Czechs and Slovaks - more than just neighbours

Czechoslovak Independence Day is a public holiday in the Czech Republic, marking the founding of the Czechoslovak state back in 1918. For this special programme, I am joined by noted Czech historian, and expert on all matters Czech and Slovak, Professor Jan Rychlík.

Thank you very much for joining us today Professor Rychlík. In a previous special we spoke about the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic. So I thought that this time we would try to look at how Czechs and Slovaks lived together in their united country. And later we will also examine the split. My first question is: in their almost – what was it, 90-year union? – how well did Czechs and Slovaks manage to live together. There was an idea among some Czechs that they were “carrying the load” for the Slovaks.

Jan Rychlík,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková,  ČRo
“First of all, it wasn’t 90 years, the union lasted for 74 years. And there was also a break between 1939 and 1945. I think that generally speaking this union was successful. Of course nothing is perfect, and in many areas the Slovaks felt discriminated against in certain ways. But generally speaking, today Slovak historians recognise that during the turbulent 20th century, those 74 years were better than their lot before 1918.”

During the existence of Czechoslovakia, was an effort made to ensure that Czechs and Slovaks were equally represented in the highest positions of the state? For example, we had Gustav Husák, a Slovak, as the last communist-era president.

“There was something in existence called the ‘Slovak quota’. It meant that roughly one-third of key posts in the federal government were reserved for Slovaks. But I don’t think that this was so important for Slovaks. Because back in their country, the Slovaks who had gone off to Prague were viewed as kind of traitors – people who are not really representing Slovak interests. My view is that is was impossible really for two fully conscious nations, as the Czechs and Slovaks were in the 20th century, to live together permanently in one state. All multi-national states fall apart eventually. And Czechoslovakia was no exception, because if you have two nations living together permanently as one state, then they must be joined by some kind of idea to keep them together. In the 19th century, they were united by the notion of language proximity. Once it became obvious that language proximity was not enough, there was no other idea to hold these two peoples together.

“It could not be democracy, because Czechs and Slovaks could live separately in democratic states, as they do now. So that was the problem – to find an idea behind the Czechoslovak state.”

Czechoslovakia is a very catchy name, right? To this day some people even think the country still exists. That name must have been useful to broadcast to the world the existence of this state?

“The problem was that both by the Czechs, and by the outside world, Czechoslovakia was considered to be the Czech state. To this day people mix up Czechs and Czechoslovaks. Which of course makes the Slovaks furious. Rightly so. Czechoslovakia was a neologism. It didn’t exist prior to 1914. It was first used by the French in 1916 as the Czecho-Slovak National Council. By the way it was a Slovak politician, and later Czechoslovak minister to Paris in the inter-war period, Štefan Osuský, who insisted that the name of the exile organisation could not be National Council of the Czech Lands. He insisted they were not part of the Czech lands, and never would be.

“And in the English language, they didn’t know how to write this. And they were still using the Polish transliteration with CZ – because we don’t use that to make the ‘č’ sound. And that meant that the outside world was really confused. They knew the word ‘Czech’ and they knew the word ‘Bohemian’. But Czechoslovakia didn’t mean anything to anyone – prior to 1918.”

You mentioned that some Slovaks were furious that their politicians were going to work in Prague for the Czechoslovak central government. They were viewed as traitors. That sounds like a nationalistic sentiment...

“From the beginning, there were two very different concepts of Czechoslovakia. Most Czechs and Slovaks were talking about a common state. But they understood that in a completely different way. For the Czechs, a common state meant one state. Which is why in Czech orthography, Czechoslovakia is spelt as one word. But in Slovakia, it was viewed as a common state in the sense of a union of two semi-independent states. Like the old deceased Austro-Hungaria was.”

So Czecho-Slovakia – with a hyphen...

“By the way, in Slovak orthography it is written differently. It is hyphenated and with a capital ‘S’. And that is not a question of orthography, but a matter of conception. The Slovak high officials in Prague, and especially Slovak ministers, usually considered themselves not as high officials of the Czechoslovak state but rather as some kind of Slovak envoys to the federal government. Needless to say that was wrong. Because the state could not exist with such a system. Which is why many Slovaks then came to view such officials as selling out to the Czechs.

“It happened to my wife. She is Slovak. She was a director of the Historical Museum, which was part of the National Museum until 1989, in Prague. It was in Lobkowicz Palace and was then returned to the Lobkowicz family, and now there is a gallery there. And my wife Magdalena was once asked: ‘How do you represent Slovak interests in Prague?’ But of course she was not a Slovak representative in the National Museum. She was a director of one part of it, and a public official in the Czechoslovak state.”

Do you think that the fact that the Slovaks sided with the Nazis in 1939 and became a separate client state – did that cause tension later? Did some feel that they had split the country, willingly, and gone over to the enemy?

“After the war, yes. But I don’t think it played a decisive role later on. In 1939, Czechoslovakia would have been split up anyway. In fact, an independent Slovakia under German protection was a side-effect of the destruction of Czechoslovakia as such. Because it was in the interests of the Germans to have different policies towards the Slovaks and the Czechs. But I don’t think this history played a role later on, during the 1990s. Today, historians usually accept that in March 1939 the Slovaks didn’t have any other option other than to declare independence. Because otherwise they would be occupied anyway, and their situation would be much worse.”

So any kind of “Nazi sympathiser” label is unfair.

Absolutely. The wartime Slovak Republic – despite the fact that it was fully dependent on Germany, and that its sovereignty was limited and had to partake in the war against Poland and later the Soviet Union – did play a role in the idea of Slovak statehood. Because for the first time in their history, they had their own state – albeit a highly problematic one, of course. So they realised that they could live separately, which was not a clear idea before the war. Many Slovaks had been afraid to have an independent state because they worried it would be too small, with a strong Hungarian minority population, and so an alliance with the Czech was needed to make them stronger.

“The Second World War proved that if they wanted to, they could function as an independent state. Additionally, the fact that Slovakia was independent, even if only on paper, it ended up having a protective role for the country. Life there under the Nazis, and the restrictions there were much milder than under the direct occupation which existed in the Czech lands. For example there was not a single political execution in Slovakia until 1944. So the regime was relatively mild; economically, it was prosperous. So in the memory of the war generation – though certainly not in the memory of all Slovaks – the Nazi occupation had quite a different meaning than it had for the Czechs.”

And was there a difference between Czechs and Slovaks in their views towards the Soviet Union? Because presumably in the build-up to World War II, such small countries were stuck in a Catch-22 no-win situation of having to either ally themselves with the Nazis or with the Soviets.

“The small nations in eastern Europe definitely had no choice in such matters. Because this was all decided by the big powers and not by the nations themselves.”

Could Slovakia have existed as a separate communist state after 1945?

“Technically, yes. But that was not in the interest of the Soviet Union. We know today that some Slovak politicians – and not only communists – were proposing something like that. But the Soviets were not interested in such a solution. My opinion is that Stalin simply saw that as a ‘bad example’ for the non-Russian nations in the Soviet Union itself. Because if you can have an independent communist Slovakia, then why not have an independent communist Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and so on? So this was of no use to the Soviets. Additionally, in 1945 Stalin still needed the West to see him as someone they could trust. And such an open violation of the international treaty concluded in 1943 with Edvard Beneš would be a very bad advertisement for the Soviet government.

“Another question is that the majority of Slovaks, if they had such a chance, whether they would have opted for independence in 1945 or wanted to return to Czechoslovakia. We don’t know, and we will never know. There is evidence to support both viewpoints. But it was definitely not an option because the Allies had the policy that whatever had happened under the Nazis is null and void. And so, as far as possible, the situation should be restored to what it was before the war. The Slovak question was viewed by the Allies as an internal one for Czechoslovakia, and Slovak independence was not on the agenda.”

And during World War II there was a government in exile in London, led by President Beneš, but then also at the end a Soviet-backed ‘Košice government’ in liberated eastern Slovakia with the communist Klement Gottwald...?

“No, the government in Košice was the same one as that which arrived from London. During the war there was only one government in exile, and even the communist Czechoslovaks in Moscow were subordinate to it. Even in 1940, Gottwald told Stalin that as far as the programme of the restoration of Czechoslovakia was concerned, he was in total agreement with Beneš.

“In April, 1945, in Košice, after negotiations between London exiles and communist exiles and representatives of the Slovak resistance – the Slovak National Council – which took place in Moscow, the communists insisted that the first coalition government should be appointed on Czechoslovak soil and should move to Czechoslovak territory. They didn’t want to go to London and simply join the government there. The first Soviet plan was to move the Czechoslovak exile government to Soviet territory, perhaps Lvov or Kiev. But that was rejected. Then it was decided that the new coalition government, including strong communist representation, would be appointed on Czechoslovak soil. And this was done in the first, and for some time only, liberated area of Czechoslovakia, which was in eastern Slovakia in Košice.”

So were there leading Slovak representatives within Beneš’s government in exile? Did any such figures exist?

“When it was in London, there were no communists in the government. Neither Czech nor Slovak communists. But there was a so-called state council which was a kind of would-be provisional parliament. The communists were represented in this body. And I think that so far as we are talking about Slovak communist politicians in London...”

Or non-communist.

“There were both. Of the Slovak communists I would certainly mention Doctor Vladimír Clementis, then the state secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And then later he became Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs (in Gottwald’s communist government). He was one of the communists who had rejected the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. And he was expelled from the Party. By the way, Stalin never forgot this. Clementis was a very educated man, and an intellectual man, and a lawyer. He was arrested in 1951 and then sentenced to death and hanged as part of the the Rudolf Slánský show trials. I would definitely say that he was the intellectual leader of the Slovak communists in exile during the Second World War.”

Skipping forward to 1968. And after the Prague Spring was crushed, a re-organisation of the Czechoslovak state into more of a federation took place. Was that just a smokescreen to divert away from the major event of the Soviet invasion of the country?

“I wouldn’t quite say that. This federalisation was a policy programme of the Slovaks which went back to after 1945. But it didn’t occur after the war. In fact, the opposite occurred. In 1946 Slovak autonomy was cut off. And after the communist coup it was cut off even more. And in 1960 it was definitively abolished.”

What happened in 1960?

“That’s when a new constitution was proclaimed. And the dictatorship of Czechoslovak president Antonín Novotný – for no apparent reason he didn’t like the Slovaks. He remained in this post until 1968 when he was ousted.

Of course this simply pushed together Slovaks of various political orientations. From ‘Rudáks’ – meaning adherents of the wartime state and pre-war autonomy; there were Slovak Democrats, meaning members of the former Slovak Democratic Party, which was the strongest non-communist political party in Czechoslovakia and Slovakia. And in 1946 they won the elections. The last free elections in Czechoslovakia. And there were also the so-called ‘Slovak National Communists’, like Gustav Husák (future president), who was sentenced to life in prison in 1954 (during Stalinist purges in the 1950s)...

“Simply put, it was such an amalgamation, and their programme was the federalisation of Czechoslovakia. They believed that a federalised Czechoslovakia can fulfill Slovak national aspirations and can give them more protection and more economic freedom, because there is a bigger economic space. They simply viewed it as the ideal solution.

“But we should keep in mind one thing – communist dictatorship and federalism are incompatible. Because communism is always centralised. One leader and everyone must obey. Federalism requires a diversity of power centres.”

So it was a sham. It was just cosmetic.

“It could have made sense during the democratisation process leading up to 1968. But only if the democratic reforms would have continued. Once the Soviet invasion took place and these reforms were stopped, then it just remained on paper. Because a real federation was impossible under such circumstances.”

There was nothing like an autonomous Slovak parliament...

“There was a Slovak parliament, a Slovak government. There was even a so-called no-majorisation principle – that means that in the Federal Assembly in Prague – which is today occupied by the National Museum – there had to be a consensus among elected deputies from the Czech and Slovak republics. But it was a formality, because neither governments nor parliaments made political decisions under the communist regime. Those were made by the politburo of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. There was one communist party and it was situated in Prague. So the only difference was that now simply more official posts and functions were awarded to the Slovak intelligentsia. Bratislava had an almost full government structure – all ministries except for defence and foreign affairs. And there was a Slovak quota in federal authorities.

“All of this allowed the Slovaks to prepare for independence. Because now they had Slovak diplomats, generals, high officials etc. And despite the fact that this local government in Bratislava was in actuality just carrying out orders from Prague, it became possible theoretically to one day sever the links with Prague and have a state apparatus that could continue to function as before. So from this point-of-view, these reforms represented an advantage and progress for the Slovaks. But the Slovaks were not satisfied anyway, because they wanted to decide about Slovak affairs in Slovakia. And this wasn’t allowed to happen. And during the communist regime it couldn’t happen. Whether there was a Slovak president or not it didn’t play much of a role.”

Let’s move forward again to 1989 and the Velvet Revolution. Many people around the world will likely be familiar with Václav Havel and Civic Forum. But there was also a Slovak anti-communist resistance called Public Against Violence.

“Even going back to the early 1980s, sociologists were trying to find out whether something akin to a Czechoslovak society really could be found here. Meaning in the sociological sense. And even under communism they came to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist. That we have two societies, which are closely related, but that they are two communities and two separate entities. And also, among the dissident movement, despite the fact that they cooperated, you had a separate movement in the Czech part and a separate one in Slovakia. They cooperated, which is different, for instance, compared with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, when there was no cooperation between the oppositional groups of particular republics. And then naturally you had two anti-communist democratic movements.”

Czechs and Slovaks split up in January 1993. It was regarded almost as a model dissolution. Very peaceful. The countries were untangled without any tears or scars. So how would you describe the process of that split, and then the relationship today – with the Visegrad Group, among others, seeming to be a forum to bring these countries together...?

“The final reason for the split was that after the elections in June 1992, you had two different political representations elected. The Civic Democrats of Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia of Vladimír Mečiar. And because, as I said, you had to have consensus in the federal parliament, in the upper house – between the elected deputies from the Czech and Slovak parts, you ended up with an essentially blocked parliament. And by its own dynamic, the Czechoslovak state started to simply fall apart. If we look at the state not just as a legal construction, but as a functional construct. And in this situation, the only thing on which Klaus and Mečiar could agree was a peaceful division of the country. Because they couldn’t find any common policy programme. Mečiar wanted a confederation, and this was no use to the Czechs. So Klaus said: ‘This brings us nothing but problems; if you want this then we would prefer to have two states.’”

And today?

“Today, I can say that relations between the two states are very good. I don’t think any major issues divide the countries.”

And forums such as the Visegrad Group – do they enable the Czechs and Slovaks to have a common forum for their positions?

“Definitely. And there are also joint sessions of the Czech and Slovak governments to decide on common issues. There is also close cooperation in the European Union.”

Professor Jan Rychlík, thank you very much for joining me for this special Czechoslovak Independence Day programme.

“My pleasure.”