Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Edouard Daladier, at Munich on September 29–30. They agreed on a document enjoining the Prague government to cede to the Third Reich all districts of Bohemia and Moravia with populations that were 50 percent or more German; October 10 was set as the deadline for the transfer of these territories. Although presented as a measure to make Czechoslovakia more homogeneous and viable, the pact and its ruthless implementation sealed the fate of the country.

From Munich to the disruption of the republic
Beneš resigned the presidency rather than agree to the German annexation. After several weeks he left Prague, first for London and then for Chicago. The leaders who took over had to face mounting difficulties. The annexations completed according to the Munich timetable were not Czechoslovakia's only territorial losses. Poland obtained the Duchy of Teschen as a reward for its menacing attitude during the Munich crisis. By the Vienna Award (November 2), Hungary was granted large portions of Slovak and Ruthenian territories. By all these amputations Czechoslovakia lost about one-third of its population, and the country was rendered defenseless. The chances of recuperation were greatly reduced by the rapid growth of centrifugal tendencies. The Slovak Populists, headed since Hlinka's death by Tiso, presented Prague with urgent demands for autonomy, which the government accepted. A similar request came from Carpathian Ruthenia. A cumbersome system composed of three autonomous units (the Czech Lands, Slovakia, and Ruthenia) united by allegiance to the Prague government was introduced late in the fall. On November 30 Emil Hácha was elected president; an Agrarian leader, Rudolf Beran, formed the federal cabinet. Under German pressure the complicated party system was changed drastically. The right and centre parties in the Czech Lands formed the Party of National Unity, while the Socialists organized the Party of Labour. In Slovakia the Populists absorbed all the other political groups. Despite all efforts of the loyal elements, stabilization of political and economic life made little progress.

Moreover, the public knew little of the confidential negotiations being conducted in Vienna and Berlin by Tiso's aides, who went along with Hitler's preparation for the final takeover. In early 1939 Tiso's group prepared for the secession of Slovakia, and, on March 14, 1939, the Slovak National Assembly voted for independence. On the following day, Bohemia and Moravia were occupied and proclaimed a protectorate of the Third Reich.

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