The rise and fall of Czechoslovakism

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Czechoslovakism, the idea of a unitary political Czechoslovak nation with two ethnic and linguistic branches, was one of the foundational ideas of the First Czechoslovak Republic. It was born of both political pragmatism and 19th century nationalism. However, by the time of the Second World War, the idea was clinically dead and would instead be replaced by a new strive for federalisation.

When the Czechoslovak state declared its independence from Austria-Hungary in October 1918 it identified as a unitary political Czechoslovak nation with two ethnic and linguistic branches. But where did this concept come from? And why did it fail?

The origins of Czech and Slovak identity

“We have to understand that national identities at the beginning of the 19th century were not yet completely defined. For most of the agrarian population, the fact that they spoke some kind Slavic dialect was not related to some sort of national identity.

“We have to understand that national identities at the beginning of the 19th century were not yet completely defined.”

“They usually had some territorial, local identity. They had very developed confessional identities, but not national ones as we know them today. That means that, for all nations in Central Europe, including Czechs and Slovaks, there were always more options in the 19th century.”

Dr Michal Kopeček works at the Institute of Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Sciences and is one of the co-authors of a monograph on Czechoslovakism – the political and cultural concept of a single Czechoslovak nation – which was promoted during the First Republic period.

Michal Kopeček | Photo: Institute of Contemporary History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences

He says that the origins of the idea can be traced back to the 19th century, a time when nationalism was just emerging in Europe. Back then the concepts of being Czech or Slovak were competing with many other proposed identities across the territories that would eventually make up the Czechoslovak state. In the Czech lands there were in fact no fewer than five ways to think of oneself.

“Aside from ‘Czechness’, which eventually won out, there was the Austrian identity. There was a sort of Viennese Austrian state patriotic project which worked, especially for the upper classes but also for the administrative apparatus.

“There was also the possibility of Czechs being part of the greater German nation because the early liberal German nationalistic idea was very encompassing. It included many non-German speaking populations, in a similar way perhaps to the British idea of nationhood. This was a very powerful option, especially in the first third of the 19th century. Czechs may have become part of the German nation. Only, they would have been Czech speakers, like the Lusatian Sorbs for example.

“There was also the possibility of Czechs being part of the greater German nation because the early liberal German nationalistic idea was very encompassing.”

Of course there was also the idea of mutual Slavic reciprocity. People in the Czech or Slovak national movement always played on the fact that they were speaking Slavic languages which are different to German and Hungarian but similar to the languages of other nations in Central and Eastern Europe.

“There was also this possibility of ‘Bohemism’, which was very popular in the beginning of the 19th century as a sort of local patriotic identity in Bohemia which would comprise both the German and Czech speaking population. Bernard Bolzano is the famous proponent of this idea of a single homeland with two languages which was popular among a certain group within the cultural elite. Although perhaps not very viable, it was nevertheless always present throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in Bohemia as a kind of reconciliation project.”

Ľudovít Štúr | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Within this reality, the idea of a shared identity between Czechs and Slovaks initially sprang from the two nations’ linguistic proximity. In the early 19th century a theory appeared among some Czechs that even the inhabitants of what was then Upper Hungary were part of a single Czecho-Slavic nation. However, this idea almost disappeared after the 1840s when the generation around Slovak politician and linguist Ľudovít Štúr initiated the linguistic separation of Slovak from Czech.

It was only at the end of the 19th century that a circle of Czech Slovakophiles started to re-develop the idea of Czech and Slovak mutuality. Michal Kopeček says that this effort was helped by the “grunt work” made by organisations such as Českoslovanská jednota (Czecho-Slav unity), an influential civil society group set up in 1896.

“There is a Czech nation which is fairly developed at the end of the 19th century and at the same time there is a Slovak nation that is suffering quite a lot under the perceived ‘Hungarian yoke’. They felt that they have to help them, create more contact and learn about each other.

“This was mostly an idea of cultural reciprocity. Slovak students will come to Prague and they will study in the Czech capital because it is linguistically much easier for them than to study in Budapest or Vienna. It was hoped that this would lead to more and more cultural support. It also had some political connotations, but at the turn of the 19th century there were few people who thought that it would be possible to establish a self-standing Czechoslovak republic.”

The First Republic’s Czechoslovak project

During the First World War, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk would turn this cultural reciprocity project into a political one, calling for the establishment of a self-standing democratic republic which would be comprised of Czechs and Slovaks.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk | Photo: VHÚ

His reasons seem to have been mainly pragmatic. The Czech lands contained a large German minority which was not enthusiastic about becoming part of a Czech national state. The addition of Slovaks meant that the new political entity would have a Czechoslovak majority and would therefore be more stable. Unofficially, Masaryk seems to have held hopes that the new state would eventually also incorporate the identities of its large German and Hungarian minorities, but this was never legally solidified.

The idea of a democratic and liberal Czechoslovakia was very interesting for most Slovak politicians and Slovak political movements at this time because it was a way of getting out of the impasse of Hungarian politics. They saw it as a way of getting out of subjugation and becoming equals in a joint state project.

In the Cleveland and Pittsburg Agreements that Masaryk signed with Czech and Slovak representatives in the United States during the war, the Slovaks were promised their own independent state administration, parliament and judiciary. However, not all of these promises were kept once the state actually came into existence. This resulted in distrust on the part of Slovak Autonomists such as Andrej Hlinka towards the official state doctrine of Czechoslovakism, says the historian.

“Whereas most of the Slovak political and cultural classes would heartily support the idea of Czechoslovakia as a democratic state at the beginning of the First Republic, many would turn against it in the 1920s.

“Whereas most of the Slovak political and cultural classes would heartily support the idea of Czechoslovakia as a democratic state at the beginning of the First Republic, many would turn against it in the 1920s.”

“Czechoslovakism was perceived very much as a form of Czech cultural and political hegemony in the country. The Czech-Slovak relationship was the crucial thing on the basis of which Slovak politics actually developed. This led to the basic division in Slovak politics between the autonomists who were fighting for the autonomy of Slovakia in Czechoslovakia.”

Could this tension have been eventually mended? We will never know as the First Czechoslovak Republic lasted less than 20 years before it was neutered by the great European powers in Munich in 1938. The rump state was then invaded by Germany a year later. While the Czech lands became a protectorate within the German Reich, Slovakia declared independence and would become a fascist satellite of Germany.

Czechoslovakia in 1919 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Post-war attempts to federalise

However, this was not the end for the concept of a Czechoslovak state. Indeed, the leader of the country’s exile movement during the Second World War, Edvard Beneš, was a proponent of Czechoslovakism and sought support from the allies during the war for a Slovak uprising against the pro-Nazi government. The Slovaks did eventually rise up in 1944, but Michal Kopeček says that when Czechoslovakia was re-established a year later the relationship between Czechs and Slovaks had already fundamentally changed.

Slovak uprising in 1944 | Photo: Archive of Pavel Pelech

“The experience of the Second World War was very different in both parts of the country and it would play an important role throughout the rest of the 20th century. But the fact that you have a Slovak uprising in 1944 leads to a sort of renewal of the belief in Czechoslovakia. That said, Slovak and also Czech politicians came into the new republic with a very different understanding of how the country should work.

“The Slovak resistance abolished any idea of Czechoslovakism and a centralised state forever.”

“Most Czech politicians and virtually no Slovaks would ever think about the possibility of establishing a Czechoslovak nation. Czechoslovakia would be renewed as a democratic state, as a liberated state where Czechs and Slovaks would live as equals. The Slovak resistance abolished any idea of Czechoslovakism and a centralised state forever.”

While Masaryk’s original vision of a unitary state was now over, true autonomy was still far from being implemented in practice. The seizure of power by the totalitarian Communist Party in February 1948 added to this asymmetric relationship as it was the politburo in Prague that made all of the key decisions. The Slovak National Council, Slovakia’s parliament during this period, was limited to local political issues. Dr Kopeček again.

“So in a way it’s as if the Slovaks got a chance to play at being autonomous but in fact it was still Prague that decided about everything. This leads to Slovak dissatisfaction already in the 1950s and 1960s.

Signing of the Act of Czechoslovak Federation in October 1968 | Photo: Czech Television

“Czechs thought about the whole country as a single unit that needed to be democratised, whereas the Slovaks claimed, and I think rightly too, that while democratisation was good, a solution also needed to be found for fixing this uneven and unbalanced relationship between the two nations.  They saw a need to federalise.”

This Slovak condition was officially accepted in October 1968, when a new constitution was approved and the unitary Czechoslovak state was transformed into a federation. However, the Soviet invasion earlier that year instead resulted in a new wave of authoritarian centralisation, says the historian.

“What should have been enabled by the new federal structure was instead buried under the surface.”

“So you establish the framework for the final resolution of the Czech and Slovak relationship and you immediately cripple it by that fact that there is basically no democratic dealing whatsoever. What should have been enabled by the new federal structure was instead buried under the surface.”

Photo: ČT24

The asymmetric relationship between Prague and Bratislava therefore continued until the fall of communism in 1989 and the decades long failure to find a solution to the problem would ultimately help fuel the sentiment that led to the Velvet Divorce in 1993.