The creation of Czechoslovakia was the culmination of the long struggle of the Czechs against their Austrian rulers. It was largely accomplished by the nation's first and second presidents, T. G. Masaryk and Eduard Beneš. The union of the Czech lands and Slovakia was officially proclaimed in Prague on Nov. 14, 1918; the Treaty of St. Germain (Sept., 1919) formally recognized the new republic. Ruthenia was added by the Treaty of Trianon (June, 1920).
Because Czechoslovakia inherited the greater part of the industries of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, it was economically the most favored of the Hapsburg successor states. Benefiting from a liberal, democratic constitution (1920) and led by able statesmen, the new republic appeared to have a bright future. Redistribution of some of the estates of the former nobility and the church generally improved the living conditions of the peasantry. In foreign policy Czechoslovakia relied on its friendship with France and on its Little Entente with Yugoslavia and Romania.
Yet the new state was far from being a stable unit. With its antagonistic and nationalistic ethnic elements, it reflected the inherent weakness of the Hapsburg empire. The Czechs and Slovaks had separate histories and greatly differing religious, cultural, and social traditions. The constitution of 1920, which set up a highly centralized unitary state, failed to take into account the important problem of national minorities. The Germans and Magyars of Czechoslovakia openly agitated against the territorial settlements. Although the constitution provided for autonomy for Ruthenia, in practice autonomy was constantly postponed. The Slovak People's party accused the Czech government of having denied Slovakia promised autonomous rights. Hitler's rise in Germany, the German annexation of Austria, the resulting revival of revisionism in Hungary and of agitation for autonomy in Slovakia, and the appeasement policy of the Western powers left Czechoslovakia without allies, exposed to hostile Germany and Hungary on three sides and to unsympathetic Poland on the fourth.
The nationality problem led to a European crisis when the German nationalist minority, led by Konrad Henlein and vehemently backed by Hitler, demanded the union of the predominantly German districts with Germany. Threatening war, Hitler extorted through the Munich Pact (Sept., 1938) the cession of the Bohemian borderlands (Sudetenland). Poland and Hungary obtained territorial cessions shortly thereafter. Beneš resigned the presidency in October and was succeeded by Emil Hacha. In Nov., 1938, the truncated state, renamed Czecho-Slovakia, was reconstituted in three autonomous units—Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia, and Ruthenia.
In Mar., 1939, Hitler forced Hacha to surrender Czecho-Slovakia to German control and made Bohemia and Moravia into a German "protectorate." Slovakia gained nominal independence as a satellite state. Ruthenia was awarded to Hungary. After the outbreak of World War II, Beneš set up a provisional government in London, and Czech units fought with the Allied forces. Except for the brutalities of the German occupation, Czechoslovakia suffered relatively little from the war. In Apr., 1944, Soviet forces, accompanied by a Czech coalition government headed by Beneš, and American troops entered Czechoslovakia; the fall (May 12, 1945) of Prague marked the end of military operations in Europe. Soviet and American troops were withdrawn later in the year.
At the Potsdam Conference of 1945 the expulsion of about 3,000,000 Germans from Czechoslovakia and an exchange of minorities between Czechoslovakia and Hungary were approved. The country's pre-1938 territory was restored, except for Ruthenia, which was ceded to the USSR. In the elections of 1946 the Communists emerged as the strongest party (obtaining one third of the votes) and became the dominant party in the coalition headed by the Communist Klement Gottwald. Beneš was elected president. Soviet pressure prevented Czechoslovakia from accepting Marshall Plan aid (June, 1947).
During the summer of 1947, the Communists began a campaign of political agitation and intrigue that gave them complete control of the government in Feb., 1948. In March, Jan Masaryk, the non-Communist foreign minister, died in suspicious circumstances. After the adoption of a new constitution (Beneš resigned rather than sign it), a new legislature was elected and enacted a program for nationalizing the economy. Czechoslovakia became a Soviet-style state.
Political and cultural liberty was curtailed, and purge trials were conducted from 1950 to 1952. Riots occurred in 1953, reflecting economic discontent. A very modest liberalization trend was begun in response but was reversed in Nov., 1957, when Antonin Novotný became president. In 1960 a new constitution was enacted. Another cautious movement toward liberalization was initiated in 1963. Restrictions on the press, education, and cultural activities were eased, and local authorities received increased economic autonomy. Profit considerations were introduced into the economy. Czechoslovakia became celebrated internationally for its experimental theater work and its many fine films. But political power remained the exclusive possession of a small circle in the Communist party.
That factor, the sluggishness of the economy (despite the reforms), and Slovak resentment over Novotný's Czech-dominated administration, produced the startling developments of 1968. Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, replaced Novotný as party leader in January; Ludvik Svoboda became president in March. Under Dubček, in what is known as Prague Spring, democratization went further than in any other Communist state. Press censorship was reduced, and the restoration of a genuinely democratic political life seemed possible. Slovakia was granted political autonomy.
Seriously alarmed at what it construed to be a threat to Soviet security and to the supremacy within the USSR of the Soviet Communist party, the USSR with some of its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia in Aug., 1968. Dubček and other leaders were taken to Moscow. Despite opposition by the populace, the USSR forced the repeal of most of the reforms. A revised constitution was promulgated. (Slovakian autonomy was retained.) In Apr., 1969, Dubček was replaced as party leader, and in June, 1970, he was expelled from the party.
In the early 1970s there were many efforts to stamp out dissent, including mass arrests, union purges, and religious persecution. The repressive policies and rigid Soviet-style economic policies continued throughout the 1970s despite inflation and a sluggish economy. In 1977, the appearance of a declaration of human rights called Charter 77, which was signed by 700 intellectuals and former party leaders, instigated further repressive measures.
In late 1989, massive antigovernment demonstrations in Prague were at first suppressed by the police, but as democratization swept through Eastern Europe, the Communist party leadership resigned in November. In December, a new, non-Communist cabinet took over, and the playwright and former dissident Václav Havel was elected president. Under Communist rule, Czechoslovakia had a Soviet-style planned economy in which its highly developed industry as well as trade, banking, and agriculture were under state control. In 1990, the nation began the transition to a market economy with a broad program designed to encourage private enterprise and outside investment. The "Velvet Revolution" was successfully completed with the departure of the last Soviet troops in May, 1991, and a free parliamentary election in June, 1992.
The new government was faced with several difficulties, including a distressed and inefficient economic system in need of drastic reform, high unemployment, widespread social discontent, and environmental pollution. Under the 1968 constitution, Czechoslovakia was a federal republic. The two component parts were the Czech Republic, with its capital in Prague, and the Slovak Republic, with its capital at Bratislava. There was a bicameral federal legislature elected every five years. The federal president, who was elected by the legislature, appointed the premier and ministers. Each republic had a council and assembly. The federal government dealt with defense, foreign affairs, and certain economic matters. A strong secessionist movement in Slovakia, however, led to the formal declaration on Aug. 26, 1992, that the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic would separate into independent states on Jan. 1, 1993, thus dissolving the 74-year-old federation. In response to the imminent breakup, the federal government was dismantled and drafts of new Czech and Slovak constitutions were begun.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.