The Meaning of Czech Independence Day

Wenceslas square, Prague, October 28, 1918

Welcome to our special extended programme marking the October 28th national holiday in the Czech Republic. Ninety-five years ago today, Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, becoming an independent state. The so-called First Republic thus came into being, at first under much celebrated president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, and subsequently Edvard Beneš, who would witness the country’s dismemberment in 1938 under the Munich Agreement. Although Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Czechs still mark October 28th as the date in which their ambitions for a self-governing independent state were finally realised.

Wenceslas square,  Prague,  October 28,  1918
Later on in the programme, we’ll hear from ordinary Czechs reflecting their views on the anniversary. But right now, I’m joined in the studio by historian and Charles University professor Jan Rychlík. Professor Rychlík, thank you very much for joining us to discuss the meaning of Czech Independence Day. Could you possibly describe for us just what exactly happened on October 28, 1918?

“On October 28, 1918, which was a Monday, news arrived from Vienna that Austria-Hungary had accepted the conditions of the Armistice as proclaimed by the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Among other things, it stipulated that the Austro-Hungarian government must negotiate with its individual National Committees about the conditions under which its nations might be willing to remain under the Hapsburg monarchy. The people in Prague understood this in a different way from what was intended. They saw it as a capitulation by Austria-Hungary, and as its essential rupture. Immediately, demonstrations started in Prague…”

Demonstrations or celebrations?

“Well, both. There were demonstrations, but peaceful ones. There was no violence, but people were tearing down the coat of arms of Austria. And the National Committee, which was an unofficial political body represented by all Czech political parties, decided in the late afternoon to declare the independence of the Czechoslovak state. They hadn’t expected to do this, but on this day they peacefully took over the reigns of power. Already on the 26th, a delegation from the National Committee had been permitted to travel to Geneva to meet with Edvard Beneš and representatives of the Provisional Czechoslovak Government, which was well established in Paris. They also met with the Emperor Charles I of Austria in Vienna and he promised the group that the army would not intervene if the coup was to be a peaceful one. And it really did happen that power was transferred peacefully to the National Committee.

“However, later the situation was not as simple because, of course, the German inhabitants of the border areas didn’t want to be a part of the new state and they proclaimed their own government in Liberec the very next day.”

Jan Rychlík,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
Let me now, if I may, take us back a little bit to the roots of the idea of Czech or Czechoslovak statehood. Presumably they begin amidst the ruins of the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So how did the idea of having a state, and especially a Czecho-Slovak state – which had never existed as a union before – come about?

“First of all, we must keep in mind that the idea of a Czech independent state is much older and existed in the 19th century. It existed as the idea of a semi-independent state, which would have a similar status as Hungary had after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. It is very difficult to define it in present politological terms. It would be some sort of loose union of the Czech state, Hungarian state and the rest of the monarchy. That was in the political programmes of most Czech political parties as far back as the 19th century. So, society was prepared for independence, but before the War, they didn’t expect that this independence would be full in the sense that the Czech lands would be an independent subject under international law. Secondly, they didn’t think about the idea that this would also include Slovakia. This was something new – we may find some projects of this nature before the First World War, but they were certainly marginal and not in any way decisive.

“During the First World War, it was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Edvard Beneš and Milan Rastislav Štefánik – two Czechs and one Slovak – who worked out this idea of disrupting Austria-Hungary because they realised that the Czech and Slovak political programmes cannot be realised within the framework of this empire.”

Did Czechs feel oppressed under the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

“Czech certainly were not oppressed under the Austrians. It is an old myth, which is untrue. Czechs could develop freely like all nations in the western part. In Hungary it was different – the Slovaks were oppressed, because the idea of the Magyars was to transfer Hungary into a single nation state. But this was not the case in the west. There, the problem was different. Simply put, all the nations living in Austria had their own national programmes, and these were mutually incompatible. Meeting the demands of one nation essentially meant it was to the detriment of someone else. For example, the project of the Czech independent state within the framework of Austria-Hungary could not be realised because the 3.2 million Germans opposed it. Naturally, they did not wish to be a minority within the Czech state. The final result was that no-one was satisfied with Austria-Hungary. Masaryk was probably one of the first, if not the first, to realise this. The others realised it much later in 1917 or 1918, that simply no amount of reform can possibly satisfy all the nations.”

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
And Masaryk spent much of the First World War traveling, trying to get the Czech cause recognised, most importantly by the French and by the United States. How important was this quest?

“This was a key task and it was very difficult. Because the Entente powers, or Allies, did not envisage the destruction of Austria-Hungary. What they wanted was to separate it from Imperial Germany and to even make it their ally against Germany in the future. That is why they were not very happy about the notion of destroying the Hapsburg Empire and creating smaller nations upon its ashes. Also, up to 1917, or even the beginning of 1918, it was highly unlikely that the Allies would accept such a plan. What changed their minds was the failure of secret peace negotiations between Austria, Hungary and France. It then became obvious that Austria-Hungary could not be held together without German assistance. Finally, Germany forced Austria-Hungary to sign a new treaty, which fully subordinated this unit, and especially the Austro-Hungarian army to the German High Command. As a result, France, Britain and the United States, finally gave a green light for Austria-Hungary to be dismantled. But for Masaryk, it was very difficult to persuade the British, French and Americans that this is what they should do.”

How much of an ear did Masaryk have with these major leaders? At the time, wasn’t he just some small guy representing a nation that didn’t even exist? Can we credit his profuse skills as a lobbyist for a cause?

“Definitely, as we would say today, his lobbying abilities were on a high level. But that alone wouldn’t be enough. First of all, I would say that Milan Rastislav Štefánik, the Slovak astronomer who studied in Prague and attended Masaryk’s lectures on philosophy – he was one of his disciples, and also a naturalised French citizen and had access to French politicians – it was mainly his actions in France that opened the gates for this case.”

And he was the one who said that Czechs and Slovaks are like brothers and sisters…

“Yes, but it wasn’t just him. Štefánik helped Masaryk to convince the American Slovaks and American Czechs to support him. This was very important because there were about half a million of each community living in the United States. They gave him money and agreed to send volunteers for the Czechoslovak Legion to fight against Austria-Hungary and Germany. In 1917 and 1918, Russia withdrew from the War following the Bolshevik revolution, and created a separate peace treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Czechoslovak Legions in Russia, formed from volunteers who had been prisoners of war, fought against the Bolsheviks and indeed managed to occupy the entire Trans-Siberian Railway. This was recognised in the West as being something unusual – that 60,000 soldiers had managed to occupy Siberia. And somehow the Western powers began to feel that they have an obligation to the Czechoslovak cause. They became more flexible and ready to accept the idea of independence.”

Milan Rastislav Štefánik
Because they were helping to fight against the Bolsheviks.

“Because they had helped fight against the Germans and Austrians first, and then against the Bolsheviks. Due to public opinion in France and the United States, these governments couldn’t dare to send troops to Russia. The same was true for many other countries. After four years of war, no-one was prepared to join in a civil war in Russia. But the Czechoslovak Legion did so.

“There were two main reasons behind the idea of the Czechs and Slovaks joining together. First of all, in the nineteenth century, the notion of the nation in Central Europe was very closely linked to the idea of language. We know today, that this is not so clear cut. But it was viewed that people speaking the same language, or a similar language, form the same nation. Now we know it is not like that – the Serbs and the Croats speak the same language, but they are definitely not one nation. But the idea was that Czechs and Slovaks form one nation with two branches that speak slightly different languages. But this was mainly a Czech idea. In Slovakia, only a part of the population, mainly the Slovak Lutherans, accepted this. The Catholic majority rejected it. But there was also a geopolitical pillar of a future Czechoslovak state. And I would say that for Masaryk, this second reason was the decisive one.

“All Czech politicians had to deal with the problem of what to do with the Sudeten Germans. How can a Czech state exist, when more than one third of the population is German? And the Germans naturally didn’t want this state.”

They wanted to be a part of Germany or Austria.

“A part of Austria; and later, if possible, part of a united Germany. It was their right and I don’t think you can criticise that. But, on the other hand, a Czech state without borders that included the Sudeten German population, would simply not work. That much we saw in 1938-39 [when these lands were ceded by Nazi Germany].

“So Masaryk had to solve the problem of how to make this state more stable. And his idea was: ‘We need Slovakia as a corridor to the east. As a corridor to the Poles and Russians, and this will also make us stronger in the face of German pressure.’ Keep in mind that at this time, Upper and Lower Silesia were part of Germany, not Poland as is the case today, and that the Austrian Germans did not consider themselves to be a separate and distinct nation. Today, the inhabitants of Austria are considered to be Austrians. But that was not the case one-hundred years ago – they considered themselves to be German. So this was the second reason: ‘We need Slovakia to be strong enough; the Slovaks need us to be strong enough against Hungarian pressure.”

I’ve decided to hit the streets of Prague to ask some ordinary Czechs what they think of the October 28th anniversary and whether they think it should still be celebrated.

Woman 1: “Actually, I think this date is very important for our nation. Because this is the date of the birth of our nation.”

So it doesn’t matter that the country that came into being in 1918 – Czechoslovakia – hasn’t existed since 1993? You still think Czechs should celebrate this date?

Woman 1: “Yes, of course. Because it is part of our identity. We are still Czechs. I don’t think it was a good decision to be divided into two countries. We should have stayed as Czechoslovakia. But it doesn’t change anything for me. October 28th is the date of the birth of our nation and it should stay like that.”

Man 1: “It is hard to say because I am Slovak.”

Well, that is an interesting perspective for us.

Man 1: “Yes, our languages are very similar and I think that we should continue and not forget that our countries are very similar, not just in history but in the present too. I think it is worth continuing to celebrate this holiday and having it as a public holiday.”

But of course in Slovakia, where you are from, it is not celebrated as a national holiday. Do you think it should be?

Man 1: “Yes, I think so. We have so many Christian holidays and I don’t know what half of them are about – so certainly.”

Woman 2: “For me it is a free day and an opportunity to spend time with my children and talk about these things.”

So you talk to your children about Independence Day and Masaryk and so on?

Woman 2: “Yes.”

And are they interested in that?

Woman 2: “Yes, because they are just learning about it in school.”

And do you think it should still be celebrated even though Czechoslovakia hasn’t existed since 1993?

Photo: Vojtěch Berger
Woman 2: “I have never even thought about that as an idea.”

Man 2: “I would say that it is less important than it used to be, and than it should be. Because I think that October 28th has become more of just a holiday for Czechs, and most people do not put much thought into the meaning behind the day and the founding of Czechoslovakia.”

Do you still think it is worth marking this day even though Czechoslovakia no longer exists? Or should Independence Day now be the day the country broke up with Slovakia?

Man 2: “I think that October 28th is still the most important day for us. Because this meant the establishment of a free, independent, democratic country. And despite later separating from Slovakia, I still think that this is the most important date in our modern history.”

Woman 3: “I’m not sure. I’m not really interested in this.”

So on October 28th, you don’t think about independence? It’s just a holiday for you?

Woman 3: “Yeah.”

Are you happy that it is celebrated because you get a holiday, or because it is marking national independence?

Woman 3: “I am happy that it is a holiday.”

Man 3: “Given the value we place on national identity, the importance is lesser and lesser.”

Why? Because it is longer ago?

Man 3: “Because the idea of a Czech nation is less and less important to people. So events that are there to highlight our nationality and national pride, so to speak, are also less important.”

And do you think the anniversary should still be celebrated even though the country that was founded in 1918 – Czechoslovakia – hasn’t existed since 1993?

Man 3: “Certainly. It is still a very important part of the culture. It’s an important part of our history, and even though the country is no longer together, relations between Czechs and Slovaks are still very strong and we are very much alike.”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
And do you think Slovaks should celebrate this day? Because they don’t at the moment.

Man 3: “Yes, I think they should.”

Woman 4: “I don’t think that it is very important for people, and that they know it is national independence day and what that is. And they don’t realise how significant a day it was. For many people, it is just a holiday.”

And do you think the anniversary should still be celebrated even though the country that was founded in 1918 – Czechoslovakia – hasn’t existed since 1993?

Woman 4: “I don’t think that is the important thing about it. Because we see it as the creation of our state, so it should still be celebrated, but it is becoming less and less important.”

Do you think it should be celebrated forever as a very important day?

Woman 5: “I think it should be maintained as a national holiday. I don’t see a reason why it should not be celebrated.”

Man 4: “I think it is maximally important for the Czech Republic because it is the date of the beginning of our independence - of Czechoslovakia.”

And do you think it should be celebrated even though Czechoslovakia does not exist anymore?

Man 4: “Yes. We Czechs should continue in our celebrations.”

Woman 6: “I hope it is very important. But I don’t know how the young people feel about it now.”

Because you think that they don’t know about what happened?

Woman 6: “Yes, and in the schools, they don’t learn anything about this.”

But you do think it should be celebrated even though Czechoslovakia does not exist anymore?

Woman 6: “Yes, because it is a long history that were together with the Slovaks. Many young people do not understand the Slovak language, but for my generation, it is just like Czech. So because of our languages, the differences between us are really very small.”

So you see the Czechs and Slovaks as still basically being brothers and sisters…

Woman 6: “Yes, I think we are basically the same.”

Let’s return back to the studio to my conversation with Professor Rychlík. I asked him to explain the bit to the east of Slovakia that was added to the country in 1918, called the Sub-Carpathian Rus:

“Generally speaking, this part of the Czechoslovak Republic was somewhat accidental. Before 1914, and even up to 1917, no-one gave the area much thought. While Slovakia and the Slovaks were known to the Czech public, and were considered to some degree as being part of our national body, people really knew nothing about the Ruthenians. A few ethnologists knew about them, but otherwise, Czech society really had no interest in the idea of adding this region. The idea of this area becoming a part of Czechoslovakia was as a result of Masaryk’s visit to the United States. He ended up discussing it with the leader of the American Ruthenian community Gregory Zhatkovich. And they made a deal that if this part, which was within Hungary up to 1918, is included within a future Czechoslovakia, it will obtain full political autonomy. This, by the way did not materialise – Ruthenia did not gain autonomy. But more important was the decision of the Paris Peace Conference in the Palace of Versailles…”

Which was in 1919…

“Yes. In March 1919, in Hungary, power was seized by communist leader Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed. It, of course, tried to get back both Slovakia and Ruthenia, and to restore its pre-War border – or at least to gain as much as possible. And because of the civil war in Russia and the Polish-Russian war raging at the time, there was a danger that the Hungarian Soviet army and the Russian army could meet somewhere in Galicia along the Carpathian Mountains. So Edvard Beneš, minister of foreign affairs, asked the Entente at the Paris Peace Conference for permission to be able to occupy this region with Czechoslovak army forces. This was to prevent Hungarian Bolsheviks from being able to recapture it. And this permission was given. At the same time, the Romanian government obtained permission to occupy the Eastern Carpathians. So it was partially occupied by the Romanians from the Latorica River to the east. The Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed on September 10, 1919, attached this territory to Czechoslovakia under the condition that it will obtain full political autonomy. This provision was even included in the Czechoslovak constitution of February 29, 1920, but autonomy was only realized for this region in 1938 after eighteen years.”

The basic post World War I architecture of Europe was decided by the Treaty of Versailles. So to what extent were the Czechoslovak borders part of the wider flaws of that treaty, which became a kind of ticking time bomb for World War II?

Adolf Hitler signing the Munich Agreement,  photo: Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Heinrich Hoffmann
“First of all, the main idea in Versailles was that multi-national states were not stable and did not work so let’s make nation states because they will be stable and will work. But there was one mistake: that all states which came into being as a result were called nation states, but they really were not. Neither Czechoslovakia, nor Poland, nor Yugoslavia. They all had large numbers of national minorities and in fact were smaller copies of Austria-Hungary. Subsequently, they inherited all the problems that had plagued Austria-Hungary, plus some more. So the idea was good, but as was proven later, it did not work. As far as the borders are concerned, I would say that the borders as established in Versailles reflected the fact that, as in every war, there were victors and there were losers. The victors obtained something, and those who lost, lost something. In the case of Czechoslovakia, we can say that more or less, the Czech lands were established within its historical borders, which had also functioned as the borders between Austria-Hungary and Germany. So I don’t think there was a problem in this area. But a problem, of course, was to be found in the establishment of the new Hungarian borders, because these borders were artificial and had not existed in the past.

"And also, it was practically impossible to draw the border lines according to ethnological principles, because the population was mixed in these areas. Everything ended up being an advantage for one side and a disadvantage for the other. So today, we might say that it was unjust for the Hungarians. I agree with that, but on the other hand, I have to ask: what would be the alternative? We should keep in mind that after the First Vienna Award of November 2, 1938, the Slovak-Hungarian border was moved to the north. So the underlying tensions did not change – the Hungarians were satisfied, but the Slovaks were not. Because while before there was a strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia, now you had a strong Slovak minority in Hungary. So there was no point. I don’t think that the borders as established by Versailles were totally wrong. Certainly, there were some things that could have been done in other ways, but probably the results wouldn’t be that different.”

And what is today known as the First Republic, which existed as a result of the declaration of independence all the way up to the Munich Agreement – today that is almost glorified as a golden era. Was it in reality far more turbulent, or a golden era, or a bit of both?

“Well, usually we think about past times as golden eras, and as paradise lost. But we know that there are no paradises on earth, and we cannot idealise it. I think that the First Republic meant a lot to Czechs, and to a certain extent to Slovaks too. For the Czechs it was the realisation of their national programme, of their national dreams. It was a Czech national state that extended up to Jasiňa in Carpathian Ruthenia. For the Slovakians, it meant liberation from the Hungarian yoke. But, of course, Slovakians did not consider Czechoslovakia to just be ‘Greater Czechia’. They wanted it to be a union of the Czech and Slovak states; that is why they always wrote it with a hyphen and a capital ‘S’. Their idea was that it should be a dual state like Austria-Hungary was. Of course, for the minorities – let’s be frank – Czechoslovakia was a concept of a Czech or Czechoslovak nation state, and a nation state always means that there will be minorities, who will not be satisfied. But again, the question remains: what else could be done? Because Austria-Hungary was a multi-national state with no state nation. And it didn’t work. Czechoslovakia was a nation state, at least in theory, with strong national minorities, which had guaranteed minority rights. And it didn’t work either – and there was no third choice. So I think that in the concrete situation of 1918-1919, for the Czechs and Slovaks, Czechoslovakia was an optimal creation. And, in fact, the only possible solution, because the other solution was a German Mitteleuropa and the maintaining of historical Hungary with the perspective of the complete Magyarisation of non-Magyars, which, in fact, was no alternative.”

Prague,  October 28,  1918
Let me ask you a final question: could you explain the history of the celebrations of October 28? When did this start to be celebrated? And during communist times, did the holiday still exist and was it a chance for some sort of protests?

“28th October was celebrated from the very beginning.”

So even a year after, it was already a one-year anniversary?

“I would have to check if it was proclaimed a national holiday in 1919 or 1920. But it was definitely celebrated. It was a national holiday during the time of the First Republic, right up to 1938. In 1938, huge celebrations were prepared for October 28th, marking twenty years of independence. But then came the Munich Treaty and it was cancelled. Paradoxically, October 28, 1938 was the first time the holiday was supposed to fall on a working day. And during the Nazi occupation, it was banned. In Prague and in other large cities, there were big demonstrations on October 28, 1939. But these ended with bloodshed as German police dispersed gatherings by opening fire on demonstrators, and in Prague killed two people. After the War, this holiday was renewed. In 1951, a new law on public holidays still had October 28 as a public holiday, but not as a day of independence, rather as the day of nationalisation. This was rather strange, because on October 25 and 26, 1945 – not on October 28, as this was a public holiday and everything was closed – President Beneš had signed the decrees regarding nationalization of major industries with over five-hundred employees. So October 28 was celebrated, but not as independence day, but primarily as the beginning of socialism.

“Also, in 1968, during the Prague Spring, it was celebrated at the fiftieth anniversary of independence. On October 27, the National Assembly approved a constitutional law on the Czechoslovak Federation. Czechoslovakia was thus officially federated [as a Czech and Slovak federation]. Then for some time it was essentially celebrated as a triple holiday: as Independence Day, Nationalization Day and Federation Day. This continued up to 1975, when for no official reason it was cancelled as a public holiday. It was still in the calendar as a day worthy of memory, but was now a working day. This continued up to 1988, when it was restored as a public holiday and remains as such. After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, there were discussions about what to do with it, because we must admit that it is rather strange to have a national holiday for…”

A country that no longer exists.

“Right. But it is no secret that for Czechs, the present Czech Republic is just a continuation of Czechoslovakia. It’s just a smaller country.”

And does Slovakia celebrate this day too?

"Slovakia does not celebrate it, but it is marked in their calendars as a memorial day. Together with October 30, which is a day of the declaration of Turčiansky Svätý Martin, or the Martin Declaration, whereby in 1918, the Slovak National Council declared its separation from Hungary and unification with the Czech lands. There was an idea that in Slovakia October 30 would be a public holiday. There was also a petition to return October 28 as a public holiday in Slovakia. Presently, this is in a state of limbo: parliament did not accept the idea, but nor did they reject it. There are different opinions on it, but there is definitively a movement in Slovakia to reintroduce October 28 as a national holiday.” [note: Slovakia celebrates January 1 as the Day of the Establishment of the Slovak Republic]

Professor Jan Rychlík, thank you very much for a fascinating discussion about October 28th.

“Thank you.”

You’ve been listening to a special programme marking Czech Independence Day. A special thanks to you, our listeners and readers, for joining us.