The Story of 100 Years – Part One
October 28, 2018 was the centennial celebration of the founding of the Czechoslovak state. Out of those one hundred years, Czechoslovakia was in and out of existence for seventy-five years. In its place exists two independent states: The Czech Republic, who celebrated the 28th as a public holiday; and Slovakia, who instead celebrated their one hundred years of independence on the 30th, the day they declared their own independence from Austria-Hungary and joined Czechoslovakia.
While some may find it odd to celebrate the founding of a state that no longer exists, to the Czech and Slovak people these holidays celebrate the perseverance of their individual national spirits in the face of war, foreign occupation, and shifting political tides. Though despite this individuality, Czechoslovakia’s first president, President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk worked hard to present the Czechs and Slovaks as one. In the Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak Nation By Its Provisional Government, he referred to the Czech and Slovak people as unjustly separated brethren of the same nation.
This position was further made explicit by the Czechoslovakia constitution of 1920. Finalized two years into the country’s existence, it went so far as to say that Czech and Slovak are two dialects of the same language – Czechoslovak. The great irony of Masaryk’s efforts is that it ignored the opinions of the Slovaks who were ultimately relegated to a position of minority within a country that had their national identity as part of its namesake.
Consider that for the almost four centuries prior to this, the Czech and Slovak people did not possess sovereignty over their own native lands: Bohemia, Silesia, Moravia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and Hungarian Felvidek (mostly present day Slovakia). The Habsburg dynasty controlled the government, language, industry, and even religion of the empire using a combination of diplomacy and war. The needs of the Czechs — under the rule of Austria, and the Slovaks — under the rule of Hungary, were secondary to the Habsburg quest to consolidate their power.
After the Bohemian estates fell at the Battle of Bílá Hora (White Mountain) in 1620, development of the Czech language and culture was impeded by the loss of life in the Thirty Years War. Hussitism, a pre-protestant movement founded by the Czech theologian Jan Hus and made mostly of Czech speakers, was wiped out by the Austrian Habsburgs who were staunchly Catholic. The Czechs who remained were forced to convert to Catholicism. With a significant portion of the Czech population dead and almost all the Bohemian aristocrats executed, Germans became the dominant force in Prague. The Surviving Czech protestants that could fled in exile.
Roughly around this time as well at the southern tip of the Slovak lands, the Habsburg and Ottoman empires fought a protracted war of succession for the Hungarian throne. The Slovaks, peasants in the eyes of the Hungarian elite, existed only to pay taxes, fight wars, and till the land. Their language and culture was not important to the empire.
Due to Charles University being the closest university at which they could receive an education, the burgeoning Slovak intellectuals of the time used Czech because of its similarities to their own language. The surge of Czech protestants fleeing from hostile Catholic lands also brought their literature with them. Slovak had yet to have the grammar of its language codified.
Over time, the Czech lands provided more opportunities for work as the industrial center of the empire. The Czech people were also allowed to participate in the government. Until the latter half of the 19th century however, German was the official language of administration.
This restriction on the Czech language started to change as people moved from more rural areas into the towns and cities. Places that had a distinctive German feel started to become more and more “Czech”. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Czech people experienced a national revival of their language and culture with the publication of Lehrgebäude der Böhmischen Sprache (The Grammar of the Bohemian Language) by Josef Dobrovský in 1809. This was bolstered further with the five volume publication of the Slovník česko-německý (Czech-German Dictionary) by Josef Jungmann between 1834-1839. In a successful effort to distinguish the Czech language from the German language, Jungmann borrowed words that did not exist in Czech from other Slavic languages, or made up new words altogether. The works of Dobrovský and Jungmann are credited with creating the modern Czech language. Another notable figure of the revival was the great Czech historian František Palacký. Between 1836-1867, he published five volumes on the history of the Czech nation’s struggle for political freedom. Dějiny národu českého v Čechách a v Moravě I–V (The History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia) shaped modern Czech life and thought.
On the other side of the empire, far from the industrial base of the empire and surrounded by mountains that made travel difficult, the Slovaks had little opportunity to participate in the economy. They also had limited power in Hungarian politics as Hungary was undergoing a national revival of their own against the Austrian Germans. They weren’t keen to share power with those of other nationalities.
Even with the hardships faced by the Slovak people of this time, the very same geographic features that prevented them from industrializing enabled them to preserve their lingual identity and religious pluralism – leading to a national revival of their own.
Unlike the Czechs, the religious identity of the Slovaks is a mix of Catholic and Protestant. Attempts to codify a Slovak literary language based on the western Slovak dialect were started by the Jesuit priest Anton Bernolák in the late 17th century. While Bernolák’s language saw circulation among the Catholic clergy and the intellectuals of the time, it did not experience national use. The Slovak Protestants continued to use Czech while the official language of the land was Hungarian. In the mid 18th century, Ľudovít Štúr, the leader of the Slovak national movement, pushed to have the central Slovak dialect be the new Slovak language standard. This reform is the basis of the modern Slovak language to date.
With the rediscovery of their national identities, the intellectuals of the Czech and Slovak national movements debated the merits of creating an independent Czechoslovak state based on the principles of Pan-Slavism: unity among Slavs. While the similarities in the Czech and Slovak cultural backgrounds and their combined suffering under the Habsburg rule unified their dream of independence, the geographic distance between their communities and centers of governance translated into differences in cultural development.
Unfortunately, intellectuals who espoused ideas of independence were usually jailed or killed for their potentially contagious revolutionary ideas. In 1848, a series of rebellions broke out in both Austria controlled Czech lands and the Hungarian controlled Slovak lands. While the rebellions were squashed, the Czech and Slovaks learned that the Germans and Hungarians who also chafed under Habsburg rule were loath to give autonomy to the Slavs. Their own interests came first.
The Austro-Hungarian empire’s participation in the First World War and subsequent slide into collapse was a pivotal moment for the Czech and Slovak independence movements. In the confusion of the war, large numbers of Czech and Slovak soldiers defected near Russia to form the Czechoslovak legion. The performance of the legion earned the respect of the allied forces and helped to secure their support. The efforts for Slovakian and Czech independence were mostly conducted from outside of their respective countries, with little cooperation between the two nations.
With assistance from the American President Woodrow Wilson, Masaryk helped to usher in a new self-autonomous government – the First Czechoslovak Republic. Announced by the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague, the Czech people gathered by the thousands to celebrate the creation of their own state.
Meanwhile in the Slovakia, no celebrations took place. Because the Czechoslovak National Council consisted almost entirely of Czechs with little to no coordination with the Slovak National Council, the Slovakians who were to be the other half of this new Czechoslovak state weren’t aware of the declaration until after it happened. Acting independently of the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague, the Slovak National Council made their own separate declaration of independence (The Martin Declaration) on October 30th from the town of Turčiansky Svätý Martin. Immediately afterwards, they tried to take control of their country but were prevented from doing so by the Hungarian army.
When the Czechs arrived on November 15th, the Slovak National Council was denied their desire for autonomy (or at the least their own assembly). The man instituted to be the Minister of Slovakia, Vavro Šrobár would later go on to disband the Slovak National Council. And in the the Constitution of 1920, Slovakia would cease to have any administrative role in the functioning of a state they were supposedly equal partners in with the Czechs.
Composed of Bohemia, Moravia, Czech Silesia, Slovakia, and Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Czechoslovakia inherited the majority of the industry from the Austro-Hungarian empire: glass and china, sugar refineries, distilleries, breweries, chemical plants, and factories. The country came into existence as one of the world’s ten most industrialized states.
Czechoslovakia also inherited the ethnic diversity that already existed within the territory of their new borders. While the Czechs and Slovaks composed the majority of the country, a sizable German population remained in the region known then as the Sudetenland. Russians, Jews, Hungarians, and other minority nationalities within the Czechoslovak lands also thought of this new state as their home.
Unfortunately, the divisions that existed between the different ethnic groups were also inherited. Administration of the state was highly centralized with the Czech’s assuming the majority of the responsibilities. Most of the industry was centered in the Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. By comparison, the primary industry in Slovakia was agriculture. And while the Czechoslovak constitution protected the rights of minorities (i.e, not Czech or Slovak), the distribution of wealth and access to industrial work would quickly become a wedge between their combined state.
In a little over twenty years, the First Republic would be no more.
Photographs courtesy of the Národní Archiv:
Fotoarchiv Československé tiskové kanceláře – fotografie 1920-1936, Praha, ukl.č. 394 (poř.č.15159)
Fotoarchiv Československé tiskové kanceláře – fotografie 1930-1939, Praha, ukl.č. 110760/12 (poř.č. 13298)
Fotoarchiv Československé tiskové kanceláře – fotografie 1930-1939, Praha, ukl.č. 110760/19 (poř.č. 13305)
Archiv České strany národně sociální-obrazové a zvukové dokumenty,Praha, ukl.č.1139