Saturday, October 28, 2006

Czechoslovakia founded 88 years ago

In the Czech Republic, the birth of Czechoslovakia on October 28th, 1918 is celebrated as a national holiday. In Slovakia, it is just a memorial day and they don't really celebrate it, with the exception of an unknown party called Civic Conservative Party.

Well, it wouldn't hurt. The birth of Czechoslovakia was arguably more important a date for Slovakia than it was for the Czech lands: it was the first time when the borders of Slovakia were officially drawn on the map. Before the era of Czechoslovakia, a territory inside the big Hungary that would be controlled by the Slovaks was an ill-defined, hypothetical speculation.

At the end of the First World War, the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy was in trouble. The key person behind the birth of Czechoslovakia was Prof Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk who became the first president of Czechoslovakia and he remained the leader of the country nearly for 20 years: he died at the age of 87.

Tomas Garrigue Masaryk

His middle name was borrowed from his wife, Charlotte Garrigue, who was an American protestant and who became the first First Lady. A very intelligent woman. Disclaimer: the picture below was taken decades before the picture above so you shouldn't think that TGM was a pedophile! They were both born in 1850.

Daddie Masaryk, as the people called him, has played a key role for the creation of Czechoslovakia on the ruins of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Masaryk used to be a maverick in the nationalist political circles. For example, as a member of the Realist Party, he has been claiming that the Královedvorský and Zelenohorský manuscripts from 1820 or so, alleged proofs of a rich Czech literature nearly 1000 years old, were fake: Masaryk came to that conclusion by a careful sociological analysis of the manuscripts' background. See also Leaders of mature nations. This statement of his has made most of the nationalists very angry. Needless to say, Masaryk was right as ultimately proven by detailed chemical analyses in the 1960s, decades after his death.

As the first president, TGM became the complete mainstream and his authority and approval rate was resembling autocracy - a hallmark of a truly working democracy. In the late 1930s, his death unfortunately coincided with the expansion of Nazism.

Back to 1918. TGM convinced Woodrow Wilson and other friends in the West that it was a great and deeply moral idea to create a democratic Czechoslovakia. Its independence was eventually declared in Washington, D.C. The arguments were based, among other things, on two valuable approximations:
  1. Czechoslovakia would become a national state with one nation only, the Czechoslovak nation
  2. Czechoslovakia, unlike Austria-Hungary, didn't have any significant minority that would be creating problems

These approximations had its limitations. Above some energy scale, the approximation (1) could break down because some Slovaks could have argued that the Slovak nation was a distinct nation from the Czech nation. Of course, whether or not there were two nations or one nation has always been a matter of conventions. The Slovak language was closer to the official Czech language than many other dialects of Czech. On the other hand, the Czechs and Slovaks had been politically divided for most of the second millenium: the Czechs were co-existing with the Austrians and Germans while the Slovaks had lived under Hungary. I personally always preferred to think about one Czechoslovak nation.

The approximation (2) neglected the German 30% minority that was actually a majority in certain borderland regions called the Sudetenland. Although the Germans enjoyed at least as good minority rights in Czechoslovakia as the Czechs enjoyed within Austria-Hungary, you may guess that such a huge minority becomes a problem as soon as a radical politician, for example Adolf Hitler, takes over in an adjacent country. And it did cause problems in the 1930s, indeed.

Nevertheless, Czechoslovakia has become an island of democracy, happiness, freedom, and optimism inside the rather problematic region of Central Europe for 20 years. It was also among the top 10 most economically advanced countries in the world.

In 1938, the German Nazis were able to split Czechoslovakia into Bohemia and Moravia (the Czech lands) on one side and Slovakia on the other side, while they occupied the Sudetenland. In 1939, the rest of the Czech lands became a protectorate, a colony of the Third Reich. The politicians in Czechoslovakia's allied countries, including France and Great Britain, were appeasing morons so they simply betrayed their smaller friend and allowed Hitler to help himself.

The Czechs chose a submissive position during the Second World War and they were doing fine in a quasi-socialist regime controlled by Berlin. Many people in the resistance movement were executed. The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 - organized from London - became the only visible sign of the Czech resistance movement until May 1945. Three days before the war ended, some Czechs started a heroic backlash against the Third Reich. ;-)

In 1945, Czechoslovakia was liberated - mostly by the Red Army but partly by the U.S. army - and re-unified. Incidentally, the most Eastern piece of Czechoslovakia, the sub-Carpathian Rus, that was added to Czechoslovakia as an autonomous territory in 1918 after a successful referendum made among the immigrants from sub-Carpathian Rus to America ;-), this territory was separated from Czechoslovakia and attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The sub-Carpathian voters in another referendum in 1945 have thus reduced their granddaughters' GDP per capita by an order of magnitude. ;-)

A slow march towards communism started after the war. Communism officially took over in 1948 and lasted until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, with a small freedom break in the middle, during the 1968 Prague Spring. The democracy in 1989 also strengthened the Slovak nationalist movement that eventually led to the Velvet Divorce in late 1992 when Czechoslovakia split up.

The two nations maintain extraordinarily friendly relations. Although the divorce was mostly driven by the Slovak sentiments, it is the Czechs who are currently more satisfied with the fact that Czechoslovakia has been deconstructed.

1 comment:

  1. i wish it was still Ceskoslovensko I'm both Czech and Slovak and I don't see any difference between the two.