The legacy of Czechoslovakia’s inter-war republic

Left to right: Neville Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini

Exactly 90 years have passed since the founding of Czechoslovakia on October 28 1918, a date that is still celebrated as a national holiday in the Czech Republic. In this programme we look at the legacy of Czechoslovakia’s “First Republic”. It survived for just 20 years, brought to an abrupt end with the Munich Agreement of September 1938, followed six months later by the German occupation of what remained of the Czech Lands. During the 40 years of communist rule, the pre-war republic and its founding father, President Tomáš Masaryk, were virtually a taboo subject. The First Republic was portrayed as a period of capitalist exploitation and weakness, culminating in Czechoslovakia’s failure to stand up to Hitler in 1938. With the fall of communism the pendulum swang the other way, and the republic came to be seen as a golden age of democracy and prosperity.

I would like to try to look beyond these two myths, and to discuss the period I am joined by the historian, journalist and broadcaster Ondřej Houska, and Professor Jiří Musil, one of the Czech Republic’s most distinguished social scientists, with childhood memories going back to the First Republic.

The First Republic was cut tragically short, when Britain, France and Italy gave Hitler the green light to annex the Sudetenland. A jubilant Neville Chamberlain saw “the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem” in Munich as “the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.” He did not add that the Munich Agreement had effectively destroyed Czechoslovakia. The country had failed to stand up to intense pressure both from outside and within. After Munich, what remained of Masaryk’s republic began to disintegrate more of less immediately. So how was it possible that what had seemed to be such a strong European democracy was able to fall apart so quickly?

Signing of the Munich Agreement. Left to right: Neville Chamberlain,  Édouard Daladier,  Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
Jiří Musil: “There were elements, or groups of people, who were extremely loud at that time. I mean the right-wing nationalists, the Catholics, people who were from the beginning on the side of the First Republic but then changed their mind somewhat…”

You are talking about Czechs here, not Slovaks or Germans….

JM: “Yes, I’m talking about Czechs. And they attacked the supporters of the First Republic, the pillars of the republic, and these others, the republic’s supporters were in a kind of shock.”

Ondřej Houska: “I would not say that it fell apart so easily. We have to keep in mind that the republic was under extremely heavy pressure from outside at least from 1933. So for some years it stood alone against a totalitarian dictatorship. But we have to keep in mind as well that the pressure from outside was decisive. Without that pressure the republic would never have fallen apart. So, when I see that some people portray Czechoslovak history in a way that it was doomed to failure from the beginning, that the whole Versailles settlement, created in 1919-1920 was doomed to failure - that is a complete misunderstanding. Even German historians now say that there were some promising developments when it comes to Czech-German relations in Czechoslovakia back in the second half of the 1920s. So the outside pressure from Nazi Germany was the reason and the failure of Western democracies to grasp the importance of defending Czechoslovakia against Hitler.”

Adolf Hitler
In his speech in Berlin on September 26 1938, just a couple of days before Czechoslovakia was carved up by the Munich Agreement, Hitler argued that the country was built on a lie, namely on the invented notion that there was such a thing as a “Czechoslovak nation”. He argued that the Czechs, and in particular Edvard Beneš, had thought up the concept as an artificial way of increasing the influence of the Czechs in the country. He accused “the Anglo-Saxon statesmen of not even thinking it necessary to check whether this claim was true.” If they had, he argued, they would have found out straight away that there was no such thing as a Czechoslovak nation – “but that there are Czechs and Slovaks, and the Slovaks don’t even want to have anything to do with the Czechs.” In a sense isn’t there an element of truth in this argument?

JM: “Well, this is a very difficult question. Most people now in our country, as well as in Slovakia, would agree that there are two nations. But let us talk about the idea as expressed by Masaryk. He was among those that believed that nations are not – as Hitler did – a product of ethnic roots, but that nations are a programme that you daily vote for. And he very much hoped – and I think this was his deepest political conviction – that you can shape society by intensions.”

OH: “We have to say that the idea of one nation, of the Czechoslovak nation, can be traced back to the 19th century, so it was not Beneš’ or Masaryk’s invention in 1918. And I would like to add one more thing. The Slovak nation was heavily under-developed at that time. The elite of that nation was very restricted and the majority of that elite considered themselves to be Czechoslovaks. So we can definitely see that there were arguments for the unity of the Czechoslovak nation at that time, but history, as Professor Musil said, proved that they were wrong.”

And wasn’t there another problem in this idea of “Czechoslovakism” in that the 3.5 million Germans in Czechoslovakia and the nearly one million Hungarians in the country, as well as the smaller Ruthenian and Polish minorities, felt themselves to be almost automatically excluded from the republic?

JM: “The Sudeten Germans were traditionally very nationalistically orientated, and suddenly they became a secondary part of the country. But, as my colleague said, from as far back as 1926, the majority of the German inhabitants of the country discovered some positive aspects. They discovered liberal democracy, I think, they discovered the economic advantages of being an organic part of a country, and if you read texts by German authors, like the wonderful author [Johann Wolfgang] Brügel, who wrote about the interaction between Czechs and Germans, he said that he would prefer to support Czech democracy before supporting German nationalism.”

You have both mentioned the name of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president and the man seen as the founding father of the country. He had spent time in Britain and the United States and was a great admirer of the Anglo-Saxon democratic model. In 1932, on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, Masaryk gave a radio talk in which he portrayed Washington as an inspiration: “I admire Washington’s silent energy and perseverance. These qualities enabled him to stand the attacks of his numerous adversaries and not to lose his faith in the independence of his country after many defeats caused by the weakness of his army. Washington valued above all, as he expressed it, the inestimable blessing of liberty. Liberty – that is the fundamental principle of the American republic.” Did Masaryk’s vision of a democratic and freedom-loving society really take root in Czechoslovakia?

OH: “The tragedy of Czechoslovakia is that it survived as a democratic country only for 20 years, and Masaryk always said that we need at least 50 years, so it is difficult to judge. But when it comes to liberty – and Masaryk mentioned liberty several times in that speech – I think yes, it took root in Czechoslovakia, because, as we know, Czechoslovakia survived as the only democracy – along with Finland – in Eastern Europe. So I would say yes, among Czechs it endured. It is another question whether it endured among Slovaks and Germans.”

JM: “I fully agree with you. As a sociologist I would add some historical notes. If you look at the social structure of Czech society – I mean Czech-speaking – it is a lower-middle class type of society. The core of its roots, culturally and philosophically, is in small towns, it was a society without a strong aristocracy and it was a society which was industrialized quite early, with strong proto-industrial roots, and a society which, thanks to trade links to Western Europe, kept a strong small urban society. Due to these structures, there is a kind of genuine, lower-middle class type of democracy. And Czechs, in fact, left Austria not only for national reasons. They left them because they were modern. This was a relatively modern country, even before World War One.”

But isn’t there a problem that there was a tendency to equate modernity with “Czechness” and that in a multi-national society the tendency was to say: “We’re progressive Czechs; you other nations within the country are less progressive, therefore you need to follow our model” – and that this didn’t confront the complexities of living in a multi-national state?

World War One
JM: “Yes, that’s probably true, and there were smart Czech thinkers like [Emanuel] Rádl, who in a book ‘The War between Czechs and Germans’ stressed this. Czechs were not always understanding. And don’t forget that the feeling of being victors after World War One was a very important element.”

I’d like to move on now to the problems that emerged after Hitler came to power in Germany, Suddenly the reality on the ground changed, with this large and aggressive country next to Czechoslovakia. Then came the annexation of Austria in March 1938, when the Czechs found themselves almost surrounded by Nazi Germany. Here is a short extract from a speech given by President Beneš in April 1938, just a couple of weeks after the Austrian “Anschluss”, where he is talking a little about the complexities of the situation in which Czechoslovakia finds itself: “We must not close our eyes to the great fact which dominates our present time, that ever since the Great War we have been experiencing one of the greatest political, social, economic and cultural revolutions, which have ever taken place in the history of our continent. Will this process and development, which is characterized by tension in international politics and social revolution in internal politics, terminate in a vast new European or world war? … Every responsible politician and statesman today cannot but realize the gravity of the situation, and guide and prepare his state accordingly.”

Beneš is often criticized heavily for the way he dealt with the crisis in 1938. He is often even blamed for the collapse of Czechoslovakia. Do you think that the criticism of Beneš that we hear so often is fair?

Edvard Beneš speaking to the nation
OH: “It’s totally unfair in my view because he followed the only possible policy. What was his principle strategy? It was that the Western powers would realize that Hitler is a mortal threat to them also, not only to Czechoslovakia, and in my view it was the only option to keep faith in the Western democracies. An agreement with Hitler was not possible, and an agreement with the other neighbours, like Poland and Hungary, was also not possible.”

What about the Soviet Union?

OH: “It was like a second option, after the French one – also for Beneš. Now we know that Stalin’s strategy was very complicated and even today we are not sure what his strategy was. The policy of Edvard Beneš failed, that is clear, but in my view he had no other options.”

Jiří Musil, do you agree that Beneš’ great misfortune was to be living at the wrong time?

JM: “I agree with my colleague. I think that the situation was desperate: either to start a war, which he could then even be accused by the Western powers of starting; at the same time he was convinced that there would be a great war and that it was a question of when it would start. And then there is a very problematic part of his decision, of course, which is most often discussed here – the decision to accept Munich and not to ask his people to fight. It was the question of whether to fight or not that in moral terms and in the long term had an impact on the character of the community. And this is one element where I think the Munich Agreement caused damage to the country.”

You mean that it broke the spirit of the nation and its will to resist.

JM: “Yes. His argument was, I would say, almost explicit: ‘I want to save the lives of people, I want to save the country, because anyway in a short time there will be a big war.' There are of course people who say that fighting would have meant that the backbone of the country would have been stronger in the future, but who knows?

“I was ten years old. I remember the mobilization and the behaviour of people around me. My father was a soldier. He was a captain in the reserve. The support was enormous. People were prepared to die – I’m absolutely convinced – it’s in my memory, even in Slovakia, I would like to stress, for I was in Slovakia, in Bratislava, at that time.”

Ondřej, you were born several decades after these events. Do you still feel a wound in Czech society from the capitulation that followed the Munich Agreement?

OH: “I do not. In my view that’s a question that only intellectuals are posing themselves. To common people I would say that it means completely nothing. To the majority of Czechs the First Republic is a golden age. This is true to some extent, but we can also say that there are several myths associated with the First Republic: for example, that it was economically a very highly developed state. That’s true only in some way, because the real prosperity in Czechoslovakia was only in the second half of the 1920s. So I would say that common people are not so interested in the issues which we are talking about right now.”

Do you think that today’s Czech society is built on the foundations of the First Republic. The Czech Republic is lucky in a sense in having this tradition of a previous democratic state. To what extent do you think that today’s Czech Republic has been able successfully to build on the positive qualities of the First Republic?

JM: “I’m convinced that the First Republic is one of the better parts of Czech history, and people know it. There is however one question – to what extent they are able to continue in this spirit. But no doubt, I think this is a kind of message which can help us even now.”

The arrival of Wehrmacht in Sudeten Broumov,  photo:
OH: “The inter-war Czechoslovakia is often blamed for excessive compromises between the main political parties. What I think is that now in the Czech Republic we need a few more compromises than we have today.”

JM: “One addendum to the message. If you talk with people who went through this period, they all would stress that it was a country with optimism, with a kind of ‘go’, at least among Czech intellectuals, it was really dynamic and the spirit – if I compare it from my own perspective – I don’t see such an element in contemporary Czech society. So we have a lot of things to learn from that period.”

Ondřej, you’re about to go to Brussels as a correspondent for Czech Radio. Do you think that the First Republic offers the Czech Republic today some models or lessons as it takes over the European Union presidency next year?”

OH: “Well, perhaps. It’s a paradox that Beneš is often blamed for excessive politics on a European level. That’s a complete misunderstanding. He was a great politician in that sense, and we should all learn to have a European perspective as well. And that will come, I hope, with our presidency.”