History of Czechoslovakia (1918–38)

Part of a series on the
History of Czechoslovakia
Origins 1918
First Republic 19181938
Second Republic / Occupation 19381945
Third Republic 19451948
Communist era 19481989
Velvet Revolution 1989
Post-revolution 19891992
Dissolution 1993


Tomáš Masaryk returning from exile

Following the Pittsburgh Agreement of May 1918, the Czechoslovak declaration of independence was published by the Czechoslovak National Council, signed by Masaryk, Štefánik and Beneš on October 18, 1918 in Paris, and proclaimed on October 28 in Prague. Towards the end of the First World War which led to the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, several ethnic groups and territories with different historical, political, and economic traditions were blended into new state structures. In the face of such obstacles, the creation of Czechoslovak democracy was indeed a triumph.

Initial authority within Czechoslovakia was assumed by the newly created National Assembly on November 14, 1918. Because territorial demarcations were uncertain and elections impossible, the provisional National Assembly was constituted on the basis of the 1911 elections to the Austrian parliament with the addition of fifty-four representatives from Slovakia. National minorities were not represented. Hungarians remained loyal to Hungary, and on November 12, 1918, ethnic Germans of the former Empire declared the short-lived Republic of German Austria with the intent of unifying with Germany, relying on President Wilson's principle of self-determination. The National Assembly elected Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk as its first president, chose a provisional government headed by Karel Kramář, and drafted a provisional constitution.

The Paris Peace Conference convened in January 1919. The Czech delegation was led by Kramář and Beneš, premier and foreign minister respectively, of the Czechoslovak provisional government. The conference approved the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, to encompass the historic Bohemian Kingdom (including Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia), Slovakia, and Carpathian Ruthenia. The inclusion of Ruthenia provided a common frontier with Romania, an important ally against Hungary. In January 1920 Czechoslovakian army breaking prior agreements with Poland, crossed the demarcation line and by force of arms occupied the Zaolzie, where a 60% majority of the population was Polish, compared to 25% Czechs. After brief fights they made a truce on the power of which Czechoslovakia occupied areas to the west of Olza River. The Czech claim to Lusatia, which had been part of the Bohemian Kingdom until the Thirty Years' War, was rejected. On September 10, 1919, Czechoslovakia signed the Minorities Treaty, placing its ethnic minorities under the protection of the League of Nations.


The establishment of the Constitution of 1920 installed a parliamentary system and representative democracy with relatively few constituents for each representative. This allowed a great variety of political parties to emerge, with no clear front runner or leading political entity.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected the country's first president in the 1920 election and his guidance helped to hold the country together. A coalition of five Czechoslovak parties, which became known as the "Pětka" (The Five), constituted the backbone of the government and maintained stability. Prime Minister Antonin Svehla led the Pětka for most of the 1920s and designed a pattern of coalition politics that survived until 1938. Masaryk was re-elected in 1925 and 1929, serving as President until December 14, 1935 when he resigned due to poor health. He was succeeded by Edvard Beneš.

Czechoslovakia in 1928

Beneš had served as Czechoslovak foreign minister from 1918 to 1935, and created the system of alliances that determined the republic's international stance until 1938. A democratic statesman of Western orientation, Beneš relied heavily on the League of Nations as guarantor of the post war status quo and the security of newly formed states. He negotiated the Little Entente (an alliance with Yugoslavia and Romania) in 1921 to counter Hungarian revanchism and Habsburg restoration.

The leaders of Czechoslovakia needed to find solutions for the multiplicity of cultures living within one country. From 1928 and 1940, Czechoslovakia was divided into the four "lands" (Czech: "země", Slovak: "krajiny"); Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia, Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia. Although in 1927 assemblies were provided for Bohemia, Slovakia, and Ruthenia, their jurisdiction was limited to adjusting laws and regulations of the central government to local needs. National minorities were assured special protection; in districts where they constituted 20% of the population, members of minority groups were granted full freedom to use their language in everyday life, in schools, and in matters dealing with authorities. German parties also participated in the government in the beginning of 1926. Hungarian parties, influenced by irredentist propaganda from Hungary, never joined the Czechoslovak government but were not openly hostile.

Growing conflict

Due to Czechoslovakia's centralized political structure, nationalism arose in the non-Czech nationalities, and several parties and movements were formed with the aim of broader political autonomy. The Slovak People's Party led by Andrej Hlinka is an example.

When German dictator Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, fear of German aggression became widespread in eastern Central Europe. Beneš ignored the possibility of a stronger Central European alliance system, remaining faithful to his Western policy. He did, however, seek the participation of the Soviet Union in an alliance to include France. (Beneš's earlier attitude towards the Soviet regime had been one of caution.) In 1935 the Soviet Union signed treaties with France and Czechoslovakia. In essence, the treaties provided that the Soviet Union would come to Czechoslovakia's aid, but only if French assistance came first. Hitler himself remarked to his foreign minister von Neurath and top military officials in 1937 that he intended to absorb Bohemia and Austria, with a vague sentence about the need to expel two million Czechs and the eventual elimination of the Czech nation.[1]

There was a large German minority in Czechoslovakia, mostly living in Sudetenland. They demanded autonomy within Czechoslovakia, claiming they were oppressed by the national government. The political vehicle for this agitation was the newly founded Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei - SdP) led by Konrad Henlein, and financed with Nazi money. In the 1935 Parliamentary elections, the SdP had a surprise success, securing over 2/3 of the Sudeten German vote. This worsened diplomatic relations between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Hitler met with Henlein in Berlin on March 28, 1938, and ordered him to raise demands unacceptable to the Czechoslovak government. On April 24, the SdP issued the Carlsbad Programme, demanding autonomy for the Sudetenland and the freedom to profess Nazi ideology. If these demands were granted, the Sudetenland could then align with Nazi Germany.

On 17 September 1938 Adolf Hitler ordered the establishment of Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, a paramilitary organization that took over the structure of Ordnersgruppe, an organization of ethnic-Germans in Czechoslovakia that had been dissolved by the Czechoslovak authorities the previous day due to its implication in large number of terrorist activities. The organization was sheltered, trained and equipped by German authorities and conducting cross border terrorist operations into Czechoslovak territory. Relying on the Convention for the Definition of Aggression, Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš[2] and the government-in-exile[3] later regarded 17 September 1938 as the beginning of the undeclared German-Czechoslovak war. This understanding has been assumed also by the contemporary Czech Constitutional court.[4]

See also

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  1. Prague in black: Nazi rule and Czech nationalism, p. 108–109, Chad Carl Bryant, Harvard University Press 2007
  2. President Beneš' declaration made on 16 December 1941
  3. Note of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile dated 22 February 1944
  4. Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic (1997), Ruling No. II. ÚS 307/97 (in Czech), Brno Check date values in: |access-date= (help); Stran interpretace "kdy země vede válku", obsažené v čl. I Úmluvy o naturalizaci mezi Československem a Spojenými státy, publikované pod č. 169/1929 Sb. za účelem zjištění, zda je splněna podmínka státního občanství dle restitučních předpisů, Ústavní soud vychází z již v roce 1933 vypracované definice agrese Společnosti národů, která byla převzata do londýnské Úmluvy o agresi (CONVENITION DE DEFINITION DE L'AGRESSION), uzavřené dne 4. 7. 1933 Československem, dle které není třeba válku vyhlašovat (čl. II bod 2) a dle které je třeba za útočníka považovat ten stát, který první poskytne podporu ozbrojeným tlupám, jež se utvoří na jeho území a jež vpadnou na území druhého státu (čl. II bod 5). V souladu s nótou londýnské vlády ze dne 22. 2. 1944, navazující na prohlášení prezidenta republiky ze dne 16. 12. 1941 dle § 64 odst. 1 bod 3 tehdejší Ústavy, a v souladu s citovaným čl. II bod 5 má Ústavní soud za to, že dnem, kdy nastal stav války, a to s Německem, je den 17. 9. 1938, neboť tento den na pokyn Hitlera došlo k utvoření "Sudetoněmeckého svobodného sboru" (Freikorps) z uprchnuvších vůdců Henleinovy strany a několik málo hodin poté už tito vpadli na československé území ozbrojeni německými zbraněmi.


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