historyEastern_Europe Czecho-Slovakia

 

The Role of Czech-Slovak Tensions
in the Disintegration of Czechoslovakia


by Nellie Pattavina

 

The disintegration of Czechoslovakia in December 1992 sparked an arousal of interest and endless debate throughout the world.  Although many explanations were presented to account for the country’s dissolution, it remains clear that no one reason is solely responsible. However, as this paper will suggest, Czechoslovakia’s break-up can, in large part, be attributed to the Czech-Slovak tensions that were brewing within the country since its creation in 1918.
The idea to create an independent Czechoslovak state was formulated shortly after the outbreak of World War I by Thomas Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Benes.  After much hard work and deliberation, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was born into existence on October 14, 1918.  Subsequently, Masaryk became Czechoslovakia’s first president and Benes fulfilled the role of minister of foreign affairs.  The map of the new state included the former provinces of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia and it is precisely the different historical backgrounds of these regions that caused the tensions in Czechoslovakia.

 

To understand the ethnic conflicts that contributed to the demise of Czechoslovakia, one must examine the circumstances during the late nineteenth century. “After the Ausgleich of the Hapsburg Empire in 1867, the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia continued to be administered from Vienna, but Slovakia fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of Hungary” (Lukes 2).  Things were very different on the Hungarian side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as opposed to the Austrian side.  For example, the Czechs were “free to conduct their affairs with only minimal and mostly benign Austrian interference [and] they profited from a vibrant economic development in Bohemia and Moravia that eventually provided a foundation for the emergence of a sophisticated, prosperous and confident Czech middle class” (Luke 3).  The Slovaks, on the other hand, were subject to very strict rules under the Magyars.  There was little industrial growth and a complete lack of Slovak middle and higher educational institutions.  This made the emergence of a middle class virtually impossible (Lukes 3). The only sphere where the ruling Magyars did not interfere as extensively was the Catholic Church. As a result, the Slovaks embraced the Church with open arms and considered it to be not only a religious institution, but also the sole protector of their national cause. (This is in contrast to the Czechs, who thought the Catholic Church was an Austrian institution that had been imposed upon the Czech lands and one which did nothing to advance Czech national interests).

 

All this having been said, it is clear that the Czechs and Slovaks had little in common and the task of bringing them together would prove to be enormous.  This responsibility fell on the shoulders of Masaryk and Benes. In spite of the difficulties mentioned, Czechoslovakia emerged as a viable and stable political entity. The Prague government was able to achieve considerable success because President Masaryk followed a completely liberal democratic course. Foreign policy also followed a steady course under Benes and economic achievements were considerable.  All in all, Czechoslovakia during the 1920’s proved to be of the most prosperous and promising countries in Eastern Europe.
Moreover, throughout the First Republic, Prague attempted to improve life in Slovakia.  It succeeded in establishing Slovak educational institutions and developing a Slovak middle class and intelligentsia, but there remained a persistent gap between Bohemia and Moravia on the one hand and Slovakia on the other (Lukes 4).  This, combined with the country’s complicated ethnic composition, made coexistence difficult.

 

Another obstacle to amiable Czech-Slovak relations was the Sudeten German situation.  The German minority in the Sudetenland was not at all happy about becoming part of the new Czechoslovak state.  They felt that their “unique German identity was endangered within the dominant Czech political culture” (Lukes 4).  The unwillingness of the Sudeten Germans to accept the Republic in 1918 had a profound impact on the relations between Czechs and Slovaks.  The Prague government was fearful that if the Sudeten Germans gained any political and legal autonomy, they would use it to pass laws that would sever the ties between the Sudeten province and Czechoslovakia.  To avoid this predicament, the Prague government denied the 3.1 million Sudeten Germans any political sovereignty. In doing so, however, it also had to deny the Slovaks the same sovereignty. The reason for this was simple: the government could not very well grant concessions to the Slovaks while denying them to the Sudeten Germans.  That might have been dangerous, considering the fact that the German minority was already unhappy with its current situation.  This decision by the Prague government exacerbated the tension between the Czechs and Slovaks.
Another source of friction between the two populations in Czechoslovakia was the government’s creation of a “Czechoslovak” nationality.  From Prague’s perspective, this was done to strengthen their position in the country by making the Czechoslovaks the majority, thereby leaving the German Sudeten population greatly outnumbered.  Thus, “by lumping Czechs and Slovaks together, official statistics could show that in a country of 13.5 million citizens, more than 8.7 million were ‘Czechoslovaks’” (Lukes 4).  This displeased many Slovaks because it seemed to them a loss of national identity. 

 

Then came September 1938, and with it, the Munich Agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Third Reich.  The Sudeten Germans celebrated this event and embraced Nazism.  This turn of events severely weakened the Prague government and strengthened the separatist tendencies in Slovakia.  In fact, when faced with the possibility of going down with the Czechs in 1939, the Slovaks opted to form a Slovak state under the auspices of the Third Reich.  As a result, on March 14, 1939, Slovakia declared its independence.  The very next day, the Nazis marched into the Czech lands, where they would remain until the end of World War II in 1945.  Bohemia and Moravia became occupied territories that were administered from Berlin. 
Despite the dismal relations between the Czechs and Slovaks throughout the war, when the war finally ended, there was no question regarding the restoration of sovereign Czechoslovakia. The British and the Americans, as well as Stalin, greatly supported this idea.  And so, for the second time, the opportunity presented itself for the amelioration of the Czech-Slovak relationship.  This prospect seemed likely, since the problem of the Sudetens had been solved.  However, by this time there emerged the struggle between the democratic parties and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.  The communists had substantial support by 1946, when they gained almost 40% of the vote during the elections (Ramet 37).  Not surprising then, is the February coup d’etat of 1948 carried out by the communists in an attempt to eradicate the few remnants of democracy which existed in Czechoslovakia.  This is how Czechoslovakia became “but one small entity in the large Soviet-controlled East European Empire” (Lukes 9). 
Antonin Novotny remained in power as president and general secretary of Czechoslovakia until 1968. Meanwhile, increasing Slovak dissatisfaction with Slovakia’s position in the state led to gradual support for reforms throughout the 1960’s (Ramet 43).  The result was a division within the Party itself.  One side favored maintaining the status quo (Novotny) whereas the other side supported more radical change.  Consequently, Alexander Dubcek replaced Novotny as head of the party in 1968.  This unleashed the forces that produced the Prague Spring—or the effort to create “Socialism with a Human Face.”  What could have resulted in the democratization of Czechoslovak life, however, came to an end in August when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia.

 

In April 1969, Dubcek was fired and replaced by the Slovak Gustav Husak.  It is under the leadership of Husak, that the process of “normalization” began and Czechoslovakia was brought back under Soviet control.  It was [also] from the hands of Husak that Slovakia received its autonomous status within the Czechoslovak federation. The country now had a president, a foreign minister and a minister of defense (Lukes 10).  Such would be the case for the Czechs and Slovaks until 1989.
The collapse of the communist system in Czechoslovakia began on November 17, 1989 when police brutally beat peaceful student demonstrators in Prague.  Outraged by the events, Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets and demanded an end to communist rule.  These events, which came to be known as the “Velvet Revolution,” quickly led to the fall of the communist government (Ramet 50).  However, if the revolution of 1989 was meant to provide another opportunity to rearrange relations between Czechs and Slovaks, it certainly did not turn out that way. 

 

Shortly after the Velvet Revolution, the so-called “hyphen debate” proposed that Czechoslovakia be spelled “Czecho-Slovakia.” More importantly, however, it brought a serious issue to the surface—that is, the fact that Slovak politicians were expressing separatist sentiments.  Under these circumstances, many on the Czech side began to say that if the Slovaks wanted to go, then they should go. 
It is important to note that most Slovaks did not want to see the state divided. However, they also believed that the federation did not serve Slovak interests.  In addition, the sources of conflict between the Czechs and Slovaks were too deeply rooted in their historical backgrounds.  Historical differences in the cultures, levels of development and political experiences resulted from the fact that Slovaks and Czechs were part of two larger states prior to the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918.  Whereas the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) became one of the industrialized centers of the Hapsburg Empire, Slovakia remained one of the least developed regions of empire (Ramet 59-60).  It was under communism that Slovakia’s development eventually occurred and it is for this reason that the move to the market was much more painful in Slovakia than in the Czech lands.

 

As a result of all these factors, Slovakia declared itself a sovereign state on July 17, 1992.  “Five days later the Czech and Slovak Prime Ministers, Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar, agreed to dissolve the country at the end of the year” (Lukes 12).  Once this decision was made, Slovakia was “sovereign,” complete with its own constitution, foreign minister, flag and army.  Today, the independent states are known as the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, respectively.
In retrospect, it seems almost disturbing that two peoples who lived in a common state for nearly seventy-five years could differ to such an extent that it required the disintegration of a country into two separate political entities.  But the ease with which Czechoslovakia dissolved showed that the Slovaks and Czechs were indeed strangers with no shared historical experience and whose separation was necessary. 

 

Works Cited

Lukes, Igor.  “Strangers in One House: Czechs and Slovaks (1918-1993). 

 Ramet, Sabrina P.  Eastern Europe: Politics, Culture and Society Since 1939.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

 

 

 

 

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