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National Minorities in Czechoslovakia,1919-1980

Josef Kalvoda,with the assistance of David Crowe (Jews)


The Czechoslovak Republic came into being in the years1918 and 1919 by the amalgamation of two groups of territories: Bohemia and Moravia-Silesia, known as the Czech or historical lands, which up until the nhad formed a partof old Austria; and Slovakia and Ruthenia, which had hitherto been part of the old Hungarian kingdom. After its establishment, Czechoslovakia, a country in the heart of Europe, had an area of 140,484 square kilometers (approximately 55,000 square miles) and, according to the census of 1930, a population of 14,729,536.

A glance at the map of Europe shows the mountain quadrangle of Bohemia and the mountain ellipse of Slovakia. The western part of the country had „natural boundaries“ and the Carpathian mountains provided such a boundary in the north of Slovakia and Ruthenia, but there was nothing in the south that would separate the country from Hungary and the eastern part of Austria.

The Czechs and Slovaks had a long history before Czechoslovakia appeared on the map of Europe. Their Slavic ancestors had lived in the area since the seventh century and possibly even earlier. In the ninth century Bohemia became a part of the Frankish empire and subsequently of the Holy Roman Empire. In the twelfth century the prince of Bohemia became king and eventually one of the electors of the Holy Roman Empire.

For a time the Czechs, Slovaks, and other western Slavic tribes were unified into the Great Moravian Empire. The Magyar invasion (903-907), however, brought the end of the Great Moravian Empire, and the Slovaks became subjects of the Hungarian (St. Stephen) Crown. Thus, after the eleventh century the Czechs and Slovaks were separated and their history evolved along different lines.

The medieval kingdom of Bohemia, ruling also some adjacent provinces (at one, time stretching from thy, Baltic to the Mediterranean), had natural-frontiers by a string of mountains and was the westernmost Slavic bastion amidst principalities inhabited by German- speaking peoples. Thus, the Czech national state existed long before Germany, Italy, France, and Spain became united. In the fourteenth century the kingdom had its „golden age“ under the rule of Charles IV (I), who was also the Holy Roman emperor. The fifteenth-century Hussite Wars had long-range repercussions. On the one hand, they served as a basis for a variety of interpretations, usually emphasizing the Czech self-image as a small but stubborn nation that was able to defy all of Europe. On the other hand, the country became devastated by the religious wars, isolated and politically weakened, internally and externally. The extremely destructive Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) completed the process, reducing Bohemia's population to about one-fifth of its prewar size. The outcome of the war assured the rule of Habsburgs over the kingdom, which remained a part of their domain until 1918.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Czech (Bohemian) – kings called German craftsmen and miners to settle in Bohemia and Moravia to develop industries and crafts. After this, the Czechs and Germans lived side by side in the Czech lands. The-Germans were concentrated largely in the border regions of the historical lands and in some of the larger cities. The Habsburg' policies, notably in the eighteenth century, resulted in considerable Germanization of populations, especially in the cities and the border regions. The Czech language, however, was maintained by the peasants living in the countryside.

The national reawakening in the nineteenth century and Pan-Slav agitation were manifest among both the Czechs and the Slovaks. Although there were some contacts between the Czechs and the Slovaks over the centuries of their separation. Slovak history, mentality, and culture evolved along different lines than those of the Czechs. In the nineteenth Century Slovak written language was adopted by the educated Slovaks. The Slovak Catholics used in their schools one of the dialects as literary language, but through Ľudovít Štúr's efforts, a central Slovak dialect gradually gained general acceptance among the Slovaks as the Slovak literary language. The language reform, Štúr's political leadership, and his emphasis on separate Slovak national identity had a lasting impact which created a permanent chism between the Slovaks and the Czechs. A small group of educated Slovaks, the Hlasists, promoted the idea of Czech-Slovak national unity before World War I, establishing the basis for the concept of a „Czechoslovak“ nation adopted by most Czechs (and some Slovaks) during the existence of the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938).

The Czech national reawakening or renascence in the nineteenth century reinstilled the sense of national identity and national pride among the Czechs. Thus, before World War I the hard-working Czechs were well organized in political parties that reflected the whole spectrum of economic and ideological interests. Their schools produced capable intelligentsia, political leaders, and technically skilled persons who built and developed the Czech economic and financial institutions. The growing middle class was prosperous, and cultural life in the historical lands was flourishing. The Czechs, however, had valid political, national, and economic grievances, and their representatives in the Vienna parliament and the provincial diets did not hesitate to voice them. In particular, the bulk of the prewar Czech political parties demanded the restoration of the historical „state rights“ of the Bohemian Crown, that is, a tripartite arrangement in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the St. Wenceslas (Bohemian) Crown would have a similar position as that of St. Stephen (Hungary).

The Social Democrats and Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the only deputy of the „Realist“ party in the Vienna Reichsrat, advocated autonomy for national groups on the basis of „natural right.“ (There were 107 Czech deputies in the Reichsrat.) Only the small Czech Progressives State Rights party demanded before World War I the independence of the Bohemian kingdom. But the war created a new situation in which the larger demands of the Czech resistance at home and abroad were realized and the Czecho-Slovak state was established.

According to the Austro-Hungarian census of 1900, some 6 million Czechs and 2 million Slovaks lived in the empire. It may be noted that, in contrast to the Czechs, whose national survival in the Habsburg Empire was not in doubt on the eve of the war, the number of politically and nationally conscious Slovaks was sharply reduced through the consciously pursued policy, of Magyarization applied to someone thousand families. The bulk of the Slovak nation consisted of peasants living in the mountainous regions of „Upper Hungary,“ who were deeply religious, apolitical, and resigned to their fate. While the Czechs had a full range of well-organized political parties reflecting class and ideological divisions is the nation, the Slovak National party was a loose political organization of leaders without a mass following. The party's representation in the Budapest parliament consisted of three deputies before World War I, and it shrunk to just one after the declaration of war (one deputy was called to military service and the other one resigned). Although the policy of Magyarization affected all the national minorities living in Hungary, the nationally and politically conscious Slovaks were on the verge of extinction when the war began.

In May 1918 the leaders of the Slovak National party decided to cooperate with the Czechs, as did the Slovaks in the United States; and, eventually, on October 30, 1918, political leaders of all political factions, assembled at Turčiansky Sv. Martin, formally established the Slovak National Council and issued a declaration demanding the right of national self-determination: Two days earlier, on October 28, 1918, the Czech National Committee, formed in the summer of 1918, proclaimed Czechoslovak independence in Prague. The delegates from the Slovak National Council despatched to Prague cooperated with the Czechs in the efforts to gain control over the area that became known as Slovakia.

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