Czechoslovakia (Czech and Slovak languages: Československo) was a country in Central Europe that existed from October 28, 1918, when it declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. During the 74 years of its existence, it saw several changes in the political and economic climate. It consisted of two predominant ethnic Slavic groups—Czechs and Slovaks—with Slovakia's population half the Czech Republic's. During World War II, Slovakia declared independence as an ally of the Nazi Germany, while the Czech lands were handed over to Hitler by the Allies in an act of appeasement. Czechoslovakia fell under the Soviet sphere of influence following liberation largely by the Soviet Union's Red Army. It rejected the Marshall Plan, joined the Warsaw Pact, nationalized private businesses and property, and introduced central economic planning. The Cold War period was interrupted by the economic and political reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968.
In November 1989, Czechoslovakia joined the wave of anti-Communist uprisings throughout the Eastern bloc and embraced democracy. Addressing the Communist legacy, both in political and economic terms, was a painful process accompanied by escalated nationalism in Slovakia and its mounting sense of unfair economic treatment by the Czechs, which resulted in a peaceful split labeled the Velvet Divorce.
Form of statehood:
Czechoslovakia came into existence in October 1918 as one of the successor states of Austria-Hungary, whose Empire had been slowly losing ground to nationalist movements in the final years of World War I. It was comprised of the territories of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Carpathian Ruthenia and some of the most industrialized regions of the former Austria-Hungary. On October 28, 1918, Alois Rašín, Antonín Švehla, František Soukup, Jiří Stříbrný, and Vavro Šrobár, the "Men of October 28th," formed a provisional government, and two days later, Slovakia endorsed the marriage of the two countries, with Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who had crafted the blueprint for the constitution, elected president.
Satisfaction among individual ethnic groups within the new state varied, as Germans, Slovaks, and Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians grew resentful of the political and economic dominance of the Czechs' reluctance to extend political autonomy to all constituents. This policy, combined with an increasing Nazi propaganda, particularly in the industrialized German speaking Sudetenland (the German-border regions of Bohemia and Moravia), fueled the growing unrest in the years leading up to World War II. Czechoslovakia began losing ground to Adolf Hitler's Germany with the Munich Agreement, signed on September 29, 1938, by the representatives of Germany—Hitler, Great Britain—Neville Chamberlain, Italy—Benito Mussolini, and France—Édouard Daladier, which deprived it of one-third of its territory, mainly the Sudetenland, the location of major border defenses. Within ten days, 1,200,000 were forced to leave their homes. President Edvard Beneš resigned on October 5, 1938, and Emil Hácha was appointed in his stead. Hitler thus defeated Czechoslovakia without taking up arms, while a strip of southern Slovakia was handed over to Hungary in November.
On March 14, 1939, Hácha set out for Berlin to meet with Hitler. On the same day, Slovakia declared independence and became an ally of Nazi Germany, which provided Hitler with a pretext to occupy Bohemia and Moravia on grounds that Czechoslovakia had collapsed from within and his administration of it would forestall chaos in Central Europe. Hácha described the signing away of Czechoslovakia as follows:
“It’s possible to withstand Hitler’s yelling, because a person who yells is not necessarily a devil. But Göring [Hitler’s right hand], with his jovial face, was there as well. He took me by the hand and softly reproached me, asking whether it is really necessary for the beautiful Prague to be leveled in a few hours… and I could tell that the devil, able to carry out his threat, was speaking to me.”
The following morning, Wehrmacht occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia. After Hitler personally inspected the Czech fortifications, he privately admitted that “We would have shed a lot of blood.”
Slovakia's troops fought on the Russian front until the summer of 1944, when the Slovak armed forces staged an anti-government uprising that was quickly crushed by Germany.
On October 28, 1939, the 21st anniversary of the establishment of the country, Czechoslovakia, emboldened by hopes for an early restoration of the independence, was swept by massive demonstrations. Nazi Germany retaliated by spontaneous executions of student leaders and the closure of universities, which sent the resistance movement underground. Czechoslovak units composed of recruits from the ranks of exiled Czechoslovak citizens were created in Poland, France, and Great Britain, coordinated by the London-based exiled government. On the home turf, the resistance movement continued chiefly through massive demonstrations, which reached an apex in 1941. However, widespread arrests severely disrupted the underground networks and cut off radio networks between domestic and foreign components of the resistance movement, which were then reestablished by paratroopers dispatched into the Protectorate.
The Czechoslovak-British Operation Anthropoid was the code name for the assassination plot of the top Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of RSHA, an organization that included the Gestapo (Secret Police), SD (Security Agency) and Kripo (Criminal Police). Heydrich was the mastermind of the purge of Hitler's opponents as well as the genocide of Jews. Due to his reputation as the liquidator of resistance movements in Europe, he was sent to Prague in September 1941 to make order as the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. The Protectorate was of strategic importance to Hitler’s plans, and Heydrich, dubbed the "Butcher of Prague," "The Blond Beast" or "The Hangman," wasted no time, handing out death sentences the day after his arrival.
With the fighting spirit in the Protectorate at a lull, the exiled military officials began planning an operation that would stir up the nation’s consciousness—six Czech and one Slovak paratroopers were chosen for the assassination of Heydrich, and two of them—Czech Josef Valčík and Slovak Josef Gabčik, executed it. Heydrich died of complications following surgery. The Gestapo tracked the paratroopers’ contacts and eventually discovered the assassins' hideaway in a Prague church. Three of them died in a shootout while trying to buy time for the others who were attempting to dig an escape route; the remaining four used their last bullets to take their lives.
Heydrich’s successor Karl Herrmann Frank had 10,000 Czechs executed as a warning, and two villages that assisted the paratroopers were leveled, with the adults murdered and young children sent to German families for re-education. The combined actions of the Gestapo and its confidantes virtually paralyzed the Czech resistance movement; on the other hand, the assassination bolstered Czechoslovakia’s prestige in the world and was crucial to the country’s securing of demands for an independent republic following the end of WWII.
Toward the end of the war, partisan movement was gaining momentum, and once the Allies were on the winning side, the political orientation of Czechoslovakia was high on the agenda of the two most influential exiled centers—the government in London and the communist officials in Moscow. Both endorsed the agreement on friendship, mutual assistance and postwar cooperation with the Soviet Union as a means to stem German expansion on one hand and the Soviet Union’s mingling into Czechoslovakia's internal affairs on the other.
After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reestablished. Carpathian Ruthenia was occupied by, and in June 1945, formally ceded to the Soviet Union, while Sudetenland Germans were expelled in an act of retaliation coined by the Beneš Decrees, which continue to fuel controversy between nationalist groups in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. In total approximately 90 percent of the ethnic German population of Czechoslovakia was forced to leave. Wartime traitors and collaborators accused of treason along with ethnic Germans and Hungarians were expropriated.
The Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia was facilitated by the fact that most of the country had been liberated by the Red Army, as well as the overall social and economic downturn in Europe. In the 1946 parliamentary election, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the winner in the Czech lands while the Democratic Party won in Slovakia. In 1947, the Soviet Union and, consequently, its satellites, including Czechoslovakia, turned down the Marshall Plan, authored by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall to address the economic needs of war-torn Europe.
In February 1948, the Communists seized power and sealed the country’s fate for the next 41 years. Terror reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany followed, with execution of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, forced collectivization of agriculture, censorship, and land grabs. Economy was controlled by five-year plans and the industry was overhauled in compliance with Soviet wishes to focus on heavy industry, in which Czechoslovakia had been traditionally weak. The economy retained momentum vis-à-vis its Eastern European neighbors but grew increasingly weak vis-à-vis Western Europe.
In the early 1960s, Czechoslovakia came very close to extricating itself from the Eastern bloc, when the reformer Alexander Dubcek was appointed to the key post of First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Economic reforms were put in place that gradually grew into the reform of the overall political system, referred to as the Prague Spring. However, this glimmer of hope was crushed under the tanks of the Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968. Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on the night of 20–21 August 1968. The General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev viewed this intervention as vital to the preservation of the Soviet, socialist system and vowed to intervene in any state that sought to replace Marxism-Leninism with capitalism. In the week after the invasion there was a spontaneous campaign of civil resistance against the occupation. This resistance involved a wide range of acts of non-cooperation and defiance: this was followed by a period in which the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership, having been forced in Moscow to make concessions to the Soviet Union, gradually put the brakes on their earlier liberal policies. In April 1969 Dubcek was finally dismissed from the First Secretaryship of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
The period of ‘normalization’ followed—the reforms were repealed, which, compounded by apolitical, military, and union purges thrust the country back into 1950s. The dissident movement, epitomized by the future Czech President Václav Havel, worked underground to counter the regime. Finally, the economic crisis in the 1980s facilitated the shift toward democracy.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, in which he endorsed the rights for all nations to decide their own course, was among the first signs of the worldwide crumbling of the Communist empire. However, Communist authorities in Prague brutally dispersed ad hoc anti-regime demonstrations on November 17, 1989, in commemoration of the 1939 Nazi attack against university dormitories. This set in motion the Velvet Revolution, and the student-led protests in the metropolis soon spilled over to other parts of the country.
As Communist governments in neighboring countries were being toppled, borders with Western Europe were opened, and in December, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first government composed of largely non-Communists and resigned. Alexander Dubcek, who played a crucial role in the Prague Spring, became the voice of the federal parliament and Vaclav Havel the President. In June 1990, the first democratic elections since 1946 were held.
Discussion of the proposal to drop the country’s socialist attribute introduced in 1960 revealed a serious Czecho-Slovak conflict, with many Slovak deputies calling for the reinstatement of the original name, "Czecho-Slovakia," adopted by the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. The country was eventually renamed the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic in April 1990, but voices for Slovakia’s independence were mounting, and the fiercely nationalistic Slovak National Party, whose key agenda was independence, was founded around this time. Even prior to that, Slovakia's creation of the Foreign Relations Ministry in 1990 had signaled intensified independence efforts.
The June 1990 elections uncovered the growing rift between the two countries when Slovakia openly challenged President Havel's intervening in Slovak internal affairs. While the conservatives won a sweeping victory in the Czech Republic, Slovakia elected liberals. The cabinets of both countries were no longer largely composed of former dissidents, and although the federal government operated on the principle of symmetric power-sharing, disagreements between the republics escalated into Slovakia’s declaration of a sovereign state in July 1992, whereby its laws overrode the federal laws. Negotiations on the dissolution of the federal state took place for the remainder of the year, which was materialized on January 1, 1993, when two independent states—Slovakia and the Czech Republic—appeared on the map of Europe.
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